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David Wallace, ed., Europe: A Literary History, 1348-1418
by Ethan Knapp

Wallace, David ed., Europe: A Literary History, 1348-1418. Oxford UP, 2016. Two vols.  xxv + 747 pp (Vol 1); xlii + 844 (Vol 2). ISBN: 978-0199580019 (Vol 1); 978-0199580026 (Vol 2). $185 (each), cloth.

David Wallace’s excellent new collaborative history of Europe is at once mammoth and granular in scale. Chronologically, it is limited to the literary production of the years between the outbreak of the great pandemic in 1348 and the Council of Constance in 1414. But within these bounds, the eighty five collaborators assembled by Wallace offer eighty two separate chapters, aiming at drawing a collective portrait of Europe conceived less as a single geographical entity than as a series of itineraries, of geographic sequences highly attuned to the gravitational forces of centre and periphery that mark even small regions within Europe. 

As Wallace comments in his fine introduction, the notional identity of ‘Europe’ has none of the stability of a continental landmass. Its eastern and southern borders have ebbed and flowed, extending eastwards into Kievan Rus and Armenia (especially through the imaginary foundations of Western European aristocracy in the diasporic flight from Troy). The southern border is fluid as well, at times including African territories, such as Cairo, within the central networks of trade and cultural exchange that defined the broader territory. Even the clarity of its western border, the one most easily defined geographically (by the vast expanse of the Atlantic) is somewhat belied by the fact that Iceland lies astride the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. As Wallace puts the initial difficulty, ‘Europe becomes comprehensible only by considering that which lies beyond, is presumed to form its borders’ (xxvii). Given this fluidity, Wallace’s innovative solution is to organise the area into a series of nine ‘sequences,’ each containing about five to ten different discrete nodes of literary production. Europe is thus considered through nine sequence that travel from: Paris to Béarn; Calais to London; St. Andrews to Finistère; Basel to Danzig; Avignon to Naples; Palermo to Tunis; Cairo to Constantinople; Mount Athos to Muscovy; Venice to Prague; with, then a concluding chapter dedicated solely to the Council of Constance, that great gathering of clerics and literati that attempted to reverse the papal schism and reintegrate Europe into a sectarian whole. (These sequences are given very helpful cartographic illustration at the collection’s companion website: 

The notion of sequences, or itineraries, is founded on Wallace’s polemical rejection of the nineteenth-century historicism that still anchors so much of the geographical imagination of medieval studies. For Wallace, conventional literary histories, those accounts organised around the space of the nation state, have their roots in a certain spatial imaginary and cartographic practice. Modern cartography aims to, in his words, ‘view a territory from a single, superhuman point of elevation as if it were an empty space’ (xxx), a view conducive to the mapping of a state and its imperial possessions. Wallace suggests that medieval itineraries (as well as contemporary mapping via GPS systems) tend, rather, to conceptualize space from the viewpoint of a given individual, producing maps not from an abstract point of elevation, but from a lateral view in which the trader or traveller moves across space through a series of vividly imagined points of interest. So, for example, Codex Vindobonensis 324 mentions specific points of interest and supplies the intermediate distances between such points (xxx). Indeed, as Wallace also points out in a fascinating side note, this difference also seems analogous to the difference between the literary technologies of the codex (accessible at any point) and the necessarily sequential unrolling of a scroll (xxxi). 

Given the scope of this undertaking, the present review has no space to address all nine sequences, so I will limit myself to remarks on the one sequence most relevant to Spenserians – ‘Calais to London’ – hoping to use this sequence to illustrate the mode of presentation and virtues of the structuring principle in general. Each sequence begins with an introductory essay in which Wallace describes the principle of the itinerary, with an overview of the sites along the way and of its primary literary chroniclers. As Wallace describes the sequence ‘Calais to London’: ‘this sequence begins at Calais, crosses to Canterbury, and then performs a clockwise circuit before ending by the Thames, at London, Southward and Westminster’ (175). The literary materials described in this sequence begin with French representations of Calais, but even after crossing over to England, the materials are frequently marked by their origin in border territories, producing a sense of ‘Englishness’ often conditioned by its proximity to Wales, Cornwall, Scotland and the North Sea. This emphasis nicely redraws local literary histories as products of active contact zones, most obviously in Calais’ role as a military foothold for the English in the Hundred Years’ War, but also in the English locales which are marked by the sorts of cross-border cultural exchange that Wallace glosses as the way in which ‘trade and ecclesiastical networks bring in fresh tidynges and texts’ (175).

