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22.10.18 Porck/Soper (eds.), Early Medieval English Life Courses

22.10.18 Porck/Soper (eds.), Early Medieval English Life Courses

Early Medieval English Life Courses: Cultural-Historical Perspectives, edited by Thijs Porck and Harriet Soper, provides a systematic guide to early medieval English concepts of the life course--its “biological, social, and spiritual aspects” (2)--that queries how stages of life were understood, experienced, and communicated by people living in England prior to the Norman Conquest. The volume’s eleven essays collectively explore: the division of the life course into stages; both Latin and Old English terms for parts of the life course; medical treatments and uses of the body in different stages; some signal, transitional periods in the life course (naming, weaning, puberty, pregnancy, and inheritance from one’s forebears); the creation and apparent uses of material objects; and the annual cycle of cereal crop production that must have featured prominently in the lives of most medieval people. This collection productively diversifies our means of understanding life courses and lived experiences of the early medieval English, providing a strong foundation of reference material that will certainly support much future work in all areas of early medieval English studies.

Following Porck and Soper’s introduction, which articulates the volume’s preference for the more open-ended phrase “life course” over terms like “lifespan” or “life cycle” (3), the volume is divided into four parts, each addressing the life course from different angles.

Part one collectively works toward “Defining and Dividing the Life Course,” as the early medieval English would have done. Thijs Porck’s essay, “The Ages of Man and the Ages of Woman in Early Medieval England: From Bede to Byrhtferth of Ramsey and the Tractatus de quaternario” (17-46),examines how the early medieval English conceptualized the life course by dividing it into between three and six “ages,” not always characterized by specific ages in years, but often closely aligned with other phenomena such as seasons, elements, humors, and temperaments. Chapters 2 and 3 explore the vocabulary of age groups. In “Weapon-Boys and Once-Maidens: A Study of Old English Vocabulary for Stages of Life” (47-89), Daria Izdebska provides a general overview of how the human life course was labeled in the Old English lexicon, with insightful analysis of the metaphorical underpinnings of terms such as bearn (connecting childhood to the state of having been born) and lȳtling (connecting age with size). Meanwhile, Darren Barber’s essay, “Alcuin and the Student Life Cycle” (90-114), considers the Latin vocabulary for the life course in the early Middle Ages, predominantly through Alcuin of York’s (c. 740-804) many descriptions of the intellectual development of clerics. Both essays make clear that actual usage of terms likely varied greatly compared to the concepts developed and perpetuated by the highly literate.

All three essays in this section provide valuable reference material on the concepts and language used to describe various stages in the human life course, which any scholar of early medieval England seeking to understand the multivalence of age-related terms should consult. These essays pay admirably careful attention to the gendering of age, noting the imbalanced emphases of the sources, and opening up space for essays such as those by Batten and Cross, later in the volume, which employ different types of source material to investigate women’s stages of life. Porck and Izdebska’s chapters are particularly well furnished with tables that consolidate a wealth of evidence for how particular terms could be used across authors and texts.

Part 2 of the volume, “The Life Course and the Human Body,” turns from conceptual approaches to the life course to practical matters of how stages of life were experienced with three well-composed and enjoyable essays. Jacqueline Fay examines Old English medical texts, particularly the Old English Herbarium, the Leechbooks, and Lacnunga in “Treating Age in Medical Texts from Early Medieval England” (117-39). Fay finds not only that some complaints might be treated differently depending on a patient’s age, but also that some treatments relied upon ingredients collected from humans at specific moments in the life course (such as breastmilk and children’s urine), suggesting that a material difference was recognized between human bodies in different stages of life. Amidst the larger argument, Fay also provides valuable confirmation from the primary sources of an ultimately unsurprising--but difficult to document--detail: “the normative body or that which is tacitly assumed by the vast majority of remedies is that of a male who is neither child nor old” (122).

Caroline R. Batten’s essay, “‘Lazarus, Come Forth’: Pregnancy and Childbirth in the Life Course of Early Medieval English Women” (140-58), illuminates the prominent role of procreation in the lives of adult women. Batten articulates pregnancy as “a separate stage in the female life course, which overlaps with but is fundamentally distinct from both wifehood and motherhood” (142). The overlapping nature of these life-stage identities is apparent in many of the sources, which link women who are pregnant or hoping to become pregnant to their husbands and their communities. Elaine Flowers’s subsequent essay on “The Theology of Puberty in Early Medieval England” (159-78) both provides information about likely biological differences in the progression of puberty (e.g., timing of onset was likely similar to today, but puberty progressed more slowly) and analyzes the textual record’s ways of understanding puberty. Here, as in the vocabulary for life stages, the sources are relatively quiet on the maturation of female bodies compared to male bodies; intriguingly, Flowers also finds that the sources prioritize cognitive and spiritual development during puberty over physical changes. Both Batten and Flowers’s essays respectfully acknowledge experiences outside the cisgender, but remain rooted in what the source texts present as an early medieval English view of sex and gender binaries.

