Next Stop, Reims

Ardis Butterfield

  • Europe: A Literary History, 1348-1418 by David Wallace
    Oxford, 1591 pp, £180.00, April 2016, ISBN 978 0 19 873535 9

David Wallace’s Europe: A Literary History, 1348-1418 contains 82 chapters by an enormous team of international contributors spanning what Wallace describes as nine ‘itineraries’: Paris to Béarn; Calais to London; St Andrews to Finistère; Basel to Danzig; Avignon to Naples; Palermo to Tunis; Cairo to Constantinople; Mount Athos to Muscovy; Venice to Prague. These itineraries conclude in the city of Constance, where a Church Council of 1414-18 ‘ended the schism of the Catholic West, essayed rapprochement with the Orthodox East, debated nationhood, discovered ancient texts, wrote new ones, and above all, intermingled’. The project reached completion just before the Brexit referendum, and Wallace sees it as a form of ‘regeneration’, not just for then, but for now. Europe, he says, ‘has fallen out of love with itself’. The Europe of the years between 1348 and 1418 emerged from the Black Death, which may have killed more than half of the population of the continent, and found a new vibrancy after unthinkable destruction. He hopes this will speak to our contemporary lassitude. The distance of a biblical lifetime between our time and the postwar period corresponds to the span that separates the Council of Constance from the first eruptions of the Black Death.

The idea of the nation-state hasn’t only been under intense political re-examination, it is also in the midst of ceaseless academic rearticulation. As Wai Chee Dimock has written, it is at once ‘psychological insurance, political membership and academic field’. The nation-state in many parts of the world is associated with aggression, enforced displacement, torture and death. In Cosmopolitanism (2006), Kwame Anthony Appiah cites Voltaire: ‘Fed by the products of their soil, dressed in their fabrics, amused by games they invented, instructed even by their ancient moral fables, why would we neglect to understand the mind of these nations, among whom our European traders have travelled ever since they could find a way to get to them?’

Wallace doesn’t use the term cosmopolitanism. It’s not in his (magnificently capacious) index. But it is a term that might have a place in his scheme of things, refusing as he does to organise his history on national grounds. After the 19th century, the compartmentalisation of literary history along national lines created an invisible narrowness: certain literatures and communities never come into view, and each national history tends to be written in isolation from all others. Wallace’s brilliant casting of literary history as a series of complex itineraries shows us a different way of thinking. He reaches out to areas of Europe that previously have never counted for much in the Anglophone version of medieval Europe: the far north of Scotland, Poland, the eastern reaches of Germany, southern Italy, the islands of the Mediterranean and the outer boundaries of the Turkish empire. He breaks apart traditional notions of literary history and rebuilds them with an inspiringly new attention to language, travel and place.

The itineraries are carefully designed to provoke, extend, stretch and reimagine the Anglophone view of medieval Europe: he opens with Paris rather than London, and ends with Prague and Constance. He starts his English tour in Calais, and, as well as including some usual suspects like Oxford (but not Cambridge) and Norwich, picks out for discussion the castle at Berkeley in Gloucestershire and the small town of Lichfield. The rest of Britain is treated in the same itinerary as Iceland and Finistère: this neatly ties together the place where the Scots, Norse and Celtic languages were known. Before making this journey around the North Sea, we have travelled from Paris down to the south of (what is now) France, via Hainaut and Savoy. A broadly German-language route goes from Basel up to Brussels and Bruges, taking in Lübeck, various Swedish and Danish cities and finishing with Danzig. Italian and Spanish trails go from the Avignon papal colony to Naples, and then from Palermo through Castile, Galician-Portuguese Lisbon, and the rich Arabic-Spanish-Catalan mix of Tunis. The next sequences, in Vol. II, are even more adventurous, leading from Cairo to Constantinople, including the Holy Land, the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia, Thessalonica and Bursa. Mount Athos heads itinerary VIII, which circles up to Rus and Muscovy. Finally, we head to Constance by way of Venice, Slavic cities and some more German-speaking ones, such as Salzburg and Vienna.

