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

June 14, 2017

Parker, ed. The Harp and the Constitution

Parker, Joanne, ed. The Harp and the Constitution: Myths of Celtic and Gothic Origin. Leiden: Brill, 2016.

Reviewed by Máire Johnson (

This interesting collection of essays from a variety of specialists, including scholars of literature, history, and archaeology, dives into the intriguing and timely discussion of concepts of identity primarily in Britain, France, and Spain in the last three hundred years. It is divided into two parts; Part One provides five essays focused largely on the usages of the concept of 'Gothic' identity and symbolism, while Part Two offers six essays that highlight the notion of the 'Celtic', both in Britain and on the continent. It is followed by a select bibliography. 

Increasingly the political and cultural tendency of modern society has been toward ethnic, regional, and cultural distinction, nearly always in reaction to significant events such as war, radical terrorism, or economic struggle. These papers add to the mounting body of study that demonstrates the fluidities of the resulting concepts of identity. Though the collection focuses on the uses of the Gothic and Celtic, the observations made by these scholars nevertheless (sometimes explicitly) throw into question not only the ways in which ideas of ethnicity or nationality are fundamentally adaptive and opportunistic—i.e., they seize upon the prevailing political or cultural climate to promote a specific image that then shifts as events warrant or compel—but also how frequently these ideas are based on incomplete, even inaccurate assumptions. At the same time, regardless of how faulty these arguments may be, their persistence indicates very real and complex processes operating within and promoting them; study of these processes, therefore, repays us with an expanded understanding of the milieus in which they were developed.

From Joanne Parker's introduction to the final essay by John Collis, The Harp and the Constitution highlights the critical component of opposition inherent in the terminology of Celt and Goth beginning in the ancient and early medieval periods, when the peoples labeled by these names were seen as tribal identities distinct from and often as enemies of the Roman Empire in works like those of Caesar, Tacitus, or Jordanes. The authors show how this opposition was then seized upon in the early modern and modern periods to build paradigms of regional, ethnic, or national identity. The resistance of the historical Celts and Goths to expanding Roman hegemony subsequently became the model for all northern European nations who wanted to define themselves as (among other things) non-Catholic, non-Mediterranean/Greco-Roman, innocent of the corruption of the indolent Mediterranean/Catholic world, and possessed of traits like battle bravery and "strong moral fibre" (2). In exploring these types of national identity formation, The Harp and the Constitution also reveals the ever-shifting tensions and alliances in Great Britain in the last three hundred or so years, as well as underlining parallel processes on the continent.

Joep Leerssen, for example, launches Part One and the main body of the book with an assessment of the classical and medieval descriptions of both the Celts and the Goths that underlie modern European notions of self-identification, not only for Britain but also for regions like Belgium and France. These national identities, Leerssen shows, not only fully adopt the concept that non-Roman tribes of the classical era embodied the primal, the untrammeled, and the uncontaminated, in direct opposition to the laziness, luxury, and general moral laxity of the Mediterranean, but also weave those traits to their current realities. The Celt and the Goth then become "the narrative template" of indigenous peoples "manfully resisting foreign encroachment and hegemony," whether that encroachment was the Roman Empire, as in Tacitus, the Catholic papacy (to Protestants), or the Protestant Reformation (to Catholics) (17). Leerssen calls this habit of looking to the presumed tribal ancestry of a nation to discover modern national traits (like virtus, independence, liberty, and defense against foreign rule) "democratic primitivism," and considers it the root of the cultural self-definition for much of northern Europe (19). Ultimately, Leerssen observes, the adoption of either "Celt" or "Goth" depends entirely upon cultural, political, and social trends of the moment; the usage of either identifier thus reflects the shifts in a region's idealized self-definition. Leerssen's even-handed, thoughtful analysis lays a strong and important foundation not only for the essays of Part One, which section it begins, but also for the collection as a whole.

