03.12.06, Amtower, Engaging Words

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Deborah McGrady

The Medieval Review baj9928.0312.006


Amtower, Laurel. Engaging Words: The Culture of Reading in the Later Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave, 2000. Pp. iv, 241. ISBN: 0-312-23383-3.

Reviewed by:
Deborah McGrady
Tulane University

Laurel Amtower's study is straightforward in its intentions. Given the overwhelming evidence provided by historians and codicologists documenting the proliferation of books and increasing literacy among the laity of the late Middle Ages, Amtower examines the appropriation of reading as a cultural metaphor used by vernacular writers to redefine their works as objects that could aid in self-actuation and self- enlightenment. Engaging Words does not purport to provide additional evidence of either lay literacy or the growing popularity of private reading in society. Instead it uses this evidence as a springboard to explore the rapid appropriation of private reading, and more specifically, literary interpretation, as a cultural metaphor to discuss identity. For some, these assumptions may appear disconcerting because they suggest that public reading and oral performance of works no longer occupy the interests of either writers or their audiences. Yet, Amtower never openly dismisses the continued role played by performance in late-medieval culture. Rather she focuses on a relatively new phenomenon represented by the private lay reader.

Her study opens with one of the most engaging and compact textual portraits of reading from the late Middle Ages, that of Christine de Pizan reading Matheolus at the outset of the Livre de la cite des dames. The passage is most appropriate at the beginning of a study that proposes to examine the overlap of private reading and self-discovery in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. For Christine's encounter with Matheolus leads her to question her own status as a woman as much as she questions the received knowledge culled from a lifetime of study. In response, Christine rewrites simultaneously her own identity and received history. Finally, as will be a recurring argument in Amtower's study, Christine trains her readers through her own actions to "read ethically" so that they may benefit from the social, spiritual, and ethical values potentially communicated through books.

This presentation of books as tools for self-improvement represents a shift in perception from earlier medieval presentations of the book as a symbol of mystification. To document this shift, Amtower covers a lot of ground. Her argument draws on examples from devotional as well as vernacular writings, from the works of Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Christine de Pizan, and Chaucer, to name only the most developed examples. In addition, her study is interdisciplinary and therefore navigates between history and literature, text and image, poetry and prose. The vast terrain she covers represents the first of two important contributions to the field. Her second contribution, while not clearly stated in the title, the chapter headings, or even the introduction, is her use of this collected information to examine Chaucer's use of the reading metaphor in his major works. These two contributions encourage dividing Amtower's study into two parts. Chapters 1-3 establish the cultural heritage that nourished Chaucer's attitudes on reading. A single chapter is dedicated to the historical, devotional, and vernacular representation of private reading in late-medieval society. Chapters 4-5 follow with an enlightening discussion of fictional readers in Chaucer's major works.

The opening chapter culls previous studies to sketch out the social realities dictating the laity's engagement with books. Amtower favors book trade in late-medieval England in this survey. The chapter streamlines the vast field of scholarship on medieval literacy, touching on the production of books, presentation of texts, the teaching of reading, the taste for books, and the increasing vogue for private reading. Amtower concludes that the growing perception of books as private objects encouraged readers to view them as keys for achieving self-awareness and self-actuation.

Amtower turns to Books of Hours in chapter two to develop her argument that late-medieval books trained lay readers to assume an active role not simply in reading but in interpreting works and applying their lessons to one's personal life. As the most popular and most widely-disseminated works in late medieval Europe, Books of Hours not only provided the public with immediate access to devotional writings, divine texts, and-- through their intercessory role--access to saints, church fathers, and even the Virgin, but they provided readers with numerous visual models of appropriate reading behavior. Even marginal grotesques, with their open mocking of the reading public, communicate strong messages concerning the dangers of misreading or inattentive study. Some may be surprised, even disturbed, by Amtower's assumptions in this chapter that devotional reading models easily translate to the vernacular experience. Yet reiterating the arguments of many scholars, she points out that Books of Hours do appear in abundance in lay libraries, shelved alongside vernacular works and often overwhelming these works both in number and in quality of production.

Nevertheless, rather than defend this overlap that is announced at the close of chapter 2, Amtower opens the next chapter on vernacular writers with a development of scholastic reading methods. The chapter begins with reflections on the power of glossing to fix the authority of the text and to control interpretation. While commentary allowed readers to see a text through a professional reader's eyes, it also cultivated the passive reader who dared not tamper with the authorized text. The chapter proceeds to contrast these overarching scholastic views with the views of early humanist poets, Dante and Petrarch, both of whom rejected the notion of the static text and instead argued that giving room to individual interpretation allowed the reader to interpret his own self, to write his own story, and to shape his responses to the world around him. It is, of course, implied that their depiction of the active reader echoes the engaging role attributed to the private reader in prayer books.

Thus the first half of Amtower's book brings together information on the historical, devotional, and literary traditions that define the late Middle Ages. These chapters set the stage for her subsequent study of Chaucer's fictional readers. Although Amtower avoids reflecting on Chaucer's actual familiarity with the texts and authors she examined in the previous chapters, she insinuates that he was at least working with the same ideas in mind. Within this culture of reading, Chaucer argued for reading as an ethical activity that could aid in personal growth, self-actuation, and self-enlightenment. Chapters 4 and 5 cover Chaucer's major works--the House of Fame, Troilus and Criseyde, and the Canterbury Tales (specifically, the tale of the Wife of Bath)--and seek to embrace the wide variety of reading models and anti- models he offers his audience.

Amtower's opening claim that books saturated late-medieval culture and that private reading was the medium par excellence for accessing the written word is adroitly supported in her coverage of a large terrain of medieval literary history. Nevertheless, as is often the case when treating such a large assortment of material, Amtower does not always neatly link her chapters together. As the reader has clearly noticed, I have imposed my own interpretative structure on the study by separating the last two chapters out as the crux of Amtower's study. The author may not agree with my analysis, but it is certainly within these final two chapters that one finds the largest concentration of new ideas and the greatest development of her reflections. Without this retroactively imposed order, Engaging Words reads more like postcards depicting the book in different late-medieval settings. While the links between the different topics may not be fully developed, the overall effect is convincing. In fact, the strength of the study quite possibly resides in juxtaposing devotional, scholastic, and Italian, French, and English vernacular texts alongside one another. Amtower opens up a diverse array of medieval books and lines them up alongside one another; her readers can only be impressed by the surprising consistency among the different works that is laid bare before their eyes.

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Author Biography

Deborah McGrady

Tulane University