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

September 14, 2018

Parker: Dragon Lords

Eleanor Parker, Dragon Lords: The History and Legends of Viking England (London: I. B. Tauris, 2018)

Reviewed by Felix Taylor (

‘Then the Lord said unto me, Out of the north shall an evil break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land’ (Jeremiah 1:14). With this prophetic biblical verse early medieval writers were able to provide an authoritative explanation for the Viking invasions that were carried out from the late eight century onwards; the arrival of these barbarians signalled a form of divine retribution. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle flaming dragons, lightning, and whirlwinds were seen raging across the sky before what was probably the first planned Viking raid, on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in 793. ‘These signs were followed by great famine,’ the Chronicle continues, ‘and a little after those … the ravaging of heathen men destroyed God’s church’. In Dragon Lords Eleanor Parker, Clerk of Oxford and medieval lecturer at Brasenose College, provides a detailed and entertaining overview of how the subsequent invasions of northern and eastern England were received, explained and at times justified by post-Conquest writers. The book is a well-balanced account that considers perspectives from both sides of the North Sea.

Much of the first half of Dragon Lords is concerned appropriately with the raids on the coast of East Anglia. Parker tackles the various representations of St. Edmund, once king of that south-easterly region until his most gruesome death in 869 at the hands of the men most of the texts refer to as Danes. Her job is made all the more difficult by the fact that almost no records survive of his life or reign, but what she does manage to capture is the general flavour of the subsequent narratives which later rose up around Edmund related by Abbo of Fleury and other writers of the early medieval period. According to one such tale the Danes shoot Edmund full of arrows and hide his severed head in a wood. The head is guarded by a wolf until Edmund’s men eventually find and re-attach it to their fallen king’s body. In later works it is said that the spirit of Edmund appeared to Svein Forkbeard and killed him; the Danish king had apparently raised taxes for unjust reasons and Edmund rightly defended his people. Geoffrey of Wells later venerates Edmund as a maker of miracles in his largely-fictional hagiography De Infantia S. Eadmundi in the twelfth century.

Possibly the most famous Viking still known today – and not simply because of his star turn in the History channel’s recent television series Vikings – is Ragnar ‘shaggy breeches’ Lothbrok. Parker dedicates an entire chapter to Ragnar’s reputation in England, as well as the characters and violent deaths of two of his (eight) sons Ivar and Ubbe. The name Ragnar never even appears in English sources, just ‘Lothbrok’, with the exception of an enigmatic St Ragner whose relics were discovered in Northampton, and occasionally his name is mistranslated as ‘loathsome brook’ (odiosus rivus). De Infantia depicts Ragnar and his ‘hateful progeny’ as inversions of Edmund, but in a bizarre account by Roger of Wendover Ragnar is an inquisitive, yet harmless Dane who desires to learn hunting and hawking at Edmund’s court. He is killed out of envy by a huntsman, thus providing a reason for Ivar and Ubbe to plot revenge.

Parker then turns her focus to Siward, the Danish warrior and politician who ruled Northumbria in the time of Cnut, and neatly ties off what is known about him as a historical figure before moving to the more spurious and fantastical accounts of his life. Like Cnut, Siward and his son Waltheof – later made a saint post-Conquest – sought to retain their Danish identity through poetry and the Norse byname ‘digri’ (the strong). Parker heads swiftly into dragon-slaying territory with Gesta antecessorum, Gesta Herwardi and the Anglo-Norman romance Roman de Waldef in which Siward boasts ursine ancestry and is given assistance by an Odinic old man on a Northumbrian mound.

What is most fascinating about Dragon Lords are the tales of almost-willing integration in various periods between the English and their heathen adversaries. According to the monk Byrhtferth, St Oswald, Archbishop of York and Bishop of Worcester, and his uncle Oda, Archbishop of Canterbury, were descended from the very same band of Danes who had hidden Edmund’s head in the woods. A young Oda ‘despite his father’s fierce opposition’ was accepted into the Christian church and later baptised, and it has even been suggested by Antonia Gransden that he may have encouraged St Edmund’s cult in atonement for his father’s actions. Cnut, however, at one time king over all England, Denmark, Norway, and some of Sweden, established himself as both Viking warlord and devout Christian ruler, providing patronage to both English monasteries and Old Norse poetry alike (see, for instance, Sigvatr Þórðarson’s Knútsdrapa). In an extraordinary episode recounted in the late tenth- or eleventh-century Historia de Sancto Cuthberto, after the Viking conquest of York St. Cuthbert materialises and marks out a young Danish slave-boy Guthred (presumably Guthfrith) as the newly-anointed king of the city. The location of the crowning ceremony is a burial mound, evoking Norse king-making customs, and serves to further complicate the event.

