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.
In On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry argues that error is part and parcel of the human understanding of beauty. Medieval writers regarded beauty with some suspicion; in the modern era, it is typically associated with “taste” and judgement. This article examines the notion of beauty as depicted in medieval literature by focusing on Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem “Miller’s Tale” and his description of the main actor, Alisoun. It considers how a new aesthetic enters the poem and with it an attempt to redefine both poetry and beauty.
The book is a source of information about the past, a material result of inevitably imperfect human labor. Because they are further disordered by time, books are unstable witnesses to that past. Book history is of growing significance to the study of culture and literature. The importance of the press, and the nature of the “print culture” associated with it, has been the subject of debate between scholars who argue that the press was “an agent of change,” and Adrian Johns and others who insist that while the advent of print resulted in “fixity,” possessive authorship, the invention of copyright, a proliferation of titles, and capitalist investment in book production, they were not its inevitable result. This article focuses on “books,” particularly medieval “books.” It considers the poem “Chaucers Wordes unto Adam, His Owne Scriveyn” and Linne R. Mooney’s identification of Adam Pinkhurst as the copyist of the Hengwrt and Ellesmere manuscripts of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Richard II’s reign as king of England was characterized by an explosion in the production of literary and political vernacular texts and by dramatic political upheaval. In the last quarter of the fourteenth century, crises such as the Great Revolt, the development of Lollardy, mayoral disputes, and usurpation coincided with the emergence of writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and William Langland, along with many other literary practitioners such as John Clanvowe and Thomas Usk. Broadsides, pamphlets, and other publically-circulated documents employed literary modes for political ends. This article examines the highly politicized and difficult environment in which late fourteenth-century English literature was born. It considers the political nature of textual production and how increased access to textuality encouraged people to employ texts as political ammunition.
A popular notion in medieval drama study is that plays can be fully accessed only in the moment of performance. This idea has been challenged only recently. This article proposes a somewhat different line of critical enquiry that focuses not on the text’s performative qualities, but on the literate practices set into motion in the text’s articulation and transmission. More specifically, it considers the skills and procedures that are regularly used by trained professionals not only in their ordinary lines of work but also to drama. It looks at the clerk’s job of copying a great London spectacle into the city’s official books while also doing a great deal of creative work, citing a report by John Carpenter about Henry VI’s entry into London as an example. It also examines late medieval English drama in relation to the English liturgy, as exemplified by Resurrection plays. Finally, the article discusses the Terence revival and translation in England.
This article considers whether the activity that we recognize as criticism existed in the literary culture of early Tudor England. Before the appearance of formal poetic defenses and literary treatises in English (an Elizabethan phenomenon associated with Sir Philip Sidney and George Puttenham), English vernacular culture of the early sixteenth century seems to have been devoid of a fully fledged poetics or literary theory. Yet the composite evidence of printed prefaces, various endeavors to translate classical rhetorical terminology, and poetic practice itself in these early decades reveals a series of literary-critical interests that recur in the writing and intellectual history of this period. Literary theory in early Tudor England evolves as it addresses a set of preoccupations that cluster around questions of authorial inventiveness, models of style and vernacular eloquence, the domestication of imported critical terminology, and the agency of readers.
Medieval narratives create order on the basis of causal sequences in time. However, cyclical and episodic structures, formal fragmentation, incompletion, and the existence of multiple versions can offset the ordering power of narrative causality. Episodic narratives typically expose the artifices required to create both narrative and social order, thus raising the question of social continuity. By eschewing causality, episodes are heavily reliant on reiterated symbols and language. This article explores the relationship between narrative incoherence and dynastic discontinuity, how narrative discontinuity reveals social concerns, and how episodic form functions as a method for anticipating and shaping audience response. It considers repetition in Athelston, a Middle English romance, and coherence in James Simpson’s essay on Sir Degaré, Thomas Malory’s “Sir Gareth,” and the Folie Tristan d’Oxford. It also analyzes episodic structure in Beves of Hampton and The Seven Sages of Rome.
