An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

October 31, 2019

Adventures in Anglalond: Angles, Saxons, and Academics

Adventures in Anglalond: 
Angles, Saxons, and Academics

Richard Utz (

On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress determined, among many other and more important matters, that a committee of three, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, should recommend a seal for the new United States of America. By August, each of the men suggested different designs, with scenes and symbols deriving from the usual suspects: Classical mythology, the Bible, and the Middle Ages. Adams settled on the figure of Hercules as he contemplated abstractions of Virtue and Sloth; Franklin imagined Moses extending his hand and destroying Pharao and his armies; Jefferson agreed with seeing Moses and Pharaoh on one side of the seal or medal they were considering. On the reverse, however, he added a surprise element: “Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.” None of the three proposals ended up being picked, and several other versions were also rejected, including one with a shield flanked by the maiden America and a medieval knight in armor.

Clearly, certain ideas and tropes of the medieval past loomed large in the imaginary of the country’s late eighteenth-century founders. Jefferson’s anchoring of American claims of self-determination with a pair of mythographic Germanic settler-colonizers, whom he seems to credit with creating a form of self-rule in early medieval Kent, is rather ironic. After all, his own grandparents on his father’s side had immigrated from Northern Wales, a region that became part of the “Celtic fringe” (roughly today’s Cornwall, Ireland, Isla of Man, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany) into which the indigenous Romano-Celtic inhabitants of the ‘British’ isles retreated as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes expanded their territories.

Of course, historical accuracy and exact genealogy were not priorities when a late eighteenth-century politician yearned to demonstrate the manifest destiny of his nation. Jefferson’s priority was to unite the new nation behind what he felt was a linguistically and culturally plausible ‘English’ national heritage of entrepreneurial colonizers. And as nationalism gradually increased during the nineteenth and early twentieth-century, the practitioners of medieval studies in the U.S., European countries, and many of their colonies worked within similar nationalist paradigms. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that medieval studies would never have succeeded at finding broad acceptance at the modern university if it had not been in lockstep with these very paradigms: The heavy research focus on national epics (Song of Roland, Nibelungenlied, El Cid), the use of linguistics to prove ‘ownership’ of medieval texts (Beowulf as a Danish, German(ic), or English/British narrative), or nationalized methods of textual editing (Karl Lachmann vs. Joseph Bédiér) provide evidence for the long-standing interdependence of nationalism and medieval studies. Numerous critical evaluations, from Reginald Horsman’s Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (1981) through Mary Dockray-Miller’s “Public Medievalists, Racism, and Suffrage in the American Women’s College” (2019) demonstrate the same interdependence in the area of “Anglo-Saxonism”. 

Because most academic nomenclatures date back to the foundational phase of their respective fields, it is little wonder that various fields, organizations, journals, and awards prolong the nationalist origins within which they came about. In addition, they often continue concomitant mentalities about gender and race prevalent when the field was founded. Scholars in premodern studies have dealt with these semantic burdens in different ways:
The political appropriation of the term “Aryan” by racists and nationalists between 1870 and 1945 led to its gradual disappearance, and thus “Indo-European” is today accepted as the most appropriate term to describe the group of languages comprising most European and several Asiatic languages. Notable exception: Some German-speaking linguists still use “Indo-Germanic,” maintaining the word remains unsullied by nationalist and racist mentalities.

Women were most certainly not consulted when the Medieval Academy of America decided, in 1926, to name its flagship journal Speculum. It took until the 1990s for feminist scholars to convince the Academy and its journal to confront its gendered past, open its gates to feminist scholarship, and publish a special 1993 issue on Studying Medieval Women: Sex, Gender, and Feminism. Unfortunately, journal’s title has remained unchanged.

