- Living Through Conquest: The Politics of Early English, 1020–1220 by Elaine Treharne
In this slim but important monograph, Elaine Treharne examines the often forgotten or deliberately neglected texts produced in England between c. 1020 and 1220. Politically and chronologically, these texts are not ‘Anglo-Saxon’; linguistically, those written in English (as opposed to Latin or French, the other official written languages of the period) are moving away from the late West Saxon standard that we call ‘Old English’. Yet neither are they yet ‘Middle English’; moreover, as Treharne explains, for around three quarters of the period she examines, ‘there is barely any “original” writing in English at all’ (p. 5). These factors have led to a gap in scholarship implying a discontinuity either side of the Norman Conquest, and it is challenging this assumption that provides the thrust for Treharne’s argument throughout the book.
The first part covers the texts produced in the aftermath of the conquest of Cnut in 1016; the second after that of William of Normandy in 1066. As Treharne is at pains to remind us, the consequences of each conquest can [End Page 282] only be assessed with hindsight. In 1016, no-one was to know that whatever cultural ramifications were felt then would be subsumed half a century later; in 1066 there was nothing to predict that the effects of William’s conquest would be any greater or more lasting than those of Cnut’s. The extra weight scholars have given to the Norman Conquest is rebalanced, then, by Treharne’s equal focus on textual production in the first half of the eleventh century.
The first thing to note here is a seeming decline in textual output in this period, something which Treharne muses might not indicate ‘a disbelieving refusal to engage in narrating unfathomable events’ but rather a ‘trauma-less period’ (p. 11). Treharne pays such attention to silences of different kinds throughout the book, considering the consequences of what is not said, or what is deliberately concealed, as much as what is there. What is there, however, is presented in detail and analysed meticulously. Among the texts examined from Cnut’s reign are the ‘carefully stage-managed’ (p. 47) rhetoric of his 1020 and 1027 Letters to the English, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (another text notable for its relative silence), the homilies of Wulfstan, and other religious texts, including consideration of the implications of the copying of Ælfric’s homilies to fulfil the needs of a new audience twenty years after their original delivery. ‘There are no mere copies or mindless replicative textual events in this period’, Treharne advises (p. 73).
For the post-Norman Conquest period, Treharne counters the apparent scholarly refusal to acknowledge the production of English texts with a valuable table of manuscripts ‘whose main texts in English are datable to the period from c. 1050 or 1060 to approximately 1100’ (pp. 98–101) (there are around eighty-five). This is paired with a similar table for twelfth- and early thirteenth-century manuscripts on pp. 125–26 (a little over fifty or, as Treharne quotes Rudyard Kipling – as she also does in headers to each chapter, ‘to remind readers of the complexity and longevity of colonialism’ (p. 1) – ‘a nice little handful’ (p. 124). ‘How many manuscripts would it take for us to believe that English survived the Conquest?’ we are, quite rightly, implored (p. 123). The relative uniformity of the manuscripts of English texts, Treharne suggests, ‘pertains specifically to a deliberately manufactured collective English Benedictine identity’ (p. 139). ‘Exclusive vernacularity’ in texts of this period, she argues, is a ‘volitional literary resistance’, ‘encouraged through … that set of texts’ lack of negotiation … with the Conquest’ (pp. 139–40).
This book is grounded in textual scrutiny and analysis. Substantial passages are quoted, in early and modern English, of lesser-known texts; these are valuable resources in themselves, especially so alongside Treharne’s detailed and incisive commentaries. A great deal of attention...