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22.03.20 Gates/O’Camb (eds.), Remembering the Medieval Present

22.03.20 Gates/O’Camb (eds.), Remembering the Medieval Present

This collection of essays demonstrates how the imagined past of an “Anglo-Saxon” England was deployed in texts produced between the tenth and the fifteenth centuries. In the Introduction, “Anglo-Saxon Predecessors and Precedents,” Gates and O’Camb set out the aim of the volume: to examine “intentional, often ideological, literary invocations of what we refer to as the Anglo-Saxon past” as these are used “to assert a common ‘English’ identity with which audiences could identify” (3). The editors make clear that the collection does not seek a unified early medieval English identity, nor work to capture what such an identity might have been as a question of historical fact; indeed, it provides plenty of evidence for the impossibility of recovering any such thing. The very idea of an “Anglo-Saxon” nation is shown to be a phantom, but one productive of “a set of powerful myths that endured throughout the Middle Ages and that continue to influence popular culture” (1). The volume reveals the varied forms taken by the trope of an “imagined English community, a fictional Anglo-Saxon identity” (20), and the ways in which it is invoked to serve a wide range of contemporary ends--political, legal, religious, and poetic.

The chapters explore texts that (from the perspective of their own present moment) remember and invent a past for their community of readers. In this sense, it defamiliarizes the “Anglo-Saxon” past as seen from our contemporary critical moment, and asks us to see it instead from the perspective of the moments that were, for those then living in them, the (medieval) present. In this endeavor, the “simple definitions of identity and period” (3) upon which scholars have traditionally relied are shown to be insufficient and unhelpful; accordingly, a number of contributors explicitly write against the periodization that (still) sharply divides the medieval period at the Conquest. The ambitious aims of the collection with respect to its broader interrogation of memory, history and temporality are not always met in individual chapters. A number of chapters certainly engage directly and in a sophisticated way with the temporality and historicity that their texts instantiate (notably those of Cynthia Turner Camp and Kathleen Smith, and Erin Michelle Goeres’ passage on nostalgia and homeland in Játvarðar saga). But a more common approach for contributors is to uncover or clarify the purpose behind specific mobilizations of the early English past in their immediate context. This observation is not to disparage the value of any one chapter--all have insights to offer--but rather to note that the most important message of the volume emerges from the collective of its arguments: that the myth of a legible and ideologically meaningful “Anglo-Saxon” past is one that has been used at least since the pre-Conquest period to tell the present many different tales about itself.

In pre-Conquest legal writing, the re-use of older laws and explicit reference to legal continuity are common: early English legislation claims its authority at least partly on the basis of this imagined tradition. In Chapter 1, “The Legacy of King Edgar in the Laws of Archbishop Wulfstan,” Nicole Marafioti examines a particularly purposeful instance of this phenomenon. Wulfstan II of York’s mobilization of the memory of the laws of Edgar (r. 959-75) is shown to provide a model for society, to establish continuity with a better past, and to act as a blueprint for good kingship. Wulfstan is here argued to have revived the spirit (if not the letter) of Edgar’s laws as a direct remedy for the corruption of law and justice in his own day, hoping to create a “stable and effective” body of English law that would bring the nation in line with God’s will. For Marafioti, the vision of history that emerges from Wulfstan’s writing is “at once cyclical and cautionary”: the past repeats until we learn from it. If re-use of old law (actual or claimed) is a general characteristic of pre-Conquest English law, Marafioti here shows how far some of these uses were conditioned by the specific ideology of the law-code composer within the politics of his time.

In Chapter 2, “Exile and Migration in the Vernacular Lives of Edward ‘the Confessor’,” Erin Michelle Goeres examines the various representations of Edward’s 25-year absence from England before his reign. His exile and migration emerge as themes that could be radically rewritten to suit new social and cultural contexts: extant versions are surveyed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles portray Edward as “an idealized, Anglo-Saxon king” (85): an exile turned savior. The female translator-author of La vie d’Edouard le Confesseur“demonstrates the universal applicability of Edward’s experience of exile, drawing from it a religious message” (62): exile becomes a metaphor for Christian salvation. In “The South English Legendary,” Edward’s Life works to unify Anglo-Saxon and Norman inhabitants, in part via a focus on “the unifying force of Christianity” (77). In the Játvarðar saga, we find the king’s subjects emigrating to Byzantium, where the nobles seek a new homeland to rule. The discussion of this text is perhaps the most interesting in the chapter; Goeres argues that it uses “the well-worn trope of exile to present an unsettling interrogation of nostalgia, and of the language and motifs through which acts of migration, settlement, and colonization are described” (84). The dangers of nostalgia, as well as its generative potentials, here emerge.

