Humphries’ Ascetic Pneumatology from John Cassian to Gregory the Great

Humphries, Thomas L., Jr. Ascetic Pneumatology from John Cassian to Gregory the Great. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. pp. xviii + 237. ISBN-13: 978-0-19-968503-5. Price: £65.00.

In his new monograph from Oxford University Press, Ascetic Pneumatology from John Cassian to Gregory the Great, Thomas Humphries argues that by cross-comparing ascetic and doctrinal writings of Late Antiquity on the Holy Spirit, scholars can make new discoveries about the role of the Holy Spirit and its relationship to human beings. His book is impressive, as it finds a healthy balance between an unapproachable level of detail and an overly ambitious survey of Late Antiquity. It arose out of his dissertation at Emory University, and certainly reads like a dissertation in its modular organization, depth of bibliography, and expositional tone. Yet this is by no means a criticism of Humphries’ work; he does not overwhelm readers with citation of current scholarship, and his topic is broad enough to capture a variety of interests. He draws from little-known primary sources such as letters and sermons to make important arguments about underappreciated figures like Fulgentius (d. 533) or Quodvultdeus (d. ca. 450). He often cites long block-quotes of primary text, with all of it still being relevant to his argument. In this way, the dissertation format is quite obvious. However, the text is still eminently readable, written in an engaging style (there is even a Johnny Cash quote for a section heading). Even if the reader is not particularly interested in researching pneumatology, Humphries provides enough background information about the major figures and ideas of Late Antiquity that the book can serve as a great refresher course on the 4th through 6th centuries.

Humphries’ broad and balanced design is also apparent in the arguments of Ascetic Pneumatology, as Humphries never pushes his argument beyond the evidence. He limits his findings to the often-ambiguous nature of the textual evidence, but still takes important steps beyond prior scholarship to improve our understanding of figures like Prosper of Aquitaine (d. ca. 455) and John Cassian (d. 435). Ascetic Pneumatology is a significant text because it synthesizes the development of Trinitarian and anthropological doctrine in Late Antiquity with the ascetic and practical focus of the texts from which it is derived. Although this is no easy feat, Humphries accomplishes his task and demonstrates his broad competency in the thought of the Late Antique Church Fathers.

Ascetic Pneumatology is organized according to themes and figures; conveniently, Humphries often takes a comparative approach, focusing each chapter on the ideas of one thinker in light of the work of his contemporaries. For example, one chapter covers Augustinian responses to Pelagianism or Arianism, while another includes the synthesis of Augustinianism by Fulgentius and Maxentius (early 5th c.). To be sure, the reader is often tempted to ask about monastics and their ascetic pneumatology, “Did anyone think that monks did not include the Holy Spirit in their asceticism? Why bother making this argument?” Yet, Humphries is not a revisionist with a mission of promoting some innovation to Late Antique scholarship. His book is important vecause it fleshes out an unexplored area of research in early monasticism.

Humphries demonstrates the need for a new emphasis on how thinkers of the 4th-6th centuries treated the Holy Spirit, with their growing emphasis on the Holy Spirit as an agent in their asceticism (as opposed to, say, angels). It is very valuable that Ascetic Pneumatology is able to show a connection between the Holy Spirit and the human will on both sides of the Cassian-Prosper argument. Humphries helpfully traces the influence of Augustine’s Trinitarian thought on various thinkers, especially the theologians of Lérins, who, as Humphries proves, received only half of Augustine’s scriptural hermeneutics on the exegesis of Trinitarian Bible passages. The significance of close-reading Gregory the Great’s use of Augustine’s pneumatology throughout his pastoral writing about vices and virtues cannot be overstated; that the “sevenfold spirit” and its gifts are responsible for the idea of seven vices and virtues is a direct corollary to Humphries’ new pneumatological emphasis. Thanks to these and other arguments, Ascetic Pneumatology can be considered an invaluable resource.

Furthermore, because he makes few controversial claims, Thomas Humphries has written a book with few weaknesses. His dissertation-style argument is easy to follow in nine progressive chapters that are ordered chronologically, and make their arguments from rather broad to very specific (as does the progressive thought of the Fathers on whom they focus). Current scholarship is well-represented in his historiography and citations, as seen in a strong censure of applying the term semi-Pelagian to John Cassian’s Conferences, a detailed study of the complex relationship between Pelagianism and Nestorianism, and an insightful word study of Gregory the Great’s grammar of contemplation.

It is difficult to conceive of conducting any theological research on Late Antique monasticism in the future without Humphries’ book as an aid, as a result of its plentiful and specialized bibliography. Its new perspectives on well-researched spiritual and theological texts is also valuable. Humphries contextualizes his work well, which allows it to serve as a teaching text for a graduate-level seminar on Late Antique theology or spirituality. Ascetic Pneumatology surely accords well with the rest of the fine texts from Gillian Clark and Andrew Louth’s Oxford Early Christian Studies Series.

Andrew Jacob Cuff is a PhD student in Church History at The Catholic University in America in Washington, DC. His research focuses on Cistercians and other monastic theologians in the twelfth century.

Higgins’ The Theatre in the Round: The Staging of Cornish Medieval Drama

Sydney Higgins, The Theatre in the Round: The Staging of Cornish Medieval Drama (North Charleston: Alldrama through Create Space Independent Publishing, 2013). PP. iii+192. ISBN-13: 9781484947050. Price: £12.00, $19.60, €14,40.

