This study brings emergent methodologies of literary geography to bear upon the unique contents—or more to the point, the moving, artful, frequently audacious contents—of a codex known as London, British Library MS Harley 2253. The Harley manuscript was produced in provincial Herefordshire, in England’s Welsh Marches, by a scribe whose literary generation was wiped out in the Black Death of 1348–1351. It contains a diverse set of writings: love-lyrics and devotional texts, political songs and fabliaux, saints’ lives, courtesy literature, bible narratives, travelogues, and more. These works alternate between languages (Middle English, Anglo-Norman, and Latin), but have been placed in mutually illuminating conversation. Following an Introduction that explores how this fragmentary miscellany keeps being sutured into ‘whole’-ness by commentary upon it, individual chapters examine different genres, topics, and social groupings. Readers from literary history, medieval studies, cultural geography, gender studies, Jewish studies, book history, and more, will profit from the encounter. Harley 2253 is famous as medieval books go, thanks to its celebrated roster of lyrics, fabliaux, and political songs, and owing to the scarcity of material extant from this ‘in-between’ period in insular literary history. England’s post-Conquest/pre-plague era remains dimly known. Despite such potential, there has never been a monograph published on Harley 2253. Harley Manuscript Geographies orients readers to this compelling material by describing the phenomenon of the medieval miscellany in textual and codicological terms. But another task it performs is to lay out grounds for approaching this compilation via the interpretive lens that cultural geography provides.
Counterfactualist approaches to the past are standard in certain subdisciplines of history, and prevalent in film and fiction. But literary criticism and medieval studies have only begun to consider the phenomenon, despite counterfactual history’s potential for opening up the past in new ways. Chapter 3 risks the censure of ‘responsible’ historians by asking what implications an interweaving of genre prescription, gender ideology, and historical contingency may have for the practice of counterfactual literary medievalism. Its case study, drawn from an eclectic quire of Harley 2253, is an obscure Anglo-Norman bourde (jest, tale) known as Gilote et Johane: a genre-bending hybrid in which two damsels debate sexual mores, take lovers, outwit fathers, confound priests, advise passing wives, preach their audacious ‘lesson’ to churches full of femmes, then burst forth to spread their mobile erotic doctrine ‘across all England and Ireland’. As our narrator frames it, the tale is designed to provoke outrage and redoubled vigilance; however, Gilote et Johane's imagination of an alternative social future enables other, less deterministic species of response. Taking seriously the radical counterfactual vision presented by this rollicking ‘cautionary tale’ allows readers to re-map medieval gender relations, while reassessing Harley 2253’s place in Anglo-Norman and English literary history.
The Introduction describes the shifting place of the Harley manuscript within English literary history. Following early promotion by nationalist antiquarians (impressed by its unique vernacular poems), the volume enjoyed a period of historiographical consequence, followed by decline into oblivion. After description of Harley 2253 as a material object and rehearsal of its publication history, there follows enumeration of thirteen ‘Aspects of the miscellany’ as a codicological form particular to this era. ‘Harley manuscript geographies’ next examines two related methodologies: first, the burgeoning subfield of ‘literary geography’, and second a materialist philology (or History of the Book) approach known as ‘manuscript geography’. Harley 2253 remains famous for certain Middle English items (chiefly, love-lyrics and political songs). Yet the compilation is linguistically mixed (containing Anglo-Norman and Latin), diverse of genre, and fascicular (produced in sections later stitched together). Appreciating the constitutive irony of Harley studies—that this variegated artefact, so often at odds with itself, keeps being sutured into ‘whole’-ness by commentary upon it—prepares the way for subsequent chapters. These undertakings are distinct textually and topically, but share a baseline proposition: that the Harley manuscript is a book interpretively produced, as much as it is a storehouse of vernacular treasures found.
Early modern discussions of British ethnographic history turn on a recurring set of references to Asia, migration, tribal unity, ancestral peoples, pagan practices, genealogies, violence, language, Christianity, mythology, and the Norman Conquest. Produced across the centuries I consider and circulated by writers who often had no direct influence on or even knowledge of one another, these tropes enable memories of a past that supports a specific socio-political present. They offer ways to think about the Nordic regions, Britain, and the historiographic connections among them that sustained national identity by means of historical division. At issue in such cultural memories is the establishment of some kind of continuity between past and present, which depends on distinctions between the two historical moments. Emerging from many early modern discussions of England’s political history was the belief that the Nordic and English peoples were of the same race and that as such they were categorically distinct from other races, especially from the French and sometimes even from the German ones. Evidence for this unity could be found in population movements and the attendant historical interactions, religious practices, and social characteristics.
Three focuses of British travel writing from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were natural history, science, and recreation. Throughout this period and often independently of one another, widely separated writers on these topics utilised a set of consistent yet contradictory images to represent their experiences. In explicit detail they described beauty but also filth, and dangers to which they responded with expressions of awe, uncertainty, and disgust. From these contradictions emerge coherent ways to look at the modern world – especially the contrasts between Britain and Scandinavia – as well as to remember the world from which it developed. The collective impact of replicated tropes rendered visits to the modern-day Nordic regions as rides on a time machine to the British medieval past.
