The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

Issue 17 (2017)


Reviews

Recent Scholarship

Bintley, Michael D. J. and Thomas J. T. Williams. 2015. Representing Beasts in Early Medieval England and Scandinavia. Anglo-Saxon Studies 29. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press. xii + 295 pages. ISBN: 9781783270088.

§1. The intersection of medieval studies and animal studies is an exciting field that is swiftly gaining momentum. In this topical book, Michael Bintley and Thomas Williams have gathered a collection of eleven stimulating essays which tackle animal representations in Anglo-Saxon England and Scandinavia during the early Middle Ages. The range and scope of the book is one of its greatest strengths: the assorted contributions examine a vast range of animal species from a wide variety of perspectives, and take into account language and literature, artistic and documentary sources, archaeology and material culture, and onomastic and place-name evidence. Most of the chapters focus on Old English literature and Anglo-Saxon England, but these often use Old Norse and Viking material as comparative evidence to provide a more holistic lens into the ways in which animals were thought about throughout northern Europe.

§2. Despite its impressive interdisciplinary breadth, the types of questions that are flagged up in the Introduction and the book's back cover are rarely explored in its chapters. Consequently, there is an unsettling disjunction between what the book says it will do and what it actually accomplishes. In particular, there is a conspicuous lack of theoretical perspectives utilized throughout the book's chapters, despite the introductory premise that such methods constitute its central purpose. The Introduction begins with a description of the Torslunda helmet and argues that "the categories of beast and human are inextricably blurred, confused, confounded" (1); and "It is precisely this sort of ambiguity in the representation of beasts and beast-identities that lies at the heart of this collection of papers" (1). Unfortunately, the chapters in this volume rarely stop to ponder the permeable boundaries between human and animal, and the Introduction's clear focus on this subject consequently feels misplaced. Also, because this book examines the relationship between humans and the natural world, "it inevitably engages to some degree with ecology and ecocriticism" (5). How the authors engage with ecological and ecocritical discourse, however, is extremely unclear; for example, the index entry "ecology, ecocriticism, eco-philosophy" only guides the reader towards pages 5–8 of the Introduction. Moreover, one wonders why perspectives from more relevant contemporary disciplines, such as human-animal studies (/animal studies, critical animal studies, etc.) are not introduced and deployed throughout.

§3. The term "beast" is also problematic. The editors acknowledge that the Old English deor or Old Norse dýr" might be more appropriate than a Middle English word (with roots in the Latin bestia via the Old French beste). It should also be noted that in most medieval texts, such as Isidore of Seville's highly influential Etymologies and the ubiquitous bestiary tradition, the Latin bestia refers solely to wild mammals, whereas this volume addresses a far greater range of animal species. Nevertheless, the Introduction is intelligent, learned, and interesting, providing the necessary fodder for the reader to continue with enthusiasm. Every single contribution is thoroughly well-researched, replete with extensive references and helpful charts, images, and drawings. There is a fastidious attention to detail from start to finish and each chapter offers fresh insight into the way animals were depicted and thought about. The chapters are not divided by disciplinary approach, but rather by subject matter; the transition from one subject to the next is smooth and sensible.

§4. In the first chapter, Noël Adams takes great lengths to explain how Anglo-Saxon animal art is uniquely poised between the realism of Classical tradition and the myths and legends of Germanic tradition. The significance of Classical influence is too often neglected in the study of Anglo-Saxon visual culture, and the influence of Roman, Late Antique, and Byzantine imagery is unpacked with careful attention to detail, especially in relation to the important and common representations of the animals of the hunt. Sue Brunning then examines the links between snakes and swords in Viking-Age Scandinavia; she focuses on serpentine ornament on a variety of artifacts, as well as written descriptions of swords as serpents in contemporary literature. She successfully—and more so than most contributors, theoretically—explores the complex relationship between humans, animals, and objects, destabilizing the boundaries between these categories and demonstrating their mutability. Continuing the theme of serpents and serpentine imagery, Victoria Symons then focuses her discussion on the complex relationship between dragons and runes in both Old English and Old Norse literature, as well as rune stones with dragon decorations from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. She effectively argues that dragons and runes, symbolic of concealment and revelation, are set in opposition to one another in ways that reveal underlying social anxieties about wealth and its distribution.

