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

March 23, 2018

Kears and Paz, eds: Medieval Science Fiction

Carl Kears and James Paz, eds. Medieval Science Fiction. KCLMS XXIV. London: Centre for Late Antique & Medieval Studies/Boydell & Brewer, 2016.
Reviewed by Annie Heckel (
Medieval Science Fiction is a lovely anthology not only for the thoughtful scholarship of its contributors, but also for the sheer breadth of texts and other materials that those contributors discuss. With works ranging from Beowulf to Star Trek, and authors from Conrad Kyeser to Edwin Morgan, the juxtapositions set out in the anthology are thought-provoking, and give a good sense of the wide range of materials available for study under the umbrellas of both science fiction and medievalism. The volume contains a total of fourteen essays including the foreword and introduction; the essays are sorted into six sections: “Science & Fiction in the ‘Dark Ages’”; “Time & Space Travel”; “The Alien”; “Technologies & Manmade Marvels”; “Distant Planets, Distant Futures”; and “Making Medieval Science Fiction.”
The book begins with James Hannam’s foreword, “Medieval Science and Fiction.” In the foreword, Hannam reviews the problem that we all encounter whenever someone outside the field hears the word “science” in close proximity to “medieval,” and scoffs that “everyone knows there was no science in the Middle Ages” (xv). He provides a quick, useful summary of what we do know about science in the European Middle ages, giving overviews of different cosmologies, the Quadrivium, travel literature, treatises on flora and fauna (including bestiaries), medical texts, and texts on astronomy. Hannam’s foreword on its own could be a wonderful addition to an introductory medieval studies course, as it gives readers a solid catalog of both major pre-modern scientific concepts and authors (e.g., Macrobius, Martianus Cappella, Dante, and Boethius).
In the introduction to the volume, “Medieval Science Fiction: An Impossible Fantasy?,” Carl Kears and James Paz build on Hannam’s engagement with the popular belief in the incompatibility of science and the Middle Ages, particularly the idea that “the terms ‘medieval’ and ‘science fiction’ do not belong together” (3), before briefly discussing the disagreements in the field about when, exactly, science fiction seems to have originated. In addition to summarizing the essays contained in the anthology, Kears and Paz focus quite a bit on defining the characteristics of science fiction, considering the ways in which those characteristics do apply quite appropriately to a range of medieval works, and going over the uses acknowledged science fiction makes of medieval settings and characteristics.
The first sub-section of the volume, “Science & Fiction in the ‘Dark Ages’,” contains one essay, “Is Beowulf Science Fiction?” by Daniel Anzelark, which establishes the strength of a claim for Beowulf as medieval science fiction by contrasting the way that Bede and Ælfric describe the creation of the earth, highlighting Ælfric’s focus on the spiritual importance, and Bede’s focus on the scientific characteristics. Anzelark’s point is that the Beowulf author’s description of the creation of the earth in lines 90-98 of the poem are much closer to Bede than to Ælfric, an argument that helps to solidly establish the idea that medieval authors, too, drew contrasts between spiritual and scientific understandings of the world around them.
“Time & Space Travel” is the second section, and it examines a variety of journeys between temporal settings. In “The Future is a Foreign Country: The Legend of the Seven Sleepers and the Anglo-Saxon Sense of the Past,” R. M. Liuzza provides strong follow-up to Anzelark’s essay on Beowulf, making an argument for seeing the stories of displacing sleep as a variety of time travel that “folds” past and present as neatly and bewilderingly as any time machine. Patricia Clare Ingham shifts to modern science fiction featuring time travel back to the middle ages in “Untimely Travel: Living and Dying in Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book.” Ingham’s essay examines Willis’ use of a historically medieval setting to draw together the past and future, highlighting the similarities of human experience during parallel events in two times that initially seem to have more differences than commonalities. While all three essays in this section were strong, Jeff Massey’s “‘On Second Thought, Let’ Not Go To Camelot . . . ’Tis a Silly Space’: Star Trek and the Inconsequence of SF Medievalism” deals with a sore spot that can be particularly annoying to those who love both the medieval and science fiction. Massey explores the rather obnoxious disdain with which a variety of Star Trek series (mis)treat not only medieval narratives, but even the very concept of medieval culture, exposing a weakness in Gene Rodenberry’s generally strong series.
The volume’s third section is titled “The Alien,” and includes one essay that examines medieval aliens in the form of the Green Children of Woolpit, and one that discusses modern aliens with Anglo-Saxon connections. The legend of the Green Children is examined at length in Mary Baine Campbell’s essay “‘Those two green children which Nubrigensis speaks of in his time, that fell from heaven’, or the Origins of Science Fiction”; Campbell makes an admirable effort to sort out the singular and confusing story of the Green Children of Woolpit by looking at the accounts of Ralph of Coggeshall and William of Newbury, as well as their literary inheritors. While Campbell’s argument does not clarify how we should understand the story, she makes a strong point that in both accounts, we can see clear use of scientific information to try and understand the children’s origin and meaning. Campbell’s discussion of terrestrial aliens is followed by “Aliens and Anglo-Saxons in Edwin Morgan’s ‘The First Men on Mercury’” by Denis Ferhatović, which introduces the fascinating language play and linguistic creep that Morgan uses as a theme in a range of his poems. Morgan’s deconstruction and reconstruction of language dramatizes not only the way that languages and people mix and change one another in “alien” encounters, but also the way in which our experience of works from the past change us more than we know or may want them to.