Nick Groom continues this elucidation of modern identity-formation based on concepts of opposition drawn from the "Gothic." Groom discusses, for example, the ways in which the Goths were used to promote political union between Scotland and England on the basis of a presumed shared "Gothic" ancestry and the alleged superiority of the "Gothick Constitution" (32). This constitution comprised the jury trial, the protection of freedom, and the resistance to absolutism, which here became equated with papal encroachment into the Protestant world of post-Reformation Britain. Robert DeMaria, Jr., turns to Samuel Johnson's accidental participation in the Gothic movement in his History of the English Language and Dictionary of the English Language. Though Johnson usually focused on classical antecedents for the English language and identity, he also used British nationalism, concepts of the English language and people as having north-European origins, and the view of northern European traits as superseding the contributions of southern ones to the language and culture of Britain to express his own political concerns. Tom Duggett, on the other hand, examines William Wordsworth's promotion of the so-called "Madras system" of public education in early nineteenth-century Britain through the vehicle of Gothic Romance. To Wordsworth, the "Madras system" aligned the pedagogy of Britain's children with "progressive Gothic politics" like the "redemption of the ancient constitution in Britain" and the furthering of Anglicanism. Joanne Parker finishes out Part One by revealing the forces that fed popular views of the "Gothic" King Alfred (and the Celtic King Arthur, though differently) as a national icon capable of modeling the best handling of nineteenth-century issues from a safe remove. These forces included greater public access to primary sources due to increased antiquarian activity, patriotic pride in British expansionism and its resultant desire to find the "real" native culture of Britain, the promotion of concepts of the Middle Ages as a pure age in opposition to a "callous industrial age," and the rise of Romanticism as a reaction against the classicism of Augustan literature.

The six essays of Part Two shift attention from the Gothic to the Celtic; as with the analyses of Part One the theme of identity formed in opposition predominates. The mythologies and histories of the Celtic peoples, both real and imagined, have been made the same kinds of tools in forming national identities as the Goths, and often for the same reasons. Just as antiquarian interest had led to the nineteenth-century dominance of the "Gothic" Alfred over the Celtic Arthur, so also antiquarianism contributed to a resurgent emphasis on the importance of the Druids in the eighteenth century, as examined by Ronald Hutton. The Druids were particularly attractive, Hutton shows, because classical writers respected them more than they did the Germanic tribes, and British self-definition in the 1700s still looked in part to the Mediterranean for inspiration. Tim Fulford carries the discussion of the Druids into the nineteenth century. Fulford's essay reveals that William Wordsworth and Robert Southey each viewed England's Lake District stone rings—which they presumed to be Druidic ritual sites and therefore Celtic—as reminders that the England of their day needed to revivify an idealized past in which the "Celtic" played a significant role; their literary Druids, as had both the Gothic Alfred and the Celtic Arthur, thus confronted contemporary problems such as modernization, industrialization, commercialization, and colonialism.

Dafydd Moore demonstrates that Richard Hole's main poetic inspiration for Arthur; or the Northern Enchantment was the Ossianic poems of James MacPherson. Hole valued these "Celtic" works in no small part because they provided material for a national epic that was not based on Homer (147). Because Hole wrote during a period when British self-definition primarily turned toward the Germanic, his vision of Britishness was not widely embraced; Arthur would, however, become a significant element in Tennyson's Idylls of the King almost a hundred years later. In a similar illustration of persistence, Amy Hale shows how depictions of the Archangel Michael as the protector of the Celtic Britons by groups like the British Israelites laid a strong Celtic layer in the foundations of British identity that is quite alive today, as is, in some quarters, the view of Michael as a national saint to and redeemer of the British people.

Both Part Two's assessment of the Celtic and the volume as a whole wrap up with two essays that provide continental parallels to the process of national identity development in Britain, echoing the chapter by Joep Leerssen at the beginning of Part One. Juan Miguel Zarandona's discussion of Galician literary giants, Eduardo Pondal and Ramón Cabanillas, shows how they drew upon Ossianic poetry, Roman texts, ancient archaeology, and medieval Irish and continental records to produce a specifically Celtic Galician literary culture that still remains a potent concept in the twenty-first century—despite the reality that the Galician region appears to have been only a relatively minor center of Celtic tribal activity. Much the way erroneous views of the Druids have been appropriated to form a British identity, so also the Celts have been adopted as symbols of Galician independence and resistance, first to Rome, then to the Visigoths, then to Islamic rule, and finally to Spain itself. Similarly, just as the historical realities of figures like King Arthur or King Alfred do not always impact their persistence in British culture, so also historicity is not relevant to the vibrancy of the Celtic Galician literary world.

