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

February 25, 2020

Flechner: Saint Patrick Retold

Roy Flechner, Saint Patrick Retold: The Legend and History of Ireland’s Patron Saint. Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2019.
Reviewed by Máire Johnson (

As suggested by his title, Roy Flechner here revisits the career and context of Ireland’s most well-known saint, Patrick. As a focus of spiritual devotion, popular embrace, and academic fascination, Patrick has been analyzed by hagiologists, historians, Latinists, theologians, biblical scholars, and Christian devotees alike—and this list accounts for only a fraction of those who have dissected Patrick’s life and legend over the last century or so. Given this enormous amount of attention, it is pleasantly surprising when a study can add something novel to the conversation, and on this Flechner’s work delivers. He repeats the work of others in the service of explaining the complex and lengthy field of scholarship to date, and then he suggests potential new and genuinely original paths to tread. He explicitly writes for both an academic and for a popular audience (xvi–xvii), laying out his study in approachable prose while also providing a sufficient evidentiary footprint—primary sources cited in chapter endnotes, an annotated bibliography of relevant secondary works—for researchers (and others) to follow. Like many prior assessments of Saint Patrick, Flechner closely attends to the only two extant texts the saint himself left to us, his apologetic Confession and his polemic Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus, to which he adds the commentary of some of Patrick’s contemporaries about Britain and Ireland and, where possible, the archaeology of both islands during the saint’s era. Flechner then goes further, however, and offers a fresh perspective on this data by including Roman law and Roman rhetoric. Flechner is quite open that his interpretations and suggestions have provoked controversy (xvi), but he asserts that it is essential to assess not only the portrait of Patrick from all available evidence but also the critical ambiguities within Patrick’s own testimony to obtain the clearest and most dimensional understanding of the man, his context, and his impact on Ireland’s conversion to Christianity (xvi, 1–2).

Flechner explains the nature and challenges of the evidence in his introductory chapter (1–28). He notes that Saint Patrick’s two surviving works were each composed for specific purposes and directed at specific audiences; to argue his points effectively, therefore, Patrick combined classical Latin and late antique Christian exegetical traditions in a rhetorical framework well in keeping with his own likely education and with the intellectual milieu of his day. Flechner observes that, as the son of an elite Romano-British citizen, Patrick probably learned the rhetorical technique of argumentum, by which a point could be presented without necessarily having all details of that point be strictly accurate. The saint’s compositional style would also have woven together the factual and allegorical, as evidenced by frequent biblical allusion, with the likely result that neither Patrick’s Confession nor his Letter can be taken as straightforward, thoroughly correct reports (25). Given that Patrick wrote to convince his readers of the righteousness of his own stance—on one hand defending himself in his Confession against accusations of corruption and insubordination (among other things) leveled at him by his British ecclesiastical colleagues, and on the other condemning a group of warriors for their unrepentant enslavement of Patrick’s flock in his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus—Flechner’s point deserves consideration. It is not that the saint was dishonest, Flechner argues, but rather that his rhetorical approach and his promotion of a higher Christian goal meant that his two texts need to be assessed with a greater eye to the allegorical layers than has generally been the standard. Use of that wider perspective, Flechner observes, also can detangle the “internal ambiguities” of Patrick’s accounts and further flesh out his portrait (xvi).

In Chapter One (29–60), Flechner assesses the sociopolitical context of the fourth- and fifth-century Britain within which Patrick was born and came of age. The saint testifies that his father was a decurion who owned a villa and a fair number of slaves, which Flechner points out would have been accompanied by the expectation that he serve on the local town council (curia); these details all suggest that Roman law and administration held sway for some—if not all—of Patrick’s childhood, and that the saint was, at the very least, born at some point before Rome officially withdrew its involvement from Britain in 410. Patrick’s comment that his father took clerical orders further indicates that Christianity was reasonably widespread; it also raises the possibility that he may have entered the clergy to evade the more onerous obligations of his decurionate, particularly the requirement that he make up shortfalls in the tax collection from his own resources. This form of debt flight, Flechner highlights, was a rising challenge of the later Roman Empire. Once his father became a cleric, which the saint recounts occurred when he himself was fifteen years old, Patrick himself would have been expected to assume both his father’s office as decurion and its associated seat on the town council very shortly thereafter. Flechner uses this data along with Patrick’s admission that he sold his nobility, and that the charges he later faced from his ecclesiastical superiors involved an offense he committed at age fifteen, to suggest that Saint Patrick’s captivity narrative may be allegorical. It is possible, Flechner speculates, that the sixteen-year-old saint was not abducted as a slave, but rather that he fled to Ireland to escape the official burdens he inherited from his father. If true, this could explain why the saint felt it so necessary in his Confession to prove to his superiors that his first sojourn in Ireland was entirely against his will. Flechner acknowledges that some of these possibilities cannot be corroborated, but he also asserts that Saint Patrick’s own words, his “inconsistencies”, “chance mentions”, and admissions of his controversial status in the eyes of his British contemporaries, together provide enough clues to plausibly support Flechner’s proposed reconstruction of the saint’s life and actions (58).