The book begins in Paris, ‘the biggest city west of Cairo’ and ‘five times the size of London’. Stephen Nichols starts his chapter by discussing a young girl, Christine de Pizan, soon to be the first internationally known female French author. He takes us through the reasons for Paris’s pre-eminence – partly political, partly literary, partly musical. The next chapter concerns Chaalis, a Cistercian abbey north of Paris which was famous in the medieval period for its library. Stephanie Viereck Gibbs Kamath discusses one of the monks there, the important (and understudied) Guillaume de Deguileville, who wrote a trio of pilgrimage allegories that were read enthusiastically across Europe. The chapter on Valenciennes is also based on a single author, in this case Jean Froissart. Jane Gilbert provides a brief cultural and political history of the region of Hainaut before commenting on Froissart and his predecessor in the Anglo-Hainaut court, Jean de le Mote. Reims is the next stop: Jane Taylor focuses on the poet-musician Guillaume de Machaut. Lusignan prompts a slightly different response from Jean-Claude Mühlethaler, who interweaves his cultural history with the legend of Melusine, a fairy imprisoned in the body of a dragon through a curse, who was reputed to have built the castle at Lusignan. She is depicted in art and romance narratives, and according to her late medieval ‘biography’, bore ten sons to Raymondin, a mythical ancestor of the counts of Lusignan, eight of whom had physical deformities but fought valiantly for the family’s lands. Chapters on Dijon, Savoy, Toulouse and Béarn follow. Dijon does not have a famous author, but two immensely powerful Valois dukes, Philip the Bold and his son John the Fearless, who built up a great library through purchases, gifts and commissions.

Savoy, seat of the crusading Count Amédée VI and his heirs, is an appropriate location for Denis Renevey’s discussion of pan-European chivalry. Othon de Grandson, a knight-poet of the Pays de Vaud who was close to Amédée VII as well as Edward III of England, met the archetypal chivalric death in a joust to defend his honour. His love poetry was read widely and was translated by Chaucer. In the Toulouse and Béarn chapters the struggles between royal and local ducal power are discussed. Here some of the most interesting material demonstrates the use at these courts of Latin, French and Occitan, and describes the wide range of languages from which translations were made: Catalan, Italian and Valencian, as well as Hebrew and Gascon. In Béarn the key figure was the flamboyant Gaston III de Foix, known as Fébus, who was a central (and Machiavellian) player in the Hundred Years War, encouraged the production of scientific texts, lavishly illustrated treatises on war and hunting, and was passionately fond of chivalric romance and music.

I have described this as if the reader were making a physical journey. In fact, the notion of itinerary in Wallace’s volumes is much more complicated. It is a combination of geographical plotting, trade links, language clusters, religious foundations and practices, and literary production and exchange. Europe, as he remarks, is not a continent since it has no ‘natural eastern boundaries’; it is a direction rather than a landmass; its borders have always been in flux. A map of trade routes would show a similar geographical range and extent to these itineraries, although with additions: Southampton, Bordeaux, Cadiz, Valencia, Barcelona, Marseille, Genoa, Messina, Tripoli, Tyre, Trebizond, Kaffa, Akkerman and Antioch, to include only the sea ports visited by the Venetians and Genoese (though he includes most of the Hanseatic ports). Language routes are well signalled, not just where they were in working use but as scholarly enterprises: the translation of Greek history (among other things) into Aragonese conducted by the Grand Master of the Order of St John, Knights Hospitaller at Rhodes is an example; another is a Dalmatian Life of Alexander the Great that circulated in the coastal town of Zadar. Religious foundations and pilgrimage explain the inclusion of more far-flung places like Kirkwall Cathedral on Orkney, Lough Derg (an Irish island shrine dedicated to St Patrick), and Glasney College in Cornwall, not quite a monastery or a church, but a ‘college’ (collegium) or gathering of clerics, and, on the other side of the Mediterranean, Mount Athos, the ancient and still active Eastern Orthodox monastery.

Other places are included because they were centres of manuscript production: hence Lichfield, which may well have been where the two largest collections of Middle English verse and prose to survive the period were produced: the enormous Vernon and Simeon manuscripts, each originally containing more than a million and a quarter words, standing more than half a metre high, weighing around 22 kg and the product of more than two hundred calves. The Dutch cities of Deventer and Zwolle produced material by and for ‘the devout of God’, one of many lay religious movements that sprang up in the Netherlands, while the Anatolian-Turkish Ottoman court poetry of Ahmedi and Ahmed-i-Dâ’i was copied in Bursa.

