Book Review: Occupying Space in Medieval and Early Modern Britain and Ireland

After receiving an enthusiastic response at the conclusion of the Borderlines conference at Trinity College Dublin in 2013, Gregory Huslman and Caoimhe Whelan put together this in-depth compilation. The conference theme, Occupying Space, was centred on the ways in which medieval and early modern people navigated, created, and altered personal and public space over the course of 1,000 years.

The book is divided into five segments: appearances, manuscripts and social spaces, land, conflict, and trade. While I enjoyed the collection as a whole, four papers grabbed my attention in the medieval section.

Kicking off in ‘appearances’, Edel Mulcahey’s paper, The Role of Pilgrim Clothing in Medieval Narratives, was intriguing. Pilgrims held a special status in medieval society that was publicly recognized by their attire. The wearer of a pilgrim badge, or carrying a pilgrim’s scrip or staff, was imbued with a special autonomy; the ability to leave behind their community and venture forth to see the world without censure to fulfil a Holy oath. Pilgrims received lodging, food, protection and assistance. These offers of help were often based on the pilgrim’s garb, denoting their sacred journey. Mulcahey looked at how the view of pilgrims changed over time, and how this was reflected in medieval literature. By the late Middle Ages, pilgrims began to be viewed with some suspicion because of the ease at which their attire could be used to bestow special status. Pilgrim’s clothing could be subverted for sinister purposes, or used under false pretence, such as escaping for adventure, deceiving people to receive food, shelter and protection, or for perpetrating a crime.

Merging the medieval with the modern was Johanna M.E. Green’s take on the debate of manuscript vs. digitized copy, in Digital Manuscripts as Cultural Artefacts. She suggests that digitization isn’t here to usurp the place of manuscripts, but to complement and enhance in-depth study.

For early medievalists and economists, Lyndsey Smith’s account of Anglo-Saxon ivory trade in, The Tactile Account of Anglo-Saxon Ivory (550-1066), shed light on why, and when, trade shifted from elephant tusks to whalebone. Smith also looked at why ivory was so coveted and what it meant for social status in Anglo-Saxon society.

Lastly, for late medievalists, Duncan L. Berryman’s, Patterns in the Management of the Fourteenth Century English Landscape, looks at the space, status, and function of the buildings on medieval demesnes in the fourteenth century. How was the material that was used, and the placement of these buildings, indicative of social status, prosperity, and productivity? Who used these spaces? How did the space signal status, or more importantly, after the Black Death, how was it used to reassert social hierarchies?

For early modernists, you will surely enjoy Sonya Cronin’s, The Relocation of Home in the Royalist Poetry of Katherine Philips, which examines Philip’s work after the regicide of Charles I in 1649. She encourages Royalists to retreat from an urban space fraught with danger and political upheaval, to a rural, idyllic, and calm setting. Philips also creates the link between Wales and the ancient, unified, British past as the seat of ‘true Englishness’.

The papers in this collection touch on almost every facet of medieval and early modern history: identity, religion, appearance, social status, private vs. public space, urban vs. rural, and modern vs digital. Occupying Space in Medieval and Early Modern Britain and Ireland (Court Cultures of the Middle Ages and Renaissance) offers a comprehensive and fascinating look at the significance of space, and the ways in which people were constantly disrupting, subverting, or adapting to spaces in a social and political context.

Dr. Gregory Hulsman is currently a visiting research fellow with the Centre for Medieval and
Renaissance Studies, Trinity College Dublin. He is also a tutor in medieval and early
modern literature. His research focuses on Middle English language and literature, heresy,
and book history, specifically late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century Lollard

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