12.06.38, Breen, Imagining an English Reading Public

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Richard J. Moll

The Medieval Review 12.06.38

Breen, Katharine. Imagining an English Reading Public, 1150-1400. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. x, 287. ISBN: 978-0-521-19922-3.

Reviewed by:

Richard J. Moll
University of Western Ontario

Questions about vernacularity have become central to Middle English studies and Katharine Breen's Imagining an English Reading Public, 1150-1400 approaches this crowded subject from a fresh and insightful perspective. The book proposes that grammatical habitus, by which the study of Latin grammar (typically within the cloister) was thought to internalize a systemic virtue within the grammarian, was made available to English vernacular readers through a variety of textual experiments ranging from the Orrmulum to Matthew Paris's maps to Piers Plowman. Discussions of the Latin/vernacular divide often treat the content of Latin learning and the style of textual interpretation it allows, but Breen focuses on the virtuous habitus instilled by Latinity, and opposes this to the potentially dangerous habits of mind customarily attributed to vernacularity. This focus on the individual reader is a powerful and potentially productive insight and makes the book invaluable. Individual readings of texts, however, are often problematic and Imagining an English Reading Public should itself be read with caution. The scope of the book is broad and ambitious, but Breen is always careful to stress that she does not envision a systematic attempt to inculcate habitus within the English reader. Rather, the case studies she presents show uneven and unrelated attempts to make grammatical virtue available to those who had no formal grammatical training. This may account for the somewhat choppy structure of the book, but that structure does preclude the possibility of a reader imposing order where Breen does not see it.

After a brief introduction, Chapter 1, "The Fourteenth-Century Crisis of Habit," addresses a variety of texts (Boece, Piers Plowman, Lollard texts, and Mirk's Instructions for Parish Priests), beginning with the earliest uses of "habit" in English and arguing that by the end of the fourteenth century Latin habitus, originally used positively, was "on a trajectory toward the current, largely pejorative senses of the term in Modern English" (28). Chapter 2, "Medieval Theories of habitus," steps back in time to engage ethics and hagiography. The relationship between the intellectual rigor of the cloistered life and the garment which visually demarcates the cloistered individual is explored through traditions surrounding St. Martin. Here Breen outlines the evolving relationship between ideas of habitus and will. Chapter 3, "The Grammatical Paradigm," looks at the medieval theory that grammatical instruction not only instilled language skills, but also regulated the student to social and intellectual hierarchies, much as the Latin language itself is regular and hierarchical. This summary of medieval educational theory is rounded out with a study of the Orrmulum, which argues that Orrm's homily collection, with its idiosyncratic orthography and evidence of continual tinkering by the author, is an attempt to regularize English, and thus provide vernacular readers with the benefits of grammatical habitus. Despite case studies of Mirk and Orrm, Breen's first three chapters are largely descriptive as she summarizes and organizes the relationship between educational theory and the study of ethics. This is in itself a very useful contribution, and the book has changed my thinking (and teaching) about texts such as The Prioress's Tale and The Nun's Priest's Tale.

In the final two chapters Breen returns to the fourteenth century to apply her conclusions to two texts. Chapter 4, "The Crusading habitus," begins by examining various crusading narratives which suggest that crusading itself is an alternate means of attaining clerical habitus. Breen then turns to Matthew Paris's Chronica majora which is often prefaced "with innovative maps, including London-to-Jerusalem itinerary maps and the first medieval maps of Britain" (139, and again almost verbatim on 140). Breen argues that Matthew included the six-folio map sequence "to instill in his reader a habitual orientation towards Jerusalem as the center of the world" (140). Having thus attained habitus not through years of grammatical study (or even through crusading as a substitute for grammatical study) but simply through the perusal of six folios of maps, the reader, Breen claims, is able to see the final map in the sequence, the map of Britain, as the true destination of crusade (and the true site of the habitual life). Breen makes these rather bold leaps from maps to crusade to grammatical study with a analysis of the language of the maps themselves. The maps, claims Breen,

"become increasingly syntactically "advanced" as the itinerary progresses. Specifically, the captions on the map pages begin in English with the London city gates, progress to Anglo-Norman, and culminate in Latin. For Matthew, English is the language of the crowd, the vulgus, and on the rare occasions he uses it in his chronicles he refers to it self-consciously as such" (144).

