|Book Reviews||Conference Papers|
|The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Ed. David Crystal||The Unspeakable Act in the Miller's Tale|
|The Matter of Scotland, James Goldstein||Medieval Child Marriage|
|Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray||Fiddling in the Poconos: Survival or Revival|
|The Age of Spiritual Machines..., Ray Kurzweil|
|The Religion of Technology.... David F. Noble|
|Images of Salvation, CD-ROM, Gen. Ed. Dr. Dee Dyas|
|The Position of Magic in Selected Medieval Spanish Texts. Francis Robienne, Jr.|
|Michael Murphy’s Reader-Friendly Editions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: and Michael Murphy, with James Clawson, Companion to Medieval Literature.|
John McLaughlin, PhD
English Department, East Stroudsburg University, Now Emeritus
This review appeared in Arthuriana: A Journal of Arthurian Studies, Vol 4, No. 3 (Fall, 1994), 288-90.
Goldstein, Roy James. The Matter of Scotland: Historical Narrative in Medieval Scotland. University of Nebraska Press, 1993. ISBN 0-8032-2144-4. 386 pages. Index , Bibliography, End-notes, Illustrations and Map.
Professor Goldstein's difficult but rewarding book is an attempt to explain an explanation. Medieval Scotland, ever The Other to England, deliberately set out to set itself apart from its neighbor to the south by a series of "historical" or "myth-historical" narratives called upon to justify its claimed status as a separate nation, within a feudal setting where its independence was repeatedly in conflict with claims to homage by the English crown. The dispute even reached as far as the Pope in Rome, being memorialized in the lines from Dante's Paradiso xix 121-23 which form the epigraph for this book: "Le si vedra la superbia ch'asseta,/ che fa lo Scotto e l'Inghilese folle,/ si che non puo soffrir dentra a sua meta." (trans Singleton...There shall be seen the pride that quickens thirst, which makes the Scot and the Englishman mad, so that neither can keep within his own bounds.").
The "Historical Narrative" of the title, then, refers to these acts of prideful self-definition, brandished in the scriptorial war of words, and used as rallying cries in the all-too-real battles which ensued. "Freedom," cried John Barbour, author of the Bruce, "is a noble thing!" Never mind the pun inside the slogan; Scotsmen of all ranks fought alongside the nobles for this perhaps illusory birthright, and when the Wars of Independence were over, took it to heart as their own invention, causing no end of proud trouble to the present day, leading directly from Bannockburn to Flodden Field to Bonnie Prince Charlie to the quarrel over North Sea oil.
The original texts are, of course, obscure to all but the specialist in Old or Middle Scots, and Prof. Goldstein does an admirable job of elucidating and paraphrasing them, placing them in context with one another and with the historical events they were intended to illuminate or define. Here, of course, his confessedly neo-Marxist critical vocabulary may prove something of a stumbling block for readers reared on the Plain Style. Faced down, however, the difficulties resolve themselves into unfamiliar jargon that becomes at least potentially useful in rethinking, in necessarily different terms, the problems an earlier generation of scholars had left at the margins. Learning to translate this terminology quickly repays itself in a deeper understanding of the ideology and the power relationships in the borders between Scotland and England. Admittedly, sometimes this vocabulary and the conceptual structures it reflects can be heavy going for the unwary or the lightly -armed. The "semiotic rectangle" deployed to illustrate the "ideology of blood" in the Wallace (Goldstein 237-40) brought an earlier reviewer (Roger Mason, Times Literary Supplement , July 23, 1993, 23) to a sudden halt. But such a figure, it can be argued, is a logical development of Goldstein's concern with "ideological contradictions and imaginary resolutions," in this case dealing with how the term "blood" resonates across barriers of class and race in Blind Harry's epic fury at the "auld enemy." In any case, it seems to be an almost necessary complication of the discussion, and in the larger context of an attempt to clarify and resolve deeper issues of power and ideology, at a certain point it fades into the background, beside the author's fluent development of his discussion, using what is hardly any longer truly novel critical terminology within academia. (Ten years ago, Prof. Norman Cantor warned a Mellon-supported seminar on medieval studies at NYU that ability to handle this critical weaponry would soon be almost a necessary sine qua non for scholarly publication; the evidence suggests that he was, as always, largely correct).
