The Medieval Review 12.03.14

Salter, Elisabeth and Helen Wicker. Vernacularity in England and Wales, C. 1300-1550. Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers NV, 2011. Pp. 335. 70 EUR. ISBN: 978-2-503-52883-0.

Reviewed by:

Andrew Galloway
Cornell University

"Vernacularity" is a well-established and increasingly central issue in late medieval English scholarship, but Salter's and Wicker's collection offers a distinctive maturing of the topic. Like most maturations, this involves dropping away a number of the claims that established the momentum for the topic in the first place, as well as unsettling other accounts emerging more recently. The result is a deepening of qualifications, an enriching of local distinctiveness in the implications in using or not using English (and, in one essay, Welsh). As a collection by diverse hands, the volume necessarily presents a series of case studies and particular topics rather than a comprehensive monograph, yet in its pervasive questioning and complicating of earlier accounts and its opening of new territories for pursuit of the "conceptualisation" of late-medieval English vernacularity, the volume makes an important contribution.

The "questioning and complicating" note is well keyed by Wicker's quietly but powerfully unsettling introduction. Whereas much work on vernacularity from the 1970s took the historical march of English toward individual and cultural prestige and literary monumentality as a framework, or--in a logical though opposed variation--the inexorable expansion of expression by a more truly "democratic" and "popular" political, religious, and social world, more recent work has stressed somewhat more specific pressures and cultural standards shaping those two kinds of narratives. Wicker, however, takes issue with all these. She notes that the representation of English as a "glorious language of opportunity" is thoroughly misleading, even well into the sixteenth century, the outer limit of the volume's explorations. So too the view of English religious writing as something that could be pervasively blighted by the anti-heresy laws of the early fifteenth century. And whereas work from the 1990s (and of course beyond) has often stressed the competitive or even displacing role that vernacular writing offered Latin, Wicker finds that too narrow a framework as well, emphasizing that "the relationship between English and Latin was often one of interaction and exchange" (3). A notion of "the vernacular" as a single entity, filling in whatever way our categories of literary history, national politics, official promotion, or official persecution, misleads. Middle English possessed only circumstantial and "superficial" unity, strictly by "the contrast it presented to Latin and Anglo-Norman French" (3). It is thus as mistaken to assume that "they" could approach English as programmatically good (as in John Hurt Fisher's thesis about a royal "language policy" promoting English in the fifteenth century, [1] a crumbling view now fully demolished by Gwilym Dodd in this volume), as it is to assume that "they" could approach English as uniformly dangerous and uniformly subject to official condemnation (as in Nicholas Watson's more carefully argued thesis about the blighting of vernacular literary development in toto as a consequence of Archbishop Arundel's religious censorship in the Constitutions of Oxford of 1409,[2] a claim that Wicker notes (7) is questioned by Amanda Moss's essay here on the early fifteenth-century circulation of a vernacular religious anthology with some controversial ideas--but which indeed is also undermined by Michael Clanchy here on the varying uses of the English and the Latin primer, Sarah James on Reginald Pecock's diffident views of both Latin and English, and Wicker herself on the widespread forms of vernacular political complaint in the mid-fifteenth century). Wicker's approach might be called ethnographic. Rather in the spirit of Branislaw Malinowski arguing that Western anthropologists should pursue Trobriand or modern European elements of language according to particular social and practical functions--as a mode of action, not reflection of thought [3]--Wicker seeks both to pursue indigenous concepts that may be nothing like what we assume, "how vernacularity was conceptualised" (1), and to find them in practices rather than explicit theories, as in prologues or elsewhere. In this, the volume contrasts the approach and materials of The Idea of the Vernacular: An Anthology of Middle English Literary Theory, 1280-1520,[4] which (along with Fisher's and Watson's powerfully argued essays) has remained a reference point for the subject.

The balance of questioning, supplying new materials, and--much rarer--positing new historical narratives varies widely among the essays. To open, Michael Clanchy argues at length that we can't know whether the kind of elementary prayer and reading book that children used was more often in English than Latin. The value of his essay is that it frames that question--evidence for which, intriguingly, is thin--within questions of how either might matter. "Very occasionally," he notes, "knowledge of the Latin Primer might save your life [by Benefit of Clergy], whereas possession of the ABC Primer in English might get you burned as a heretic (at least according to the evidence against some Lollards)" (38). But mainly the essay shows that the issue of Latin or English as such was theologically neutral, until local circumstances of one sort or another defined the perceived purposes to which that was being put. As those pondering the spread of vernacular religious writing in the period know, such as the dissemination of the (supposedly outlawed) Wycliffite Bible up to Henry VI's ownership of a copy, this is a healthier starting point than any sweeping claim focused on language alone.

