Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Against All England: An Excerpt

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 durĂ©e 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.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

It's interesting, Rob, that you invoked the hoary "Medieval Masculinities" e-colloquium just before your excerpt: talk about ye olde days of the internet. To see them together emphasizes for me what the projects have in common. With "Medieval Masculinities" we were trying to break beyond the heroic individual model of scholarship and undertake something collaborative (so the emphasis was not on single authors/agents) while breaking into smaller, heterogeneous pieces what had seemed monolithic (male gender identity, in part; but maybe also Medieval Studies). Anyway, substitute "the nation" for the latter and it seems to me that you've accomplished something rather similar in your book: you move us beyond those huge categories that don't exist in the way we assume they do anyway; you don't return to the easy Other of such large conceptions, a focus upon single authors; you look at what is local, on the ground, contingent, mobile, emergent: regional solidarities.

So I am very eager to read the book. And since I started this with gender, let me turn to that now with my question: does gender play a role in your work? Does gender have local permutations that you trace? Is the gender of a nation different from that of a region? What of a region over time?

Eileen Joy said...

Rob: your books looks fantastic and I am eager to read the whole thing. Personally, I have always been intrigued, especially with medieval poetic texts [Old English for me], of what gets left out of interpretation when the work is subjected to a so-called "big picture" analysis--there are so many subversive, heterogeneous energies at play in any work of art [not to mention that self-knowledge is limited in all times and places], and I realize now, too, reading this brief excerpt, that localities also contain these energies, as do singular persons caught in any network of various alliances, local, national, or otherwise.

Rob Barrett said...

Jeffrey, sex/gender comes up (as a sustained focus of analysis) on two occasions in the book. The first instance (found in chapter 2) looks at the implications of the 1568 dispute between John Whitmore and Anne Webster over rights of access to a Bridge Street room that functioned like the Whitsun plays equivalent of a luxury box in a modern football stadium. Here I raise the question of how gender inflects spectatorship of the plays; I also briefly consider the gendered character of different Cestrian spaces as a counterpart to my other analyses of the multiple meanings of local space within the city (and how those meanings wax and wane as the plays move from performance station to performance station).

The second sustained discussion of sex/gender comes in chapter 5 when I discuss Countess Charlotte Stanley's 1644 defense of Lathom House against the Parliamentarians. Here the particular focus is the intersection of romance discourse and Civil War newsbooks: Countess Charlotte's sex becomes a weapon to be wielded against the opposition. One of the more interesting aspects of this propaganda battle is the gendered riffing on the Stanley family's lordship over the Isle of Man: James Stanley, Earl of Derby and Charlotte's husband, was away from Lathom at the time of the siege, and the Parliamentarian newsbooks have a field day with the idea that Countess Charlotte is a sort of Amazonian hermaphrodite, more masculine than her husband, the nominal Lord of Man. So here's a specific instance of a regional designation (Man) being gendered (although it does sync up with more nationally-focused Parliamentarian attacks on Charles I as uxorious).

Moments like these don't combine to form a definitive statement on the intersection of region and gender, but they do point in that direction. The Webster passage in particular suggests that localized deployments of gender vary over time: there I cite Mary Wack's work on the increasingly female-phobic environment of sixteenth-century Chester. A logical next step for me (or for someone riffing on Against All England) would probably involve returning to "big designators" like sex/gender and seeing how region qualifies and infects such dominant categories.

medievalkarl said...

Looks like a great book, Rob, and now I can see how very clever your title is.

I'm reminded of a comment I made in response to an undergrad question last Wednesday. He wondered, when, precisely the "Middle Ages" ended. Simpson and Wallace suggest some dates, whereas I (following, who?, Marc Bloch?) threw a lot of dates at my student: "It depends on what you're measuring and where you are. Is it the introduction of perspective into art? Then we're in, what, the early 14th century...and in Italy. Some people say the invention of the printing press: late fifteenth century. The voyages of discovery: also late fifteenth century, or earlier if you count the discovery of the Canary Islands. Luther's break with the Catholic Church, although this becomes visible as a historical break and not just another heresy only decades after the fact. The dissolution of monasteries: significant only in England, and here we're well into the sixteenth century. The dominance of the vernacular as the language of instruction....? Agricultural revolutions and urbanization: depends on where you are, but this could take us into the 18th or even 19th centuries. And so on." The student's pretty smart, so I don't think I left his head spinning. Regardless of whether it spins or not (another break, here standing in for the scientific revolution: Galileo 'nevertheless it does move'), the point strikes me as applicable to your regional history. What matters, where we draw the breaks, depends on what we're measuring. The point is a simple one, of course, but the application is clear: it's all "regional" history.

With that in mind, I wonder about your promotion of the "centrality" of Cheshire as a entrance point for the Irish, &c. [and interesting, here, "receptoria," since this puts Ireland on the periphery: coming in, rather than others going out to it]. While reading your introduction, I thought, "why Cheshire?" By the end I had abandoned this question in favor of thinking of the ethical call to attend to things, moments, assemblages, what have you, in their singularity; I had begun to think about the fundamental ethical requirement to be surprised or taken by what we encounter or what encounters us without assimilating it to some grand narrative. Taking Cheshire as worthy of our attention requires that we mark it as a 'center,' but this centrality should be, I think, understood as the 'center of our attention, here, now' rather than as the 'center of stuff in general.' To do this in a kind of half-assed Levinasian language, we ought to be treating Chesire as a 'saying' rather than as a 'said.' Cheshire is worthy of our attention because it is. On the one hand, this reopens such a study to the charge of "Why Cheshire? Why not Northumbria? Why not Kent? Why the County as a 'unit,' if we even ought to think of 'units'?" On the other hand, it suspends the demand that we translate our objects of fascination into utility; it allows Cheshire--and whatever we study--to be an end in itself, not a means, worthy of our fascination by virtue of its very existence.

Rob Barrett said...

Karl, there's no question that my positing of Cheshire as a center is as tactical as you suggest. By citing Thornton, I'm pointing out alternative historical narratives in which what looks like a region on the margins might actually be central in a way that metropolitan London is not. But yes, these are heuristic devices, "sayings," not "saids."

The answer to "Why Cheshire?" has a lot to do with specific jurisdictional and material histories, histories I explore more fully at the (non-excerpted) start of the introduction. The Earl of Cheshire had quasi-regal, palatine privileges; as a result, his earldom was exempt from Westminster-governed practices like Exchequer taxation, JPs, and MPs. (Indeed, Cheshire had its own Exchequer and Chancery.) I use the county's distinct juridical separation from the rest of England as a point of departure.

Again, though, this separation is a constantly negotiated relationship. As Cheshire reverts to the Crown with the extinction of the Earl's line, its administrative distinction begins to vanish--even as the county's sense of cultural separation increases.

Similar arguments could be made and books written about other counties and regions in England: County Durham is a prime candidate, and I had once planned on a follow-up book on Kent, exploring the question of how regional distinction is maintained in the face of immediate proximity to the metropolitan "center." In the end, though, those projects are for someone else.