09.06.11, Zieman, Singing the New Songs

Main Article Content

Michael Kuczynski

The Medieval Review baj9928.0906.011


Zieman, Katherine. Singing the New Song: Literacy and the Liturgy in Late Medieval England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. Pp. 296. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4051-1.

Reviewed by:
Michael Kuczynski
Tulane University

Just when I thought the debate about orality vs. textuality in the Middle Ages had become entirely moribund, along comes Katherine Zieman's splendid Singing the New Song, a study of two concepts that rarely get associated by medievalists: literacy, the ability to read (in its various medieval forms--scholarly, practical, phonetic, phonemic) and liturgy, the performance of the sacred mysteries, especially those of the Eucharist, by clerics for their congregants. Zieman views these medieval behaviors--both of them, as she demonstrates, ritualized--as conjunct cultural practices, arguing for what she terms several times a "collocation" (35, 38) of reading and singing in medieval culture. Although Singing the New Song concentrates on documentary evidence from medieval England and Middle English literary texts (with a brief, early foray into Carolingian matters), I predict that the book will inspire new approaches to the transnational significance of text-song relations during the Middle Ages and, indeed, into the early modern period.

Zieman opens with a narrow moment in a famous Chaucerian text, The Prioress's Tale: Chaucer's precious depiction of the "litel" clergeon or chorister in his little classroom with his little prayerbook, learning and performing Alma redemptoris mater by rote. Her argument radiates out from this tight textual locus, however, as an illuminative historical and literary meditation on medieval schooling and Latinity as well as a relatively wide range of Middle English texts, from explicitly polemical works such as The Simonie through monumental, canonical ones such as Piers Plowman and (briefly) Troilus and Criseyde. Zieman's chief concern is Middle English literature, for which she displays a comprehensive and minute affection. Her approach, however, is to situate literary texts within several productive new contexts: for instance, the singing schools themselves, where young boys learned their antiphoner, and the clerical chantries, where priests performed "contractual liturgy" (92 ff.) for aristocratic families that could afford to have their dead relations prayed for persistently. One of the real strengths of Singing the New Song, as I read it, is exactly this institutional emphasis, which insists on our appreciation of writers such as Langland, Chaucer, and several of their anonymous contemporaries in their time, as figures who wrote at a thick nexus of religious, social, and political relations that only becomes clear when scholars examine medieval writing in terms of the educational structures and programs that inform it. Zieman knows a great deal about such institutions, from both secondary historical sources and primary engagements with manuscripts. Her special gift is that, as she discusses these contexts at length, she never allows her approach to swamp her book's generally literary tone and argument.

This argument is parabolic. Chapters 1 and 2 begin at baseline with the necessary foundations to Zieman's discussion, focusing on respectively the place of reading and singing in elementary education in late medieval England and then on what the author calls "the discourse of choral community" (40), the power of choir schools and other venues for musical education in the Middle Ages to modulate not only individual voices, but entire communities, clerical and lay alike. The argument really takes off, I think, around p. 49, with the author's very useful revisionist account of the terms literatus and clericus in medieval documentary culture, a discussion that leads to another compelling section, on benefit of clergy examinations. Here Zieman makes the point that "reading...was a performance of clergy, a habitus of a different sort" from tonsure and clerical dress (58), perhaps more crucial to clerical self-identification in the late medieval period than we have imagined. Zieman never says as much, but I suspect that Greenblatt on self- fashioning was an influence here--on the idea of medieval musical education as process, a means toward a cultural end rather than some sort of static, reified cultural phenomenon. The argument of these first two chapters is genuinely interdisciplinary, making good use of archival materials and strategic readings of four medieval manuscript miniatures (two additional pictures get discussed in the book's later chapters).

