Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
21.06.07 Karkov, Imagining Anglo-Saxon England

The Medieval Review

21.06.07 Karkov, Imagining Anglo-Saxon England


Catherine Karkov's Imagining Anglo-Saxon England: Utopia, Heterotopia, Dystopia is an important contribution to a growing body of early medieval scholarship that is invested in drawing trans-temporal associations between the colonial identity politics expressed in early English literature (ca. late-9th to mid-11th century) and the colonialist ideologies that continue to find shelter within contemporary culture, politics, and early medieval studies.

In the "Introduction" to Imagining Anglo-Saxon England, Karkov argues that what we have come to understand as "Anglo-Saxon" England is an imaginary world and an "empty space onto and into which certain identities and ideologies have been written" in textual and material culture (2). Importantly, this imagined, empty space is brought to life by a certain social, political, and religious subset living in Britain who desire to secret away or "encryp[t] their own history of violence...through an idea of utopia" (5). Karkov thus introduces utopia as an elsewhere place that does not necessarily originate in future-facing desires for social perfection. Rather, Karkov's assessment of utopia is situated in relation to the psychoanalytic framework of melancholia and the subsequent processes of incorporation and encryption, psychic positionalities that develop in a subject who cannot bear to acknowledge she has lost something she loves and, in response, buries this loss deep within her unconscious, where it begins to haunt her like a ghost. For Karkov, the utopia of Anglo-Saxon England develops from a melancholia brought about by unspeakable losses associated with past and present acts of colonial violence. In three case studies--Alfred of Wessex's Old English writings, the Franks Casket, and the Beowulf manuscript--Karkov suggests that this melancholy is rectified via narratives, images, and multilinguistic interplay that projects to its reader a "dream of a future that can never be fully realised, and so often a dream haunted by ghosts of the encrypted past" (8). Yet, in the process of constructing this dream of England, these utopic texts and materials sense their imperfections. Imagining Anglo-Saxon England therefore explores the ways in which "the early medieval English both recognized and possibly even critiqued the fallen and flawed nature of...their living paradise at the same time that they were constructing it" and "encrypted the violence that resulted from their idea of [English] exceptionalism" (5). By positioning utopia in conversation with the psychoanalytics of melancholia, Karkov argues that "[t]o imagine Anglo-Saxon England is to confront an emptiness, to resurrect an undead past and the violence it has done and continues to do" (26).

Chapter 1, "A Plan for Utopia to Come," traces the rhetorical outlines by which King Alfred of Wessex constructs the utopia of "Angelcynn," a place that is brought into imaginative existence through Alfred's preface and epilogue to the Old English translation of Pope Gregory's Regula pastoralis and in Alfred's preface to the Domboc. In these writings, Karkov argues, Alfred's language is marked by melancholia and loss, attachments to a golden age or a lost kingdom that runs cover for Alfred's inability to speak of the consequences of Viking invasions and attacks which have separated English kingdoms and English speakers from one another and led to the establishment of the Danelaw. Yet Alfred's melancholy, Karkov argues, is not only in response to his ninth-century moment. It likewise reaches back to the fourth- and fifth-century invasions of Germanic peoples. Alfred, therefore, generates the utopia of Angelcynn as a crypt into which are deposited not only the remembered ghosts of Viking colonialism but also the forgotten ghosts of Germanic settler colonialism.

Karkov suggests the development of this utopia-crypt by way of her close reading of Alfred's Preface to the Regula, which attends to Alfred's refusal (or inability) to articulate the temporal specifics of an English past. He uses "we," or "ða," to reference the wise men of Bede's eighth-century Northumbria, Alfred's ninth-century clerics, and future readers of the preface, consolidating them into a community that collapses into "a ghostly intimation of simultaneity across homogenous empty time (39)." Karkov then discusses Alfred's genealogy of sacred text translation in theRegula's preface, arguing that he generates utopia by figuring Angelcynn as a sacred community that is constituted by and within English, a sacred language that is passed down directly from Hebrew, Greek, and Latin to Alfred's late Wessex dialect. Alfred's utopia of Angelcynn, in which a lost past is brought to life in coordination with English peoples and their English language, approaches construction as Alfred discusses the geography and landscape features of Britain. As Alfred names the Humber and Thames in relation to the learning communities nearby them, Karkov highlights Alfred's silence with respect to the shifting political boundaries drawn up in relation to these rivers, including the Danelaw's Humber-river boundary. This silence, Karkov argues, is "a move that erases the presence of the Danelaw, inserting that empty space into which his dreamed-of England can expand, an emptiness from which the spectre of an England that never existed can seem to arise anew" (56). Importantly, the utopia of Angelcynn is an unfinished project of loss and recovery which Alfred projects into the future, and Karkov's chapter concludes with later medieval and early modern texts that expound upon this colonizing project.

