Joel T. Rosenthal

title.none: Coleman, Public Reading and the Reading Public (Rosenthal)

identifier.other: baj9928.9707.003 97.07.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Joel T. Rosenthal, State University of New York -- Stony Brook,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Coleman, Joyce. Public Reading and the Reading Public in Late Medieval England and France. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, vol. 26. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. $59.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-521-55391-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.07.03

Coleman, Joyce. Public Reading and the Reading Public in Late Medieval England and France. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, vol. 26. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. $59.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-521-55391-1.

Reviewed by:

Joel T. Rosenthal
State University of New York -- Stony Brook

Joyce Coleman's book is argumentative and convincing. The thesis, summarized in the title, is that public reading-- resting on a written text (aurality)--was alive and well in late medieval England (with passing attention to France and Burgundy). Furthermore, aurality was not a mere transitional state, a vestigial or backward-looking evolutionary remnant standing historically between the orality of a pre-literate and illiterate medieval world and its literate, private- reading successor that we are usually told came into existence around the time of Chaucer.

Though the book has some flaws in its style of presentation, as well as a number of infelicitous touches, its basic point is well documented. To an historian such as this reviewer, at least, Coleman's case seems sensible and one on which to build future discussion. Coleman begins by rejecting the simple transitional model that moves literary production and consumption, in a series of developmental stages, from a culture resting heavily on orality to, eventually, a world of wide-spread literacy, private reading, and individualized discourse between reader and author. The evolutionary model, given a powerful lease on life by Walter Ong and those who have studied folk epics as precursors of more sophisticated written literature, takes neither late medieval public culture in its social context nor innumerable statements in key literary texts as serious arguments in favor of a sustained aural culture and of a two-way, back and forth movement between the written and the spoken. The evolutionary model, which invariably bestows credit upon literacy for any "cognitive transformation" in a culture or society, is wrong and should be jettisoned. Modes of literary presentation were not thought to be in competition with each other. Neither did they clock in and out according to some pre-arranged cultural schedule. They coexisted and, for many centuries, they complimented each other.

Even without the elaborate support that Coleman gathers from a range of 14th- and 15th-century texts, her argument sounds reasonable. Our style today is to avoid explanations that run too swiftly along deep, one-way channels. In general we prefer interpretations that highlight a dialectic between memory and lived experience, between the written and the spoken word, and between the private or individual and the social and courtly. Coleman warns us that "as long as orality and literacy are kept separate, sequential, and ill defined, scholars will continue to identify aurality, as conflated with 'orality'," (p. 26) using it as merely a form of delivery to an audience that could not turn to the written text. Rather, she says, 14th- and 15th-century authors read texts (in private, to themselves) so they could incorporate the new material they were reading (or perhaps hearing) into their own new composition, one that would/could be read aloud to its audience. While this social process probably began with and rested on the author's literacy--and this monograph has no concern for questions of minstrelsy and illiterate bards--the authorial process had no relation to the literacy of its audience. That they listened to poetry tells nothing, in either direction, about whether they could also read the text in the same private fashion we today would be inclined to do.

The main lines of argument, in support of this case for long- lived and vigorous aurality, are based on a general "ethnographic" reading of texts, plus the close examination of a large number of key passages in which the author is explicitly proclaiming how he had read material so his audience could now hear his poem. By ethnographic reading Coleman means an analysis of author-audience relations that takes into account literary traditions, the social class of all parties, genre of literature, and considerations that embraced both parties in the relationship (p. 76-77). The argument from texts hardly rests solely on the key passages in Chaucer, but clearly they are the most important--in terms of our perception of 14th century practices and in terms of the weight of modern scholarly familiarity and interpretation.

The passages in Chaucer, along with pertinent texts from Thomas Usk, Hoccleve, Lydgate, Gower, the "Gawain poet," and "The Floure and the Leafe," among others, that provide detailed ammunition are those in which the poet says something like "He wrot right thus, and seyde as ye may here," or "To sen that flour, as ye had hered devyse" (p. 151: from T&C and LGW), or "As knowen they that han hir bokkes herd" (p. 104: CT, 5:235). The familiar instances of "recreational public reading" in "Troilus and Cressida" and of Jankyn reading to Alison are presented as arguments in favor of the sustained life of aurality; written texts were conveyed to their consumers by being read aloud. Late medieval authors expected their books to be read aloud, and when they engage in what we think of as author-reader exchange the passages are shaped to reflect that this will be the likely mode of transmission and reception.

But the argument goes farther, and it leads to some interesting issues touching the social value of culture and the limits a particular society thought to place on intellectual inquiry. Coleman distinguishes between many different kinds or modes of reading (public, private, pragmatic, etc: pp. 88-97, plus 10 illustrations showing these divers practices and forms) and argues that private reading, in our sense, was of two sorts. The approved sort was when it was practiced for private religious or scholarly meditation or, as with a poet at work, for the accumulation of new material for poetic composition--refilling the gas tank so it would not run dry on the road, so to speak. But private reading undertaken to avoid oral and aural performance and discourse was anti-social and unlikely to have a wholesome outcome. It might trap the reader in some kind of individual malaise (a gateway to melancholy or a lack of healthy sleep) or to a focus on ideas not honorably shared or taught by men of the cloth or of letters. Private reading could become "reading with a secrecy harmful to social relationships" (p. 161).

The argument for sustained and flourishing aurality is important; this revisionist text should become a regular player in the debates about the social context of culture. And therefore the book's annoying features, while not detracting seriously from its major points, give it a smug touch and make parts of its case needlessly obscure. There are virtually no significant footnotes; in an argumentative and revisionist book the joys and etiquette of scholarly debate should call for serious and rich notes. Economy, no doubt, is a factor here, but we are all losers before this altar.

Another point, if a minor one. Cambridge has published this volume with contracted pronouns; if "it's" and "hasn't" are inelegant in student papers they are hardly welcome in an important monograph. Nor is Coleman's language free from a great deal of self indulgence. To break the circle of the orality-to-literacy argument Coleman has set out her own vocabulary. This is a little tedious, though not a major obstacle to her argument. But if "endophoric" and "exophoric" are useful short-hand terms (covered by a glossary, pp. 228-30!), it is hard not to weary of such constructions as "to desynonymize, we need, again, to disambiguate" (p. 43), or "to disenable aurality" (p. 73), or "the exophoric valorization of a communalized tradition" (p. 171), or "retrofitting his narrative" (p. 209).

Finally, there are some points that may bother historians more than a scholar in literature. Coleman is careless in her usage of "Britain." The book centers on England, with a passing glance at Scotland; "the British king" (p. 142) might be Arthur, or Brutus, but surely not Edward I or Edward III. Coleman, after fighting with such valiant success to sustain aurality as a living cultural medium through most of the 15th century, gives up her skepticism and revisionism as she nears the end of her period. She accepts the standard evaluation of the Renaissance. Where is the feisty scholar, willing to take on Ong and Pearsall and Brewer and Burrow and so many others when it comes time to defend us against such platitudes as "the sense of the oncoming humanistic revolution" (p. 216) in the 16th century? We get hints of major changes in how literature was produced and offered to the public, mainly via the intellectualized agenda of humanism; no worries about such forces as the spread of printing (where Caxton only opens the door), reformation and religious debate, the geometric growth of the state, and some shift from courtly to urban culture.

But these criticisms are those of a reader who is convinced by the book's major thesis (and its supporting arguments) but one who at times wanted to suggest a little more editing and even a little more revisionism. The basic argument is clear, strongly presented, and--as best one can gauge uncharted depths--likely to be firmly anchored and capable of holding its place in the swirling currents of literary and cultural history.