§5. The following two chapters focus on ravens, starting with Marijane Osborn's study of a tiny Viking-age sculpture discovered at Lejre in 2009, which depicts an enthroned figure flanked by a pair of ravens. This figure is usually identified as Óðinn with his avian companions Huginn and Muninn; an assumption that Osborn interrupts, but does not disprove, occasionally using some bemusingly eccentric material as unproblematic evidence for actual raven behavior (such as personal anecdotes, email exchanges, and YouTube videos). Eric Lacey then focuses upon the "blithe-hearted" raven in Beowulf, whose song heralds sunrise over Heorot; he examines the raven's ambiguous symbolism (of both triumph and impending doom) and draws connections with early Germanic, Anglo-Saxon, and Old Norse evidence. Although well-researched, both of these chapters would benefit from inclusion of skaldic poetry, in which ravens figure prominently.

§6. László Sándor Chardonnens next addresses similar textual questions about the exotic beasts of Anglo-Saxon prognostics. He questions how the early English would have imagined such animals, which were only familiar from foreign religious texts and not from quotidian experience. In a unique but fitting contribution, Richard North then discusses the curious depiction of a pet pig in a Latin poem written by Luxorius of Carthage (c. 520). He links the pig with boar cults in Vandalic and other Germanic cultures through a range of documentary and material sources, suggesting that Luxorius's depiction of a pet pig in a Roman villa can be seen as a parodic depiction of his Vandal rulers. The boar motif continues with Williams's chapter: one of a number of animals associated with warfare in Anglo-Saxon England, he places beast symbolism in a wider cosmology that equated violence with the bestial and the monstrous, and thus outside the sphere of regular human behavior.

§7. The connection between beasts and the wilderness is further developed by Bintley, who also considers how landscapes and settlements were attributed with specific qualities, and dangerous beasts, both real and imagined, occupied marginal spaces on the fringes of human society. Particularly interesting—and here, the types of theoretical questions flagged up in the Introduction are now pertinent—is how landscapes can be made monstrous by their human inhabitants if they behave like beasts and reject Christian virtues. The final two chapters focus on place-name evidence from charters and other sources: the most enduring evidence for human-animal interaction in Anglo-Saxon England, for their influence is left imprinted on the landscapes of today. John Baker demonstrates how place-names reflect the smallest of beasts: invertebrates (both vital to our ecosystems, and almost always neglected in academic study). Finally, Della Hooke examines what place-name evidence reveals about how people interacted with a wider range animals in their natural environments. Here we see the depth of the Anglo-Saxons' knowledge of their local surroundings and the beasts with whom they shared their lands.

§8. In sum, the contributions to this book offer a fascinating journey through the various ways in which different animal species were thought about and represented in the medieval mind. Questions about the boundaries between human and animal, however, and other related theoretical questions which probe more deeply into the material, are infrequently addressed. It is unfortunate that there is no conclusion to this book, which might have summarized the findings of the various chapters, including whatever theoretical insight might be gleaned. The similarities and differences between the evidence from Anglo-Saxon England and Scandinavia was a theme examined throughout the book, but there is no closure offered in terms of conclusive results or future questions, nor on the varying depictions of animals before and after the conversion to Christianity. What do the various chapters offer when considered in culmination, what patterns can be detected throughout the material surveyed, and what might come next?

§9. According to the Introduction, "In many ways this book endeavours to set a precedent for the further exploration of these relationships, by reflecting both on certain topics that are already the focus of long-established study, and on others that have received comparatively little attention" (3). A precedent is undoubtedly established in many ways; numerous historicist and positivistic approaches to animals are promulgated and new ground is forged within the mutable intersection between medieval studies and animal studies, offering insight and elucidation to the benefit of both disciplines. Animals are deserving of far more critical consideration in the study of the middle ages and the chapters in this book provide a useful starting place for future research and further, deeper inquiry.

Timothy BournsMailto: Icon
University of Oxford

Published 14-Jun-2017

Home, Malasree. 2015. The Peterborough Version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Rewriting Post-Conquest History. Anglo-Saxon Studies 27. Woodbridge: Boydell Press. ix + 184 pages. ISBN: 9781783270019.