MS depicting a play performed in Valenciennes in 1547

MS depicting a play performed in Valenciennes in 1547

Sydney Higgins has a lifelong enthusiasm with Cornwall and its medieval drama. Medieval Cornish drama is a fascinating subject that, as Higgins points out, has been largely ignored in favour of the English drama such as the so-called mystery plays of York and Chester. Yet, this is an exciting field with significant contributions still to be made, considering that the play-text of Bewnans Ke was only discovered as recently as the year 2000.

In introducing the reader to his subject, Higgins guides them through a concise but thorough account of the history and origins of medieval drama in an engaging style that makes his subject accessible beyond the academic community.

The title of the book evokes the work of Richard Southern, who in 1957 wrote The Medieval Theatre in the Round (with a second edition in 1975) on the manuscript of the medieval East Anglian morality play, The Castle of Perseverance. This is a play-text of special importance in scholarship on the performance of late-medieval drama because, uncommonly for the medieval period, there is a diagram of the stage: the earliest known example in the British Isles. Southern’s important and influential work is brought up on a number of occasions throughout Higgins’ book, which effectively challenges and argues against his claims, bringing a fresh approach to the field.

After the introduction to the book, Higgins discusses the Cornish theatre (or plen-an-gwary), and compares St. Just Round to Piran Round in order to scrutinise their potential as the locations for dramatic performances in medieval Cornwall. In the following chapters he then goes into detail about the stage diagrams and their interpretations, the central area, and the platea.

Higgins then puts his focus to interpreting the theatrical spaces in order to address the action of Cornish drama, with individual chapters for each of the two days of St. Meriasek. His meticulous analysis of the play-text breaks down its action and references each section of action against a diagram of the stage, corresponding the action and its stage space with numbers. All possible textual evidence is sifted through, to use details, even such as the costume arrangements, to reflect back on what is consequently suggested about the design of the theatrical space.

In the penultimate chapter, Higgins discusses the staging of The Creation of the World (Gwyrans An Bys), a play with detailed stage directions but no stage diagram. Consequently, Higgins discusses the issues of examining the stage directions of the extant manuscript of the play-text (this is dated at 1611, although it is thought that the play itself dated from the 1530s) and asks pertinent questions about both the authorship and validity of the stage directions. However, despite the lack of a stage diagram to the play-text, Higgins takes note of the play’s similarity to St. Meriasek in order to construct his arguments about the staging of the play upon this evidence.

In his final chapter, entitled ‘The Medieval Audience and its Theatre’ Higgins challenges Southern’s idea that the central area of medieval (circular) theatres would have been occupied by spectators, and in arguing against him, Higgins uses evidence from The Castle of Perseverance in addition to the plans of the Cornish plays. It is in this regard, as Higgins discusses the staging and performances of medieval Cornish drama in its broader context, that his work is applicable and valuable to any student of medieval drama.

The arguments that Higgins presents in this important work make a significant and much-needed contribution to the field, challenging over a century of misunderstanding and unevidenced claims about the staging of medieval Cornish drama. By engaging directly with the source material, Higgins makes his own, detailed interpretations of the extant stage diagrams, which he justifies with contextual evidence.

The book provides the reader with an invaluable insight into the staging of medieval drama, not just through Higgins’ own arguments that he makes in this work, but through responding to the previous assertions and assumptions about medieval Cornish drama over the centuries with a series of questions that structure his logical and carefully considered approach. In this endeavour, Higgins provides a comprehensive knowledge of the staging of the drama. He even explains and disambiguates staging terminology and its historical misuse.

Sydney Higgins also contributes to the debate over the validity of examining medieval visual culture as a source of information about the performances and staging conventions of medieval drama. Regarding the work of Giotto, he notes that scholars have either focussed on the subject of his paintings or criticised his lack of perspective, rather than asking the crucial question of why he painted the architectural structures as he did. In asking this question himself, Higgins points to the evidence that in painting familiar buildings such as the Lateran Basilica (which Giotto knew well) he chose to represent them completely differently, and in a way that therefore suggests the potential influence of the performances of medieval drama upon his paintings.

Higgins raises a number of important issues of academic scholarship in The Theatre in the Round. For instance, even though in 1936 Hélène Leclerc suggested that the Cornish rounds could have influenced the design of the Elizabethan theatres, later scholars have suggested the idea that such stages may have been influenced by pageant-wagons in inn-yards, and completely ignored theatre in the round. In addition to medieval Cornish drama, this also serves to highlight the extent of the neglect of scholarly attention to theatre in the round, since academics have been focussed so much on the pageant-wagons of the mystery plays of York and Chester.

This book is essential reading for any scholar or enthusiast of medieval drama, not just for the new arguments that Higgins puts forward, but as an indispensible example of how to analyse and understand play-texts in the context of performance. One of Higgins’ many strengths in this endeavour comes from his own experience as a director of a theatre company and his treatment of the plays as if he were staging them himself from the available evidence. Illustrated throughout with colophons, diagrams, photographs of modern performances, and medieval art, in addition to appendices, The Theatre of Round: The Staging of Cornish Medieval Drama is an accomplished work with enough detail in its 192 pages to make a valuable contribution to our understanding of the staging and performance of medieval drama.

Southern, Richard, The Medieval Theatre in the Round (London: Faber & Faber, 1975).

Helen F. Smith is a doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh, working on a thesis which endeavors to explore how the disabled, impaired, or transgressive body is constructed, represented, and responded to in the play-texts and performances of drama in the late-medieval period.

Stephanos Efthymiadis (ed.), Ashgate Research Companion to Byzantine Hagiography.

Stephanos Efthymiadis (ed.), Ashgate Research Companion to Byzantine Hagiography. Volume I: Periods and Places. Ashgate research companions.   Farnham; Burlington, VT:  Ashgate, 2011.  Pp. xix, 440.  ISBN 9780754650331.  $149.95.  

