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

February 5, 2018

Wallace, Geoffrey Chaucer

David Wallace, Geoffrey Chaucer: A New Introduction. Oxford UP, 2017. 176 pp.; e-book available.

Reviewed by KellyAnn Fitzpatrick (

In some ways it is a study in contrasts to see David Wallace follow his edited 2-volume Europe: A Literary History, 1348-1418 (Oxford UP, 2016) with this small gem of a book. At first glance the contrasts come in dimensions (10 x 3.7 x 7.2 inches vs. 6.8 x 0.6 x 5.1 inches), length (1675 pp. vs. 176 pp.), and cover design (a map of Europe vs. a dust jacket featuring tiny Canterbury pilgrims jaunting atop the title). At first read, one notes differences in voice and audience, from an amalgamation of 83 experts pitched at students and future scholars to Wallace, alone, enthusiastically sharing his love and knowledge of Chaucer with, ostensibly, a mainstream audience.

And yet, there is one glaring similarity, as each book reads its respective subject (literature, Chaucer) against a European—rather than a more insular—backdrop. This context works particularly well for Wallace’s New Introduction to Chaucer, where, in his first chapter, “Beginnings,” he asks readers to consider Chaucer as a product of numerous places and languages. Juxtaposing Chaucer’s bureaucratic and wartime travels in Italy and France with his limited experience in areas of Britain outside of the south-east corner of England, Wallace states that Chaucer “was no ‘Little Englander’” (13). He goes on to highlight the role that Chaucer’s knowledge of languages played in his present-day reputation as “Father of English Literature,” arguing that the multilingual and cosmopolitan Chaucer’s aim as a writer was “to make English illustrious by European standards as a European language.” The predominant thread running through the remainder of the book illustrates how Chaucer accomplished this goal.

As one might expect in a work that serves as an “Introduction” to Chaucer, the remaining chapters mete out biographical information (supplemented by a handy timeline at book’s end) as well as readings of selections of Chaucer’s writing. A project of this size and scope requires that Wallace be judicious in what he covers. While previous reviewers have characterized the result as disjointed, to my mind reading each chapter is akin to attending part of a lecture series where the speaker is so knowledgeable about and careful with the material that one leaves the performance both edified and convinced that one needs to get to a library/web browser forthwith. It is a book designed to introduce newcomers to some of the more fascinating aspects of Chaucer’s life and works, but it also serves to remind seasoned Chaucerians what made them choose to learn Middle English in the first place.

Wallace, at times, does run into issues of register in which his assumptions about his readers’ knowledge seem inconsistent. His second chapter, “Schoolrooms, Science, Female Intuition,” for instance, carefully explains educational practices and theories contemporary to Chaucer in conjunction with prevalent attitudes towards women. While Wallace does well in making these components accessible to a mainstream, non-specialist audience, he assumes that the same audience will have no trouble reading snippets of Chaucer’s poetry in the original Middle English (albeit, with some glosses), and will also be able to make jumps (in the first paragraph alone) from Christine de Pisan, to the Prioress’s Tale, to the Miller’s Tale, back to the Prioress’s Tale, to an illustration of how the Miller’s Tale’s Nicholas would interpret the story of Noah’s ark using a “fourfold schema” that culminates in the anagogical (27-9). Chapter 6, “Something to Believe In,” asks readers to make similar leaps in its discussion of Chaucer’s treatment of religion. As a reader who obtained her Medieval Studies degree prior to the advent of Web 2.0 search engines, I can only imagine the amount of Googling that these chapters would generate from a non-specialist reader. Yet, I suspect that Wallace’s take on Chaucer will engage many such non-specialists in a way that renders them eager to make full use of modern information technology (or The Riverside Chaucer) to better understand a medieval poet.