Finally, John Collis examines the Celtic Gauls as a substrate for French self-definition. Archaeology, toponymy, and textual evidence here intertwine with political culture in the search for the presumed Gallic ancestry of modern France. Just as the Galician region of Spain sought Celtic roots as a paradigm of difference from other polities, including Spain itself, so also French scholars and politicians used the Celtic Gauls as symbols of a French resistance to internal and external threats. The national hero of France became Vercingetorix, the Gaul famed for leading the Gallic confederation against Julius Caesar's expansionism, and the three main sites associated with Vercingetorix—Bibracte, where Vercingetorix was chosen as the battle commander; Gergovia, where he defeated Julius Caesar; and Alesia, where he was captured and the Gallic confederation fell to Rome—were refigured as focal points of French identity, archaeological excavation, and preservation. The intensity of this attention, Collis shows, has been highest during periods of particular political ferment, such as during the Vichy regime or under the rule of Napoléon III, but the attitudes that resulted are still taught in French schools.

There are a few minor errors throughout. Page 14, note 2, reads "The standard works remains;" this should either be "The standard work remains" or "The standard works remain." The s/z spelling of "Gothicise" is inconsistent on page 58. There are some missing commas or hyphens here or there, and a few missing words (such as "the" lacking from p. 114, line 24 [should read "with the least"]). "Is" on p. 151, line 20 should be "it" and "Voraigne" on p. 176 line 22 and note 2 should be "Voragine." Similarly "prophesies" on p. 177, line 17 should be "prophecies," "Bretons," p. 193 line 4 of text quite possibly should be "Britons," and "aware of it", p. 199, line 8, should be "aware of them" (the Celtic roots).  There are a couple of missing Irish fadas, as in the word Gabhála, p. 192, line 15 and Túatha, p. 192, line 23. The comma on p. 177, line 1 after "St" should more properly be a period. Capitalization is occasionally inconsistent, and some spaces need to be inserted, as on p. 175, line 14, between "Celtic" and "spiritualities," and on p. 177, note 4, between "Secundeis" and "1508." None of these issues, however, in any way detract from the arguments or conclusions of the volume's papers.

This collection is multi-disciplinary and thoughtful, and its discussions are particularly pertinent in today's political and social climate. These eleven essays reveal that many concepts of identity and nationalism are based on faulty or incomplete data, and that they readily change as cultural mores shift. None of these facts, however, deflate the importance or upend the persistence of the resulting assumptions; instead, their adoption into a nation's self-definition makes them all but impervious to challenge. Indeed, as Leerssen writes in this volume, "what matters in this type of discourse and rhetoric is . . . the moral exemplar," which depends almost entirely upon the prevailing political, social, and cultural environment (24–5). Observing the patterns of identity formation in Britain, France, or Spain in the last three hundred years further suggests templates for similar contemporary and future patterns; this volume of essays thus offers an excellent place to begin.

Máire Johnson, Emporia State University

March 26, 2017

Cohen & Elkins-Tanton: Earth

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, and Linda T. Elkins-Tanton. Earth. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.

Reviewed by Richard Utz (

For several years, I have now been thinking about how to define, practice and encourage “co-disciplinarity”. I had grown tired of “cross-”, “trans-”, and especially “inter-”, which have all been (ab)used into meaninglessness by those who applied a little dose of philosophy to explain a novel, a smidgen of psychoanalysis to explain a film, etc., but almost always by reducing the ‘second’ discipline to an auxiliary status. Then, in 2014, Jonathan Hsy contributed a brilliant essay to Medievalism: Key Critical Terms (pp. 43-51) in which he demonstrated how practicing medievalism actually offers a space within which various boundaries of modern academic disciplines and manifold conceptual approaches to the past may be explored in creative ways. His definition, the best one I know, reads as follows:

