Medieval England’s specific political and linguistic history encompasses a great number of significant changes, some of the most disruptive of which were occasioned by the Norman Conquest. The alliterative proverb, with roots in Old English and continued vitality in Middle English, serves as a unique verbal icon allowing exploration of cultural conditions both before and after the Conquest. As a durable yet flexible form, the proverb remained just as important in the fifteenth century as it was in the sixth.
The proverb has been an underutilized resource in tracing the linguistic and intellectual cultures of the past. Making the fullest use of this material, this study, by Susan E. Deskis, is complex in its combination of philology, paroemiology, literary history, and sociolinguistics, ultimately reaching conclusions that are enlightening for both the literary and linguistic histories of medieval England. In the language ecology of England from about 1100 to about 1500, where English, French, and Latin compete for use, alliterative proverbs are marked not only by the choice of English as the language of expression but also because alliteration in Middle English connotes a conscious connection to the past. Alliterative Proverbs in Medieval England:Language Choice and Literary Meaning explores how that connection is exploited in various literary genres from school texts and sermons to romances and cycle plays.
Renewed interest in aesthetics, in form, and the idea of the literary has led some scholars to announce the arrival of a “new formalism,” but the provisional histories of such a critical rebirth tend to begin well after the beginning, paying scant attention to medieval literary scholarship, much less the Middle Ages. The essays in Answerable Style: The Idea of the Literary in Medieval England offer a collective rebuke to the assumption that any such aesthetic turn can succeed without careful attention to the history and criticism of “the medieval literary.”
Taking as their touchstone the influential work of Anne Middleton, whose searching explorations of the dialectical intersection of form and history in Middle English writing lie at the heart of the medievalist’s literary critical enterprise, the essays in this volume address the medieval idea of the literary, with special focus on the poetry of Chaucer, Langland, and Gower. The essays, by a notable array of medievalists, range from the “contact zones” between clerical culture and vernacular writing, to manuscript study and its effects on the modalities of “persona” and voicing, to the history of emotion as a basis for new literary ideals, to the reshapings of the genre of tragedy in response to late-medieval visions of history, and finally to the relations between poets writing in different medieval vernaculars. With this unusually broad yet thematically complementary set of essays, Answerable Style offers a set of key critical and historical reference points for questions currently preoccupying literary study.
People in the Middle Ages had chantry chapels, mortuary rolls, the daily observance of the Office of the Dead, and even purgatory—but they were still unable to talk about death. Their inability wasn’t due to religion, but philosophy: saying someone is dead is nonsense, as the person no longer is. The one thing that can talk about something that is not, as D. Vance Smith shows in this innovative, provocative book, is literature.
Covering the emergence of English literature from the Old English to the late medieval periods, Arts of Dying argues that the problem of how to designate death produced a long tradition of literature about dying, which continues in the work of Heidegger, Blanchot, and Gillian Rose. Philosophy’s attempt to designate death’s impossibility is part of a literature that imagines a relationship with death, a literature that intensively and self-reflexively supposes that its very terms might solve the problem of the termination of life. A lyrical and elegiac exploration that combines medieval work on the philosophy of language with contemporary theorizing on death and dying, Arts of Dying is an important contribution to medieval studies, literary criticism, phenomenology, and continental philosophy.
In medieval allegory, Body and Soul were often pitted against one another in debate. In Body Against Soul: Gender and Sowlehele in Middle English Allegory, Masha Raskolnikov argues that such debates function as a mode of thinking about psychology, gender, and power in the Middle Ages. Neither theological nor medical in nature, works of sowlehele (“soul-heal”) described the self to itself in everyday language—moderns might call this kind of writing “self-help.” Bringing together contemporary feminist and queer theory along with medieval psychological thought, Body Against Soul examines Piers Plowman, the “Katherine Group,” and the history of psychological allegory and debate. In so doing, it rewrites the history of the Body to include its recently neglected fellow, the Soul.
