Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The French Atlantic: Travels in Culture and History. By Bill Marshall.
Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, February 2010. Cloth: ISBN 978-1846310508, $95; paper: ISBN 9781846310515, $35. 256 pages.

Review by Kadji Amin, Columbia College, Chicago

Bill Marshall's The French Atlantic: Travels in Culture and History is a site-based study of a series of transatlantic exchanges involving French language, commerce, and culture. The book is divided into seven chapters, each of which focuses on a single location. It begins with Nantes, France's principle slave port; then moves on to la Rochelle, a major port of the Huguenot diaspora to New France; Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, two North Atlantic centers of the Acadian diaspora; Quebec City, the location of a distinctive French nationalism outside of France; New Orleans, a uniquely Caribbeanized French colonial city within the United States; Cayenne, the creolized capital of Guyane and the site of France's most famous overseas penal colony; and Montevideo, a vantage point from which to consider oft neglected Francophone-Hispanic interactions in the New World. Each of these seven sites functions as historically specific node within a web of transatlantic flows, interactions, and exchanges. Marshall interprets "transatlantic" narrowly to exclude circumatlantic movements that might encompass the Western coast of Africa. Nevertheless, the diversity of Marshall's selection of sites, each of which plays a highly specific role within Atlantic histories of slavery, commerce, migration, racialization, and colonialism, is the principle strength of this study.
Marshall critically situates his book as an Atlantic corrective to certain weaknesses inherent within Francophone studies on the one hand and postcolonial studies on the other. Given that "Francophone" describes any and all populations that speak French outside of the French hexagon, Marshall argues that Francophone Studies reinforces the construction of France's former colonies as the periphery whose meaning exists only in relation to a French metropolitan center. Postcolonial studies has critically deconstructed such a division between metropolitan center and (post)colonial periphery. Marshall points out, however, that, in addition to being Anglophone-centric, postcolonial studies has tended to neglect the material and the economic dimensions of colonial histories. He sees in Atlantic Studies, on the other hand, the potential to "open a space within and beyond the sometimes clashing, sometimes colluding categories of 'French,' 'Francophone' and 'postcolonial,'" arguing that its "solid historical underpinning, attentive to concrete realities of migration, slavery, technology and commerce, guarantees a materialist viewpoint" (10-11). Marshall's Atlantic intervention into French, Francophone, and Postcolonial Studies is a compelling and timely contribution to the nascent field of French Atlantic Studies.
The project borrows from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari a theoretical vocabulary of deterritorialization, becomings, lines of flight, and rhizomatic connections. Marshall's engagement with Deleuze and Guattari's philosophical system is, on the whole, rather thin. The principle utility of Deleuze and Guattari's thought for Marshall's project, however, is that it enables him to retain the adjective "French" –the central requirement of the Atlantic interactions that he studies—without reifying the hexagon as the site of essential or originary Frenchness. With the help of Deleuze and Guattari, Marshall envisions a Frenchness whose origin and point of reference are neither the metropolitan center nor the purity of the classical French language. This is a Frenchness that breaks up into "particles of Frenchness," which are able to form rhizomatic and creolized connections with African, indigenous, Anglophone, and Hispanic traditions without, for that matter, becoming any less "French." By supplementing this conception of Frenchness with a materialist concern for the economic inequalities, forced displacements, and violent hierarchies of Atlantic history, Marshall maintains a healthy awareness of the fact that French dispersals are far from being politically neutral processes and that creolization is seldom the fruit of peaceful mixings.
The French Atlantic draws its methodological inspiration from Michel de Certeau's distinction between place and space. For, rather than being a straightforward transatlantic history of the seven sites that Marshall has selected, Marshall's project is that of turning the "places" (les lieux) of Atlantic history into "spaces" (les espaces), by exploring the stories, representations, and images through which Atlantic history has been inhabited, commemorated, distorted, and embellished. The French Atlantic's storied and historically grounded exploration of space is an informative, interesting, and original contribution to Atlantic studies, French studies, and Francophone studies.
Within its broadly interdisciplinary mix of literary criticism, cultural studies, Atlantic history, and critical theory, The French Atlantic nevertheless gives "geographical and historical fact" foundational status (21). Marshall studies cultural texts for the ways in which they figure or disfigure important sites of Atlantic history, failing to explore the performative efficacy of cultural texts in actually producing both geography and historical memory. At its best, however, Marshall's emphasis on the primacy of history performs a crucial contextualization of artistic movements and cultural objects. Through the method of site-specific analysis, he is able to restore a crucial historical, geographical, and material dimension to the literary and cultural works he studies.
The French Atlantic's major weakness is that it tends to sacrifice both depth and direction for breadth. In its rapid movement between depictions of a particular site within a series of different cultural texts, the study seldom provides an in-depth analysis of how place functions in any single work. Within the individual chapters, a rambling parcours through both history and story often takes the place of a more sustained argument. In his invocations of critical theory, Marshall is more likely to use theorists' most famous points to illuminate a historical or cultural example than to critically rework existing theoretical paradigms, much less propose original ones.
The book excels, however, as a virtuosic historical, literary, and cultural journey through space. Each chapter deftly weaves together a range of representations of a specific transatlantic site. As a series of explorations of space, the study is richly textured, engaging, and enjoyable, with an impressively encyclopedic breadth of literary, cultural, and filmic references considered within the context of often surprising historical details. At its best, The French Atlantic allows us to envision familiar and unfamiliar cultural and literary texts in a new way, as a series of reflections on space and the transatlantic histories that inform it.
Cultures of Plague: Medical Thinking at the End of the Renaissance.  By Samuel K. Cohn, Jr.

