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[Fwd: TMR 08.10.12 Thomas, A Blessed Shore (Kuczynski)]

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  • jenne@fiedlerfamily.net
    Fascinating... ... Subject: TMR 08.10.12 Thomas, A Blessed Shore (Kuczynski) From: The Medieval Review Date: Mon, October 13, 2008
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 31, 2008
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      ---------------------------- Original Message ----------------------------
      Subject: TMR 08.10.12 Thomas, A Blessed Shore (Kuczynski)
      From: "The Medieval Review" <tmrl@...>
      Date: Mon, October 13, 2008 8:32 am
      To: tmr-l@...

      Thomas, Alfred. <i>A Blessed Shore: England and Bohemia from Chaucer
      to Shakespeare</i>. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007. Pp. xiv,
      239. $45. ISBN 978-0-8014-4568-2.

      Reviewed by Michael P. Kuczynski
      Department of English, Tulane University, New Orleans.

      In my old neighborhood in North Philadelphia, there was a church on
      nearly every corner. These were the spiritual centers of groups of
      streets, where Italian, Irish, and Polish immigrants tried keeping to
      themselves, but inevitably mingled--in my parents' generation, by
      intermarriage. Neighborhoods, I came to understand as a boy, can be
      both parochial and international. In this respect, they are like the
      pre-modern England of Alfred Thomas's fascinating new book, A Blessed
      Shore: England and Bohemia from Chaucer to Shakespeare, which in its
      prolonged exposure to Czech influence, revealed both its cultural
      limits and a remarkable degree of aesthetic and theoretical openness.

      The insularity of England is a geographic fact. It is also, however,
      a distortive historical fiction, one that Thomas counters by showing
      how, during the medieval and early modern periods, Czech people,
      places, and things stimulated and challenged English ideas. These
      stimuli, Thomas argues, established a lively cultural continuum
      between the two lands, in areas such as literature, theology, the
      visual arts, and educational theory.

      The book falls into three parts. The first, Chapters 1 and 2,
      concerns Ricardian England, and most important, the focus of much of
      Thomas's earlier research, the figure of Anne of Bohemia, Richard II's
      queen, and her role at the English court. The second, Chapters 3, 4,
      and 5, attends to relations and divergences between the ideologies of
      Wycliffism and Hussitism. The third, Chapters 6 and 7, discusses the
      16th and 17th centuries, by way not only of Shakespeare's ideas about
      Bohemia, but the activities in Prague of the English Jesuit Edmund
      Campion among others and the journey to England by some eminent 17th-
      c. Bohemians, including the Czech pedagogue Comenius, who (according
      to a doubtful account) was offered the first presidency of Harvard
      College by John Winthrop. In a brief but useful conclusion, Thomas
      reemphasizes "the shared humanist values of an integrated Europe"
      (211), discredited over the past decade by much Renaissance
      scholarship on Italy and Spain, as a key to imagining medieval and
      early modern Bohemia not as obscure and even subcultural, but as "the
      intellectual playground of Englishmen such as Sir Philip Sidney and
      Dr. John Dee" (211).

      Chapters 1 and 2 are best read alongside Thomas's earlier work on Anne
      of Bohemia, lest their mode of argument seem too hypothetical and
      tentative. The author is concerned here with combating a narrow
      "positivist" (26) interpretation of Anne's life, which misses the
      range of her and Bohemia's influence on Ricardian culture because of a
      paucity of explicit references in the archive. As Thomas observes,
      only the first letter of Anne's name makes it into the text of
      Chaucer's Troilus, in a brief passage praising Criseyde's peerless
      beauty and Anne's by way of a cryptic comparison. Chaucer's
      implication, I always thought, was that while poems can establish
      excellencies that life can barely match (as when his narrator asserts
      in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales that no better Parson
      exists than the ideal one he just described), Anne of Bohemia is an
      exception: "A," the alphabet's as well as Anne's first letter,
      suggests a new beginning for beauty and real preeminence. Thomas's
      two pages on the Middle English word "makeles" and his subsequent
      pursuit of parallels between the imagery of the anonymous dream-vision
      Pearl and the reality of Anne of Bohemia are, to my mind, generally
      convincing. Elsewhere, however, his early arguments seem to me a
      little strained, as in the discussion of whether or not Anne
      commissioned The Legend of Good Women, a question that Thomas
      acknowledges, following David Wallace, is not so important after all