The topic of this book is one that runs through all of Western history and remains of primary interest to modern theorists—how “my” body relates to “me.” In the allegorical tradition traced by this study, a male person could imagine himself as a being populated by female personifications, because Latin and Romance languages tended to gender abstract nouns as female. However, since Middle English had ceased to inflect abstract nouns as male or female, writers were free to gender abstractions like “Will” or “Reason” any way they liked. This permitted some psychological allegories to avoid the representational tension caused by placing a female soul inside a male body, instead creating surprisingly queer same-sex inner worlds. The didactic intent driving sowlehele is, it turns out, complicated by the erotics of the struggle to establish a hierarchy of the self’s inner powers.
Exploding the myth that the Bible was largely unknown to medieval lay folk, Book and Verse presents the first comprehensive catalog of Middle English biblical literature: a body of work that, because of its accessibility and familiarity, was the primary biblical resource of the English Middle Ages. The medieval Bible, much like the Bible today, consists in practical terms not of a set of texts within a canon but of those stories which, because of a combination of liturgical significance and picturesque qualities, form a provisional "Bible" in the popular imagination. As James Morey explains in his introduction, although the Latin Bible was not accessible to the average English-speaker, paraphrases— systematic appropriation and refashioning of biblical texts—served as a medium through which the Bible was promulgated in the vernacular. This explains why biblical allusions, models, and large-scale appropriations of biblical narrative pervade nearly every medieval genre. Book and Verse is an indispensable guide to the variety and extent of biblical literature in England, exclusive of drama and the Wycliffite Bible that appeared between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries. Entries provide detailed information on how much of what parts of the Bible appear in Middle English and where this biblical material can be found. Comprehensive indexing by name, keyword, and biblical verse allows a researcher to find, for example, all the occurrences of the Flood Story or of the encounter between Elijah and the Widow of Sarephta. An invaluable resource, Book and Verse provides the first easy access to the "popular Bible" assembled before and after John Wyclif's translation of the Vulgate into English.
An intriguing evaluation of the concept of beginnings in the medieval period.
In the first book to examine one of the most peculiar features of one of the greatest and most perplexing poems of England's late Middle Ages-the successive attempts of Piers Plowman to begin, and to keep beginning-D. Vance Smith compels us to rethink beginning, as concept and practice, in both medieval and contemporary terms.
The problem of beginning was invested with increasing urgency in the fourteenth century, imagined and grappled with in the courts, the churches, the universities, the workshops, the fields, and the streets of England. The Book of the Incipit reveals how Langland's poem exemplifies a widespread interest in beginning in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, an interest that appears in such divergent fields as the physics of motion, the measurement of time, logic, grammar, rhetoric, theology, book production, and insurrection.
Smith offers a theoretical understanding of beginning that departs from the structuralisms of Edward Said and the traditional formalisms of A. D. Nuttall and most medievalist and modernist treatments of closure. Instead, he conceives a work's beginning as a figure of the work itself, the inception of language as the problem of beginning to which we continue to return.
D. Vance Smith is assistant professor of English at Princeton University.
In this book, Jennifer Garrison examines literary representations of the central symbol of later medieval religious culture: the Eucharist. In contrast to scholarship that depicts mainstream believers as enthusiastically and simplistically embracing the Eucharist, Challenging Communion: The Eucharist and Middle English Literature identifies a pervasive Middle English literary tradition that rejects simplistic notions of eucharistic promise.
Through new readings of texts such as Piers Plowman, A Revelation of Love, The Book of Margery Kempe, and John Lydgate’s religious poetry, Garrison shows how writers of Middle English often take advantage of the ways in which eucharistic theology itself contests the boundaries between the material and the spiritual, and how these writers challenge the eucharistic ideal of union between Christ and the community of believers. By troubling the definitions of literal and figurative, Middle English writers respond to and reformulate eucharistic theology in politically challenging and poetically complex ways. Garrison argues that Middle English texts often reject simple eucharistic promises in order to offer what they regard as a better version of the Eucharist, one that is intellectually and spiritually demanding and that invites readers to transform themselves and their communities.
