Translating Troy: Provincial Politics in Alliterative Romance by Alex Mueller
Alex Mueller’s learned and meticulous study of the long shadow of Troy upon alliterative romance joins a recent surge of scholarship in the politics of alliterative romance and late medieval vernacular romance more generally. Informed by anti-imperialist critical theory from Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt to Giorgio Agamben and Benedict Anderson, Mueller proceeds, through a combination of careful source comparison, manuscript analysis, and close reading, to situate late medieval alliterative romances within a historiographical tradition bifurcated between, on the one hand, the fantasies of empire he associates with Geoffrey of Monmouth and, on the other, the more ambivalent and skeptical anti-imperialist historiography that he associates with Guido delle Colonne. Mueller’s argument thus reads the opening gestures that many alliterative romances make toward Troy as a significant claim about their historiographical sympathies, which almost assumes the potency of a party affiliation. The linchpin of Mueller’s argument is to classify alliterative romances according to how they adapt the Troy [End Page 323] legend and what those adaptations suggest about their attitudes toward translatio and aristocratic imperial genealogy. His search for a Guidonian counter-voice is intended as a corrective to the undue scholarly dominance of Galfridian historiographies.
Mueller’s organizing metaphor is corporeal: he notes that Guido and various alliterative romances commonly homologize fractured bodies with equally fractured imperial foundations in particularly moralistic ways. Thus, far from acceding to the allure of Troy as illustrious origin, Mueller’s argument traces Trojan historiography as a kind of pathology. Guidonian Troy is a burnt and dismembered body whose disintegrations invade and infect subsequent historiographies. I loved this reading and found it the most powerful and convincing through-line of Mueller’s study.
Mueller builds upon the work of Patricia Clare Ingham, Geraldine Heng, Randy Schiff, and Christine Chism, among others. His book is structured as five chapters, one setting up the historiographical frame of Guido vs. Geoffrey, and then four more, which treat significant alliterative romances: John Clerk’s Destruction of Troy, The Siege of Jerusalem, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The introduction argues that northern and provincial alliterative romances draw upon Guido delle Colonne’s influential Historia destructionis Troiae to critique the southern Galfridian English literary and historiographical traditions that instrumentalize Trojan historiography in the service of imperialism. Mueller posits that alliterative romances highlight the moral atrocity of empire-building by pinioning imperialism’s favorite instruments of self-validation: genealogy, war, violence, heraldry, and territory. Chapter 1, “Genealogy,” posits Mueller’s Guidonian intervention into Galfridian historiography as a skeptical counter-discourse of infective, rather than productive, genealogy. Chapter 2, “War: Reviving Troy,” compares John Clerk’s Destruction of Troy to Guido’s Historia destructionis Troiae, and another Middle English analogue, Lydgate’s Troy Book. From this source study, Mueller concludes that John Clerk, while faithfully translating Guido’s Latin prose text, justifies his own historio-graphical use of vernacular poetry, insisting that “vernacular poetry can appropriately and accurately express Guido’s ‘eyewitness truth’ about historical events” (61). Moreover, where Guido attributes Troy’s fall to a combination of fate and human choice, Clerk, by contrast, underscores the human error and malice that doom Troy, making the Destruction “a raw expression of human freewill” (66). Mueller ends with a vivid reading [End Page 324] of Hector’s embalmed body as a misguided attempt to immortalize Troy’s highest chivalric ideals, which instead results in their zombification. Hector’s corpse is displayed over his own monument, looking as he did in life while simultaneously putrefying, blighting visitors to his tomb and readers of the passage alike. Thus, in Clerk’s adaptation of Guido, Troy’s glory is lost in translation but its misjudgments transfer all too readily.
Chapter 3, “Violence,” discusses The Siege of Jerusalem as an exposé of Roman imperial atrocity. Mueller links the seemingly non-Trojan poem to Trojan historiography both through imperial genealogies of translatio that link Troy with Rome, and within particular manuscripts, such as Cambridge University Library, MS Mm.V.14, which contain both The Siege and Troy material. Christ and the Jews become types of Agamben’s homo sacer, and the Romans become wielders of a biopolitics of “corporeal didacticism” (110). Their punishment of Jewish bodies homologizes their destruction of the Jewish city and nation, in an obliteration so immoderate and exploitative that it implicates the conquerors themselves. Mueller usefully synthesizes and builds upon a range of previous criticism on the poem, particularly Elisa Narin van Court’s discussion of the poem as a document of Augustinian and anti-Galfridian historiography. The chapter ends with an original and powerful reading of the
polluted rivers of the Xanthus of Troy, Tiber of Rome, and the canals of Jerusalem, choked with the stinking bodies of the fallen to infect the cities’ inhabitants with pathological sovereignties: The contamination of imperial currents represents the course of the narrative in which dismembered bodies emerge in gruesome succession, confounding sovereign succession and dooming the birth of Christian imperialism to come.(122–23)
Chapter 4, “Heraldry,” convincingly resituates the Alliterative Morte Arthure within Guidonian rather than Galfridian historiography, by tracing to Guido the heraldic sign of the dragon associated unusually in the Morte both with Arthur and with Lucius. Mueller reads the dragon as a sign of its bearer’s commitment to total war, or “comprehensive corporeal annihilation” (139). As well as the dragon, Mueller explores the poem’s “necrological heraldry” (237), heraldic signs that signal the death of the wearer rather than bespeaking his noble identity, which are themselves destroyed and replaced by desperately brutal attempts at resanctification. As a result, it becomes impossible to idealize any of the [End Page 325] combatants’ campaigns; both Britain and Rome become indistinguishably “glorious and cruel” (147). Chapter 5, “Territory,” delivers a rather moralizing reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a critique of claims of Trojan descent by the Arthurian characters, who blithely forget inconvenient blunders with chilling ease, as shown by their easy adoption of the girdle at the poem’s end. Arthur and Gawain are also condemned for their domination of borderlands and provinces, and they come to figure aristocratic greed and violence, as indicated by the surfeiting of feast and the violence of hunting within fitts 2 and 3. Mueller uses the Cheshire and Welsh historiographies of Ranulf Higden and Gerald of Wales to contextualize the Gawain-poet’s “provincial distaste for imperial designs, Trojan heritage, and assertions of gentility” (205). Ultimately, “from the historiographical perspective of the Trojan borderland, Gawain’s failure in his test of trawÞe is yet another ‘blunder’ that England ‘forgets’ in its claims to imperial ‘blysse’” (205).