On their most basic level, studies of medievalism require cognitive multitasking – a sort of channel-flipping orientation toward time. That is, scholars who study medievalism enact modes of inquiry that sustain at the very least two temporal mindsets at once. First, they attend to how works (literature, art, music) were understood and used in their own time. Second, they investigate how people in later periods (including the present) engage with or recreate such materials. In order to investigate a diverse range of cultural productions that engage with some notions of the past, academic studies of medievalism span a number of established disciplines and modes of inquiry: literary criticism, art history, and cinema studies, to name just a few. In this essay, I would like to posit “co-disciplinarity” as a key feature of medievalism studies within the academy but also outside of it. By this term co-disciplinarity, I do not simply refer to more familiar “multi-disciplinary” or “cross-disciplinary” models of scholarly teamwork in which two or more people trained in different disciplines join forces to examine a shared object with the benefit of their respective interpretive skill sets. 

Instead, Hsy defines co-disciplinarity as “a shared intellectual and creative zone,” [...] “a feature of any institutional, non-academic, or virtual space that allows an individual or a group of people to test the very conventions of academic disciplines and to experiment across diverse modes of artistic production.” 
I have seen some earlier, shorter collaborations in which the spirit of Hsy’s co-disciplinarity has been successfully enacted, most notably Philippa Maddern and Wendy Harding’s cluster of essays for the 2004 volume, Maistresse of My Wit: Medieval Women, Modern Scholars (ed. L. D'Arcens & J. Rhys), in which both scholars reveal the nitty-gritty of scholarly exchange, a multi-dimensional process during which ideas, hopes, fears, disappointments, and joys are being tested, and refined until they are finally expressed in publishable prose. In my view, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, a medievalist, and Linda T. Elkins-Tanton, a planetary scientist, have achieved a similar feat in their volume on Earth, which joins other volumes on Cigarette LighterQuestionnairePasswordShipping Container, and Tree in Bloomsbury’s “Object Lessons” book series. If Maddern and Harding reflect questions about the difference it would make to approach medieval women as a woman, an Australian, an Australian of Anglo origins, or as a child of the 1950s, and (following Petrarch’s example) seek an even closer connection to their medieval foremothers by addressing letters to them, including one in Middle English, so Cohen and Elkins-Tanton remain “faithful to the modes” in which they composed Earth: “Though revised for coherence and to provide a sense of fullness and completion, the various transcripts, social media updates, and instant messages are the actual technologies and genres through which the book was written, not a literary conceit” (3). Thus, when the planetary scientist, writing from relatively dry (in comparison to the Moon and Mars) Arizona, reflects on “how the Earth got its water” (17), the literary scholar responds with thoughts on inundation narratives, from Gilgamesh onward. This back and forth between discourses and speakers may prove disorienting and disconcerting to some, but inviting and epistemologically exciting to others, especially those who prefer dialogue over the linear hermeneutics of the one-dimensional academic essay. Learning from this volume as a reader means, then, not only to participate in a conversation between specialists from two disciplines, but also to do so across different modes of expression, and experimenting together with the two authors in an innovative and completely unique creative space. 

Different readers (and reviewers) will learn different things from this handsome (it just about fits in an adult’s hand) and beautifully designed volume. As a medievalist, I was mostly fascinated by what my colleague Cohen would contribute to this conversation: Like “Nature” in much medieval literature, Earth is personified throughout (in caps) and called “a subject at times precious and disorienting” (2-3). Other medievalist elements include a symbolic T-O map, the equation of Old English “tide” for “time,” and medieval historian Henry of Huntingdon’s leap of faith regarding the numerous future generations he thought would read his words thousands of years after his own time. As a Chaucerian, I did expect Troilus’ rise above “this little spot of earth” near the end of Troilus and Criseyde to make an appearance, and I was not disappointed. Cohen links this famous Chaucerian passage to Jan Zalasiewicz’s 2010 The Planet in a Pebble, a book predicated on the idea of his picking up a pebble along a Welsh beach and, through the pebble’s history, observing a myriad of events and transformations in the earth’s past. 

