Michael Foster

title.none: Borch, ed., Text and Voice (Michael Foster)

identifier.other: baj9928.0605.005 06.05.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Michael Foster, Abo Akademi University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Borch, Marianne, ed. Text and Voice: The Rhetoric of Authority in the Middle Ages. Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2004. Pp. 272. $34.00 (pb). ISBN: 87-7838-802-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.05.05

Borch, Marianne, ed. Text and Voice: The Rhetoric of Authority in the Middle Ages. Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2004. Pp. 272. $34.00 (pb). ISBN: 87-7838-802-3.

Reviewed by:

Michael Foster
Abo Akademi University

This volume is a collection of ten essays; nine are from a symposium organized by the University of Southern Denmark's Centre for Medieval Studies in 1999, and the concluding chapter, by Aksel Haaning, is a translation of the Introduction to his 1998 monograph, Naturens Lys: Vestens Naturfilosofi i Højmiddelalder og Renassance 1250-1650 (Nature's Light: The Natural Philosophy in the West during the High Middle Ages and Renaissance 1250-1650). All but this last contribution investigate different aspects of the relationship between text--broadly defined as anything from a textual genre to the physical book itself--and voice--broadly understood as, among other things, the purpose of an author, the authority of a type of discourse, or the narrative voice of a story. Text is much more visible than voice, and although its title echoes Paul Zumthor's seminal La Lettre et La Voix (Paris: É ditions du Seuil, 1987), this book does not focus directly on orality.

The first offering is A. C. Spearing's study of Chaucer's prologues as a genre in relation to the French dit. Spearing's central concern is Chaucerian narrators, which he suggests are not so much fully fleshed characters as they are textual performances of a voice. For instance, Spearing argues that "the Wife of Bath's Prologue is a male performance of femaleness"--at one point he says that her prologue "is best understood as a textual performance by Chaucer in drag". (38) As a "textual performance of speech" (38), the Wife of Bath's Prologue does not present the problematic voice of a single character, but rather Chaucer's engagement with the conflicting voices of men and women in intellectual and popular discourse. Spearing invites us to acknowledge that "the stream of life is to be found not in forgetfulness of textuality but in its acknowledgment". (24) This essay is a fine supplement to Spearing's very recent Textual Subjectivity, which focuses on this esoteric and highly theoretical issue in greater depth in relation to a number of Middle English narratives.

The second chapter, by Birger Munk Olsen, examines an issue different to Spearing's in almost every respect: the prestige of the book in monastic cultures roughly to the beginning of the thirteenth century. Olsen is sensitive that "Le livre mÉ diÉ val est une notion assez vague" (46), and balances broad generalizations with specific observations to suggest that monastic book production was not only a social venture, but also a means of worship and reproducing authority. Slightly more groundbreaking is Olsen's focus on the copyist, who was the subject of much attention in monastic circles as a figure of reverence and admiration (cf. 53-58).

In "The Rhetoric of the Latin Page: Authority, Persuasion and Latinity in Medieval and Renaissance Historiography", Lars Boje Mortensen examines how the physicality of the medieval and early modern book offers a "rhetoric of the page", which he defines as "the means of persuasion that were inherent in the physical presence of a book in a context of reading/reciting, in a library context and in the choice of Latin or vernacular as linguistic vehicle". (65) This focus is especially welcome, as it provides a synthesis of classical rhetorical approaches and modern codicology in an attempt to discover how perceptions of historiographical authority changed throughout the latter middles ages up to the sixteenth century. Since the task of examining how authority is affirmed via different methodologies throughout six centuries of history writing is too enormous for a single chapter, Mortensen can do little more than introduce an argument, which does inspire an interest in how rhetoric is a multidimensional space encompassing not just the voice of an orator or the text of an author, but the handiwork of the scribe and printer as well.

Mortensen's chapter is followed by a very different sort of essay, Marianne Børch's "Geoffrey Chaucer and the Cosmic Text: Rejecting Analogy", which eschews historical analysis for a theoretical interpretation of how Chaucer allows the voice of the churl to be heard in the Miller's Tale. To the ever-expanding critical discussion of this tale Børch contributes an account of the Miller as a metaphor for the "growing class of clerks, both liminal and central, insiders and outsiders, potentially subversive servants in a world where ranting voices are not suppressed, as they have to be in a mystery play". (116) At times, Børch affirms with an air of authority points that I find debatable. For example, I do not believe, as Børch does, that "to discuss peculiar aspects of a Chaucerian text in terms of a teller's 'individual make-up' or 'authorial intention' would appear quaint, anachronistic, and trivialising" (99), nor do I think that, at any point, the "Chaucerian poet-persona was quashed as a false construction ignoring the multiple-voiced strategies of medieval rhetorician as well as oral composer". (98-9) Some parts of the essay confused me. For example, the function of the orthographically curious phrase "The Canterbury Tales (henceforth the Canterbury Tales)" (98) still escapes me. More confounding was the sentence "The medieval texts that pay tribute to the cosmic and biblical texts are troubled by, even as they now fascinate for, their exploration of the gap between ideal and real, attributed to various sources of confusion--human sinfulness, the man-made and conventional nature of language, historical or biographical factors, etc." (97)

Børch's devotion to a heavily theoretical and a-historical approach to Chaucer will win friends while alienating those who have a more historical interest in and appreciation for Chaucer's literary accomplishments. For instance, despite her focus on the Miller-as-churl, Børch does not approach or acknowledge Per Nykrog's 1957 discovery (in Les Fabliaux [Geneva: Droz, 1953, new ed. 1973]) that the fabliaux were largely written for an aristocratic class, and thus the notion of a fat, drunken Miller telling these tales is a Chaucerian fiction with no basis in reality.

