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

September 25, 2019

Anderson: Postmodern Artistry / Medievalist Fiction

Earl R. Anderson: Postmodern Artistry in Medievalist Fiction: An International Study. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2018

Reviewed by Jesse Swan ( 

There is much to appreciate and admire about Earl R. Anderson’s compendious detailing of “medievalist fiction.” Although Anderson draws on much pre as well as post-medieval literature, his best contributions to learning come in his discussion of twentieth-century work. Most admirably, he reads in multiple languages and expresses perspicacious knowledge and judgment about important translations. This multilingualism inspires confidence throughout the many expositions, expositions served especially adeptly by remarkably expert and incisive summaries. The student new to medievalist fiction will benefit most from this feature. The concentration on the “artistry” of postmodern medievalist fiction is meant to ground the exposition in objective and rhetorical features of the essentially abstract, amorphous, and ephemeral literary phenomenon. This concentration is forthrightly presented as a heuristic, and as such, it functions well, particularly, no doubt, for the reader more accustomed to modern protocols over pre or postmodern literacies. And his presentation of central problems, notably of the distinctions between the modern and the postmodern, as sorites, or problems of rhetorical structure, like his imaginative recourse to the concept of “Daimon” (9), drawn from Angus Fletcher (Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode), to characterize the composite features giving power to a work, is clever and useful.

About drawbacks of his study, Anderson himself tries to present a sort of justification and explanation in the Postscript. “One reviewer” of the manuscript, Anderson reports, notes that Anderson “is in a position to draw important conclusions about medievalist fiction and postmodernism’s legacy” (191). The reviewer further exclaims, “I’d recommend taking that opportunity” (191). Declining to heed the reviewer’s advice, Anderson says that he favors leaving such intellectual contributions to “younger scholars” (191). Although he declines to make original contributions to the intellectual history of medievalism and postmodernism, he does offer a rudimentary quantitative analysis of references in the Modern Language Association International Bibliography, which he calls a “’Pareto experiment’” (192), and three exhortations for those who might attempt to take his manuscript reviewer’s advice. The “’Pareto experiment’” Anderson derives from the Pareto effect, which is derived from the engineer and early economist, Vilfredo Pareto. Paralleling artistic accomplishment with material productivity of industry, the latter Pareto’s concern, Anderson endeavors to show that most of the productivity of postmodern artistry with medievalism comes from very few authors and is recognized by even fewer critics, scholars, and literary historians. The three exhortations to intellectuals who attempt to make various sorts of conclusions about postmodernism and medievalisms are as follows: “First, pay attention to artistry. . . . Second: more literature, with less theory. . . . Third: pay attention to serious authors who seem to be unfairly neglected in academic criticism” (191).

The Introduction to the book is much more promising than the book as a whole, in terms of providing critical, theoretical, and literary historical or historiographical judgment, judgment that seems, again in the introduction, both susceptive and penetrating. Anderson’s over-reliance on the equational grammar of linking verbs – usually “is” – can provide the feeling of simplicity, clarity, and substance, but by the middle of the first chapter of the body of the book, it becomes clear that the grammar controls the thinking and the mode. This is unfortunate, implicitly, for the manuscript reviewer referenced in the Postscript as well as, explicitly, for this reviewer. It surprises, given Anderson’s obvious intelligence, breadth of knowledge, polyglotism, and expressed preference for the postmodern over the modern. In considering the “mantra” that “’postmodern’ does not mean ‘better,’” Anderson decides, “I disagree. In my research I encountered a handful of weak novels in the ‘postmodern’ category. Postmodern storytelling options offer no guarantee of superior artistry – but usually these coincide” (9).

