This article examines the acquisition of wisdom through literary text in medieval England. The most famous collections of wisdom in the Middle Ages were found in two Old Testament books attributed to King Solomon, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes which contains aphorisms, often arranged around themes and at times profoundly enigmatic in style. Old English epic poems, including Beowulf to Geoffrey Chaucer's Miller's Tale, also offered the medieval reader a measure of common sense with which to understand the chaos of human existence. This article suggests that the unlettered were not ignorant of the traditional knowledge of their society because a store of wisdom was preserved and transmitted in memorable sayings, proverbs, and maxims.
This article examines the debate over the vita activa versus the vita contemplativa in England across the late medieval and early modern periods. After considering the inversion of the traditional hierarchy of contemplative life over active life as the defining paradigm shift of modernity, it explains how contemplation and the contemplative enterprise offered a vocabulary and a conceptual framework for Francis Bacon’s sense of his own project. It also analyzes Margaret Cavendish’s appropriation of intellectual stances and methods associated with the contemplative life.
This article examines George Gascoigne's prose writing. Gascoigne's modern reputation rests principally upon four works: the prose fiction A Discourse of the Adventures passed by Master F.J., one of the earliest important texts in the history of the novel in English; his prose play Supposes, a source for Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew; his frequently anthologised poem, ‘Gascoignes wodmanship’; and ‘Certayne Notes of Instruction concerning the making of verse or ryme in English’, the earliest essay on English composition. Three of these have significant prose elements: Master F.J. is partly prose and partly verse; Supposes is a prose comedy; and ‘Certayne Notes of Instruction’ is a prose essay on the art of versification. The sheer range of Gascoigne's prose work is extraordinary, but his longest prose works are all translations.
This article introduces and surveys the life and writings of the Anglo-Saxon monk, Ælfric of Eynsham (c.955–c.1010). It provides a summary of the main scholarly work that has been done on Ælfric, specifically in areas of editing, source study, historical context, translation, style, and reception, and gives suggestions for further research, particularly advocating the possibilities of comparative analysis and the adoption of Religious Studies methodologies. Ælfric is one of the most well-known authors of Old English prose, and has been seen as a representative of the late Benedictine Reform in England; however, recent scholarship points toward a rather more idiosyncratic figure with a more complex relationship to his historical moment and to his literary context.
This article examines sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century dialogue. It considers why so many writers chose to convey opinions or explore ideas in works laid out as conversations. The pervasiveness of the form is apparent in the sheer gamut of topics discussed ‘dialogue-wise’: subjects range from worshipping saints to the proper behaviour of women; from music to the art of warfare. Dialogue comes in many guises: descriptors on printed title-pages range from the neutral ‘colloquy’ or ‘discourse’ to the more formal ‘debate’ and ‘dispute’. In choosing to convey their ideas and opinions in a dialogue, early modern writers selected a form that had ideological resonances; it was a form which gestured towards the debate and verbal interaction that they believed should lie at the heart of successful governance and a healthy society — for many dialogues, the very solution lies in talking.
Margreta De Grazia
To an age enjoined to “Always Historicize,” anachronism is an embarrassment. It is not merely getting a date wrong, a chronological error. It is mistaking some aspect of a period’s regulative conceptualization of the world. It typically occurs when we impose our own modern conceptions onto the workings of the past. Sensitivity to anachronism and an understanding of history has generally been regarded as one of the defining features of the Renaissance, much to the detriment of the Medieval, that thereby becomes historically insensitive. This essay works to loosen our disciplinary commitment to chronology and periods by looking at other ways of relating to the past, beginning with a radical reconstrual of Lorenzo Valla’s exposure of the Donation of Constantine. It is not violations of chronology that Valla exposes but bad rhetoric. And it is from the arts of language that the essay hints at alternative ways of relating to the past, through narrative and figuration rather than numerical timelines and metaphysical periods.
This article fully considers the tradition and function of ancient Greek elegy. It is shown that the elegy uses its own peculiar hexameters existing in a codependent relationship with the elegiac pentameter. The article then addresses ‘the delights of elegy’. It concentrates on the hexameter as combined with the pentameter in the elegiac couplet. Additionally, the formal characteristics of elegy as a genre in the attested phases of Greek literature are explained. The article considers how the genre of elegy shows its capacity for performing the functions of forms that belong to the genres of epic and oracular poetry. There is a remarkably wide range of possibilities for the self-expression of a woman who is singing a lament. The lament of men in their sympotic singing of elegy may be a stylized and representational form of lament. There is a pleasure to be had in the sensuality of lament.