These instances and more provide a highly nuanced and de-polarising account of the Vikings in England. Through a combination of rigorous scholarship and a wise tendency to bring out the more entertaining and often supernatural aspects of the sources, Dragon Lords presents a much more complex and engaging view of Anglo-Danish relations and helps to dispel the popular invaders/invaded dualism that most would automatically assume. Religious and cultural integration ere surprisingly quick, and both the English and the Norse went on to provide their own accounts and justifications for the invasions, which in later centuries contributed to saint cults and the foundations myths of a Danish right to rule. Parker presents excerpts from primary texts in the original languages and provides her own translations: a blessing for the layman, and, like the book as a whole, suitably scholarly for the well-versed medievalist.

Felix Taylor
St Hugh's College, Oxford

August 29, 2018

Spencer-Hall: Medieval Saints and Modern Screens

Alicia Spencer-Hall, Medieval Saints and Modern Screens: Divine Visions as Cinematic Experience. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017.

Reviewed by Daisy Black (

Three pages into Medieval Saints and Modern Screens, we are greeted with a dissection of the sensory processes involved in the interaction between a reader and a book:

‘Even in the most superficially two-dimensional interaction between reader and book, for instance, we find the visual (the words on the page), the haptic (turning the page), the imaginative and intellectual (processing the words’ meaning), and even the olfactory (the smell of the book).’ (p. 13).

Arguing that sensual engagement is a fundamental quality of hagiographic literature, the book goes on, with each soft crackle of the printed page, to make a compelling case for text as a visual, tactile and cinematic medium.  Noting that studies have for some time been likening the narratives of female saints to screenplays, films, and even pornography, Spencer-Hall takes this argument to the next level.  Medieval Saints is an innovative exploration of the themes, topics and desires expressed in medieval saints’ vitae and in modern visual cultures.  Claiming that ‘mysticism, or at least a desire for mysticism […] continues to exist in and as cinema’ (p. 12), it offers a striking interrogation of the thirteenth-century Latin biographies of the holy women of Liège.

The introduction ‘Ecstatic Cinema, Cinematic Ecstasy’ provides a welcome history of the religious women of thirteenth-century Brabant-Liège.  This covers the socio-economic factors leading to the growth of non-monastic female spiritual communities as well as their relationship to the male, clerical powers which advised, and ultimately defined them through writing vitae of certain exemplary women.  The problems caused by our own scholarly projections upon this comparatively under-studied area – most particularly the propensity to group holy women under the homogenising label ‘beguine’ – become an important focus here.  Spencer-Hall also stakes out alternative ways of theorising the relationship between subject and object, gaze and agency, arguing for the possibility of a mutual, agape-ic gaze.  This kind of exchange, she finds, is as present in the modern cinema-goer’s gaze at a screen as it is in medieval visionaries encountering God.  While discussions of mutuality in spectatorship and performance are also currently emerging in early drama criticism, this theorization successfully challenges Mulvey’s often-reproduced yet under-challenged theories of cinematic spectatorship as always inherently objectifying.  Shared elements between hagiographic and cinematic processes and genres support Spencer-Hall’s challenge.  These include the repetition of recognisable themes, tropes, events and patterns; the inter-textual and inter-visual incorporation of prior texts and images; claims of authenticity and the imitation of reality; the role of both as popular cultural sources and the possibility for transcendence offered by both medieval female mysticism and modern cinematic and digital cultures.

Drawing parallels between the ways in which the ‘truth claims’ of photography, film and saint biography are destabilised by their own authorial construction, the first chapter interrogates how both the photograph and the saint’s life appear to operate outside linear time.  This proves a useful way to explain medieval conceptions of earthly time and eternal sacred time.  Temporal and a-temporal forms, Spencer-Hall argues, intersect in the visions of Margaret of Ypres, Ida of Léau, Juliana of Mont-Cornillon and Elisabeth of Spalbeek, all of whom interact with figures from the biblical past.  The apparent ability of film, with its ability to preserve, repeat and rewind events is then linked to the deaths and resuscitations of Christina Mirabilis through a striking discussion of Nolan’s 2008 film The Dark Knight.  Spencer-Hall reads Heath Ledger’s Joker and Christina as purgatorial bodies existing between presence and absence.  Through a series of close readings of the vitae of Lutgard of Aywières and Alice of Schaerbeek, Spencer-Hall highlights the ways percussive textual elements and repetition similarly work to temporally dislocate their audiences.  This constitutes a refreshing development of theoretical approaches which have until now chiefly examined religious temporality in relation to figures such as St Augustine, whose works explicitly address theologies of time.