In this book, Steele Nowlin examines the process of poetic invention as it is conceptualized and expressed in the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer (1343–1400) and John Gower (ca. 1330–1408). Specifically, it examines how these two poets present invention as an affective force, a process characterized by emergence and potentiality, and one that has a corollary in affect—that is, a kind of force or sensation distinct from emotion, characterized as an “intensity” that precedes what is only later cognitively understood and expressed as feeling or emotion, and that is typically described in a critical vocabulary of movement, emergence, and becoming.
Chaucer, Gower, and the Affect of Invention thus formulates a definition of affect that differs from most work in the recent “turn to affect” in medieval studies, focusing not on the representation of emotion or desire, or efforts to engage medieval alterity, but on the movement and emergence that precede emotional experience. It likewise argues for a broader understanding of invention in late medieval literature beyond analyses of rhetorical poetics and authorial politics by recuperating the dynamism and sense of potential that characterize inventional activity. Finally, its close readings of Chaucer’s and Gower’s poetry provide new insights into how these poets represent invention in order to engage the pervasive social and cultural discourses their poetry addresses.
The plague first arrived in the English port of Weymouth in the summer of 1348. Two years later, half of Britain was dead, but the Black Death was just beginning. In the decades to come, England would suffer recurring outbreaks, social and cultural upheaval, and violent demographic shifts. The pandemic was, by any measure, a massive cultural trauma; however, within the vernacular English literature of the fourteenth century, the response to the disease appears muted, particularly compared to contemporaneous descriptions emerging from mainland Europe. Death and the Pearl Maiden: Plague, Poetry, England asks why one of the singular historical traumas of the later Middle Ages appears to be evoked so fleetingly in fourteenth-century Middle English poetry, a body of work as daring and socially engaged as any in English literary history. By focusing on under-recognized pestilential discourses in Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—the four poems uniquely preserved British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x —this study resists the idea that the Black Death had only a slight impact on medieval English literature, and it strives to account for the understated shape of England’s literary response to the plague and our contemporary understandings of it.
Throughout the Middle Ages, witnessing was a crucial way religious and legal “truths” were understood and produced. Religious and secular officials alike harnessed the power of testimony to assert doctrinal, political, or legal responsibilities. Swearing an oath, testifying in court, and signing a deposition were common ways to shape and discipline both devotional and legal communities. In Fictions of Evidence: Witnessing, Literature, and Community in the Late Middle Ages, Jamie K. Taylor traces depictions of witnessing in a wide range of late medieval texts and shows how witnessing practices formed and reformed, policed and challenged medieval communities.
Through close study of texts like the Man of Law’s Tale and Piers Plowman alongside sermon exempla, common law statutes, and pastoral treatises, Fictions of Evidence argues that vernacular literature was a vital site of criticism and dissent. It shows that devotional and legal witnessing practices offered medieval writers a distinct vocabulary they could use to expose how the ethical and legal obligations to one’s community were constructed. And since vernacular writers often challenged the ways ecclesiastical or secular authorities asserted community bonds, they found they could use those same witnessing practices and language to imagine extra-legal or extra-ecclesiastical communities that followed different ethical codes.
Following Chaucer: Offices of the Active Life explores three representative figures—the royal woman, the poet, and the merchant—in relation to the concept of “office,” which Cicero linked to the health of the republic, but Chaucer to that of the common good. Not usually conjoined to the term “office,” these three figures, situated in the active life, were not firmly mapped onto the body politic, which was used to figure a relational and ordered social body ruled by the king, the head. These figures are points of entry into a set of questions rooted in Chaucer’s understanding of his cultural and historical past and in his keen appraisal of the social dynamics of his own time that also reverberate in the centuries after Chaucer’s death.