Karsten Friis-Jensen's oddly titled article, "'Adhering to the footprints of these men as if to books from antiquity...'" is a much needed essay on a genre studied too rarely: those secular Latin texts which were part of medieval educational curricula before 1200. Friis-Jensen points out that, although reference to Classical texts is a common method of gaining textual authority in the middle ages, Saxo Grammaticus avoids referring to the classical models which are a sine qua non of his Gesta Danorum. The essay's exciting proposition, modestly put, is that Saxo hides his text's classical antecedents to retain "the illusion he has built up of classical solidity, elegance and trustworthiness. This is his bid for a share in classical authority, if I am not mistaken." (135)

Friis-Jensen's article prepares the reader for Alastair Minnis's contribution, "Absent Glosses: A Crisis of Vernacular Hermeneutics in Late-Medieval England." Here Minnis asks a very simple question: Why were no glosses on English texts written in the late middle ages? Minnis suggests that Wycliffe and Arundel, from their opposite doctrinal positions, produced a climate in which writing in the vernacular became associated with the Lollard heresies of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries--a climate in stark contrast to that of France, where Charles V sponsored a "state hermeneutics" which saw French as "the new Latin". (157) Especially valuable are his comments on vernacular religious texts, such as Nicholas Love's The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, of which Arudnel approved (150), and Pore Caitif, which offers, on the surface, education and empowerment, but, as Minnis argues, in reality provides something very different indeed (151-153).

In "The Art of Rhetoric and the Art of the Page: Figurae in the Illuminations of the Getty Apocalypse", Jesse M. Gellrich parallels the hybrid rhetorical/codicological approach offered by Mortensen in an attempt to study manuscript illuminations via the language of medieval rhetoric. Gellrich largely concentrates on the Getty Apocalypse (MS. Ludwig III.1), which appears to represent "oral customs of communicating and thinking" in the illuminations on the page. (190) Gellrich explores how these images have a rhetorical function, and suggests that medieval readers would have understood them in rhetorical terms. This approach well complements Mortensen's chapter.

The second French essay in the volume, Betty Rojtman's "Un Texte sans AuthoritÉ : La Bible," is primarily a fairly straightforward, conservative survey of Jewish exegesis which was included, according to the editor, "out of the conviction that medieval textuality needs to be placed in a context of various conceptions of textuality", and an account of Jewish exegetical practises "provides a foil to, and defamiliarises, modern Western exegesis, modelled as it is on a Christian tradition". (17) This the essay might do very well (I am not qualified to comment), but how it helps an understanding of medieval textual practices, exegetical or secular, is less clear to me, especially since Rojtman's essay does not really touch upon the development of Jewish exegesis in the middle ages.

Charles Lock offers a discussion of how The Cloud of Unknowing explores anxieties in using the vernacular to express the ineffable. In Lock's view, the author of the Unknowing attempts to overcome this shortcoming of English by the use of apophasis and catachresis. Lock is adept at clarifying the very muddled analysis of speech particles in the tract and at explaining the significance of these minute distinctions.

The book ends with Aksel Haaning's essay on medieval perceptions and conceptions of nature. Haaning suggests that the renewed interest in nature in the twelfth century was largely Platonic, which gave way to the Thomist scholasticism of the thirteenth century. Haaning's essay is very general and seems incomplete--for example, he does not discuss nominalist conceptions of nature, nor how Franciscianism played a part in developing ideas of the natural world--which is why I was not surprised to find that the essay is a translation of the Introduction to a larger work.

As one would expect, Alastair Minnis's and A. C. Spearing's contributions are as delightful as they are informative, and I felt gratitude to both for teaching me more while reinvigorating my love for the Middle Ages. Likewise, Birger Munk Olsen, Lars Boje Mortensen, Karsten Friis-Jensen, and Jesse M. Gellrich succeed in arousing interest in their topics and inviting further research.

My criticisms of the collection have largely to do with the volume's organization and selection. Certain essays that easily connect themselves to one another, such as Mortensen's and Gellrich's contributions, are separated by essays on diverse topics, which makes it a greater effort to see the relationships between these two highly complementary endeavours. Regarding selection, I still do not understand why Haaning's essay was included in the volume; Børch explains that "Aksel Haaning provides a survey of the particular authority of God's Book of Creation, or Nature". (14) Beyond the metaphor, the relationship between Haaning's essay and the rest of the book is not immediately apparent. Although, of course, such a metaphor was and is commonly used to describe nature, the essay hardly bears relation to our understanding of actual texts as produced and understood by people in the middle ages, least of all because Haaning's interest is in the development of epistemological and scientific approaches to nature, not in how medieval understandings of God's creation of nature relate to the human creation of a text. Further, the volume was quickly edited; misspellings and typos mar the book with alarming frequency.

The editor's confident proclamation that the present volume's "articles, which record the miraculous energies and synergies which a conference should always, and in this case did, generate, are selected so as to move from the study of those who produced the manuscripts to a consideration of formal, intratextual devices" (14) should perhaps be taken as mere marketing, but at the same time it is true that the volume is infused with "versatile textual concerns which occupy the contributors to the present volume--a versatility which is invited not only by the particular contemporary predilection for the open and indeterminate, but also by the increasing availability of medieval texts as visibly different among themselves". (18) If anything, this collection offers a selection of articles which provide, by their diversity, an eclectic survey of medieval notions of text. No unified approach or synthesized theory of medieval textual culture comes from this book, nor is one needed; as it stands, the sum of the volume's parts outweigh whatever whole one could attempt to artificially contrive for it.