§1. Everyone working on the history or language of twelfth-century England is undoubtedly familiar with the E text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC), also known as the Peterborough Chronicle (PC). In her monograph on the PC as post-Conquest historiography, Malasree Home examines the transformation of the ASC at Peterborough and the connections between the PC and other histories. The book represents the recent trend in ASC scholarship of focusing not on "the Chronicle as a coherent unified construct" (5) or on its transmission history, but on one of its witnesses. That said, it is not the Peterborough manuscript itself that is under scrutiny; apart from several mentions of its neatness, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Laud Misc. 636 is not studied in terms of its material features as such, but of its contents, and the context of its production and use.

§2. The book begins with a 20-page introduction to "The text, the world, and Peterborough Abbey," which briefly explains both the traditional and newer approaches to research on the ASC and provides an overview of the witnesses to the chronicle. The author's main interest lies in understanding the nature or identity of the PC, which reflects the needs of Peterborough Abbey and, more broadly, the context in which the local version of the ASC was produced. The four chapters that follow, most of them forty pages in length, discuss these issues in detail; they contain enough repetition and cross-references to be readable as separate studies as well.

§3. Chapter 1, "Textualising the past," examines the Peterborough Interpolations, made in the early 1120s, when the bulk of the text as we now have it was copied. The author shows that the scribe indeed created much more than a copy of the "proto-E" version, which Peterborough had received from Canterbury. The Interpolations can be divided into diplomatic and non-diplomatic, the former incorporating into the text material from charters and other documents—some of which are of spurious authenticity—in order to validate the remarkable history and possessions of the monastery. The latter do not draw on the same type of evidence but add local information to the text. The Interpolations are carefully interwoven with the narrative of the received chronicle and firmly link the version to a particular place, distinctly localizing what had traditionally been a national history.

§4. In Chapter 2, "Continuing the Chronicle," the author discusses the contents and format of the two Continuations. She argues convincingly that the First Continuation has the same author-compiler as the Interpolations, who was probably also the scribe. It is at this stage, in the 1120s, that the E version is a "living" chronicle, with annals being written nearly contemporaneously with the events they report. The Second, or Final, Continuation, written in the mid-1150s, is different: while it shares the annalistic structure of the preceding parts of the PC, events are actually not recorded chronologically by the Second Continuator, who also introduces new lexical choices and narrative strategies to the chronicle. What does remain, and is characteristic of this version of the ASC as a whole, is an ideological focus on Peterborough Abbey, whose glorious past and ability to survive and thrive despite adversity are highlighted in the text. The continuators also display awareness of the tradition and genre of the chronicle, which they simultaneously maintain and reshape.

§5. In Chapter 3, "Making the Chronicle: form, genre, identity," the author moves from the PC to other historiographical texts produced in twelfth-century England, considering the complexities of compiling them. Particular attention is paid to the Canterbury or F text of the ASC, which was also based on the "proto-E" version. The F text and the PC are generically hybrid, incorporating charter material—a departure from the vernacular tradition—but both versions nonetheless retain the annal structure, which is used in some but not all of the near-contemporary Latin histories. Moreover, the F and E versions were written to highlight and promote the centers of Canterbury and Peterborough, respectively. The author argues that vernacular chronicles, particularly the "proto-E" text, were valued and used well into the twelfth century, although Latin historiography, including house histories, would take over soon enough.

§6. In the final chapter, we return to Peterborough. "Beyond the Chronicle: the perspective of house history" focuses on the other texts produced during and after the compilation of the PC at Peterborough, particularly the Latin house history of the abbey, the Chronicle of Hugh Candidus. The author underlines continuity between the PC and the Latin history and refers to the Second Continuator as Hugh's "immediate predecessor" (154). Compared to the Interpolations and the Continuations, Hugh's chronicle provides more detailed accounts of the land transactions and other possessions of the abbey and also focuses more on the hagiographical and the miraculous. Despite their different languages and formats, both texts nonetheless seek to serve the abbey's interests and enhance its image, an overarching interest in the historiographical culture of Peterborough.

§7. The Bibliography contains over 150 items, including a number of publications from the 2010s as well as books and articles by such well-known scholars in the field of ASC and PC studies as Janet Bately, Cecily Clark, David Dumville, Susan Irvine, and Dorothy Whitelock. The Index is short and mainly covers texts, genres, authors, and people discussed in the chronicles. Footnotes are used in the book for both references and elaborations, and they often provide quotations from the PC in Old (or very early Middle) English with translations into Present-Day English.

