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Geography and English identity in the Middle Ages.

Michelet, Fabienne. 2006. Creation, Migration, and Conquest: Imaginary Geography and Sense of Space in Old English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. $99.00 he. xiv + 297 pp.

Lavezzo, Kathy, 2006. Angels on the Age of the World: Geography, Literature, and English Community, 1000-1534. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. $65.00 hc./$29.95 sc. xiv + 191 pp.

As is well known, in his influential 1983 book Imagined Communities Benedict Anderson placed the emergence of the concept of nationalism at the end of the eighteenth century. While generally accepting the conclusions of Anderson with respect to modern manifestations of nationalism, researchers in various disciplines have increasingly sought in the decades since Imagined Communities came out to broaden and complicate the notion of nationalism, or at least of national identity, and to identify versions of it in other historical and cultural contexts. In doing so, they have amply demonstrated that there are other perspectives on the idea of nation than those associated with modern Europe. Fabienne Michelet, in one of the books under consideration here, goes so far as to contend that "hegemonic processes and attempts at delineating a national community are of all times" (2006, 12). The two books reviewed in this article relate to the issue of perceptions of national identity in England. They take their place among important contributions in recent years that identify moments and processes associated with an emergent sense of English identity prior to the late-eighteenth-century, and, eschewing modern myths of origin, seek to disentangle such moments and processes from their ideological appropriation and annexation in the period of the development of'Andersonian' nationalism, particularly in the nineteenth century. In exploring the theme of identity they both make innovative use of constructions of geography evident in the periods studied.

Among such earlier moments and processes, particular attention has been paid to the early modern period (notably by Bernhard Klein), the later Middle Ages (as in the volume Imagining a Medieval English Nation, edited by Kathy Lavezzo), the thirteenth and early fourteenth century (by Thorlac Turville-Petre), and, above all, Anglo-Saxon England (with seminal contributions from Nicholas Howe, Sarah Foot and Kathleen Davis). Within Anglo-Saxon England, scholars studying constructions of national identity have focused particularly on the period of King Alfred (the late ninth century) and that of AElfric (the late tenth to early eleventh century), and have built too on earlier work by Patrick Wormald, who had identified Bede, writer of the 'foundational' Ecclesiastical History of the English People in the early eighth century, as a key inventor of the English. The book by Kathy Lavezzo reviewed in this essay sweeps from Anglo-Saxon England through to the later Middle Ages, as does Catherine Clarke's recent Literary Landscapes and the Idea of England, 700-1400. Another notable recent contribution to the debate about emerging English identity has come in a perceptive essay from Nicole Guenther Discenza, "A Map of the Universe: Geography and Cosmology in the Program of Alfred the Great," attending, as do the books under review here, to notions of center and margin.

Apprehension of the concern for national identity in the medieval period has been distracted by too unreflective an acceptance of Anderson's particular definition of nationalism and also, as studied notably by Patrick Geary and Allen Frantzen, by the muddying effect of romantic constructions of early national history, which achieved their high point in the era of 'nation forging' in the nineteenth century, mythologizing what were seen as originary periods in the early medieval past. Through the application of cultural theory and careful analysis of texts from the medieval period itself, the books under review get us beyond such limitations and provide ways of seeing how medieval communities might have imagined themselves. The two monographs share a similar animus in key respects, most obviously in their timely highlighting of ideas of geography, a subject that has recently established itself prominently in the world of cultural studies.

Michelet's Creation, Migration, and Conquest is particularly influenced by Howe, and also draws productively on the ideas of space developed by the French thinkers Henri Lefebvre, Paul Zumthor and Jacques LeGoff, who concern themselves with how a society relates itself symbolically to its environment, how it thinks about space, produces a certain spatial organization, and how it positions itself in and represents space. Michelet is concerned with how the Anglo-Saxons see themselves in relation to the land they inhabit and to the wider world, in which, according to inherited learned tradition, Britain was a remote and peripheral place. She makes particular use of LeGoff's concept of the imaginaire, referring to his definition of it as being "part of the field of representation, and yet as extending beyond it, for it is the creative as opposed to the reproductive part of the mental depiction of reality that is fundamental to any process of representation" (Michelet 2006, 8; paraphrasing LeGoff). Also basic to Michelet's investigation is the notion of the "mental map," imaginary picture of the world, "influenced by tradition and invested with meaning" (2006, 9), which contains its own perceptions of center and periphery and which constructs a frontier between "us" and "not us." Michelet argues that to possess and rule over space is a constant preoccupation in Anglo-Saxon texts, as are questions of the identification of frontiers and the exploration of distant regions. From her analysis of the texts covered in her study she finds that "the emergence of a new centrality around one's homeland and the various recentering attempts operating in the Old English literary corpus foreground the intimate links between localization, identity, and collective destiny." Her overall conclusion is, "All these strategies, which inform the Anglo-Saxons' spatial imaginaire, also aim to anchor the descendents of the Germanic tribes in the land they reached at the end of their migration, and they contribute to the emergence of a terriotory, which is, according to Zumthor, the union of human beings and space" (274). Eliding or simplifying the complications of history, the Anglo-Saxons, invaders and conquerors of Britain, define themselves as rightful inheritors of the land they occupy and as belonging to a civilized center that they themselves have created.