Historical memory is situational, the result of a cultural process of construction and representation. As obviously ruinous, perverse, and even demonic as the Nazis’ methods and beliefs were, their use of Nordic imagery and ideas depends on many of the same kinds of historiographic manoeuvres and even some of the same tropes that are traced in this book. As much as the Nazis’ notions of world dominance differed from the aspirations of every English writer considered, both groups shared the strategy of incorporating a Nordic past in their cultural memories. What might be called a parallel descent from Germanic prehistory thus has unsettling epistemic implications. If memory is conditioned not only by what is being remembered but by who is doing the remembering, as many critics maintain, then the process itself – the tropes it uses and the fact that it combines them – is in some ways subject-neutral. It is such malleability and reproducibility that would allow for the creation of competing views from the same recirculated images – totalitarianism as well as fantasy. These may be the qualities that give historical memory its greatest power.
This book provocatively argues that much of what English writers of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries remembered about medieval English geography, history, religion, and literature, they remembered by means of medieval and modern Scandinavia. These memories, in turn, figure in something even broader. Protestant and fundamentally monarchical, the Nordic countries constituted a politically kindred spirit in contrast with France, Italy, and Spain. Along with the so-called Celtic fringe and overseas colonies, Scandinavia became one of the external reference points for the forging of the United Kingdom. Subject to the continual refashioning of memory, the region became at once an image of Britain’s noble past and an affirmation of its current global status, rendering trips there rides on a time machine. The book’s approach to the Anglo-Scandinavian past addresses the specific impact of Nordic materials in framing conceptions of the English Middle Ages and positions the literature of medievalism less as the cause of modern Anglo-Nordic interests than as the recurrence of the same cultural concerns that animated early modern politics, science, and natural history. Emphasising multilingual non-literary traditions (such as travel writing and ethnography) and following four topics – natural history, ethnography, moral character, and literature – the focus of Northern Memories is on how texts, with or without any direct connections to one another, reproduced shared tropes and outlooks and on how this reproduction cumulatively furthered large cultural ideas.
By the Anglo-Scandinavian heuristic, travelling in Scandinavia could serve as a virtual trip through time. The region was necessary, familiar, and even, at times, charming. Yet it was the past: what Britain had been and, in an increasingly evolutionary outlook on human experience, what Britain had moved far beyond. Almost like a folk museum, the Nordic region was a place where travellers could talk with people in period costumes, eat period foods, watch period handicrafts being made, buy souvenirs, and walk through a carefully preserved period landscape. The region was necessary, familiar, and even, at times, charming. Yet it was the past: what Britain had been and, in an increasingly stratified view of human experience (Evolutionary Time, according to Johannes Fabian) what Britain had moved far beyond. Clothing, religion, lifestyle, occupations, buildings, personal habits, food – all of these therefore had authentic and immediate interest as what might be called tropes of tactile historiography, potentially revealing something about moral character, whether that of the current Nordic peoples or of the Britons imagined to have evolved from them.
Northern Memories concerns how English writers of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries remembered Scandinavia, especially Iceland and Norway; how by remembering Scandinavia and its people they furthered contemporary sentiments not simply about that region but about the emerging global role of Great Britain; and how they often did so by selectively collapsing the contemporary world and the Middle Ages, providing memories of both in the process. More than simply a literary issue, the construction of an Anglo-Scandinavian ethnicity served as an organising principle for cultural politics, providing ways to read past and present alike as testaments to British exceptionalism. Much of what English critics of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries remembered about medieval English geography, history, religion, and literature, they remembered by means of Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. As British visitors and thinkers encountered the Scandinavian ‘present’ in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, they similarly found evidence for the British past. Rather than a source study that traces the genealogy of cultural ideas, political contacts, or literary influences, this book is above all a theoretical inquiry about the persistence, independent imitation, and reproduction of Nordic tropes for the imagining of Britain and its medieval past.
Focused on the historical relations between English and the Nordic languages and on the relevance of Nordic literature to British experience, memories produced by language and literature worked towards this same end of fashioning a medieval memory. Lacking the mythology of the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, as well as the sagas’ detailed descriptions of daily life in the Middle Ages, English readers could find in Norse literature reasons to believe there had been comparable material in English literary history and that what Norse literature described equally might have been said about the English experience. Similarities between Old English and Old Norse likewise could be understood to affirm the essential sameness of those who spoke the languages. With the theoretical underpinning of Herder’s and von Humboldt’s reflections on social identity, the putatively shared language and literature identified in this way became much more than a scholarly diversion. Like tropes of travel, ethnicity, and personal identity, replicated references to sagas, Eddas, speakers, poets, verse forms, translation, unintelligibility, dialects, and languages (medieval and modern) fashioned a historical identity worth remembering for what it revealed about the modern world and for how it illustrated contemporary divergences from its historical origins.