by Rob Barrett
[I want to begin by thanking Jeffrey for the generous opportunity to post part of my book here at ITM—I'm finally taking him up on an offer to contribute to a "project" of his, an offer that dates back to the 1994 Interscripta discussion of Medieval Masculinities. I also want to thank Barbara Hanrahan and the University of Notre Dame Press for permission to excerpt Against All England in this venue. The passage presented below is taken from my introduction, where it follows a discussion of local Cestrian traditions that destabilize nationally-oriented models of literary history. Enjoy! I'm looking forward to your comments.]
The specifically Cestrian nature of my longue durée approach differentiates it from the new literary history exemplified by scholars like David Wallace and James Simpson. Wallace locates the end of the Middle Ages in Henry VIII’s assault on the monasteries, “the single most important institutional framing for the collection, copying and preservation of medieval texts.” Simpson’s reversal of Whig periodization concentrates instead on Henry’s reorganization of the English polity, arguing “that the institutional simplifications and centralizations of the sixteenth century provoked correlative simplifications and narrowings in literature.” Both agree, though, that the 1530s and 1540s are the decades that see out the English Middle Ages. Much of my analysis agrees with theirs: for example, the transition between chapters 1 and 2 relies on Henrician reformations of Cestrian space (the 1506 transformation of the city into a county in its own right) and spirituality (the 1539/40 dissolution of St. Werburgh’s).
Wallace and Simpson’s critiques of traditional periodization nonetheless rely more on concepts of nation than on those of region. They focus on the ways in which powerful centers force subjection upon unwilling peripheries. My regional focus concentrates instead on the irregular distribution of periodization across English space: the historical changes we identify as period markers do not take place inside a single homogenous space, but within a heterogeneous England divided into an assemblage of “parcellized sovereignties.” Ralph Hanna’s recent argument for a new attention to “the polyvocal and individuated voices of discrete local/regional literary cultures” relies on a consciously ironic dislocation of London, transforming the metropole into another of fourteenth-century England’s “vernacular backwaters.” In spatial terms, Hanna turns England inside out, exposing its center as one periphery among many. I take an opposite tack, demonstrating peripheral Cheshire’s claims to central status. As [Tim] Thornton points out, Cheshire’s marginal position “just beyond the core territory of England” is simultaneously “at the interface—in many ways the centre—of the influence of the various core territories which made up the British Isles in the late medieval and early modern period.” Lucian describes three of the “core territories” meeting at this “interface” in De laude Cestrie: “Hec igitur Hibernis receptoria, Britannis vicina, Anglorum sumministratur annona[m]” (“This place is therefore a port of receipt for the Irish, a neighbor to the Welsh, and is served grain by the English,” p. 65). William Smith adds Scotland to this list when he asserts in his portion of Vale-Royall that centuries of military recruiting have made “The name of a Scot, odious in Cheshire” (p. 19).
Put another way, Cheshire is a crucial test case for the study not only of medieval and early modern Englishness but of the early modern Atlantic Archipelago as well. Originating in J. G. A. Pocock’s call for a “new British history,” this emergent field locates what Philip Schwyzer calls its “essence” in its “willingness to challenge traditional boundaries—boundaries, that is, between the histories of different nation-states, and also between academic disciplines.” David Baker is more specific: “What drives the British history, I would say, is the demand that apparently distinct entities—call them ‘nations’—be considered in their constitutive inter-relatedness.” Schwyzer's and Baker’s references to “nation-states” and “nations” testify to the implicitly (and traditionally) national focus of archipelagic studies. The field is not intrinsically hostile to regional analysis: three of the essays included in Schwyzer and co-editor Simon Mealor’s Archipelagic Identities concentrate on specifically regional communities. However, its programmatic assertions reflexively treat the nation as the default unit of analysis. The “hitherto neglected peripheries” that archipelagic specialists like Baker and Willy Maley restore to academic attention turn out to be Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. As for Englishness, it is first (and promisingly) identified as “not a self-generated but rather a relational identity”—but is then immediately redefined as “a matter of complex and often bitter negotiation among the nations of the Atlantic archipelago (England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales).”
Similar elisions of the regional are present in medieval postcolonial studies. When Geraldine Heng investigates England’s “consolidating itself as a nation,” she contrasts “national rivals across the sea or ethnic antagonists sharing a border with the English polity—the French, Irish, Welsh, Scots” with English Jewry, “a resident alien community within England.” The point is well taken, but an opportunity is missed: Heng’s concept of “internal others” could just as easily apply to Cestrians and other regional communities subject to “English manipulation.” Patricia Clare Ingham makes precisely this point in a discussion of fifteenth-century North-South conflict within England, insisting that “a policy of ‘internal colonialism’ has consequences for intra-English relations as well as for Anglo-Scots, or English-Welsh, ones.” But even Ingham conflates region and nation. At different moments in her work, she refers to “relations between medieval England and the regions of its insular neighbors” and “Regions of the so-called ‘Celtic fringe.’” As I show in chapter 4, these are not mere slips of the pen: Ingham’s reading of SGGK, one that explicitly acknowledges the role of regional Cheshire identity within the text, nonetheless identifies Sir Gawain’s passage through the county’s hundred of the Wirral as an encounter with colonized “Welsh wildness” and treats it accordingly.
Each of these examples demonstrates the intellectual attraction of what Jeffrey Jerome Cohen calls “big designators like the nation.” Region either goes unnoticed as a category of analysis or finds itself transformed into one of many available “big designators” (a group that includes class, ethnicity, race, religion, and sex/gender in addition to nation). The multi-regional character of these otherwise crucial categories eclipses the equally necessary concept of the local. England maintains its national coherence because its intranational spaces escape sustained analysis. According to Thornton, the “new British history” ironically “tends . . . to display the same certainties of unity within each of the three kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland which it criticised in the old historiographical elision of England with Great Britain or the British Isles.” The same is frequently true of medieval postcolonial studies: here Englishness may be put under analytical pressure, placed into dialogue with hitherto neglected identities, but English space emerges largely intact.