- The Island Garden: England’s Language of Nation from Gildas to Marvell by Lynn Staley
In her searching analysis of British authors from the sixth to the late seventeenth century, Lynn Staley exhumes a substantial and significant discourse that shapes—rather than reflects—“the implicit links between constructions of nation and of a self belonging to that nation” (p. 228). Staley finds authors of medieval and Early Modern histories, treatises, and poems figuring England as an island garden. Anxiety abounds in this discourse of an isolated and vulnerable nation, but a second and more hopeful perspective emerges of an enclosed and permeable geography of recuperation and assimilation. Her book provides a compelling new intervention in the critical discussion of nation animating medieval studies for the last twenty years, a conversation that includes such important works as Thorlac Turville-Petre’s England the Nation (1996), Patricia Clare Ingham’s Sovereign Fantasies (2001), Kathy Lavezzo’s collection Imagining a Medieval English Nation (2004), Lavezzo’s Angels on the Edge of the World (2006), and Robert Barrett’s Against All England (2009).
In Chapter 1, Staley examines the foundation of the island garden in Gildas’s De Excidio Britonum and its subsequent reworking in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica. Gildas’s Brittania is a ruined garden invaded by the “venomous snakes and beasts from abroad” who foment the Arian heresy, corrupted by Maximus—described as “a shoot (‘germen’) from the savage forests of Britain’s own ‘tyrant thickets’ (‘tyrannorum virgultis’)”—and ultimately overrun by the pagan Saxons, who are “wolves and lions” that leave Britain as “a wasteland containing only deserted cities and a dissipated people” (pp. 18–19). Staley shows how Bede refigures Gildas’s ruined garden as both a distinct enclave and a diversified, multilingual, multiracial geography connected to the world. Though Bede recounts the many invasions and conflicts of England’s early history, he presents these ruptures as cultural and religious reformations of the island space. Later historians such as William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon take up the syncretism Bede posits as, Staley clarifies, “a means of underlining the wisdom of maintaining the nation as at once distinct and accessible” (p. 34). Staley finds that Ranulph Higden’s early fourteenth-century Polychronicon maintains this Bedan trend of accessible insularity [End Page 382] in the face of popular “personality-driven narratives of insular romance-history” (p. 51). In contrast, Geoffrey of Monmouth looks to Gildas and to the theme of Britannia’s “unevolved and nonproductive relations with the larger world” (p. 43). This trope of isolation carries forward into Early Modern accounts of both Arthur and King John, whose criminous rule and contestations with the pope were reformulated within Henry VIII’s own conflicts with the Catholic church. Staley hears echoes of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Gildas in her analysis of John Bale’s Kynge Johan and Edward Hall’s Chronicle, wherein “[t]he evils of invasions that Tudor historians ascribed to Roman Christianity during earlier centuries reappear in sixteenth-century polemic as threats of invasions by continental Catholics” (p. 57). Samuel Daniel’s Collection of the History of England and John Milton’s History of Britain fittingly conclude the chapter’s exploration of Gildas’s and Bede’s influence on the language of English nationhood and the tensions that abound between isolation and enclosure.
Contemplating the anxieties of enclosure, Chapter 2 juxtaposes the privileged space of England, captured in the Wilton Diptych’s image of a young Richard II presented to the Virgin and Child, against the peasant holding crucial to William Langland’s Piers Plowman. For Staley, Langland responds to works such as Wynnere and Wastoure “by at once shifting focus away from landlords and toward laborers” (p. 82). Piers’s croft and half-acre become topographies for communal success and private, spiritual meditation, signifiers of the common good and of England the nation. Chaucer takes up Langland’s croft in The Nun’s Priest’s...