A number of etymologies (imitatio Isidori?) also enter into the authors’ communications, as when Cohen explains the cognitive challenge of writing an object lesson on Earth by its Latin root verb ob-jacere (“to throw in the way of”), something that “interposes itself,” “gets in the way,” and makes you “realize the world is not so stable as you thought” (92). And Cohen’s reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight opened a facet of the text I had never considered, as he explains how unconcerned the chivalric romance is (unlike Chaucer, in the ‘epilogue’ to Troilus and Criseyde) with “a view of the planet in its entirety, as some distant orb, since that view would diminish life among the earthbound” (118).

As I came to the end of the volume, I asked myself if my reading was enhanced or hindered by having various kinds of information and reflections on gravity, earth’s crust, temporality, drought, global warming, beauty, etc., woven together with numerous details about the authors’ personal lives, children, culinary predilections, and illnesses. The answer depends on one’s horizon of expectations: As a scholar, my professional deformation goes so far as to reading annotations and indexes before the actual text of academic books, and so seeing the two notes to chapter 3, which mention the Riverside Chaucer and Darwin’s Origin of Species, had ‘sold’ me before I even read the introduction. What surprised me was how ‘realistic’ the object lesson became for me as a scholar because of the multiple narrative modes and tones in which it is written. The fragmentary mix of subjective impressions and scientific factoids all of us sedulously collect before we force them into linear narratives are all discernible as patterns in a rich and open ended fabric. Chaucer would enjoy reading this essai, and so would Isidore of Seville, and probably also Henry of Huntingdon. The author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight would not, and neither would the Pearl-Poet.            

Richard Utz, Georgia Institute of Technology 

February 25, 2017

King and Woodcock, eds: Medieval into Renaissance

Andrew King and Matthew Woodcock, eds. Medieval into Renaissance: Essays for Helen Cooper (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2016).

Reviewed by Meg Pearson (

Professor Helen Cooper, the author of vital texts ranging from the recent Shakespeare and the Medieval World to her groundbreaking book, Pastoral: Mediaeval into Renaissance, consistently forces literary scholars to rethink and even reject labels of periodization for the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This collection in her honor, a lovely thank-you note to Professor Helen Cooper from her former research students, so recreates the exciting entanglements and continuities of Cooper’s own work that even organizing a review of the essays is challenging. The richly researched offerings may focus on a topic or a trope, but they are also constantly engaging in periodization and genre and reception as well.

A bit more than half the essays in this collection explicitly interest themselves in reception, particularly how authors from the medieval and renaissance periods conceived of their works’ future readers. For example, Alexandra Gillespie argues that Chaucer models a “complex, self-reflexive, relentlessly ironizing mode of literary authorship” for Gower, Spenser, and Milton by tracing the play on the word “uncouth” in several earlier works (20). How the later poets interpret and allude to Chaucer demonstrates both their careful reading of his work and portrayal of authorship as well as their simultaneous investment in their own authorship and their future readers. The successful poet, the laureate, is considered in Mary Flannery’s study of John Skelton. In his explicit reflection on this role, Garland of Laurel, Skelton looks to the past for models while contemplating fearfully a future threat of obscurity. Andrew King similarly addresses the anxious author in his examination of Samuel Sheppard’s The Faerie King, a Civil War era poem that looks back to Spenser’s Faerie Queene while also nervously comparing the poet’s ambitions to those of the doomed Charles I. All three essays are rich examples of writers reading each other and reconsidering their themes. Such intertemporal influence appears in four other arguments in the collection that consider how readers and revisers give texts, tropes, and genres new purpose and life.

