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Literary Landscapes and the Idea of England, 700-1400.

Literary Landscapes and the Idea of England, 700-1400. By Catherine A. M. Clarke. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer. 2006. xii + 160 pp. 45 [pounds sterling]. isbn: 978-1-84384-057-2.

Catherine Clarke explores two related topics: idealized medieval landscape, and early concepts of England. Her book has an introduction, four chapters, and an epilogue. The introduction begins with Gaunt's speech in Richard II on 'This precious stone set in the silver sea', combining landscape and English national identity, and hence summing up the book's theme. Chapter 1, 'The Edenic Island', compares descriptions of Britain in Gildas and Bede, with their distinctive agendas. Gildas's Britain is a blessed island, 'a chosen bride embellished with sundry jewels', who has yet fallen from grace thanks to evil in high places. By contrast, Bede's Britain, an island rich in crops, pasture, and ores, has now been brought out of darkness by the coming of Christianity to England. Yet Bede's eupeptic vision, ignoring a history of slavery and war, has drawn American criticisms (p. 16) of 'colonial fantasy'. The chapter closes with ideal landscape in Bede's life of Cuthbert, Alcuin's poem on York, and Felix's life of Guthlac.

Chapter 2 deals with the locus amoenus in Anglo-Saxon England, whether in Genesis A, Guthlac A, The Phoenix, Alcuin's poem on spring and winter, or The Seafarer. It surveys literary treatment of seasons, the cuckoo, and Orpheus, with comment on St Dunstan's Classbook, Edgar's charter to the New Minster at Winchester, and St Ethelwold's Benedictional. In contrast to these, the haunted mere of Beowulf (pp. 37-38) is a locus anything but amoenus. Chapter 3 zooms into microcosm at Glastonbury, Ely, and Ramsey, where national patriotism is replaced by eulogy on a monastery's meadows, orchards, fish, nightingales, or Arthurian past. An Ely poet thus writes of nearby Downham (pp. 81-82) as where the golden apples of the Hesperides grow, and 'liquid honey drops like dew'.

Chapter 4 moves to the 'Delightful City'. William Fitz Stephen praises London as a new Rome or Troy, with pure women inside its walls and pure springs outside (pp. 92-98). The Chester monk Lucian in turn praises his city, threatened by the Welsh but guarded by St Peter. Undelightful aspects of London appear in Gower, writing of a 'thousand wolves and bears' at its gates (the rebels of 1381), and pleasanter ones in Richard Maidstone, describing a pageant of reconciliation (with images familiar from the Wilton Diptych) between Londoners and Richard II. Finally comes parody of the encomium urbis in the Anglo-Latin Stores of the Cities (pp. 124-26), which lists London's streets of shame, York's lampreys, salmon, and rats, Coventry's soap and legend (?Lady Godiva), Bristol's ladles and bell towers, and Canterbury's primate and plums. The epilogue comments on England in Lazamon and Richard of Gloucester, and ends with a return to John of Gaunt and the formula England = Britain (ignoring Wales and Scotland).

This book, written as a London PhD thesis, can be warmly commended. In limited space it touches on a wealth of images and ideas; it also makes rare texts accessible, prompting further research. Its main defect is inaccuracy. Of Oswald's defeat of Cadwallon, for example, we are told (p. 26) that his army was Saxon (recte Anglian); his Welsh foes were pagan (recte Christian); they fought at Heavenfield (recte Rowley Burn, seven miles away); and that this happened in 642 (recte late 633). On the same page Bede's Vocatur locus ille appears as Vocantur locus ille. So care is needed in using Literary Landscapes and the Idea of England. Yet it is amongst those books that break new ground and help scholars to break more, and so deserves to be widely known.

Andrew Breeze

University of Navarre, Pamplona
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Author:Breeze, Andrew
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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