TMR ID: 00.03.20
Reviewed: Reinventing the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Constructions of the Medieval and Early Modern Periods
Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Vol. 1.
Gentrup, William F., ed.
Turnhout: Brepols, 1998
Review Author: Brian McGuire , Roskilde University, firstname.lastname@example.org
Publication Info:Ann Arbor: University of Michigan University Library, Scholarly Publishing Office
The Medieval Review 2000
As a freshman at Berkeley in the troubled autumn of 1964, I followed Robert Brentano's course "Western Civilization" and there experienced a knock-down, drag-out fight between the professor and his teaching assistants concerning whether or not Beowulf is a Christian poem. Brentano, who to this day remains one of my medieval mentors and heroes, insisted that Beowulf was Christian, while the TAs emphasized the pagan elements.
In reading the essays in Reinventing the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, I can better understand this debate as symptomatic of a continuing disagreement about the meaning of medieval literature. Thanks to Anne Savage's superb article, "Pagans and Christians, Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Saxonists: The Changing Face of Our Mythical Landscape," I can view a dichotomy in medieval studies: the celebration on the one hand of a "pagan, oral-formulaic past", while on the other, a "Latin-Christian literary present nourished by the writings of the church fathers" (37). The latter approach is associated with D. W. Robertson and has been much maligned, while the former one, I might add, has greatly inspired--and limited-- Nordic studies of early literature.
This book is to be commended to anyone interested in the Middle Ages or the Early Modern period because it has several articles that succeed in doing what Anne Savage does so well: they put into perspective a past literature or history and show how it has been used, appropriated, manipulated and reintegrated into a later period in history. These articles are the fruits of a 1995 conference at Arizona State University, and Robert Bjork and William F. Gentrup are to be congratulated for bringing together scholars from different disciplines and creating a significant dialogue about how we make use of the European past, especially in terms of British and American constructions.
Editor William F. Gentrup opens the collection with a superb summary of its fourteen essays and so makes it superfluous for the reviewer to go into detail about their contents. In what follows here I will make only brief remarks on the individual articles, which as Gentrup points out, include five essays on medieval topics, "from a rewriting of Anglo-Saxon history to the reinventing of Chaucer's reputation. The next four focus on Tudor and Stuart figures, religion or politics, and the last five analyze examples of nineteenth-century authors' uses of medieval or early modern events, literary conventions, settings and themes." (xi).
John Niles of Berkeley's Department of English starts the book with "The Wasteland of Loegria: Geoffrey of Monmouth's Reinvention of the Anglo-Saxon Past". Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae is analysed as an account of British history which almost completely leaves out the Anglo-Saxons. For those of us who have been brought up in the admiration of Bede and his kind of history, it is important to realize that for the Norman rulers of the twelfth century, Geoffrey told the true story about the history of the islands. As Niles writes, "Geoffrey's narrative firmly alienates the people of Britain from their Anglo-Saxon past." (14) For medieval historians who might prefer to dismiss Geoffrey and his imaginations but at the same time want to know the minds of twelfth-century people, it is essential to take the arguments of Niles and his Anglo- Saxonist colleagues to heart and understand the centrality of Geoffrey in Norman England.
Richard W. Clement of the University of Kansas moves partly outside the Middle Ages with "Richard Verstegan's Reinvention of Anglo-Saxon England: A Contribution from the Continent". Verstegan's A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence in Antiquities, first published in Antwerp in 1605, provided the first printed Anglo-Saxon glossary. Clement delves into the life of Verstegan, an English Catholic who had to spend much of his life in exile, and places Verstegan's work in the context of the political situation in England at the accession of James I. Verstegan's accomplishment appears to Clement as a contribution to "re-creating the Anglo-Saxon past", thus providing "a new historical vision of the English nation" (36).
Anne Savage's "Pagans and Christians" I have already mentioned: her point is how the traditional Germanic-pagan approach needs to be reconciled with a sober recognition of Latin Christian influence. Here the work of Allen Frantzen, several times noted in this collection for his Desire for Origins, is central.