The adaptation studies in this collection combine considerable archival work with bold historicizing arguments. Helen Vincent reveals how thoroughly eighteenth-century rewritings of Sidney’s Arcadia adapted and refocused the poem to address their contemporary interests. She writes, “the story of Argulus and Parthenia both takes on the colours of contemporary conceptions of courtship and marriage and becomes an influential text in the development and propagation of those conceptions” (249). Sidney is novelized, reflecting the generic concerns of the age, and the doomed lovers become emblems of mutual desire and happy marriage, concepts with greater significance and cultural import in the eighteenth century. Megan Leitch’s investigation of Middle English prose romances argues that these prose works, frequently concerned with offspring who inherit bad traits, may be read as responses to more conventional romances; they are revisions that “kill the confidence in proper inheritance that infuses earlier popular romance” even as they demonstrate their reliance upon the worth of their predecessors (72). As in Vincent’s essay, this piece reveals just as much about the audience of these texts – merchants who relied upon learned virtue rather than aristocratic inheritance (61). In an even more explicit discussion of adaptation, Matthew Woodcock depicts how Thomas Churchyard tailors medieval de contempt mundi tropes for an Edwardian audience, resulting in literature that criticizes using a mix of medieval prophetic discourse and mid-Tudor language of justice and commonwealth while simultaneously redirecting attention to the complainer himself. Similarly, Joyce Boro argues that Swetnam the Woman-Hater adjusts its source material to associate misogyny with disease in order to diagnose the Jacobean court. The play recrafts the work of a famously misogynist pamphleteer and an adaptation of a late fifteenth-century Spanish romance by Juan de Flores to respond directly to the hypermasculine and dysfunctional court under James I.

The inherited text is not only read but remembered, both in the senses of recalled and reconstructed. One of the main continuities uncovered by the essays in this collection is that of readers remembering: remembering genres that now need tweaking, grieving places which no longer exist, and recalling commonplaces and sententiae from their youth. Personal and cultural memories create expectations that can be violated for impact or exploited for their emotional resonances, as several pieces demonstrate. Nandini Das, in her wide ranging discussion of travel narratives and poetry about Arcadia, argues that the space of Arcadia is both present and lost; it is a memory theater where early modern authors and travelers stored their idealized notions of the pastoral. Arcadia becomes shorthand for the meeting space between the real and the ideal, and it accomplishes this by existing only as a memory. In the same way, Jason Powell in the essay immediately following argues that Hamlet is full to bursting with moral sayings and fatherly advice, commonplaces that would echo in the minds of every audience member and create “extra-textual meaning” (171). However, the familiarity of Polonius’s advice, for example, only serves to make Old Hamlet and Claudius’s paternal suggestions to Hamlet all the more horrifying. The misuse of advice and the presence of bad fathers becomes its own tragic trope.

Audience and scholarly expectations of genre feature prominently in another group of essays. Once again we see examinations of influence and reception across periods, although here they might be contained within one of Professor Cooper’s own wheelhouses: the romance. R.W. Maslen, Aisling Byrne, and James Wade all focus on medieval and renaissance romances; their work reveals anew the ubiquity of this genre. Maslen’s piece, which encompasses Chaucer, Malory, the Pearl Poet, Spenser, and Shakespeare, traces the presence of bad armour in late chivalric romances. The bold reach of the piece reveals how common broken armour truly is, and the trope (or anti-meme, to use Maslen’s words) forces readerly attention to the vulnerability of the knight. Rather than taking on all English romances, Byrne uncovers how frequently early modern Irish audiences read medieval English romances. Her work on these poems’ circulation westward offers a persuasive argument for a “more thoroughly archipelagic approach” to their study (76). James Wade similarly challenges what we think we know about penitential romance by outlining the genre’s surge in popularity after the Reformation and its appearance in texts such as King Lear and The Faerie Queene

Much like the recent Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature, which argues convincingly against the labeling of the mid-Tudor period as “The Drab Age” by piling on insurmountable amounts of data to the contrary, this collection encourages the reader to defy the cliché of period labels and generic assumptions by using the irresistible weight of textual evidence. The broad perspective offered by these essays illuminates how closely intertwined the so-called “Dark Ages” and the frequently fetishized “Renaissance” were for contemporary readers and writers. As this collection proves, neither audiences nor authors saw these periods as distinct. Chaucer was just as relevant to Stuart poets as he was during his lifetime, and that recognition offers a corrective to the flawed understanding of poetry which suggests that medieval literature was replaced or supplanted or exceeded by later writing. Even when the collection’s arguments suffer from overreaching, they delight and inspire readers to make their own bigger and bolder claims and reject the scholarly silos we too frequently inhabit.

Meg Pearson
University of West Georgia