The second chapter engages with current discussions concerning medieval optics, embodied spectatorship and the power dynamics at play in theories of intromission and extromission.  Its primary focus is the concept of sight as mutual touch; particularly when the ‘object’ gazed upon by the saint is God.  Providing a useful overview of medieval vision, including Bacon’s model of synthesis and its origin in Arab scientist Alhazen’s work Kitab al-manaziŕ, Spencer-Hall highlights how much this differs from the modern ocular-centric view of the active, objectifying ‘male gaze’.  Engaging with theories of embodied cinematic spectatorship, she considers how Beatrice of Nazareth, Juliana of Mont-Cornillon and Margaret of Ypres achieve spiritual, synesthetic and often viscerally physical fusion with the objects of their visions.   As modern DNA research shows that manuscripts retain traces of all who touch them (including parchment makers, scribes, readers and the animal whose skin bears the text) Spencer-Hall makes a compelling case for the academic textual gaze as equally subject to the embodied synthesis of touch.  This provides an interesting development of arguments concerning the medieval body-as-vellum, and will no doubt provide fertile ground for the newest work emerging on the queer qualities of manuscripts.[i]

Chapter three focuses on the relationship between hagiographer and saint via modern processes of ‘celebrification’.  Focusing on Jacques of Vitry and Marie of Oignies, this highlights how the hagiographer manipulated Marie’s vita to produce ‘an A-list holy icon’ (p. 147).  Examining Marie as a textual product enables Spencer-Hall to consider the functions that product was designed to perform – in this case, as Crusade propaganda, as a model of holy behaviour for other laywomen and as a means of advancing Jacques’ own ecclesiastical career.  The discussion of the utility of saint’s lives as legitimising models for other women is one of the most exciting aspects of this book.  Margery Kempe’s attempt to mirror the events, actions, tropes and tears of her own life with those of Marie are analysed alongside the auto-celebrification processes employed by ‘reality’ stars such as Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian-West.  The discussion of Kempe and Kardashian-West’s ‘ugly crying’ hints at transtemporal and misogynist resistance towards women ‘taking up space’ with their emotions.  Meanwhile, the popular disgust engendered by both women’s manufacturing of their own divine/secular fame produces a striking insight into why both have tended to generate a range of emotive responses in their popular and academic audiences.

Throughout, Spencer-Hall calls attention to the textual and physical labour involved in saint/star-creation.  Towards the chapter’s close, she reveals the mechanics of her own academic process, reminding us that, although Kempe failed in her bid for holy auto-celebritization, she still holds currency as an academic celebrity.  If we are to continue with the theme of utility, it would be fair to suggest that this chapter is likely to be highly useful to teachers of medieval devotional culture and of Kempe due to its perceptive use of current celebrity culture to examine the complex processes involved in saint-formation.[ii]   Yet it also provokes a larger discussion of academic critical processes by identifying how academics themselves act as fannish agents of celebrification.

The final chapter considers the collapsed times inherent in medieval visionaries’ access to ‘the communion of saints’ via the lens of online virtual spaces.  Through a series of interviews with Christians who practice their faith online in the virtual environment Second Life (SL), Spencer-Hall examines the experiences of saints who were able to ‘log in’ to the spiritual realm and even, like Elisabeth of Spalbeek and Marie of Lille, encounter one another there.  This provides a welcome re-examination of the immersiveness of medieval devotional practices; in particular, the individual’s desire to insert themselves into major events from the Bible.  This is particularly resonant in the discussion of a virtual crucifixion, which encourages its users to undergo a virtual form of imitatio Christi.  A useful resource might be found here by those working on liturgical drama as well as later lay religious performances, which likewise encouraged participants and audiences to immerse themselves in biblical chronologies.

The parallels between modern and medieval forms of media experience were a little less cohesive here than in some of the earlier chapters.  This was partly because the more accessible online community environments do not as comfortably align with what the monograph’s prior discussion of Kempe had convincingly demonstrated was the highly exclusive, barely accessible position of hagiographically-sanctioned female visionary.   Nevertheless, the chapter’s analysis of the collapse between avatar and individual, creator and reader and between audience and performance calls for a thorough reconsideration of the kinds of terminology we use to describe hagiographical, textual and performance production forms.  The subversive potential of the virtual is never far away; particularly when medieval spiritual and modern online environments are used to bypass (male) clerical gatekeeping of the Eucharist.

Medieval studies, and more recently, medievalism, have long considered themselves among the most interdisciplinary fields.  This work, however, manages to reach something beyond that.  Probing the interconnections between medieval women and their biographers as well as between texts, times, celebrities and media, Medieval Saints constitutes a rare example of someone working outside medievalism producing an important and insightful comparative reading of medieval and modern popular and spiritual cultures.