An opening chapter gives an overview and an outline of Michelet's methodology, which characterizes space as a cultural construct-and so never neutral--that makes sense of the surrounding world. The subsequent body of her book is divided into three sections, respectively titled "Creation," "Migration," and "Conquest." These are of uneven length: the "Conquest" section consists of only one chapter, while the other sections have three and two chapters respectively. Moreover, the author acknowledges other possibilities for structuring the material when she declares that the last two chapters may be seen as going together. It is notable too that her understanding of "creation" is a broad one, encompassing the creation of the world but also strategies of localization and remapping.

In the "Creation" section, Michelet considers two Old English poems about beginnings, Caedmon's Hymn and also Widsith, in which language is viewed as shaping the material world, and she goes on to examine the creation topos in a range of other poems, notably Beowulf and Genesis, referring to different conceptions of creation evident in these texts--creation as transformation, creation as expansion, creation as building, and as enclosing. There is a chapter on the centers of Beowulf, which are shown to be less stable than suggested by previous criticism, and the section concludes with a chapter on views of Britain's geographical location, demonstrating how this was reconceived by the Anglo-Saxons in ways that granted it a new centrality. Drawing upon Bede, the Old English Orosius, and on cartographical evidence, this chapter contributes significantly to our understanding of geographical ideas in early England, bringing interesting material together and offering exciting readings in particular of the voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan in the Orosius.

The "Migration" section is made up of two chapters focusing on saints' lives and biblical poetry respectively. In the former, the interesting idea of the saint's travels as quest seems rather loosely tied to the idea of migration, and the conclusion--that those saints discussed "conjure a new mental space: the border-lands now integrated into the familiar world" (2006, 197)--though convincing with reference to the texts that Michelet concentrates on, would be hard to extend to hagiography more generally. The second migration chapter provides a systematic analysis of key passages in the Old English poems Genesis, Exodus and Daniel, to confirm the Zumthorian principle of territory and its possession as instrumental in creating a people's sense of itself.

This discussion of territoriality leads neatly into the "Conquest" chapter, which presents alert examinations of the descriptiones Britanniae in Gildas and Bede, the former of whom justifies as deserved the process of territorial dispossession experienced by the Britons, the latter portraying Britain as a Promised Land awaiting the Anglo-Saxons. It then goes on to analyze the contrasting accounts of the adventus Saxonum in Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Disregarding the complexities of history, Bede portrays the adventus Saxonum as a single event, providentially transferring control of the land from the undeserving Britons (who are not autochthonous and have no special territorial claim) to the Anglo-Saxons, so signaling the restoration of Roman influence in Britain (with the conversion).The account in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also simplifies the history of pre-and early Anglo-Saxon Britain, but contrasts with Bede's treatment in that it draws attention to the violence of the Anglo-Saxon conquest, which comes across as a brutal process. The Chronicle stresses Anglo-Saxon power and presents the Britons as a shadowy people who are defined as the enemy, deprived of a history and an independent identity.

The myth of identity constructed by the Anglo-Saxons is a myth that was constructed only by the exclusion of much "real history," as Michelet points out. It would be possible to emphasize this point even more, as the extent of the rewriting of history that went on is very considerable indeed. We know, for example, that there were significant Germanic populations in Britain before the mythic adventus, and that Christian communities survived within the early, pagan Anglo-Saxon kingdoms; we also know, a circumstance not commented on by Michelet, that Celtic names appear in Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies, indicating the intermingling of power structures of indigenous and incoming populations. An alternative narrative to Bede's of relationships between British Christians and incoming Anglo-Saxons has recently been put forward by Nicholas Brooks in his essay "From British to English Christianity: Deconstructing Bede's Interpretation of the Conversion," and this essay, which makes telling use of place-name evidence, can fruitfully be read alongside Michelet's monograph. According to Brooks, the apparently "unbridgeable hiatus" between British and Anglo-Saxon Christianity may not have been quite so unbridgeable (2006, 4).