Amanda Moss's essay on the items in an early fifteenth-century "Lollard-leaning" miscellany, London, Westminster School, MS 3, carries such questioning further. Because of associations with Lollardy by some but certainly not all of its contents, the miscellany has been well studied (by Anne Hudson, Ralph Hanna, Jill Havens, and others), but Moss finds new things to say about its materials in lay, especially urban settings, where the items' variety of theological possibilities dovetails with their resonance with nuclear urban family structures. As Moss notes, this casts doubt on views of sweeping post-Arundel censorship, not to mention more sweeping changes in literary history on that basis. At the same time, however, minutely focused forms of censorship, or at least slight adjustments of the angle of "lean" in "Lollard-leaning" works, might be considered in other copies of the works in Westminster 3. Over two decades ago, in the inauspicious setting of a review, I noted to similar effect the careful erasures of the boldest anticlerical statements--but nothing else--from a London-owned copy of a treatise that Moss particularly focuses on, "Of Weddid Men and Wifis and of Here Children Also," in Cambridge, University Library MS Dd.12.39, owned by "Master Thorne, clothworker of London."[5] Moss's inquiry grants such material a frame that, further pursued, could significantly alter our accounts of the intersections between linguistic, social and religious phenomena in the early fifteenth century.

Elsewhere supply of new materials predominates. Thus Jayne Rimmer's essay on urban architecture and its associated words presents clumps of English and Latin nomenclature for structures in York and Norwich as well as a useful survey of "vernacular" material culture in those cities; this inquiry forms an original contribution to a range of studies in late-medieval urban language, especially associated with the work of Laura Wright on, for instance, the language referring to activities and items associated with the Thames. [6] Similarly, Andrew Butcher's study of a fifteenth-century administrative book from the Canterbury Cathedral archives closes with 11 pages listing the "hybrid" vocabulary used in estate management and manorial courts. Butcher's study shows unusual sensitivity to tone in the entries (he points to the managers' indications of frustration and outrage, easily understandable in accounts of difficult work but vented with surprising openness here). Both essays cross traditional disciplines smoothly, and in both the vocabulary of administrative and practical labor opens an archive of concepts rarely captured by other means.

Several essays treat literary form as an implicit guide to ideas of vernacularity. Elisabeth Salter's essay on the extremely various presentations of a lyric ("Sharp Thorns") found in six fifteenth-century copies provides further grist for the recasting of fifteenth-century vernacular religious history. Prominently emerging is the freedom of fifteenth-century scribes and readers to remake the text, adding titles or moving sections dealing with particular sins, and in some cases showing some disconnect of the rubrics of sins (sometimes Latin, sometimes English) from the English text they frame. Such work on material "texts" over abstract "works" can dim attention to wider horizons of institutional, social, and literary contexts; but here it brings to close view the variety of fifteenth-century vernacular religiosity, this time in no way veering toward Lollardy though still indicating a highly personalizable field of piety.

In contrast, Rob Lutton's survey of the varied uses of holy names as a coded, discursive unit (IHC, etc.) in English lyrics and other writings traces that as a key to a general change in lay ideology. Though he does not quite put it so, his essay displays this as evidence of a widespread reorientation of the laity to textuality and logocentrism. This sense of the depth of new assumptions governing late-medieval vernacular lay literacy opens a later chapter in what Brian Stock long ago called a "text-framed world" of interpretation, emerging in twelfth-century Latin textuality. [7]

Like Salter's, Lutton's essay has the virtue of finding and appreciating literary form in understudied places. But this raises the question of where literature in general would fall. Stewart Mottram adds to Salter and Lutton the study of Wyatt's eccentric but plausible understanding of the Latin for one of the penitential Psalms. It is a good argument, stressing the period's paradoxes in using English to promote a sola scripturaclaim for translating the enigmatic Latin Bible. But it offers the volume's only approach to a "major author," and using only a very minor work. No strong protest is meant; this is, after all, a volume in the Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy, not a volume in "literary history." But whereas all the essays here show important resettings for what vernacular poetics in general might be doing in the fifteenth century, none considers Hoccleve, Lydgate, the Piers Plowmantradition, or even the Chaucer remade in the period's manuscripts and continuations--though all these present important opportunities for weighing conceptions of vernacularity. In this sense the volume's importance lies in the further work to be done by literary scholars extending its approaches and new outlines.