Medieval Saints produces a robust response to decades of neglect of hagiographical sources.  Through her trans-temporal, transmedia study, Spencer-Hall repeatedly demonstrates how much the narratives of holy women might contribute to a number of studies outside the direct field of hagiography, including lay theology; the theorisation of vision and time; discussions of medieval self-creation; textual production and performance studies.  While the lives of these women have frequently been marginalised in scholarship Spencer-Hall powerfully demonstrates their immediacy and relevance for our current times.

One of the most interesting approaches adopted by Spencer-Hall is the critical decision to reflect on the process of constructing her own argument, including which texts the book privileges and excises, which forms of visual and textual encounter are interrogated, and how the author’s own perspective has shaped the work.  By exposing the (wo)man behind the curtain, the monograph makes important progress in the movement away from the misleading pretence of practising objectivity in historical criticism; recognising that all historical approaches are informed by the values, perspectives, bodies, and even pop-cultural backgrounds of the historian.  While Medieval Saints and Modern Screens provides a solid argument for cinematic and saintly encounters as forms of bodily transcendence, the academic body remains something we cannot honestly claim to transcend.

[i] See the forthcoming essays contained in Roberta Magnani and Diane Watt, ed., ‘Queer Manuscripts’, postmedieval 9.3 (2018).
[ii] There is of course, some irony in that, given time, the memory and significance of these reality stars will be usurped by other figures.

