“Why werre and wrake and manslaughter ys ycome”, ask “The Simonie”, a scathing, anonymous protest poem of the early fourteenth century – “Why honger and derthe on erthe poure hath ouernome”? (“Why war and punishment and murder have come / Why hunger and famine on earth have seized the poor”?) “The Simonie” goes on to blame the clergy and nobility for the Great Famine of 1315. This poem, and the famine to which it refers, were linked to a disastrous change in climate that affected late medieval Britain. In the fourteenth century the mild and stable weather of the “Medieval Warm Period” gave way to harsher conditions. Torrential storms, long periods of drought and extreme winters started to become regular occurrences. The consequences were staggering. Crop yields suffered heavily under the persistent bad weather, which led to famine and disease, as well as increases in violence, crime and social unrest. You might not be surprised to hear that the morbid folk tale of Hansel and Gretel – abandoned in a forest by their famished parents, then almost eaten by a witch – is thought to have originated in these cold, hungry years.
In Landscape in Middle English Romance, Andrew M. Richmond surveys how late medieval romances – the action-filled tales of chivalry that are now best known for their stories of King Arthur and his knights – responded to this rapidly deteriorating climate. On a surface level, unsurprisingly, he finds their response to be somewhat denialist. Many of the romances, Richmond points out, are built on a deep admiration for the heroic landscape engineer, “defined by his innate ability to conquer the world around him [and] freeze it in a moment of divinely sanctioned human use”. The landscapes through which these heroes roam are concordantly idyllic. Bountiful and free from environmental turmoil, they are filled with opportunity for those clever and worthy enough to extract it.
Underneath this veneer, however, Richmond reveals flashes of anxiety. Despite idolizing the landscape engineer, he shows, various romances betrayed moments of deep nervousness about the ultimate inability of humans to conquer the natural world around them, especially when confronted by the environmental conditions of late medieval Britain. In the late-fourteenth-century Titus and Vespasian, helpless besieged Jews in Jaffa are weakened to submission by “rayn and hayl”. Even more bluntly, in an early-fourteenth-century version of the popular Alexander romance, Alexander the Great is thwarted in his conquest of the biblical land of Magog by a suspiciously East Anglian-looking landscape. As the emperor approaches, the Magogites retreat into a walled city surrounded by treacherous fens, a tactic historically employed around Ely, near Cambridge. Alexander’s initial attempts to charge through the swamp end in disaster and, despite some clever manoeuvres (he moves his army closer to the city by building a network of platforms and bridges), the soggy terrain prevents him from setting up a slow siege. The emperor is stumped. Alexander’s ingenuity “has met its match in an environment that proves itself too difficult to master”.
Richmond guides us through a range of such insubordinate romance landscapes, revealing an environmental nervousness that can feel strikingly modern. The book is evidently aware of this timeliness. Its marketing blurb promises an illumination of the romances from the vantage point of “our current ecological crises”, and at various points it feels as though Richmond’s study reflects modern concerns more than medieval ones. The book’s prolonged interest in the sea and the seaside feels aimed at current concerns about sea levels, for instance, and its insistence on the term “landscape” (which entered the English language in the seventeenth century) evokes decidedly post-medieval notes of nature . But this need not be a bad thing. As Richmond affirms, holding our ideas about the planet up against medieval literature can teach us much about the “genealogy of [our] perspectives”, and this book does very well.
Where Richmond’s eye traverses landscapes, Hetta Elizabeth Howes’s Transformative Waters in Late-Medieval Literature approaches the medieval relationship between literature and nature through the lens of a single natural element. The result is a lucid survey of the role of water in a selection of devotional texts for women. If the romances are, as Richmond writes, the medieval equivalent of “superhero stories”, these devotional texts are decidedly less spectacular. Thoroughly didactic, they served as religious manuals for their female readers, instructing them in how to be pious in thought and behaviour. According to Howes, water pervades these works as an “all-purpose metaphor”. In a tidy 181 pages (excluding bibliography), she shows how authors regulate it to indicate spiritual transformation or access to the divine and, conversely, to police this access for readers and their spiritual practice.
Like Richmond, Howes finds many watery metaphors to be drawn from the harsh environmental reality of late medieval Britain. In an age when London and Oxford were regularly blighted by floods, the image of suddenly rising waters became a resonant metaphor for a soul overcome by sin; and as understanding of increased hygiene, a polluted well developed into a powerful symbol of moral sickliness. When related directly to female readers, these metaphors often took a particularly controlling turn. Women’s speech was variously compared to a stream that had to be dammed up or a floodgate that had to be guarded with care, all to prevent idle “babbling” from spilling out.
Even in metaphorical form, water proved fiendishly difficult to control. The term Howes uses is “able”: both lowly and life-giving, both pure and corruptible, it spilled out of any category in which it was placed. Water imagery, as a result, was slippery at the best of times. While readers of the dream poem Pearl witness a the menacing account of protagonist dragged away from heaven by a river of Christ’s blood, those of the contemporaneous Doctrine of the Hert were encouraged to “entre into this bath” of sacrificial fluids to achieve spiritual unity with the Saviour. Such apparent contradictions, Howes shows, meant that water could trickle out of the grasp of male authors, to be reappropriated by defiant female voices.
One of the voices highlighted by Howes is that of Margery Kempe. Kempe, a mystic, dictated the extraordinary story of her life and faith to two scribes around the turn of the fifteenth century. Among her most notorious traits was her tendency to break out into loud weeping at the thought of Christ’s suffering. When meditating on the Passion, she would be overcome with emotion and start “crying and roryng”, to the annoyance or even alarm of bystanders. Howes argues that this crying allowed her to initiate a unique relationship with Christ. Through her wailing, she entered what Howes calls a spiritual “economy of fluids”, in which she offered Jesus the water of her tears and received in return his redemptive blood. In a devotional world where women had a few expressions of holiness available to them, Howes shows how this gave Kempe, and other female authors, the agency to enjoy an exclusive spiritual intimacy with Christ unavailable to their male peers.
For an academic monograph, Transformative Waters is exceptionally readable, offering a fresh perspective on an understudied genre of medieval text. Inevitably, in its brevity, there are times at which the book feels rushed. The foundational claim that women and water enjoyed a special relationship in medieval literature, for example, receives minimal substantiation. Comprehensiveness, however, is clearly not the point here. Hetta Elizabeth Howes’s hope is to “open up the sealed fountain of watery possibility”, and in this respect, Transformative Waters unquestionably succeeds.
Pablo Scheffer works at the TLS
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