There is a profitable tension between place and itinerary – Wallace is the author of a study of Premodern Places (2004) – that the History never resolves. Both conceptual frameworks radically question received notions of literary history. Place, like itinerary, can be used to mean many things: it may mean an author (de Deguileville at Chaalis); a literary (and often linguistic) community (such as the substantial Muslim and Jewish communities in Aragon); a book (the Gruuthuse manuscript from Bruges, which contains Old Flemish songs); a work (the Revelations of St Birgitta, a publishing sensation because of her hard-hitting, personal and memorably imagistic prophecies); a library (the magnificent one in Strasbourg destroyed during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870); a court (Savoy); a monastery (Vadstena in Sweden); a site of literary production (Paris); a patron (Burhan al-Din Ibn Jamacah in Damascus); a genre (chronicle is perhaps the dominant genre of the period); a myth (Melusine); an image (the Dance of Death in Lübeck); kinship (the daughter of John of Gaunt, Philippa of Lancaster, who married Joao of Lisbon, that is, John I of Portugal, was the reason for the translation of John Gower’s Confessio amantis into Portuguese, of which a copy was made in the Moroccan city of Ceuta in 1430); a relationship (the Swedish St Birgitta again and Joanna/Giovanna I of Naples, who became close despite – or because of? – Birgitta’s describing her with revelatory directness as ‘dressed in a shift covered in semen and mud’); a notion of culture or cultural history. By contrast, itinerary is abstract, notional. One doesn’t move from place to place. Each chapter is largely self-contained, agglomerative rather than narratively linked. There are no maps apart from an imperfectly positioned and minimally labelled atlas on the flyleaves. In some sense, although this makes it virtually impossible to follow the journeys unless one has maps open online (where is the IJssel? Or the island of Hoy? Antequera? Maku?), it underscores the point that the journeys are a composite of real and virtual trajectories, ways of navigating information rather than geographic terrain.

Wallace has travelled to almost as many places to talk about the project as the project itself encompasses – it has been his occupation for a decade. It’s perhaps unsurprising that a Chaucer scholar should think in layered ways about pilgrimages and travelling. These juxtaposed itineraries imply untold narratives which, like Chaucer’s half-formed Tales, leave many gaps and contradictory junctures. Literary routes and historical routes don’t always coincide; or they coincide with genres such as devotional texts, but not with others such as romance, where fantasy plays its part. Wallace’s structure generates a conversation about the often sharp disconnect between imagining and writing on the one hand, and living, working and fighting on the other.

So, who is making the journey? The modern reader, clearly, not some putative medieval pilgrim, wandering mercenary, preaching friar or merchant. The book is not always upfront about this. It takes a different track. The sheer abundance of engrossing detail may not itself get much theorised comment, but it works a reader so hard that one is impelled to do the theorising oneself. It is not easy to think of another literary history that requires so much thought from a reader about how to read it. This project makes one think about the reader’s experience of literary history and what that can, or should, be.

Our own conceptions of geography, nation and politics inevitably come into play. Modern-day Vienna, or Cyprus, or London, crowd into our sense of what is being described. But those experiences depend on the surviving archaeology of that place: for every ruined church – the isolated archway that remains of the church at Strata Florida (in Wales, if like me you didn’t know) – there is an urban metropolis (Florence, Tunis) which rewrites the old townscape into new forms. So the modern image is confused with an imaginative attempt to upload a mass of material evoking the same place in an unfamiliar past, or even an unfamiliar past’s future. Iceland is an interesting instance: in the period covered by Wallace our evidence of contemporary production consists of a few books that recycle 12th and 13th-century writings and of work from the 15th century or later from which scholars conjecture the existence of 14th-century production. Nothing of late 14th-century literature or architecture survives in modern Iceland. It only sinks home at the end of a scrupulously scholarly chapter just how strange it is to write of late medieval literary Iceland.