Chapter 3, “Quidam proditor partis Danicae: Aelred’s Re-Imagining of the Anglo-Saxon Past,” is also interested in how the lives of early English kings were mobilized in the interests of national cohesion. Jay Paul Gates examines representations of the English past in Aelred of Rievaulx’s Genealogia. Aelred’s “stunning” departures from earlier accounts (notably in making Edmund’s murderer Danish) are argued to reveal “a pattern of historical revision” that creates “a narrative of national identity” (90). The text is not just a mirror for princes or royal propaganda: “Aelred articulates his own act of ‘imaginative memory’,” an imagined past that has been purposefully shaped for a range of audiences. This (Gates argues) happens chiefly via the articulation of an international vision of kingship that downplays Anglo-Danish relations in favor of a southern orientation to the Continent, reshaping the geography of the narrative in anticipation of a Norman salvation. Aelred’s Genealogia thus offers its audience a path to common identification in support of national cohesion--and Henry II.

English and Norman cohesion is again a focus in Chapter 4, “The Hermitic Topos: ‘Selling’ Shared Sanctity to Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, and English Audiences.” Maren Clegg Hyer shows how the interpolations added to William of Malmesbury’s De antiquitate Glastonie ecclesie and Orderic Vitalis’s history of Croyland Abbey share similar rhetorical strategies. These work to “unify and justify the native English ecclesiastical tradition alongside Norman traditions and challenges in shared terms both audiences might respect” (117). Although the twelfth century sees pre-Conquest religious houses and saints as under attack by Normans, the situation was not simply “us-vs-them”; within a monastic house, the “us” could comprehend both English and Norman ecclesiasts; the “them” was a (Norman) secular elite. Orderic and the interpolators, Hyer argues, show awareness of the shared cultural values of their audiences (notably in their emphasis on ascetic and hermitic heritage originating in wild and liminal spaces), and a willingness to exploit these values to reconcile competing interests.

In Chapter 5, “Looking for Holy Grandmothers in Late Medieval Nunneries,” Cynthia Turner Camp looks to the liturgy as a site of memorial practice, suggesting that the evidence of calendars, customaries, hymns, and antiphons can show not only who was venerated by a community of nuns, but how these figures were remembered, and which of their identities was honored. Camp examines the liturgical customs of a cluster of late medieval nunneries (Barking, Romsey, Shaftesbury, Nunnaminster, Wilton and Wherwell) beside narrative and documentary evidence. The evidence suggests that “even when an institution’s female predecessors were obscure or undesirable, late medieval nuns actively sought out holy exemplars from among England’s early women saints, often honoring English ‘grandmothers’ from beyond their own communities” (146). The sources are here made to yield a range of fascinating insights into how and when religious women honored the women of their past. How memory itself works is also interrogated: in a parallel of the liturgical cycles in which they appear, earlier figures are shown to exist in an often timeless, accretive, circuitous, non-sequential, recursive pattern through which the nunnery’s identity is crafted.

Another “Anglo-Saxon” woman is examined in Chapter 6, “Peace Weaving and Gold Giving: Anglo-Saxon Queenship in Havelok the Dane.” Larissa Tracy argues that Goldboru “echoes the qualities of queenship exhibited by historical women and female figures in Old English poetry who provide a model of female rule unique in Middle English romance that is grounded in a reverence for the Anglo-Saxon past” (169). For Tracy, Goldboru is not merely another instance of the growing twelfth-century emphasis on women, but revives memories of earlier female characters found in Old English poetry and literature. Her positive qualities “are signifiers of the Anglo-Saxon past untainted by Norman Conquest” (191); more broadly, Havelok’s interest in justice “turns to the Anglo-Saxon past as a model of ‘gode olde law’” (192).