Literary scholars as well as historians will therefore want to read this book closely. It provides not just an unsettling of pat narratives against which the more major literature is often cast, but also defines key discursive realms that often inform that literature. Thus Wicker's chapter on "treasonable language" in the reign of Henry VI displays the living presence of the sorts of topics that (dating back to Gower's and Langland's poetry) constitute the basis of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century "poetry of complaint": royal mismanagement of English territories, failure to produce an heir, royal "youthfulness," even the strange insult that the king is much like a sheep. Helen Fulton's chapter on Welsh court poetry more directly surveys a literary realm, one that few English literary scholars keep even marginally in view--in spite of intriguing connections to English alliterative form, somewhat parallel remakings of the past, and sometimes direct intersections with English officialdom (including one traveler in Wales who owned an early copy of Piers Plowman).[8] Stressing sources and patronage, Fulton presents the volume's most comprehensive and in a way, traditional, literary historical survey, but in another way leaves major English literary history (understandably) sidelined. Welsh literature was strongly influenced by Arthurian literature, but that was accessed mainly in its Anglo-Norman and Latin rather than English forms: perhaps, as Fulton suggests, not only because of linguistic competence but also "a certain amount of 'anti-Saxon' attitude" (222). Fulton notes the later Welsh accommodation of English literary culture, but she does not attempt to indicate the nature of that, with the dissolution or submergence of Welsh traditions meeting English ones. Surely that too is an instance of the kinds of further inquiries into vernacularity that the volume's project puts in view.

In scope and conclusions, the volume's most important essay is Gwilym Dodd's revisionary account of the spread of English through the records of the central government 1400-1430, records of parliament where Dodd (along with Chris Given-Wilson, Mark Ormrod, and some others) has established preeminent expertise. This time-span and locale have figured large in literary and linguistic history, thanks largely to Fisher's studies of the rise of "Chancery English" as a supposedly politically endorsed literary and cultural standard; Dodd offers an excellent overview of that view as well as the best corrective to it available. This builds on work from other hands (Michael Benskin and Jeremy Smith especially), such as English replacement of French rather than Latin, and the quite gradual codification of something like a "standard" dialect of English emanating from some corners of the central government, especially the signet office (but not, clearly, by Henry IV's or V's "policy"). But Dodd extends that into close examinations of Henry IV's and V's uses of English and French, as well the uses of English in parliamentary records. His approach to linguistic "authority," a topic dear to all literary scholars' hearts, is local and--again in the Malinowski style--functional: "if we regard the choice of English and French as being determined as much by shifting attitudes toward their utility as by their status and prestige, this provides a more balanced interpretative framework which also allows for the uneven spread of English within the royal bureaucracy itself" (247). This Dodd traces with exceptional authority and care, demonstrating that the real "impetus for using English in the parliamentary roll . . . came not from the chancery clerks" but "the broader political community gathered within parliament itself" (263). The results superficially resemble earlier "triumph of English" narratives, but refashion those in contextually precise and locally uneven ways, successfully resisting any teleology while reading a few documents carefully. Here is the volume's most complete new narrative for English vernacularity, though one where English plays just one set of roles on a stage still filled with other actors.



1. "A Language Policy for Lancastrian England," rept. in The Emergence of Standard English (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996), 16-36.

2. "Censorship and Cultural Change in Late-Medieval England: Vernacular Theology, the Oxford Translation Debate, and Arundel's Constitutions of 1409," Speculum 70 (1995): 822-64.

3. "The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages," Supplement 1 of C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, The Meaning of Meaning (New York: Harcourt, 1923), 296-366.

4. Ed. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Nicholas Watson, Andrew Taylor, and Ruth Evans (University Park: Penn State Press, 1999).

5. The Yearbook of Langland Studies 4 (1990): 172-73.

6. Laura Wright, Sources of London English: Medieval Thames Vocabulary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

7. The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983).

8. See Rees Davies, "the Life, Travels, and Library of an Early Reader of Piers Plowman," The Yearbook of Langland Studies 13 (1999): 49-64.

Copyright (c) 2012 Andrew Galloway

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