Hagiography was one of the most flourishing literary genres in Byzantium. Historians of Byzantine Studies can obtain information about political, religious, social, and economic life from the fourth to the fifteenth century from hagiography. The dynamics of this field have been portrayed and practiced in many Oriental and Slavic languages, such as Slavic, Russian, Arabic, Coptic, and Armenian. This two-volumed work (the second volume is expected to be published shortly), is a serious attempt to present Byzantine Hagiography. The first volume is divided in two sections: the first part dedicated to the periods, authors’ texts, and inter-influences of Byzantine Hagiography, while the second part deals with the Hagiography of the Byzantine periphery (Armenian, Syriac, Arabic, Slavic Hagiographies, etc.). The Companion begins with the editor’s introduction; Stephanos Efthymiadis presents the discipline of hagiography, its cultivators (e.g. Hippolyte Delehaye, Francois Halkin) and the various scholarly series dedicated to the field (Acta Sanctorum, Analecta Bollandiana, Subsidia Hagiographica). The first section consists of five chapters referring to the four periods of Byzantine Hagiography: Late Antiquity (4th-7th centuries), “Dark Age” (8th-10th centuries), the 11th and 12th centuries, and the Late Byzantine period (1204-1453). Of course, because of the Companion’s length, it is impossible for a reviewer to discuss all the topics in detail; so I will try to focus on the main points of this book.

The first chapter, written by the late Tomas Hägg, is titled, “The Life of St. Antony between Biography and Hagiography”. The article is dedicated to the exemplar of Christian biography and hagiography and the model of Christian anchoret and saint, the Life of St. Antony, composed by Athanasius of Alexandria. Hägg discusses the various versions of the Life (Greek, Latin, Syrian), and he analyzes in detail the basic elements of the plot. Hägg gives a new sense to the term “biography” as the literary genre that describes the life of a historical figure; Christian Hagiography is the continuation of this biographical genre. Hägg’s contribution is in reality a detailed presentation of the Life of Anthony, relying on the rhetoric patterns of the text borrowed by classical authors (cf. Porphyry’s and Iamblichus’ Lives of Pythagoras), the identification of Life’s loci with real places, as also about the intertextualities of the different versions. Hägg concludes that Athanasius with the Vita of Anthonius wished to give the model of the Christian ascetic.

The second chapter, “Greek Hagiography in late Antiquity (Fourth-Eighth Centuries)”, by Stephanos Efthymiadis with contributions by André Bingelli and Zissis Aïnalis, deals with late antique hagiography. The chapter begins with the Church Fathers of the early Christian era who dealt with the writing of saints’ Lives, such as Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom. These Church Fathers, according to Delehaye, engaged in the composition of Vitae, paying honour to martyrs, holy bishops, ascetics, and virgins. The rest of the chapter deals with monastic biographies (Pachomian Hagiography, Palladios’ Historia Lausiaca), Vitae of the desert fathers (Life of Arsenios the Great, Life of St. Mary of Egypt), and monastic collections, such as the sayings of the desert fathers (Apopthegmata Patrum, Gerontika, Paterika, Meterika), Historia Monachorum, the famous Historia Lausiaca by Palladios Bishop of Hellenopolis, the Spiritual Meadow by John Moschos and Philotheos Historia by Theodoret Bishop of Cyrrhus in Syria. The last section of Efthymiadis’ contribution deals with the monastic collections of Constantinople and its provinces, Asia Minor, Cyprus, and Thessalonike’s two Miracle Collections (those supposed to have been composed by John Bishop of Thessalonike (±560-±626) in honour of St. Demetrius, the patron saint of the city). Efthymiadis offers an image of early monasticism and anchoritic life in Constantinople and its provinces (e.g. St. Symeon Stylites the Younger, St. Theodore of Sykeon, Hermit Isaac, Patriarchs Nektarios & Anatolios, St. Thecla, St. Symeon the Fool etc.). Most Vitae, he concludes, were composed for the canonization of a saint.

The third chapter, again by Efthymiadis, “Hagiography from the ‘dark age’ to the age of Symeon Metaphrastes (8th–10th centuries)”, deals with the hagiography in the so-called “Dark Age” that is the hagiography of both the pre- and post- iconoclastic periods. These periods saw the evolution of hagiography with the composition of new martyrs’ and saints’ vitae – nearly 100 extant biographies, Encomia and Translations of relics – in honour of those who suffered because of their veneration of the holy images and their dedication to Orthodoxy. This period is also the era of the first Arab attacks against the Byzantine Empire, which resulted in the fact that many vitae were composed in order to praise men and women who refused to espouse Islam. Efthymiadis first makes special mention of the re-writing of early Christian martyrs’ and saints’ Vitae and their compiler John, Bishop of Sardis, a forerunner of Symeon Metaphrastes. This era is the transition from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages in terms of social, economic, and cultural changes. According to many scholars who deal with Byzantine Hagiography, this period sees the beginning of “family cults”, i.e. Saints’ Lives, which were written to commemorate the memory of Byzantine noble families’ members. An extraordinary example is that of St. Theodore the Stoudite and his family, all of whom were dedicated to monasticism and many of whom were sanctified. Efthymiadis refers also to other learned hagiographers (Ignatios the Deacon, Michael Synkellos, Methodios, the Patriarch of Constantinople) who have contributed in their own way to the hagiography of this period. The author dedicates the rest of the third chapter to the hagiography and its characteristics after Iconoclasm, as well as to  hagiography during the age of the Emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912). The chapter concludes with a special reference to the Synaxarion of Constantinople and the Metaphrastic Menologion, two of the most pivotal Hagiographic works of this period.