Enter the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS) in 2019: According to its official website, it was constituted as (relatively) recently as 1983 at the society’s first conference. Its objective is “to provide all scholars interested in the languages, literatures, arts, history, and material culture of the period with support in their research and to facilitate an exchange of ideas and materials within and among all disciplines.” The “period” is defined in the preceding phrase as “the culture of early medieval England.” With hindsight, it is difficult to understand why the ISAS members and leadership decided to call themselves a society of “Anglo-Saxonists.” Did nobody see that the term conflated the group’s scholars with the people they were studying? Society for the Study of Anglo-Saxon Culture would have avoided that problem. Or they could have picked the neutral titles of a Society for the Study of Early Medieval England, or an Early Medieval English Culture Association. They didn’t.

Some weeks ago, the ISAS was charged by some of their own adherents and advisory board members with a panoply of accusations, including elitism, gatekeeping, bullying, discrimination, and protecting known sexual predators and abusers. It’s difficult to verify all these accusations. However, when one considers the overall picture, the 1983 name choice almost feels like a consciously anachronistic one; a choice that sustained some of the problematic behaviors and traditions reminiscent of the foundational period of medieval studies. Anachronistic because, when the ISAS members picked their name, archaeologists of early medieval England already publicly questioned and then gradually abandoned their attachment to tribe-based (Angles, Saxons, Jutes) and race-adjacent (Anglo-Saxon) concepts. And, like so many contributors to the early volumes of Studies in Medievalism and The Year’s Work in Medievalism in the 1980s, they found these concepts to be grounded in supremacist attitudes originating from nineteenth- and twentieth-century European nationalism and imperialism, the very ideology already visible among Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries.

And so change – name change – has come to the “ISxx,” as some currently call it. A majority of the society’s members elected to drop their current name but decided, understandably, to take a little more time to deliberate what to call themselves in the future. The decision avoided another war or jousting match among medievalists, as some journalists have exaggeratedly called the field’s social media squabbles during the last two years.   

For this group of scholars, whose most crucial duty is to appropriately represent their area of scholarship, it was reasonable to reconsider, albeit belatedly, what scholars of medieval reception and archaeology had established around the time the ISAS was founded. Public accusations against them by voices external to the Society may have put additional pressure on them to act more quickly. However, it was not, as one colleague claimed, the “relentless ideological pressure from a rump group of leftist scholars with agendas and bullying issues of their own” that obliged the Society “to capitulate to a passing social-justice fad that sees racism and misogyny everywhere.” After all, as Shankar Vedantam rightly asked in a recent NPR program on how outrage is hijacking our culture, and our minds: “When was the last time you changed your mind because someone screamed at you?” Long-time members have told me that the Society was ready for change, but did not know how to make the necessary moves.
Unlike the unfounded 2017 charges of racism against the program faculty and organizers of the International Congress on Medieval Studies, the ISxx’s decision will be supported by a good many medievalists after they will have had sufficient time to reflect on it. Sure, it will create complications with the titles of existing book series (Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England), journals (Anglo-Saxon England), and several dozen other nomenclatures, but those complications may be less crucial than avoiding the troubling associations mentioned above. Just check out the reaction to the ISxx name change by right wing commentators, and you will understand what I mean. 

There will also be conflicts about the use of the term at conferences and for peer reviews by colleagues who have strong convictions for or against the future use of the term. There will be more echo chambers. But how is that any different from the usual academic storm in an espresso cup?  

We academics often believe we are the center of the universe. In our socially sorted ivory towers and media enclaves we don’t realize that our decisions remain mostly ‘academic’ to the rest of the world, even in the 21st century. The use of “Anglo-Saxon,” enshrined as it is world-wide as a general synonym for Englishness, will not be affected by the ISxx incident: English-speaking Canadians will continue to be called “Anglos,” and Spanish-speaking communities will use “Anglo” as a derogatory collective term for all non-Hispanic ethnicities; “Anglo-American” will still refer to a person in the U.S. who is of ‘English’ origin and to “a North American whose native language is English, especially whose culture and ethnic background is of European origin” (Merriam-Webster); “Anglophone” will remain a common expression for anyone from a region in which English is spoken; and in dozens of other languages the loan words for “Anglo-Saxon” will continue to be the second most common adjective applied to anyone from the United Kingdom. The most common one, “English,” has cached its etymology better, but it too derives from “Engle” and means “of or belonging to the Angles;” and “Engle” is also the origin of “Anglalond” or “Englalond,” the “land of the Angles.”