Daniel F. Melia of Rhetoric and Celtic Studies at Berkeley writes the kind of article which at first glance appears to be something for specialists but turns out to have a general interest. "Congruent Desires: Medieval and Modern Reconstructions of Irish and Welsh Literary Artifacts", starts with some excellent reflections on various ways of using the past and then shows how an obscure marginal notation ".r" in Irish manuscripts has led to endless discussions and perspectives. The interpretations of the notations have varied according to the needs and interests of scholars, both in the Middle Ages and later. As Melia writes, "The outlook we see in these scribes is one of a kind of nativist nationalism, anxious to call attention to the antiquity of the narrative lore in the vernacular." (57) Melia delineates the search for a usable past that "occurs in a period of nostalgic nationalism". I wonder what the reaction would have been if Melia had given this lecture not in Arizona but in Ireland!
Thomas A. Prendergast of the College of Wooster ("Politics, Prodigality and the Reception of Chaucer's 'Purse'") draws on a comprehensive knowledge of Chaucer criticism to show how early modern editors did their best to exonerate Chaucer from all suspicion of material concerns. As in Melia's article we see how the evidence of the past is adjusted to fit with present needs.
A different approach is evident in the article by Kenneth J. E. Graham from New Mexico State University, "Defining the 'Discipline' of Reformation Studies". Graham makes use of Foucault's work in order to characterize the concept of discipline in reformation religious writers, and also to describe the "discipline" of reformation studies as a whole. Foucault's own work never specifically mentioned the Reformation and undervalued the importance of religious belief in human life, but Graham finds Foucault's interest in discourses of power a point of departure for understanding what reformation preachers were trying to do with their audiences. At the same time, however, Graham takes seriously the desire of these preachers to change the inner lives of their listeners, not in a response to power but in actions emerging from community and love. "Acknowledging the truth of both perspectives enriches our notions of power, motive, and agency and allows us to define more precisely the discipline of Reformation studies." (88)
Looking also at the early modern period, but in a completely different context, Robert L. Entzminger of Rhodes College in Memphis shows how carefully Ben Johnson made use of Philip Sidney's poetry. In what Entzminger calls "the renewal of Elizabethan nostalgia" and the attempt by James I "to reassert his own vision for the nation" (100), Entzminger sees "Jonson's adroit maneuvering" (105). It would have been dangerous for Jonson to emphasize the legacy of Sidney in political terms, and so he had to concentrate on him as a literary figure.
Elizabeth I and her memory appear again in "Gloriana Goes Hollywood: Elizabeth I on Film, 1937-40", by Renee Pigeon of California State University at San Bernardino. Pigeon shows through her adept analyses how the "women's films" of the late 1930s made use of the figure of Elizabeth in asserting that the woman who goes for power thereby misses the chance for love. This article is much more about Hollywood and its stereotypes and conventions than about any serious attempt to reinterpret the medieval or early modern past. The film world's reshaping of reality according to its own interests means that twentieth- century concerns about patriotism and gender roles dominate this analysis. The use of Elizabeth reminds this reviewer of how the film version of "The Name of the Rose" tells us much more about Umberto Eco and Sean Connery than it does about medieval monks.
The past is up for grabs, of course, and no historian can turn up his nose at those who outdo the historian in speaking to an audience of millions. But the uses of the past create problems, as also can be seen in Paul N. Hartle, St. Catherine's College, Cambridge, "'Lawrels for the Conquered', Virgilian Translation and Travesty in the English Civil War and its Aftermath". The Virgil favored by the Tudor regime, to strengthen the idea of a strong monarchy, was no longer current in sixteenth century civil war. The Restoration, as Hartle points out, "could never restore the sense of royal inviolability" (128). Virgil could no longer be employed for his celebration of war in order to glorify the monarchy. Hartle's careful readings of various translations reveal how the celebration of epic heroism was replaced by its degradation into travesty.
A similar "adjustment" of historical interpretation according to later needs is seen in the University of Sydney's Geraldine Barnes's essay, "The Fireside Vikings and the 'Boys Own' Vinland: Vinland in Popular English and American Literature (1841-1926)". This study is based on a rich but obscure literature, now all but forgotten, which in different ways made use of the story of the 'discovery' of America centuries before Columbus. British writers did their best to see the Vinland expeditions as furthering empire and race. All writers had little to say about the existence of a native population, but the American authors did their best to see Vinland "as the arena for present and future bold and noble deeds" (165).