Chapter Two (61–93) then discusses Ireland’s sociopolitical structures in the first through fourth centuries and considers the island’s importance to and connections with Britain and the Roman Empire both before and during Patrick’s era. Flechner relies on the saint’s admittedly scanty mentions, on Iron Age archaeology for both islands, and on Roman descriptions of Ireland to reconstruct a rough outline of the Irish society, economy, and culture Patrick would have encountered. The Ireland that emerges is rural, agrarian, and inhabited by a kin-based society whose warrior elites created and maintained their status through rituals of gift exchange. This society was not ruled by Rome, though Ireland did trade with and raid Roman Britain, including the seizure and sale of slaves. Flechner acknowledges that this picture, too, is incomplete and not always free of controversy, but argues that it offers at least a sense of the context Patrick had to navigate. As a brief aside, Chapter Two also includes the only typographical error this reviewer observed: on page 90, line 28, the sentence would make much greater sense if “continence” were replaced by “countenance.”

Flechner delves into Saint Patrick’s account of his first arrival in Ireland as a captive in Chapter Three (94–118), a narrative primarily preserved in the saint’s Confession. Flechner points out inconsistencies, ambiguities, and biblical allusions throughout the story, and argues that Patrick not only had a vested interest in convincing his ecclesiastical colleagues that his initial journey to Ireland was not undertaken by his choice, and that his escape was therefore an act of bravery, but also that his later mission to Ireland fulfilled a biblical model of conversion. A fleeing slave, however, would have been extremely unlikely to successfully travel from one side of Ireland to the other without facing recapture or death, and there is no clear explanation of how, upon his return to Britain, the saint so easily re-entered his prior elite life years after he supposedly had been taken. Flechner notes that if Patrick was or was believed to have been abducted, Roman law would have permitted him, as an escaped captive, to regain both his property and his free status; the saint also could have used that claim to counter his superiors’ charges either that he fled to Ireland for personal profit or that he tried to avoid prosecution for his undefined teenaged misdeed—the sin which, as noted in Chapter One, may have been Patrick’s attempt to outrun his decurial obligations. Flechner asserts that the combination of legal references and scriptural allusion in the saint’s captivity narrative, to say nothing of the narrative’s centrality to his entire self-portrait and identity, strongly suggest that Patrick intended the story to be understood both literally and allegorically. Though Flechner acknowledges that neither Patrick’s narrative nor Flechner’s proposed interpretations of that narrative can be proven from the extant evidence, he also reiterates that a critical approach should not reject out of hand the possibility that the saint described that first Irish journey as an abduction into slavery to justify his own actions, preserve his status at home, and protect himself from the charges later laid against him for misdeeds in both Britain and Ireland.

Because so much of Saint Patrick’s story and tradition are concerned with the introduction of Christianity to the Irish, Flechner devotes Chapter Four (119–153) to trying to reconstitute the pre-Christian religion Patrick would have encountered. He first dismantles the evidence other scholars have used to argue for the existence of a universal “Celtic religion” shared across continental and insular Western Europe, and then looks to Roman descriptions of Britain and Ireland, together with the occasional hints Patrick himself provides and whatever scanty bits can be gleaned from Iron Age British and Irish archaeology—with the caveat that much of current interpretation of the archaeological data rests heavily upon much later medieval writings all produced by Christian authors in a predominantly Christian milieu—to try to reformulate Iron Age Irish paganism. Flechner is able to extract a few details, such as an adherence to polytheism, a likely solar focus, and the practice of votive offerings at ritual centers and watery locales, but on the whole he finds it essentially “impossible” to really piece together anything like a solid portrait either of pre-Christian insular religion or of the changes that Christianity wrought in its traditions. In the end, he writes, early Ireland’s conversion may best be encapsulated in the archaeological evidence that pagan ritual sites were reused for generations, even for centuries, following the arrival of the new faith. To Flechner, these data embody the “delicate and prolonged negotiations” of a lengthy and often complex transition from one religion to the next (152).