Will we also ‘clean up’ all these (and similar) terms and their troubling cultural and ideological histories? Has the process already begun, albeit perhaps in a way too close for comfort for scholars professing (medieval) English? Over the last decade, students have been voting with their feet against academic degrees in English, both in the United Kingdom and in North America, and not only because of the victory march of STEMM disciplines. Could it be that the linguistic and cultural nationalism that once brought about the term “Anglo-Saxon,” the academic study of premodern “English,” and “English departments” might be replaced by more multilingual, multicultural, and global considerations and usher in more appropriate academic nomenclatures and curricula?

Richard Utz
Georgia Institute of Technology  

September 25, 2019

Anderson: Postmodern Artistry / Medievalist Fiction

Earl R. Anderson: Postmodern Artistry in Medievalist Fiction: An International Study. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2018

Reviewed by Jesse Swan ( 

There is much to appreciate and admire about Earl R. Anderson’s compendious detailing of “medievalist fiction.” Although Anderson draws on much pre as well as post-medieval literature, his best contributions to learning come in his discussion of twentieth-century work. Most admirably, he reads in multiple languages and expresses perspicacious knowledge and judgment about important translations. This multilingualism inspires confidence throughout the many expositions, expositions served especially adeptly by remarkably expert and incisive summaries. The student new to medievalist fiction will benefit most from this feature. The concentration on the “artistry” of postmodern medievalist fiction is meant to ground the exposition in objective and rhetorical features of the essentially abstract, amorphous, and ephemeral literary phenomenon. This concentration is forthrightly presented as a heuristic, and as such, it functions well, particularly, no doubt, for the reader more accustomed to modern protocols over pre or postmodern literacies. And his presentation of central problems, notably of the distinctions between the modern and the postmodern, as sorites, or problems of rhetorical structure, like his imaginative recourse to the concept of “Daimon” (9), drawn from Angus Fletcher (Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode), to characterize the composite features giving power to a work, is clever and useful.

About drawbacks of his study, Anderson himself tries to present a sort of justification and explanation in the Postscript. “One reviewer” of the manuscript, Anderson reports, notes that Anderson “is in a position to draw important conclusions about medievalist fiction and postmodernism’s legacy” (191). The reviewer further exclaims, “I’d recommend taking that opportunity” (191). Declining to heed the reviewer’s advice, Anderson says that he favors leaving such intellectual contributions to “younger scholars” (191). Although he declines to make original contributions to the intellectual history of medievalism and postmodernism, he does offer a rudimentary quantitative analysis of references in the Modern Language Association International Bibliography, which he calls a “’Pareto experiment’” (192), and three exhortations for those who might attempt to take his manuscript reviewer’s advice. The “’Pareto experiment’” Anderson derives from the Pareto effect, which is derived from the engineer and early economist, Vilfredo Pareto. Paralleling artistic accomplishment with material productivity of industry, the latter Pareto’s concern, Anderson endeavors to show that most of the productivity of postmodern artistry with medievalism comes from very few authors and is recognized by even fewer critics, scholars, and literary historians. The three exhortations to intellectuals who attempt to make various sorts of conclusions about postmodernism and medievalisms are as follows: “First, pay attention to artistry. . . . Second: more literature, with less theory. . . . Third: pay attention to serious authors who seem to be unfairly neglected in academic criticism” (191).

The Introduction to the book is much more promising than the book as a whole, in terms of providing critical, theoretical, and literary historical or historiographical judgment, judgment that seems, again in the introduction, both susceptive and penetrating. Anderson’s over-reliance on the equational grammar of linking verbs – usually “is” – can provide the feeling of simplicity, clarity, and substance, but by the middle of the first chapter of the body of the book, it becomes clear that the grammar controls the thinking and the mode. This is unfortunate, implicitly, for the manuscript reviewer referenced in the Postscript as well as, explicitly, for this reviewer. It surprises, given Anderson’s obvious intelligence, breadth of knowledge, polyglotism, and expressed preference for the postmodern over the modern. In considering the “mantra” that “’postmodern’ does not mean ‘better,’” Anderson decides, “I disagree. In my research I encountered a handful of weak novels in the ‘postmodern’ category. Postmodern storytelling options offer no guarantee of superior artistry – but usually these coincide” (9).

