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23.03.05 Jolly/Brooks (eds.), Global Perspectives on Early Medieval England

23.03.05 Jolly/Brooks (eds.), Global Perspectives on Early Medieval England

Those readers who suspect this volume, from its nebulous title, of merely gesturing to a so-called global Middle Ages as an academic formality will be pleasantly surprised to discover that Global Perspectives on Early Medieval England lives up to its ambitious name. The tightly-edited volume makes several interventions in medieval studies across a spectrum of material and immaterial categories, including agriculture, comparative history, ethnography, metaphysics, and visual culture (broadly conceived), doing so through several perspectives. Collectively, the volume’s essays remind readers repeatedly of the importance of perspective toward the formation of meaning, with each underscoring this fact by dislocating early medieval England from the Isles and posing it against international counterpoints, past and present, especially through timely articulations of metahistory, that is, inquiries into the origins and legacies of narratives that endure in our world.

In their Introduction, Karen Louise Jolly and Britton Elliott Brooks declare their endeavor to avoid the grand narratives that global turns are always liable to take. Rather, their world historical approach examines the contact zones (subject to remapping) of peoples, based on a host of movements: “physical, economic, political, social, and cultural” (3). Global Perspectives’ contributors do just that.

Each of the book’s ten chapters covers a different topic or aspect of a given idea, with the chapters themselves grouped under three discrete but overlapping sections: Material Culture (Chapters 1-3); Crossing Borders (Chapters 4-6); and Origins and Comparisons (Chapters 7-10). Like their chapters, these sections complement one another. For example, in “Globalizing Anglo-Saxon Art” (Chapter 2), Jane Hawkes establishes the tradition’s links to western art generally but observes how little a role it has played in the canon of European art history, which has favored “naturalism, realism, the human form, and [...] perspectival representations of the world around us” (36). Hawkes articulates early medieval English art’s common forms, both within and beyond the canonical European and English artistic traditions; in this way, it has always struck chords with art produced around the rest of the world. Strikingly, Hawkes closes her instructive--and like the whole book, visually abundant--chapter with an intriguing comparison of early medieval English art to perception studies in modern psychology, taking Edgar Rubin’s famous 1915 Profile/Vase illusion as her case in point: “What today might be broadly termed ‘vision science’ was clearly being exploited to great effect in Anglo-Saxon art in the seventh and eighth centuries--in many media” (48). Early English material culture not only resonates well beyond its insular borders, but, as with nature, exhibits more depth than meets the eye: linear abstractions, patterned but mutable, defying classification.

Other scholars similarly assume conceptual comparisons that cut across genres and times. In his essay on Truso (Chapter 6), a Viking-Age trading port that connected several regions within and beyond Europe, John Hines reads syntopically to draw out multivalent readings of an otherwise obscure variable that resists the interpretive interrogations academics have been trained to carry out. In approaching Truso from multiple genres and unrelated sources, Hines reminds us that practitioners of literary analysis and historical inquiry require imagination as much as logical reasoning and linguistic prowess.

Jonathan Wilcox heeds this advice. His “Imagination at the Edge of the World” (Chapter 4), a study of Vercelli VII, reveals how this Old English homily speaks beyond its tenth-century Kentish audience, preserving the Greco-Roman culture of the early fifth century (81). Accordingly, the homily condemns the ancient luxuries uncommon to most members of early English society. Wilcox articulates this contrast not only by providing material evidence for life in the ancient world versus first-millennium England, but also through imaginative readerly deductions. He enlists the post-critical aid of a reader response, imagining for himself how early English audiences must have received this popular homily against strange decadence. Within a great cathedral such as Christ Church, Canterbury, surmises Wilcox, “Smells would have abounded, with every likelihood of bodily odours of various kinds, probably mixing with the smell of incense and candles. Taste would be triggered during the eucharistic partaking of the bread and wine. The chance of inadvertent touch due to the extreme proximity to neighbours was surely high, while physical contact would be expected during the kiss of peace. Those senses would complement the rich sounds and sights experienced by the group crowded together, listening, and watching the events of the mass” (87). In this context, Vercelli VII’s descriptions of bodily indulgence were as likely to prompt its audience’s imagination and longing as it would a straightforward conformity to its program.

While Wilcox uses Homily VII to argue against neat, binary readings of Old English genres, others turn to historical genres to establish the porousness of English identity. In “Britain, the Byzantine Empire, and the Concept of an Anglo-Saxon ‘Heptarchy’” (Chapter 5), Caitlin R. Green turns to a ninth-century Arabic source to throw light on the political arrangement of first-millennium England, elucidating how outsiders viewed Britain, specifically in relation to the greater Christian and “Roman” networks of greater Europe. I found Green’s comparative approach of Old English and classical Arabic quite useful, as it demonstrates how comparisons of discrete premodern cultures either reveal shared values, stand apart, or otherwise speak--if not complete, in terms of lacunae--to one another. Methodologically, Green demonstrates the value of comparative scholarship unmoored by narratives of influence (Dante owes Muhammad) or proof texts from which to spin storylines (speculating on the sources of Chaucer’s Squire’s and other Tales).

The scholars admirably resist speculative trains of thought, Carol Neuman de Vegvar actively so. Her “Minding the Gaps” (Chapter 3), about Early England’s burial sites, offers a novel corrective to positivist readings of the past by cataloguing a litany of known unknowns, as it were, of early English society based on archeological evidence. Given her point that we can glean only so much from the material (and poetic) records, I find her conscious avoidance of comparative work here a helpful reminder that comparison for its own sake isn’t all that productive.