Oxford: Oxford University Press, January 2010.  Cloth: ISBN 978-0199574025, $99. 340 pages.

Review by Scott Hendrix, Carroll University, Wisconsin

 Samuel Cohn’s mastery of the history of Renaissance Italy shines through in his latest work focusing on responses to plague—primarily during the years from 1575 to 1578—on the Italian peninsula. This is Cohn’s third book dealing with plague and disease in the West, drawing even more heavily on the social history that informs much of his earlier work than in his past considerations such as The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe. In the process not only does he deliver a tremendously nuanced account of the impact of plague in Italy, but he certainly puts to rest the idea promoted by scholars such as E. La Croix that from “its first appearances in 1348, writing on plague was caged within intellectual systems devised in antiquity (principally Aristotle and Galen) and modified by Arabic physicians, philosophers, and commentators” remaining more or less fixed until the end of the sixteenth century or later (2).  Such a view is rooted in a larger conception of the intellectual stagnation presumably found in pre-modern scientific writings, giving Cohn’s effective demonstration of the vitality and evolving nature of medical writing in the sixteenth century importance beyond the realm of the history of medicine.
One thing that should be noted is that Cohn writes here of “plague,” not just the Black Death that has occupied so much of his work in the past. This is important, for his concern is with the way that epidemic conditions affected the culture and medical thinking on the Italian peninsula during the sixteenth century. Therefore, the precise nature of the illness—or the concatenation of illnesses—that made up these conditions is of little importance to the story that Cohn tells. This point is not immediately obvious, for he spends chapter two raising questions about whether or not the Black Death can be identified with the bubonic plague and the various terms referring to specific plague symptoms used in medieval and Renaissance writings. This chapter seems oddly out of place for someone who is primarily a social historian and the arguments, even if they do manage to cast doubt on the precise nature of the illness that first struck Europe in the 1345, seem tired and shopworn. However, the importance of this discussion becomes clear when the reader moves onto to chapters six through eight, “Plague Disputes, Challenges of the Universals,”  “Plague and Poverty,” and “Towards a New Public Health Consciousness in Medicine,” respectively. Through close attention to both narrative primary sources and the slender statistical data available for the period, Cohn is able to demonstrate that while prior to 1400 the plague seemed democratic in its effects, later visitations of illness in Italian cities were clearly most devastating in areas inhabited by the poor. The reason why seems clearly to be tied to the greater filth and crowding found in these areas, but the most significant factor seems to have been contaminated water supplies suggesting that diseases such as cholera and dysentery were the primary killers in the plague of 1575-78, even if Cohn does not name these illnesses.
However, Cohn’s two most important insights in this study deal with the nature of responses to plague. First of all, the rising importance of vernacular literature caused by increasing literacy among urban dwellers can be seen in Renaissance approaches to illness. When town dwellers in Italy began to die in large numbers after 1575 writers of plague literature emerged from a variety of societal ranks, from cobblers to bishops, to express themselves about the illness that preyed upon them. While the more educated among them made reference to authorities such as Aristotle and Galen, none seemed predisposed to either bow before the authority of medical professionals or to succumb to feelings of depression and fear in the face of wide-spread epidemic, as has been suggested by earlier historians such as Lynn Thorndike. Instead, writing in a variety of forms, from narratives such as that of the Venetian notary Rocco Benedetti’s Raguaglio minutissimo del successo della peste di Venetia (1577) to the epic plague poems clustering in Verona celebrating the overcoming of or liberation from illness, individuals with direct experience of the plague provided advice and statistics while discussing causes, all within a general framework of optimism.
Secondly, Cohn illustrates that medical professionals shifted their approach from one that focused on individual patients to a more general consideration of public health concerns. While remedies and discussions of causality that sound odd to modern readers abound in the medical literature of the period, so too do entirely rational discussions of the usefulness of boiling water, personal hygiene, and the link between proper diet and health. This shift made physicians the natural allies of governmental and church officials who put the ideas of these health professionals to work by providing food to the poor—due to a recognition of the relationships between poor nutrition and illness (210)—and cleaner conditions, as well as better education about how to avoid illness. While these Renaissance efforts may have been of limited effectiveness, Cohn’s account makes clear that this was due more to the limited resources at the disposal of pre-modern government and Church officials than to inherent ignorance on their part. Furthermore, the need for coordinated efforts in the face of plague led to increasing competence and reach on the part of both Italian regional governments and the institutions of the Church.
Cohn’s study does leave importance questions unanswered. For example, while he provides numerous charts showing the number of sixteenth-century works dealing with plague and the geographic distribution of authors and points of publication, he provides almost no information on who read these works or how they were read. Relying as he does on the very valuable Edit 16, the census documenting Italian books printed during the sixteenth century, this is understandable and should not be seen as a flaw in his study. However, the impact of the various works Cohn refers to cannot be fully known through a barebones recitation of publication information. For that, an analysis of copies of the texts themselves, including information such as that drawn from marginalia left by readers, would be necessary. Such an approach might make for an interesting future study, but for the present Cohn’s Cultures of Plague provides an intriguing and deeply insightful analysis of the effects of plague on the Italian peninsula during the late Renaissance.

