J.A. Burrow

J.A. Burrow is Winterstoke Professor of English at the University of Bristol. His books include A Reading of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’.

Sutton who?

J.A. Burrow, 21 January 1988

It is hard to know why the English should nowadays take so little interest in their Anglo-Saxon predecessors. Perhaps the main reasons lie in 20th-century history. The Victorian statue of King Alfred of Wessex which stands in the market square of his birth-place, Wantage, testifies to a pride in that great founding father which modern England no longer feels. We have shrunk, and Alfred has shrunk with us. Perhaps, too, the defeat of Nazism left Germanic origins under a cloud – especially in a multi-racial society where many do not share them. For whatever reason, anyway, the Anglo-Saxons strike most contemporaries as dull and blockish creatures. The name Alfred itself, so popular in Victorian times, has come to seem tattered and slightly ridiculous, along with many other Christian names of the period before the Norman Conquest (Edgar, Egbert, Oswald); and most children learn little or nothing about the King himself, perhaps only the (apocryphal) burning of the cakes. There are at present, as it happens, some excellent historians of Anglo-Saxon England – witness a Phaedon book, The Anglo-Saxons, edited by James Campbell (1982) – but the history of the period figures little in most school curricula. So far as the general public is concerned, it is only the archaeologists who have succeeded in striking a spark of interest. It would be hard, after all, to walk past the display of the Sutton Hoo treasure in the British Museum, or look at the pictures in Campbell’s book, without feeling that one’s monochrome image of the age must be somewhat inadequate.’


J.A. Burrow, 21 May 1987

A German scholar has listed as many as 385 Medieval books which carry ‘mirror’ titles: The Mirour of Alkemy, Miroir de l’Ame, Spieghel Historiael, Speculum Ecclesiae, and so on. If titles such as these have since gone out of fashion, it is perhaps because readers no longer expect books simply to ‘reflect’ reality. Another reason may be that mirrors themselves are no longer convex, as they usually were until the 17th century, so that the word has ceased to carry the attractive promise of a larger reality compressed into a small and manageable compass. One of the most widely read of all Medieval ‘mirrors’ was the Speculum Humanae Salvationis or ‘Mirror of Man’s Salvation’, which offered its readers nothing less than the whole history of the redemption in little. Its method is to treat each main episode in the life of Christ along with three other episodes, most of them from the Old Testament, which ‘prefigure’ it. All four episodes, in each case, are illustrated by a picture. Thus the picture of Lamech being beaten by his two wives illustrates one of three Old Testament prefigurations of the flagellation of Christ. The original Latin Speculum was translated into several vernaculars, including English; and it is the English version, made about the year 1400, that is edited in the handsome book under review here. Unfortunately, the sole surviving manuscript of the Middle English version has no illustrations, so the editor has had to look elsewhere for these. She accordingly reproduces woodcuts (168 of them) from a 15th-century print of the German version, each so far as possible opposite the relevant section of the English text. The result, as Dr Henry confesses, is a bibliographical bastard: but it is hard to see what else she could have done. For the Speculum, like its equally popular predecessor the Biblia Pauperum or ‘Poor Men’s Bible’, is essentially a picture-book, albeit with an extensive text, and it is as such that it is presented here.

Carmina Europae

J.A. Burrow, 17 October 1985

It is hard to imagine how a future United Europe (supposing there is ever such a thing) could grow a literature of its own – distinct, that is, from the literatures of the nations which compose it. Yet there exists a precedent for such a development in the Latin writings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Once Latin had ceased to be recognisable as a language of the Italian peninsula, it was free to be employed as a transnational medium, available to educated writers regardless of their native speech. It did not matter whether one had been trained in the schools of York, or Paris, or Bologna – Latin was your language, quite as much as if it had been learned in Rome, and you would write chronicles or treatises or poems in that language, not in the local vernacular. Peter Godman’s anthology of poems of the Carolingian period provides some remarkable instances of this international character of Medieval Latin. Here in the eighth and ninth centuries, if ever, is a true European literature. Among the poets associated with Charlemagne himself are to be found Englishmen, Irishmen, Spaniards and Italians, as well as Franks, all speaking the same language in praise of the great emperor, magnificently styled pharus Europae – the beacon of Europe. Charlemagne’s court at Aachen attracted writers from all parts of the empire and beyond, just as Rome had done in its palmy days. It was hailed as the new Rome, nova Roma: ‘Our times are transformed into the civilisation of Antiquity. Golden Rome is reborn and restored anew to the world.’’

Family Dramas

J.A. Burrow, 2 July 1981

This is a polemical book. From the time of Dryden to the mid-20th century, Dr Brewer argues, English literary culture has been dominated by what he calls ‘Neoclassicism’ – by a taste, that is, for the realistic representation of likely events. A.C. Bradley is in this sense a Neoclassical critic; and the most characteristic product of Neoclassical taste is the naturalistic novel. Since the age of Bradley and the novel is now receding into the past, we may begin to see why its sophisticated criticism failed to make sense of ‘traditional narratives’. Fairy-tales and romances are not concerned with character, as Bradley understood it; and their stories often violate the canons of probability and Johnsonian good sense. ‘Literary intellectuals’ have therefore either neglected them or else distorted them by strained naturalistic readings.

SIR: It was good to see a review of an Early English Text Society book in your pages (LRB, 19 June) and to find your reviewer praising Curye on Inglysch both for the modesty of its price and for the excellence of its editing. But the genial Victorian founder of EETS, Frederick Furnivall, would have grieved to see his society described as a ‘forbidding’ institution which caters only for the ‘delicate...

Life Spans

Denton Fox, 6 November 1986

It is very fitting that a book dealing largely with the various ways in which the human life-span has been neatly divided into ‘ages’ should itself have an elegant and symmetrical...

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Marilyn Butler, 2 September 1982

It is a current preoccupation on the Left, more fashionable now among many students of English than Post-Structuralism, that English Literature as an academic subject is a conspiracy of the...

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