In nine chapters and a conclusion, Goldstein moves us through a consideration of the "real" history of the conflict, to a discussion of the early texts of medieval historiography which mingle legend and patriotism with "facts as they happened," and then to a consideration of central themes in John Barbour's courtly romance, Bruce, juxtaposed with "Blind Harry" and his atavistic, bloody epic, Wallace. It is a story of the assemblage of an historical mythology in support of nation-building on both sides of the border, as Edward the Hammer of the Scots retaliated with battle-hardened mercenaries and counter-claims of past Scottish homage and fealty arguably fabricated by his experts, to the much less experienced Scottish armies and their barons' elabora tion of an ancient mythical lineage predating the establishment of the nascent imperial power confronting the Scots across the river Tweed.
It is a melancholy tale, of treachery and bloodshed rationalized in the name of patriotism on both sides of the borderlands, and Goldstein has a firm grabs of its details and its underlying structure, the conflicting claims of lordship and sovereignty that sent armies marching and counter- marching back and forth across the glens of southern Scotland and northern England. That the affair was temporarily settled in the "real" world by the emphatic victories of Edward I -- including the seizure of the important symbol of Scottish independence, the Stone of Scone on which the ancient kings of Scotland had been inaugurated, and the more-than-symbolic dismemberment of the great Scottish rebel Wallace -- seems to have done little to settle the affair in the place where people really live, at least in the northern part of the so-called United Kingdom.
That this continuing sense of injustice and of resentment against the English has only fed the flames of Scottish nationalism is obvious, and Goldstein does well to warn us, in his Conclusion, that Blind Harry's "fantasy of his nation's returning to a glorious past through a concerted effort of memory and will" is exactly that, a fantasy that the 20th century can ill afford, as fundamentalists and nationalists compete in fanaticism around the globe. And yet, of course, speaking as a typical Scots emigrant, and yet. "Scots wha' hae wi' Wallace bled...." One recalls the almost-comic Tartan Army's threat, never carried out, to deploy its seven-member force to blow up valve stations -- "not people" -- on the North Sea oil-lines, to bring the attention of the English and Scots alike to its grievances. What dreams of past glory and of future uses for oil revenues fed that threat? There is sober relevance to current events in Goldstein's closing remarks on this long excursion into medieval Scotland and its ideology. We must, as he says, keep some sense of humor even as politics threatens to ride us. "Despite the undeniable cultural power of the texts we have examined," he concludes," it is essential to remind ourselves that if the function of ideology is to hail concrete individuals as subjects, it is not inevitable that we will agree to occupy the positions that are prescribed for us."
The relevance of this text to Arthurian studies, of course, lies in its grasp of the methods of medieval historiography, in the demonstrated willingness of so-called historians to use legendary materials in support of or justification for historical interests in conflict with one another. As Goldstein shows, legendary or fictional materials were readily accepted wherever gaps in the historical record made their insertion possible, in support of this or that legal claim to power by parties with vested interests in harnessing nostalgia to politics and thus to warfare. (He also reminds us of the differing attitudes towards truth or epistemology separating medieval from modern historiography, perhaps a necessary caution against interpreting all rewriting of the past as cynical power-politics). That the continuing re-invention of the Arthurian story, from Nennius to Geoffrey of Monmouth to Chretien to Malory, is a similar conflation of stories in support of this or that theory of Celtic pride or French chivalry or English nation-building seems abundantly clear. Goldstein provides a critical vocabulary for discussion of this process, in neo-Marxist terms ; it is only one of the reasons for recommending this scholarly contribution to postmodern criticism for consideration by Arthurian scholars everywhere. (As nothing like a side-note, Goldstein's admitted non-use of feminist analysis, in an historical situation precipitated to some extent by the death at sea of Margaret of Norway, clearly leaves that avenue of analysis invitingly available for future discussion.) But if this "supplement" to the Matter of Britain, France and England should cause a constructive re-evaluation of the process by which some of the central concerns of the Arthurian canon were assembled, then this story "from the margins" may come to occupy a surprisingly central place in future discussions and interpretations of Arthuriana and Arthurian scholarship.