Old Tales/Modern Tellings: Early Medieval Revenants in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Article by Suanna H. Davis, Houston Baptist University
The retelling of old tales is not simple reiteration. The old tales come instead in variations, which are “repetition with a difference” (Derrida). Modern science fiction and fantasy tales take advantage of older stories to add vividness and verisimilitude through allusions and borrowings. These revenants of earlier stories allow for a single reference to bring to mind a cornucopia of ideas, symbols, and themes already attached to the medieval text. This only happens, however, if the audience of the work has the frame of reference to recognize the stories and their implications; thus the existence of early medieval revenants implies a cultural literacy much more widespread than many academics perceive.
Fantasy frequently takes advantage of the allusion aspects of retelling by setting the story in medieval or seemingly medieval ages (Goodrich 165). Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon series does this. So does William Goldman’s book and its movie adaptation The Princess Bride. More recently J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has medievalisms within it, as the school is in a castle, and hearkens back to the medieval bestiaries with its collection of unusual pets.
This purposeful medievalism is not the end of the revenants in speculative fiction however. Instead, there are a plethora of textual referents with the most popular medieval revenants involving Arthur, Merlin, and other characters from the Arthurian tales. These, in fact, are so popular that there is a website which deals only with Arthur reinterpretations in comics (Arthur of the Comics Project Blog). Because the Arthurian tradition in science fiction and fantasy is so strong, I am going to ignore it completely. Otherwise you would be reading for hours just for a list of the works involving Arthur in modern popular fiction.
Instead, what I would like to point out is the popularity of ancient stories, which originally appeared in or were primarily popular in Old and Middle English, which have survived and been reintroduced into popular literature. According to Fradenburg, there appears to be a “vast popular knowledge” of medieval works (209), so that even with a non-Arthurian limitation, there are still myriads of texts that refer to earlier English-language literature, perhaps many of which I have not yet read or recognized. The ones I will point out, however, indicate that cultural literacy in the stories of the Western canon remains fairly high, at least among those writing and reading in the speculative fiction genres.
Cultural literacy must be strong within this audience because what use would a reference be if the referent were unintelligible to the readers? True, an archaic reference might add some prideful shine to a story for the author, but it would add nothing to the audience’s experience of the tale. Stories with failed references are usually failed stories. Thus, the fact that these revenants exist in popular literature attests to the continued resonance of these earlier stories in our culture, however they may have been transferred. Some, D’Arcens for example, even argue for a strong resurgence in medievalism, both in academia and in popular culture indicating a growing cultural literacy in terms of medieval history and texts (81).
Beowulf is a popular early source for speculative fiction borrowings. The use of Beowulf in modern science fiction and fantasy tales includes quotes from the poem itself, quotes in Old English, a character identified as Grendel whose story includes a historical discussion of the poem, and nomenclature from the epic. All of the authors discussed, while not mainstream, are successful science fiction and fantasy authors with multiple series in print; they include Christopher Stasheff; Patricia Briggs; Larry Niven, Steven Barnes, and Jerry Pournelle; David Weber; and Eric Flint.
In his book The Oathbound Wizard Christopher Stasheff uses quotes from Beowulf as an incantation for magical conjuring. The main character, Matt, a modern graduate student transported to a parallel and medieval universe, begins to quote from Beowulf during a battle. In this world poetry can be wielded by wizards to create those persons and events described in the poem. Matt invokes Grendel to stop a sorcerer’s magic and after putting Grendel to good use in defeating the sorcerer’s army, sends Grendel away, not to die, but to remain at home, with a slight change in the verse. When the others in Matt’s party asked how he managed to stop the evil warriors, he says, “That’s an old story… and a reasonably long one” (193).
Then he proceeds to tell it to them, though the lines he uses to start the story telling are not poetic, since he does not wish to invoke the horror once again, but a fairy tale beginning: “Once long ago and very far away, a hero named Hrothgar built him a hall, hight Heorot” (193). To this point Grendel had been the invocation, but the tale, as told off page, caused the troupe’s eyes to widen as they “listened to the wondrous tale of the hero Beowulf” (193). By telling the tale of Beowulf, Matt moves the focus away from his recent amazing actions and onto a more traditional warrior hero. Perhaps one would expect such repurposed tale-telling on Stasheff’s part, since he is a literature professor (Her Majesty’s Wizard 343), but as a literature professor one would also expect that he would understand the limitations of his audience’s knowledge of the work, and yet he invokes the fierce monstrousness of Grendel with no revealed explication. The characters in the book hear the story but the readers are expected to already know it.
In her presentation of the Beowulf legend, the next author not only references the Beowulf poem, but offers an explication for the transformation of the Beowulf story from the true tale she relates to the literary epic we recognize today. She is not a literature professor, but studied history in college (Mike Briggs).
Patricia Briggs, in her Alpha and Omega werewolf series, references Grendel as background for the development of the mysterious werewolf leader, giving him a point of origin which is far more real and geographically located than others of his age.
In the book Cry Wolf, Bran, the Alpha werewolf of the North American continent, is trapped by a witch. During this horrible experience the readers are informed that this has happened to Bran before. Centuries earlier his witch-mother had him Changed into a werewolf. After his Change, he lived for years under her thumb and then, when he was able to break free and kill her, he went berserk. For decades, perhaps centuries, Bran as Grendel ravaged the area where he lived, destroying all humans who ventured into his forest. Then, in a slightly Monty Python-esque way, he got better and walked away from his aspect as Grendel in the form of a Welsh bard. In Briggs’s work there is no Beowulf, unless, in a not-yet-released publication, this hero turns out to be Bran’s, and thus Grendel’s, son, who is the one who helped Bran tame the “darkness within.”
Unlike Stasheff’s references to the poem, which are translations, Briggs uses an Old English quote to reference Grendel, “him of eagum stod ligge gelicost leoht unfaeger,” but translates it when a character reasonably asks for its meaning. This is the only use of Old English in the series to date, yet its inclusion argues in favor of cultural literacy in that the language itself is one rarely studied outside of academic circles. In fact the use of the Old English, a visibly foreign language, requires that the readers understand something that my students have trouble with; Old English is not what Shakespeare spoke.