At the end of her introductory chapter, Michelet cautions that her book aims at exemplification rather than exhaustiveness in its coverage; it sets out to explain the Anglo-Saxons' view of space and of their place in it but concentrates on specific texts. The texts selected are the obvious ones but it would also have been useful to consider other Alfredian texts, for example, since the Alfredian 'moment' was clearly an important one in the construction of English identity, and attention to AElfrician and anoymous prose saints' lives might have proved revealing about the later period. The texts chosen are perceptively handled, however, and over the course of the book a compelling picture is built up of representations of a distinctive spatial imaginaire.

What we don't get is a sense of process or agency in the development of this imaginaire. The book establishes a narrative of how the Anglo-Saxons saw themselves as rightful possessors of the land on which they lived and of how they positioned themselves geographically, but it treats this story as a kind of constant that is reflected in various ways in surviving texts, with the category 'Anglo-Saxon' seeming rather monolithic. It would be possible to stress the agency of particular texts more explicitly than is done here, by understanding both Bede and many Alfredian writings (including the first part of the Chronicle, which we surely must associate with an Alfredian milieu) as instrumental in constructing rather than reflecting the myth of identity that the book teaches us about. That said, it should be emphasized that the book teaches us a lot. It is fresh, insightful and consistently interesting, and it is generally very well written, though the occasional unidiomatic usage or turn of phrase, indicative of the author's use of English as a second language, is in evidence.

In Angels on the Edge of the World: Geography, Literature, and English Community, 1000-1534, Kathy Lavezzo might be viewed as taking up the story of English perceptions of their identity and place in the world where Michelet leaves off. Lavezzo begins with AElfric, a major late-Anglo-Saxon writer who receives little attention from Michelet, and examines a number of cultural productions covering the period from /Elfric up to the early sixteenth century. She provides a series of snapshots, however, rather than attempting a grand narrative of emerging English nationalism, and it is notable that there is no conclusion to the book; the reader is left at the beginning of the protestant reformation, on the cusp between medieval and early modern, so problematizing that familiar boundary in the process. Lavezzo draws upon some of the same theories of culture and geography that inform Michelet's thinking, but also makes productive use of postcolonial theories of nationhood to a greater extent than does Michelet, thereby situating her approach in a critical tradition that has been highly influential in recent years.

Lavezzo's title picks up on the famous puns associated with Pope Gregory the Great, "apostle of the English, " which identify the English (Angli) as angels (angeli) who inhabit a corner or angle (angulus) of the world, thereby highlighting the perception of them as both special and remote, a perception that Lavezzo demonstrates to have guided English thinking about national identity and geography throughout the period under consideration. That period ends with the great European voyages of discovery and with developments in cartography that lead to a reassessment of the ancient understanding of the world as tripartite in its geographical structure, although as Lavezzo points out, perceptions of England as small but extraordinary also animated the imperialist imagination in the nineteenth century and later.

Issues of center and margin are explored by Lavezzo from a number of perspectives in a wide-ranging introductory chapter, which is particularly useful in its elucidation of medieval cartography. The chapter ends with a discussion of the opposing geographical significances of England and Rome in medieval thinking, and of how these significances were exploited and even inverted by writers. This Rome-England antithesis can be viewed as a key motivating factor in most of the works discussed later in the book, and so in highlighting some of its ramifications in her introduction Lavezzo provides important underpinning for the subsequent chapters.

The rest of Angels on the Edge of the World is made up of Lavezzo's discussion of five chronologically spaced English cultural productions (i.e., not just literary texts) from the period, which brings out the geographical assumptions, desires and anxieties that they realize through close analysis. The productions in question are by AEIfric, Gerald de Barri (a.k.a. Giraldus Cambrensis and Gerald ofWales), Ranult Higdcn, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Lazezzo's readings of these are broadly convincing and, based on an impressive command of recent theoretical and critical writing, they provide innovative and enlightening ways of interrogating familiar material, although there are also places where Lavezzo's interpretations seem strained, speculatively carrying her argument further than the evidence strictly warrants and leading to generalizations which are in my view of too sweeping a nature.

A case in point is her chapter on AEIfric, which presents an analysis of the Anglo-Saxon writer's Life of St Gregory and shows it to be "less Gregory's life than the story of his role in the English mission" (2006, 35) and which concentrates particularly on the pope's encounter with the English slave-boys in the Roman forum, where he refers to them as not Angles but angels. Lavezzo explains how AEIfric exploits the otherness of the boys for specifically English purposes, producing the English as "privileged missionary objects, whom Gregory fervently desires to convert," and encouraging his Anglo-Saxon audience to "imagine themselves as belonging to a chosen people, whose worthiness for conversion inspires a long religious expedition" (35).

