- Inhabited Spaces: Anglo-Saxon Construction of Place by Nicole Guenther Discenza
In her introduction, Nicole Discenza provides her basic thesis: "The Anglo-Saxons did not simply exist in ready-made spaces and places but constructed the places around them mentally and often materially." In the chapters that follow, she proceeds to discuss the nature of this construction: in the first for the cosmos, in the second for England in relation to the Mediterranean, in the third for England in relation to other northern European countries, in the fourth for wastelands and water, and in the fifth for halls and cities. As the title of her book suggests, none of these spaces are empty, but all are inhabited.
Some of the best passages in the book occur in chapter three, when Discenza puts on her geographical glasses and reads Latin texts and their Old English translations side by side. The juxtapositions provide several new insights – for instance, when she shows that Boethius's De consolation philosphiae mentions Rome four times, but the Old English translation names it twenty-one times. In this lack of equilibrium, she persuasively recognizes an Anglo-Saxon anxiety about, and desire for, Rome as well as the translator's need to expand on Boethius's allusions.
The book as a whole confirms much of what is available through other research. So, for instance, when Guthlac settles in the wasteland of the fens, he may have thought that he had left the world's bustle behind him; instead, he encountered a multitude of demons. Or when Beowulf had killed Grendel, he may have thought that he had cleansed Heorot, only to find out that he still had to cleanse Grendel's underground hall, which was also situated in a supposedly empty wasteland. In both breaking new ground and through a geographical approach confirming the results of other research, Discenza's book is a success.
The success, however, is not wholly unqualified. At times, the geographical approach risks becoming unhistorical. How appropriate is it, for instance, to say in chapter two that "readers of Orosius's history would find no mention of England as such"? Though true, the statement seems to ignore the fact that around AD 400, when Orosius wrote, "England" did not exist, and the Anglo-Saxons were still on the continent. And even though "Brittannia" did exist, it clearly had no place in Orosius's history against the Roman pagans. An argument that the Anglo-Saxons would see themselves marginalized in texts in which they ought to appear but from which they were excluded would be more convincing.
Since chapter two speaks considerably about Rome and Jerusalem as the centres of civilization, some direct accounts of Anglo-Saxons who were travelling to Rome and Jerusalem should have been included. Unfortunately, the book has no mention of Sigeric's account of his journey from Rome back to Canterbury nor of Hygeburg's Hodoeporicon, the account of Willibald's travel to the Holy Land. And even though Hygeburg and Willibald were active [End Page 159] primarily in Germany, they were born and raised as Anglo-Saxons. I realize that, in her conclusion, Discenza herself admits that she has "been highly selective in [her] choice of texts," but surely these two texts by Anglo-Saxons that have Anglo-Saxons constructing space as they move from Rome to Canterbury and the Holy Land would be essential for her book.
Chapter three has the unfortunate title "Recentring: The North and England's Place." One can "recentre" only something that has been moved from the centre to the margins. By necessity, the place in which people live is their "centre" and is the only lens through which they can get to know the rest of the world. In that sense, the Anglo-Saxons always have been at the centre of their world and do not need to be "recentred."
Chapters four and five are more convincing, and Discenza's finding that the Anglo-Saxons constructed every space in this world as transitory is entirely persuasive. And her ending...