Chapter 2, "Utopia Past and the Heterotopia of Origins," examines the Franks Casket as a site of heterotopia, a cultural or institutional space that mirrors principles upon which a society is founded, yet unsettles the foundational world which it purports to mirror or support. The casket was crafted in eighth-century Northumbria, a kingdom of expansionist desires and internal turmoil, aggressing against Picts and Scots while in a constant state of political instability. The Franks Casket, like eighth-century Northumbria, is anything but unified. It archives Germanic, Biblical, and Roman narratives that make contradictory claims to space and place. By way of these contractions, Karkov explains, the casket broadcasts many different, competing visions of British origins and therefore "holds up a mirror to England at the time in which it was just beginning to define itself as a nation" (84). In order to consider the heterotopic function of the casket, Karkov examines its runic and Latin alphabets, Old English and Latin languages, and Germanic, Biblical, and Roman myths, all of which are carved into the jawbone of a whale, an animal imagined in the Old English poem The Whale as both hidden island and water traveler. The inscriptions, carved scenes, and whalebone material present a vision of Northumbrian consolidation that remains disjointed and displaced. It offers its interlocutor a heterotopia that imagines many different "places" in which she might find a hegemonic identity of English (or Northumbrian) exceptionalism. Karkov argues, however, that the many sites of identity carved into the panels of the Frank's Casket fold in on themselves. They lock in--they encrypt--meaning such that one cannot find an access point for understanding a conceptual totality carved into the Frank's Casket and its projections of Northumbrian identity politics of exceptionalism. Yet even if one were to "unlock" the casket, Karkov surmises, one would find its center to be empty because English exceptionalism, in medieval and modern colonialisms, has no basis in reality. In conclusion, Karkov draws a line between English colonialism, the British Empire, and the British Museum, where the Franks Casket is displayed, arguing that its current physical location continues to broadcast the limitless, encrypted power of empire and renders the casket "a crypt encrypted" (124).

Chapter 3, "Utopia/Dystopia: Humanity and its Others in the Beowulf Manuscript," discusses the Nowell Codex, articulating it as "a compilation of dystopian fictions" (21). While Karkov notes that the codex may respond to political upheavals of the late tenth and eleventh centuries, she emphasizes that it manages "the ultimate emptiness and failure of political and ideological conquest through history" (192). To be clear, Karkov does not suggest that all stories of the Nowell Codex are dystopias. Rather, in texts such as Wonders of the East which has often been labeled utopic, and The Letter of Alexander the Great to Aristotle which narrates Alexander's failed attempts to conquer the wondrous yet deadly and hostile inhabitants of India, dystopia enters the frame as an imaginary spacetime on the horizon. It emerges via tensions between human and animal, and voice and naming, that express relationships between the denizens of far away lands and the intruders and would-be colonisers who encounter them. Karkov argues that these tensions do not go unnoticed. Consequently, they generate, for example, in Beowulf, "melancholic positions of gloom and ghosts inhabiting a dark and threateningly silent world"; and, in Wonders of the East, "silent…pitiable figures expressive of great loss" (193). As the melancholias and silences of the Nowell Codex are compiled to the time of England's eleventh-century colonial violences, the codex encrpyts within its narratives the unspeakable (lack of) recognition of a dystopian, pre-Conquest England.