As Anderson points out, features generative of the postmodern challenge modern modes by mixing and participating, mixing forms of knowledge and genres and participating in past and future works and readings. He prefers these postmodern medievalist works, such as Umberto Eco’s Il nome della rosaand Italo Calvino’s Il cavaliere inesistente, yet he refuses to engage them on their terms. This is probably why he recommends drawing upon “less theory,” since the criticism, scholarship, and literary history that he considers “theory” does participate with the literature on the literature’s own, postmodern terms. Anderson, instead, treats the literature in stabilized, mechanical, modern terms. For example, in discussing the postmodern medieval artistry of Eco, Calvino, and Laura Esquivel, in terms of their engagement of semiotics, Anderson explicates them in relation to Augustine and Roger Bacon. In the usual way of homogenizing the past according to one’s own present, Anderson modernizes Augustine and Bacon as well as Eco, Calvino, and Esquivel. An approach that would match the postmodern authors he promotes would do as they do. To use Anderson’s own apt words, a postmodern appreciation of the postmodern medievalist works would resist a stabilizing, mechanical modernity: “In the context of authority and hierarchy, postmodernism says ‘no’ but then follows up with a positive assertion of its own” (142). An important “no” postmodern scholarship asserts is the rejection of the tight synchronic linearity of modernity. Postmodern scholarship does this by noticing and appreciating distinctions that disrupt as much as it notices features that seem to build. With Augustine, one might be sure to bring to bear his theology and, with Bacon, one might keep foregrounded his scholasticism. Both Augustine’s theology and Bacon’s scholasticism are very different from Eco, Calvino, and Esquivel’s post-secularisms, even as there are connections among the five. Anderson’s manner of thinking about the literature and style of writing about medievalism and postmodernism occludes such important nuances in favor of blunter assertions of connections.

While some readers will wish the obvious intelligence and admirably broad knowledge informing this study would have provided critical, literary, and historiographical conclusions about postmodern medievalism, all readers will be rewarded by the expert summary and presentation of major works of literature and criticism forming recognized and less recognized instances of literary medievalisms of the twentieth century.

Jesse Swan
University of Northern Iowa

August 26, 2019

Turner: Chaucer, A European Life

Marion Turner. Chaucer: A European Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.

Reviewed by Robert J. Meyer-Lee (

Addressing Chaucer’s legacy in the epilogue to Chaucer: A European Life, Marion Turner writes, “Chaucer became a monumental poet, enclosed in a monumental tomb, with monumental volumes of his Complete Works functioning as the bedrock of the English national canon” (506). By this point, Turner’s readers will readily understand that the repetition of the adjective monumental here signals that this eventuality represents a regrettable distortion of the real significance and actual tenor of the poet’s writings, as Turner has characterized them in the preceding pages. Acknowledging that “[i]n death, Chaucer came to represent Englishness, patriarchy, authority[,]” Turner ends her account of his life by highlighting, in contrast, his current status as “an inspiration for diverse writers around the globe…the starting point for Refugee Tales, a collection published in 2016 that brings together contemporary politics, current writers, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales” (508). In a nutshell, this concluding move—which repositions Chaucer from authoritative, national literary patriarch to inspiring, approachable global story teller—encapsulates the most essential aim of this remarkable new biography.

Without question, this book is an astounding scholarly achievement, one that will evoke in current and future readers of Chaucer tremendous gratitude, serve as a springboard for innumerable new research projects, and leave more than a few of us gaping in awe. Its approach to its subject, however, involves a bit of a paradox, given that its very existence depends, of course, on the history of Chaucer’s canonical monumentality. (This is not a criticism: it is inescapable.) Moreover, the volume is itself monumental, in at least a couple of ways. Most obviously, the book is massive, totaling more the 600 pages from title page through the end of its exceptionally detailed index. Since very little actual new biographical information about Chaucer has been unearthed since, say, Derek Pearsall’s popular 1992 biography of the poet (and the vast majority of documents were compiled in Martin M. Crow and Clair C. Olson’s 1966 Chaucer Life-Records), potential readers of this new one may wonder what is on offer that escaped Pearsall’s seemingly thorough 375 pages. The answer lies in Turner’s innovative organization.