The last two chapters of the first section, by Symeon Paschalidis (“The Hagiography of the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries”) and by Alice-Mary Talbot (“Hagiography in Late Byzantium (1204-1453)”), deal with late Byzantine Hagiography. Specifically, Chapter Four deals with hagiographic collections, such as Menologion and Synaxarion of the Church of Constantinople. According to Paschalidis, the eleventh century was not suitable for the elevation of new saints. Paschalidis rightly argues that this phenomenon was mainly due to the philosophical opinions of diverse Byzantine literati (e.g. John Italos) who disputed all miracles attributed to Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints. Nevertheless, some vitae make their appearance in this period: the vitae of St Symeon the New Theologian, St Loukas of Steiris, and St Lazaros of Mt. Galesion, to name a few. Paschalidis suggests that three factors affected the hagiographic production of 11th-12th centuries. The first is that we now have a consolidation of the saints’ cult, “institutionalized” by the Menologion and the Synaxarion. These two “collections” would establish for the next centuries the official cult of the saints in the Byzantine Church; the second reason is that on the one hand many believed that the saints’ cult had expired, while on the other hand others believed that the saints were not able to help people posthumously and that their honour and cults were useless. The above phenomenon is due to the evolution of sciences, philosophy, and logic during these centuries (e.g. Michael Psellos and John Italos). The third factor is that during these centuries there was a “decentralization” of hagiographic production in provincial centres, from major cities such as Constantinople and Thessalonike, to other “hinterland” areas such as Cyprus, Asia Minor, Southern Italy, and Sicily; these provinces suffered from invasions and conquerors (Seljuk Turks, Normans, Crusaders). This circumstance favored the “creation” of new saints and martyrs of the Christian faith. In the last chapter of the first section Talbot deals with the hagiographic production of the last two and half centuries of the Byzantine Empire (1204-1453). Talbot suggests that during this period, an era of general decline, there was also an efflorescence of hagiography with over 60 practitioners of the genre. In addition, she demonstrates that women are noticeably absent among the new saints of this period.

The second section presents the Hagiographic production of the Byzantine periphery and the Orient. The authors of this section cover a wide linguistic, geographical, chronological, authorial, and topical range of dense and complex material on innumerable holy men and women. The different geographic hagiographic traditions that are represented are Italy, Syria, Georgia, Armenia, as well as hagiography in Coptic, Arabic and Slavic languages and Latin hagiographic literature translated into Greek. In this section the authors present the various themes, motifs and special characteristics of each locus Hagiographicus of the Byzantine oecumene. Each chapter of both sections is followed by a thorough list of both primary and secondary sources.

Above I tried to sketch the basic points of the papers contained in this volume. The contributors of the volume, all eminent scholars in their fields, have attempted to present an overall view of the Byzantine Hagiography, from the 4th up to the 15th century. Some of the reasons that the present volume is important to scholarship are as follows: a) we have for the first time a complete view of the Byzantine Hagiography. The selections of contextual Byzantine hagiography place it within its respective provincial, political, and social atmosphere. The book’s wide geographic and chronological scope also provides a well-rounded and holistic picture of the genre, regarding periods, topics, genres, places; b) Each Hagiographic period is presented within its social, economic, political period; c) New evidence is provided and new hagiographic topics are discussed in detail. At the end of each chapter, extensive literature, both primary and secondary, is cited; d) Prominent hagiographers, both Constantinopolitan and provincial, are presented (e.g. Theodoros of Stoudios, Ignatios the Deacon, Michael Synkellos, Leontios of Neapolis, John Mauropous etc.; e) Hagiography is connected to other genres such as 12th century Rhetoric.

Many congratulations are owed to the editor, Professor Stephanos Efthymiadis, as he succeeded in presenting a serious study to modern scholarship, an important study not only to Byzantinists, but also to scholars, interested in theology, literature, and social history of Byzantium. Given the major names of the contributors and the well-written content, there is no doubt that this companion will be the primer for years to come. Every university library should have a copy. I await with great interest the second volume, which will be dedicated to aspects of hagiography as a literary genre.

Spyros P. Panagopoulos is an independent scholar of Byzantine and Patristic studies in Greece. His current research is focusing on Byzantine scholarship and Hagiography during the Palaiologan period.

Reminder: Paper submissions for 2014 Spring Issue — “Enemies” — are due Thursday, February 13

Our upcoming issue will be published in late spring and concerns itself with the reader-selected theme of “Enemies.” We invite you to consider this theme broadly. Some possible topics include considering how enemies were constructed and identified; what forms enemies could take, including supernatural enemies; how individuals or groups became or stopped being enemies; or how enemies worked with or against other categories of identity.

We particularly encourage the submission of proposals that take a strongly theoretical and/or interdisciplinary approach, and that examine new and previously unconsidered aspects of these subjects. Possible topics may be drawn from any discipline: history, art history, archaeology, literature, linguistics, music, theology, etc. Work from every interpretive angle is encouraged – memory, gender, historiography, medievalism, consilience, etc. Most importantly, we seek engaging, original work that contributes to our collective understanding of the medieval era.

Contributions should be in English and roughly 6,000 – 12,000 words, including all documentation and citational apparatus; book reviews are typically between 500-1,000 words but cannot exceed 2,000. All notes must be endnotes, and a bibliography must be included; submission guidelines can be found here. Contributions may be submitted to and are due February 13, 2014. If you are interested in submitting a paper but feel you would need additional time, please send a query email and details about an expected time-scale for your submission. Queries about submissions or the journal more generally can also be sent to this address.