Mueller concludes his study by resituating his alliterative romances with reference to two roughly contemporary texts: Trevisa’s translation of Higden’s Polychronicon, which accords more with Guidonian skeptical historiography, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, a text that forgoes military fervor but is nonetheless readily assimilated within imperialist agendas because it does not put up an “unsavory” (228) resistance. Here, Mueller pushes further to extract two essential “voices” from his foundational historiographical opposition: the clerical vs. the aristocratic. The clerical voice lends itself to skeptical historiography and takes an unpopular moral stand against the excesses of the aristocracy, while the aristocratic voices, even when they are indifferent to imperialist agendas as Chaucer seems to be, do not resist and therefore lend themselves to absorption.
Mueller’s reframing of alliterative romance through the skeptical historiography of Troy is provocative, but I think it tactically oversimplifies the diversity both of medieval historiography and of alliterative romance. Augustine and Orosius make occasional appearances, and Ranulf Higden, Gerald of Wales, and John Trevisa get cameos, but where are the other powerful historiographies that alliterative romances mobilize: Bede and ecclesiastical history, as present in Saint Erkenwald; exemplary history, hagiography, and accounts of monastic foundation; other matters of Antiquity, such as Alexander and Charlemagne and the rest of the biblical, classical, and crusading Nine Worthies; Gildas and providential history; Old Testament history; the visionary journey [End Page 326] through heaven, hell, purgatory, and apocalypse; and the comparative diachronies of universal history that developed beyond Orosius into their own medieval kaleidoscopes of mutually decentering dynastic claims? Why, among them all, does Troy deserve this kind of structural preeminence—is it the only historiographical strain so politicized in the fourteenth century? Is British imperialism so powerful a cultural force at this point? I would have loved more discussion of these questions.
Furthermore, Translating Troy’s polarizing “Geoffrey vs. Guido” historiographical frame must under-read Geoffrey of Monmouth to get its work done. By this time, Geoffrey must be used to being everyone’s historiographical whipping boy, but I think Mueller’s case for Guido’s historiographical importance is actually weakened by situating Guido in opposition to Geoffrey: because both Geoffrey and, arguably, Guido become oversimplified through their polarization. To Mueller, Geoffrey is optimistic, wild, fantastic, prophetic, and consonant with imperialist and aristocratic supersessional genealogies, while Guido is skeptical, ambivalent, moralizing, antiprophetic, and consonant with clerical disdain for the glory of the world in whatever imperial guise it may take. Yet scholars from Lee Patterson to Patricia Clare Ingham to Valerie Flint have noted the parodic, recursive, attritional, and anti-imperialist narrative counter-drives within Geoffrey’s text, which yield their own anti-imperial aftermaths in Welsh appropriations and apocalyptic (rather than imperialist) vaticinations. In other words, while I don’t want to reclaim Geoffrey as a historiographical master narrator and I think Mueller’s attention to Guido is a useful and original scholarly corrective, I don’t think Guido alone is responsible for the dark view of imperial war in texts like the Alliterative Morte Arthure. Geoffrey is just as insistent about its destructive capacities: in the aftermaths of Belinus and Brennius; Maximianus, who depopulates the aristocracy of Britain; and Arthur himself, who leaves decline, cannibalism, and cultural death in his wake. While Mueller’s intervention is welcome, deeply learned, and provocative, I found his readings of alliterative romance more programmatic than I liked. The splits in scholarly consensus over texts like The Siege of Jerusalem, Sir Gawain, and the Alliterative Morte Arthure respond, I think, to indeterminacies that animate the texts, with their admixtures of historiographical bliss and blunder, their obvious pleasure-taking in crafting stories of war, even when depicting empire’s horrific costs.
For Mueller, using Guidonian Troy as a historiographic filter marks alliterative romance as politically and regionally oppositional, even unsavory. [End Page 327] Alliterative romance becomes a doomed voice crying in the wilderness, against Anglo-Norman, southern, and Lancastrian literary empire-building. As a result, Mueller’s argument ultimately reechoes in a more theorized and clerical key J. R. Hulbert’s thesis linking alliterative romance with provincial resistance. Anyone interested in British national fantasy, ideologies of empire and their discontents, vernacular politics, and deeply learned, well-written historiographical argument should read this book and judge for him or herself.