Chapter 4, "Retrotopia: Anglo-Saxonism, Anglo-Saxonists, and the Myth of Origins" turns from discussion of early medieval materials towards the contemporary moment. It consists of four sections: "Retrospectives" I and II, "Retro-Migration," and "Retrofire." Each of these sections surveys longstanding entanglements between Anglo-Saxon studies and Anglo-American nationalism, colonialism, racism, and misogyny. Likewise, they note that the continued presence of these ideologies within politics and within scholarship are a consequence of the utopic crypts built by texts and materials such as Alfred's prefaces, the Franks Casket, and the Beowulf manuscript, inside which colonial ghosts continue to dwell. The chapter title includes the term "retrotopia" which Karkov, notes, references a world "of unacknowledged loss…for the white English world of empire" (197). However, as Karkov revisits the prefix "retro" in each section, she changes its conceptual trajectory from a retrograde orbit of loss and melancholy to a "retro-migration" that openly critiques, and thereby sends back home, the encypted ideological ghosts of empire; and to a "retrofire" that calls for early medieval studies to "confront and bury its ghosts, dismantle its crypts, and in their place build a different framework for the study of the past" (235). By way of semantic detachment, reattachment, and reassociation, Karkov looks at ghosts, calls them by name, and, in so doing, aims to enact the work of unencryption.

Much of Imagining Anglo-Saxon England was written in 2018-19, a period during which dialogue between scholars within early medieval studies seemed to fall apart. Thinking, listening, and patient (self-)reflection in both political and scholarly forums were not infrequently replaced with reactionary statements and personal attacks. As a well-respected and senior scholar in early medieval studies, Karkov has used her voice to discuss the relationship between "Anglo-Saxon" England and English colonialism from within a critically productive framework. Importantly, Karkov has positioned her voice within a monograph, which enables her to develop a sustained and complex argument that asks her reader to think deeply and honestly about issues that have been the subject of much division and derisiveness. The importance of what Karkov has done for the field of early medieval studies by writing Imagining Anglo-Saxon England cannot be overstated.

Karkov's coupling of utopia with the psychoanalytic concepts of melancholy, incorporation, and encryption is brilliant. I found the associations she makes between psychic loss and the topoi of placelessness in her "Introduction" to be energizing and critical for a field that has yet to confront the unconscious mechanisms by which early medieval texts developed an identity politics that encrypted the violent losses of nascent colonialism within the imaginary, yet geographic, place of "England." Likewise, the associations Karkov intuits between colonial violence and crypt formation are accurate and urgent in their importance. Yet, the machinery of encryption, in other words, the loss, the unspeakability, the incorporation, and most importantly, the anasemia by which language is demetaphorized into a crypt--a point that is so key to the arguments of Abraham and Torok, and explicitly to Derrida who follows them--are not fully unpacked in Imagining Anglo-Saxon England. Psychoanalytic language appears periodically but without explanation that would show how the rhetoric of Alfred, the languages and images of the Franks Casket, and the conceptual and visual echoes that connect texts of the Beowulf manuscript do the psychic work that transforms unspeakable violences into acts of crypt formation. This is because none of the chapters discuss the critical role that anasemia--the demetaphorization of language into fractured shards that are rearranged such that the pieces can no longer be recognized by the subject as loss--plays in incorporation and in the construction of psychic crypts. Absent the conceptual framework of anasemia, the book does not marshal arguments that fully explain how the shards of languages and narratives, which make up the Alfredian "we" of Alfred, are broadcast across the Frank's Casket, and recur across the voices and bodies of the Beowulf manuscript, generate angular and broken utopic, heterotopic, and dystopic visions of England, respectively. [1] Nor is it fully sensitive to the ethical imperatives that underwrite the work of Abraham and Torok--clinical psychoanalysts who believe that incorporation and encryption are prohibitive to personal healing because they maintain the transgenerational hauntings that result from unspeakable traumas.

Engaging the psychoanalytics of incorporation and encryption more extensively would enable Imagining Anglo-Saxon England to communicate to its reader how she may be haunted by the utopic place of early medieval England; and how to reimagine England such that does not function as a utopia of melancholic attachment and unspeakable desire. Said a different way, unpacking the mechanics of incorporation and encryption would allow for a more robust understanding of how utopic places underwrite the machinery of English colonialism so that this machinery can be dismantled in all of the scholarship that will most certainly be inspired by, and follow from, Karkov's wonderful book.

--------

Notes:

1. It also facilitates the conflation of early medieval and contemporary understandings of "race" that show up in several, brief statements in Chapter 2.