This common misunderstanding of what is meant by Old English will most likely change soon, because Mel Gibson is making a Viking movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, which is being scripted in Old English and Old Norse (Faraci).
In her novel Briggs describes the changes between her tale and the epic poem by saying that the tale was a compilation; “Grendel owed something to Bran’s time as a beserker, as he did to other stories handed down over the centuries” (Cry Wolf 263). This explanation of why her story differs from the epic poem is a way of arguing for authenticity, which, in a fictional work, is seriously questionable anyway.
Another argument in favor of Beowulf being well-known within American culture comes from an unlikely trio of authors, Niven, Pournelle, and Barnes. Niven was a mathematician before becoming a writer. Pournelle has two Ph. D.s, one in psychology and the other in political science (Reisner). Barnes dropped out of college, with an uncompleted degree in communication arts (Govan).
These three men have a space odyssey, Legacy of Heorot, whch begins with a reference to Hrothgar’s hall in the title and progresses through a metamorphoses of alien life out of their watery home and onto land, becoming carnivorous grendels. The sequel specifically references the Old English poem with its title of Beowulf’s Children and a character in the book is Old Grendel, a mother and one of the carnivorous native life forms which is intelligent and eventually makes contact with the human aliens of the planet.
In David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, Beowulf is a planet, home of the most skilled geneticists in the human universe, and Grendel is the capital city. However, in the co-authored book Torch of Freedom the names also come into play as the characters of the poem. After it is discovered that the planet Beowulf is the target of a planned takeover, a character says, “you're going to see the rage of Beowulf unleashed in the universe” because the people of Beowulf will “finally take down Grendel,” and the response will be immediate “once they learn the monster has a mother after all” (Weber and Flint, chapter 63). In this novel, the genetically manipulative slavers are transformed into Grendel and the secretive cabal, which plans to take over the universe for the genetic purity of all and is the ruling force behind the slavers, is revealed as Grendel’s mother.
In this work we again find non-literature majors wielding Old English tales with a flourish. The authors are Eric Flint who had three years in a Ph. D. program in history before he quit (Flint) and David Weber who owned and operated a PR firm (“About”).
Most of these speculative fiction authors were not English literature specialists, yet their work hearkens very specifically to an Old English tale whose popularity re-emerged with Tolkien’s 1937 article, “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics.” They reference the poem without retelling the story, assuming that readers will understand the reference. This assumption indicates an expectation of cultural literacy at least in knowing the broad outlines of the tale of Beowulf.
Though Beowulf is a major literary poem which is frequently referenced in science fiction and fantasy literature, there are other early revenants, even Old English revenants.
For example, in one of the 1634 series, Eric Flint, with his coauthor Virginia DeMarce, references Judith. In this section of The Ram Rebellion there is the tale of a woman taken unwillingly into a sexual relationship and her willingness to kill the man who forced her into this situation. The text specifically identifies this female character with “Judith with the head of Holofernes” (691). (I recognize that this is possibly a misidentification of the deuterocanonical book of Judith and there is some justification for that argument, since the Judith of the story offers to pierce his brain with a spike, which is what Jael did to Sisera in the Old Testament book of Judges (4). In that case, this is an argument against biblical literacy since the two stories are conflated.)
Medieval legends also offer fodder for science fiction and fantasy stories. These can range from tales which were written down in the middle ages to those which were said to have taken place during the medieval era.
Two tales which were originally written down in the 1260 text Golden Legend appear in Gordon R. Dickson’s Dragon and the George series. The first is the story of St. George and the dragon while the second is the story of the flight of the biblical Jesus and his family to Egypt.
In The Dragon and the George humans are called Georges in honor of the Knight of the Red Cross, as preserved in the 1260 Golden Legend. The main character is transformed into a dragon and finds out what dragons think of the Georges, making alliances with them along the way.
The other medieval revenant used in this series by Dickson is the retelling of the flight of the Christ child and his family to Egypt, where they are met by dragons. This story, which can be found in Pseudo-Matthew chapter 18, was popularized in Golden Legend and is used to great effect in The Earl, the Troll, and the Dragon.
The same book uses the story of Wenceslas, an early king of Bohemia, to allow an atheist to properly celebrate a medieval Christmas. The main character is called upon to sing a Christian Christmas carol and, not wanting to offend, chooses “Good King Wenceslas” which is reproduced in its entirety in the novel.
The tales of Wenceslas include an accompanying legend that says he sleeps with a group of knights in the mountain ready to come out at need to protect the homeland. This tale has also been associated with Charlemagne and it is the Charlemagne version that Christopher Stasheff uses in his book The Oathbound Wizard. The series takes place in an alternate universe just a few generations past Charlemagne, and in this novel, Charlemagne and his knights are waiting in a mountain cave to awaken at need. In fact, they rouse a bit from their slumbers when Charlemagne’s heir brings the main character for training in the knightly virtues.
The same series also includes popular medieval tale of Prester John, a legendary Christian king who ruled a kingdom in the East. In The Feline Wizard Prester John is a much-sought-after king who rules a very enlightened and isolated kingdom.
In the first book in this series, Christopher Stasheff said he intended to present Catholicism as it was believed in medieval Europe (Her Majesty’s Wizard 343). Thus there is a purposeful medievalism in the novels which allows for the invocation of earlier tales. But the appearance of the literary revenants argues that Stasheff, at least, believes that his audience will already be familiar with the tales.
The multiplicity of revenants from early medieval works, of which those mentioned are but a handful, indicates that there is an expectation of cultural literacy regarding these texts. Certainly the multiple variations of Beowulf indicate that its influence goes far beyond the English literature classroom. Perhaps Stasheff, as an English academic, assumes a far greater cultural literacy than the average author, but even authors outside of academia reference and engage with early medieval texts, thus reintegrating them into popular culture and reinforcing their importance.

