When knights make their way through the countryside, it’s the knight who tends to grab our attention. If knights find themselves struggling against a river, working the land, or defending their hunting preserves against their enemies, we typically wonder how the knight will find his way to success. Nature, that rough and green and wet thing out there, is an impediment, or, in some instances, a place to frolic, or to dream.
Richmond’s study moves the background to the foreground. His chief approach is to register how portrayals of the natural world in Middle English chivalric narrative are not simply settings for the action, nor mere formulae interchangeable among any medieval narrative, but rather indexes, however faint, of the climate transformations of the “little Ice Age,” whose effects began to be felt in the fourteenth century, and of other local concerns, like rural depopulation following the plague. And the nature writing is still more local than this, even: in a kind of ecological anachronism, however far the heroes of these texts travel, the landscapes come to feel not just particular to the late Middle Ages, but recognizably British, allowing their readers to localize the stories to their own environs. In Kyng Alisaunder, the terrible people of Gog and Magog hold out in “soggy fens” (125) not unlike East Anglia, while the ghost of Guinevere’s mother in The Awntyrs off Arthure is an “anthropomorphized embodiment” (89) of a tarn, a small mountain lake, equally significant as both an ecological feature and as site of resource struggles over fishing rights in the English-Scottish borderlands.
For me, the book’s most successful chapter was its second, on the seashore, in its discussion of the problem of shipwreck. In allowing wrecked ships to be looted if no crew survived, English law inadvertently (one hopes) encouraged locals to murder any inconveniently undrowned sailors. Richmond cites, for example, a letter by William Pecock to John Paston II that complains as bitterly about the five men who survived the wreck as it does the neighboring Clere family’s race to loot the wreck first. That “cutthroat opportunism” (77), in Richmond’s words, helps explain the tensions of the shipwreck romances of Sir Amadace and Emaré, how each work both desires and longs for disaster.
Richmond mostly studies works outside the main roads of critical attention. We find neither Sir Orfeo nor Sir Gowther, nor, for that matter, the cherry bough miracle of Sir Cliges; instead, Richmond’s book treats, among many others, Sir Cawline, Sir Eglamour of Artois, Havelock the Dane, Partonope of Blois,Thomas the Rhymer, and William of Palerne, with some glancing attention to Chaucer’s Tales of the Franklin and the Man of Law, as well as a final chapter, inevitably, on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as well as the ballad-romance The Greene Knight. Richmond supplements his hoard of tales with an admirably rich set of endnotes, which, in an ideal world, would crowd his pages as footnotes. Anyone working on Middle English romance will benefit from at least sampling Richmond’s book, and anyone seeking to develop a project on these and related works--graduate students, but not only graduate students--will find their journey facilitated by Richmond’s laborious assembly of so much of the existing scholarship.
Though his local readings bear repeated attention, I find myself less convinced by his overall approach. His arguments proliferate with phrases like “betrays anxiety,” or words like “reflect” and “reveal.” Because academic literary criticism in general has the same trouble, my following points are not particular to this book. One wonders who is doing the revealing or betraying here: is it the critic or the text, or the medieval reader? Where do we locate this anxiety, or is it a malaise, present only symptomatically in the text, a tincture as unlocalizable as climate itself? Richmond’s frequent use of the word “economy” is similarly vague (e.g., “the economic nature of this space” (29)): I suspect he means to indicate trade and profit, but for whom, and for whose benefit? What is the “economy” and how does it differ, say, from finding or growing something to eat? Literature does not just “reflect” things. Like any activity, it has effects on things--it draws our attention, it distracts us, and it tells us whose lives are worth our attention. And, as bears repeating, the “economy” is not a general thing, homogeneously abstracted from human activity or, especially, human struggle: as I write this, in July 2022, I’m told that “economic anxiety” pervades the United States of America, but I wonder how the economic anxiety of wage-earners differs from that of employers no longer as able to rely on cheap, highly vulnerable labor. Each is anxious, but to different ends. A relationship of “reflection,” or of “revealing anxiety,” has the flavor of historical analysis, because it places its cultural objects in a larger field of contemporary stuff, but if those relations are presented without a sense of causality, or of the conflict that defines any historical relation, the analysis is not actually historical.
I therefore found his interpretation of Sir Degrevant especially successful, because this work, in Richmond’s hands, does not simply “reflect” late fourteenth-century England anxiety. Rather, it seeks to fix the blame on a particular enemy, a difficult Earl, whose depredations against Degrevant’s tenants resemble the damages of plague and climate change. When he defeats the Earl, this personification of labor and climate disruption, Degrevant can, as it were, turn back the clock to an earlier England whose climate and labor conditions made more sense than the uncertain present to the work’s aristocratic audience. Here, as in the Tale of Gamelyn, we have a story that does more than record local conditions and local worries, and that does more than simply transform its heroes’ surroundings into a recognizably British landscape: the somewhat desperate nostalgia of these stories, for better or worse, seeks to do something to how its readers understand their changing, difficult world.
A longer version of this book would have been comparative, and for that reason, offered more convincing connections between climate change and local conditions and the literature that sought to make sense of each. All literature is anxious, both because narrative requires tension, and because the social relationships literature encodes are conflictual. To say that a literary work is “anxious” is therefore simply to say that our world is imperfect, and that there is no storytelling without some problem to work out. But to say that a literary work is particularly anxious about something local to it requires both registering the rise of that particular anxiety and delineating how that anxiety differs from that of an earlier time, or from some other space or culture or literary form. That said, part of the difficulty of a comparative study is the paucity of Middle English narrative in, say, the late thirteenth century, but one can still imagine examining earlier British works in French: does landscape work differently in Béroul’s Tristan than it does in Sir Isumbras? Does Thomas Chestre's Sir Launfal do things with its forests and rivers that Marie’s original does not? Richmond might consider further work along these lines: I’m confident it’d be worth reading.