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

June 20, 2013

Weiss and Salih: Locating the Middle Ages Weiss and Sarah Salih, eds. Locating the Middle Ages: The Spaces and Places of Medieval Culture. King’s College London Medieval Studies. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2012.

Reviewed by: Kristin Bovaird-Abbo

What does “space” or “place” really mean? As Julian Weiss and Sarah Salih note in their introduction to Locating the Middle Ages: The Spaces and Places of Medieval Culture, citing Yi-Fu Tuan’s 1977 Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, we often overlook these familiar descriptors of the everyday world; however, as Weiss and Salih’s collection of essays reveals, concentrated attention to medieval spaces and places yields a plurality of “unexpected meanings” (xv) that complicates the Middle Ages in intriguing ways.

This interdisciplinary volume moves coherently from the global scope to the confines of the home and eventually the space of memory itself. Despite these tidy categories, the essays contained within each vary significantly, offering dizzying views into the medieval world via such primary sources as literature and architectural records, demonstrating the flexibility of spatial boundaries through maps that are redrawn, terms such as Hispania that shift in terms of their meanings, city walls that are erected to contain sacred spaces, and walls that may be permeated. As the editors note, “The proposition that space is constituted by and through a diversity of interactions and relationships is foundational” (xxii), and the essays demonstrate the truth of this statement. These brief yet intimate glimpses into various aspects of medieval spaces result in a disjointed picture of the Middle Ages, for there is no neat, organized picture of this time period, and this collection effectively proves it. After an introduction which ably positions the book in light of other modern as well as medieval discussions of space and place (including discussion of the application of postcolonial theory within medieval studies), the volume moves into the sixteen essays, divided conveniently into sections devoted to “World Spaces,” “Empires and Frontiers,” “Cities and Power, Sacred and Secular,” “Courts and Castles,” and “Rewriting Place.”

Within the section “World Spaces,” cartography places a significant role, particularly in the first two essays. Richard Talbert argues against the traditional interpretation of the Peutinger Map, the lone surviving copy dating to AD 1500. Although long perceived of as a traveller’s guide through the Roman world, the map’s peculiar shape and its emphasis on land routes over sea ones, among other components, compels Talbert to thoughtfully argue that the map’s purpose is to affirm Roman rule, specifically that of Diocletian in AD 300. Paul Freedman then explores medieval notions of “the exotic,” which leads him to India, from whence many traditions about what was exotic—which Freedman applies to material objects such as perfumes and spices as well as abstract ideas such as wisdom—originated and then was transmitted throughout Europe. As more Europeans travelled to and from India, Freedman notes that their reports served to mystify exotic India even more, for the survival of inaccurate information compelled Europeans to hazard dangerous incursions in the hope of attaining great wealth. Sharon Kinoshita then closes the section with a discussion of how Mediterranean space is conceived, both in terms of twentieth-century notions and medieval. She argues that the Mediterranean is a dynamic space that at times contains parts of Africa to the south as well as the Caucasus to the East; at other times, it “[ebbs] back in the direction of its literal / littoral shores” (Kinoshita 43) This fluidity is due to a variety of factors, including the movements of merchants, spies, ambassadors, to name a few. She then turns to literature—beginning with medieval French romances but then concluding with a Persian romance with sharp similarities to the Tristan and Iseult legend—to demonstrate the complex network that extends horizontally across the Mediterranean and surrounding areas; the boundaries are permeable, as demonstrated by the transmission of such motifs as found in these romances.