In Chapter Five (154–181), Flechner once again focuses on the words and deeds of Saint Patrick himself rather than on his context, and analyzes both Patrick’s missionary activities and the ecclesiastical structures that he established. Flechner highlights how the saint’s Confession and Letter suggest that Patrick not only considered his mission the fulfillment of a divine command but also that his labor was critical for ushering in the End of Days. Patrick is scarce with details about his conversion methods, however, and he likely exaggerates at least some of his successes. Flechner notes that Patrick’s inability to ordain bishops or archbishops indicates that the ecclesiastical hierarchy in conversion-era Ireland was rather incomplete. That the saint focused his work on elite sons and daughters may further suggest a top-down conversion strategy that would have given Christianity a toehold in Irish society while Ireland’s rulers could preserve their status and sovereignty by remaining pagan. Flechner offers evidence that receipt of payment for performing ordinations or baptisms was not unusual in Late Antiquity; that Patrick explicitly insists upon his refusal of jewelry or other moveable valuables, therefore, does not preclude the possibility that he may have accepted parcels of land that he then used for ecclesiastical foundations. Where Patrick’s Confession offers glimpses of Patrick’s baptismal creed, however, his Letter describes his abducted converts as catechumens but does not shed light on the nature of the catechumenate itself. The saint’s accounts also say nothing about any other contemporary missions to Ireland—even the papally-dispatched work of Palladius attested in other sources of the day—nor does Patrick write much about pagan sites, the building of churches, the existence of other saints or their cults, or the veneration of relics, all elements that become extraordinarily prominent in Patrick’s medieval hagiography.

Flechner examines Patrick’s image in those later works in Chapter Six (183–217). He observes, as have other scholars, how medieval hagiographers often deployed the elements missing from Patrick’s reports, such as relic veneration, in the service of property and primatial claims in the seventh century and thereafter. This portrait of Patrick thus fleshes out the somewhat terse historical figure of Late Antiquity with the miracles, interactions with other saints, and many additional details so familiar to the saint’s legend. Over the course of the Irish Middle Ages, Flechner observes, the Patrician dossier continually accreted more and more components to it, especially as Patrick’s cult expanded outside of Ireland into Britain, Brittany, Gaul, and well beyond. It is thus in these medieval texts that Saint Patrick truly becomes Ireland’s premier saint.

Fletcher concludes his study with an epilogue (218–225) in which he brings the transmission of Patrick’s legend and veneration up to the twenty-first century. Flechner especially focuses on how the saint’s cult was at first restricted and then claimed by both Catholics and Protestants from the sixteenth century forward; while Catholics promoted Patrick to advance the Irish church and, eventually, an independent Irish nation, Protestants—with the noted exception of the oppressive legislation in force from 1695 to 1822—asserted that Patrick’s presumed distance from papal orthodoxy was proof that Ireland’s church had always looked away from Rome. Today, Flechner observes, Patrick’s popularity not only persists but encompasses both spiritual and secular concerns, contributing significantly to “the shaping of identities” both personal and national (233). Flechner ultimately reiterates that the reconstruction of Saint Patrick’s historical and religious contexts is critical for a more complete understanding not only of Patrick’s activities but also of the motivations for and intended audiences of his written works. This type of reconstruction, he argues, can resolve apparent inconsistencies in the saint’s narrative, such as his identity either as a missionary who also owned (and perhaps sold) slaves, or as a man whose youth may have been radically different from the devotional, faith-centered adult he became. Flechner concludes that a critical and objective assessment in which fact provides the foundations for plausible educated speculation can, within reason, “humanize a personality who is too often mystified by the distance of time and reverential deference” (234).

There is little question that Flechner’s approach provokes controversy, as he himself notes (xvi). Those whose spiritual devotion for Saint Patrick is formulated upon a deeply beloved portrait of him, for example, might find it difficult to consider the suggestion that Patrick could have claimed an experience of abduction to sidestep accusations that he fled inherited governmental obligations, or that he could feasibly have maintained his financial resources as a missionary in Ireland by selling his family’s estate slaves. Flechner’s forays into speculation, moreover, could prompt some scholars to raise their eyebrows solely because they are educated imaginings. Yet Flechner’s work is consistently informed by the evidence of Saint Patrick’s own historical, social, and religious milieu without much reliance on his later medieval hagiography, in and of itself a departure from much of the Patrician field of study. As a result, even Flechner’s guesswork is grounded in reasonable interpretations both of the extant data and of potential relationships for which the data is, as yet, incomplete, missing, or unknown. Flechner could have easily engaged in much wider flights of imagination, but he does not; instead, he emphasizes a critical and objective approach and encourages his audience to follow suit. In Saint Patrick Retold, Flechner does suggest some original possibilities about a saint who has been studied from a seemingly infinite number of angles. At the very least, the ideas he proposes herein should fuel new and fruitful directions for the Patrician debate.

Máire Johnson
Emporia State University

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