Works Cited
“About David Weber.” Press Release: Baen.com. 3 March 2000. Web. 14 December 2009.
Briggs, Mike. “The Obligatory Biography.” Patricia Briggs.com. 2005. Web. 2 February 2010.
Briggs, Patricia. Cry Wolf: An Alpha and Omega Novel. New York: Penguin Group, 2008. Print.
D’Arcens, Louise. “Deconstruction and the Medieval Indefinite Article: The Undecidable Medievalism of Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale.” Parergon 25.2, 80-98. 2008. Web. 14 December 2009.
Dickson, Gordon R. The Dragon, the Earl, and the Troll. New York: Ace, 1994. Print.
Faraci, David. “Move Over Thor, Mel Gibson is Going Old Norse.” The Wolfman. 17 January 2010. Web. 19 January 2010.
Flint, Eric. “Biography.” Eric Flint’s Place on the Web. 13 March 2006. Web. 12 December 2009.
Flint, Eric and Virginia DeMarce. 1634: The Ram Rebellion. Wake Forest, NC: Baen Books, 2007.
Fradenburg, Louise Olga. “’So That We May Speak of Them’: Enjoying the Middle Ages.” New Literary History 28.2, 205-230. 1977. Web. 13 December 2009.
Goodrich, Peter. “Magical Medievalisms and the Fairy Tale in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence.” The Lion and the Unicorn, 12.2, 165-177. December 1988. Web. 2 January 2010.
Govan, Sandra Y. “Steven Barnes.” About.com: African-American Literature. 2010. Web. 2 February 2010.
Niven, Larry, Jerry Pournelle, and Steven Barnes. Beowulf’s Children. New York: Tor Books, 2009. Print.
---. The Legacy of Heorot. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987. Print.
Reisner, Ivy. “Inferno.” SFSite Reviews. 2009. Web. 12 January 2010.
Stasheff, Christopher. The Feline Wizard. New York: Del Rey, 2000. Print.
---. Her Majesty’s Wizard. New York: Del Rey, 1986. Print.
---. The Oathbound Wizard. New York: Del Rey, 2004. Print.
Weber, David and Eric Flint. Torch of Freedom. Wake Forest, NC: Baen Books, 2009. Ebook.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Designing the Modern Interior: From the Victorians to Today. Edited by Penny Sparke, Anne Massey, Trevor Keeble, and Brenda Martin.
Oxford and New York: Berg, June 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-1847882882, $150; paper: ISBN 978-1847882875, $49.95. 320 pages.
Review by Paul Ranogajec, City University of New York
Modernity, domesticity, privacy, identity, taste, class, consumption—these are key among the major issues that any discussion of interior space is bound to elicit. Designing the Modern Interior engages these and many other issues; indeed, among its strengths is the breadth of its coverage thematically and also geographically. Despite its professed aims, it does not radically alter the design history field’s focus on the domestic interior as the site for modernity’s encounter with interiority—in fact, eleven of the seventeen essays deal specifically with house interiors, and only one (on Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonie) deals with an unambiguously public building. Even more, the editors state that one of their chief aims was to treat interior spaces globally, yet over half of the essays deal with one or another of just three Western nations (Britain, Germany, or the United States), and the book’s reach does not extend to Latin America, Africa, or the Middle East. Overall, despite these relative limitations, the volume is a welcome step in the direction of expanding design history’s geographic and theoretical boundaries. The essays, individually and as a whole, can be taken as both models and foundations for further interdisciplinary and more rigorously theoretical work.
Penny Sparke’s introductory essay is a useful summary of the themes outlined above and serves as an introduction to the organization of the book. It could easily serve, as well, as an overview for an undergraduate course on modern interior design history—even a more general cultural history course that touches upon the themes of domesticity, the private realm, and design—because it offers readers a coherent preface to more in-depth study by laying out the terrain of contemporary scholarship and its theoretical concerns. The book as a whole exemplifies this quality of broad reader appeal: it is organized chronologically into four sections (each prefaced by summary introductions) that trace the rise of the interface between interior spaces and the experiences and ideas of modernity, well-suited to a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses in modern design and architectural history.
One of the most promising aspects of the collection is its emphasis on popular and non-modernist design. The editors have included a number of essays that move decisively beyond the modernist-dominated discourse—largely borrowed from conventional architectural history in the mid-twentieth century—as described by the introductory essay for part one by Emma Ferry. As she notes, the study of interiors is now marked by increasing interest in the multifarious contexts of design, moving beyond the appeal to aesthetics or the modernist obsession with technology and authenticity (yet not shying from the ambiguities and problems inherent with such concepts). In reflecting on the essays in the volume, Ferry rightly notes how the volume’s studies benefit from interdisciplinary theoretical perspectives that engage a fascination “with an era of high imperialism, emerging nationhoods, religious revivals and crises of faith, contested gender and class politics and public debates on sexuality” (19). Explorations of the ideological basis of interior design are not lacking among the pages of this volume, and this fact is one of its major contributions. One of the perhaps unintended uses of the book is therefore as an anchor for young scholars in particular—as reference, certainly, but also, in the case of many of the mostly well-written and lucid essays, as methodological and theoretical models. Fiona Fisher’s essay on “public houses” in late Victorian London encapsulates these concerns when she writes of interior spaces as “highly controlled, yet permissive of new forms of social activity,” which can be considered “as sites that express tensions between social autonomy and regulation that are characteristic of modernity and which represent concerns for social status and identity that are a distinguishing feature of consumer culture” (51).
Parts one and two are perhaps the most provocative in the volume. Comprising eight of the book’s seventeen chapters, the essays in these first two sections traverse the highly complex and contested period from 1870 to 1940. The essays explore the continued vitality of popular, historicist design and its confrontation with the formulation and institutionalization of modernism. With a broad-mindedness and diversity of perspectives, these essays negotiate this critical period in the development of modern architecture and design—a period of intense eclecticism alongside the emerging forms of modernism. Fisher’s essay on the negotiation of class and identity in the public houses of London and Christopher Reed’s essay on the “Amusing Style” as championed by the magazine Vogue are both especially rewarding for the ways in which they explore, to use Reed’s words, “the productive diversity of modernisms that flourished in the twenties” (90). The plural in the term “modernisms” underscores the volume’s general sympathy to a wider understanding of modernism itself and to a broader conception of the design possibilities available under the conditions of modernity, thus eschewing the long-held modernist bias against eclecticism or historicism.
The two later sections also contain provocative essays covering the post-World War II period. Especially instructive are chapters thirteen and fourteen—an essay by Anne Massey on British nationalism and the design of ocean liners, and one by David Crowley on the ruined house designs of two mid-century artists (from Russia and Germany) that explore “the condition of the house in fragments—decayed and riddled with spatial and temporal uncertainties” (234). Chapter fifteen by Sarah Chaplin also merits special mention for its discussion of the production of popular and transgressive social practices in the distinctively postmodern Japanese “Love Hotel.” These essays dramatically expand the discourse on interiors and design beyond the traditional boundaries of home and bourgeois commercial structures and give indications of future research avenues.
Although the volume is by no means stingy when it comes to illustrations (there are 77), all of them are in black and white, and some are of lackluster quality (for instance, many of the photos in chapter six). Nonetheless, the essays are generally models of concision and clarity—most of the essays are seven to ten pages inclusive of illustrations. As an introduction to and expansion of the field of modern design and interiors history, the volume is a welcome addition to the literature.

