Archive for April, 2012

With the help of the SLU Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies I have organized the following sessions for the upcoming Medieval Congress. Please attend if you are interested and tell your friends!

  • Saturday 10:00 am: Session 384, Schneider 1340

Landscape and Culture in Medieval Britain I: Spaces and Buildings

Spatial Paradox and the Ambiguity of Guthlac A

Lindy Brady, Univ. of Connecticut

This paper addresses the crucial role of borderlands as spaces where identity slippages take place in the Old English Guthlac A, calling into question the poem’s traditional interpretation as a triumph of Anglo-Saxon sanctity over native resistance.  While Guthlac is typically understood as a heroic conqueror who enters a hostile wilderness for righteous battle, I argue that the complex narrative of Guthlac A creates a paradoxical landscape that reveals Guthlac’s own character to be equally unstable.  The poem places three simultaneously occurring yet mutually exclusive conditions of ownership on the beorg—it is granted to the demons as a space of respite, awaits the claim of a better owner, and stands outside all patrial rights.  These paradoxes are necessary to the unity of the narrative, for while Guthlac is tasked with righteous battle, the demons are given just cause to resist him; yet moreover, the suggestion that Guthlac is unjustly seizing another’s land complicates his saintly identity. Crucially, the nature of the landscape itself is as ambiguous as its legal status.  Previous criticism on Guthlac A has assumed that the beorg undergoes a linear transformation from dangerous wilderness to locus amoenus and taken this as evidence of the triumph of (Anglo-Saxon) civilization over (native British) wilderness, particularly in recent postcolonial studies of the work.  Yet such theoretical approaches are predicated upon a transformation of the landscape only once the saint has triumphed.  Guthlac A, however, depicts the beorg as simultaneously dangerous and aesthetically desirable to both Guthlac and the demons before the saint’s victory, and to read him as the sole transformative force is to ignore these positive elements of the landscape that make his role as an agent of change far less clear.

“Eald is þes eorðsele”: The Ancestral Landscape of The Wife’s Lament

Joanna A. Huckins MacGugan, Univ. of Connecticut 

[Joanna cannot attend the conference this year, but her abstract is still pretty darn interesting!] The nature and meaning of the narrator’s physical space in the semantically ambiguous Anglo-Saxon poem “The Wife’s Lament” has been the focus of considerable scholarly debate. The wife describes þes eorðsele, the place of her confinement, as eald, which suggests that she inhabits a place of considerable antiquity. R.F. Leslie was the first to identify this space as a chambered barrow in 1961, and Sarah Semple suggested in 1998 that the Wife’s situation represents secondary burial in a prehistoric barrow tomb. A careful analysis of the language surrounding eorðsele and its synonym eorðscræfe reveals not only that “grave” is the most likely meaning for the Wife’s physical space, but also that this grave corresponds with the known archaeological context for Anglo-Saxon reuse of earlier burial monuments. The poem describes an ancient underground location within a constructed enclosure that is now isolated, abandoned and overgrown, a place imbued with pre-Christian meaning and associated with death and damnation. All of these characteristics, particularly the poet’s emphasis on a connection with the ancestral past, are perfectly in keeping with what we understand of Anglo-Saxon monument reuse. Yet nowhere in Anglo-Saxon literature does an ancient barrow actually serve as a prison for the living, and this is the central problem with a living narrator. The idea that the Wife is imprisoned for her sins suggests a possible penitential context for the poem that has not yet been addressed in the scholarship. The present study builds on Leslie’s original argument for a monumental barrow tomb, evaluates textual and archaeological evidence for secondary burial, and explores how the “monument reuse” interpretation can both clarify and complicate the text.

Jedburgh Abbey: A Case Study of Kingship

Jessica M. Aberle, Lehigh Univ.