      Caveats aside, Thomas's remarks in Chapters 1 and 2 on medieval
      objects associated with Anne and Bohemia are compelling: for instance,
      her pearl crown, the remarkable twin tomb effigy of herself and her
      husband, and the famous Wilton Diptych. History is a matter not only
      of what happened, but of how things, including poems, got made.
      Thomas's at times minute deliberations about the degree to which
      Richard's imperial ambitions (Anne's father, Charles IV, was Holy
      Roman Emperor and her brother, Wenzel, an unpromising successor)
      became manifest in the material cultures of Ricardian painting,
      architecture, and poetry save the first pages of this book from
      seeming too broadly speculative.

      The approach that proves somewhat problematic in Chapters 1 and 2 of A
      Blessed Shore reappears more convincingly in the book's final two
      chapters (pp. 167-96), where Thomas discusses English persons in
      Bohemia and under Bohemia's influence, such as Sidney, Campion, and
      the recusant, Elizabeth Jane Weston. The author demonstrates in this
      long run of text a real aptitude for balancing concerns of personality
      and fact in assessing the historical record. In discussing Weston, in
      particular, Thomas brings together some of his book's major
      concerns: the role of female agency not only in literary but a wider
      cultural production during the medieval and early modern periods;
      multilingualism (Weston was adept at Latin, Greek, Italian, Czech, and
      German); utopian ideals; and the kind of exponential expansion of
      reputation that print culture made possible. (Weston's collection of
      poems, Parthenicon, was several times reprinted by other European
      presses after its initial 1606 appearance in Prague.)

      The strongest section of A Blessed Shore in my view, however, is its
      second and central one, on matters Wycliffite and Hussite. The road
      between these ideologies is sometimes viewed as one-way (Oxford to
      Prague) and smoothly paved. Thomas complicates this understanding,
      explaining how the ethnic divide at the University of Prague between
      German nominalists and Czech realists made Wyclif's ideas and works
      "at once appealing and deeply divisive" (101). Thomas is especially
      compelling on the deft decision by Hus and other Czech reformers to
      emphasize Wyclif's polemics against church corruption over and against
      his troubling doctrinal views, especially those on the Eucharist. And
      he is at his best introducing readers at some length (107-116) to
      Hus's avid follower, Peter Chel?ick?, a social reformer and Scriptural
      primitivist who elaborated utopian visions of the church both under
      the influence of and in oppositon to Wyclif. I am not sure that I
      agree with Thomas concerning a clear link he perceives between British
      and American differences over church-state relations and Chel?ick?'s
      departures from Wyclif on this subject. His discussion of Chel?ick?'s
      The Net of Faith, however, reveals how some of its ideas were bound to
      influence post-Renaissance cultural suppositions, just as the
      outrageously polemical Czech poem Thomas analyzes, "The Wycliffite
      Woman," might be said to anticipate the grotesque anti-feminism
      reflected in recent Vatican pronouncements against the ordination of
      women priests. (Thomas gives his own rhymed translation of the poem
      in an Appendix, on pp. 213-215.)

      A Blessed Shore alludes to the conceit, in Shakespeare's The Winter's
      Tale, that landlocked Bohemia had a seacoast. The book's contents,
      however, belie the clever cliché of its title. Without a coast,
      medieval and early modern Bohemia nevertheless exported to England and
      imported from her ample shores an immense amount of cultural capital.
      Alfred Thomas has written the first but one hopes not the final
      chapter in the history of that rich exchange. In A Blessed Shore he
      has produced a volume that can stand alongside other impressive recent
      work on pre-modern England and cross-culturalism, such as David
      Wallace's <i>remodern Places: Calais to Surinam, Chaucer to Aphra
      Behn</i> (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004) and Kathy Lavezzo's <i>Angels
      on the Edge of the World: Geography, Literature, and English
      Community, 1000-1534</i> (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006).

      -- Jenne Heise / Jadwiga Zajaczkowa
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