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21.06.09 Ellard, Anglo-Saxon(ist) Pasts, postSaxon Futures

The Medieval Review

21.06.09 Ellard, Anglo-Saxon(ist) Pasts, postSaxon Futures


Donna Beth Ellard's Anglo-Saxon(ist) Pasts, postSaxon Futures confronts the roles that nationalism, imperialism, and racism have played in the formation of the discipline previously known as "Anglo-Saxon" studies. The book is partly an intellectual history of Anglo-Saxon studies, uncovering an "old guard" of historians, archaeologists, and philologists (primarily, Sharon Turner, James Douglas, and John Mitchell Kemble) who Ellard identifies as the "fathers" responsible for shaping interdisciplinary Anglo-Saxon studies while simultaneously encoding ideologies of colonialism and racism within the field's methodologies. Yet Ellard's book is, and does, far more than a traditional intellectual history. It argues that these fathers must be mourned and their ghosts exorcised if we (that is, scholars who once called, or continue to call, ourselves "Anglo-Saxonists") are to free ourselves from the ideologies built into the field, expand its parameters, and pursue pathways that will lead us towards "postSaxon" futures that include voices and bodies previously excluded from, and harmed by, Anglo-Saxon studies. This argument is not simply asserted but performed by Ellard's book. Through modes of writing that stretch, subvert, and reinvent academic prose, Ellard documents the process of leaving behind her professional academic identity as an "Anglo-Saxonist" and becoming a "postSaxon" scholar.

As a result, Anglo-Saxon(ist) Pasts, postSaxon Futures is not governed by an overarching theory or methodology. Rather, it draws upon a variety of methodologies to express its arguments and achieve its aims. In order to articulate her argument that the "old guard" deposited psychic crypts within the methods and practices of Anglo-Saxon studies, Ellard turns to the psychoanalytic research of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok. Elsewhere in the book, however, Ellard contends that the now longstanding engagement with theory in early medieval studies has failed to decolonise the field and quiet the old guard in its grave (38). Instead, she contends that we need to search for modes that bring together head and heart (and, I would add, hand--to align making with thinking and feeling). Ellard's book does not abandon literary theory and criticism altogether so much as combine them with other genres of research and writing. In particular, Ellard turns to creative nonfiction and autoethnography: the latter approach takes its cue from postcolonial autoethnography by writers such as Archana Pathak. Most of the book is written in prose, but parts are composed in poetry or in prose poetry that uses the space of the page in striking ways. I found Ellard's critical-creative approach compelling and inspiring. This innovative way of writing might not work for every monograph--especially those with more traditional aims--but it is a perfect fit for the intellectual and ethical work that Ellard is carrying out here. There is, perhaps, a richer history of using creative writing and a stronger willingness to blur the boundaries between profession and personal personas within Old English studies than Ellard allows for. She belatedly acknowledges (348) the autoethnographic writings of James Earl, Gillian Overing, and Clare Lees. One might also point to work by Marijane Osborn and Nicholas Howe, among others, which is similarly situated in between creative and critical, personal and professional, scholarly and autobiographical writing. Although some of this previous work made use of creative modes to confront political problems pertaining to gender and sexuality, Ellard leverages multiple genres to historicise the field's racism and to imagine an antiracist future.

Chapter 1 begins the process of tracing the development of the Anglo-Saxonist by considering the OED entry for this proper noun, challenging the dictionary's efforts to differentiate and distance the "Anglo-Saxonist" as a professional expert in Old English from the "Anglo-Saxonist" as an amateur who believes in the importance or superiority of so-called Anglo-Saxons. Ellard contends that there are deeper, hidden entanglements between academic and ideological "Anglo-Saxonisms" and substantiates this contention further as the book progresses. The remainder of this opening chapter surveys some of the key controversies that have characterised early English studies, focusing especially on the field's late embrace of, and persistent resistance towards, poststructuralist, feminist, and postcolonial theories. Ellard recognises the labour of previous early medievalists who have unsettled the narratives of nation, empire, and race within Old English studies. However, in this chapter, she also questions and ultimately contests the claim that critical theory can displace these narratives (a claim once championed by Allen Frantzen, whose antifeminist attitudes are addressed unflinchingly by Ellard throughout the book). In my view, Ellard downplays the positive influences that critical theory has had, and can continue to have, within early medieval studies a little too much. A certain scepticism towards theory is a rhetorical move that her book needs to make, in order to emphasise the field-changing potential of its own approach. Rather than a refutation of theory, I see this book as an excellent example of how the progress that theory has made can be harnessed and advanced through creative practice. At the same time, Ellard is right to invite medievalists to reckon with theory's limitations and to consider the relationship between theory and practice more carefully.