This is persuasive and exciting, although in arguing that AEIfric's use of the English language in his homilies suggests his investment in English identity, Lavezzo should have noted that he was after all deliberately setting out to address a vernacular audience, in line with his teaching project: Latin wouldn't do anyway. But in elaborating, as she does, a picture of fear of darkskinned Muslim slave masters on the part of AEIfric's audience (the slave trade in the early medieval west, largely carried out by Vikings, is known to have been fuelled by demand from the Islamic east), Lavezzo moves into the realm of unjustified speculation, as there is no evidence for knowledge of the Islamic slave trade in Anglo-Saxon England, much less for the lurid association of Muslims with exotic sexual pleasure that Lavezzo also reads back into in the period: "In particular, the gorgeous physicality of the slaves [in the Gregory story] ... may have suggested to the Anglo-Saxon consumers of the legend the sexual practices of the Muslim world in which enslaved Anglo-Saxons could have found themselves" (37).

Lavezzo is perhaps being guided too much by awareness of modern racial prejudices when she extends the white-black antithesis in the slave-boy story with reference to possible Anglo-Saxon perceptions of Muslims. With regard to whiteness, Gregory may be contrasting the pale complexions of the Angles with his own darker face--although not in order to make adverse value judgments about himself--but there is no indication in AEIfric that this perception should be extended detrimentally to other dark-skinned groups, and anyway contemporary Anglo-Saxons would have more immediate cause to have bad dreams about fair-skinned Vikings than dark-skinned Muslims. In revising her treatment of the story for Angels on the Edge of the World, Lavezzo should at least have taken account of Katherine Scarfe Becjett's Anglo-Saxon should at least have taken account of Katherine Scarfe Beckett's Anglo-Saxon Perceptions of the Islamic World. It would also have been worthwhile to explore further the complex connotations of the key word hwit in Anglo-Saxon usage, connotations that seem to range from ideas of paleness to evocations of radiance. The meaning of this word may be less, so to speak, black and white than Lazezzo's discussion assumes, and certainly another word that she focuses on, faegernes "fairness," does not of itself hint at a conception "along white Anglo-Saxon lines," as she claims (2006, 42), since faegernes refers to beauty, not color or hue. It is also relevant to add, since Lavezzo's discussion highlights alterity, that of course swiethe stange (42) means "very strong," not "very strange."

In a deft discussion of Gerald de Barri's late-twelfth-century treatment of the geography and conquest of Ireland, Lavezzo makes perceptive use of postcolonial theory to demonstrate how Gerlad revises earlier conceptions of Ireland in order to justify its subjugation by the English, who come to the aid of the barbarous Irish by conquering them, benefiting them with their "Christian civility." Ireland had been much praised by early medieval georaphers, with Bede's approving account being particulalry influentual: geographers, with Bede's approving account being particularly influential: geographically, Ireland was even more remote and special that Britain was. In a discussion that chimes with Michelet's account of the Anglo-Saxons' appropriation of Britain, Lavezzo shows Gerald reconceiving the Irish as unworthy possessors of their pristine environment. Ireland is seen as a land barbarously marginal to civilization, while England constitutes a civilizing center.

Issues of center and margin are also argued to be at stake in Lavezzo's reading of Ranulf Higden's Polychronicon and Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale, Both fourteenth-century writers are seen as emphasizing the status of England relative to Rome, though in the case of the Man of Law's Tale it is noticeable that Lavezzo puts a lot of weight on the tale's English section (not a large one), which has been of more 'marginal' concern to previous critics, and she relatively plays down the treatment of Syria.

A closing chapter focuses on Cardinal Wolsey and his (in)famously excessive ceremonial processions, identifying Wolsey as a representative of aspects of both the medieval and renaissance worlds. There is much consideration in this chapter of Wolsey's motivation and psychology, which is interesting but highly speculative. The chapter presents a vivid account of a pivotal period in English history, however, engagingly relating Wolsey, and also Henry VIII, to the geographical concerns inherited from the medieval past and showing how they exploited and developed such concerns. Lavezzo writes that Wolsey's "deployment of a medieval dynamic extending back to the tenth century, when English map-makers and writers first wrestled with the problems and potentials of their isolation, demonstrates how even the earliest English cultural practices resist our easy categorization as 'medieval'" (2006, 144). Fabienne Michelet would rightly insist that writers were wrestling with these problems and potentials even before the tenth century but Lavezzo's point about continuity as well as discontinuity is well made.

