Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 288-289
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History on the Edge:
Excalibur and the Borders of Britain, 1100-1300
History on the Edge: Excalibur and the Borders of Britain, 1100-1300. By Michelle R. Warre (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2000) 302pp. $34.95
Of the many talented historians produced by the Anglo-Norman realm, the most unusual was Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136) became one of the most influential works in the Middle Ages. What made his history so appealing was its foundation story of the settlement of Britain that began with the Trojans and culminated with King Arthur's resistance to the Saxon invaders. Geoffrey's fantastic Arthurian world furnished the basic materials for two literary traditions, [End Page 288] one entirely imaginary and the other a more complex mélange of history and Arthuriana.
The first, and better known, tradition flowed from the fertile mind of Chrétien de Troyes, the poetic genius who in the 1170s elaborated a purely fictive world of Arthurian characters and adventures that became a staple of European literature in translations, rewritings, and expansions in several languages. In the second tradition, the subject of this book, translators and rewriters in Wales, Normandy, and Brittany appropriated and recast Geoffrey's History in light of more recent conquests, particularly the Norman conquest of England in 1066.
In deconstructing the rewritings of Geoffrey's master narrative, Warren shows how the authors reveal as much about the perspective of the conquered as the conquerors, and as much about current political conditions as about the past. Warren calls this enterprise "border writing," in that the rewriters offered their alternative accounts from beyond Britain/England, and often in opposition to it. In Wales, for example, the "First Variant" of the History (mid-twelfth century) features Arthur as a Welsh resistance leader, while in Brittany a later verse rendition of the History (1230s) squarely poses the issue of foreign conquest.
Warren presents her study as a "post-colonial" analysis and fills it with the attendant jargon, notably "cultural anxiety," "cultural trauma," "cultural contamination" (a marriage!), "genealogical anxiety," "border culture," and "border pressure." These and other undefined terms(exogamy/endogamy, "aristocratic autonomy," "ethos of primogeniture") are tossed about as if their meanings were evident. Happily, most readers will be able to profit from Warren's close analyses of the texts without recourse to the theoretical template that she has imposed on the material. But other methodological issues remain. The nature of medieval borders and "border cultures," for example, remains elusive. While Brittany and Wales may have qualified as "border" cultures, in what sense was Normandy one? And surely it is odd to depict the county of Champagne as a border region of England, even within the broadest cultural sense.
The main contribution of this book is its sustained, comparative explication de texte of works hitherto studied separately. Although it focuses on history as discourse rather than history as craft, it is a timely reminder of how medieval narrative writers freely reframed the works of their predecessors to address issues relevant to their own times and places. What is less clear is whether they fashioned their materials to suit specific audiences and, if they did, whether the intended audiences read or heard what postcolonial analysis attributes to their works.
Western Maryland College