While biographical information throughout the book makes it clear that Chaucer was not known as a poet during his lifetime, two of Wallace’s strongest chapters examine the role that poetry played in Chaucer’s life. Chapter 3, “A Life in Poetry,” argues that the Chaucer of The House of Fame “does indeed long to be associated with great poets such as Virgil and Ovid” (43). The chapter surveys some of the linguistic, literary, and personal influences on the development of Chaucer’s poetry. These include the role that English played in his everyday life, how much he was likely influenced by writers such as Guillaume de Machaut and Dante (who also wrote himself into his poetry), and his relationship with his wife, Phillipa. Chaucer’s quest to become a “great poet” carries over to Chapter 4, “Poetry at Last,” where Wallace provides a short but interesting introduction to Troilus and Criseyde. Here we see Chaucer cribbing from Boccaccio’s Filostrato (in a later chapter it will be The Decameron), influenced by a London still protected by a city wall, and writing his way resolutely towards the Tabard in Southwark.

Chapter 5, “Organizing, Disorganizing: The Canterbury Tales,” gets to the much-anticipated business of directly addressing Chaucer’s best-known work. The chapter itself includes satisfying highlights, such as an explanation of the work’s various manuscripts and fragment arrangements, and insights, such as Wallace’s characterization of the Pardoner’s movements as “voguing” (84-5). In truth, however, The Canterbury Tales serve as another thread running throughout the entire book. In a volume dust-jacketed by pilgrims, CT references begin with a reflection on the ubiquity of The General Prologue in Chapter 1 and conclude with praise for CT performances, adaptations, and reinterpretations at the end of the last chapter, “Performance and New Chaucers.”

In this last chapter Wallace’s portrayal of Chaucer’s English poetry as a product of multilingual European cosmopolitanism culminates in an examination of how Chaucer’s works have been reinvented for a present-day global stage. This stage, where English has arguably become a world standard, sees efforts such as the Global Chaucers project, which catalogs resources where “Chaucer can now be read in Afrikaans and Esperanto, Frisian and Hebrew” (130). Wallace also surveys creative works inspired by Chaucer’s corpus, including a television adaption of The Man of Law’s Tale and a chapbook inspired by the Wife of Bath (Alyson Singes). Many of these translations and reinventions are likely new material for non-specialist and Chaucerian readers alike. In this sense, this volume is successful as a “New Introduction” both in its aim to create new audiences for a medieval poet’s work and in its capacity to reintroduce Chaucer and his postmodern acolytes to audiences who may already know him well.

KellyAnn Fitzpatrick
Georgia Institute of Technology

February 2, 2018

Loud and Staub (eds.): The Making of Medieval History

Graham A. Loud and Martial Staub, eds., The Making of Medieval History (Rochester, NY: York Medieval Press, 2017)

Reviewed by: Oliver Raker (

The Craft of Medieval History: Past, Present, and Future

In The Making of Medieval History, the reader encounters nearly a dozen different perspectives on the place of medieval history and its craft in the wider context of historical discourse. Graham Loud and Martial Staub have edited and compiled a series of essays looking at the development of medieval history as a craft, as well as some of the struggles the field has experienced in the last two centuries of its development. Based on lectures given in 2011-2012, the articles all contribute to a better understanding of the place medieval history holds within the historical community, and the wider social world as a whole. A brief overview of each article and its contribution to the wider discussion is in order before offering general comments on the place of this work in a historiographic context. 

The volume itself separates the included essays into five distinct categories. The first contains two articles centered on the idea of invention and reinvigoration of the craft of history in the medieval world. Jinty Nelson provides the first article in the series, in which she argues that the idea of invention can reinvigorate the study of the medieval period if done correctly. The key is to use invention in the positive sense, in the same way it was understood in the medieval period. Ian Wood follows Nelson by examining the reciprocal nature of the historical novel and traditional narrative history. The two articles match well together in their hope for a reinvigorated field of medieval history. 