The Border Abbeys were conceived of as active political strategies by David I as part of his campaign to conquer Northumbria and Cumbria. If the abbeys are examined within the framework of the twelfth-century Normano-Scottish Border, a pattern emerges suggesting that the iconography and locations were intentionally chosen to create a visually complex program that proclaimed David I’s royal identity as the new Northern King of Britain by asserting his claim to the ancient kingdom of Northumbria. David I created a new royal heartland at Roxburgh Castle with the foundation of Kelso, Melrose, and Jedburgh Abbeys (1128-1138). David I’s approach to landscape can be explored using three themes: Location as it Defines Influence, the Creation of a Lordly Landscape, and the Appropriation of Site. David I manipulated the placement of the ecclesiastical foundations within the landscape in order to lay claim to Northumbria as the Northern King of Britain. Through the creation of a carefully crafted landscape focused on Roxburgh, David I challenged Stephen the Norman king of England with the intention of creating a Scoto-Northumbrian kingdom with its center at Roxburgh. For the purposes of this conference, I would use Jedburgh Abbey (1138) as a case study to discuss how David I used both architectural cues and the careful selection of location to express both his identity as the Northern King of Britain and his claim to Northumbria.

Spatiality, Ecclesiastics, and Community in The Book of Margery Kempe

Chiu-Yen Lin, Tamkang Univ.

This paper aims to employ Henri Lefebvre’s theory of social space in discussing the issue of spatiality and its relation to Margery’s mystical space, her audience, and their community in The Book of Margery Kempe. The concept of spatiality is composed by three parts: mystical space, religious space, and communal space. The first part of the paper surveys the social and historical context of King’s Lin and Norwich in relation to the development of commerce and the changes on the communal life and religious space. Lefebvre’s conception of absolute space and abstract space will be employed to aid this survey. It attempts to sketch out the context of The Book which Margery’s mystical space is derived from. The second part of the essay deals with Margery’s mystical experience in relation to the communal space and religious space. I attempt to argue that the unconventional manner of Margery’s mystical experience which comes from her meditative dialogues with Christ and her performance of affective piety is produced from and shaped by the specific communal space which allows her to intrude the male dominated religious space. The third part traces the interaction between Margery’s mystical space, communal space and religious space with an emphasis on how Margery’s unconventional mystical experience negotiates and alters power relations and social relations in the communal and religious space. In conclusion, by brining Lefebvre’s theory into the discussion I attempt to sketch out the interconnection of mystical, religious, and communal spaces in that it reveals different levels of power struggles in terms of seizing religious and communal places and spaces while at the time Margery’s mystical experience is deeply embedded in the intertwined spaces.


  • Saturday 1:30pm: Session 443- Schneider 1340

Landscape and Culture in Medieval Britain II: Places and Maps

England in the Douce 98 Place List

Camin Melton, Fordham Univ.

In the manuscript Douce 98 in the Oxford Bodleian Library there is a list of 108 places in England written in Anglo-Norman French and dating to c. 1300. Each location featured in the list is coupled with a single notable characteristic, ranging from the industry or food that a particular town or region was presumably known for at the time to more abstract and often surprising characteristics like the “whores of Charing” or the “marvel of Stonehenge.” Though this list is unique among the surviving corpus of Anglo-Norman literature, it has only received passing interest from historians and literary critics. In this paper, it is my goal to provide a modern edition of the list and to present a translation of its places and things. I will also speculate on the nature and purposes of the list by considering it in relation to the earlier and later lists that attempt to do something similar. This text is worthy of greater consideration than it has received because it occupies a space between the itinerary and the map, between the simple listing of counties, bishoprics, and saints’ resting places and the more elaborate description of medieval towns and countrysides, between the assertion of the voracity of English religious history and the assertion of England as a locus for widespread mercantile activity, and finally between the practical text and the narrative text (if such a distinction can be made). Any attempt to render this place list a simple apparatus for achieving one practical end must surely give way upon further examination of and close attention to its narrative movement, its humor, and the multiple cognitive activities it encourages, from remembering the names of places to understanding those places’ collectively imagined part in the English whole to mapping out the industrial nexuses of the island.

My Land, Myself: Topographical Narrative and the Construction of Identity in

Sir Isumbras

Andrew Richmond, Ohio State Univ.

In the Middle English romance of Sir Isumbras, the experience of the narrative itself is intimately entwined with the presentation of landscape. Progressing from the loss of a cultural power for manipulating the use of his geological, vegetative, and animal surroundings, the eponymous hero is forced to learn the contours, “nature” and uses of his environment(s) by physical experience. In addition to the trying experiences of dangerous (or ultimately beneficent) beasts, forests and rivers characteristic of the romance genre, Sir Isumbras demonstrates a peculiar fascination with the rise and fall of the “londe” itself, tracing the minute progress of the hero up hills and across stones. These elevated spaces serve as literal and figurative platforms upon which Isumbras can decry (and in doing so define) his state, while often simultaneously providing stages for the scenes of sudden action that thrust the plot forward. This paper, then, will seek to demonstrate how Sir Isumbras ultimately ties the social and cultural “ascension” of the hero and his family to his ability to manipulate the matter of the earth, as he moves from stone-bearer to blacksmith to recast knight, ready to employ his environmental education to reassert his control over the cultural as well as physical landscape of the Sultan’s kingdom. For Isumbras, worth (practical, economic, social) remains inextricably entwined with the land, and narrative itself becomes a literal mapping of one’s progress across a countryside of cause and effect.