Chapters 3 and 4 form the top of Zieman's intellectual curve, her most ambitious and densely theoretical investigations, of the concepts of literary and musical understanding in the Middle Ages and the relevance of Latinity to lay as well as clerical identity during the high medieval period. There are important treatments in these pages of the elusive concept of literary and musical attention (how well did those performing or listening to performances of medieval liturgy understand the texts at hand?) and of what, in chapter 4, Zieman calls "extragrammatical literacies" (114 ff.), modes of spiritual understanding that inform especially devotional performance and that transcend (this is not the author's term) mere semantic competence with texts. Here Zieman is concerned to complicate a simplistic approach that has, alas, become normative in critical discussions of medieval prayer and liturgy, "Modern discussions of devotional and liturgical recitation [that] tend to represent it as an alienation from language, such that Latin texts become meaningless strings of phonemes to the unlettered who perform them" (115). "It would be at best," Zieman argues, "an overgeneralization to claim that the Church advocated disengaged recitation of Latin texts" (121), a crude cultural misunderstanding that the author then dismantles by sensitive explorations of ideas about devotion deployed in such vernacular texts as The Chastising of God's Children (late 14th c.) and The Myroure of Oure Ladye (15th c.). Instead, Zieman posits that "vocal prayer served not as a way to subordinate understanding but as a way to examine the nature of understanding itself, specifically as it related to public speech" (127). That is, this kind of prayer is not puerile, but akin, at least in broad purpose, to the maturer forms of vernacular theology engaged in by contemplative writers such as Julian of Norwich and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing. This is a bold and persuasive notion that might have been further supported, if Zieman had chosen to do so, by a reading of the Middle English religious lyrics, a massive body of Latin-influenced verse that survives from the period 1000-1500. It is high time, I think, that the monolithic concept of "affectivity," the priority of the emotions in late medieval spirituality, received more nuanced analysis and textual application than it currently does from Middle English literary and cultural historians. Zieman's argument concerning "extragrammatical literacies" is a strong gesture in this critical direction, an effort to reestablish the role of the intellectual and speculative in late medieval devotion.

The argument of these middle pages prepares the reader admirably for Singing the New Song's final two chapters, which bring us from theory back down to earth again, in Zieman's selective analyses of Piers Plowman and some of The Canterbury Tales. Chapter 5, on Piers, breaks new ground, and I find it one of the most successful analytical stretches in the book. Especially in her reading of the so-called autobiographical passage in the C-text, Zieman makes a convincing case for Langland as an author concerned to "short-circuit the binary opposition between clerical and lay performance and identity" (177). This Langlandian impulse registers via the poet's reflections about and writing on clergie, a concept flexible enough to include both the heights of scholastic discourse and the mundane concerns of reciting one's paternoster and singing the Psalms. The rehearsal of such rote texts, Zieman proves, was for Langland "a source of making rather than the antithesis to it" (179)--matter congruent with the often recondite theological concerns to be found elsewhere in Piers and which Langland's dreamer, at the close of B.x at least, professes to reject.

The book's sixth and last chapter, on Chaucer, recalls the narrow moment of attention to The Prioress's Tale with which Singing the New Song started, but in new and startling ways. Chaucer's narrator herself, the much maligned Prioress, emerges in Zieman's treatment as a figure concerned with "defin[ing] learning and what forms of praise can be said to be innocent of science" (189)--a serious fictive cousin (although Zieman herself does not say so) to Langland the poet. Zieman is most concerned, during her discussion of The Canterbury Tales, with the public effects of pious speech: how the power or "virtue" of sacred discourse makes its way into and around a community, and how community is changed by it. The Second Nun's Tale, concerning the life and influence of St. Cecilia, Zieman reads in a diptych-like relationship to the Prioress's narrative. Pp. 202-204 introduce a potentially exciting discussion of the importance of translation, both as practice and trope, to Chaucer's work in The Second Nun's Tale. (Why not, I found myself asking, in the entire Canterbury project?) But like the few words Zieman has to say about the important collocation of reading and singing at the end of Troilus and Criseyde, I found these concluding moments of textual analysis in Singing the New Song more suggestive than explicit. This is not necessarily a shortcoming. What better way to conclude such an engaging monograph than to leave two or three critical observations on the level of implication, as potential avenues for further reflection and discussion, both by the author (I hope there will be a sequel) and her readers?

My only real caveat about Singing the New Song concerns its style. Although he does not figure in her argument, Zieman seems to have dined on a surfeit of Lydgate. Her writing can be dense with Latinisms, sometimes four or five to a sentence, aureate to a fault. I once heard Derek Pearsall compare reading V. A. Kolve to settling down for a couple of hours into a comfortable, cushioned chair. Reading Singing the New Song, by contrast, is occasionally like sitting on one of those Frank Lloyd Wright models: you admire the exquisite concept and fabrication, but come away a bit stiff. A book with such superb content deserves a more transparent form, so that the reader will not feel (as I did at times) that he has to get around back of the sentences to follow the author's drift. This having been said, judge any scholar according to his style and who will escape whipping? Katherine Zieman's Singing the New Song is, aptly enough, a most praiseworthy book--deliberative, innovative, and impressive, to conclude with an enthusiastic triple Latinism of my own.

Article Details

Author Biography

Michael Kuczynski

Tulane University