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In short, despite the mass of information – some unforgettable tidbits include the ostrich kept in Chiaramonte Palace in Palermo; the horrifyingly repetitive description of Cola di Rienzo’s pale fatness as his body was butchered and then burned, in a passage quoted in the swashbuckling chapter on Rome; ‘the mysterious Jo Ben’, chronicler of Orkney, known only by a name in a 16th-century manuscript – Wallace’s project sidelines history, geography, even literature, as conventionally construed. Readers are expected to know a great deal: about the Holy Roman Empire, the Albigensian Crusade, the great schism (there are many references to this, but no concise account for the uninitiated), the rise of mystic movements, the Hanseatic League, ‘the inevitable Pricke of Conscience’ (not inevitable except to an English medievalist), not to mention that strange Welsh-Latin Strata Florida.

The experience of reading these volumes is not wholly unlike that of engaging with Pierre Nora’s Les Lieux de mémoire, or Benjamin’s Arcades Project, where reading as an activity is stretched to its limits. Wallace’s book constantly leads its reader to ask, ‘What kind of Europe did I think I knew? What kind of Middle Ages did I think I knew?’ The overwhelming detail is discombobulating in all the best ways. One gets constant little shocks of contextualisation, reminders that certain terms now in wide use once had more neutral or local meanings (crusades were called Reisen, ‘journeys’, a loan word used by Chaucer in English of his Knight; and the Hague, or ‘hedge’, means the count’s hedge and was once a hunting castle), as well as shocks of ignorance as one ventures into Sis or Bursa. It is good in many ways for things not to be explained. We shouldn’t be so ignorant. We should know Europe, and the past, better. And part of that is accepting that there is more here than one can know, that we need to understand that the horizon is moving ahead of us as we journey towards it.

The lasting value of Europe: A Literary History 1348-1418 is that it prompts us to take on the vital work of imagining a new genre of literary history. The reader is given a perspective that mimics the impossibility of knowing a place, a book, a writer, a region, a locale, or a household, not just because there is too much to know in any individual case, but because each instance is juxtaposed with a host of others, all demanding a similar level of attention. And the activity of making connections can go very wrong since it can lead to just the kind of nation-state narrativising that Wallace is trying to avoid. Wallace’s introductory sections are so intent on avoiding that solecism that they – again – make challenging reading, especially in the sections where the material is reaching to the edge of what a modern Western European medievalist knows. But it is risky to banish narrative itself from history, and especially from that oxymoron ‘literary history’. One problem is that itinerary (in the more abstract form that Wallace encourages among his contributors) is no substitute for narrative. It is left to readers to find links between chapters: the introductions refuse to take the form of exchanges with and across the chapters, in the manner of Chaucer’s endlinks and prologues to his Canterbury Tales. Instead they pile on yet more networks, yet more brilliantly compressed and fast-paced information-freighted clauses. Here is a sentence from one introduction: ‘Francisco Imperial, a member of the Genoese community at Seville and sometime vice admiral of Castile, is generously anthologised; he digests stil novisti, but also Provençal, French, Latin, Greek, Arabic and English lexicon, into love poetry such as his Estrella Diana.’ Wallace loves that frisson of cultural jostling, here Genoese/Seville as well as that stream of languages.

The prefaces seem to get more intense as the itineraries become less controllable. He and his felawes had to wrestle more and more with the idea of place as the project attempted to map Palermo to Tunis, Cairo to Constantinople and Mount Athos to Muscovy. The limitations of modern scholarship have to be reckoned with: the scholars who know about this material either do not yet exist or exist in disciplinary communities to which a western Anglo-American editor does not have ready access. Some of these chapters remain somewhat undigested; but their rawness is eloquent about the need to foster such communities.

Anyone seeking to write a literary history of medieval Europe faces a colossal task of intellectual organisation. Wallace has tackled this with characteristic imaginativeness: it is a marvellous feat of conception to present such a history as a series of journeys. A prodigious amount of fact and context is lightly handled, showing a dazzling control of detail across a vast range of places, many of them unknown to modern Anglophone scholarship. David Wallace shows us a regenerated, shockingly unfamiliar, cosmopolitan, dynamic and various Europe.