Of the three groupings, the final suite of essays struck me for its singular coherence. Chapters 7 through 10 take on the term “Anglo-Saxon,” a concern made relevant thanks to the recent scholarship of Mary Rambaran-Olm. Each chapter approaches “Anglo-Saxon”from another angle, from the disciplinary to the linguistic, to the cultural, to the national-ethnic. Together, they clarify how “Anglo-Saxon”has come to mean what it does today. In scouring for the sources of the early medieval English peoples, John D. Niles (“Reassessing Anglo-Saxon Origins” (Chapter 7)) runs into a dead end; noting the influence of Hunnic hegemony on Eurasia and the agglutinative nature of empire, he finds that “virtually any ethnic name already refers to a hybrid entity” (150), as evidenced in the cultural parallels among Migration-Age societies. Kazutomo Karasawa (“Historical Origins” [Chapter 8]) meanwhile assesses the earliest extant accounts of the purported “Anglo-Saxon” invasion of the British Isles, arguing compellingly that the scant accounts we have--in Gildas and Bede, on which several histories will elaborate--fail to corroborate large-scale displacements of the Britons, thereby exposing the limits of premodern historiography (on which modern myths rely), and introducing as well fresh possibilities for ethnic mixing in early England, to the detriment of racial purists.

The last two chapters pull early England from its place and time entirely, relying on innovative theoretical and anthropological methods to do so. Michael W. Scott frontloads his chapter, “Boniface and Bede in the Pacific,” with an epistemological shift in critical thinking, away from Cartesian epistemology, hitherto relied on for comparative ethnography, and toward Latourian irreduction, or irreducible complexity, all the way down, such that entities operate within relations to other entities, taking on new values in an endless process of comparison. Because comparison itself “appears as the perfect universal relative” (199), and because they occur constantly, Scott calls for comparing comparisons to reveal what he calls the “anamorphic power” of comparisons, that is, their power to “reconfigure and redefine the terms they compare” (213). Scott’s particular juxtaposition of Victorian missions to the Pacific (reported emulators of St Francis of Assisi and Bede’s Apostles) against Bede’s account of Cædmon, whose miracle, a resonance of Biblical stories, reclaims the Christian tradition “by re-voicing it, in his own language, for his own time and place” (211). In this way, comparing comparisons gives readers insight into the trajectories of traditions through time.

Karen Louise Jolly’s chapter, “Anglo-Saxons on Exhibit,” scrutinizes empire through institutions’ artifacts, an apt extension of and conclusion to Debby Banham’s opening chapter, “The Global Triumph of Bread Wheat,” which creatively traces the two-sided nature of cultural proliferation through a case study of England’s role in the distribution of bread wheat worldwide. Just as aptly, Chapter 10 synthesizes the contributors’ collective impulse to expand early England’s horizons beyond the confines of geography, period, or discipline, and makes explicit the volume’s efforts, after G. K. Chesterton, to connect past with present by counting the dead among our most marginalized members. Jolly’s chapter arises out of a study abroad she took with her University of Hawai'i students in the fall of 2018, during which they visited several museum exhibitions and early medieval sites, including the “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms” exhibit at the British Library; excursions to Sutton Hoo, Lindisfarne, Jarrow, Durham, and York; the Royal Academy’s “Oceania” exhibit; and the British Museum’s Department of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. As readers of Scott’s chapter would expect, the comparisons these visits afforded inspired a spectrum of student responses, which Jolly carefully articulates, drawing on such complex and interrelated concepts as dead and living, indigenous and colonial, preservative and appropriative, and sacred and secular to demonstrate how the past inheres in the present, among nations and peoples, within their inherited, adopted, and contested homes, artefacts, and histories. I found Jolly’s reports of her students’ backgrounds and reactions to the exhibits deeply eye-opening, as they drove home the point that museums and other curated encounters with the past cannot predict what their visitors will bring to them, much less what they will take away. Jolly’s extended ekphrases of the objects she herself encountered, such as the Easter Island’s Hoa Hakananai'a, or the Norwich “Spong Chairperson,” who sits on the volume’s cover, brought to life the pages’ many images.

Readers will leave Global Perspectives as I imagine Jolly and her students left their exhibits, with fresh yet unresolved impressions of identity, English or otherwise. In light of reading this valuable collection, they would do well to reflect on what stories they tell themselves about Englishness, such as the story of the language itself, unknown to most of its practitioners, much less identified with, or to confront those episodes they would rather forget, thereby righting past wrongs. Anyone can do this.

And doing so, as the authors have here done, should not only sharpen one’s vision of our living Middle Ages, but inspire multiple narratives fit for our intricate world. I hope instructors take Jolly’s cue and curate for their own students more expansive and complex narratives of the past through the very methods utilized across the chapters, each a trove of sources worth pursuing. (Let the book’s lack of a bibliography encourage readers to engage its essays’ footnotes all the more vigorously.)

I praise, in brief, the authors of Global Perspectives for their ability to tackle head-on several emergent challenges rooted in the premodern world, namely the contentions of identity, the ethics of propagation, and the rights and wrongs of conquest. These authors demonstrate how scholars of medieval letters, sciences, and cultures can collaborate to serve the general public, utilizing their expertise to elucidate the past, untangling its intricate presence.