As Anderson points out, features generative of the postmodern challenge modern modes by mixing and participating, mixing forms of knowledge and genres and participating in past and future works and readings. He prefers these postmodern medievalist works, such as Umberto Eco’s Il nome della rosaand Italo Calvino’s Il cavaliere inesistente, yet he refuses to engage them on their terms. This is probably why he recommends drawing upon “less theory,” since the criticism, scholarship, and literary history that he considers “theory” does participate with the literature on the literature’s own, postmodern terms. Anderson, instead, treats the literature in stabilized, mechanical, modern terms. For example, in discussing the postmodern medieval artistry of Eco, Calvino, and Laura Esquivel, in terms of their engagement of semiotics, Anderson explicates them in relation to Augustine and Roger Bacon. In the usual way of homogenizing the past according to one’s own present, Anderson modernizes Augustine and Bacon as well as Eco, Calvino, and Esquivel. An approach that would match the postmodern authors he promotes would do as they do. To use Anderson’s own apt words, a postmodern appreciation of the postmodern medievalist works would resist a stabilizing, mechanical modernity: “In the context of authority and hierarchy, postmodernism says ‘no’ but then follows up with a positive assertion of its own” (142). An important “no” postmodern scholarship asserts is the rejection of the tight synchronic linearity of modernity. Postmodern scholarship does this by noticing and appreciating distinctions that disrupt as much as it notices features that seem to build. With Augustine, one might be sure to bring to bear his theology and, with Bacon, one might keep foregrounded his scholasticism. Both Augustine’s theology and Bacon’s scholasticism are very different from Eco, Calvino, and Esquivel’s post-secularisms, even as there are connections among the five. Anderson’s manner of thinking about the literature and style of writing about medievalism and postmodernism occludes such important nuances in favor of blunter assertions of connections.

While some readers will wish the obvious intelligence and admirably broad knowledge informing this study would have provided critical, literary, and historiographical conclusions about postmodern medievalism, all readers will be rewarded by the expert summary and presentation of major works of literature and criticism forming recognized and less recognized instances of literary medievalisms of the twentieth century.

Jesse Swan
University of Northern Iowa

August 26, 2019

Turner: Chaucer, A European Life

Marion Turner. Chaucer: A European Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.

Reviewed by Robert J. Meyer-Lee (

Addressing Chaucer’s legacy in the epilogue to Chaucer: A European Life, Marion Turner writes, “Chaucer became a monumental poet, enclosed in a monumental tomb, with monumental volumes of his Complete Works functioning as the bedrock of the English national canon” (506). By this point, Turner’s readers will readily understand that the repetition of the adjective monumental here signals that this eventuality represents a regrettable distortion of the real significance and actual tenor of the poet’s writings, as Turner has characterized them in the preceding pages. Acknowledging that “[i]n death, Chaucer came to represent Englishness, patriarchy, authority[,]” Turner ends her account of his life by highlighting, in contrast, his current status as “an inspiration for diverse writers around the globe…the starting point for Refugee Tales, a collection published in 2016 that brings together contemporary politics, current writers, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales” (508). In a nutshell, this concluding move—which repositions Chaucer from authoritative, national literary patriarch to inspiring, approachable global story teller—encapsulates the most essential aim of this remarkable new biography.

Without question, this book is an astounding scholarly achievement, one that will evoke in current and future readers of Chaucer tremendous gratitude, serve as a springboard for innumerable new research projects, and leave more than a few of us gaping in awe. Its approach to its subject, however, involves a bit of a paradox, given that its very existence depends, of course, on the history of Chaucer’s canonical monumentality. (This is not a criticism: it is inescapable.) Moreover, the volume is itself monumental, in at least a couple of ways. Most obviously, the book is massive, totaling more the 600 pages from title page through the end of its exceptionally detailed index. Since very little actual new biographical information about Chaucer has been unearthed since, say, Derek Pearsall’s popular 1992 biography of the poet (and the vast majority of documents were compiled in Martin M. Crow and Clair C. Olson’s 1966 Chaucer Life-Records), potential readers of this new one may wonder what is on offer that escaped Pearsall’s seemingly thorough 375 pages. The answer lies in Turner’s innovative organization.