Direct and indirect re-uses of Old English narrative and textual materials are investigated in Chapters 7-9. Taken together, these borrowings and reworkings suggest a capacity on the part of Middle English writers to interrogate and exploit contemporary attitudes to early medieval texts and tales. In Chapter 7, “Writing, Rewriting, and Disrupting the Anglo-Saxon Past in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale,” Kathleen Smith thoughtfully interrogates those moments in which the Man of Law interrupts his own tale to express disbelief about its events. The interjections are found to be “real sites of debate about belief and the role of literary narrative in belief about the past” (197): a meta-commentary that foregrounds the plausibility and likelihood of the tale and the reality it presents, so working to “destabilize its aura as a reliable source of national origins” (205). The Man of Law’s Prologue and Tale also display an interest in the passage of time, notably in their use of repetition and change: these work to “challenge medieval models of history, of history as it is experienced in time, and of history as it is narrated and transformed into literature” (211). For Smith, Custance’s tale--in the mouth of the Man of Law--deliberately “reveals the process by which poets create and recreate a national legend, allowing Chaucer to unmask himself and Gower as circumspect mythographers and the past that they summon as ephemeral, hyperreal, both plausible and implausible, subject to its tellers, and fundamentally entangled in larger histories and narratives that ultimately escape the confines of narrative” (214). Narrating the past becomes a means to interrogate the nature of both narrative and history.

In Chapter 8, “The Case of Poema Morale: Old English Homiletic Influence in Early Middle English Verse,” Carla María Thomas works not to demonstrate a direct continuity from Old to Middle English literature, but to shed light on how English poets of the twelfth century worked by sampling texts from a variety of sources and influences. Thomas emphasizes the importance of placing the poem in its manuscript context: a detailed account of the poem and its witnesses offers a useful overview of scholarship here, and appendices set out the full contents of the manuscript witnesses. Thomas traces similarities at the level of trope between the poem and certain Old English homilies; in the opening couplet ofPoema Morale, she finds direct influence from a homily of Wulfstan and Vercelli IV. More broadly, the chapter contributes to ongoing critical challenges to strict periodization, as well as genre division, in the study of early Middle English.

Further links between Old and Middle English texts are claimed in Chapter 9, “The Familiar Wisdom of Treasured Friends and the Landscape of Conquest in The Proverbs of Alfred.” Brian O’Camb argues that certain passages of the twelfth-century Proverbsprobably originate in textual precedents from the intellectual milieu of vernacular Alfredian writings of the ninth century. Thematic continuities are also found to connect the Proverbs with Old English poetry. These points of connection allow the Proverbs to be read as a “gnomic poem” (269) that invokes for its audience a familiar aesthetic of Alfredian rhetoric (especially relating to themes of friendship, wealth, and wisdom).

In Chapter 10, “The Idea of Bede in English Political Prophecy,” Eric Weiskott surveys the use of Bede as a claimed source of political prophecy in English literary communities of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The chapter provides a useful survey of late medieval and early modern prophetic texts naming Bede (273-7), and edits for the first time a verse prophecy, NIMEV 4154.3, here named Bede’s Prophecy. Bede’s popularity as a prophetic authority is attributed in part to perceptions of his “sober sanctity,” “formidable literary output,” and “close ties to northern England” (278), suggesting that this early English figure had a fairly well-defined identity at the end of the medieval period. At the same time, once installed as a prophet within the genre, Bede’s name was evidently interchangeable with those of other claimed prophets. In the poem Bede’s Prophecy, the name of Bede offers authority to a “prophetic historiography” that “gave English audiences a vehicle for social critique” (287); here, Bede (and thus the imagined English past in which his authority is rooted) “emerges not merely as an idea but a weapon” (287).

In a brief “Afterword,” Irina Dumitrescu and Mary Kate Hurley summarize the approaches of the collection, and conclude that the book is “not only about specific moments in the Middle Ages in which crisis prompted narrative innovation, but also about what the experience of crisis does to culture, language, history, and time” (290). They turn from historical to present crises, and consider how our contemporary political and cultural moment itself mobilizes the imagined early medieval past, an undertaking that can be nefarious as well as culturally generative. We are invited here to consider how we study the past’s engagement with its own past, and how these pasts may be mobilized anew in the medieval studies of our present moment.

The volume as a whole offers many valuable local insights into the texts examined. In addition, certain leitmotifs emerge across its chapters: memories of early colonization are repeatedly used to construct a sense of national unity; the lives of early saints can generate a strong sense of identity in myriad contexts; in the hands of poets, a textual inheritance becomes a tool for remembering, interrogating, and reimagining literary history itself. Such areas of inquiry as these will surely continue to produce insights into how the past was remembered across the medieval period. To guide such future studies, this volume should stand as a strong reminder that the pressures of the present fundamentally influence how history is remembered. It is fitting that so many chapters in the collection show how the memory of a past crisis (of lawlessness, exile, martyrdom, or colonization) becomes a significant source for the negotiation of perceived present problems: the sense of history that emerges from this collection as a whole is of a past recollected more in turbulence than in tranquility.