Chapters 2 and 3 are companion pieces that concentrate on Turner, Douglas, and Kemble. Ellard identifies these three men as the fathers of Anglo-Saxon studies whose scholarship is driven by national-imperial ideologies. The two chapters propose the complex yet convincing argument that Turner, Douglas, and Kemble deposit psychic crypts and material graves within an emerging Anglo-Saxon studies. In turn, these funerary sites create an "Anglo-Saxonist" whose colonial grief has turned to melancholy following twentieth-century decolonisation. Chapter 2 is focused on how Turner's History of the Anglo-Saxons serves as a psychic crypt in which the unmourned losses and unacknowledged traumas of British colonialism are secreted. Chapter 3 turns to the material and corporeal crypts of Douglas, the father of Anglo-Saxon archaeology, demonstrating that the barrow sketches of his Nenia Britannica couple the effects of grief with those of British nationalism. This further creates the professional Anglo-Saxonist who not only studies Anglo-Saxons but who is "Anglo-Saxon" in body as well as mind. Both chapters analyse the scholarship of Turner, Douglas, and finally Kemble alongside early medieval poetry: namely, the Old Norse Krákumál and Old English Beowulf. For example, Ellard carries out a truly brilliant reading of Beowulf's structure, arguing that the repeated interplay of chiasmus and interlace constructs a poetic barrow--or, rather, a series of poetic barrows--which the eponymous hero enters and exits time and again. In the nineteenth century, Kemble figures himself as a Beowulfian hero, breaking into mounds and looting treasure, creating an interdisciplinary Anglo-Saxon studies that links history, philology, and archaeology to the racialised "Teutonic" skeletons that had been reassembled in early medieval barrows by Victorian antiquarians.

Chapter 4 continues to examine the fathers of the field but now Ellard looks further back in time to the "sovereign father" of Anglo-Saxon studies: Alfred, King of the Anglo-Saxons. The chapter argues that Asser's famous Life of King Alfred transforms the king's chronically ill body into a textual corpus. Once more, the relationship between early medieval texts and modern scholarship is pursued. Ellard demonstrates how Benjamin Thorpe's language pedagogy facilitates acts of incorporation and encryption. Thorpe's pedagogical textbooks convert the student of Old English into a professional Anglo-Saxonist who has incorporated Alfred's racialised corpse and Anglo-Saxon textual corpus into his own mind and body. The "Anglo-Saxonist" is thus an ontological being inhabited by a dead sovereign. Crucially, Ellard is not content to leave her analysis there. She invites us to follow her lead in working through mourning and letting go of this old guard of Anglo-Saxonist fathers and the Anglo-Saxonist state of being they have engendered. Chapter 5 performs this grief work through a creative rewriting of Alfred (titled, a Biochemical Vita Ælfredi). This creative nonfiction reverses Asser's biography by highlighting the sickness, suffering and decay of Alfred's body, emphasising its materiality and reconceptualising it as a biochemical organism that exceeds the "Anglo-Saxon" parameters placed upon it. Ellard weaves more personal narratives into this creative nonfiction, coming to terms with the fatherly old guard within her own family history, displacing the settler colonialists in her familial past and countering their patriarchal, Anglo-Saxonist narratives. This chapter is certainly one place where Ellard's innovative approach to her topic works very well. A more detached discussion of Alfred's chronic illness written in academic prose might be able to make the same argument (that the king's body challenges the patriarchal and nationalist narratives that have been imposed upon it) but would not be able to provoke the same affective response in the reader. The personal and the professional are subtly intertwined in this piece of writing--enabling the author and, perhaps, the reader to leave a professional Anglo-Saxonist identity behind and turn towards postSaxon becoming.

