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