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  • Structuring Spaces: Oral Poetics and Architecture in Early Medieval England
  • Tessa Morrison
Garner, Lori Ann, Structuring Spaces: Oral Poetics and Architecture in Early Medieval England, Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 2011; paperback; pp. xvi, 367; 32 figures; R.R.P. US$45.00; ISBN 9780268029807.

In Structuring Spaces: Oral Poetics and Architecture in Early Medieval England, Lori Ann Garner comprehensively demonstrates that the architecture and the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons drew from a single body of traditional encoded symbols and images. Furthermore, the architectural poetics developed in early medieval England endured under Norman rule. Garner shows that when an audience is confronted with ‘foreign verbal images’ they will attempt to determine a meaning by turning to images already familiar from their own experience and to phraseology previously encountered in poetic contexts. From surviving Anglo-Saxon texts, Garner reveals how architecture and language reinforce one another and that there was a shared language of architectural form which was used to transmit meaning.

Her first example of this is the use of the building materials of timber and stone in Beowulf. From the archaeological record, Garner argues that timber was a preferred building material of the Anglo-Saxons and with improvements in their building techniques it remained the preferred material. It was suitable to build a royal hall of an admirable height, such as Heorot. Grendel approaches Heorot, the high house, while Grendel’s lair was built of stone and was low and underneath the water. Similar associations are made with the stone dragon’s lair and the wooden funeral pyre of Beowulf. The two materials are encoded with images of heroic deeds and venerability: they ‘are key components in the architectural world of Old England poetry and serve to symbolize the world of Beowulf in its totality’ (p. 64). [End Page 208]

Building with timber and stone was within the experience of the Anglo-Saxons, however, the poets often used architectural descriptions from other sources to convey spaces with which they were less familiar. The Anglo-Saxons borrowed from other architectural experiences but created new structures and poems of their own. In the Old English Andreas, a prison is described as grated building, darkened and narrow house. A structure of confinement, tumult, and darkness helps to anticipate the heroic action that is about to happen. But this type of prison is likely to have come from a Latin source, for it is not a prison that the Anglo-Saxons would have known; prior to Edward I it is thought that prisoners were confined outside in a yard. Whether describing prisons, Hell, temples, or pavilions far removed from their experience, the Anglo-Saxon poet used similar architectural descriptions from traditional points of reference to convey their own notion of built space.

When using narratives from other sources, the Anglo-Saxon poet had a tendency to reduce the number of elements but increase the detail of these elements. Architectural metaphors are frequently retained and expanded to reflect the Anglo-Saxon world. Architecture, for instance, had a prominent place in the large body of Anglo-Saxon riddles which are seen as attempting to explore and understand natural phenomena. Garner surveys Anglo-Saxon riddles and architectural metaphors revealing that even though many of these texts are derived from classical and/or biblical sources they are clearly grounded in Anglo-Saxon oral poetics and material culture. She then turns to poems such as the The Ruin, The Wanderer, The Wife’s Lament, and Beowulf that construct a memory using architectural metaphor.

The last two chapters examine the continuation of this tradition into post-Conquest England. Works such as Laзamon’s Brut looks back at the age of timber halls and the social code that they epitomized with some nostalgia. The dominant, stone Norman castle displaced the timber halls of the Anglo-Saxons. The changes in literature were gradual but with many hundreds of French words entering the spoken English language the written language changed as well. The different social orders of the Anglo-Saxons and the Anglo-Normans found expression in the architectural transition of this period. As an early post-Conquest text the Brut retains traditional architectural imagery and...


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pp. 208-210
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