The past few decades have witnessed a surge of interest in emotion as a subject of study across the disciplines. This has generated important interdisciplinary conversations, opening up new methodologies and new fields, including a field with special relevance to medievalists -- the history of emotion. How can specialists in Middle English literature contribute in more visible and fruitful ways to the history of emotion? This article gestures towards some ways of bridging the disciplinary divide between literature and the history of emotion. It advocates an approach that does not dismiss, but embraces, the "literariness" of literature as a site for the making of emotion in history. It invites Middle English scholars to consider literary texts as scripts for the production of feeling, and it explains how the concepts of performance and performativity can generate new ways of thinking about emotion historically. Finally, it illustrates a method for reading Middle English texts as scripts for the making of emotion in history by analyzing two texts, The Wooing of Our Lord and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in their historical contexts.
Plato and Aristotle offered contrasting definitions of “form.” According to Plato, a “form” was external to the material world, a notion or idea or thought that can properly exist only in a mind. For Aristotle, “form” was always a part of some material thing. In Troilus and Criseyde, Geoffrey Chaucer offers a description that does not use the word “form,” and yet it implies a process that could be summarized with the word “formation.” This article discusses the advantages of a literary analysis that embraces a uniquely comprehensive definition of form, particularly in the realm of Middle English literature. It argues that each element of a comprehensive theory of literary form encompasses both thinking and writing in the Middle Ages. It also considers key aspects of the form of two representative Middle English texts, Pearl and Robert Mannyng’s Handlyng Synne.
One of the stanzas in “To Rosemounde,” a poem tentatively ascribed to Geoffrey Chaucer, mentions a pike steeped in galantine sauce that creates a moment of confusion. The fish in question might be described as a moment of ungenre, of disorientation within a text. The problematic nature of attempting taxonomies of medieval genres has been pointed out in medieval texts. This article examines generic terms in Middle English literature, what they meant, and whether they were regulated by a system. To address these issues, the use of three generic markers, each representative of a different strand of influence in literature written in Middle English, is considered: romaunce, balade, and tragedye. The article also discusses the tendency of the names of writing to appear in combination with other generic markers, rather than in isolation, as well as the implications of that tendency toward combination or mixing.
Susan E. Phillips
In the Prologue to the “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale,” a loyal servant betrays his master’s closely held secrets as he engages in idle talk. Yet much more is at stake in this scene than the damage that a servant’s idle talk can do to his master; for the Canon’s Yeoman’s gossip does not simply divulge the Canon’s shortcomings, it also illuminates how gossip is fundamental to the narrative experimentation at the heart of this tale. Exploring the many different ways in which gossip functions in English culture during the late medieval period, this article reveals that idle talk acts not just as the transgressive speech of the disempowered, but, more centrally, as the discursive tool of ‘official’ culture, deployed by medieval English poets and preachers alike. It considers the consequences of gossip not only for Chaucerian poetics but also for late medieval pastoral literature, arguing that that idle talk is as central to Robert Mannyng’s exemplarity as it is to Chaucer’s narrative experimentation.
A controversial idea associated with religious culture in the late Middle Ages is that anyone who considers himself a part of mainstream religion must know his difference from heretics. A religious writer in this period who does not hew closely to orthodox teachings may be accused of being a heretic in his lyrical or prosaic musings about Church hierarchies, the Scripture, or the sacraments. This notion has become a subject of considerable debate among some specialists in Middle English literature. This article considers other paradigms that may broaden our notions about religious literature in fifteenth-century England. In particular, it proposes a paradigm that includes bishops rather than heretics, in part because bishops are mainly responsible for innovations that are neglected in a focus on Wycliffism. It also explores the critically neglected innovations within what it calls ecclesiastical humanism, some of its features, and how it emerged during the fifteenth century. It argues that the prevailing cultural obsession with the Wycliffite heresy had largely disappeared between the 1430s and the 1480s and was replaced, in part, by attempts to promote ecclesiastical institutions as centers of patronage and humanist literary culture.
The literary theory of the medieval schools, found in academic prologues or commentaries, is often articulated in an analytical and explicit language. However, in both Latin and vernacular literary texts literary self-theorization may also be expressed in figured and metaphorical form. An example would be Guillaume de Machaut’s “Prologue,” but other widespread and recognizable literary theoretical figures include the dream, the mirror, the reading of a book, or the conversation overheard. It is important for scholarship in Middle English literature to focus more on these “imaginative” articulations of literary theory. This article examines one particular literary-theoretical figure, the chanson d’aventure (“the song of adventure”), which, depending on how it is put together, can perform an array of literary self-commentaries.