To be sure, the book’s largest contours are predictable, as it progresses chronologically through Chaucer’s life and, as the titles of its three major parts (“Becoming,” “Being,” and “Approaching Canterbury”) suggest, presents that life teleologically, as culminating in the composition of his consensus literary masterpiece. Yet, just one level down, with the individual chapters, we encounter a striking difference: rather than zooming in on a more fine-grained subdivision of Chaucer’s life, each of the twenty chapters instead focuses on a specific kind of physical space. Some of these are geographical places (such as Chapter 4’s “Hainault and Navarre” or Chapter 15’s “South of the Thames”), some are institutions (such as Chapter 12’s “Parliament” or Chapter 20’s “Abbey”), and some are abstractions closely associated with physical objects or positions (such as Chapter 8’s “cage” or Chapter 19’s “threshold”). In this organization, the raison d'être of each chapter is not simply to account for Chaucer’s life but also to evoke more broadly a vivid, detailed sense of a particular facet of the late medieval world through which Chaucer moved—to weave a historical narrative fabric in which Chaucer’s life serves as just one thread among others, albeit the most prominent and intertwined thread. Each chapter, therefore, may be appreciated as a standalone essay, a set piece that may be comprehended in its own terms and that might serve as a reading assignment for, say, medieval history courses, as well as literature courses.

Within the chapters, one of Turner’s frequent methods is to take a single item or set of related items from the Chaucer Life-Records and follow the chains of references leading out from these terse bureaucratic texts, constructing thereby a sort of thick description of the context that produced them. For example, in Chapter 6, Turner considers the commission for Chaucer’s 1372-73 journey to Genoa and Florence, tracing its political, economic, social, and cultural implications in ever-widening circles that eventually attain global scale. In addition, then, to noting the usual significance ascribed to this trip—that it represents Chaucer’s first exposure to trecento literature—Turner paints a detailed picture of fraught international systems of commerce and the various conflicts that they engendered. In this way, Turner shows us the Chaucer that many of his contemporaries would have most readily recognized: a minor but still important player on the international political stage, a skilled, valued diplomat who adroitly negotiated multiple competing interests. In chapters such as this one (and they are the overwhelming majority) this method—and more generally Turner’s thematic-space focus—produces a thoroughly absorbing, illuminating, and informative essay.

In a few instances, in contrast, I found that the method foundered a bit, typically because the relations between the thematic space and life records are rather loose. In Chapter 19, for example, the thematic space of the threshold serves to bind together the end of the Canterbury Tales, the end of Chaucer’s life, and the end of Richard II’s reign; but in this case the rather general concept of threshold functions more as an umbrella term than as a specific facet of Chaucer’s world that illuminates a network of otherwise obscure relations. To be sure, since the chapters may be read as standalone essays, the occasional miss does not much matter among the many hits. Yet, since this biography nonetheless does proceed chronologically, if readers consult it specifically for an account of the late 1390s, they cannot avoid Chapter 19. But in fact I doubt that readers will much use the book in the latter fashion, as it is simply not organized in a manner that easily facilitates this use (like, say, Pearsall’s is). That is, I imagine that readers will turn to this volume not so much as a reference work (or as an introduction to the poet) but instead for a series of literary critical touchstones—for bracing encounters with Turner’s views on a particular moment in Chaucer’s life, a particular cross-section of late medieval history, a particular literary work, or, most important, the myriad relations among these. (Although those who do use the volume for this purpose may sometimes be frustrated by how its organization entails that the readings of some of Chaucer’s works are distributed across several chapters. For this reason, the index, as I have mentioned, is appropriately capacious, but this means that it is also unwieldy.)