§8. The Peterborough Version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Rewriting Post-Conquest History is a valuable addition to ASC research. It provides a wealth of information about and insights into the PC and its twelfth-century context, indicating how fruitful it is to concentrate on one version of the chronicle in its own right. Historical linguists will be particularly interested in the way a historiographically-orientated scholar considers the vocabulary, grammar, and discursive features of the text, in addition to its contents. Chapters 1 and 2 indicate that awareness of linguistic features is crucial for analyzing the text, whereas in Chapters 3 and 4, it is the multilingual context of text production that is emphasized. The author argues that the shift from vernacular chronicle to Latin house history in the second half of the twelfth century did not depend on the higher status of Latin alone—or the "eclipse" of English as a language of writing after 1066, which some textbook-type accounts of the history of English may still suggest—but was instead associated with the changing needs of the abbey, reflected in transitioning to a new form and a different language of historiography. Overall, the book also serves as an invitation to further analyses of the ASC, be they historiographical, narrative, or linguistic.

Janne SkaffariMailto: Icon
University of Turku

Published 14-Jun-2017

Martin, Toby F. 2015. The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England. Anglo-Saxon Studies 25. Woodbridge: Boydell Press. 406 pages, 5 color, 58 black and white, 44 line illustrations. ISBN: 9781843839934. Associated on-line database at http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/asbrooch_na_2015/.

§1. The cruciform brooch is an instantly identifiable artifact of the first phase of the Anglo-Saxon period (the fifth and sixth centuries AD). In its simplest form, as a long brooch with high bow, knobs on the head and, usually, a long-snouted animal head on the foot, it emerges out of Late Roman Iron Age brooch traditions in north-west Europe. In Britain, the earliest examples have the focus of their distribution in eastern England and they form part of a series of new influences that signal new arrivals from across the North Sea. Out of these early brooches emerge a series of insular types, which penetrate further into England, and develop into increasingly large and exaggerated forms, most notably as the large ornamented brooches previously defined as "florid." The cruciform brooch in all its forms has become a signature of the Anglian cultural group of northern England, the Midlands, and East Anglia. Similar brooches from Kent represent a short-lived and semi-independent series.

§2. This book makes a major contribution to the subject. It represents a well-organized, in-depth examination of all aspects of the brooch's typology, development, and socio-cultural context. The material is ably handled in a comprehensive and authoritative manner. The author has fine writing skills and often produces quotable lines and examples of le mot juste in relation to highly complex matters. There are some debatable areas in the latter half of the book, but the critique presented below should be seen as an attempt to open up a dialogue on issues which perhaps deserve further consideration. They do not detract from the volume's value as a research tool.

§3. The early chapters are concerned with the development of a new typology and its dating. The author courteously doffs his hat to earlier contributions, especially Catherine Mortimer's doctoral thesis. Since Mortimer completed her study in 1990, many more brooches have been added to the corpus through the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and improved methods of statistical analysis have allowed a reconsideration of the evidence. While the major features of Mortimer's system have been retained, her five main categories have been reduced to four. Martin's groups now represent increasing levels of complexity in design, from the simple plain narrow brooches of Group 1 to the large florid examples of Group 4. Each group has been divided into sub-groups, in turn divided into types. The system has been clearly delineated, with illustrations of the individual diagnostic features and representative examples of each type, together with maps to show the distribution of finds. The group divisions have been tested by correspondence analysis, although it is a pity that here, and in the next chapter, only select tables and charts have been included, so that the reader cannot check the conclusions. This may have been a constraint of the publisher's house style.

§4. Dating has been approached by seriation of design elements and an examination of the relationship of the brooches to each other and to other classes of artifact, including the beads of Brugmann's chronologies. The relative dates have been translated into absolute ones by links into Scandinavian and Continental chronologies. The result is a three-phase sequence which in its essentials corresponds with Mortimer's. Group 1 brooches, mostly found in cremations, have been placed in Martin's Phase A (c. 420–475), Groups 2, 3, and some of Group 4 fall together in Phase B (AD c. 475–550), while only late variants of Group 4 brooches occur in Phase C (AD c. 525–560/70). Some internal developments have been observed within Phase B, but many of the brooch types of this phase overlap with each other.