Nancy Bradley Warren
This article examines life writing in Middle English by focusing on Julian of Norwich’s Showings as well as Margaret Gascoigne’s copy of the book and the accompanying record of her contemplative experiences. It also looks at Gertrude More’s exposition of the contemplative life as taught by Father Augustine Baker, who took over the spiritual direction of the English Benedictine nuns in exile in Cambrai in 1624. It discusses how Julian re-embodies Christ’s suffering both in Showings and in her own body, and how the text sets up a chain of explicitly English reincarnations of Christ’s suffering. It also considers the close relationship between Middle English life writing and the forma vitae, a genre that is strongly associated with monastic life. In addition, the article analyzes Julian’s Showings, William Langland’s Piers Plowman, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The House of Fame and Canterbury Tales as examples of Middle English (auto)biography and transubstantiation.
D. Vance Smith
In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The House of Fame, the hall of Fame is reminiscent of what Erving Goffman termed in his study of asylums a “total institution” during the Middle Ages. Modern institutions differ from the medieval monastery in both the willingness of the latter’s inmates to belong to it and the metaphysical and religious ideas that are its justification and purpose. In The Canterbury Tales, the Monk exhibits outrageous sophistry and an affiliation with other institutions. One lesson of the Monk’s portrait is the limits of the so-called institutional history of institutions. This article explores the relationship between institution and writing in the Middle Ages, when writing was not yet an institution. It considers writing as the act of instituting, a break with the homologies between institutional forms of inscription and tropes, or between the causes of literature and the pressures of an institution.
The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries witnessed the proliferation of conduct books, an indication of the growing instability of class boundaries as well as concern about maintaining or acquiring the manners and customs of “courtesy.” Such books, especially those dealing with table manners and social decorum, contain principles that are akin to those of modern social governance. Jonathan Nicholls argued that conduct texts must be read as a way to better understand medieval literature. A radically different approach has been proposed by Kathleen Ashley and Robert L. A. Clarke in their edited collection of essays, Medieval Conduct. Ashley and Clarke put equal emphasis on “texts, theories, and practices,” rather than using conduct and courtesy texts to illuminate “literature.” This article examines the representation of nurture and conduct in the medieval period and the reality of medieval behavior, thought, and feeling about the proper conduct of the self. It discusses recent theories of ritual practice and social behavior, particularly those outlined by Pierre Bourdieu, Michel de Certeau, Norbert Elias, and Michel Foucault.
In medieval England, liturgy was a looming presence in so many aspects of English literary production. Yet many fundamental questions concerning the relationship between liturgy and vernacular literary production have remained unaddressed. This article explores the liturgical character of Middle English literature and how liturgy links the pre- and post-Conquest eras. In pursuing a liturgical history of early English writing, it outlines a detheologizing vision of liturgy and its objects. It also discusses the phenomenology of the modern theologized category of the “service book,” how previous theologizing habits of liturgical understanding have affected the Middle English religious lyric, and the writing and dissemination of the Book of Common Prayer.
This chapter argues that medieval processes of textual transmission have had less effect on the reception and interpretation of medieval “literature” than modern trends in preservation, proscription, and “recognition.” Due to post-medieval upheavals -- the dispersal of manuscripts due to religious reform and warfare, the advent of belligerent nationalism and the “Enlightenment,” the valorization of the author, the influence of evolutionary theory, and a host of other forces -- the components of medieval manuscripts have been further and further alienated from the original contexts of their composition, inscription, and reception. The chapter accordingly examines the relationship, both symbiotic and dysfunctional, between the medieval manuscript matrix and the modern canon by citing the case of Beowulf and juxtaposing the sole text of this poem with the Anglo-Saxon version of Judith preserved in the same manuscript, in order to highlight the unequal treatment accorded to these two poems and the degree to which iconic medieval texts like Beowulf were framed as such in a climate of intense competition over cultural patrimony in nineteenth-century Europe. It also discusses the chancy processes that dictated the survival, retrieval, and canonization of certain at the expense of others: including The Book of Margery Kempe, Chrétien de Troyes’s Arthurian romances, and the plays of Shakespeare.