Another way that this biography is monumental has profounder implications but is just as evident. In seeking to counter the monumentalization of Chaucer as English poetic patriarch, Turner provides exactly that: a counter-monumentalization. The biography as a whole, that is, constructs a memorializing representation of Chaucer that is plainly designed to elicit, on balance, admiration. Turner’s Chaucer is tolerant, urbane, and cosmopolitan. He has his eyes on the street, among the people, not cast up toward the clouds, dazed by numinous philosophical and spiritual abstractions. He is troubled by political absolutism, skeptical toward empire, and appreciative of cultural, ethnic, and social difference. He has egalitarian ideas regarding class and gender. He is appreciative of visiting foreigners and resident immigrants. He is a critical thinker, wants to foster critical thinking in his readers, and is fully cognizant of the complexities, subjectivity, and open-endedness of interpretation. He aims to empower his readers to make sound ethical decisions without imposing upon them any kind of rigid moral framework. Throughout the book, for example, are comments similar to the following: “In his Canterbury Tales years, Chaucer embraced the idea of equivalence—in terms of genre, interpretation, social status, and gender. This ability to equalize without homogenizing is central to Chaucer’s ethical stance and to his poetic art. The genius of the Tales lies in its valuing of difference qua difference…Readers must make decisions for themselves” (366-67). This Chaucer is, in short, a decidedly attractive one (to me, at least), especially, and not at all coincidentally, when set against the backdrop of the twenty-first century chauvinism so evident in Brexit and Donald Trump.

The question that this counter-monumentalization inevitably provokes, then, is whether a Chaucer so attractive in twenty-first-century ideological terms is also a historically accurate one. And, certainly, Turner devotes her considerable facility with the nitty gritty of historical inquiry into building precisely this argument. Nonetheless, I suspect that readers will have a variety of estimations of her success in this regard. In my case, as much as I want her to be right about Chaucer, and find myself in full agreement on many points, I could not help but notice those moments in which her argument rests on highly contestable readings of particular literary works. For example, for Turner the Knight’s Tale is a critique of political absolutism, the Wife of Bath exhibits empowered agency over the misogynist texts from which she is drawn, and the Parson’s Tale, far from providing an authoritative conclusion to the Tales, presents “a vision that codifies the self in relentlessly simplifying ways[,]” one that “contrasts starkly with the ethical and compassionate emphasis on gentilesse as a quality not determined by gender, class, or age in other tales” (478). None of these readings is in itself especially far-fetched, and all are well argued. Yet, taken together, at times they seemed to constitute a carefully curated wardrobe in which potentially embarrassing items have been pushed to the back rack.

Along these same lines, the rather brief treatment (about two pages of sustained discussion) of what is today the single most fraught element of Chaucer’s biography—Cecily Champaigne’s rape charge—will raise some readers’ eyebrows. This discussion itself, laudably, seeks neither to defend Chaucer nor even especially to muddy the waters of the possibility that he was a perpetrator of sexual violence. Nevertheless, by the end of the discussion Turner notably shifts the emphasis, observing that Chaucer’s “life gave him multiple experiences of women as thinking and independent beings, strong women, even though they underwent all kinds of legal and social constraints” (212). The cumulative effect of such shifts is to ensure that what the book most memorializes about Chaucer is what many of those who treasure his writings would most prefer to remember.

Any book this ambitious and complex will also provoke other, more minor quibbles. For example, some of the more speculative discussions—about dates of composition, about the early circulation of Chaucer’s poems—I sometimes found less than helpful or even tendentious. And considerations of the complications and uncertainties of the manuscript evidence for Chaucer’s works, and especially for the Canterbury Tales, are rather less frequent and less in-depth than I think are needed. But these are indeed quibbles. Turner’s biography will without doubt become one of the anchors of Chaucer Studies for many years to come. Even more important, it will likely help spur the creative energies of those “diverse writers around the globe” that Turner spotlights in her epiloguethose crucial readers of Chaucer who will, more than anyone else, continue to make this late medieval English poet matter.

Robert J. Meyer-Lee
Agnes Scott College

August 6, 2019

Gribling: The Image of Edward The Black Prince

Barbara Gribling. The Image of Edward The Black Prince in Georgian and Victorian England: Negotiating the Late Medieval Past. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2017.