The essays in this section provide both an account of these exchanges and a series of excellent, closely observed, local histories. David Wallace’s chapter on Calais is less about writing done in Calais than about the way in which the town appears as a frequent object of representation in English, French and Latin writing of the period. As Wallace argues, the particular mix of military and monetary power established by the English in Calais made it a prime irritant to poets like Machaut and Deschamps, with Deschamps even taking his name from the burnt fields left behind by the chevauchées that issued from the city (186). And these same chevauchées also mark English representations of the city, as both Chaucer and, especially, Langland, reference the city with a nod to the primacy of this form of economic warfare and the destruction it unleashed on the surrounding countryside. The next stop on the itinerary, Peter Brown’s account of Canterbury, continues to emphasize the role of travel and cultural circulation by focusing on the importance of pilgrimage in the history of the city and its literary production.  Brown’s rich account demonstrates the ways in which pilgrimage ‘is more edgy than consolatory or healing’ (199). We see here a struggle between the champions of the virtues of pilgrimage to Canterbury (including both chroniclers and, most prominently, Chaucer) and its critics (such as the Lollards) which inflects the representation of this site as one representing both hope and disappointment, both the institutional and economic power that came from the shrine of St. Thomas as well as accounts of the greed and exploitation linked to the site. 

Kathryn Kerby-Fulton’s chapter on Oxford is rich in detail, offering an overview of the impact of philosophical and theological work there on contemporary vernacular literary production as well as deeply revealing glances at both representations of town/gown relations in the period and the too often unnoticed presence of women as writers, readers and patrons in this scholastic milieu. Moving from the institutional prominence of Oxford to the more isolated setting of Berkeley Castle, Emily Steiner draws the portrait of a remote court as a non-metropolitan site of literary production.  As Steiner comments, ‘Berkeley Castle was not just a satellite campus for fourteenth-century scholarship but also, for a few decades, a hub of vernacular prose,’ as John Trevisa’s Oxford imports were joined by the active translation program commissioned by the Berkeleys in the early fifteenth century (236). 

Robert Barrett maps out Chester and Cheshire’s history as border territory, returning to some of the thematics with which Wallace had begun the itinerary, here emphasising the long tradition of ‘[b]order thinking’ that marked the area, stretching from Roman foundations to the English use of its harbours for military action against the Welsh (249). Robert Hanna takes on the particular challenge of York and Yorkshire, a county ‘too far away and too damned big for outsiders to comprehend’ (256). The methodological premises of the volume are particularly useful here, and Hanna’s chapter does a lovely job of talking about the cultural impact of Yorkshire’s geography, emphasising both the competing gravitational pulls of north and south as well as the impact of sheer space, here connecting the particular theological productions of the region with the logistical difficulties of parishes too large to encourage regular church attendance.

Helen Barr’s chapter on Leicester focuses on shifting boundaries between local sites, the Augustinian St. Mary’s Abbey and the Lancastrian possession of the castle, and the larger national scope of politics and ecclesiastical struggle that framed events at these sites. Particularly interesting here is that way in which the town’s reputation for Lollard sympathies, and its proximity to Oxford, lent a premium to spectacles of public abjurement, most dramatically, perhaps, in Margery Kempe’s adventures in the city. The chapter on Lynn, Walsingham and Norwich, co-written by Gail McMurray Gibson and Theresa Coletti is also notable for its careful attention to the public performance of religious identity. Emphasising the cosmopolitan links of these regional centres, Gibson and Coletti show the dramatic and performative nature of even the most apparently private devotional texts, such as those of the anchoress, Julian of Norwich (315). Lastly, and providing a fitting conclusion to the sequence, Andrew Galloway winds the trail down to London, Southwark, and Westminster. Galloway’s chapter treats the most well known literary figures of the period (Chaucer, Gower, Hoccleve, Langland), but he brings new life to them by providing a compelling account of the way their writings took up the burdens of an increasingly public sense of the place of poetic production, through their involvement in a certain bureaucratic habitus, in public narrative, and in the operations of secular canonization. Galloway is particularly insightful in treating the modes through which the new Lancastrian dynasty furthered the careers and reputations of their favoured poets, memorializing even their faces in the author portraits within the lavish Psalter and Hours surviving as British Library, Additional MS 42131 (347).

This project is a major achievement, one that will be of tremendous use to scholars in the area. It succeeds in responding to the contemporary challenges to the identity of Europe as a political entity, seen most dramatically perhaps in the turmoil over the Brexit vote. (One might usefully compare Wallace’s account here with Willy Maley’s recent essay ‘Spencer and Europe: Britomart after Brexit’; see  Wallace’s project also responds, with great creativity, to the turn in literary studies towards the reconsideration of space as an analytic category (as in the work of Franco Moretti). The ambition of reconceiving local history as a function of dynamic systems of exchange is more fruitful in some chapters than in others, but the strength of the team of contributors Wallace has assembled guarantees that its chapters present, at a minimum, a series of authoritative and rich microhistorical gems. It is particularly valuable for bringing out cultural differences in areas usually treated as being essentially homogeneous, and, conversely, in emphasising the power of lines of economic and literary exchange in binding together points of production not usually associated with each other. 

Ethan Knapp

Ohio State University




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Cite as:

Ethan Knapp, "David Wallace, ed., Europe: A Literary History, 1348-1418," Spenser Review 48.1.7 (Winter 2018). Accessed June 29th, 2022.
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