§5. The remaining chapters use the sorted and dated material to examine the social and cultural context of the brooches. In "Cycles of exchange and production," the raw materials, manufacturing techniques, and the repair and re-use of the brooches are considered in relation to the ways in which they connect patron, maker, and wearer. It was surprising to find that Justine Bayley's papers on metallurgy were not employed here, but there are some significant observations on the shorthand meaning of design details, and in particular on how the abstract Style I ornament was used "to authenticate an item as part of a valued and recognisable tradition" (159).

§6. In "Migrants, Angles, and Petty Kings," the history of the brooch is reviewed within the context of the migration into Britain, the establishment of an "Anglian" identity and the rise of a ruling class. Some of this is standard fare, but of particular importance is the connection made between the brooches as carriers of a half-remembered Anglian identity and the known origin myths of later ruling houses. Both use created histories to legitimize and impart authority to individual lineages. To view the brooches as indications of an emerging elite in the later fifth century, however, is perhaps pushing the evidence (or his use of the term "elite") too far. While there may have been temporary leaders at this stage, many would view this as a period in which individual farming families were going through a process of individuation from the wider group, followed by a phase of competition between families, which only later led to the formation of a stable elite. That brooches could help to establish identity during the individuation process, however, is certainly an important point.

§7. The chapter on "Bearers of Tradition" is concerned with how the brooches were worn and the women who wore them to clasp their garments. In this reviewer's opinion, this is the weak area in the book and, while it is very detailed, it lacks the clarity of thought observed in the preceding sections. For example, Table 17 gives percentages of bodies buried with cruciform brooches in 20 cemeteries, but disregards the time-spans of the cemeteries. Some of them extend into the 7th century, well outside the range of cruciform brooches, and the percentages quoted are therefore not a meaningful index of brooch use. Martin is correct in saying that cruciform brooches were used for two purposes, as clasps on the shoulders for the garment known as the peplos and as front fasteners on the cloak, but his discussion of age groups does not distinguish between the two garments and ignores evidence that the peplos was adopted at a much earlier age than the cloak or shawl (as described in the Walton Rogers 2007 volume which he references). It is incorrect to say that there is little evidence for headgear (195), since the head veil is one of the best represented garments in Anglo-Saxon graves. The criticism of the remarks made by Owen-Crocker and Walton Rogers on the types of brooches used to fasten cloaks (197) is in both cases based on a misreading of our respective statements on the subject. As a feminist, I was surprised to see my name associated with some rather old-fashioned views on women (229)—a case of being quoted out of context. Perhaps the author ran out of time with this section. If so, it is a pity, since a more accurate assessment of the costume and textile evidence would almost certainly have supported and endorsed some of his earlier theories.

§8. These are not irrecoverable errors. They come at the end of a major, multifaceted piece of work that fully deserves the attention of both professional archaeologists and academics.

Penelope Walton RogersMailto: Icon
The Anglo-Saxon Laboratory

Last Modified: 16-Jun-2017

Pinner, Rebecca. 2015. The Cult of St. Edmund in Medieval East Anglia. Woodbridge: Boydell Press. xii + 276 pages + 4 color plates. ISBN 9781783270354.

§1. Rebecca Pinner's interdisciplinary study of St. Edmund focuses on the development of his cult, both at the abbey of Bury St Edmunds and, more broadly, in the regional context of East Anglia, from its origin in the ninth century to the 1539 dissolution of the abbey. The book is divided into three parts: part I considers "how, why and when" (22) the legend was transformed from a brief account in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to multiple and much more elaborate later versions; part II examines the material manifestations of the cult, offering a reconstruction of a pilgrim's experience visiting St. Edmund's shrine; and part III considers how Edmund's cult in areas of East Anglia outside of Bury compares to the perception and presentation of the saint in the abbey's own precincts.