This chapter argues for the interest and importance of Anglo-Saxonist novels when analysing questions of identity in Victorian Britain. Focusing on the nineteenth century’s two longest works of literary Anglo-Saxonism—Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1848 historical novel Harold and Charles Kingsley’s 1866 Hereward the Wake—it reveals that, contrary to contemporary opinion, these works do not assert, but rather question and investigate, simplistic notions of national identity. Both books are often dismissed as simply poor imitations of the earlier work of Sir Walter Scott. The chapter traces their literary origins to well before Scott; argues that the texts differ importantly from Scott’s work, in ways that can tell us much about the mid-nineteenth century; and reveals how the books intersect in important ways with other manifestations of Victorian medievalism, and have also had an important legacy in the medievalism of the late twentieth and the twenty-first centuries.
Steven F. Kruger
This chapter considers the significance of medieval Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism for Chaucer’s work, both for poems like the Prioress’s Tale that explicitly foreground Jews and for those where Jews are largely absent. Although there were no active Jewish communities in Chaucer’s England, from which Jews had been expelled in 1290, thinking about Jewishness remained central to late-medieval structures of thought. The chapter argues that anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic ideas are particularly salient for an understanding of Chaucer’s treatment of (1) questions about temporality and history, and specifically a dynamic in which the new (Christianity) supersedes the old (Judaism); (2) the metaphysical distinction between the spiritual and the corporeal, with the latter in its negative forms often associated with Jewishness; and (3) constructions of space, where Jewish presence is seen as threatening to a Christian hegemony.
This article examines writing about rebellion and anti-social reform in medieval England. It discusses examples where carnivalesque inversion of social hierarchy reveals political dissatisfaction on the part of the rebels and suggests that what is constructed as definitively anti-social action on the part of the rebels should be seen as reformism rooted in a plebeian culture which monastic historiography sought to erase. It argues that if the quest for a rebel voice has often been undertaken at the expense of rebel textualities, then it can be concluded that the excavation of rebel ideology must begin by recognizing the desire for reform across all levels and institutions of fourteenth-century English society.
Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Melissa Mayus, and Katie Ann-Marie Bugyis
This chapter examines Chaucer’s use of ‘anticlericalism’ and ‘vernacular theology’ in the Canterbury Tales, arguing that he uses neither in a straightforward way. While many examples of anticlerical and antifraternal language appear in the Canterbury Tales, and while such language carries theological and polemical weight, Chaucer’s use of antifraternal/anticlerical sources is literary rather than theological or polemical. By applying antifraternal language to non-fraternal figures and having clerical figures use such language against each other, Chaucer highlights the intraclerical debates among his pilgrims. An examination of the Second Nun’s Tale shows that Chaucer was engaged not so much with the creation of a ‘vernacular theology’, but rather with a process of ‘theological vernacularizing’ where he translated theological ideas, expressing them in his characters’ voices. Through his fictive guises Chaucer performed an essential truth of all theological discourse: whatever vernacular it is expressed in, it is always in via, always in translation.
P. G. Maxwell-Stuart
The Elizabethans and Jacobeans along with all their European contemporaries lived simultaneously in the physical world and a spiritual realm inhabited by spirits, angels, demons, and the dead that constantly intruded, irregularly and mostly without warning, bringing humans and non-human entities into disturbing and often terrifying contact. This article discusses works about astrology, magic, and witchcraft in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
This chapter juxtaposes The House of Fame and the Shipman’s Tale to explore two London locations closely associated with Chaucer’s life: his residence above Aldgate, and the customs house on the wool quay. In The House of Fame, Chaucer synthesizes a quotidian portrayal of ‘Geffrey’ at home with imaginative representations of urban life and sounds. The poem not only engages with Latinate poetic traditions, but it also absorbs mixed-vernacular varieties of civic writing. In the Shipman’s Tale, a French merchant’s activities in his ‘contour-hous’ recall Chaucer’s vocation as a customs official for the Port of London, and the tale’s cross-linguistic wordplay suggests the multilingual capacities of Chaucer’s urban readers. In these works, the poet inhabits the polyglot settings of northern French ports and London’s waterfront. Chaucer’s portrayal of accounting practices reflect aspects of everyday medieval life, but more profoundly the poet illustrates the porous boundaries between languages within urban environments.