The next section focuses on specific figures of power—historical as well as literary—who serve to define places and boundaries through their political actions, beginning with considerations of linguistically and culturally hybrid authors, namely Franco-Italian and Anglo-Norman. Luke Sunderland explores the figure of Roland in the largely overlooked Franco-Italian L’Entrée d’Espagne, contrasting the “soft power” of Roland against the “hard power” of Charlemagne; ultimately, Sunderland argues, the imperialism of Roland is more effective and desirable than that of his uncle, for whereas Charlemagne extends the boundaries of his empire through violence, Roland does so through “linguistic prowess and cultural knowledge” (Sunderland 62). Julian Weiss then looks at a country in the place of “becoming”—that is, Spain. By exploring Carolingian epics written outside of Spain, including the Chanson de Roland, Weiss considers how Spain becomes a “symbolic space that resolves at an ideological level some of the central political contradictions of feudal dominion and sovereignty” (76-77). Sarah Salih then crosses the channel to explore the landscape of John Lydgate’s Lives of St Edmund and St Fremund. Through performing a close reading of Lydgate’s text alongside its rich accompanying illustrations, Salih argues that these are stories of “how space becomes place, how mere geography becomes a Christian kingdom” (Salih 84), for Edmund’s arrival revitalizes the land, and he is shown in harmony with the environment. In contrast, the Danes are presented as in conflict with England; they are never shown within buildings, and the decay of the land around them is evident. 

The third section continues the volume’s narrowing trend, looking specifically at cities and the ways in which their borders can be manipulated. Konstantin Klein opens by surveying the development of Jerusalem as a locus of sacred topography, a move which he argues begins during the Theodosian era (379-457 CE). Using the example of the empress Eudocia, Klein shows how the reconstruction of city walls and new building activity allowed Eudocia to place Jerusalem at the center of the Holy Land; what is unique in her activities is that the building and the site which it commemorates are distinct. Katie Clark continues with the theme of religious redefinition of space, shifting her focus to Avignon in the early fourteenth-century when the papacy arrived. Yet whereas Klein is interested in how a person in power may redefine a city, Clark is interested in how the changes in the cityscape affect those not in power—specifically the citizenry. Using spatial analysis, Clark examines the impact of the transference of the parish headquarters from St-Étienne (appropriated by John XXII) to Ste-Marie-Madeleine by investigating testaments from those naming St-Étienne as their home parish. Elizabeth Monti also considers the impact of the papacy on the city of Avignon, but whereas Clark emphasizes the divide between the papal palace and the citizens of Avignon, Monti argues that Pope Clement VII’s building projects develop a sense of local identity, ultimately designed to justify Avignon as the home of the papal see. The final essay in this section turns away from the political machinations of emperors and popes, and considers the city as a metaphor for the body. Using the polyptych altarpieces in various churches in the city of Reval, Elina Gertsman and Elina Räsänen show how urban spaces are endowed with religious and political significance.

File:Part of Tabula Peutingeriana.jpgGeoff Rector begins the section entitled “Courts & Castles” by connecting reading habits of the Anglo-Norman with emergent architectural trends. Specifically, the development of the hall-and-chamber style following the Norman conquest is typically seen as a defensive measure; Rector notes that there is also parallel between the aesthetic features of these spaces with Anglo-Norman literature; specifically, just as the historical elite would withdraw into these chambers for conspicuous display, so too would the heroes and heroines of Anglo-Norman romance. Nicolay Ostrau also considers how literary figures interact with imagined spaces, particularly in terms of expressing emotion. Comparing the French Yvain and German Iwein, Ostrau demonstrates that while Chrétien’s romance offers a static and concrete description of Laudine’s castle, Hartmann’s romance offers multiple perspectives on the castle’s appearance, each one paired to specific characters’ experience of its architectural space. Andrew Cowell shows how walls in La Prise d’Orange reflect historical concerns with honor and integrity; a wall must be “inhabited”—that is, “imbued with the unique social persona of the possessor”—in order to be functional (188). Just as the literary William is divided between an honorable front and deceptive behavior, the walls upon which he depends become porous, resulting in his capture.