As mentioned above, Lavezzo does not set out to provide a grand narrative, any more than Michelet does; this is a short book, focusing on a number of interesting figures but not aiming to provide exhaustive treatment. While respecting such self-imposed limitations, I think it would have been useful to hear more about a key figure in the development of ideas on identity and place in medieval Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth. Who receives fairly incidental treatment in Lavezzo's account. More detailed consideration of Geoffrey and of the Brut tradition that he started could have added much to Lavezzo's argument, and might also have helped her disentangle some of the associations of 'British' as opposed to 'English.' She acknowledges the continuing slipperiness of these labels, but is not immune from sometimes using them apparently interchangeably herself.

Overall, the instances analyzed by Lavezzo are well chosen, and despite the reservations expressed above her book is generally enlightening and full of interest, with particularly good use of cartographical traditions being made throughout. Along with Michelet's Creation, Migration and Conquest, Lavezzo's monograph makes a lively and original contribution to a topic of much current interest, a topic that has already produced major work in recent years, and one that can be predicted to receive continuing attention in the years ahead. In these books the reductive Andersoman orthodoxy, with its insistence on the distinctively modern character of nationalism, is left behind. Michelet and Lavezzo establish themselves here as leading voices at the productive intersection of medieval and cultural studies. Together the two books will be essential reading especially for those, like the present writer, who value that intersection.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Brooks, Nicholas. 2006. "From British to English Christianity: Deconstructing Bede's Interpretation of the Conversion." In Conversion and Colonization in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Catherine E. Karkov and Nicholas Howe.Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Clarke, Catherine. 2006. Literary Landscapes and the Idea of England, 700-1400. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.

Davis, Kathleen. 1998. "National Writing in the Ninth Century: A Reminder for Postcolonial Thinkers about the Nation." Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 28: 611-37.

Discenza, Nicole Guenther. 2006. "A Map of the Universe: Geography and Cosmology in the Program of Alfred the Great." In Conversion and Colonization in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Catherine E. Karkov and Nicholas Howe. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Foot, Sarah The Making of Angelcynn: English Identity before the Norman Conquest." Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6:25-49, 6th series.

Foys, Martin K. 2007. Virtually Anglo-Saxon: Old Media New Media, and Early Medieval Studies in the Late Age of Print. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.

Frantzen, Allen J., 1990. Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition. New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Rutgers University Press.

Geary, Patrick J. 2002. The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe. Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Howe, Nicholas. 1989. Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press

--. 2000. "An Angle on this Earth: Sense of Place in Anglo-Saxon England." Bulletin of the John Rylands University of Manchester 82:3-27.

Klein, Bernhard. 1997. "Constructing the Space of the Nation: Geography, Maps, and the Discovery of Britain in the Early Modern Period." Journal for the Study of British Cultures 4:11-29

Lavezzo, Kathy. 1999. "Another Country: AElfric and the Production of English Identity." New Medieval Literatures 3:67-93

--,ed., 2004 Imagining a Medieval English Nation. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

LeGoff, Jacques. 1985.Limaginaire medievale. Paris: Gallimard. [1988. The Medieval Imagination.Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago, IL, and London: University of Chicago Press.]

Lefebvre, Henri 1974 La production de l'espace. Paris: Anthropos. [1991. The Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith Oxford: Blackwell.]

Scarfe Beckett, Katherine. 2003. Anglo-Saxon Perceptions of the Islamic World. Cambridage:Cambridge University Press.

Shippey. T.A. 1998. "Introduction". In Beoeulf: The Critical Heritage, ed.T.A. Shippey and Andreas Haarder. London and New York: Routledge.

Turville-Petre, Thorlac. 1996. England the Nation: Language, Literature and National Identity, 1290-1340. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Wormald Patrick. 1983. "Bcde, the Bretwaldas and the Origins of the Gens Auglorum." In Ideal and Reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Society: Studies

Presented to J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, ed. Patrick Wormald with Donald Bullough and Roger Collins. Oxford: Blackwell.

Zumthor, Paul. 1993. La mesure du monde Paris: Seuil.

Hugh Magennis is professor of Old English Literature and Director of the Theological Institute at Queen's University, Belfast, and the author of The Power of Words (2006) and The Old English Life of St Mary of Egypt (2002).
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Title Annotation:'Creation, Migration, and Conquest: Imaginary Geography and Sense of Space in Old English Literature' and 'Angels on the Age of the World: Geography, Literature, and English Community, 1000-1534'
Author:Magennis, Hugh
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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