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date: 21 February 2020


Abstract and Keywords

This book examines Middle English literature and includes works by Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, William Langland, and John Lydgate. Essays deal with topics ranging from romances to drama, chronicles, and other narrative forms, as well as gossip, orality and aurality, translation, and multilingualism. The book also looks at vernacular texts that harbor refined ideas about beauty, aesthetics, and literary genre; authorship, an unstable category lurking in the undiscovered space between manual and intellectual labor; and the presence of “literature” in apparently “nonliterary” environments.

Keywords: Middle English literature, romances, drama, gossip, orality, translation, multilingualism, literary genre, authorship, aurality

A publishing surge of the last twenty years has filled our shelves with ‘companions’, volumes designed to equip their readers with up-to-date and convenient surveys of the current state of knowledge about literary periods and major authors. Like many fellow teachers and researchers, I have previously ridden this wave. Here, now, is a volume that might look like one more ‘companion’ or its close kin. Its aspirations are, however, considerably—perhaps even completely—different. A companion or a handbook promises, at least by implication, to provide authoritative information, an accounting of what is ‘known’ and agreed upon by seasoned scholars in the field. By contrast, this volume seeks to enter the zone of the not-yet known, the less-than fully understood. Its contributors were asked to avoid settled consensus in favour of unresolved debate, to prefer the emergent, the unfinalized, the yet-to-be done.

Of course, contributors—especially the innovative and independent-minded ones sought out for this volume—make up their own minds about such things. As these essays have arrived in the mail, I have been constantly and delightedly surprised by the directions taken and the perspectives raised. My impression as editor is that this volume’s aims have been realized, and in the best sort of way: along tangents I could never have predicted. One essay reads romances as scripts for the ‘performance’ of feelings, while another reads dramas not as performances at all but as instances of literate practice. An essay on the movement from script to print argues that the invention of ‘the book’ is what really matters, and that the emergence of the book spans and overshadows the apparent script–print divide. Another solicited on the subject of orality finds that medieval culture was less ‘oral’ than commonly supposed, but ‘aural’ through and though. Essays on translation and multilingualism agree that a single-language text can rest on a foundation of disguised multilingual presuppositions,even as another finds that many written texts are implicitly rooted in ways of seeing. Apparently theory-innocent vernacular texts are found by several writers to harbour refined ideas about beauty, aesthetics, and literary genre. ‘Gossip’ turns out to be less insurrectionary and more conservative than it ever seemed to be, and to have a good deal to do with narrative itself. (p. 2) ‘Episodic’ structure is seen not as happenstance but as design. The far-from-stable category of authorship is found lurking in the undiscovered space between manual and intellectual labour, as a by-product of other vocations, as an epiphenomenon of socio-political conflict. ‘Literature’ is discovered in camouflage, in apparently ‘non-literary’ surroundings, or as an incidental effect of writing practice, or dramatic convention, or even of manuscript arrangement or mise-en-page. Contrary to the dutifully learned lessons of a half-century, the ‘I’ of a text might end up having something autobiographical about it after all. And so on; readers will find these essays astir with new prospects and fresh research agendas.

My object in proposing topics was to avoid settled areas of discussion and ‘bounded’ subjects. Hence, this collection contains no ‘major author’ essays—even though citations and analyses of writings by Chaucer, Gower, Langland, and Lydgate constantly recur. It contains some ‘genre’ chapters, but wilfully new ones that violate customary categorizations: ‘Vision, Image, Text’ (embracing both secular visions and religious revelations) and ‘Speculative Genealogies’ (embracing romances, chronicles, and other narrative forms). Although its central subject is Middle English literary texts, it frequently sallies into Old and Early Modern English for its illustrative instances, and extra- or apparently ‘non-literary’ writings (‘Learning to Live’, ‘The Poetics of Practicality’) receive generous—even repeated—attention.

The last decade has been a period of restless exploration in Middle English studies. Several topics that would otherwise have ideally met this collection’s criteria of innovativeness and wide-ranging enquiry have been extensively and expertly written about, already becoming subjects for collections and anthologies in their own right. Sexualities and queer theory, topics that would have been much at home here, have been splendidly covered in the writings of Carolyn Dinshaw,1 and also in a stimulating collection edited by Glenn Burger and Steven F. Kruger.2 Post-colonial writing has been comprehensively treated in a collection edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen,3 and has received an even more recent and highly creative jolt in David Wallace’s latest book.4 James Simpson has opened new vistas on literary history with his take-no-prisoners assault on once-secure periodizations and generalizations.5 Vernacularity has been treated by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne and her collaborators in a provocative collection—literally teeming with research ideas and agendas—that everywhere evinces a spirit to which the present volume aspires.6 (If by mentioning these writings here I accomplish a sly and side-door augmentation of this volume’s purposes, I can only say: ha! guilty as charged!) In (p. 3) the meantime, the swiftly moving assimilative energies of this field are displayed in the frequency with which all these topics, and their authors, are engaged in these pages. Those who employ the ‘subject index’ at the end of the volume will find each of these topics repeatedly addressed, not in theoretical isolation but concretely, in particular situations in which it rises to view.

In such aspects as its topical choices, its subject index, and its preference for future-oriented discussions of further reading over static bibliography, this volume elects an attitude. Rejecting premature or illusory closure and forgoing attempts to have the last word, it heads for the open ground of new speculation and continuing debate. The result is a collection equally suitable for new scholars just setting their own research agendas and for established practitioners ready to reconsider apparently ‘settled’ subjects. (p. 4)


(1) Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989) and Getting Medieval (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999).

(2) Queering the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).

(3) The Postcolonial Middle Ages (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000).

(4) Premodern Places (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).

(5) Reform and Cultural Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

(6) The Idea of the Vernacular (State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999).