Supernatural Fiction in Early Modern Drama and Culture. By Ryan Curtis Friesen.
Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, January 2010. Cloth: ISBN 978-1845193294, $74.95. 249 pages.
Review by Suanna H. Davis, Houston Baptist University
Friesen offers an incredibly well-written introduction to the supernatural in the early modern era (1510-1625). His presentation begins with purportedly non-fiction works, starting with a discussion of Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, moving onto Bruno’s work, then presenting the sixteenth-century pamphlets on witch trials, and offering commentary on Dee’s angelic interpretations. The second half of the book looks at magic within Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Middleton’s The Witch, multiple of Jonson’s dramas, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Overall the work is detailed, offering insight into the works discussed as well as presenting that insight in its scholarly context. References for each chapter range from twenty-three to one hundred forty.
A quirk of the book is the author’s insistence that readers must not believe in magic. It is a bit eccentric to think that scholars reading in this field would believe in magic, though perhaps the title of the work would attract dabblers in the occult arts. In addition, even if one were a believer in magic, Friesen offers no reasons why this would corrupt one’s understanding of either his book or the texts which he examines within it. However, his discussion of how to refer to those who were thought to be magic users in his introduction is an interesting lexical discussion.
The text offers an introduction to the discussion of magic that is accessible to all levels of knowledge. While there are references to antecedent authors and texts (Nicholas Cusanos inspired Bruno, for instance), most of the discussion is developed in the book so that no prior knowledge is necessary for understanding. Despite its accessibility, the book offers an expert in the field an interesting development angle, in terms of the fictionality of the texts examined.
The fact that an examination of historical and philosophical treatises comprises the first two chapters of a book entitled Supernatural Fiction is surprising, but Friesen makes them work. He argues that Agrippa was simply presenting what others had argued and that Bruno used his philosophical description of magic to create a fairly modern worldview. Therefore, neither of these authors wrote a truthful argument for magic.
The texts the book covers are introduced in historical and cultural context. Friesen details their creation and their cultural and literary impact. He presents the works which they grew out of and the stream of literature in which they were read. Each chapter can be read alone without significantly reducing its efficacy.
The explication of all the precedents is sometimes developed in a way that a careless reader might misunderstand. In his discussion of Agrippa, Friesen mentions Simon Magus and his appearance in the biblical book of Acts as well as in pseudo-Clementine. He also discusses Simon’s argument with Peter and his ability to fly as “biblical legend.” This story, however, is not in the Bible. While referencing the story as biblical legend may be factually accurate—it does refer to a biblical person and it is a legend—it could easily mislead readers to assume that the story is in the Bible; therefore, careful reading is required.
The book presents a fascinating discussion of the witch trials and the actuality of witches, mentioning that most of those tried as witches in the sixteenth century were married women, while about fifteen percent were men. Friesen compares this to the modern stereotype of witches as old crones. He also discusses the number of admitted witches, presenting various scholarly arguments focusing on the idea that these confessions were a means of creating agency for the accused.
Friesen’s presentation, generally objective and even-handed, suffers slightly in his chapter on Dee. While Dee was clearly a scholar in his time, owning almost ten times as many books as the library at Cambridge, his occult practices, including the writing and translations of mediums’ purported messages from angels is presented by Friesen as a clear example of cunning ambition. However, facts which Friesen includes mitigate this view. Why would someone who was blatantly manipulating people follow his own false prophecies and move his entire family away from their home in England and establish them in Poland? Why would someone who was inventing futures not be careful to create prophecies that would not be fulfilled in his lifetime? And, finally, why would someone whose investigation into angelic discussions was the result of a desire for prestige hide away from the court that could have promoted his ambition? Despite the questions that his own presentation raises, Friesen argues for Dee’s duplicity in the creation of the angelic conversations.
As Friesen moves into the unarguably fictional texts, the discussion of magic adds a measure of literary analysis. The themes, archetypes, and characterizations of both magic and magic users are described, analyzed, and contextualized. For example, in the final chapter Friesen presents scholarly arguments about Prospero’s magic. He gives the main lines of argument and then evaluates the play according to his reading of Prospero’s use and renunciation of magic, presenting Ariel as dramatized magic and Caliban as the inheritor of a wholly negative rough magic who eventually becomes responsible for himself.
The book provides a fascinating glimpse into the early modern view of magic, through historical and philosophical treatises, pamphlets, diaries and transcriptions of séances, and contemporary dramas. The variety of texts examined makes this work particularly intriguing.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Composing the Citizen: Music as Public Utility in Third Republic France.