Following Chaucer does not trace influence but uses Chaucer’s likely reading, circumstances, and literary and social affiliations as guides to understanding his poetry, within the context of late medieval English culture and the reshaping of the concept of these particular offices that suited the needs of a future whose dynamics he anticipated. His understanding of the importance of the Ciceronian concept of office within the active life, his profound cultural awareness, and his probing of the foundations of social change provide him with a keen sense of the persistent tensions and inconsistencies that are fundamental to his poetry.
Form and Reform: Reading across the Fifteenth Century challenges the idea of any definitive late medieval moment and explores instead the provocatively diverse, notably untidy, and very rich literary culture of the age. These essays from leading medievalists, edited by Shannon Gayk and Kathleen Tonry, both celebrate and complicate the reemergence of the fifteenth century in literary studies. Moreover, this is the first collection to concentrate on the period between 1450 and 1500—the crucial five decades, this volume argues, that must be understood to comprehend the entire century’s engagement with literary form in shifting historical contexts.
The three parts of the collection read the categories of form and reform in light of both aesthetic and historical contexts, taking up themes of prose and prosody, generic experimentation, and shifts in literary production. The first section considers how attention to material texts might revise our understanding of form; the second revisits devotional writing within and beyond the context of reform; and the final section plays out different perspectives on the work of John Skelton that each challenge and test notions of the fifteenth century in literary history.
In Fragments and Assemblages, Arthur Bahr expands the ways in which we interpret medieval manuscripts, examining the formal characteristics of both physical manuscripts and literary works. Specifically, Bahr argues that manuscript compilations from fourteenth-century London reward interpretation as both assemblages and fragments: as meaningfully constructed objects whose forms and textual contents shed light on the city’s literary, social, and political cultures, but also as artifacts whose physical fragmentation invites forms of literary criticism that were unintended by their medieval makers. Such compilations are not simply repositories of data to be used for the reconstruction of the distant past; their physical forms reward literary and aesthetic analysis in their own right. The compilations analyzed reflect the full vibrancy of fourteenth-century London’s literary cultures: the multilingual codices of Edwardian civil servant Andrew Horn and Ricardian poet John Gower, the famous Auchinleck manuscript of texts in Middle English, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. By reading these compilations as both formal shapes and historical occurrences, Bahr uncovers neglected literary histories specific to the time and place of their production. The book offers a less empiricist way of interpreting the relationship between textual and physical form that will be of interest to a wide range of literary critics and manuscript scholars.
A Guide to Editing Middle English
Vincent McCarren and Douglas Moffat, Editors University of Michigan Press, 1998 Library of Congress PR275.T45G85 1998 | Dewey Decimal 820.9001
Those who undertake a scholarly edition of a Middle English text have until now had no general guide for their work. All who study English literary works must rely on editions at some stage, and this volume will provide them with many perspectives on the formation of these necessary scholarly tools. Editors of texts in other medieval languages and indeed all those engaged with questions of scholarly editing--whether practical, historical, or theoretical--will also find important contributions in this volume.
A Guide to Editing Middle English collects nineteen essays and three appendices written by leading text editors in Middle English. A number of essays deal primarily with theoretical questions, while others offer assessments of historical developments in editing, especially in regard to the most well-known Middle English works. Most of the essays deal with practical matters: how to use a computer in preparing and presenting an edition; how to form and arrange the standard parts of an edition; and how to handle problems presented by texts in areas such as science, astrology, and cooking. The three appendices provide bibliographical references to dictionaries, facsimiles, and manuscript description.
Contributors, in addition to the editors, are Peter Baker, Richard Beadle, Norman Blake, Helen Cooper, A. S. G. Edwards, Jennifer Fellows, David C. Greetham, Mary Hamel, Constance Heiatt, Nicholas Jacobs, Geroge Keiser, Peter J. Lucas, Maldwyn Mills, Linne Mooney, and Peter Robinson.
The many and varied perspectives of this volume will make it of interest to readers of Middle English texts, those involved in textual scholarship, and those interested in editing in general. It occupies a unique place in the field of Middle English studies and will likely remain a standard reference tool for a long time.
