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22.12.04 Twomey/Anlezark (eds.), Meanings of Water in Early Medieval England

22.12.04 Twomey/Anlezark (eds.), Meanings of Water in Early Medieval England


In Meanings of Water in Early Medieval England, Carolyn Twomey and David Anlezark bring together the work of eleven scholars working on the cultures of medieval water. This collection is a rich trove of new cultural approaches to water and ice. Though the editors and essayists do not use the phrase, these pieces are exemplary of the scholarly possibilities offered by the emerging field of the Blue Humanities. The essays look to both fresh water and the sea, and physical sites and metaphorical stories. This is an exemplary collection, highlighting the vibrancy of the medieval world, revealing a multi-sensory, complex water landscape full of swimmers, sailors, sea monsters, scholars, and saints.

Because these are shorter pieces, they represent and highlight many different voices and methods; but because of the tight geographical and temporal focus, this collection coheres more tightly than many such volumes. Themes of liminality, entanglement, ritual, and remembrance flow through the volume, giving a cohesiveness that suggests fruitful collaborative conversations led to this volume. There is even a recurrence of sources and saints (Cuthbert and Coelfrith especially!) across the book, helping us see in familiar figures the differences in methods and questions. These are interwoven approaches that, taken together, give rich impressions of a single historical moment and the many ways that water flowed through medieval English religion, literature, and learning.

The authors work with a wide range of literary, exegetical, administrative, artistic, and hagiographical sources. In the article that opens the collection, Della Hooke uses her meticulous work with charters, boundary clauses, and place-based analysis to question the relationship between water and the foundation of monasteries, minsters, and other religious sites. She argues that watery spaces “provided some degree of separation from the everyday secular world,” but still offered access to the market economy, ensuring they “thrived and profited spiritually and financially from their watery landscapes” (54). Megan Boulton’s rich piece, “Pearls before Paradise,” examines architectural mosaics, manuscript illustrations, Biblical passages, Isidore of Seville, and sculpture to look at the iconography of pearls as a liminal symbol of the barrier between worlds that brought heaven to earth while symbolizing salvation.

Many of the authors had a surprisingly large number and type of sources at their disposal--but some of these essays work to pick apart scarce evidence, to tease out the unseen and undescribed. Simon Trafford faces a clear lack of evidence for his study of “Swimming in Anglo-Saxon England.” He works around the silences by both revisiting the most famous example of swimming, from Beowulf, and by looking at moments of drowning and other immersions and comparing this scant evidence to Scandinavia and Ireland. In the end, this is a lovely example of how to acknowledge the holes in the record, and of how to use comparative reading to tease out silences. Elizabeth A. Alexander’s essay “The Sailors, the Sea Monster, and the Saviour: Depicting Jonah and the Ketos in Anglo-Saxon England,” also highlights a lack of sources, and the ways that comparative investigation of art helps us not just fill gaps, but also find connections across early medieval cultures. This essay includes a discussion of the Harley Psalter that I found fascinating--this wound up being a feature of the entire volume--I was continually finding sources, ideas, and topics that excited and intrigued me.

Still other essays in the collection work within a more circumscribed set of sources. John J. Gallagher writes about a set of early medieval English exegetical texts from Canterbury (surprisingly only first discovered in 1936 and published in 1994) about the book of Genesis. He looks at how Noah and the flood is described and, fascinatingly, how the exegetes understood and explained the agency and origin of rain, and the question of whether rain first fell only in the Flood. Gallagher’s essay is a remarkable example of how close reading can reveal how much medieval authors strove to bridge Biblical and secular learning.

In “Drawing Alfredian Waters,” co-editor Daniel Anlezark also sees Old English texts engaging with both science and religion. He looks at the idea of “living waters” in several Old English poems from the late ninth and early tenth centuries. Anlezark points out that though this is a metaphorical idea, the poet of thePastoral Care’s Metrical Epilogue was thinking about not only religious metaphors and Biblical waters, but also the realities and dynamics of hydraulic engineering. Picking up on other essays in the volume, he also looks at the ways the dialogues of Solomon and Saturn engage with both fresh and salt water, and how they show an English imagination of waters from other worlds--in this case the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia.

