Book review: Textual Reception and Cultural Debate in Medieval English Studies

Textual Reception and Cultural Debate in Medieval English Studies, edited by María José Esteve Ramos and José Ramón Prado Pérez is, etymologically speaking, an anthology, a bouquet, of medieval english language and literature scholarship with three of its four linguistic ingredients: West Germanic Anglo-Saxon, North Germanic Old Norse and medieval and ecclesiastical Latin. It comprises eight chapters that deal with such diverse issues such as poetry, translation approaches, language for specific purposes, and etymology, plus MSS contrast-and-tracing: namely that which, for ages, was known under the Greek and German terms philology and anglistics. Regardless of the actual chapter sequence, we shall devise our review along those main lines.

We start off with poetry and with what is probably the best known piece and the flagship of Old English literature: Beowulf. In Chapter Six, Gomes gives us a strikingly novel and thought-provoking interpretation of the ‘labyrinth’ trope plus the artistic motif (Lindisfarne Gospels, Books of Kells) as a means to interpret not only the general structure of the poem but also specific excerpts of the same, passages in which the ‘maze’ —as in the well-known Theseus’ myth— will surpass the usual approaches of the use of forms and tropes by the anonymous Old English scop. This offers us an insight into the physical and mental challenges that will always accompany the ethopoeia of the classical hero of folk tale and of world literature at large.

Along a similar line of trope interpretation, but from a contrasting translation point of view, Bueno reviews, in Chapter Two, two basic topoi in The Battle of Brunnanburh, that fragment of alliterative poetry embedded into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle annal for the year 937. Those two tropes are the courageous ‘brotherhood of arms’ ―which can be traced back to Homeric poetry― and the cowardly ‘beasts of battle’: the raven, the eagle and the wolf, that, in the commonplace Germanic kennigs of battle, feed upon the corpses and the bodies of the seriously wounded left behind. But Bueno goes beyond the presentation of the tropes, since his goal is to analyse seven translation proposals to present day English and four into Spanish, including a translation into the regional minority language of the Asturian Principate. And that translatological approach is the most valuable contribution of this chapter.

Dealing with a specific theme, cherished by one of the co-editors and the subject of much valuable research for the last decades, especially, but not only, by Scandinavian scholars, both de la Cruz, and de la Cruz and Diego, respectively, attempt to pinpoint with the pedagogical aid of tables and maps, the regiolectic origin of terms found in medical treatises of MS Ferguson 47 of the Glasgow University Library in Chapter Three. Further, they deal with the more than intimate relationship between astrology and medicine in the late Middle English translations of Þe Booke of Yppocras contained in thirteen MSS and their continental filiation, in Chapter Four.

While the length of the chapters is fairly even, one of the lengthier ones, Chapter Five, is dedicated to a notoriously controversial and long-discussed subject in the history (cf. the profusion of footnotes that accompany and sustain the Chapter) of the English language: the Old Norse Scandinavian substratum of present-day English and, even more so, of Middle English, as documented in some its major regiolects. Dance goes into a detailed and well documented analysis of the so-called ‘Viking’ linguistic heritage in one the best known late Middle English masterpieces, the anonymous Sir Gawayn and Þe Grene Kniȝt, an alliterative poem purposely composed ca. 1386, in the North West Midlands area comprised by Lancashire or Southeast Cheshire and Northeast Staffordshire. Dance proves, by means of mainly phonological but also other sound philological methods, the Old Norse origin of 140 lexemes within the said poem.

Within the contributions of a more specifically ‘philological’ nature in the traditional sense of the term, in Chapter One, Alvarez offers a fascinating insight into the genesis of the Old English vernacular tradition starting off with King Alfred’s truly Germanic defense of the native tongue in early West Saxon and the renewal of medieval Latinate scholarship in the late Old English turn of the millennium within the general Western European trend known as the ‘Benedictine revival’. Alvarez analyses the contrasting hands of the Regula Sancti Benedicti, its manipulations and glosses, in order to show how the omnipresence and indisputable cultural value of Latin was confronted, translated and ultimately incorporated into the main stream of Old English intellect.

The last two chapters are concerned with philological filiation proper. In Chapter Seven, Johannesson establishes the links between the writing of the originally Scandinavian monk Or(r)m, (i.e. worm) in Bourne Abbey (Southern Lincolnshire, Northeast Midlands) in the late twelfth century and texts authored by the eminent Carolingian scholar Johannes Scottus Eurigena found in scriptoria of continental Europe, those of Laon in northern Francia to be more precise. He regards his listings of the Vices and Virtues and proves his point by minutely comparing that text with Eurigena’s The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.

Linking the filiation theme with the literary and theological —actually archetypal and pre-Christian— topos of the worms feeding upon the rotten corpse and the sic transit gloria mundi Weltbild of the Middle Ages, in the eighth and last chapter Momma analyses the composite nature (the bricolage, as Lévy-Strauss would put it) of vernacular literature in the early middle English period. Momma traces its Old English origins and manifestations as found in homilies and poems contained in the Hatton 115 and the Vercelli Book collections.

In sum, a most valuable compendium of Old English and Middle English research, to be not only shelved in any university library worth its name but also perused and cherished by scholars, doctoral candidates and students of the history of the english language and of medieval english literature alike.

Reviewed by Juan José Calvo

Textual Reception and Cultural Debate in Medieval English Studies is available now, and you can purchase a copy directly from Cambridge Scholars by clicking here.

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