Vincent McCarren is a Research Associate with the Middle English Dictionary at the University of Michigan. Douglas Moffat, formerly with the Middle English Dictionary, is a Development Officer with the University of Michigan.
The Importance of Chaucer
John H. Fisher Southern Illinois University Press, 1992 Library of Congress PR1924.F57 1992 | Dewey Decimal 821.1
In this fresh and innovative approach, John H. Fisher eloquently explains Chaucer’s importance to Western culture.
English literature begins with Chaucer. The first writer to demonstrate that English was as effective a medium for literature as Latin or French, Chaucer introduced realism, satire, and humor into English writing. In examining Chaucer’s cultural importance, however, Fisher ventures beyond literary excellence, basing his cultural interpretation on inferences about Chaucer’s domestic life, about his possible experience in the inns of chancery and inns of court, and about the possibility that Henry V and the Lancastrian government sought deliberately to promote Chaucer’s poems as models of what could be accomplished in the vernacular.
Fisher’s willingness to boldly infer from the scant evidence available allows him to place Chaucer in the poet’s, and our, culture in a way he has not been placed before. By attributing to Chaucer innovations to which other writers have only alluded, and by reaching conclusions which others have been hesitant to approach, Fisher presents an interpretation at once controversial, engaging, and informative.
From the twelfth century onwards, medieval English writers adapted the conventions of high literary culture to establish themselves as recognized authors and claim a significant place for works of imagination beside those of doctrine and instruction. Their efforts extended over three languages—Latin, French, and English—and across a discontinuous literary history. Their strategy was to approach authorship as a field of rhetorical invention rather than a fixed institution. Consequently, their work is at once revisionary and ambivalent. Writers conspicuously position themselves within tradition, exploit the resources of poetic belatedness, and negotiate complex relations to their audiences and social authority.
Authorial invention in the Middle Ages is the base of a national tradition that English writers in the Renaissance saw as stable and capable of emulating the canons of classical languages and the Italian and French vernaculars. In Invention and Authorship in Medieval England, Robert R. Edwards brings new interpretive perspectives to Walter Map, Marie de France, John Gower, Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Hoccleve, and John Lydgate. He offers a critical reading of key moments that define the emergence of medieval English authorship by showing how writers adapt the commonplaces of authorship to define themselves and their works externally and to construct literary meaning internally.
The English literary canon is haunted by the figure of the lost woman writer. In our own age, she has been a powerful stimulus for the rediscovery of works written by women. But as Jennifer Summit argues, "the lost woman writer" also served as an evocative symbol during the very formation of an English literary tradition from the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries. Lost Property traces the representation of women writers from Margery Kempe and Christine de Pizan to Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, exploring how the woman writer became a focal point for emerging theories of literature and authorship in English precisely because of her perceived alienation from tradition. Through original archival research and readings of key literary texts, Summit writes a new history of the woman writer that reflects the impact of such developments as the introduction of printing, the Reformation, and the rise of the English court as a literary center.
A major rethinking of the place of women writers in the histories of books, authorship, and canon-formation, Lost Property demonstrates that, rather than being an unimaginable anomaly, the idea of the woman writer played a key role in the invention of English literature.
Siegfried Wenzel's groundbreaking study seeks to describe and analyze the linguistically mixed, or macaronic, sermons in late fourteenth-century England. Not only are these works of considerable religious interest, they provide extensive information on their literary, linguistic, and cultural milieux.
Macaronic Sermons begins by offering a typology of such works: those in which English words offer glosses, or offer structural functions, or offer neither of the two but yet are syntactically integrated. This last group is then examined in detail: reasons are given for this usage and for its origins, based on the realities of fourteenth-century England.
Siefriend Wenzel draws valuable conclusions about the linguistic status quo of the era, together with the extent of education, the audiences' expectations, and the ways in which the authors' minds worked.
