Joanna Bellis, The Hundred Years War in Literature, 1337-1600 (Smith)

Joanna Bellis

The Hundred Years War in Literature, 1337-1600

(Boydell & Brewer, 2016) 312 pp. $99.00

This volume re-examines the reciprocal relationship between language and national identity in late-medieval England, especially in relation to the Hundred Years War. Although scholars have forcefully refuted Armstrong’s assertion that national identity could not properly manifest itself during the Middle Ages, they offer few convincing explanations for how and why such notions developed.[1] The many late-medieval conflicts, including the Hundred Years War, are often seen as catalysts for the spread of nationalist ideas, especially due to government propaganda, and produced a variety of interesting and layered texts that touch on these problems. However, these studies provide little insight, because they typically examine only the literary ‘canon’ of this period, none of which is overly concerned with these themes as they relate to contemporary events.[2] Such studies conceptualise war in only abstract terms, and rarely consider how medieval writers understood and evaluated the conduct of war. Joanna Bellis’ outstanding volume addresses these issues by examining Middle English writings of the Hundred Years War, as well as later texts that draw upon the antagonistic memory of the conflict.

Bellis argues that ‘in medieval and early modern war literature, words and war developed an intense mutual identification’, and ‘medieval theories of political language, forged in the Hundred Years War, had a direct bearing on how and why’ writers discussed issues of language as they did through the sixteenth century (pp. 2, 3). The introduction and first chapter (which feels like a second introduction) set out the problems inherent to examining the relationship between language and national identity. They offer a superb distillation of decades of scholarly debate and should be read by all those who study these problems, as well as the later Middle Ages more generally.

The second chapter considers the supposed paradoxes of the Hundred Years War, namely that English national identity was often expressed in political writings in Anglo-Norman ‘French’ (as Bellis frequently labels it) and that the English kings claimed to be more French than the French kings in order to pursue the Hundred Years War. While very interesting in its approach, this chapter is less convincing than the others, as it is predicated upon an immutable, almost modern, understanding of the national affiliation of vernaculars, which were themselves highly variable at the time. The third chapter examines a wide variety of fascinating and layered poems on the Hundred Years War to show that they are not merely jingoistic (which often discourages their use), but nuanced and careful deliberations on identity and conflict. The fourth chapter situates the inkhorn controversy of the sixteenth century in the tradition of politically charged language of the Hundred Years War, as established in the earlier chapters, and shows how other contentious aspects of national identity continued to be debated in the early modern period. The fifth and final chapter considers all these issues in the late sixteenth-century plays of England, most notably Shakespeare’s histories.

Unlike many studies of national identity, rhetoric, and attitudes to war, which focus almost exclusively on the vague ideas of ius ad bellum (the conditions required to begin a just war), this volume frequently engages with the often problematic conduct of war. As is evident from even a cursory reading of any chronicle or historical poem, rather than the famous (and obvious) late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century literary texts, most medieval writers cared more about the particulars of warfare than the vague notions of just war. Bellis provides a fascinating examination of how writers engage with the ethical problems of military conduct, most notably in John Page’s careful (or perhaps critical) depiction of Henry V’s siege of Rouen. I hoped to see more of this sort of study, but the volume is already quite full.

Bellis rightly shines light on many texts that are rarely considered in modern scholarship. Many of these, such as the Middle English Prose Brut and the poems of Laurence Minot, fall somewhere between the more sober texts that historians focus on, and the more ‘literary’ texts that scholars of English and French literature investigate. Accordingly, they have not received the sort of attention that they deserve, especially for their attitudes towards events in the fourteenth century. The volume’s deep and nuanced investigation shows the rich possibilities of turning to this sort of highly rhetorical historical literature. The final two chapters, on the lingering memory and antagonistic language of the Hundred Years War in sixteenth century texts, are particularly fresh and thought-provoking, given that most studies of events are only consider contemporary texts.

Despite the volume’s many merits and uses, its selection of examined texts is problematic. For such a study one might choose a medium-length period of time and look at all relevant texts from one place (England), or a shorter period of time and compare it with texts from another place (France). The third option, which this volume follows, is to study a smaller body of sources, say in only one language (Middle English), but over a longer period of time. However, Butterfield shows the value of comparing different vernacular perceptions of national identity, although with a supposedly representative selection of sources.[3] Ruddick, on the other hand, demonstrates that writers engage with ideas of language and national identity in all three languages of late-medieval England (Anglo-Norman, Latin, and Middle English).[4] Nearly every chronicle, newsletter, and poem written in the reign of Edward III (1327–77), for example, is in Anglo-Norman or Latin, with only a handful in Middle English. Writings in all three languages frequently engage with the problems that Bellis is concerned with, and a comparison would surely yield interesting results. Indeed, if one considers the wider corpus of sources, especially in this period that developed English national identity, it is hard to believe that English and Anglo-Norman carried any inherent nationalistic values (such as would be necessary for the many ‘paradoxes’ discussed in the volume).

Bellis’ argument, that language was a key tool in the Hundred Years War and helped to shape national identity, is overwhelmingly convincing, even with the restricted body of sources she draws upon. Her carefully nuanced reading of a wide variety of mostly neglected texts shows how we can more profitably engage with the colourful and ‘biased’ sources of the Middle Ages. This volume will surely be the starting point for scholars of late-medieval historical literature, so much of which remains untapped. It is to be hoped that this volume will encourage further study in this field, by both historians and literary scholars, and that we can further develop our understanding of the complexities of national identity, language, and war in late-medieval Europe.

Trevor Russell Smith
University of Leeds

[1] John A. Armstrong, Nations before Nationalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982). See also the discussion in the introduction and first chapter of Bellis’ volume.

[2] See for example Inscribing the Hundred Years’ War in French and English Cultures, ed. by Denise N. Baker (New York: State University of New York Press, 2000).

[3] Ardis Butterfield, The Familiar Enemy: Chaucer, Language, and Nation in the Hundred Years War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[4] Andrea Ruddick, English Identity and Political Culture in the Fourteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

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