In Part 3 of the volume, essays explore “Intergenerational Dynamics.” These essays reveal life events that overlap with multiple moments in the life courses of separate individuals: the parents who name and the child who grows up with that name; the mother who manages weaning and the child who transitions to solid food; the elder who passes away and the descendant who inherits. James Chetwood’s essay on “Naming and Renaming: Names and the Life Course in Early Medieval England” (181-209) explores variations in dithematic names, repetition of shared names, lall-names and hypocorisms originating in childhood, and bynames acquired later in life. As Chetwood notes, the use of affectionately diminutive names supports the recognition of “meaningful and caring relationships between medieval children and their parents” (202). This study is the first to consider naming practices in the context of the life course, which proves especially beneficial for thinking about patterns of naming in the life course of, for example, a dynasty across generations. Katherine Cross, in “Moving on from ‘the Milk of Simpler Teaching’: Weaning and Religious Education in Early Medieval England” (210-28) explores both the timing and practices of weaning, which shortened and moved earlier in a child’s life during the pre-Conquest period. Cross’s consideration of the metaphorical use of weaning to describe religious education by authors such as Bede, Alcuin, and Hygeburg of Heidenheim--the latter two originating in England, but spending most of their careers on the Continent--is a particularly strong model of the kind of source creativity that is at work throughout this volume. To close this section, Amy Faulkner’s tour de force of literary close reading, “Treasure and the Life Course in Genesis A and Beowulf” (229-50), illuminates the transfer of material objects from one generation to the next, particularly as a means for understanding aristocratic succession. The moments in Genesis A and Beowulf that unite “heir with heirloom” (235) reveal the deep emotional impacts of inheritance, as well as their implications for the transmission of authority, whether secular or spiritual.

Part 4 takes an inspired approach to the life course in early medieval England by shifting the reader’s attention to “Life beyond the Human.” Gale R. Owen-Crocker’s essay on “The Life Course of Artefacts” (253-86) provides several case studies for objects surviving from the early medieval period that illustrate how objects--like humans--have their own life courses. Owen-Crocker bridges what we can know about the typical, expected life courses of objects that survive, with what seems to have been the particular, individual life course of specific objects, including exceptions which in many cases are the reason the objects survive today. This essay reminds us that “we do not necessarily see artefacts the way the Anglo-Saxons did” (283), whether in terms of their use, their symbolism, or simply because by becoming objects of study in the present, they have entered a stage in their life course that was never part of their original design. This essay would serve well to help undergraduate or graduate students recognize differences in material culture between early medieval England and the present day, but also to contemplate our ongoing role as scholars in the life courses of artefacts. Owen-Crocker’s essay is exceptionally well illustrated and includes multiple color reproductions of artefacts such as the Orkney hood, the Sutton Hoo shield, and example openings of several manuscripts.

Debby Banham’s contribution, “From Field to Feast: The Life (and Afterlife) Course of Cereal Crops in Early Medieval England” (287-318), continues this section’s emphasis on the non-human, while also articulating how the life courses of crops dictated the annual cycle of activities for the many early medieval English who were directly involved in cereal production. Banham highlights that because many textual records on agricultural practice draw on Mediterranean sources, one must recognize differences in the climate of Britain that would necessitate changes from what was written to actual early medieval English practices of crop cultivation. Banham sheds light on numerous other quandaries, such as the naming and timing of seasons, the practicalities of plough-ownership, and the baking and storing of bread. This essay, like Owen-Crocker’s, would be particularly valuable to undergraduate and graduate students, for concisely illustrating differences in lived experiences between the early Middle Ages and the present day.

Finally, Jo Appleby provides an Afterword (319-24) that contemplates the implications of the work collected in this volume “for archaeological and especially osteoarchaeological interpretation” (319). Appleby recognizes misalignment between, for example, the way texts discuss stages in the life course (as examined by Porck, Izdebska, and Barber) and the age categories used in the osteoarchaeological analysis of human remains. This reflection provides an encouraging send-off for readers to further consider the value of interdisciplinary work for exploring topics--such as the course of a human life--that call upon us to ask necessarily interdisciplinary questions.

Of course, no one volume can address every aspect of a topic, but if it thoroughly defines the state of the field in general--as this volume does--it provides the necessary foundation for areas not yet being explored. This volume does not speak to interruptions or diversions in the life course related to disability. How did congenital or acquired disability impact one’s stage in life or progression through the life course? How were people in various age groups treated differently (or not) depending on the nature of an impairment or disability? This volume moves the conversation forward significantly when it comes to gender and class nuances in early medieval English life courses; much more work is still needed in terms of disability. Fortunately, the essays in this volume will make that work more feasible to undertake, and I look forward to reading the future scholarship that explores questions of disability and the life course in early medieval England, which will certainly cite this volume.

Early Medieval English Life Courses presents evidence that supports--and in many cases, corrects--our assumptions about how lives were lived in early medieval England. The volume is valuable both as a reference and as foundational knowledge for scholars at all stages of their careers. These essays build upon one another well, but are also all able to stand alone as items of immense interest that enhance our understanding of the experience of living a life from beginning to end in early medieval England.