Obviously of interest to scholars and students of early English literature, Macaronic Sermons also contains much valuable information for specialists in language development or oral theory, and for those interested in multicultural societies.
Examines the political and literary uses of the Trojan legend in the medieval period.
England in the late fourteenth century witnessed a large-scale social revolt, a lingering and seemingly hopeless war with France, and fierce factional conflicts in royal politics and London civic government--struggles in which all parties sought to justify their actions by claiming historical precedent. How the Trojan legend figured in these claims--and in competing assertions of authorial legitimacy, nationhood, and rule in the later Middle Ages--is the complex nexus of history, myth, literature, and identity that Sylvia Federico explores in this ambitious book.
During the late medieval period, many European political and social groups took great pains to associate themselves with the ancient city; the claim on Troy, Federico asserts, was crucial to nationhood and was always a political act. Her book examines the poetry and prose of several late medieval authors, focusing particularly on how Chaucer's use of the Trojan legend helped to set the terms by which the Ricardian and Lancastrian periods were distinguished, and further helped to establish English literary history as a noble precedent in its own right. Federico's book affords remarkable insight into the workings of the medieval historical imagination.
Sylvia Federico has taught at Washington State University and the University of Leeds. She currently lives in Maine.
Political Appetites: Food in Medieval English Romance is the first book-length examination of the cultural and theoretical resonances of food and cooking in medieval English literature, offering a new assessment of the vexed and critically underappreciated genre of romance. Aaron Hostetter moves beyond the critical assumptions of the food practices of medieval English culture as only reflecting Eucharistic preoccupations. Focusing on the romance literature of England, from tenth-century hagiographic verse to fifteenth-century courtly adventures, he also engages the politics of secular eating. Focus on the edible allows Political Appetites to apply fresh insights from cultural studies and critical theory to these narratives—to adumbrate their unique political perspectives. The analysis of food reveals these stories to be sophisticated responses to the material and political conditions of their day.
If humanity has attempted through its brief history to render the material world edible, then food and food practice not only influence our aspirations but also shift focus to the limits of human existence on this planet. In studying the foodways of the past as a fundamental economic activity, Political Appetites questions contemporary attitudes towards consumption as their proliferation and abuses create social inequities, menace ecosystems, and threaten to bring about the end of the Anthropocene Era.
The Middle English romance has elicited throughout the centuries a curious mixture of indifference,hostile apprehension, and contempt that perhaps no other literature—except its most likely offspring, modern best-sellers—has provoked.
Literary scholars often avoid the category of the aesthetic in discussions of ethics, believing that purely aesthetic judgments can vitiate analyses of a literary work’s sociopolitical heft and meaning. In Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages, Eleanor Johnson reveals that aesthetics—the formal aspects of literary language that make it sense-perceptible—are indeed inextricable from ethics in the writing of medieval literature.
Johnson brings a keen formalist eye to bear on the prosimetric form: the mixing of prose with lyrical poetry. This form descends from the writings of the sixth-century Christian philosopher Boethius—specifically his famous prison text, Consolation of Philosophy—to the late medieval English tradition. Johnson argues that Boethius’s text had a broad influence not simply on the thematic and philosophical content of subsequent literary writing, but also on the specific aesthetic construction of several vernacular traditions. She demonstrates the underlying prosimetric structures in a variety of Middle English texts—including Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and portions of the Canterbury Tales, Thomas Usk’s Testament of Love, John Gower’s Confessio amantis, and Thomas Hoccleve’s autobiographical poetry—and asks how particular formal choices work, how they resonate with medieval literary-theoretical ideas, and how particular poems and prose works mediate the tricky business of modeling ethical transformation for a readership.
Revivalist Fantasy: Alliterative Verse and Nationalist Literary History by Randy P. Schiff contributes to recent conversations about disciplinary history by analyzing the nationalist context for scholars and editors involved in disseminating the literary historical theory of an Alliterative Revival. Redirecting Alliterative Revivalism’s backward gaze, Revivalist Fantasy re-engages with the local contexts of select alliterative works.
