Constance Brittain Bouchard’s study of historical writing from late antiquity to the so-called high Middle Ages reminds us that forgetting, or selectively remembering, or, as she terms it, “creatively re-remember[ing]” (213) the past is how one fashions a legible and useful present. Accordingly, Bouchard’s study focuses not only on what is remembered and how but also on what is added, suppressed, transformed, collapsed, or otherwise reconceptualized in the passage from historical events as we are able to reconstruct them today, and those events as represented in the cartularies, chronicles, vitae, and “Gesta” that constitute her primary sources. Medieval writers sought to construct and fix a past that was comprehensible to them; to locate in the past precedents for their habits of thought or action, especially in cases where current practice actually departed from past practice; even, when necessary, to forge the documents “that should have existed” (3). Bouchard’s attention to forgeries illuminates an important aspect of her methodology. Far from constituting worthless or even misleading sources, forgeries help us to understand the social, economic, cultural, and political conditions of the moment of their creation, since they demonstrate precisely what was perceived to be necessary and effective in a given situation. Bouchard concentrates on what her sources can tell us about how medievals used the past to fashion their identity in the present, rather than engaging in a search for historical “truth.”
In her final set of chapters, Bouchard interprets the striking lack of documentary sources from the period of transition between the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties as evidence of the considerable social and economic upheaval that characterize this time. She then turns to the historical writing of the Merovingian era. With respect to monasticism, for example, Bouchard shows how the patterns of governance and relationships to the sacred fixed in the sixth and seventh centuries were projected backward onto earlier eras, themselves presented post facto as times of monastic order and privilege, rich with local missionary-martyr saints and their relics.
Kim M. Phillips’s Before Orientalism provides a compendious and useful treatment of European travel writing about central, east, south, and southeast Asia from the mid-thirteenth to the early sixteenth century. The travel writing considered includes both firsthand accounts of verifiable trips to Asia and more fictional texts that rely, if sometimes distantly, on actual travels and encounters. In chapter 2, “Travelers, Tales, Audiences,” Phillips provides a full overview of her sources, which range from the well known, Marco Polo’s Le Divisament dou Monde (ca. 1298) and Mandeville’s Travels (ca. 1356), to the less familiar, Odoric of Pordenone’s Relatio (ca. 1330) and Ricold of Monte Croce’s Liber peregrinacionis (after 1301). In the following chapter, “Travel Writing and the Making of Europe,” Phillips considers the medieval genre(s) of travel writing more generally. The book is not, however, primarily about genre or individual accounts. Rather than treat the sources in historical sequence or generic groupings, Phillips makes the heart of her book a consideration of how this body of European writing, treated in an aggregate way, depicted Asia and what travel writers found noteworthy, disturbing, and interesting there. This investigation leads Phillips to distinguish Europe’s medieval encounters in Asia strongly from modern colonial projects, a distinction she elaborates in the introduction and chapter 1, “On Orientalism,” and attends to throughout the book.
All this material is mobilized in the service of Phillips’s largest argument that, during the Middle Ages, “attitudes…were little touched by…colonialist mentalities” (2). Unlike the European attitude toward Islam, which Phillips admits bears some modern Orientalist features, “late medieval Europeans’ reactions to the peoples of India, Mongolia, and l’extrême orient were more often dominated by pleasure, pragmatic fears, and curiosity” (3). While much of the rich detail in Phillips’s account supports these conclusions, some does not, and while Phillips notes such challenges to her central thesis, she tends to downplay their significance. Thus, while admitting that some texts associate pagan idolatry with sexual vice and that “here we might see an overflow of medieval attitudes from Islamic to pagan contexts that might well be read as a form of medieval Orientalism” (144), Phillips quickly challenges that reading, concluding, “Before Orientalism, sensual stereotypes were regularly relayed for enjoyment as well as for disapproval, without an avaricious or opportunistic gaze” (147). The last phrase tries definitively to distance the Middle Ages from an “avaricious,” “opportunistic” colonialism, but given the evidence Phillips herself presents, this seems more a wishful construction of the evidence than a full grappling with it.