Reviewed by Rebekah Greene (

Barbara Gribling’s The Image of Edward The Black Prince in Georgian and Victorian England: Negotiating the Late Medieval Past offers a wonderfully intricate survey of the ways that the image of the Black Prince evolved to support challenging and complex considerations of the role of the monarch, the martial history of the British people, and the portrayal of medieval chivalry.  A recent entry in the Royal Historical Society’s Studies in History series, this 171-page volume offers a closer examination of a wide array of art forms including paintings, opera, theatrical performances, toy theaters, panoramas, and even children’s books. Looking more closely at the Black Prince as a “generous and humble . . . military hero and loyal son” (12) celebrated for chivalry and an innate loyalty to England established him as a model for improved character in ways that successfully appealed to the socially elite, as well as the lower classes (18). Through her exploration of both royal and popular usage of the Black Prince’s image, Gribling draws readers in to a compelling interdisciplinary discussion of the ways that medievalism and the image of the Black Prince was used as an avenue to explore political power and personal character.

Gribling troubles the notion that the Victorians, especially, viewed the medieval period as an idyllic one. Indeed, the works that are examined in this book demonstrate that the usage of the Black Prince’s image shifted from sumptuous royal reimaginings of the medieval past carefully curated to celebrate English honor and power to lesser artwork targeted to more mainstream working-class audiences interested in interrogating the violence of war. Observing that the Georgians and Victorians alike used art for educational purposes, Gribling also notes that they used art to tease out the relationships between royal and parliamentary power and to question the ideas of nationhood and broader global ambitions. Ultimately, the chivalric figure of the Black Prince offered artists and their patrons a convenient starting point for a reconsideration of England’s past and present roles on a greater world stage.

A special highlight of the volume is Gribling’s first chapter, “Royal Associations: Heroic Character and Chivalric Ceremony at the Court of George III,” which hones in on the interest that George III had in the late Middle Ages and the ways that he could repurpose the medieval to emphasize his own majesty and power. Starting her survey with an overview of George’s Order of the Garter investiture ceremonies (he held his first in 1762 and his last in 1805), Gribling notes that for George the ceremonies were a powerful link between royalty, chivalry, and tradition; significant given George’s own status as a Hanoverian monarch.    

However, the true highlight of this first chapter is a study of five out of a series of eight paintings that George III commissioned by the American-born artist Benjamin West for the audience chamber at Windsor during the 1780s. The five paintings that Gribling spotlights (The institution of the Order of the Garter, Edward III crossing the Somme, Edward, the Black Prince, receiving King John of France after the Battle of Poitiers, Edward III with the Black Prince after the Battle of Crècy, and The Burghers of Calais), all feature the Black Prince. Gribling argues that George III intended this sequence to highlight his usage of “the arts to assert the monarchy’s importance at a time when the powers of the king were being restricted” (27), as well as “a new kind of national history that moved away from the mythological to highlight a triumphal British past on a grand scale” (28). Drawing on archival materials that include West’s own preparatory notes for the sequence, the textual sources that he used for his designs, and contemporary studies of West and his reception, Gribling demonstrates the close collaboration between artist and patron. George III was very much involved throughout the entirety of the process, choosing the theme for the series, selecting West, and then regularly visiting with West to discuss art while the latter worked (27). Surviving records suggest that both men viewed art as educative, something that could help “improve a viewer’s character” (32).

Gribling notes that reading the Black Prince’s image in these paintings leads viewers to a consideration of the Black Prince as a model public servant and dutiful son, the perfect chivalric figure. Viewers could consider these paintings—and the Black Prince’s depiction—as lessons in royal authority and service to the monarch leading to a triumphant display of English character (30-31). The one weakness to this chapter is that Gribling—a scholar of national identity and consumer culture—does not explore the rich irony of a Hanoverian king partnering with an American-born painter to tell the story of British national identity in the years immediately following the (French-supported) American Revolution. The heightened tensions between Britain and France during this time period surely must have led George to think of past moments of national triumph worthy of celebration, something that future researchers may wish to explore more deeply.