To be sure, the book’s largest contours are predictable, as it progresses chronologically through Chaucer’s life and, as the titles of its three major parts (“Becoming,” “Being,” and “Approaching Canterbury”) suggest, presents that life teleologically, as culminating in the composition of his consensus literary masterpiece. Yet, just one level down, with the individual chapters, we encounter a striking difference: rather than zooming in on a more fine-grained subdivision of Chaucer’s life, each of the twenty chapters instead focuses on a specific kind of physical space. Some of these are geographical places (such as Chapter 4’s “Hainault and Navarre” or Chapter 15’s “South of the Thames”), some are institutions (such as Chapter 12’s “Parliament” or Chapter 20’s “Abbey”), and some are abstractions closely associated with physical objects or positions (such as Chapter 8’s “cage” or Chapter 19’s “threshold”). In this organization, the raison d'être of each chapter is not simply to account for Chaucer’s life but also to evoke more broadly a vivid, detailed sense of a particular facet of the late medieval world through which Chaucer moved—to weave a historical narrative fabric in which Chaucer’s life serves as just one thread among others, albeit the most prominent and intertwined thread. Each chapter, therefore, may be appreciated as a standalone essay, a set piece that may be comprehended in its own terms and that might serve as a reading assignment for, say, medieval history courses, as well as literature courses.

Within the chapters, one of Turner’s frequent methods is to take a single item or set of related items from the Chaucer Life-Records and follow the chains of references leading out from these terse bureaucratic texts, constructing thereby a sort of thick description of the context that produced them. For example, in Chapter 6, Turner considers the commission for Chaucer’s 1372-73 journey to Genoa and Florence, tracing its political, economic, social, and cultural implications in ever-widening circles that eventually attain global scale. In addition, then, to noting the usual significance ascribed to this trip—that it represents Chaucer’s first exposure to trecento literature—Turner paints a detailed picture of fraught international systems of commerce and the various conflicts that they engendered. In this way, Turner shows us the Chaucer that many of his contemporaries would have most readily recognized: a minor but still important player on the international political stage, a skilled, valued diplomat who adroitly negotiated multiple competing interests. In chapters such as this one (and they are the overwhelming majority) this method—and more generally Turner’s thematic-space focus—produces a thoroughly absorbing, illuminating, and informative essay.

In a few instances, in contrast, I found that the method foundered a bit, typically because the relations between the thematic space and life records are rather loose. In Chapter 19, for example, the thematic space of the threshold serves to bind together the end of the Canterbury Tales, the end of Chaucer’s life, and the end of Richard II’s reign; but in this case the rather general concept of threshold functions more as an umbrella term than as a specific facet of Chaucer’s world that illuminates a network of otherwise obscure relations. To be sure, since the chapters may be read as standalone essays, the occasional miss does not much matter among the many hits. Yet, since this biography nonetheless does proceed chronologically, if readers consult it specifically for an account of the late 1390s, they cannot avoid Chapter 19. But in fact I doubt that readers will much use the book in the latter fashion, as it is simply not organized in a manner that easily facilitates this use (like, say, Pearsall’s is). That is, I imagine that readers will turn to this volume not so much as a reference work (or as an introduction to the poet) but instead for a series of literary critical touchstones—for bracing encounters with Turner’s views on a particular moment in Chaucer’s life, a particular cross-section of late medieval history, a particular literary work, or, most important, the myriad relations among these. (Although those who do use the volume for this purpose may sometimes be frustrated by how its organization entails that the readings of some of Chaucer’s works are distributed across several chapters. For this reason, the index, as I have mentioned, is appropriately capacious, but this means that it is also unwieldy.)

