Book Review–Companion to Medieval English Literature

Michael Murphy, James Clawson et al., Companion to Medieval English Literature. New York: Conal & Gavin, 2009. Pp. 240. $19.95. Paperback.

The Companion to Medieval English Literature is a welcome addition to the wealth of texts which are available to students of Old and Middle English literature. This text declares itself to be a humble supplement to Ernst Curtius’ pivotal work, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. While Curtius’ text deals primarily with Latin and the European vernaculars, this handbook focuses on English throughout.

Although the entries in the work seem on first inspection impossibly brief, the length and cohesion of its entries are persuasively justified in the introduction. This text, the authors say, is something to be perused at leisure as opposed to the more weighty texts which might otherwise be consulted. This argument seems well considered, and the size of the text may make it more approachable than the sometimes intimidating and overwhelming larger volumes. The varying length of entries is also explained in the introduction, which notes that the length of each entry is not a reflection of its importance. In this regard, the text offers only the most relevant information and while each category could, and most have, produced a mass of scholarship, this text allows the less experienced reader of medieval literature to quickly gain a solid understanding of the particular topic.

The text has clearly outlined criteria for inclusion. While there are some entries for the more relevant classical and biblical characters, there are in general no entries for most characters, or for authors, individual works, theological doctrine, traditional narrative motifs, and broader genres in order to keep the text at a manageable length. However, the introduction offers some examples of larger volumes where such entries can be found, and motifs which occur with frequency and regularity are included when deemed appropriate. The authors see this volume as the first attempt at compiling such a text, and encourage reasonable criticism of the entries as well as ‘sensible’ suggestions for entries. This aim to develop further editions may address my only criticism of the text, which is the frequency of typographical errors. The authors are refreshingly aware of the value of online research and this is evinced in their decision to include references to Google images rather than including images in the text, which, the authors state, would have worked against the objective to remain as brief as possible.

Overall, the entries are useful and the very brief bibliographies which accompany most entries may be used as suggestions for further reading which will allow those who wish to investigate further to find relevant scholarship on a particular topic. The entries trace, where necessary, the development of particular subjects. One example of this is the concise and valuable entry on alliteration, which traces its use through time as relevant for the medieval scholar. With every entry, the emphasis is on relevance and brevity, so that we are only given the details which the authors consider necessary. However, this does not result in a feeling of censored knowledge or a condescending limiting of scope.

This text will be extremely useful for undergraduate students of medieval English literature, as it allows for a quick and reliable way to answer questions regarding terms and concepts that may arise in the reading of critical material. However, graduate students and scholars will also find a use for this text, to refresh knowledge or investigate areas outside the field of specialization.
Lisa Padden

Dr. Lisa Padden recently completed her Ph.D at NUI Galway. Her doctoral research focused on the relative importance of body and soul in ’’The Book of Margery Kempe.’’ Her latest research project examines the gendering of tears and emotion in late-medieval literature. She is currently teaching with the English Department at NUIG.

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Book Review–Companion to Medieval English Literature by Lisa Padden is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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