§2. Part I reviews the hagiographic tradition from its origin in the Passio Sancti Eadmundi written by Abbo of Fleury in the tenth century to its final flourishing in the long and ornate Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund written by John Lydgate in the fifteenth century. The opening chapter on Abbo is followed by one on Herman's De Miraculis Sancti Eadmundi and its revision (with significantly different emphases) as a two-part compilation most likely written by Abbot Samson and Osbert de Clare. The next chapter focuses on manuscripts containing both Edmund's vita and his miracula—especially New York Pierpont Morgan Library MS M. 736, which offers both textual and visual narrative. The latter takes two forms: a sequence of miniatures that give their own version of Edmund's story, and thirty-nine decorated initials, fifteen of which offer "an interpretive gloss to the text" (72). A chapter entitled "The elaboration of the hagiographic tradition" then follows, exploring various expansions of the legend, including De infantia Sancti Eadmundi by Geoffrey of Wells (a prequel to the Passio), and the great hagiographic compendium made at Bury in the late fourteenth century (Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 240), which includes forty-five new miracles. Part I of the book ends with an analysis of Lydgate's poem in light of its original composition for presentation to King Henry VI. The chapters constituting this longitudinal approach to Edmund's legend make reference to a large body of scholarship, which Pinner cites most often to demonstrate how her findings largely confirm the insights offered by other scholars. While Pinner's discussion, by contextualizing significant differences in the depictions of Edmund found in the various iterations of his legend, adds further weight and texture to our understanding of the contours of this narrative tradition, I nevertheless would have liked to see a greater emphasis on her own ideas and original argument here.

§3. Part II, the shortest section of the book, focuses on what can be known of the physical shrine and Edmund's relics, and it is in some ways an experiment in informed reconstruction of a largely inaccessible past. Here Pinner switches gears from analyzing narratives about Edmund to thinking about physical artifacts, space, and place. She marshals an impressive array of details about what is known or can be reconstructed about Bury to guide readers, as virtual pilgrims, on a visit to Edmund's shrine. Her point here is that the medieval encounter with Edmund's sanctity was overwhelmingly sensory and "orchestrated with knowing skill by his monastic guardians" (137). A highlight of this part is the discussion of the relics and secondary altars that existed in the vicinity of Edmund's shrine, creating spatial associations and juxtapositions that, as Pinner shows, would have drawn the attention of visitors to specific aspects of Edmund's sanctity, thereby shaping a perception of the saint that would have differed in certain ways from that which is offered by the hagiographies.

§4. The book's third part looks beyond the immediate environs of the abbey to explore the dissemination of Edmund's cult throughout East Anglia by means of such artifacts as pilgrim badges, which depict Edmund as a "more munificent intercessor" (171) than the punitive saint represented on the abbey's home grounds, who was clearly meant to be seen as the defender of Bury's rights and privileges. Evidence of the spread of the cult into outlying areas can also be witnessed in the many images of Edmund decorating East Anglian churches. Pinner argues that "these various visual identities once again demonstrate the complexity of Edmund's saintly identity" (226)—he was, after all, a virgin, a martyr, a king, a warrior-turned-pacifist, a punitive intercessor, and a healer. The final chapter of this section turns to depictions of Edmund in sermon manuals and legendary collections produced outside of Bury, which feature Edmund as a universal "exemplar of holy living (and dying)" (237), a less specific representation of the saint than seen elsewhere that would have been useful in the preaching and private devotional contexts for which these texts were produced. This treatment offers a telling foil to the rather different emphases of the texts Pinner discusses in part I, which dwell instead on Edmund's kingship and specifically East Anglian identity.

§5. In addition to the wealth of descriptive material offered in the three main sections of the volume, Pinner includes as appendices a synoptic account of Edmund's legend and a chronology of events and texts associated with his cult. The book also features a map of East Anglia (unfortunately printed too small for the place names to be easily readable), four color plates, eight black-and-white figures, and three tables. These are welcome supplements, but the press would have been wise to allow for the inclusion of more visual aids to help readers move through the long sections of the book featuring dense descriptions of visual materials. Despite these drawbacks, Pinner has done scholars of St. Edmund a great service by amassing in a single volume a formidable account of the surviving witnesses to his textual and material cult in its medieval East Anglian context.

Jennifer SiskMailto: Icon
University of Vermont

Last Modified: 14-Jun-2017

Kears, Carl, and James Paz, eds. 2016. Medieval Science Fiction. King's College London Medieval Studies 24. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer. Xxvii + 304 pages. ISBN 9780953983889.

§1. This collection of fourteen essays responds to ongoing conversations in both academia and the general public concerning whether or not there is such a thing as "medieval science fiction" and how, why, and in what ways medieval subjects find their ways into modern science fiction narratives. Its contributors—scholars, librarians, writers of science fiction, and the director of the Vatican observatory—are as wide-ranging in their interest and expertise as is the subject matter itself, which ensures that there is something here for anyone with a connection to the material either through medieval studies, medievalism, science fiction, or some combination of the three. I will begin with a summary of the book's contents, then examine in more detail those essays with immediate interest for scholars working on The Heroic Age's focus period of the fourth to thirteenth centuries.