Alliterative Revival in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Arthurian Epic


, , ,

fall-of-arthurReview by Phoebe C. Linton
The University of Edinburgh

The Fall of Arthur should be considered a text of interest both to current medievalists interested in the fourteenth-century alliterative revival and those studying the development of Arthurian literature through history, as well as die hard fanatics of Tolkien. It constitutes the most recent posthumous publication by Christopher Tolkien of his father J. R. R. Tolkien’s work, a poem of 954 lines written sometime between 1931-4. The last section is sadly unfinished because Tolkien abandoned The Fall of Arthur for his epic narrative on Middle Earth, The Lord of the Rings; consequently the final sixteen lines are draft material rather than polished prose.

Characteristically, Tolkien’s supreme strength as an author lies in his unfolding of a journey. In the alliterative Fall of Arthur, his characters’ passage through time and over the landscape evokes the spirit of “quest” in every stanza. In his essay explaining the background of The Fall of Arthur, Christopher Tolkien references Edmund Chamber’s evaluation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, who wrote that “no work of imagination, save the Aeneid, has done more to shape the legend of a people.” I consider it equally true that no work of modern fantasy has done more to shape the British literary imagination as The Lord of the Rings. The seeds of several themes, character prototypes and voices in Tolkien’s greatest work are apparent in The Fall of Arthur, and offer signs of the workings of the author’s imagination as he prepared, unconsciously or otherwise, to begin his magnum opus.

Tolkien was steeped in the lore and literature of the Middle Ages, and his familiarity with the spirit, language and style of his sources is evident in the fluency with which he handles Arthurian tragedy in his own unique voice. Much like the alliterative revival of the fourteenth century, which was not a mainstream tradition, Tolkien’s alliterative reimagining in the twentieth century was also not indicative of a revival. However, the genre lends itself to the subject of Arthurian epic due to the rhythm achieved by the dipodic hemistich, which infuses Tolkien’s distinctive imagery with energy. Dipodic hemistich is a verse form which divides each line into two halves (hemistich); in each half there are two feet, or syllables of emphasis (di-podic). These emphases can fall anywhere in each half. In this style and form, alliteration and poetic emphasis work together to form a motivated poetic pulse that drives the narrative forward. Therefore this form and style is particularly suitable to war epics such as the legends of Arthur.

Unlike the most complex and exemplary British Arthurian romance, Le Morte Darthur by Thomas Malory, which follows the whole of Arthur’s life from youth to age, Tolkien’s poem begins in media res during the final days of King Arthur. Readers familiar with the Arthurian myths and romances will recognise that at this point the best known events, such as the adulterous relationship between Lancelot and Guinever, have passed. Tolkien’s personal reimagining of King Arthur is not about how people become who they are, but how they face the consequences of their life choices.

The Fall of Arthur is divided into five cantos. The first follows Arthur in his final decision to seek a last glory in battle. As in Tolkien’s life work The Lord of the Rings, the landscape plays a huge part in the narrative, where events are played out across the “wild marches,” the “houseless hills,” and “veiled forest” rather than in the civilised environment of the medieval court.[1] Many ideas to be found in The Lord of the Rings are begun in this poem; for example Tolkien’s concept of war as a force that is almost above human control, like heaven and hell. War is portrayed almost as a wave of energy triggered by but not wholly because of mortal interference: “Thus Arthur in arms | eastward journeyed, / And war awoke | in the wild regions.”[2] Tolkien’s language allows for two readings, where Arthur can be seen as travelling to find the potential for evil that already exists in the east, as well as purposefully causing strife in order to augment his own glory. Here, Arthur could be the one to awaken war, but it is equally possible that it wakes of its own accord. The solitude of the lonely warrior “waiting watchful | in a world of shadow” who shines with heroism is counterbalanced by the moral ambiguity of such a mission.[3] In The Lord of the Rings different civilisations of men do not fight one another in battle, since they are united in their common goal to rid the earth of Sauron and the orcs. In this poem there is something unsettling about a king whose war efforts abroad are usually depicted in a favorable light, but here wreaks devastation on lands far away with no obvious cause except to enhance his own reputation:

folk fled them [Arthur’s company] | as the face of God,
till earth was empty | and no eyes saw them,
and no ears heard them | in the endless hills,
save bird and beast | baleful haunting
the lonely lands.[4]

In scenes such as this Tolkien was clearly influenced by the early medieval texts he studied and wrote about in his literary criticism: Beowulf and the Norse sagas.

Whilst Arthur is abroad on this mission, Tolkien portrays a traditionally depraved Mordred at home in the second canto, juxtaposed with a less conventional Guinever, who here is pure antithesis to the disloyal Mordred, despite her illicit affair with Lancelot. Although the second canto opens with Mordred, it turns halfway to present Guinever as a heroine acting within a world turned politically dark. She reflects some of Eowyn’s qualities, such as defiance and coldness in face of the heat of anger:

Grey her eyes were | as a glittering sea;
glass-clear and chill | they his glance challenged
proud and pitiless.[5]

In the third canto, Tolkien captures Lancelot’s conflicting passion for Guinever and love of his liege lord, the king. As in the second, Tolkien infuses age-old characters with new psychological depth, encouraging emotional complexity in their love triangle. Tolkien presents their relationship as tarnished; in order to save Guinever, Lancelot has unwittingly killed some of his closest fellows in the midst of their escape, among them Gareth, whom he himself knighted. Tolkien portrays how this guilt alters their perception of one another. In Guinever’s mind, “[s]trange she deemed him / by a sudden sickness | from his self altered.”[6] On the other side of this gulf, Lancelot feels similarly: “Strange he deemed her / from her self altered.”[7] Tolkien’s poetry is particularly emotive at this point, since the change each lover perceives as resting in the other is actually something that has occurred in their own minds and evinces a sophisticated concept of projection.

