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Brian Cummings and James Simpson (eds.), Cultural Reformations: Medieval and Renaissance in Literary History (Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. ISBN: 9780199212484. Xii + 690 pp., Hbk. £ 85.

Reviewed by Mike Rodman Jones

[1]  The ‘Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature’ series is a refreshingly avant-garde one thus far. Like the other volume currently available (Paul Strohm, ed. Middle English, 2007), Cultural Reformations eschews the essay compilation as ‘companion’ or ‘handbook’ – a compilation based on an assumed readership of undergraduates and a consequent drive to summarise what is ‘already known’ about a topic – and instead asks its contributors to write new and challenging essays which might in many cases lead scholars outside their usual chronological or textual frame of reference. The work produced is often variously and engagingly open-ended, surprising, curious, polemical, corrective, and exploratory.

[2]  Like many volumes, this one seems to have grown out of a conference (in this case ‘Cultural Reformations’ at Harvard in 2008, which is mentioned a number of times in contributors’ acknowledgements) and gained a great deal of intellectual momentum. The intriguing agenda here is that the contributors (a fairly even split of medievalists and early modernists) have – for the most part – embraced a demand to write across the chronological boundary point of 1500, dealing substantially with both literature and cultures usually separated by what are often only the most banal and convenient assumptions about cultural and literary periodicity. It often seems tacitly understood that the distances (formal; cultural; linguistic; chronological) between Beowulf and the Canterbury Tales are somehow shorter than those between the Canterbury Tales and the Faerie Queene. The ability to deal substantively with, for example, the writing and cultural context of Wyatt in the 1530s and Milton in the 1660s raises few eyebrows among early modernists, while the ability to do the same from Gower, Langland or Chaucer in the 1380s to Wyatt raises enough eyebrows to fill an interview panel or half a conference room, despite scholars like Helen Cooper or Greg Walker working across the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries for years. This volume provides very substantial proof (at nearly 700 pages and 32 essays plus an introduction) that a great deal of work remains to be done – what the editors call ‘unfinished business’ (5) – within ‘medieval’ and ‘early modern’ English literary and cultural history.

[3]   One can imagine the risk of this new focus on a ‘Med-Ren’ agenda becoming a kind of pious and static new orthodoxy, but it is the openness and energizing, even jagged, quality of this field that appears throughout the volume. The comments in David Aers’ and Sarah Beckwith’s essay (on ‘The Eucharist’) about ‘those telling stories about relations between the “traditional” Christianity of the Middle Ages and the “revolution” in sixteenth-century Christianity’ (156) feels like it might be directed at one of the volume’s editors. In an essay on ‘Space’ (especially focused on Canterbury) we find James Simpson – repeatedly and very self-consciously – pre-emptively moving away from the kind of powerful binary argumentation which a reader might have expected (108-9). Similarly, Brian Cummings’ contribution looks back to a polemical essay by David Aers from the early 1990s in negotiating autobiography through a very longue durée tracing of Augustinian (or not) life-writing (‘Autobiography and the History of Reading’). Ultimately, the volume’s aims are generative as well as polemical. As the editors write in the introduction, the volume surely must ‘initiate new periodic conversations’ (5) rather than seek to offer blunt answers to the plethora of literary, religious, political and cultural questions that one might ask of the period 1300-1700. It is certainly clear that the kind of impressions we might get from reading across periods need not be restricted to more obvious questions of precedence, originality, or simple continuities or divisions. The volume shows on many occasions the sheer oddity and curiousness of culture in the period, the ways, for example, in which we might see a remarkable ‘hydraulics of culture’ in which ‘cultural forces migrate, under pressure, from one discourse to another’ (6), or, as Paul Strohm puts in, the striking ‘unevenness’ (207) with which cultural or literary change occurs.