Daniel Wakelin’s Scribal Correction and Literary Craft presents a brilliant and potentially revisionary account of how medieval literature survives in manuscripts and what the processes and presuppositions were among the scribes who copied them. The book argues that “correcting is ubiquitous in manuscripts in English from the late fourteenth century to the very early sixteenth” (5). Behind this argument is a large cultural as well as technical understanding of how vernacular textual production was an ongoing process: how the act of copying was less a matter of preserving authorial intention than it was of maintaining a living, intellectually engaged, and at times personally felt relationship to a verbal heritage. “The craft of correcting,” Wakelin intuits, “is analogous to things we call philology and literary criticism” (4). Thus, at the heart of this book is an attempt to recover how medieval English writings were read and understood, how they were valued as literature, and how concepts such as authorship and authority were articulated through the processes of scribal manipulation.
For while this is very much a book of arguments, it is also a book of evidence. Its methodology depends on what Wakelin calls “counting and close reading” (10). There is an enormous amount of stuff here: lists of scribal corrections in manuscripts, statistical tables of particular usages and forms, accounts of gaps left in missing lines, of interlineations, of changes to spelling (some of which are cataloged as “needless”). I know enough about myself to know that I could never do this kind of work. Few could. It demands patience, care, uninterrupted time, and a quality of Sitzfleisch enviable in a nineteenth-century German philologist, let alone a twenty-first-century English paleographer. What it does demand, as well, is an absolute assurance that such evidence is necessary to the argument.
Scribal Correction and Literary Craft is very much a book for specialists, but its implications are for everyone. While full of evidence, the book is, by and large, bereft of jargon. While rich with detail, it provides a straightforward exposition. Personally, I’d like to see a distillation of its arguments and implications for a broader literary readership, or for the undergraduates and graduate students who, increasingly in United States, have less and less of the philological and paleographical training than they did two generations ago (or than they still apparently have in the UK). Perhaps it will be up to Wakelin’s scholarly generation not to just to restore but reinvigorate these technical disciplines and show how “our own disciplines of literary study” (310) have their origins not just in the meditations of the scholiasts but also in the ministrations of the scribes.
This first book-length study of the Middle English “art of dying” (ars moriendi) is a significant contribution to the cultural history of the long fifteenth century in England. Its chief accomplishment is to transform scholarly understanding of the ars moriendi—a label that has often been used quite summarily, even reductively, to refer to a type of text perceived to be formulaic and static. Amy Appleford considerably invigorates and diversifies our appreciation of the genre itself, its function, and its scope of implication in late medieval England. She accords cultivating a proper attitude toward, and preparation for, death a crucial role in the practice of virtuous living in civic culture, whether in the well-ordered life of the individual, the management of households, or good government of the city. Her argument for this multilayered and wide-ranging role moves compellingly between detailed analysis of an impressive variety of vernacular source material and “big picture” reflection on broad cultural, theological, and political issues such as lay religiosity and state violence. The book is, moreover, written in an immensely readable style, making the potential import of her reflections for other European vernaculars readily accessible to a general medievalist audience.
In the introduction, Appleford usefully shakes off outmoded language for, and conceptualizations of, late medieval attitudes to mortality (“morbidity,” the “macabre” , “decadence,” “obsession” ) and argues instead for death being seen as a “generative force” (1), with the function of the ars moriendi being “to make the fact of death productive, comprehensible, and tolerable within a given cultural system” (13). Her contention that developments in death discourse are related to wider cultural developments places a helpful emphasis on its contingency and mobility instead of conceiving of medieval death discourse as invariable and generalized. The domains of cultural change that she explores in this study of London’s innovations in representing death cover government and jurisdiction, laicization, and internationalism. She focuses this exploration through seven commonly circulating death texts that are discussed, wisely, in order of circulation rather than of composition. Appleford draws evidence for her conclusions from patterns of compilation and transmission, and creates a convincing sense across chapters of an interconnected milieu (she prefers “node” to “network” ) of elite merchant lay readership.
Later chapters focus on the “curious persistence” (the title of chap. 6) of certain tropes throughout the history of poetry. Dante’s dark wood figures in half a dozen poems from the 2013 Best American Poetry. Going farther back, to the Greeks, Gibbons explores the ancient connection between poetry, via the strings of the lyre, and both loom and the bow, images for the feminine and masculine dimensions of creativity. This connection persists in modern poems by Ezra Pound and Robert Duncan; I myself recently encountered it in a poem by a student. Etymology, the subject of another chapter, is another way in which the past of language remains part of its present.