The tragic mood that inflects all the characters is strongest in the fourth canto. It is the most evocative and atmospheric section of the poem, epitomising Tolkien’s skill at complementing each protagonist with the pervasive force of the landscape which propels the narrative:

Wolves were howling | on the wood’s border;
the windy trees | wailed and trembled,
and wandering leaves | wild and homeless
drifted dying | in the deep hollows.[8]

This scene forms the backdrop for Mordred’s stand against Arthur’s forces, and descriptions such as this infuse the poem with a lonely mood that conveys the isolation of each and every character.

The fifth canto returns to Arthur as he travels home to Camelot to face his final reckoning with Mordred and his death. Christopher Tolkien tells us in this edition that his father’s notes demonstrate Tolkien’s intentions to include Avalon, and that he would have written a sequence where Lancelot follows Arthur to the other world. The medieval sources like the alliterative Morte Arthure, which would have been part of the basis of Tolkien’s research, do not describe Avalon at length. It is disappointing that readers can never know Tolkien’s vision for Arthur’s end, how fully he intended to draw out these final scenes, or what emotion he may have portrayed between father and son as they met their deaths together. As Christopher Tolkien laments, this unfinished cycle is “in my view, one of the most grievous of his many abandonments.”[9] Nevertheless, the unfinished nature of this poem gives us insight into ideas that translated into his work on The Lord of the Rings. We can imagine Arthur at his disappearance into Avalon voicing such thoughts as the elves upon their imminent departure; Galadriel speaks for herself as well as for all elves: “I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.”[10] Arthur is a figure of legend, and in one source, Lazamon’s Brut, is described as being raised by elves. Both heroes and elves are immortal, both physically and in spirit. Just as Arthur can only remain himself by escaping death through the immortality of Avalon, at least in the promise of his return, so too do Tolkien’s elves have access to the isles of the Valar.

As a publication, The Fall of Arthur is a beautiful edition, well presented and informative. The poem is accompanied by a foreword, select notes to the cantos, an appendix and three essays by Christopher Tolkien. For anyone interested in the medieval or neomedieval, this poem is worth owning as well as reading, and will make a welcome addition to any library. This haunting work is effective independently as much more than a historical piece. When read aloud, the lines sing to the listener with an almost dreamlike quality, a homage to the poetic form of centuries past from an author who possessed an acute awareness of temporality that fed his ability to create and recreate legend.

Works Cited

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fall of Arthur. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: Harper Collins, 2013.
–. The Lord of the Rings. London: Harper Collins, 2007.

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fall of Arthur, I.2, I.70, I.71, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London: Harper Collins, 2013).
[2] Tolkien, Fall, I.39-40.
[3] Tolkien, Fall, I.135.
[4] Tolkien, Fall, I.63-7.
[5] Tolkien, Fall, II.118-20.
[6] Tolkien, Fall, III.95-6.
[7] Tolkien, Fall, III.106-7 (own emphasis).
[8] Tolkien, Fall, IV.1-4.
[9] Christopher Tolkien, ‘The Poem in Arthurian Tradition,’ Fall, p. 122.
[10] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, p. 366 (London: Harper Collins, 2007).

Divine Penetrations: the “Canterbury and St. Albans” Exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles


, ,

Review by Boyda Johnstone, Fordham University

The J. Paul Getty Museum’s current exhibition, “Canterbury and St. Albans: Treasures from Church and Cloister” (until February 2) brings together two of the greatest examples of English art after the Norman Conquest: the St Albans Psalter (ca. 1130), and a section of the Canterbury Cathedral windows (ca. 1178-80). While the pairing of these two works from different times and spaces is unusual, and, in a way, the result of a happy accident,[1]the exhibition does a wonderful job highlighting their artistic correspondences. The Getty Center’s exhibition is a marvelous opportunity to access two stunning twelfth-century objects which are normally either closed to viewers (in the case of the Psalter), or simply out of sight (in the case of the windows).

   Digital rendering of the exhibition

The Canterbury Cathedral windows in this exhibition were originally installed after the fire of 1174, but were moved in the eighteenth century to the Great South Window, where they normally hang sixty feet above the ground. Here at the Getty Center they hang easily within viewing distance, providing a rare chance for close scrutiny. They depict the Old Testament ancestors of Christ, linking the genealogy of the Cathedral with the genealogy of God, and the figures don fashionable twelfth-century apparel rather than biblical attire. Visitors have the opportunity to sit on one of the inviting benches and lose themselves in the moving impact of light and glass, or wander down the rows of pages of the Psalter and compare the two striking examples of Romanesque art.[2]

The Psalter is here displayed in “exploded book” format, as each individual bifolio is mounted on lecterns specifically designed for this exhibition.[3] Manuscript evidence such as calendar obits indicates that Geoffrey de Gorham, Abbot of St Albans (1119-1146) most likely presented the book to Christina of Markyate, an anchoress who established a community of women on the border of St. Albans. One of the many highlights of the exhibition is the inserted initial ‘C’ in Psalm 105 that seems to depict Christina of Markyate intervening with Christ, her hand penetrating the visible divide between mundane and divine; similarly, we as viewers penetrate spaces and objects we wouldn’t normally in this exhibit. Also related to Christina is the Alexis Quire, a discrete booklet in the otherwise Latin Psalter that contains the Anglo-Norman Vie de St Alexis. In this Vie, a son leaves his bridal chamber to spend seventeen years as a beggar abroad, and then spends another seventeen years living unknown underneath his parents’ staircase. In this exhibit we encounter the quire’s opening image of Alexis fleeing from his wife in their bridal chamber onto a boat, an act of abandonment which resonates with Christina’s own disavowal of her wedding vows.

