Friday, January 26, 2007

Two outdated books useful for thinking about early Britain

Because I am so bored and have no work to do (<--- sarcasm), I have been thumbing through two books that have been sitting on my desk since I dusted them off in the library last August. Both reveal scholarship that is badly out of date, especially in their shared tendency to think of the cultures of the past as having shared one collective and monolithic mind (and usually this "mind" is really shorthand for race). Yet in their encyclopedic obsessions both collect useful materials that will assist anyone wanting to revisit their topics from a more postcolonial bent.

They are:
  1. Arthur William Whatmore, Insulæ Britannicæ: The British Isles Their Geography, History, and Antiquities Down to the Close of the Roman Period (1913). Gathers almost every classical reference to Britain and Ireland. Also contains fun statements like "The story of the Sirens is a play upon the Gaelic word 'seirean,' applicable to the promontory of Lleyn, Carnarvonshire." Locates Atlantis in Ireland. Proof that if you learn too many dead languages, they will gang up together in your head, take over your neurons, and make you expostulate wacky things. Only you'll do this in Greek, Hebrew, Welsh and Latin, so no one will really notice.
  2. Howard Rollin Patch, The Other World According to Descriptions in Medieval Literature (1950). Finds the Rig Veda alive and well in Irish mythology. Thinks the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish are all just the Celts, while the Icelanders are the Germans. A pretty good comparative overview, though, of lands of the dead and other kinds of otherworlds in various medieval myths.
OK, and now off to file an emergency plan for the department of English. Seems my initial plan ("1. Run into street yelling 'We are going to die! We are going to die' 2. Die." was not good enough).

Everyone: what's your favorite antiquated and little known book, with just that right mix of the time bound and the eternally useful?


Karl Steel said...

My favorite is also a Howard Patch book, The Goddess Fortuna in Mediaeval Literature. I'm a big fan of any old capacious book. Hence the presence of The Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities (from which I'll quote when I finish my panicking) in my bathroom.

Other medieval books: the scope of Johan Vising's Anglo-Norman Language and Literature makes it still useful, despite the fact that he takes all the various humility topoi of Anglo-Norman prologues at face value (i.e., since the author, say, Robert of Greatham, says his language is bad, therefore his language must be bad, and French in England must be diseased, on its way out, rather than something that needs to be appraised, as much as anything could be, on its own terms); Domenico Comparetti's Vergil in the Middle Ages (sample old-style scholarly confidence: "Those intellectual powers from which art results were at this time either paralyzed or entangled in a new environment to which art was really quite foreign. In this period of great struggles and great upheavals, both social and moral, there was no doubt an immense fund of poetical energy, but it was one which found expression not in individual artistic productions, but in the great general fact of the universal renewal" (what he means is the 4th and 5th centuries, I think, but really, it could apply to just about any time).

Other capacious books whose scholarship really hasn't aged badly at all, but which I file next to Comparetti in my mind, include John Block Friedman's Monsters book and his Orpheus book (especially for its passages on religious syncretism, such as the Orpheus-Christus amulet of the 3-4th c., which depicts a crucified figure, labeled, not Jesus, but Orpheus), Andrew Anderson's Alexander's Gate, Gog and Magog, and the Inclosed Nations and Yunck's The Lineage of Lady Meed.

EYYÜP HAN said...

Curious Myths of the Middle Ages by Sabine Baring-Gould is verye entertaynynge.


Anonymous said...

This one is easy:
1. Apes and Ape Lore, by H.W. Janson. Everyone cites it. Seriously, check out an "ape" claim, and they cite Janson. (But please don't recall it from Gelman!)

2. The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals: the lost history of Europe's Animal Trials, by E.P. Evans.

Anonymous said...

okay, apologies. The previous titles aren't really useful for early Britain, more late medieval and early modern England, but I just wanted to share the wonder of Janson!

MKH said...

I don't know if these count as either little known or antiquated, but I have a soft spot in my heart for two books recommended by my amazing (but very old school) history advisor in undergraduate at WFU --

The Waning of the Middle Ages, Johan Huizinga -- how can you not love a book that has a first chapter called "The Violent Tenor of Life" -- of which the first sentence is "to the world when it was half a thousand years younger..." Definitely outdated in some respects-- but still phenomenal, and such a good medieval read.

The Court of Burgundy by Otto Cartellieri. Great book on the Valois court -- for which I have a rather large soft spot. Great chapter on the Feast of the Pheasant, too.

Ah, there are moments I truly miss my musty old history books...

Dr. Virago said...

Oh, definitely Chambers' The Mediaeval Stage. And yes, that's how the title is spelled. That gives you an idea of just how old it is! It's chock full of good documentary info, but responsible for the long-since-debunked, but-still-kicking-around "evolutionary" theory of drama, that it began in the church and then was "liberated" when it moved into the street and became "popular" and "secular," at which point the dinosaur of liturgical drama supposedly died.

In the very carefully annotated list of books on reserve for my medieval drama grad seminar, I said pretty much the same thing about this book. And still I got papers insisting on this "development" of drama.


Karl Steel said...

Two of my other favorites have been mentioned: the Evans and Chambers, both of which I proudly own. It's funny, because as much I want to teach a class in medieval (or mediaeval) drama some day, I actually don't have much of a sense of its development. I suppose I can blame this, not so much on Chambers, but on Bevington's textbook. Is that still a/the standard?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Wow! Nothig gets medievalists talking like obscure books.

I love Johan Vising, Karl, for the self-confidence the prose exudes -- even if a little humility and a spoonful of awe would have worked better. JB Friedman's book never goes out of date. There are very few volumes I'd call "magisterial"; his is one.