§2. Following a foreword by James Hannam on the relationship between medieval science and medieval fiction is an introduction by editors Carl Kears and James Paz that acknowledges the controversy that surrounds describing any texts from the medieval period using the modern phrase "science fiction" while also providing compelling reasons for doing so. Together, the foreword and the introduction offer an excellent foundation in medieval science which will be useful to non-specialists for following the arguments of the later essays. Following the introductory materials, the collection is conveniently divided into parts, each of which comprises one to three essays dealing with a specific theme within the overarching subject of the volume: "Science & Fiction in the 'Dark Ages;'" "Time & Space Travel;" "The Alien;" "Technologies & Manmade Marvels;" "Distant Planets, Distant Futures;" and "Making Medieval Science Fiction." Of these, the first four parts include essays specifically addressing Old English and early medieval subjects, as described below.

§3. Part One consists of a single essay: Daniel Anlezark's "Is Beowulf Science Fiction?" Acknowledging in the first sentence of the essay that "the most obvious answer to the question 'Is Beowulf science fiction?' is 'no'" (39), Anzelark develops a probing study of the scientific elements in the poem, considering whether and to what end its medieval readers might have recognized and/or used that scientific information in reading and interpreting the poem's contents. In the first essay in Part Two, "The Future is a Foreign Country: The Legend of the Seven Sleepers and the Anglo-Saxon Sense of the Past," Roy Liuzza lends his trademark incisive, lively, and lucid prose to a discussion of ways in which Anglo-Saxon representations of time travel might be read in companionative fashion alongside modern tales of time travel, arguing that "if we allow ourselves to look past the strict definitions and dismantle the genre a bit to consider the various stylistic elements, affective moments, and tropes of plot or character it contains, we cannot help but notice the many resonances, parallels, and echoes between medieval and modern works" (61). Part Three likewise opens with an essay addressing an early medieval subject, the "green children" of Woolpit recorded in the twelfth-century chronicles of Ralph of Coggeshall and William of Newburgh. In "'Those two green children which Nubrigensis speaks of in his time, that fell from heaven', or the Origins of Science Fiction" Mary Baine Campbell offers a summary of the story in its various iterations and a description of its transmission down to the present day, noting its place in the philosophical concept of "chronosynclastic infundibulum" attributed to Kurt Vonnegut and defined as "a wormhole in time and space 'where all the different kinds of truth fit together'" (130). Following Campbell in the same section is Denis Ferhatovic's study of "Aliens and Anglo-Saxons in Edwin Morgan's 'The First Men on Mercury'" which examines in depth Morgan's interest in and intentional use of Old English epic generic conventions in his own fiction. And finally, in Part Four, James Paz's "The Medieval Dying Earth" begins with a quotation from Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth and a corresponding one from "The Wanderer" to contextualize his discussion of the similar ways in which modern science fiction and Old English elegies describe a vanishing or dying world.

§4. While the essays noted above are those which specifically address subjects that fall within the purview of the readership of The Heroic Age, all the contributions to this collection offer something to scholars and fans of science fiction more generally, and deserve at least a passing read-through. The collection as a whole is absorbing, entertaining, and deeply thought-provoking, particularly in its sustained insistence that the typical, often unnecessarily divisive categories of "medieval," "medievalism," "fantasy," and "science fiction" be more intentionally and critically interrogated through the lens of medieval influence on modern science fiction. While it covers a great deal of ground, the focus is predominantly on the English tradition (a notable exception being the essay by Alison Harthill on Conrad Kyeser's early fifteenth-century German war treatise Bellifortis); this focus leaves wide open the possibility of further work on the idea of "medieval science fiction" beyond the English tradition—for example, extending into the Nordic and Western and Eastern European cultures—so that we might consider this book an attractive and compelling beginning foray into the discussion, rather than a definitive final word on the subject of medieval studies and science fiction. The editors and contributors alike are to be congratulated on their significant achievement in bringing our attention to an important, too-often overlooked, and exciting scholarly conversation.

Melissa Ridley ElmesMailto: Icon
Lindenwood University

Published 11-Sep-2017