A second highlight of The Image of Edward the Black Prince is Chapter 5, “Emulating Edward? Redefining Chivalry and Character.” In this chapter, Gribling suggests that the Black Prince’s image was widely used throughout the Victorian period (1837-1901) in a variety of materials targeted towards adolescents promoting proper masculine behavior (92). She identifies three primary shifts in this depiction: the Black Prince as a civilized, properly behaved gentleman; the Black Prince as “robust” and physically fit, capable of physical service to his nation (92-93); and finally as a violent warrior (93). Throughout this chapter, Gribling traces these shifts as they occurred in popular histories, children’s textbooks, games, and adventure novels. Of great interest is her observation that late Victorian authors and educators, especially post-1870, were interested in thinking about the Black Prince as a man of violence, “a lesson for boys on how not to behave” (109). Gribling establishes that Victorian writers and artisans recognized the medieval period, and even heroes such as the Black Prince, as highly complicated. Provocatively, she states that “[b]y the turn of the twentieth century, there was a growing ambivalence towards the Black Prince as a role model” (114), hinting that yet another sea-change in the construction of national identity was taking place.

Throughout The Image of the Black Prince, Gribling generally succeeds in tracing the connection between the Georgian and the Victorian period, something that she does best in the first part of the book, which focuses on royal usages of the Black Prince’s image. Her discussion of the ways that George IV, as both Prince Regent and monarch, developed and executed his own artistic agenda is more thinly developed than her treatment of the collaboration between George III and West, but will still be of likely interest to scholars focused on the Romantic period. (Here, Gribling turns her attention to other forms of art including carriage designs and even operas.) Another chapter’s focus on Victoria’s early reign considers the impact that Victoria and Albert as patrons had on the establishment of organizations such as the Royal Fine Arts Commission. And clubs devoted to the pursuit of history. In pointing to the keen interest that Albert had in medieval history, as well as his commitment to images of the Black Prince being 1) closely connected to royal authority and 2) used as an indicator to the recipients of royal honors that a requirement for said honor was continued and committed service to the crown (59-61), Gribling examines the extensive correspondence surrounding the 1848 fresco Edward III conferring the Order of the Garter on the Black Prince. Despite the intense collaboration between Albert, the artist, and various ministers, a shift in attitudes had taken place by the 1860s, with the Black Prince’s reputation in decline due to concerns regarding “the dark side of chivalry” (68). At the end, while it is refreshing to learn more about Albert’s keen interest in the arts and in history, a more extensive treatment of Victoria’s own views would have also been appreciated here.

In the second movement of the book, Gribling shifts gears to consider more popular usages of the Black Prince’s image, especially during the late Victorian period. The chapter “Politics, Parliament and the People’s Prince” examines depictions of the Black Prince in popular histories and considers how Victorian historians were interested in recontextualizing the events of the Good Parliament. In critiquing “Chivalry and Character” in Chapter 5, Gribling utilizes a wide array of sources, including paintings, histories, games, and educational materials, while Chapter 6 (“Warrior for Nation and Empire”) focuses on plays, handbills, and needlework. Although Gribling succeeds in pointing out that the Black Prince’s image, and that of chivalry in general, evolved over the course of the Victorian period, especially among non-royal audiences, a further close reading of some of the wonderful archival materials would be welcomed—some feel only lightly attended to, which is a shame given the true variety Gribling has gathered in this slim volume.

Overall, this volume proves to be a welcome resource for scholars of literature and history, especially those interested in the long eighteenth and the long nineteenth centuries. By concentrating on representations of the Black Prince in drama, art, and material culture. Gribling’s work develops a further understanding of what medievalism and national identity meant to royal and popular audiences alike in the long nineteenth century (and beyond).  In the end, The Image of the Black Prince draws new attention to the complicated views the Georgians and the Victorians had of the medieval period and the ways it could be used to depict and critique power, chivalry, and conduct.

Rebekah Greene
Independent Scholar