Ellard is clear that the term "postSaxon" is a placeholder that represents not a static mode of being but a process of becoming, pointing to multiple speculative futures for early medieval studies. One such postSaxon future is displayed in chapter 6, which highlights the colonial baggage carried by the term "Old English" by examining how its history is entangled with the history of "Olde English" malt liquor. Both terms are shown to operate according to the same logic, communicating ideologies of racism and colonialism. The frequent appearances of Olde English liquor in rap music enables Ellard to draw African American arts communities near to scholarly communities who also use, but do not own, the colonial term, Old English. These previously unexplored "intimacies" are but one possible way of moving towards a decolonised early medieval studies.

The seventh and final chapter of the book serves as a kind of afterword. This chapter returns to the genre of autoethnography, creatively connecting the changes that the field of early medieval studies is undergoing with the changes that the author of this book has undergone. Ellard gives an honest account of the difficulties, as well as the opportunities, created by divorcing oneself from the appellatives ("Anglo-Saxonist", "medievalist") that can provide a scholarly home while simultaneously restricting the work we can do and the communities we can work with. Frantzen is returned to, as a scholar who engaged with critical theory and who wrote in the autoethnographic mode, but cited here as a "cautionary negative exemplum" (352). Yet the book ends on a relatively hopeful note, urging early medievalists to excavate the troubled histories of any new terms we may come up with to replace the old, to enact the mourning that will free us from the harmful ghosts that keep us attached to the past of the field, and to imagine more inclusive postSaxon futures.

This is an important and timely book that will no doubt make a significant contribution towards ongoing efforts to challenge racism within, and confront the nationalist and colonialist pasts of, medieval studies. It reshapes Old English for a multiracial, global future while also suggesting ways to think beyond disciplinary boundaries. Any study as ground-breaking as this one is bound to raise many questions for the reader and prompt further thought. One aspect of the book that raised questions for me was its relationship with temporality. In a short paragraph, Ellard resists the idea that the "post" in postSaxon signals rupture, because the "future is never divorced from the past" (353). At the same time, the title, structure, and trajectory of the book imply a severance, or at least a tension, between past and future, where the future promises to break away at some point from an irredeemable past. If Ellard is not advocating a complete split from the past, are there alternative histories of the field to be written? Where do nonhegemonic voices, bodies, texts, and artefacts from the past fit within this book's historiographical narrative? Can we emulate this book's methodologies in order to look beyond canonical poems such as Beowulf and beyond the old guard of father figures such as Turner, Douglas, and Kemble? Ellard carries out creative readings and rewritings of hegemonic objects: the kingly body of Alfred and an epic poem about an aristocratic hero, Beowulf. What would be the effect of using this approach to creatively reread or rewrite, say, a riddle about a suffering animal, a charm for childbirth, or a brooch inscribed with name of a craftsperson? Similarly, Ellard identifies a group of powerful, male scholars as the fathers of Anglo-Saxon studies. I was left wondering about the presence and absence of scholars who do not fit into the category of "fathers" but who nonetheless shaped the field, despite occupying more peripheral positions. I am thinking of Elizabeth Elstob or Basil Brown, among others, who have not been excluded altogether from early English studies but who represent a more complex blend of power and disempowerment, privilege and marginalisation. Are they figures from an Anglo-Saxonist past to be mourned and exorcised as we move towards postSaxon futures? Or could their stories and scholarship contribute to postSaxon becoming in some way? Ellard rightly highlights the inability of the field to part with or condemn an "Anglo-Saxonist" old guard but how should we live with more ambiguous ghosts?

Anyone who engages with this book will take away a myriad of new insights, theories, methods, and actions. It offers highly intelligent readings of early medieval English texts. It carries out a revised history of the field of "Anglo-Saxon" studies, laying bare the more disturbing ideologies that helped to mould the discipline. It makes it clear what is at stake when calling oneself an "Anglo-Saxonist" or promoting "Anglo-Saxonism". It demonstrates a new way of doing contemporary medieval studies. Furthermore, it recreates the academic monograph as a mode of research and genre of writing. I would encourage all scholars of early English studies, and English literary studies more broadly, to read this book and to think with it.