Another way that this biography is monumental has profounder implications but is just as evident. In seeking to counter the monumentalization of Chaucer as English poetic patriarch, Turner provides exactly that: a counter-monumentalization. The biography as a whole, that is, constructs a memorializing representation of Chaucer that is plainly designed to elicit, on balance, admiration. Turner’s Chaucer is tolerant, urbane, and cosmopolitan. He has his eyes on the street, among the people, not cast up toward the clouds, dazed by numinous philosophical and spiritual abstractions. He is troubled by political absolutism, skeptical toward empire, and appreciative of cultural, ethnic, and social difference. He has egalitarian ideas regarding class and gender. He is appreciative of visiting foreigners and resident immigrants. He is a critical thinker, wants to foster critical thinking in his readers, and is fully cognizant of the complexities, subjectivity, and open-endedness of interpretation. He aims to empower his readers to make sound ethical decisions without imposing upon them any kind of rigid moral framework. Throughout the book, for example, are comments similar to the following: “In his Canterbury Tales years, Chaucer embraced the idea of equivalence—in terms of genre, interpretation, social status, and gender. This ability to equalize without homogenizing is central to Chaucer’s ethical stance and to his poetic art. The genius of the Tales lies in its valuing of difference qua difference…Readers must make decisions for themselves” (366-67). This Chaucer is, in short, a decidedly attractive one (to me, at least), especially, and not at all coincidentally, when set against the backdrop of the twenty-first century chauvinism so evident in Brexit and Donald Trump.

The question that this counter-monumentalization inevitably provokes, then, is whether a Chaucer so attractive in twenty-first-century ideological terms is also a historically accurate one. And, certainly, Turner devotes her considerable facility with the nitty gritty of historical inquiry into building precisely this argument. Nonetheless, I suspect that readers will have a variety of estimations of her success in this regard. In my case, as much as I want her to be right about Chaucer, and find myself in full agreement on many points, I could not help but notice those moments in which her argument rests on highly contestable readings of particular literary works. For example, for Turner the Knight’s Tale is a critique of political absolutism, the Wife of Bath exhibits empowered agency over the misogynist texts from which she is drawn, and the Parson’s Tale, far from providing an authoritative conclusion to the Tales, presents “a vision that codifies the self in relentlessly simplifying ways[,]” one that “contrasts starkly with the ethical and compassionate emphasis on gentilesse as a quality not determined by gender, class, or age in other tales” (478). None of these readings is in itself especially far-fetched, and all are well argued. Yet, taken together, at times they seemed to constitute a carefully curated wardrobe in which potentially embarrassing items have been pushed to the back rack.

Along these same lines, the rather brief treatment (about two pages of sustained discussion) of what is today the single most fraught element of Chaucer’s biography—Cecily Champaigne’s rape charge—will raise some readers’ eyebrows. This discussion itself, laudably, seeks neither to defend Chaucer nor even especially to muddy the waters of the possibility that he was a perpetrator of sexual violence. Nevertheless, by the end of the discussion Turner notably shifts the emphasis, observing that Chaucer’s “life gave him multiple experiences of women as thinking and independent beings, strong women, even though they underwent all kinds of legal and social constraints” (212). The cumulative effect of such shifts is to ensure that what the book most memorializes about Chaucer is what many of those who treasure his writings would most prefer to remember.

Any book this ambitious and complex will also provoke other, more minor quibbles. For example, some of the more speculative discussions—about dates of composition, about the early circulation of Chaucer’s poems—I sometimes found less than helpful or even tendentious. And considerations of the complications and uncertainties of the manuscript evidence for Chaucer’s works, and especially for the Canterbury Tales, are rather less frequent and less in-depth than I think are needed. But these are indeed quibbles. Turner’s biography will without doubt become one of the anchors of Chaucer Studies for many years to come. Even more important, it will likely help spur the creative energies of those “diverse writers around the globe” that Turner spotlights in her epiloguethose crucial readers of Chaucer who will, more than anyone else, continue to make this late medieval English poet matter.

Robert J. Meyer-Lee
Agnes Scott College