The final section jumps ahead in time to explore how ideas of medieval place are rewritten by modern authors, and it is these three essays which may prove to be of greatest interest to those interested in medievalism. Joshua Davies examines two twentieth-century poems in “Re-locating Anglo-Saxon England: Places of the Past in Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts and Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns,” arguing that for both authors, “the sense of place collapses temporal boundaries” (200). Davies persuasively demonstrates both authors’ debts to Anglo-Saxon poetics, including a heavy use of apposition and compounding. Chris Jones also considers what he terms a “recycling” of Anglo-Saxon poetry, tracing the evolving understanding of the Anglo-Saxon poetic line through Victorian British authors to the American poet Richard Wilbur. In particular, Wilbur’s poem “Junk” mirrors modern typographical conventions for Anglo-Saxon poetry, as well as the rhythm; more importantly, this poem introduces the past via a meditation on “the transience of material things” that may be recovered and adapted (Jones 219). Jones closes his contribution with an original poem of his own, inspired in part by the Anglo-Saxon dream vision The Dream of the Rood. Finally, Matthew Francis addresses the difficulty of adapting the fourteenth-century Travels of Sir John Mandeville for a modern audience; for example, whereas Mandeville explains multiple routes throughout the known medieval world, Francis feels the need to maintain one specific voyage, and to provide details that would be already known to a medieval audience but unknown to a modern one, in order to continue allowing the story and its readers to express their wonder at the world.

It is difficult to evaluate a book with such a diverse range of topics and approaches, but the overall array of topics and the overall organization of the volume—particularly the movement from global to individual—is effective in demonstrating the richness of the volume’s theme. At the same time, the sheer number of articles limits the amount of development that can be offered within this slender volume’s pages. As a result, some of the essays come across as rather abrupt (most average a length of ten pages of text). A few of the essays would benefit, too, from tighter organization and focus (for example, Freedman’s “Locating the Exotic”—but at the same time, the article is a wellspring of information, and the superfluousness of things exotic may very well be intentional). In addition, illustrations and images—including a breath-taking number of twenty color images—accompany many of the essays, but are placed at the close of each essay rather than embedded into the essays, making them less accessible to the reader. Of course, no doubt this is beyond the control of the individual authors or the editors.

Perhaps the most significant critique of the volume resides in the final section, where the shift from the medieval into modern reinterpretations is rather abrupt. Although the editors note in their introduction that landscape can function as a “site of memory” (xvi), the three final essays in the collection do not fit in as well with the rest, especially since they are so distant from the introduction and the preceding essays focus so intently on physical spaces. Despite compelling textual analysis of the transmission of Anglo-Saxon poetic techniques to modern poetry, these essays do not focus enough on the volume’s theme (especially in contrast to the focused attention to space and place in the preceding essays) despite the editors’ insistence that they “[engage] with the real and imaged places and spaces of the medieval past” (xxi). Joshua Davies’s essay comes nearest in his closing thoughts, noting that “locations of famous early medieval battles become modern housing estates, as modern communities inherit the work of their forbears” (208), but the connection to space and place nonetheless comes across as abrupt and underdeveloped throughout these final three essays.

Although the volume is clearly intended for a scholarly audience, the medieval enthusiast should have no problems accessing the ideas presented therein, for the theoretical jargon (dominated, naturally, by that of the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard) is kept to a minimum and its diverse linguistic range of quotations from primary texts across medieval Europe are accompanied by clear translations. Footnotes are kept to a minimum, but each essay is supplemented by extensive lists of works cited, offering those interested ample opportunity to pursue the topic further. Medieval French literature (particularly the Chanson de Roland) is privileged slightly throughout (and medieval English literature in particular in the final section), but often the authors invoke well-known texts in order to introduce readers to lesser-known analogues. Overall, the breadth of approaches as well as the types of spaces and places—secular as well as religious, insular and continental—ensures that this collection is a welcome addition to medieval examinations of spatial arrangements, and is sure to prompt new readings of medieval objects and texts. As the contributors ably demonstrate, focused and sustained attention to “space” and “place” open up medieval texts—regardless of their language, genre, or origin—to better encapsulate the complexity of that moment in time we call the Middle Ages. It is difficult to locate, but it perpetually fascinates us.

Kristin Bovaird-Abbo

University of Northern Colorado