By Jann Pasler.

Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, July 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-520-25740-5, $60.00. 817 pages.

Review by Reba Wissner, Brandeis University

There is no better summary of Jann Pasler’s Composing the Citizen than the one she herself writes: “In Composing the Citizen, I investigate how French citizens thought music could contribute to the formulation and health of their democracy, and why they embraced musical progress as emblematic of national progress. I explore the musical education they envisaged, from thinking a child’s first intellectual efforts should involve singing to devoting a significant place to music in the Universal Exhibitions. I examine the shifting beliefs and conditions that led to and then mitigated the pervasiveness of republican ideology in French culture” (31). Pasler examines the roots, implications, and consequences of music as public utility in Third Republic France (1870-1940), “a time when politicians intent on creating a lasting democracy in France saw music as integral to the public good—a way to imagine the future voice diverse aspirations, and discover shared values,” examining social practices across cultures through the lens of music’s usefulness (xii).
The author’s main argument is that “music, musical instruments, performing situations, and images of these—often associated with race, ethnicity, class, gender, and culture—helped people become aware of their positions in the debates about identity and nation” (645). She argues throughout that music helped to form a commonality and establishment of a national identity within French society, through its “public utility,” since “generally speaking, in France, the useful in music is what links sound to society, music to the community” (83). The study is motivated by the author’s personal interest as a woman of French descent who spent a great deal of time working in the French archives, a biographical aspect which I feel is useful in order to understand the incorporation of the fruits of her copious research.

Pasler’s book is an in-depth explanation of utilité publique and the government’s role in it, identifying that “the idea that the social utility of goods and services should take priority over their personal utility, provides a key to understanding French notions of government up to the present” (70). The study includes plentiful discussion of French history, politics, law, and philosophy, to place the concept of utilité publique within proper context, while outlining music and the establishment of community, as well as the types of music important in the revolutionary tradition and the challenges presented to composers to write such music. There is a heavy emphasis on French conceptions of both moral and musical progress, as well as the author’s notion of composing the citizen. Music as resistance is also an important component of the book, including an appropriation of music’s utility for non-republican purposes. The role of Wagner’s music for this purpose is examined in detail, but the book also concentrates on the role of composers such as Delibes, Saint-Saens, Massenet, Satie- composers that we don’t typically equate with music and political activism. The role of opera, its prohibitions and characteristics, are discussed at length, as well as the use of older—or as she deems them, “ancient”—forms of music in modern compositions is also discussed at length. In total, the book serves as a gateway to the author’s next books, providing an introduction to their subjects and as a result examines on a broad basis “how, through their music, the French, particularly at the end of the century, engaged with identity from the perspective of race, class, and gender” (645) and focusing on what music has done and what the Third Republic has shown us. Pasler concludes the book by connecting her research of this period to its applications in modern France and our globally interconnected, finance-driven world.

Pasler’s study is divided into four parts consisting of twelve chapters plus an introduction and coda, and three appendices. Part I: Forming Public Spirit and Useful Citizens, Part II: Shaping Judgment and National Taste, Part III: Instituting Republican Culture, and Part IV: Shifting Notions of Utility: Between the Nation and the Self, together create a chronological study of the use of music in France during this seventy-year span. Quotes of varying size are interwoven throughout the work and in between the pictures and musical examples. Both the abundant illustrations and musical examples featured throughout the book are helpful to the reader, though it is not necessary for the reader to be able to read music for the author’s point to be clearly understood. Each of the appendices contain the important political and musical events in the Early Third Republic, as well as the music’s varying appearances in publications of the day.

