Speculum Vol. 86 (April 2011): 567-68

Review of Language and Culture in Medieval Britain

Ralph Hanna, Oxford University

For more than two decades, Jocelyn Wogan-Browne has been reminding, cajoling, encouraging us to consider the great unspoken in medieval English scholarship. Given the history (and continuing politics) of academic study, medieval English literary studies get housed in largely monolingual faculties of English, to the great detriment of the rich linguistic mix typifying medieval England. Wogan-Browne’s substantial academic contribution has been to redress this imbalance, to give tongue to a “common speech” of the period, Anglo-Norman. This volume, for which she has functioned as lead editor, is a monument to her achievement and the degree to which she has inspired others—and also a launching pad for what one imagines in a generation of future, somewhat reconfigured studies.

The thirty-four essays grouped here form a selection (about half the total originally presented) from a sequence of three conferences devoted to “the French of England.” The ensemble offers detailed studies covering the period from the Norman Conquest to the dawn of print. It begins with a set of essays, nearly a third of the whole, addressing matters predominantly linguistic, particularly (a view inherited from M. K. Pope) the alleged backwardness or provinciality of Anglo-Norman. The remaining three sections proceed in roughly chronological order, with relatively equal proportions of studies devoted to the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth/fifteenth centuries, respectively. In conjunction with this chronological breadth, one particularly attractive feature of the collection is its great breadth of exhibits, most especially the refusal to be limited to the usual suspects, that canonical core of writings identified by Dominica Legge as Anglo-Norman literature.

Here, as one might expect, Wogan-Browne’s contributions, her introduction and the essay “Women and Reading” (pp. 1–13 and 239–53), set the tone. The first indicates succinctly what is at stake in, as one of its subheadings has it, “changing the narrative.” Wogan-Browne judiciously, graciously, and with politesse contrasts a received historical Anglophone-centered literary history with some of the evidence that disrupts it. She then proceeds to outline various avenues of research that attractively open up the field in exciting ways: broadly, a new and greater attentiveness to the usual imbrication of medieval texts in polylingualism, the variousness of that imbrication across social sites and practices, learning to hear language contact in texts received as monolingual utterances on the page, and rejoining nationalistic narratives with the broader sense of “the French of England” that would include Continental contacts and texts. These brief pages form more than a service to the endeavor they preface in their identification of whole research categories today only imperfectly imagined.

The essay that most clearly takes up Wogan-Browne’s challenge is Nicholas Watson’s “Lollardy: The Anglo-Norman Heresy?” (pp. 334–46). Watson is extremely adept at perturbing boundaries and raising provoking possibilities. As he persistently acknowledges, most of these suggestive collocations are ones that we are not yet in any position to assess but that might be relevant. Watson’s customary energy is bracing, and he adduces a wide amount of evidence, particularly of pre-Lollard investment in Englishing Anglo-Norman biblical texts.

The great majority of the essays assembled prove rich and provocative reads. They speak eloquently to the variousness of the project that might lie ahead. But equally, perhaps inevitably in so wide-ranging a collection, a good many contributors remain peripherally engaged with the most exciting imperatives enunciated in other essays. In a review of this scope, I can only point out the most energizing contributions here assembled.

One of these I have already mentioned, Wogan-Browne’s second contribution, on another of her great interests, the culture of women. The discussion, centered on the largely ignored French Ancrene Riwle, persuasively places women’s penitential reading practices and argues strongly for women’s agency, both in shaping their own spirituality and in transmitting texts (and textual experiences). Not so coincidentally, Wogan-Browne’s arguments, while evoking aids to penitential memory, provide their own memory aid to the reader, through allusions to the vast English pastoral literature written in French: when will someone take up William of Waddington, a major thirteenth-century figure influential across all of England’s languages?

A few of the other star turns gathered here: Elizabeth Tyler pokes holes through the great divide of the conquest by demonstrating fascinating connections between eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon/Danish and Anglo-Norman cultural productions. Henry Bainton writes provocatively about Lincolnshire cultural identities in Gaimar’s history. And all readers will be excited and informed by the contributions of W. Mark Ormrod, David Trotter, Monica Green, Delbert W. Russell, Julia Marvin, Michael Bennett, Ad Putter, Jean-Pascal Pouzet, and Helen Deeming. This is a groundbreaking and important collection and will be regarded as essential reading in years to come.