Orality—understood as the oral delivery of texts—is often assumed to have given way to literacy—the private reading of texts—over the course of the medieval period. The two entities are mutually exclusive and can be placed in a relationship of evolution that has preoccupied scholars of Middle English literature. Orality differs from “aurality,” which is defined as “the shared hearing of written texts” and combines aspects of both orality and literacy. Most scholars steer around the subject of aurality for a variety of reasons. This article explores some of the issues involved in aurality, explicates the practice of aurality, and considers some of the many potential directions for future research. It focuses on reports of British reading, with occasional references to the more abundant evidence about French and Burgundian reading, as well as recreational literature.
Michel Foucault declared that authors became subject to punishment and discourse became transgressive. In the late fourteenth century, both “discourse” and the very act of writing itself were perceived as transgressive, a notion that resulted in a new kind of authorial self-representation in England. By the late fourteenth century, writing had assumed an ambiguous role: while it was the means by which social norms regarding labor were communicated and enforced, it could also be the object of such enforcement. This article explores how late medieval literature came to have authors by looking at literary production in the context of contemporary discourses about daily work. It considers how post-plague labor laws forced authors to situate their work not just between the venerable poles of imitatio and inventio but also between the social polarities of idleness and industry, and how post-plague writers meditated on the value of literary work in the marketplace of work more generally. Using Geoffrey Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales as a lens, it discusses the strategies employed by late medieval writers in positioning their work in a literary landscape characterized by explicit understandings of the material value of labor.
Authority can refer to a person, a quality that one possesses, a governing institution a text containing crucial information or founding principles, or a exemplary event. In other words, authority is never properly one thing. An integral part of authority is recognition, insofar as the signs of power or status are encoded or displayed. During the medieval period, authority was an important subject for writers. In medieval theories of authorship, authorship was consistently identified with authority. Modern critics of medieval literature consider authority to be perhaps the most persuasive connection between art and context. This article examines authority, with emphasis on textual authority and how it extends the purview of medievalist literary criticism, in part by historicizing textual production. It also discusses the use of textual authority by both medievals and medievalists to understand literary innovation. In addition, it analyzes two sets of texts that offer complex investigations into the nature of lordship: the fifteenth-century biblical cycle plays and William Langland’s alliterative poem Piers Plowman.
This article examines the genres and the constraint in writing about the self in England during the medieval period. It explains that autobiography is a rare species in the Middle Ages and that despite the late antique models offered by diverse texts, the culture of the Middle Ages did not encourage autobiography that stood alone. It analyses the works of both male and female writers, both clergy and laity, who tried to make their way as medieval selves in an age that valorized interiority and devotion more than materiality.
This article offers a broad overview of English women's authority and piety from the Anglo-Saxon period to the fifteenth century that looks at accounts of women's visions either written down by the women themselves or recorded by others. It focuses on women's visions of the dead and the dying and considers representative selection of texts and writers including Bede's Ecclesiastical History, Julian of Norwich's The Book of Margery Kempe, and an anonymous female-authored fifteenth-century text known as A Revelation of Purgatory. It suggests that most of the relatively small corpus of writing by women in the European Middle Ages was religious in content.
Autobiography as a concept asks deep questions about the periodization of history. It is also a scene of persistent rivalry in the construction of medieval and Renaissance models of history. Since Jakob Burckhardt’s Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien of 1860, there has been a war of ownership over the rise of human subjectivity. This article examines the debate over the history of autobiography by focusing on St. Augustine and his Confessions. It considers the exposure of the Confessions to different kinds of reading during the late medieval period, including that by Petrarch. It argues that the Confessions has been read more extensively in the twentieth century than ever before and that the Augustine of the “invention of subjectivity” is a writer of a specifically twentieth-century imagination. In this way it also assesses the impact of the Reformation on the Confessions.
As the canon of medieval literature expanded rapidly in the Romantic era, critics and literary historians had to be on the lookout for fakes. Unscrupulous writers had often altered authentic medieval texts, misrepresented their origins, or even invented documents out of whole cloth. Some texts some were malign hoaxes, some were light-hearted pranks, and some were unintentionally misleading pseudepigrapha. Whatever the nature of the fakes, though, Victorian antiquarians were obliged to sort carefully through the evidence and try to distinguish the true from the false. But while these fakes took a toll on editors and literary historians, some of whom inadvertently passed on falsehoods, they also forced critics to develop a new set of scholarly tools, which had the paradoxical effect of strengthening scholarship. The need to keep the canon free of fakes ended up training antiquarians, editors, and literary historians to become better historicist critics.