Aerial and Serial Perspectives in the Description of Cities Genre

Chelsea Maude Avirett, Univ. of Wisconsin–Madison

When Gregorius first encounters Rome, he stands overlooking it from a panoramic perspective. He later describes this vista in his description of the city (in The Marvels of Rome), by presenting the city as a landscape object, viewing it from a distance and as a single entity. This type of panoramic and aerial view of cities — or natural landscapes — occurs frequently in medieval literature: Chaucer gazes across the countryside as he dangles from an eagle’s claws, manuscripts depict contained civic spaces, and the descriptio or encomium urbis genre describes cities, including depictions of London, from a dual (and dueling) perspective: from a distance and from the city’s streets. This paper examines how authors use the imagined aerial perspective of cities throughout the late fourteenth century, at a time when depictions of serial civic walkers become more prevalent as well. Does the aerial perspective offer an ideal of community, which nuances or conflicts with the individual’s serial and often solitary movement? Or does it offer an atemporal and asocial view of society in which architecture and topography replace the living breathing city? This paper draws on intersections between landscape studies and the geographic subfield of mobility. While usually considered as disparate disciplines — landscapes are, after all, static while mobility studies seeks to interrogate the cultural implications of movement — this paper looks at what happens when medieval authors switch from and between an aerial, landscape perspective to a serial, mobile one. I focus on cities because — as Michel de Certeau demonstrates in his analysis of city walkers — the experience of viewing one and moving through one are, on the surface, radically different. However, for medieval authors, both offered a rich way to examine the productive tension between two modes of interacting with architectural space.

“His Troublous Dysease”: John Leland, Mental Illness, and the Map of England

Ruth Babb, St. Louis Univ.

In 1549, John Bale published a letter by John Leland, a noted antiquarian who had worked for King Henry VIII before he “fell besides his wittes” in 1547. This letter, which Bale calls a “newe yeares gyft” and dates in 1546 (though some scholars have put it as early as 1543) details Leland’s attempt to catalog and make available the contents of the holy libraries of England. While this task is daunting enough, and one that both authors consider a “laboriouse journey and costly enterprise,” it is not the end of Leland’s ambition. The bulk of his letter is taken up with a plan to show “the old glory of your renouned Britaine to reflorish through the world.” This plan, which Bale says would have been “one of the greatest wonders that ever yet was seane in this regyon,” was meant to consist of a map of the land engraved on a silver table, fifty-six books of English history, and a catalog of England’s royalty. Unfortunately Leland’s madness interfered, and his work was lost. I will argue that Leland’s obsession with the land and his then-unique approach to presenting it were linked to his illness. In order to accomplish this, I will contextualize the “Gift” within the historical conception of madness and Leland’s extant corpus to illuminate the time and nature of his sickness. Then Leland’s project will be compared to other cartographical undertakings of the time to show its unusual nature, and a close reading of Leland and Bale’s writing will tie Leland’s ambitious pitch with Bale’s prayers for his health. While I will not attempt a diagnostic stance from this evidence, I will argue that conceptualizing England played a large role in Leland’s eventual madness.


  • Saturday 3:30pm: Session 501- Schneider 1340

Landscape and Culture in Medieval Britain III: Domestic and Wild Spaces

Wild Spaces, Wild Creatures: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Heide Estes, Monmouth Univ.