The Christina Initial, in Psalm 105

In the course of their inspections, the Getty curators discovered faces of demons in the Passion sequence smudged by distressed viewers, and tiny needle pricks in the eyes of Christ’s tormenters. In medieval culture, seeing enacted the direct contact of touching or ingesting, and these details register the perceived danger that viewers and readers felt in the presence of evil or devilish figures. In the pages of the Psalms themselves we find a number of creative illustrative responses by the Alexis master, including a typological image of the nativity, and weeping figures surrounding a large initial ‘S’ which has become Psalm 137’s river of Babylon.  The exhibition is enhanced with interactive audiovisual materials and an assortment of other timely objects and books—such as the Eadwine Psalter, which contains thirty-three pictures in common with the St Albans Psalter; a codex depicting the Life, Passion & Miracles of Saint Edmund that is illustrated by the Alexis Master; and reliquaries associated with the cult of Thomas à Becket. A digital facsimile of the Psalter on a nearby computer screen translates the Vulgate into modern English with the touch of a finger, and the final room of the exhibit supplies visitors with background materials for the making of stained glass and illuminated manuscripts.

Overall, “Canterbury and St. Albans” dazzles its viewers with the beauty and power of these twelfth-century treasures, and the descriptions, audio guide, and other interactive materials give visitors valuable information about twelfth-century medieval spirituality and ecclesiastical power. This is a must-see for scholars of high-medieval England, and a should-see for everyone else.

For more on the windows, see The Ancestors of Christ Windows at Canterbury Cathedral by Jeffrey Weaver and Madeline H. Caviness. For more on the Psalter, see The St. Albans Psalter: Painting and Prayer in Medieval England by Kristen Collins, Peter Kidd, and Nancy Turner. You can also take a multimedia tour of the exhibition on your smartphone here

[1] The windows are on loan from Canterbury Cathedral due to construction, and the book, normally housed in Hildesheim Cathedral, has been sent to the Getty for rebinding and conservation.

[2] Curator Robert Checchi describes his vision for the arrangement of lecterns in front of glass: “the visitor can look down at a page, then up at the glass, and make the comparisons that—until this exhibition—have never been possible.” Read more here.

[3] Curator Kristen Collins explains the meaning of an “exploded book show” in her blog on the topic, found here.

Tenth Anniversary Issue Release!

The most recent issue of the journal has now been released! Please have a look at our newest volume which includes articles about changes in the role of Queen Igraine in different sources and about a fifteenth century psalter’s use of popular prints in a new context. You’ll also find reviews of five newly released books, including one by an author who wrote for the very first volume of Hortulus, Clemena Antonova. Let us know what you think, and don’t forget to take a look at the call for papers for our spring issue on Enemies!

Call for Papers: 2014 Spring Issue — “Enemies”

Hortulus: The Online Graduate Journal of Medieval Studies is a refereed, peer-reviewed, and born-digital journal devoted to the culture, literature, history, and society of the medieval past. Published semi-annually, the journal collects exceptional examples of work by graduate students on a number of themes, disciplines, subjects, and periods of medieval studies. We also welcome book reviews of monographs published or re-released in the past five years that are of interest to medievalists. For the spring issue we are highly interested in reviews of books which fall under the current special topic.

Our upcoming issue will be published in the spring of 2014, and concerns itself with the reader-selected theme of “Enemies.” We invite you to consider this theme broadly. Some possible topics include considering how enemies were constructed and identified; what forms enemies could take, including supernatural enemies; how individuals or groups became or stopped being enemies; or how enemies worked with or against other categories of identity.

We particularly encourage the submission of proposals that take a strongly theoretical and/or interdisciplinary approach, and that examine new and previously unconsidered aspects of these subjects. Possible topics may be drawn from any discipline: history, art history, archaeology, literature, linguistics, music, theology, etc. Work from every interpretive angle is encouraged – memory, gender, historiography, medievalism, consilience, etc. Most importantly, we seek engaging, original work that contributes to our collective understanding of the medieval era.

Contributions should be in English and roughly 6,000 – 12,000 words, including all documentation and citational apparatus; book reviews are typically between 500-1,000 words but cannot exceed 2,000. All notes must be endnotes, and a bibliography must be included; submission guidelines can be found here. Contributions may be submitted to and are due February 13, 2014. If you are interested in submitting a paper but feel you would need additional time, please send a query email and details about an expected time-scale for your submission. Queries about submissions or the journal more generally can also be sent to this address.

The Kids Are Reading Chaucer



Review by A.W. Strouse
Department of English, CUNY Graduate Center

At a recent symposium of the BABEL Working Group, I remembered something that Bob Dylan says in the 1967 biopic Don’t Look Back. The symposium aimed to rethink the boundaries between artistic creation and scholarly knowledge, to combine academic knowledge with a little rock ‘n’ roll. Although the two are not necessarily opposed, they clearly are in Dylan’s mind. Asked if he’s ever read the Bible, he says “I may have skimmed through it,” and somehow he manages to keep a straight face. Too cool for school, Dylan pretends he’s an illiterate fool—a posture that is necessitated, apparently, by some glitch in the matrix of the socio-cultural time-space continuum: ever since Bede’s Caedmon, English poesie has been selling the myth that the poet must be a know-nothing. (Caedmon, according to Bede, could not sing like the other monks, and so he went out to sleep in the stable. Struck by divine inspiration, a dream-angel teaches him to compose verse.) Dylan’s “I may have skimmed through it” is the Caedmon theory of poetics: these fables try to teach us that artistic making and scholarly knowledge have nothing to do with one another.