Helen Appleton looks at a set of hagiographies in “Water, Wisdom, and Worldliness in the Anglo-Saxon Prose Lives of Guthlac.” She draws out interesting threads of the ways water could symbolize scholarship and knowledge, wisdom and mystery. Michael Bintley takes as his subject the Old English Andreas, which he calls “unusually wet, even for an Old English poem” (191). He draws out the mystery of St Andrew’s identity and the Mermedonians to show how the poet used these to think about creation, baptism, and water as salvation. Thus, even though it is tightly focused on a single text, this essay coheres to the themes of the others in the book. This is true across the board.

For me, one of the most striking essays is that of volume editor Carolyn Twomey, “Rivers and Rituals: Baptism in the Early English Landscape.” Twomey takes up an important topic that bridges religious studies and water history--baptism is often overlooked by medieval European water scholars (including by myself) as something belonging to the realm of religion and ritual, and as something associated with indoor spaces, fonts, and heresies. Twomey takes artistic sources alongside narrative accounts and theological works to try to understand how and if water baptism was practiced outdoors, in rivers. She concludes that river baptism, when it happened, was connected not only to need (no formal fonts) but also to the ways that watery places (rivers, springs, pools) were already sites set in a local history, and many were also already sites of assembly with cultural valences attached. (Interestingly, she also looks at the ideas of water as both liminal spaces and neutral spaces, and how baptisms may also have happened at crossings and bridges.) This is a nuanced view of baptism that encourages a more culturally sophisticated view of the complexity of conversion of peoples and landscapes.

Rebecca Shores’ contribution to the volume, “Sounds of Salvation: Nautical Noise in Old English and Anglo-Latin literature” makes bold methodological moves, successfully. She looks at the “sonic elements of human, animal, and instrumental noise aboard boats at sea” (110). Shores explores the tricky dynamics of representing sound and then re-constructing / reading sounds from the written page. In an argument that picks up some of the geographical remoteness that Hooke addresses, Shores writes that “the sea and the river are the final frontiers for familiar voices of the transitory world; silence, more than space, marks the ultimate departure from it” (117). This is an excellent example of the new frontiers of our own discipline, as environmental and religious studies look to sensory history and emotional history as tools for fleshing out the full experience of how people of the past lived in and with landscapes, soundscapes, and waterscapes.

The final essay of the volume wraps up many of the themes, in a thoughtful examination of a single text--Riddle 84 of the Exeter Book. In “Modor is monigra mærra wihta: Watering the World in Exeter Book Riddle 84,” Jill Frederick unpicks the complexly woven riddle to show the complexity of early medieval English understandings of water. The essay picks up on ideas from the other essays--creation, lapidary / pearl references, otherworldliness, creatures, and the ways that water can be both maternal and violent. She discusses the ways the poem implies the Noah flood, connecting it to Bede’s Genesis commentary, biblical tests, and even baptism. She looks at the word wæterscipe and the ways where in the riddle “water and the vessel become one, the means of salvation and salvation itself” (279). Frederick argues that the riddle demonstrates in its imagining of water “the effortless merger of the secular and sacred that characterizes so many of the earliest English literary texts” (280). This could also apply to Meanings of Water in Early Medieval England.

I have somehow wound up frequently reviewing edited collections; this is one of the most cohesive and consistently engaging ones that I have reviewed. Each essay is interesting and valuable on its own. Here I need to pause and point out that the book is very carefully designed by the press with the idea in mind that each essay may, indeed, be used and possibly taught alone--each piece includes its own notes, figures and maps but also, each front page of the article includes the full citation to the volume. This is a useful design feature that I hope more presses will start to use.

Collectively these essays tell a complex story of the ways that early medieval people had multi-faceted, intricate, and even emotional relationships with water. As the editors note in their introduction, their approach to water is a deliberately cultural one: “we are discussing an aspect of the material world which has objective realities and physical continuity, but which is also embedded culturally in differing understandings of what water is” (14). The result is a volume that is an excellent companion to the many extant histories of water technologies and water systems, and is, quite frankly, a must-read for scholars of medieval water and environment.