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Jane Tolmie and M. J. Toswell, eds. Laments for the Lost in Medieval Literature.

Jane Tolmie and M. J. Toswell, eds. Laments for the Lost in Medieval Literature. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2010. xii + 306 pp. EUR 60,00.

"Grief," Jane Tolmie, co-editor of this volume, wisely notes, "is not contained or solved by art. Quite the contrary. It is preserved and passed on to the reader or audience for specific purposes, didactic, affective, and memorializing" (284). Tolmie's observation in her essay "Spinning Women and Manly Soldiers" is also an effective comment on Tolmie and M. J. Toswell's volume. The essays in Laments for the Lost in Medieval Literature, the nineteenth volume in Brepols's Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe series, all attempt to identify on some level how and to what end medieval cultures pass grief on via literary art. The result is an impressive mixture of critical approaches and divergent texts that are still connected by their central theme, grief and lament, and even more, as Anne Klinck points out in her contextualizing essay, by "the mourning of dead children" (17). Klinck observes that the topic of lament is "overwhelming" in its ambiguity of precise definition (1). To this end, Klinck's introductory essay helpfully provides distinctions between elegy and lament while tracing the history of the lament genre and different types of lament from Homer to Milton. Klinck's expansive introduction, then, serves as a useful net to cast over the majority of the essays in the collection, especially for those less familiar with medieval lament literature.

Among the most significant qualities of this collection is the various although complementary critical approaches found throughout. A particularly observable trend is the use of "trauma studies" or "trauma theory" in approaches to medieval laments. Thus, Mary Ramsey in her essay "Dustsceawung: Texting the Dead in the Old English Elegies" grounds her discussion in the psychoanalytic theory that sufferers of intense trauma must "externalize" their experience to recover from it. And while Ramsey discusses Old English texts, Tolmie also points us to trauma theory in her analysis of the Middle English Massacre plays, establishing the cumulative psychological effect of the biblical traumas of the Fall, the Massacre of the Innocents, and the Crucifixion that finds expression in the depiction of women (by men) in the Middle English plays. Approaching medieval literature through trauma theory is a savvy, rarely explored move that fits the subject matter especially well, since it provides a useful nexus of critical approaches that is at once poststructuralist, historicist, and psychoanalytical.

The use of theories of trauma is but one consistent approach in the volume. In Joseph Harris's intelligent and thought-provoking analysis " 'Myth to Live By' in Sonatorrek," which is an updated version of a 1999 paper, (1) Harris convincingly argues that real laments in Old Norse culture were modeled on mythic ones, using the archetypal lament of Odin for Baldr as a case study. Harris ends with a diagram (171) that illustrates the impulses that lead to the development of literature, a diagram that gives literature, myth, ritual, and anxieties equal generative potential to lead from one to the other. Significantly, each essay in this collection might be looked at as participating in a facet of Harris's diagram.

Ramsey's essay, for example, is an insightful analysis of Old English elegy that blends archaeological study of burial sites such as Sutton Hoo with literary analysis, carefully describing the ritualistic significance of grave goods. Ramsey shows that ritual burial gives rise to the Old English elegies, as one branch of Harris's diagram illustrates, and the elegies themselves become containers of memory that perpetually transmit their contents to future generations. Anne Savage's essay, "The Grave, the Sword, and the Lament: Mourning for the Future in Beowulf," takes a similar approach: beginning with a Foucauldian reading of "the connection between archaeology and mourning" applied to the grave sites like Sutton Hoo (68), Savage moves to a discussion of how objects link us to the dead, describing Beowulf itself as an artifact and a cultural grave site, one that contains and reveals different levels of both parental and cultural grieving.

Through all of these essays runs the explicit or implicit suggestion that the purpose behind these laments is to encourage audience identification, and at times over-identification, with those who are lamenting. For instance, in "Christine de Pizan's Life in Lament," Nadia Margolis traces the historical causes for the many different types of heart-rending lament that Christine de Pizan penned over her life, ending with a discussion of Pizan's Heures de Contemplacion. Margolis argues that the Heures, Pizan's meditation on the Passion, should be read as "universalizing the overwhelming pain of untimely maternal bereavement" (281).

So, too, Amy Vines argues in "Lullaby as Lament" that the purpose of the Middle English Nativity lyrics, specifically the lullaby lyrics, was "to encourage the reader's emotional identification with Mary's lament about the future Crucifixion" (202). This audience identification is precisely what Elizabeth Towl perceptively determines as the purpose of the "devotional immediacy" (257) of The Lamentacioun of Oure Lady. The author of the Lamentacioun attempts to close the temporal gap between the event being described and the reader's experience of it, which causes an over-identification for the reader, in which the reader plants himself or herself directly in the experience of Mary's grief.