Daisy Black
University of Wolverhampton

August 28, 2018

Garner: Romantic Women Writers and the Arthurian Legend

Katie Garner, Romantic Women Writers and Arthurian Legend: The Quest for Knowledge. London: Palgrave, 2017. 
Reviewed by Lisa Plummer Crafton (
An unusual inscription appears in a surviving copy of Stansby’s 1634 edition of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, marking the book as property of “Elizabeth Purcell of Kirton in the year 1699 afor she was Married” (19).  The inscription is a rare record of ownership by a woman, one that marks a material connection with Arthuriana that would become even rarer throughout the eighteenth century and simultaneously invokes the issue of the repackaging of Arthurian material for the “fair sex,” especially as Purcell emphasizes she owned it “afor” her marriage.  Garner’s extensively researched and engagingly written book explores how British women writers between 1770-1850 accessed, read, reimagined, and manipulated Arthurian legend.  Based on the fact that the period in question saw both an antiquarian revival of British medieval romances and an unprecedented number of women writers in print, Garner aims to study how women writers’ responses to Arthurian legend are shaped by what she terms “gendered patterns of access” (2).  While her focus is Romantic women writers’ appropriation of Arthurian source materials, Garner, more broadly, reconstructs a history of reading and a study of the traces of the search for knowledge as seen in the patterns of those female-authored texts.
Broadly chronological, the book’s six chapters trace the development of women’s Arthurian writing with special attention to different genres as well as different publishing media. After an introductory first chapter that succinctly contextualizes the argument, chapter two sets up the context of Arthuriana in terms of gender politics and reception of romance.  As an actual reader of Malory’s text, Elizabeth Purcell inscribes a physical copy; ironically, many female “readers” of medieval romance were not real at all, but imagined readers, the kind Chaucer invokes in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale when he suggests that Lancelot is a book “That women holde in ful greet reverence.”  Garner credits and builds upon Lori Newcomb’s argument that these fictionalized female readers should be approached as ideological “scenes of consumption” (20). Consumption, in fact, serves as a focal point for this chapter as Garner surveys how Arthurian texts that women had access to were both bowdlerized and reframed to underscore their moral instruction.  Radagunda Roberts’ “The Female History,” published anonymously in 1775 in The Lady’s Magazine; or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex, attempted to offer a virtuous Guinevere in keeping with the magazine’s purpose, but in so doing the queen becomes, in Garner’s words, “no more than an object passed between two men” (29). Garner also surveys the early scholarly projects of Susannah Dobson and Clara Reeve and the anonymous Ancient Ballads (written by “a Lady”), especially how those ballads distanced female readers/writers even more from actual Arthurian source texts. “Replacing” Percy’s Reliques with these substantially more muddled versions of Arthurian scenarios meant that female writers like Louise Stuart Costello ended up offering somewhat “compromised” versions of Arthurian legends, versions that dramatize “the female reader’s compromised proximity to medieval texts” (53).
Having established this narrative of gendered patterns of access and surveyed how female writers manipulated the resources they had, Garner then moves to consideration of genre, the subject of the next two chapters on Gothic and on travel narratives. The third chapter on Gothic works particularly well to illuminate how the interest in literary fragments of Britain’s medieval past intersected with the vogue for Gothic writing.  Beginning with a brief review of how Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho makes an important, though very limited, use of Arthurian references (the servant Ludovico’s reading of chivalric romances allows Radcliffe to argue for the power of the genre), Garner turns to women’s verse experiments in the Gothic mode, evoking Robert Miles’ and Michael Gamer’s expansive definitions of Gothic as “a discursive site crossing the genres” (74). While all five of the female poets surveyed exemplify increasingly bold developments of Arthurian material, Anne Bannerman and Anna Jane Vardill are particularly interesting. Scottish poet Anne Bannerman’s 1802 Tales of Superstition and Chivalry makes pervasive use of the female Gothic in creating an “original and proto-feminist version of Arthur’s death” (81).  Garner focuses on Bannerman’s final ballad “The Prophecy of Merlin,” reading Arthur as more of a heroine than a warrior/king, an interpretation that allows her to take issue with a standard reading of the Queen of Beauty (who greets Arthur on the Yellow Isle after his fatal wound by Modred). The Queen has been read as vampiric, but in casting Arthur in the role of gothic heroine, Garner interprets her as a lost, absent mother and suggests that a subversive Bannerman emphasizes “a new, benign, maternal figure connected to [Arthur’s] eventual rebirth” (85).  Vardill’s version of Coleridge’s Christabel, on the other hand, sanitizes the fragmented, ambiguous and subversive Coleridgean text by importing Merlin as a character who will exorcise Geraldine from the domestic order.
Another significant thread of the book’s argument concerns the role of Arthurian texts in nationalistic discourse, and, in the fourth chapter, Garner points out that the most sustained engagement with the Arthurian legend was, not surprisingly, in travel narratives set in Wales. Travel writers’ pursuit of Arthurian materials was a corollary of the many quests to “prove” the facts of an historical Arthur. As a genre, travel writing was flexible enough to allow for imaginative explorations of Arthuriana; just as the travel writers were geographically crossing borders, the genre allowed easy movement from physical description to imaginative inquiries about Welsh history. Women writers’ manipulation of Merlin is particularly interesting. Garner contrasts the Merlin invoked by Louisa Stuart Costello’s guidebook The Falls, Lakes, and Mountains of North Wales (a rebellious “Briton opposed to the Saxons” and potential voice for the working class) to Felicia Hemans’ celebration of Merlin (her “Merddin”) as a prophetic, bardic poet.
The final two chapters move from female-authored imaginative texts to the possibilities of and limitations to the role of female Arthurian scholar. Garner, in chapter five, credits the work of little-known writers like Costello in paving the way for Lady Charlotte Guest, whose pioneering translations of the romances in The Mabinogion signaled the arrival of female Arthurian scholarship. The continuing unease, however, about the role of women writers (imaginative and scholarly) led also to a more popular strain of Arthuriana suitable for decorative annuals and gift books, and as the subject of the final chapter, provides an apt culmination of the book’s larger consideration of gendered practices of reading. Often mocked as lightweight—Wordsworth called them “greedy receptacles of trash” (221)—these decorative books frequently bore titles that, as Garner says, “suggested that the past could be preserved through objects” (217), and, as such, are worthy of serious study. Poetic versions of the Astolat story (also known as Scalot or, via Tennyson, the Lady of Shalott) which appeared in the Forget Me Not annual provide fascinating perspectives on both women’s writing and reading. Garner argues that Costello’s “The Funeral Boat” is a “proto-feminist version” of the tale even though the dead woman is “painted” into the landscape at the end (223) and that Landon’s version is “appropriately sentimental” (231), but both had significant influence on Tennyson’s poem: “In a very straightforward sense, the origins of ‘The Lady of Shalott’ can be found in the pages of the annuals, and the original 1832 version of [his] poem might easily have been taken for an annual production” (247).
Engagingly written and painstakingly researched, this book provides an insightful and multi-faceted view of Romantic women writers’ relationship with Arthurian legend. Garner’s explorations of female-authored versions of Coleridge’s Christabel and Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott are, in fact, of stand-alone value regardless of the reader’s knowledge of Arthuriana. Demonstrably proving how Romantic women writers’ encounters with Arthurian source texts occurred in distinctly different contexts than those of the literary men associated with what Garner labels the “hypermasculine” medieval romance revival headed by Scott and others, the book deftly manages to be of interest to both serious Arthurian scholars, scholars of Romantic women writers, and theorists of reading practices and publication histories.
Lisa Plummer Crafton
University of West Georgia