Patrick Geary and Michael Borgolte provide the substance for part two of the volume, examining the creation of a European identity. Geary warns against the creation of identities through the use of medieval history. He argues that both division and unification between peoples have been argued for in European history where the phenomena were not truly present. Michael Borgolte is likewise critical of the formation of European identity from medieval narratives, but for a different reason. Through examining the source of conflict between nations in the Middle Ages, for which the beginning was the change from polytheism to distinct monotheistic religions, Borgolte provides a strong argument that the study of medieval history has been far too Eurocentric. Instead of focusing on the people and religions in Europe alone, the author urges historians to extend their field to include a far wider population. 

Part Three centers on the ideas of national identity and myths of origin for medieval peoples. Bastian Schlüter details how German efforts for unification have often recalled images from the medieval period in order to find legitimization for their cause. Joep Leerssen further explores the application of medieval myth in nineteenth-century Germany, focusing on the role of iconography in that process. Bernhard Jussen’s essay wraps up this portion of the work by looking at how German and French political movements have shaped what the historical community and wider public think of Charlemagne, detailing the changing ways in which he has been portrayed alongside those movements. Transitioning from a series of essays on national identity, the volume moves toward larger trends of contact between disparate groups.

Richard Hitchcock and Christian Lübke provide articles in which they explore medieval power struggles and contacts between people, subjects which have attracted little scholarly attention in recent years. Hitchcock focuses on eleventh and twelfth-century Iberia, discussing the political motivations of various religious groups in their struggles with one another. He argues against an assumed depopulation on the peninsula that had been seen in the historiography leading up to recent years. Lübke likewise attempts to show connections between peoples which he argues historians have largely ignored. The author argues that a meaningful association between Slavic and German peoples can be traced to the Middle Ages, and that this connection warrants a larger space in the wider historiography of national identity building. 

The final two essays in the volume, from Christine Caldwell Ames and Peter Biller, explore themes related to the apparent distance between modern conceptions of the medieval world and our own. Caldwell Ames examines the oddity of supposed American medievalist separateness from the subjects they study. The argument of separation has been based mainly on religious difference, pointing out a lack of heresy in the Americas. However, the author counters this argument and shows that American religious persecutions were not so different from those of the European past, opening up avenues of research for future historians. Peter Biller provides the final essay of the collection, in which he warns against anachronism in the study of the medieval world. He discusses the gap in vocabulary between medieval and modern conceptions of religion. This final essay provides a nice return to the subject of Jinty Nelson’s opening essay dealing with the mindset and vocabulary of invention. 

The Making of Medieval History strikes a valiant balance between historiographical overview for the field while still providing starting points of historical narrative and evaluation. Such a balance is not an easy endeavor when dealing with such disparate topics as those covered within the volume. The collection contains valuable groupings of various issues throughout, based on a clear thematic approach. The contribution to the field should not be understated, especially in the way the essays help medievalists to better understand the field in which they work. Graduate students would be well served to pick up this volume early in their studies in the medieval field, in order to get a sense of the issues they may encounter in their studies, while also gaining valuable insights into the various paths the field will likely take in the coming years. This work is well worth the cost, and provides the reader with much more than a simple overview of how historical inquiry into the medieval period has developed throughout the centuries. The gap may indeed be wide between our world and that of medieval subjects, but this monograph does well to provide avenues for beginning to close that gap.

Oliver Raker

Central Michigan University

January 13, 2018

Emery and Utz, eds: Medievalism

Elizabeth Emery and Richard Utz, eds. Medievalism: Key Critical Terms.  Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2017.

Reviewed by Micheal Crafton (

Medievalism as a scholarly pursuit is, amazingly, still somewhat controversial, however much less than, say, two decades ago and decreasingly so every year.  Yet the topic can still precipitate in some boisterous arguments with “real medievalists,” concerning the belief that it is faddish, or amateurish, or under-theorized or even over-theorized.  I say this in spite of the wonderful work and legacy of Leslie Workman and Kathleen Verduin and in spite of the amazing industry of Richard Utz, especially in his editorial production and network development.  Some people may never be convinced, but this slim (and now less expensive in paperback) volume with its thirty-two separate essays, providing a wide variety of approaches to the subject, should go a long way to bridging the gap between the ongoing debate over what counts as true medieval studies or what methods are acceptable.