My favorite article in this collection is Tuskegee University's Caroline Gebhard's "Agnes of Sorrento: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Medieval Correction to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun". This is the only one of Stowe's novels set in the distant past, and Gebhard argues that the author was in disagreement with Hawthorne's views about the decadent medieval church and its useless monastic life. Like Hawthorne, Stowe belonged to an elite group of nineteenth-century Americans who travelled in and loved Italy, but Hawthorne here sought classical references, while Stowe celebrated medieval life and spirituality. She was convinced that women's religious houses could provide places of protection and creativity. Stowe thus anticipated the reevaluation of medieval women's religious life that came in the last quarter of the twentieth century. It is appropriate that Gebhard points to recent work, such as that of Caroline Walker Bynum and Karma Lochrie, with their analyses as parallels to Stowe's intuitive insights. This is a very exciting article in terms of an American meeting with European roots, a Protestant recovery of the unity of medieval religion, and a woman's discovery of sisters in the past.
Another nineteenth century meeting with the past is seen in the editing work by Alexander Grosart, as described by Charles Larson of the University of Missouri at Saint Louis, "Alexander Grosart's Donne and Marvell: 'Glorious Old Fellows' in the Nineteenth Century". Grosart's tireless efforts from about 1870-1900 to make critical editions of Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline literary figures have been much maligned by his successors. He has been accused of being careless, and yet without his work it would have been much harder to make the critical editions in use even today. Larson thus seeks to rehabilitate Grosart and at the same time to reevaluate the historical literary interests of our Victorian ancestors.
With independent scholar Natalie Joy Woodall, we return seemingly to the Middle Ages ("'Women are knights-errant to the last': Nineteenth-Century Women Writers Reinvent the Medieval Literary Damsel"). But as elsewhere in this book, we see the Middle Ages through later eyes, this time those of women writers who projected their own life dilemmas on the past. At the beginning of the nineteenth century a woman writer had to be extremely careful in challenging social assumptions about women's roles. The medieval women described by Felicia Heman (1793-1835) were well-behaved and long-suffering. Later in the century we see new types of women who came to appropriate knightly behavior and even misbehavior. The medieval damsel is constantly reinvented, as in the poetry of Elisabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61). This article can be read as a pendant to the one on Harriet Beecher Stowe, showing how women of the nineteenth century made use of the Middle Ages in order to imagine a different kind of society where there was room for their talents and energies.
Anita Obermeier of Arizona State University contributed the final essay in the collection, "Medieval Narrative Conventions and the Putative Antimedievalism of Twain's Connecticut Yankee". Obermeier shows that Samuel Clemens's assumed dislike of the Middle Ages in this novel was based on his revulsion towards the glorification of the period found especially in Victorian poetry which told of knights and ladies. Behind this stance, however, Obermeier has found an author who did his homework (she provides a fascinating list of the medieval books he read) and knew a great deal about the period. Samuel Clemens seems to have been favorably disposed towards much medieval literature, but as Obermeier points out after her tour de force through medieval literary devices in the novel, Clemens was unable to maintain his imitative style. The later sections of Connecticut Yankee do not continue the medieval narrative conventions of the first twenty-four chapters. On the basis of Obermeier's analysis, one can speak of a "medievalism" in Mark Twain, beneath his superficial "antimedievalism". Like so many other nineteenth century writers he dealt with his own world by fashioning conceptions and descriptions of the medieval world.
Are we medievalists of today, who fancy ourselves to be historians of one type or another, the heirs of such people? Certainly few of us think of our constructions as fictions, and most of us want very much to get back to the Middle Ages and to describe the period in harmony with the sources we use. At the same time, however, we want to communicate and to be useful in defining what needs to be done in our own time. Ultimately we are speaking to our surroundings, as here in Europe and Scandinavia, where new nationalistic movements imagine they can appropriate "Christian culture" and its historical heritage, at the expense of all foreigners and immigrants.
At such a moment in history, it is good to be reminded through such essays of how writers, editors and even historians in the post-medieval centuries have made use of the past in order to fight the narrowness, prejudice and ignorance around them. As Norman Cantor (a guest at a later Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies conference) has shown, the inventing (and reinventing) of the Middle Ages has been a central aspect of twentieth century cultural discourse.
This process continues in a new century, and many of our predecessors, especially the women, can make us feel humble in the face of their intelligence, courage and patience. The Middle Ages continue to be reconstructed and reinvented, and I am grateful to the contributors and to the editor of this book for showing some of the ways in which people in our culture have made use of a common past.