The discussion of little green men is followed by a section titled “Technologies & Manmade Marvels,” which begins with Andy Sawyer’s essay “The Riddle of Medieval Technology.” Sawyer opens his essay with the Discworld novels of the greatly missed Terry Pratchett, highlighting one of Pratchett’s main strategies for humor: the juxtaposition of what “everybody knows” with what actually is. Sawyer uses Pratchett as a model, comparing “the medieval worlds depicted in SF with the actuality of so-called non-technological societies,” which leads him to the conclusion, explored through the rest of the essay, that the resulting “disjunct . . . can only be solved by questioning our assumptions about these societies and what ‘technology’ and ‘science’ meant to them” (153). He also asks the question, prompted by the work of historians like Lynn White and Jean Gimpel, of what science fiction might result from regarding “the medieval period as one which creatively and speculatively embraced technology” (153), answering that question with an examination of Terry Pratchett’s depiction of technological advances in the Discworld novels.
The second essay of this section, “Dreams of War, Dreams of Dragons’ Fire: Conrad Kyeser’s Bellifortis” by Alison Harthill, discusses military devices and strategies that seem more suited to Pratchett’s fantasy world than to the 15th century audience for whom it was written. Harthill’s analysis of Kyeser’s fantastic manual is a fascinating examination of the way that medieval treatises on warfare could move beyond realistic strategy into a fantastic realm of imagined technologies. Harthill focuses on a range of weapons from the text, including automata, fireworks, and magic, arguing that the text is meant less as a practical handbook—though it can function as such for some elements—and more as a work meant to “provide the reader with material for dreams which go beyond the bounds of what is known, what is reality” (191), helping to create the sort of strong leader of whom Kyeser himself dreamed.
The fifth section of the anthology, “Distant Planets, Distant Futures,” contains two essays that make strong cases for the clear continuation of medieval literary traditions in science fiction as a genre. This part of the book begins with “Courtly Love on Mars: E. R. Burroughs and the Medieval Lineage of Planetary Romance” by Andrew Scheil. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series, a science fiction classic, must make its way into any anthology dealing broadly with science fiction; here, Scheil links Burroughs’ series in for the distinct way in which it brings science fiction and courtly love together. Scheil’s main argument is that the Barsoom series needs to have “a place in the study of early twentieth-century medievalism” (201), and also that planetary romance as a genre needs to be considered as a form of neomedieval romance.
In “The Medieval Dying Earth,” James Paz switches to an earlier time, pointing out the resurgence of elegy in science fiction. Paz opens his essay by juxtaposing a passage from Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth (a collection of linked stories) with a passage from the Old English elegy The Wanderer, using the striking similarities to argue for the importance of looking at new apocalyptic fiction in relation to old apocalyptic works. In addition to the texts with which the essay begins, Paz discusses Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun and another Exeter Book elegy, The Ruin, highlighting the way all four works make use of what Kathleen Davis termed “multiple temporalities” (qtd. in Paz 222).
The final section of the volume, “Making Medieval Science Fiction,” changes from establishing  a space for the medieval elements we see in science fiction to discussing how to actively distinguish, develop, and promote a realistic medieval aesthetic in science fiction. Minsoo Kang begins this last piece of the book with “Catapunk: Toward a Medieval Aesthetic of Science Fiction.” Kang approaches the problem of medieval science fiction from a very different direction than most essays in the anthology. He begins by analyzing how the medieval has been re-envisioned in science fiction, then shifts from what is to what could be, determining what characteristics would need to be present in a truly “medieval science fiction,” coining the term “catapunk” (the catapult being a “quintessentially medieval device” in the way that steam was central to the 19th century in which steampunk is set) as a genre term for works that fit this definition (257).
Kang’s definition is followed by Guy Consolmagno’s “Medieval Cosmology and World Building,” which makes an argument that could be very helpful to any author interested in experimenting with “catapunk,” and expands nicely on James Hannam’s foreword with a careful and thoughtful look at the range of cosmologies available to the well-read student of religion and philosophy, both in our time and the Middle Ages. Consolmagno highlights the way that many different cosmologies overlap and interact within individual eras (not only the medieval, but our own as well), pointing out the importance of recognizing how each cosmology has a foundation of assumptions that may not align with other cosmologies. This point is particularly significant when he examines the lack of alignment between our current requirements for high standards of proof as a reason for the difficulty we have understanding pre-Enlightenment cosmologies.
The final essay, “Discovering Eifelheim” by Michael F. Flynn, fits well into the “Making Medieval Science Fiction” section, but is also quite different from the rest of the essays in the book. It is a discussion of process by Flynn, a writer of what we can, by this point in the anthology, term “medieval science fiction.” It’s a nice inclusion to have in an anthology mostly focused on scholarly analysis, and adds a perspective on the issue that is different but no less thought-provoking and rigorous than the essays by scholars of literature and history.
Overall, this volume should be a welcome addition to any library frequented by scholars of medieval studies or science fiction; the essays included all rise admirably to the challenge of creating a space in which the concept of medieval science fiction not only makes sense, but also helps us to consider old and new texts from different angles. The choice to bring in scientific, historic, and philosophical texts as well as literary works is a strength of this anthology, giving it a breadth that is sometimes lacking in academic anthologies even in a diverse field like medieval studies. Paz and Kears have put together an excellent, interdisciplinary volume that emphasizes the wide range of approaches we can take as the study of medievalism continues to develop.
Annie Heckel
Independent Scholar

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