This book has three very useful pieces of apparatus, as we used to say in the textbook trade.  There is a very full index that captures terms not listed elsewhere.  Also, at the end of every one of the thirty-two essays on a key critical term is a list of other key critical terms that the author considers useful and relevant, and finally there is an extraordinarily useful introductory essay that groups key critical terms together for diving deeper into cross themes, such as the divide between what is considered professional and what is considered amateur.  This opening essay is worth pausing over because Professors Emery and Utz have taken pains to briefly retell the history of medievalism from the pioneering work of Workman and Verduin to the development of Studies in Medievalism and This Year’s Work in Medievalism.  (In fact, the volume is dedicated to Kathleen Verduin.)  The rest of the introduction is occupied with threading the various key critical terms into a variety of critical theory or methodology debates.

As the authors demonstrate, however, the negotiations of history and epistemology that occur bringing together the extreme ends of the debates affords some of the best nuanced theorizing in the totality of studies on medieval subjects.  The very issue of who is authorized to speak is taken up in a series of terms: “Authenticity,” “Co-Disciplinarity,” and “Reenactment.”  But it is also taken up in such terms as “Continuity,” “Lingua,” “Simulacrum,” and even, strangely, “Purity.”  What many readers will appreciate is how the authors detail the manner in which medieval studies re-authorizes itself by casting off portions of its former self.  One example that is quite illustrative is quoted by David Matthews’s “Chaucer’s American Accent,” wherein Matthews holds up D.W. Robertson, Jr.’s A Preface to Chaucer as what was once a major pillar of medieval studies but that is now pointed out as an example of where medieval studies “went wrong” (7).  To say this method is an example of where it “went wrong” is to say that the degree of deference shown to this overly narrow reading of all medieval literature and art as a species of patristic exegesis paradigm could not be sustained and wasn’t, but the change was Copernican revolution. There was just about no greater authority than Robertson and the Princeton school, but now rarely anyone would employ this method.  So this notion of a pure form of medieval studies that could look down upon medievalism was always already a myth.

There are many gems in this slim introductory essay, but its main function is to launch readers into the essays that provide an interesting opening to medievalism by exploration of one term.  The essays, each one about eight pages long, present varying approaches to the subjects in terms of theory and method, and they are all useful and provocative.  In fact, the diversity of approach and coverage is itself instructive of the work of medievalism.  Additionally, reading the volume as a set of essays rather than as a glossary, I could see a few central themes emerging.  I would say that nearly all of them touch on one or more of these three themes: legitimacy, temporality, and methodology.  Sometimes an essay will focus a great deal on one, and sometimes the themes are marbled.

Pam Clements takes the subject of medievalism’s legitimacy on clearly, directly and forcefully in her essay “Authenticity.”  After reiterating some of the delegitimizing strategies of medieval studies, which in her economical phrasing define medievalism as “the study of necessarily inauthentic ‘medieval’ matter” (20), she begins with a systematic disclosure of the increasingly problematic nature of periodicity.  The romance of the original or the authentic has been and will remain a powerful motivator for both professional studies (with its reverence for scientific proofs of authorship or age or provenance) and amateur studies (folklore groups, for example, obsessed with the original words and forms of songs and tales).  But ultimately it must be accepted that the authentic Middle Ages is a fiction.  Once this fact is recognized, she points out, the appeal to authenticity is made along different lines, ones that must take into account not only the impossibility of some absolute authenticity but also must explore “registers” or areas of authenticity or integrity.  Tennyson’s Idylls of the King is clearly not an “authentic” medieval work in the sense of being created in the period and therefore not the subject of “authentic” medieval studies.  However, due to the evolving deconstruction of exactly what constitutes the so-called authentic Middle Ages and due to developments in cultural and critical theory, it is no longer remarkable to read medieval subjects representing 19th-century British anxiety about a collapsing empire, as in Idylls, as an authentic approach to the study of a medieval subject.  Tennyson’s reflection on the medieval subject can inform our reflection upon that same subject, thereby opening up more of what may have been the medieval world’s own reflection upon the cultural subject.

