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

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

February 13, 2017

G.B. Shaw: Saint Joan (Bedlam)

George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan performed by Bedlam at the McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton, NJ.

Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty (

Bedlam is known for staging multi-part plays using only four actors to play all the required roles—in this case Andrus Nichols as Joan, and Eric Tucker (who also directs), Edmund Lewis and Tom O’Keefe playing more than two dozen different characters and changing roles multiple times often in mid-sentence.  The result is mesmerizing theatre that trusts Shaw’s often problematic text to tell the story of a character whose life and legacy have always been the subject of, to use current parlance, alternate facts, and whose trail and execution were based on both extraordinary rendition and false equivalencies, and fueled by nationalism and its attendant concerns. Why do Shaw’s Saint Joan today? The answer is simple: the play’s relevance to contemporary events is more than apparent without even the slightest stretch.

Of the three Western European medieval figures who have continued to inform all of post-medieval aspects of high and low culture—Robin Hood, King Arthur, and Joan—it is perhaps ironic that only the real historical figure of the three should have the most complicated legacy.  Because of the surviving detailed records of the 1431 trial that condemned her to death and of the 1456 trial that exonerated her, Joan’s biography is among the most detailed of any person who lived before the twentieth century.  And the facts of her life have only been amplified by the way they have been interpreted to inform the Jehane cult and legend. Mark Twain would write of her in a book he considered his best:

“When we reflect that her century was the brutalest, the wickedest, the rottenest in history since the darkest ages, we are lost in wonder at the miracle of such a product from such a soil. The contrast between her and her century is the contrast between day and night. She was truthful when lying was the common speech of men; she was honest when honesty was become a lost virtue; she was a keeper of promises when the keeping of a promise was expected of no one; she gave her great mind to great thoughts and great purposes when other great minds wasted themselves upon pretty fancies or upon poor ambitions; she was modest, and fine, and delicate when to be loud and coarse might be said to be universal; she was full of pity when a merciless cruelty was the rule; she was steadfast when stability was unknown, and honorable in an age which had forgotten what honor was; she was a rock of convictions in a time when men believed in nothing and scoffed at all things; she was unfailingly true to an age that was false to the core; she maintained her personal dignity unimpaired in an age of fawnings and servilities; she was of a dauntless courage when hope and courage had perished in the hearts of her nation; she was spotlessly pure in mind and body when society in the highest places was foul in both—she was all these things in an age when crime was the common business of lords and princes, and when the highest personages in Christendom were able to astonish even that infamous era and make it stand aghast at the spectacle of their atrocious lives black with unimaginable treacheries, butcheries, and bestialities.”

Indeed, Joan, now co-opted in France by the Far Right and Marine Le Pen’s National Front as their role model and patron saint, remains variously virgin and whore, heretic and saint, mother of a nation and flashpoint for fascism, fanatic and madwoman, warrior and Maid of Orléans.  On the stage, she has attracted decidedly different treatments from, among others, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Zamora, Schiller, Brecht (more than once), Claudel, Maeterlinck, Anouilh, Mell, Anderson, Feiffer, and, of course, Shaw—who saw Joan as one of the first Protestants and the pioneer for rational dressing for women. (See Shaw’s preface to his play for further details.)

And Shaw’s Joan has become a rite of passage and benchmark for women actors in the way Shakespeare’s Hamlet has become for men. Among those who have played her on stage are Wendy Hiller, Uta Hagen, Siobhan McKenna, Sian Phillips, Zoe Caldwell, Sarah Miles, Joan Plowright, Judi Dench, Lee Grant, Janet Suzman, Lynn Redgrave, Eileen Atkins, and Roberta Maxwell.  And the challenges of playing Shaw’s Joan were clearly delineated by Winifred Lehman, the first to play the role, in an interview in the American (11 May 1924):

“Joan of Arc is an international religion.  It wasn’t just a sentimental song-writer who put into the mouths of millions during the war a song calling upon Joan.  He voiced a mass emotion. Something was needed beyond ourselves.  If we couldn’t all reach up to God, we could to one of His workers, Joan of Arc, her history, legend, idealization, root in our childhood.  Each member of the audience comes to the theatre with an ideal, not cerebral, but emotional.  This is why I say the actress is given an almost impossible task to fill. . . .

The lines the actress speaks show the girl wise, courageous, far-sighted, intensely human—but the lines themselves don’t show the saint.  The inner vision, the spiritual surge which lifts the role to the plane of the audience’s ideal are not in the lines but behind them.  To play the one and let the others shine through is the most difficult task in the world.”

But Andrus Nichols rises to that task.  Shaw’s Joan is not the Joan we may be familiar with from the screen who can play to the camera.  As Nichols shows, Shaw’s Joan can be self-assured; she can be cocky; she can even at times be funny.  And Nichols is more than ably supported by her colleagues who follow Shaw’s advice that both Joan’s her opponents and her supporters are not simply contrasting one-dimensional studies in black and white.

The production is done in modern dress, with some of the audience seated on stage.  This set up works much better in the second and third parts of the production, when the audience, seated in bleachers more clearly become observers as well as participants once removed in the action.  In the first part of the McCarter production, the audience sits on folding chairs on a stage that appears at first littered with random detritus, and the result is too much visual discord and disjunction.  And throughout the production, actors exit into and enter from the auditorium proper in a production that is a kinetic opening up of Shaw’s talky play, which does not include scenes easily staged as spectacle, such as the taking of Orléans, the Charles’s coronation, or the burning of Joan—all of which, Shaw averred in his preface, would only distract from the play and cause the audience to lose their train of thought..  The interaction between cast and the audience seated on the stage is most successful in Shaw’s epilogue, when the now rehabilitated Joan’s ghost appears to King “Charlie” and others, and the English soldier who fashioned a cross of wood for her to hold at the stake is given his annual day out of hell for this one act of kindness.  Shaw’s Saint Joan is a masterpiece, as the wonderful, engaging, and never dull Bedlam production makes more than abundantly clear.

George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, January 13-February 12, in rotating repertory with William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, performed by Bedlam at the McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton, NJ. Directed by Eric Tucker. Set by John McDermott. Lighting by Les Dickert. Fight direction by Trampas Thompson.  Featuring Edmund Lewis as the Dauphin, John de Stogumber and others; Andrus Nichols as Joan; Tom O’Keefe as Bishop Pierre Cauchon,  Bertrand de Poulengey and others; and Eric Tucker as “Jack” Dunois, the Earl of Warwick, and others.

Kevin J. Harty
La Salle University