Geoffrey: must look up your reference. Sounds like an older version of the Thomas Cahill book I mentioned on this blog many moons ago?

hd: have I ever told you what a fan I am of Janson's ape book? I am sure that in the whole time it has been in the library, no one else has checked it out besides me (ten years ago, for about two years, I would guess) and you. The torch is passed.

Anhaga: Huizinga is unfair! Another book that cannot go out of style. Favorite chapter title: "The Knight Rides Forth." That little piece of poetry is one of my personal incantations.

As to Chambers: haven't opened that one since I was an undergraduate. It was probably hot off the press back then!!

Anonymous said...

I've just started reading this blog,
and think it is fine, very fine.
The ancient (and in some ways quite dishonorable) works on my shelf that
jump out at me are:
Collingwood's _The Idea of History_
and the the works of the Anglican medievalist who put his scholarship to the task of controversy with Roman Catholics

bwhawk said...

Perhaps the most obscure old book I own is Richard Thomas Wyche's Some Great Stories and How to Tell Them. While it's not explicitly about medieval studies, it contains several discussions of medieval stories (Sigfried, Beowulf, King Arthur), their importance, and how to tell them to children in modern fashion (modern as of 1910, that is). It's a lovely book, and quite fascinating for people interested in stories and story-telling.

Anonymous said...

OOPS, the flying finger flicked,
and having flicked moved on, nor
all my wit nor piety shall lure it
back to cancel even half a line--
but I can add the author I omitted from my previous post--G. G. Coulton

JKW said...

No list of scholarship time-bound yet eternally useful would be complete without Ernest Renan's The Poetry of the Celtic Races, and Other Studies. Typical line: "[the Celtic race] is before all else a domestic race, fitted for family life and fire-side joys." Still, all of Renan's rather paternalistic readings of Celtic literature and culture aside, his reflections on nationalism and identity remain provocative and instructive.

Eileen Joy said...

Two of my favorites have already been mentioned--Collingwood and Huizinga. But, from the perspective of Old English studies, my personal favorite "laughable in places but also really smart yet often overlooked" book is W.P. Ker's "The Dark Ages" [1906, I believe]. In an effort to resuscitate him a bit, I've quoted him in two recent publications, incuding the Introduction to "The Postmodern Beowulf" ["Liquid Beowulf," co-authored with Mary Ramsey]. Anyway, that's my pick.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Oh yes, Huizinga is on my favourite list, too.

And the two 'classics' about French epics:
Paris, Gaston. Histoire poètique de Charlemagne. Paris 1905 (Reprint of the 1865 edition with new comments by G. Paris)
Bédier, Joseph. Les légendes épiques. Recherches sur la formation des chansons de geste, 1926-29

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Can I just say that I love this thread? Thank you, everyone, for sharing your bibliophilia. These are great books, and great obsessions.

EYYÜP HAN said...

"Geoffrey: must look up your reference. Sounds like an older version of the Thomas Cahill book I mentioned on this blog many moons ago?"

'Tis moreso a collecioun of lore compiled with more zeal than accuracie. Yt precheth nat in the maner of Cahill. Many a writer of fantasie and ficcion de science did look on Baring-Gouldes werkes as inspiracioun. And the book, ywis, is so oold and auncient that it is in part available on-the-lyne:

(or peraventure ye jeste wyth me for that ye already knowe of this booke?)

Le Vostre


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Indeed I jested not, Geoffrey, and thank you for this link ... portal to the wondrous indeed.

N50 said...

Can I have two?

First: Stubbs’ Select Charters. My 1921 edition was revised by H. W. C. Davis with the assistance of J. G. Edwards, and was purchased long ago for 75p. It is such a rich and wonderfully multilingual collection. And charter studies are still fundamental to what so many medievalists do. Yet it does also remind me how much better just about everything about my professional life is today than it would have been when the Select Charters epitomised the practice of medieval history in the older universities.

Second: London by W. J. Loftie (Paternoster Row London, New York and Bombay, 1902) in a Longman series on Historic Towns edited by E. A. Freeman and W. Hunt. I love the way that its idea of ‘historic’ consists almost solely of the medieval, with just a few short dismissive comments on the ‘Modern’ at the end of each chapter. I like its detail and its story telling. I like the way that this copy was part of the stock a long defunct circulating library and reminder of a time when we had public libraries which expected their readers to read seriously. (I suppose the internet is the place for that now). But mostly I like it because I found it when I took over the office of a much-loved professor among their discarded books and have kept it as a memento of their friendship.

N50 said...

("1. Run into street yelling 'We are going to die! We are going to die' 2. Die." was not good enough).

How about adding a new stage between 1 and 2: promise to carry out a public ritual execution of the department by hanging, drawing and quartering.

I promise you - it works ...

Chingers said...

I second Stubbs' Select Charters, and I also quite like his Constitutional History of England. Along the same lines is E.A. Freeman's History of the Norman Conquest. Neither is very practical nowadays, as both men were both very much of the Victorian school of Whig historiography. However, the fifth volume of Freeman's work contains a very useful set of maps, as well as an invaluable reference list, and Stubbs' references are also quite good. Really though, I like them both for the verbose Victorian prose.

I've also held on to my copy of Kate Norgate's John Lackland for pure entertainment value, though her England Under the Angevin Kings does have quite helpful (and very pretty) maps.

theswain said...

Very old thread that no one is reading anymore, but two older works that I think still good and sound if no longer fashionable are
Curtius' European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages and Raby's A HIstory of Secular Latin Poetry in the Middle Ages