The arguments in Professor Clements essay are buttressed by many others in the volume.  Certainly Gwendolyn Morgan’s essay on “Authority” and Jonathan Hsy’s on “Co-Disciplinarity,” provide wonderful and self-reflexive approaches to legitimacy and methodology, as does “Reenactment” by Michael Cramer.  Cramer addresses the reflexivity in a dramatic and perhaps personal way by ventriloquizing the criticism of reenactors, calling them “weird” and “nerds” and “dorks” (207).  Lauryn S. Mayer’s essay on “Simulacrum” is also very effective in making the legitimacy case especially in something of a post-modern sense after the manner of Baudrillard.  One of my personal favorites entries is “Genealogy” by Zrinka Stahuljak.  The topic of genealogy is a rich one from the outset, to be sure, and this essay starts off by revisiting Foucault’s famous essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” and its myriad disruptions of what had been the scholarly assumptions of the meaning of this term.  In a brief and impressive display of Foucauldian epistemological disruption, the essay narrows in on George Duby’s 1953 classic La société aux XIe et XIIe siècles dans la région mâconnaise.  Stahuljak reads Duby’s work with respect and care in order to demonstrate that he was Foucauldian ahead of his time in demonstrating a decoupling of genealogy with biology.  This essay does what many in this vein do: they help the reader understand the term in question and then demonstrate that the approach in medievalism not only troubles a naïve understanding of historicity but also shows the utility of medievalism as a methodological tool.  Medieval studies is really not complete without medievalism and vice versa.

On the other two themes that I mentioned at the outset, temporality and methodology, there are many excellent essays as well.  I would highly recommend the essay on “Presentism” by Louise D’Arcens.  Not only does she present the struggle with legitimacy concerns viz-a-viz medieval alterity, but also she reads three different texts that would seem to demonstrate three different approaches to the strange dual-consciousness of this work.  The first one is exemplified in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and its many iterations, representing a nearly total superiority of the modern over the old; the second is illustrated by Jean-Marie Poiré’s Les Visiteurs, using the medieval world as a satire of modernity; and finally, the third approach is demonstrated by Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), an exploration of time travel so outrageous that it “queries all models of temporality” (186).

One of the most enjoyable and perhaps eminently teachable essays is Karl Fugelso’s on the key term “Continuity.”  After his disarmingly clear opening definition—“To qualify as a legitimate focus for the study of medievalism a subject must refer to the Middle Ages, yet stand apart from the period” (53)—he proceeds to analyze three illustrations of Dante’s Inferno Canto 13: one, a fourteenth-century Italian manuscript, Holkham Miscellanae 48; two, William Blake’s 1824 version, unfinished; and three, Seymour Chast’s 2010 graphic novel Dante’s Divine Comedy.  By analyzing what in each illustration seems to represent as medieval or not medieval in terms of style, he proposes what might be considered a methodology for quantifying the presence of the medieval.  But what it ultimately allows him to demonstrate is the difficulty of proving continuity or even discontinuity, and how we too are imbricated in the hermeneutic enterprise.

I will close this review with one final observation.  Among the essays for the terms, one finds a variety in scope or focus of analysis.  While the majority of the essays address issues across the realms of time, some do not.  Zrinka Stahuljak’s essay on “Genealogy,” for example, focuses almost exclusively on medieval subjects; whereas Elizabeth Fay’s essay on “Troubadour” treats nearly nothing but post-medieval subjects.  One will find very little about the troubadour poets in the latter but rather a great deal about Renaissance, Romantic, and Victorian appropriations of troubadour ideas or conceits.  While this variety to me is interesting and enjoyable, it is something that readers or rather users of this book as a glossary should be aware of.  I firmly believe this book will prove quite useful to students, professors, and the general reader.  The variety of ideas, approaches, and subjects touched upon is stunning and will reward careful reading.

Micheal Crafton
University of West Georgia