The narrative of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight contains three very different landscapes: the courts of Arthur and Bertilak; the wilderness through which Gawain travels between the two; and the site of the Green Chapel. Gawain’s wilderness is populated by ferocious (but real) wild animals as well as monsters we understand as fictional. Gawain must fight them off at every turn — but the weather is worse. And so is the Green Chapel, with the Green Knight grinding his axe to a point and threatening Gawain’s death. In this paper, I investigate these kinds of spaces using Lawrence Buell’s paradigm separating “space,” “place,” and “non-space” to argue that the locations and landscapes described in the poem veer between these categories. In addition, I use the insights of authors such as Andrew Furman and Kimberly N. Ruffin, who challenge ecocritical valorizations of wilderness, to explore the meanings of wilderness and wildness in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. A careful reading of that text illuminates some of the assumptions that underlie contemporary discussions of place and wilderness, allowing for a more nuanced understanding of ecocritical discussion of landscape.

Gawain in Space

Ally McNitt, Univ. of Oklahoma

Theories of literary analysis are valuable tools for reading The Weddynge of Syr Gawen and Dame Ragnelle.  The poem’s setting is freighted with significance; forests are not merely forests, and  sprawling, open spaces are far from empty.  Spatial analysis of the poem offers a new perspective on an old story, a new and illuminating way to examine the significance of Gawain’s quest to represent Camelot’s social position through his actions at a distance and through his bearing the “essence” of that place while physically remote from it.

Enclosed in the Castle: Gwenyver in Malory’s Morte Darthur

Molly Martin, McNeese State Univ.

Castles play a prominent and very visible role in Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur, acting as geographical landmarks, political centers, homes, prisons, and custom keepers. They are fortified and defended, attacked and overrun. They witness tournaments and battles. They are loci for the commencement and completion of countless quests. Castles even participate in the narrative, notably in the text’s construction of masculinity and femininity, creating gendered relationships through their ownership, their habitation, and especially their spatiality. The placement of knights and ladies within and without the castle walls, at and below—and even through—their windows, betrays the precarious nature of Malorian gender identity. For women, the castle often becomes a means of enclosure. This narrowing of space can reflect the Arthurian society’s need to restrict females both literally and figuratively. Whether by choice or by force, a woman enclosed in the castle feels the imposed architectural and geographical restrictions. In theory, the walls of the castle define her overlapping (and often small) spheres of movement and influence. At several crucial points late in the Morte, Queen Gwenyver is emphatically enclosed behind and within walls. However, from within this space she wields authority uncharacteristic of females. This paper looks closely at Gwenyver in the Tower of London, where she secures and defends herself from the sieging Mordred. What becomes clear is a surprising conflict between the expectations of an enclosed, female space, and Gwenyver’s ability to maneuver around the gender and space restrictions that she faces. The result is a redefinition of the social space of the castle, one that to a large degree rejects seemingly engrained notions of male hierarchy. The walls do not narrow or limit Gwenyver, but rather enlarge her authority and force a reconsideration of gender roles at this moment in the text.

L’Eau et le merveilleux: Water and the Marvelous in French Arthurian Literature

Katherine Snider, Univ. of Washington–Seattle

In French Arthurian romances of the 12-13th centuries I propose to examine the reciprocal relationship between people and the water they dream.  At this time, in this place, in literature inspired by the characters and/or landscapes of Britain, these authors have not lost the dream of water, and water has not been reduced to the (urban) utility of H20 that Ivan Illich identifies as concurrent with that loss.  The ways in which these people have made water the bearer of meaning reflect concrete realities of water’s effect on the landscape.  Sometimes water determines boundaries.  Bridges and fords across a river are places of challenge and attempted separation between the land of Arthur’s court and “elsewhere”, often explicitly the Other World. Sources of water such as fountains are also the meeting-place of danger, challenger, and/or love—consensual or otherwise, marvelous or otherwise. The marvelous is but one manifestation of the cultural construction of certain peoples’ relationship to water.  In this paper, ecocriticism brings to medieval studies a focus on the non-human world as exemplified by water—which these texts often populate with the marvelous.  Ecocritical theory also valorizes water’s and human’s effect on place.  Texts considered will include: Marie de France’s Lanval, Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain ou le Chevalier au lion and Lancelot ou le Chevalier de la charrette, the 13th century prose Lancelot du Lac, the Lai de Tyolet, and La Bataille Loquifer.

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We had an excellent discussion on Monday, and while I don’t want to supersede the presenter (Amanda Cherian) and post the content here, I thought I would share one item in response: I livetweeted the presentation, and having done so compiled the tweets and responses into a Storify image. I welcome responses here to this experiment in medievalism and social media.

[View the story “Woode Walkers Session on William Morris and Medievalism” on Storify]

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