Schiff revises readings of alliterative poetry as Francophobic, exploring the transnational imperialist elitism in the translation William of Palerne. He contributes to the discussion of gender in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by linking the poem’s powerful female players with anxieties about women’s control of wealth and property in militarized regions of England. The book also explores the emphatically pre-national, borderlands sensibilities informing the Awntyrs off Arthure and Golagros and Gawane, and it examines the exploitation of collaborative composition in the material legacy of the Piers Plowman tradition.
Revivalist Fantasy concludes that Revivalist nationalism obscures crucial continuities between late-medieval and post-national worlds and that critics’ interests should be channeled into the forging of connections between past and present rather than suspended in the scholarly pursuit of origins. The book will be of interest to scholars of editorial history and translation studies and to those interested in manuscript studies.
While Scribit Mater highlights different medieval English understandings of the Virgin's sapient eloquence according to class, education, and gender, it demonstrates long-standing and widespread traditions acknowledging and celebrating the Mother's verbal prowess.
The adventures and challenges of Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew and a knight at the Round Table, including his duel with the mysterious Green Knight, are among the oldest and best known of Arthurian stories. Here the distinguished author and poet John Gardner has captured the humor, elegance, and richness of the original Middle English in flowing modern verse translations of this literary masterpiece. Besides the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, this edition includes two allegorical poems, “Purity” and “Patience”; the beautiful dream allegory “Pearl”; and the miracle story “Saint Erkenwald,” all attributed to the same anonymous poet, a contemporary of Chaucer and an artist of the first rank.
“Mr. Gardner has translated into modern English and edited a text of these five poems that could hardly be improved. . . . The entire work is preceded by a very fine and complete general introduction and a critical commentary on each poem.”—Library Journal
What does it mean to contemplate? In the Middle Ages, more than merely thinking with intensity, it was a religious practice entailing utter receptiveness to the divine presence. Contemplation is widely considered by scholars today to have been the highest form of devotional prayer, a rarified means of experiencing God practiced only by the most devout of monks, nuns, and mystics.
Yet, in this groundbreaking new book, Eleanor Johnson argues instead for the pervasiveness and accessibility of contemplative works to medieval audiences. By drawing together ostensibly diverse literary genres—devotional prose, allegorical poetry, cycle dramas, and morality plays—Staging Contemplation paints late Middle English contemplative writing as a broad genre that operated collectively and experientially as much as through radical individual disengagement from the world. Johnson further argues that the contemplative genre played a crucial role in the exploration of the English vernacular as a literary and theological language in the fifteenth century, tracing how these works engaged modes of disfluency—from strained syntax and aberrant grammar, to puns, slang, code-switching, and laughter—to explore the limits, norms, and potential of English as a devotional language. Full of virtuoso close readings, this book demonstrates a sustained interest in how poetic language can foster a participatory experience of likeness to God among lay and devotional audiences alike.
In the medieval period, as in the media culture of the present, learned and popular forms of talk were intermingled everywhere. They were also highly mobile, circulating in speech, writing, and symbol, as performances as well as in material objects. The communication through and between different media we all negotiate in daily life did not develop from a previous separation of orality and writing, but from a communications network not unlike our own, if slower, and similarly shaped by disparities of access. Truth and Tales: Cultural Mobility and Medieval Media, edited by Fiona Somerset and Nicholas Watson, develops a variety of approaches to the labor of imaginatively reconstructing this network from its extant artifacts.
Truth and Tales includes fourteen essays by medieval literary scholars and historians. Some essays focus on written artifacts that convey high or popular learning in unexpected ways. Others address a social problem of concern to all, demonstrating the genres and media through which it was negotiated. Still others are centered on one or more texts, detailing their investments in popular as well as learned knowledge, in performance as well as writing. This collective archaeology of medieval media provides fresh insight for medieval scholars and media theorists alike.