[4]  The volume is divided into thematic sections (‘Histories’; ‘Spatialities’; ‘Doctrines’; ‘Legalities’ and so on) and each sections contains a number of similarly thematic essays, on topics such as ‘Place’, ‘Conscience’, ‘Despair’, ‘Community’. Very few of the contributors have blanched at the idea of writing across unfamiliar chronologies and about texts which rarely meet one another in standard literary discourse, but some stand out in particular. Lynn Staley’s essay on ‘Enclosed Spaces’ – which follows various metaphors for the insular nation or community (monastery; garden; croft) – manages to draw monastic chroniclers, Piers Plowman, Chaucer and Shakespeare into an exploration neatly framed by comments about Marvell’s ‘Upon Appleton House’ (which also makes an appearance in David Wallace’s essay on ‘Nuns’). Paul Strohm and Nicholas Watson offer wonderful essays on ‘Conscience’ and ‘Despair’ despite coming to very different conclusions about how the Reformation might have affected these ideas (radical difference and striking continuities respectively). Colin Burrow’s essay on ‘The Reformation of the Household’ speaks incisively and forth-rightly to gaps in the scholarship of the sixteenth century which are also a product of the compartmentalising of genre, time and culture in ways which have perhaps proved to be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding the period. Andrew Hadfield’s essay on ‘Travel’ finds an early seventeenth-century traveller (William Lithgow) tracing the precise itinerary followed by Margery Kempe between Santiago de Compostela, Rome and Jerusalem in the 1410s; Cathy Shrank’s essay on ‘Community’ contains an elegantly-written account of the appearance of Lydgate’s Serpent of Division in print alongside Gorboduc in 1590. There is a wonderful diversity of texts, approaches and ideas on offer here.

[5]  At the same time, it must be said that religion is absolutely central to this volume. Despite the editors’ slightly defensive comments in the introduction that ‘we did not wish to make the Reformation the single, non-negotiable pivot of the volume’ (7), the expertise of the editors clearly lies here. Simpson’s recent writing (including Reform and Cultural Reformation) has had ‘Protestant Modernity’ firmly in its sights, and Cummings’ book on the literary culture of the Reformation has been followed by sophisticated work on the intersections between sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature (particularly Shakespeare) and Reformation and post-Reformation religious identities. Naturally, literature and religion across the English Reformations is one of the new strengths and focuses of this ‘Med-Ren Renaissance’. Essays on such topics as ‘Monasteries’, ‘Nuns’, ‘the Eucharist’, ‘the Saints’ throw up a vast variety of different suggestions, arguments, and continuities from what could have been repetitively elegiac (if sometimes absolutely warranted) attacks on the violence of the Reformation. While some of the work here looks across from medieval to early modern in a very wide chronological span (connecting patristic or medieval reading with seventeenth-century puritan autobiography, for example), much of it has focused in on the previously unglamorous period between Caxton and Wyatt, and this is surely a good thing as well. It also has ramifications for particular writers. One of the striking things about the volume is that the cross-period agenda has produced a plethora of new work on Thomas More, especially Utopia. At my count, seven of the essays discuss More in some detail, and often in ways which do not necessarily replicate the interests of past scholarship. There is much of interest here for specialists working on what is usually the first stop in a survey of ‘Renaissance’ literature, and much which makes More seem as exciting and vexing a writer and thinker as he ever has done.

[6]  There is only the occasional case in which the medieval to renaissance theme of the volume’s subtitle has been rather circumnavigated. David Loewenstein’s (good, interesting) essay on ‘Heresy and Treason’ places together Thomas More in the 1520s and 1530s with the civil war period in a way which is interesting, but which also doesn’t really get to grips with the importance of the early fifteenth century for these things (Lollardy is acknowledged only in passing). An essay rather more in the spirit of the volume may have perhaps chosen to look in much more detail at 1401-1414 as a substantial comparative point for the civil war material. Others have done it before (one thinks of Christopher Hill’s work on Lollardy and the Levellers) and a new look at that connection – and one freed from Hill’s ideological agenda – might have thrown up all manner of interesting connections and comparisons. Likewise, Stephen Greenblatt’s essay on ‘Utopian pleasure’ rather edges around the ‘Med-Ren’ idea by coupling More with the fifteenth-century Italian humanists with whom he frequently keeps company in standard narratives about ‘Renaissance Humanism’. The result is as interesting as Greenblatt’s work always is, but one feels a little disappointed that something more daring (and which even managed to look at something in Middle English) wasn’t attempted.

[7]  These small disappointments, however, take little away from such an exciting and diverse volume. It is also a volume which shows that the ‘Med-Ren renaissance’ is still only really at the tip of the iceberg. This is not the first such volume which notes its own timeliness (5) – compare David Wallace’s ‘Afterword’ in Reading the Medieval in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2007) – as if the time for being interested in more than one period of literature is a vogue which might potentially pass at any moment. This is a book which suggests that reading across periods, and asking awkward questions of assumed periodisation, is energizing and productive enough to be around for a good while longer.

Nottingham University, September 2011.