The book is dense and sometimes seems quite convoluted in terms of information. The reader may feel bogged down, because it seems as if the author included every single primary source and piece of evidence, which has both its plusses and minuses. Pasler uses specific pieces of music to illustrate points and as case studies throughout the book and talks a lot throughout the book about public policy in France. The chapters are long, often encompassing many different topics, making them sometimes difficult to follow the author’s train of thought. The book includes little analysis of the implications of the conception of music among the presentation of an ample amount of facts. The writing is clear but definitely not concise.

While the book falls into the area of music, readers interested in history, public policy, and philosophy will find much to grab onto. There is no other book like it that has been published in the field of musicology, and Pasler’s study gives the reader a glimpse into the musical life in a single part of Europe that has largely been ignored for the time period that the book covers. As an interdisciplinary work, Jann Pasler’s Composing the Citizen is a model for contemporary scholarship.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Medieval Cook.

By Bridget Ann Henisch.

Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, February 2009. Paper: ISBN 978-1843834380, $47.95. 200 pages.

Review by Stephanie Plummer, Bowling Green State University

Medieval foodways, as shown in popular film or understood in the popular imagination, rely on motifs of abundance and lack. Regardless of the historical accuracy in film, or its scarcity, what is frequently missing in these images is an interpretive framework for understanding what it meant to eat in the medieval period. Foodways scholars, anthropologists, and cultural analysts have worked to build such a framework, providing useful ways to approach what might otherwise be a forgotten force in the progression of history. In particular, the anthropologist Sidney Mintz and American Studies professor Warren Belasco, among others, have worked to outline the power, hierarchy, and cultural markers present in our understanding of taste and even our daily meals.

Although food studies has made great strides toward creating unified theories about food, this scholarship has tended toward an analysis of a particular contemporary culture, as part of far-thrown anthropological fieldwork or consumerist critique. Bridget Ann Henisch, in her fourth book, The Medieval Cook, departs from the tendency toward exoticizing food or focusing on a single food item while reinforcing the previous work of foodways scholars to link social and economic class with food consumption. As Henisch states in her preface, the goal of The Medieval Cook is to illuminate the context of medieval kitchens and dining rooms, and the individuals who participated in those activities. The Medieval Cook examines much of Western Europe beginning roughly with the Norman Conquest and extending into the early 1500s. Thus, The Medieval Cook pieces together the literature, art, and visual culture of the medieval period to construct an image of chefs and cooks, abundance and lack, banquet halls and cottage hearths.

In this way, Henisch eschews heavy-handed analysis while clearly outlining in six chapters the borders that marked the medieval “haves” from the “have-nots.” Chapters such as “Fast Food and Fine Catering” discuss those areas of medieval life, the market stalls, taverns, guest houses, bakeries and butcher shops, which betrayed one’s class, position, and to some medieval Europeans, one’s questionable moral character. The final chapter, “On the Edge: the Cook in Art,” deviates from the general purpose of the other chapters by discussing works of art that feature medieval kitchen workers or specific medieval foods, such as pancakes. This chapter is less about the general mood and activities of people in the middle ages and more about the visual culture which remains from that time. Nonetheless, this chapter describes the visual, medieval context of the culinary arts; thus, it fits well into the overall goal of The Medieval Cook. In this chapter Henisch also outlines The Medieval Cook’s conclusions, that medieval cookery was not entirely appreciated as an art, that food’s central position in daily life meant it could not be excluded from art and literature and that medieval cooks knew the difficult work of improvisation. That this chapter includes the author’s end remarks is not entirely clear until the last few pages of the chapter. As a result, Henisch’s condensed conclusions leave the reader wanting more guidance about the book’s overall meaning.

Henisch has charged herself with no small task considering the challenges inherent in gathering information recorded over the six centuries discussed in The Medieval Cook. Illiteracy, most common among the lowest economic strata and those also most likely to be household workers in the medieval period, means that a picture of medieval cookery could only ever be partial. Furthermore, dealing with delicate and potentially deteriorating documents certainly must have been a challenge in achieving a complete image of medieval foodways. Even determining the medieval period’s beginning and end dates could be difficult given the contentiousness which surrounds academic definitions of exactly when and where medieval society was situated.

Although The Medieval Cook might have benefited from addressing issues such as time frame or regional difference more closely, Henisch provides readers with a vivid description of food and preparation methods, subjects which can be especially difficult to transmit to readers. Furthermore, it is clear from the vivid language in The Medieval Cook that Henisch enjoys writing about food. This may be the reason that several recipes for medieval fare appear in The Medieval Cook for the adventurous food lover to try out. Additionally, the descriptiveness and excitement in her writing transforms what could potentially be a dry subject into a lush treat for readers. Despite The Medieval Cook’s accessibility, some excerpts taken from medieval literature could prove a stumbling block for readers unfamiliar with Middle English. Henisch combats this in some areas by providing a direct, modern translation, while keeping these excerpts to a minimum and often using their presence to enhance the drama and tension which surrounded medieval household management.

What is given to the reader, then, is a fair opportunity to scrutinize for him or herself the management of medieval kitchens and foodways or at the very least, the way these things were represented by medieval artisans and writers. As a result, The Medieval Cook may be of interest to chefs, home cooks, and those interested in history or the culinary arts. However, the conclusions and research in The Medieval Cook would also be helpful to art historians, literary scholars, medievalists, cultural anthropologists, and popular culture scholars. In particular, Henisch’s research adds to a large body of work on the interaction between foodways and social and economic class, while giving readers a rather comprehensive description of the jobs, dishes, ingredients, and utensils present in medieval kitchens.