Of course, scholars and aesthetes know full well that knowledge and enjoyment are inseparable: clearly Dylan is familiar with the Bible. Artists do need training, and scholarship is thrilling, creative work. But one’s credibility as an academic often requires self-denial of pleasure. And for Caedmon and Dylan, poetic authority comes from being stupid. As Allen Ginsberg puts it, “Businessmen are serious, Movie / producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me.” The scholar ranks among the “serious”: pleasure never figures into the official metrics of academic professionalism. As far as I know, no Graduate School of Arts and Sciences offers a course in Professionalization and Personal Satisfaction, and the official rhetoric rarely endorses soul-formation or titillation. Efficiency and “academic excellence” mark the bottom line. As Christopher Newfield says in Ivy and Industry, “academics are neither artists nor bureaucrats but both at the same time”: we are vexed by an oppressive double-consciousness, trying to produce humanist work but measuring ourselves according to anti-humanist standards (215).[1] Or, as Stanley Fish so graciously puts it: “Save the world on your own time.” (I say nothing about the millions of adjuncts who live in academia’s flowerpots under the light of five hundred PowerPoints.) But if art and critique are the opposed terms of our current condition, then who better to help us than the great poet and bureaucrat Geoffrey Chaucer?

Today, a vanguard of radicals and misfits is turning to Chaucer (and to the medieval generally), looking to form a rapprochement between the dream-angel of individual talent and the monastery of academic tradition. You’ve probably already heard about the BABEL Working Group: a ragtag band of merry pranksters and philologists, BABEL is an interstellar Raft of the Medusa, patched together from the ruins of the postmodern university, a make-shift escape-pod sending out distress signals (and mating calls) to other Gonzo medievalists. This September, BABEL came together at the CUNY Graduate Center for the second in a pair of symposia on the “Critical/Liberal/Arts,” organized by J. Allan Mitchell, Julie Orlemanski, and Myra Seaman, with help on the ground in New York City from the GC’s Steven Kruger and Glenn Burger. (For the organizers’ manifesto, see

Participants experimented with new forms of artful and critical expression, making art critically, doing critique artistically, and practicing all manner of liberality, with the largesse and romanticism of an Arthurian knight.

  • Ammiel Alcalay, initiator of the Lost and Found Project and beloved hero of poets/medievalists everywhere, spoke about the need to bridge creative writing with a “little history.” About transgressing disciplinary boundaries, Alcalay said: “Sometimes you start out having an affair, and pretty soon you want to move in together.”
  • Mashing up video and remixing critical theory, Jamie Bianco did to the stale genre of the conference talk what Hurricane Sandy did to Brooklyn, and then calmly receded. She tenderly told us about the need to save our garbage.
  • Eleanor Johnson descended like Boethius’s Lady Philosophy. She read some of her new poems about toads, and she suggested that scholars might engage in “parallel play”—that is, we should try to write like the texts we study. (Your assignment, dear reader, is to write a Boethian prosimetrum for your next article.)
  • Bruce Holsinger, doing some parallel play of his own, read from his A Burnable Book. As if Raymond Chandler had written the Domesday Book, Holsinger’s novel, starring Gower and Chaucer, explores the relationship between bureaucracy and art, poetry and regicide.
  • Henry S. Turner reminded us that the “corporation” has existed since at least the medieval period. Looking into this history, Turner wagers, might be our best shot at staying alive as humanists while the university becomes more and more corporatized. Turner’s current research involves incorporating people into his Society for the Arts of Corporation.
  • Grooving to the beat of this year’s hit single, the Digital Humanities, Michael Witmore gave the data mine a new spin: he pointed out that the digital is “fuzzy”—there’s space for us to play within new computerizing methodologies.
  • Marina Zurkow and Una Chaudhurl helped everyone make friends with global climate change, using a pedagogical approach inspired by the Buddhist profession of compassion. Technologies like compassion, meditation, and the koan offer a new way to connect the intellectual and the spiritual.
  • The Hollow Earth Society, in a hilarious, para-academic performance piece that remixed the discourses of university administration and satirized post-structuralist science, proved that slime mold has colonized the university. If you don’t believe it, you might already be a slime mold.
  • I wondered aloud if Sir Orfeo is a secret model for the critical/liberal/arts. It is: the Middle English Orfeo, unlike his Classical counterpart Orpheus, retrieves his beloved from hell in a way that validates a romantic poetics of historiography.

Proceedings will be printed in a special issue of postmedieval in 2015. By that time, we’ll have already translated the entire corpus of Verso books into rhymed couplets, and sneaked the poems of the Alliterative Revival behind the lines of all NSA firewalls. The future of the critical/liberal/arts is coming, and it’s going to get medieval.

[1] The academic profession, for Newfield, is a mash-up of craft-labor ideals and corporate management. Influenced by corporate models of administration during the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century, the university “yoked personal relations to explicit, impersonal procedures, procedures which treated individual exceptions as anomalous. Official authority arose from the office rather than from the person. This person, in theory, functioned through his or her specialized expertise. He or she held personal power to the degree to which expertise fit with the larger structure” (78). Our knowledge, through corporate management, becomes disembodied and impersonal—data for the administrative accounting office. This causes a kind of “double-consciousness” that prevents academics, and the middle class that they train, from realizing political agency (215). One could argue that C. Stephen Jaeger says something similar about pre-modern education in his enviable The Envy of Angels: Cathedral Schools and Social Ideals in Medieval Europe, 950-1200. Jaeger shows how the medieval university is born out of a conflict between the body and the text.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 64 other followers