Marian laments play perhaps the most ubiquitous role in this collection; nearly every author must mention them, for they were the most popular type of lament literature in medieval Europe. Anna Czarnowus's intriguing comparative study of the Old Polish Listen, Dear Brothers and Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale uses Marian lament as the axis of comparison of the theatricality displayed by Mary in the Old Polish poem and by Constance in Chaucer's tale. The two works enact the same "theatre of salvation" that allow for the empathizing of the audience. After providing a useful discussion of two important terms for the collection as a whole, "child" and "lament," Jan Ziolkowski's illuminating essay "Laments for Lost Children: Latin Traditions" also must inevitably turn to Marian laments for a time before looking at a variety of hagiography and classical Roman poetry. Ziolkowski makes the provoking observation that most laments written for dead children would have almost certainly been written by members of the clergy, monks, or nuns, people without children themselves. The writing of such laments would have required a compassionate attempt by the authors to put themselves in the position of the grieving parent. It ought to be recognized, Ziolkowski supposes, that the Church was as much concerned with the causes of hurt as with healing that hurt.

There are a few outliers in this collection, although they contribute to the breadth of the volume in general and often prove invaluable for the reader unfamiliar with general medieval lament literature. For instance, Rebecca Krug's essay "Natural Feeling and Unnatural Mothers" helps to contextualize the issue of medieval parental mourning. Not only does she emphasize how mistaken we would be to assume that medieval parents did not care for their children, but she identifies a real concern over the development of negative associations with grieving too much for lost children in Chaucer's Clerk's Tale (226).

Taking a completely different approach, Susan Small's "The Language of Philomena's Lament" is an effective structuralist rumination on the meaning behind the nightingale's call of "Oci! Oci!" that closes Chretien de Troyes's Philomena. Small attempts to sift through the opposing critical perspectives: is "oci" a call to kill? a lament over the dead? or simply onomatopoeic? Small's response ends up being a sort of composite theory: the sound may be onomatopoeic of the nightingale's song, but only if we consider that the nightingale is simultaneously a woman who has endured all of the grisly horror of Philomena's life.

Russell Poole's essay, like Harris's, deals with Sonatorrek, but Poole gives less attention to the moving poetry of Egill's lament, concentrating instead on a historical reading of the lament that traces out its influences from Anglo-Saxon and even Carolingian cultures. Poole's findings are no less valuable, though; building upon Harris's initial thesis that Egill's lament is structured on Odinic myth, Poole finds the influence of Christian cultures on Sonatorrek, a discovery that greatly complicates traditional images of Viking "paganity" and forces us to question how "heathen" Sonatorrek might be (198).

M. J. Toswell's contribution, "Structures of Sorrow: The Lament Psalms in Medieval England," is another paper that stands apart from the rest in terms of subject matter, for the primary focus of the paper is to demonstrate the influence of the lament Psalms on later literature in England. While Toswell certainly identifies structural and thematic continuities, it is difficult from the evidence given to assess the level of direct influence, to understand how truly fundamental the vocabulary and structure of the Psalms are to poems such as The Wanderer and The Seafarer. Nevertheless, Toswell certainly succeeds in showing the unrivaled presence of the Psalms throughout medieval England.

The collection benefits from Derek Pearsall's "Postscript/Postlude/Afterword," which provides a useful synthesis of the essays preceding it but moves us into further consideration of the "most touching non-Marian lament of maternal loss" (305) in English literature, which Pearsall identifies in Lydgate (305). Further, Pearsall assures us that Lydgate has the "surest touch" among writers of planctus Mariae (304), which has the odd effect of leaving readers wishing for, perhaps, a greater representation of Lydgate in the volume, as Pearsall's is the first.

The volume, then, despite its varied subjects, holds together quite nicely. While most scholars will come to the book for a single essay, they may be pleasantly surprised to find others with complementary arguments. Laments for the Lost in Medieval Literature is a useful volume for scholars of all levels as well; nothing is too arcane or unexplained not to be approached from a less experienced scholar, and all quotations in the various languages throughout (with the exception of Middle English) are given excellent translations.

Despite all points in favour of the volume, readers might leave the book muttering their own ubi sunt beneath their breath. With so much material on Marian laments, Old English elegies, or Sonatorrek in a single volume, one misses the inclusion of perhaps some study of Welsh elegiac literature or Irish laments, of which there are many examples. It is also regrettable that the essays are not followed by bibliographies, although their footnotes are thorough, and perhaps the most lamentable omission of the present volume is its lack of an index. Not all volumes in the Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe series have indices, but some do, such as the last volume published in 2008 entitled Broken Line: Genealogical Literature in Late-Medieval Britain and France, and this is an inconsistency in the series that could see welcome remediation.

Still, Laments for the Lost in Medieval Literature is a singular collection that brings together a wealth of admirable, thoroughly researched scholarship from both junior and senior scholars. No prior English collection of literary criticism on medieval laments exists to my knowledge, and it is unlikely that such an earlier collection might have incorporated the simultaneous diversity and harmony of critical approaches one finds here.

Andrew Klein

University of Notre Dame

(1) See Joseph Harris, "Godsogn sem hjalp til ad lifa af i Sonatorreki" Heidin Minni. Eds. Haraldur Bessason and Baldur Hafstad (Reykjavik: Heimskrinla, 1999), 47-70.
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Author:Klein, Andrew
Publication:English Studies in Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2011
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