Joanne A Charbonneau

title.none: Matthews, The Invention of Middle English (Joanne A Charbonneau)

identifier.other: baj9928.0110.020 01.10.20

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Joanne A Charbonneau, James Madison University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Matthews, David. The Invention of Middle English: An Anthology of Primary Sources. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2001. Pp. iv, 244. 19.95. ISBN: 0-271-02082-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.10.20

Matthews, David. The Invention of Middle English: An Anthology of Primary Sources. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2001. Pp. iv, 244. 19.95. ISBN: 0-271-02082-2.

Reviewed by:

Joanne A Charbonneau
James Madison University

David Matthews himself, in his Acknowledgements, calls this book "a kind of sequel to my The Making of Middle English", published in 1999. In fact, I wish he had called it volume two of The Making of Middle English and made it clear in both his own mind and the mind of the reader exactly how this collection of primary materials is a sequel to his ground-breaking 1999 publication. Calling this second volume Invention of Middle English strikes me as a misnomer and too contentious for an anthology of this sort. Matthews' first book describes in detail a material history of how Middle English became what it is from 1765, the publication of Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, to 1910, the death of Furnivall, who founded the EETS series in 1864. This earlier volume could more justly and appropriately be called an "invention" since there was nothing natural or obvious about the circuitous, sometimes bizarre and certainly idiosyncratic, paths antiquarians, scholars, collectors, editors and gentlemen in the many clubs traveled in molding Middle English into a discipline separate and worthy of study. In other words, then, Matthews tries too hard to make this book sound different by using "invention" instead of "making" and perhaps unwittingly causes people to wonder why these two books have such similar titles. The obfuscation is unintentional and unnecessary. Most people would be delighted to have both volume one and two of a set called The Making of Middle English.

Matthews has performed a wonderful, much-needed service to the academic community by publishing these two volumes, which fill the gap of how Middle English came into being, why and how Middle English texts were first published and collected, and what ideologies brought about a retrieval and dissemination of much of this material which was often considered barbarous or nostalgic. It is no exaggeration to claim that these early editors and collectors are partly responsible for our current way of seeing a vast body of texts as romance or ballads. Thus, anyone interested in history of ideas, genre study (especially of Middle English romance), and philology (how and when and by whom did Middle English come to be seen as separate from Anglo-Saxon, Semi-Saxon, early Modern) will find Matthews' research and findings indispensable and illuminating.

We owe him a great debt for collecting primary sources mostly from the 1760s to 1860s within one volume. Much of the material in this anthology is located in Special Collections, if at all, and is thus difficult to find. The earlier editions represented in the anthology have been replaced by later editions in most library collections and are thus most welcome. He has found and collected materials that I have spent years retrieving. My only major concern with the anthology has to do with audience. If Matthews intended this to be primarily an eye-opening and fascinating journey through the convoluted theories of early thinkers about Middle English, a retrieved history of ideas of little-known writers such as Ellis, Ritson, and Laing (who are known, if at all, as collectors of Middle English romances), then the volume is remarkably successful. If, however, it is to be used by scholars who expect exact transcriptions or who may want to go to the sources themselves, then it is less successful because of its lack of precision and accuracy. In spot-checking as many of the excerpts as I could, I found them remarkably free of errors that would distort meaning; however, I did find quite a number of minor transcribing errors such as missing commas, capitalization or abbreviation errors, "making" for "make" [Matthews, sixth line down, p.165] and an occasional errant "the" or "and". More troubling to me is Matthews' tendency not to give precise page numbers--a practice that makes it difficult and annoying for other researchers to find the exact page in the original source. Ordinarily, a range of pages should be sufficient, but often the range given by Matthews is burdensome and time- consuming for anyone trying to pinpoint a desired passage. The most egregious examples are: George L. Craik, pp. 65-119; John Earle, pp. 16-97; Warton on later Middle English, pp. 43-92; Warton on romance, pp. 109-209; Ellis, 146-212. Often Matthews has excerpted only a paragraph and seldom more than a handful of pages as he does within the abovementioned 166-page range for Ellis. In a related issue, sometimes in referencing a chapter from the original, it is unclear whether Matthews gives the full chapter pages or simply those from which he has quoted. For example, R. G. Latham from Chapter 4 (pp. 55-68) [Matthews p. 23]; the chapter extends to p. 69. Or, George P. Marsh, from Lecture IV. Semi-Saxon Literature (pp. 138- 50) [Matthews, p. 33]. The full lecture actually covers pp. 138-187. Sometimes, Matthews excluded passages I thought extremely relevant or telling, and I offer just one example, from R.G. Latham's The English Language [Matthews, pp.23-5]. The excerpt could have included, from Chapter IV, p. 68: "What the present language of England would have been had the Norman Conquest never taken place, the analogy of Holland, Denmark, and of many other countries enables us to determine. It would have been much as it is at present." These two sentences offer one of the most direct statements about the over-emphasis on the Norman Conquest in the development of Middle English and fit beautifully with the ongoing controversy about the role of the Conquest in many of the other excerpted authors.

In other instances, one might wonder about Matthews' unstated working principles of exclusion or inclusion. Although he includes introductory remarks on "selection and arrangement", he never clarifies why he has chosen certain passages and not others and what his underlying principles are for inclusion in the anthology. In his introduction, Matthew emphasizes the importance of Jacob Grimm, but later includes only a very brief extract without further selections that would underscore his significance through his use of "mittelenglische". We might also wonder about other authors not included in the anthology. Why not Richard Hurd (1720-1808) whose famous "Letters on Chivalry and Romance" (1762) fit within the time framework as well as thematic and literary concerns expressed in other selections? What about John Colin Dunlop (1785-1842) for his History of Fiction (1814)? Or Clara Reeve's famous Progress of Romance (1785) or Isaac D'Israel's "Origin of Rhyme" in his Amenities of Literature (1841) or Samuel Johnson's ideas about language in his famous dictionary?

Because Matthews does not sufficiently address his intentions, his audience, and his ideological interests, the book has a rather thin critical apparatus. Although I found the quoted materials themselves fascinating, I kept wishing for more theoretical underpinnings; richer and fuller discussions within the short introductory paragraph to each selection; and finally an introduction to each section of the book as well as a conclusion. An index would be immensely helpful in pinpointing commonalities and recurring ideas or points of references within the various authors. For example, Semi-Saxon, Norman Conquest, Layamon, Ormulum, Gower, Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, minstrels, romance, ballads, alliteration, and also proper names (so that we can find the contemporary attitudes towards Ritson, for example, in the excerpts included). Such an index would be a powerful and invaluable tool for tracing the intricacies of the arguments among the authors, the interrelated themes and connections among these thinkers-- without reading through all the excerpts. An index is sorely missed.

The Invention of Middle English is an invaluable aid in our recovering an essential past history which can shed light on our attitudes about canon formation, genre, the various strategies for dating Middle English and how and when the language changed and how Middle English literature was formed. The methodologies and ideologies (or as Matthews says, the often "wrong" ideas) of these antiquarians can help us not only recover our past but understand something about how we go about making meaning, finding coherency and legitimacy in our work as literary scholars or historians.