There are several problems with this assessment, and they are characteristic of the book as a whole. The first is the rather sloppy use of the word "syntactically" when Breen is talking not about syntax but about lexicon (i.e. "lexically" or "linguistically" would be more appropriate). More troubling, however, is the claim (repeated on 145, 163 and 164) that the itinerary begins in English with the naming of the London city gates, specifically "Ludgate" and "Allegate." "Ludgate" and "Allegate," however, are both Anglo-Norman forms (there being little or no difference between the English and Anglo-Norman names at this point). The Anglo-Norman Brut, for example, describes how the name "Loundres" is a corruption of the earlier form "Ludesdane" which is derived from King Lud, but it states without comment that this Lud made "une tour et le fist appeler Ludgate aprés soun noun" (a tower and had it called Ludgate after his own name). [1] Used here among other Anglo-Norman forms for London landmarks (such as "la tur" and "la iglise seint pol"), I think we should assume that the words are conceptualized as Anglo- Norman, just as Breen's words "pages," "rare," and "occasions" are all English words in this context, even though they could be French words elsewhere. Finally, the negative characterization of Matthew's assessment of the English language is impossible to substantiate with textual evidence. The accompanying endnote refers to "a frequently cited example [in which] Matthew breaks into English when referring to 'ipsum diem...quem Hokedai vulgariter appellamus (that day which we commonly call Hokeday),' Chronica majora 5:281" (249). As Breen's translation rightly illustrates, Matthew's vulgariter merely means "commonly" and has none of the negative associations that her own word vulgus does when placed in isolation on the page. Breen's use of the word vulgus, however, is itself ambiguous. Grammatically it seems to sit in apposition to the phrase "the language of the crowd," but it means the crowd itself, usually in the sense of the masses or the herd. Breen introduces this characterization of the English crowd (Matthew never refers to the language or the crowd as vulgus) because it is necessary for her assertion that the vulgar English origins of the journey to Jerusalem contrast with the "higher spiritual, historical, or etymological concerns" of the later stages of the itinerary (144).

The tendency on display here is troublingly common throughout the book as Breen often analyzes her own representation of the text rather than the text itself. One of the more peculiar examples of this comes as she discusses the orientation of the map of Britain. After a discussion in which Breen suggests that north is at the top of the folio because that orientation fits the shape of Britain better and is thus "physically congruent with the rest of the Historia Anglorum," she concludes by arguing that

"Matthew's map thus brings a moral order to England just as his chronicles bring a moral order to history, reducing England to a textual entity in the Medieval Latin sense of reducere as 'to resolve it by analysis' or 'bring under control'" (140).

What is particularly striking about this bit of etymological analysis (and the accompanying endnote citing examples and definitions from Du Cange, Blaise and Latham) is that the word under consideration, "reducing," is Breen's own with no indication that it is drawn from Matthew generally, or that he ever uses it to refer to the maps specifically.

One final example of this tendency deserves notice (this one from earlier in the volume). Although Breen examines a variety of English authors she consistently represents them as responding to a lowest common denominator of reading practices. The dominant piece of evidence for this characterization of English readers comes from John Trevisa's "Dialogus inter dominum et clericum" which acts as a prologue to several copies of his Polychronicon. Breen's first use of this text comes in the introduction as she addresses the fourteenth century's growing awareness that the audience of English texts was not limited to coteries but also included "those vernacular readers whom Fiona Somerset, paraphrasing John Trevisa, calls 'the poor, the stupid, the old, and those without leisure'" (10). Breen cites Somerset's Clerical Discourse where this characterization is used fairly enough, but it is a very loose paraphrase of Trevisa's original where, responding to Clericus's assertion that the non-Latinate can simply learn Latin, Trevisa's Dominus responds: "Noȝt alle. For som may noȝt vor oþer maner bysynes, som vor elde, som vor defaute of wyt, som vor defaute of katel oþer frendes to vynde ham to scole and som vor oþere dyuers defautes and lettes." [2] When I first read Breen's comment I was not thrilled with the characterization of Trevisa, whose Dominus is quite sympathetic towards those who lack grammatical education. I also winced at the attribution of this characterization to Trevisa rather than the character in the debate, but I passed over it without making a note (it is, after all, merely the introduction). I was surprised, therefore, to see this characterization reappear twenty pages later, now firmly attributed to Trevisa, with Somerset's less-than-sympathetic list now transformed into damning superlatives: John Mirk, we are told, was "intensely, even obsessively" aware of the "lowest common denominator" among his readers because, among the three languages available to him, "[o]nly English...extends its range to include those whom John Trevisa calls the poorest, oldest, stupidest, and most distracted inhabitants of England" (30). The endnote here does not refer to Somerset's paraphrase but to Trevisa himself, even though I think it impossible to construct this sorry impression of the English reader from Dominus's controlled and sympathetic portrait of those who would benefit from the translation of the Polychronicon. In this instance Breen seems to be analyzing (and indeed extending) a contemporary paraphrase rather than the medieval text, and this is the sole piece of evidence advanced to support the medieval image of the English reader.

I have lingered over this troubling tendency, but I do not wish to multiply examples. Nor do I wish to leave the impression that problems in individual readings invalidate the bigger ideas of the book. Indeed, the final chapter on Piers Plowman, to my mind the strongest and most original chapter of the book, is a nuanced and subtle analysis of the grammatical metaphors of the poem and their transformation between the B and C versions. Breen explores the role the curious metaphors have in the poem and concludes that

"In sum, the C3 grammatical metaphor sorts authorized from unauthorized readers based on their grammatical knowledge and mastery of difficult syntax. At least implicitly, it invites the former to use the poem's grammatical terminology, and perhaps the poem as a whole, to expand and deepen the proto-monastic habitus they learned in school" (189).

Unfortunately, Breen's analysis is largely restricted to the mere presence of the grammatical terminology rather than the content of the metaphors, but she does offer a useful solution to a conundrum in the text.

On the whole, Imagining an English Reading Public approaches vernacularity from a novel and challenging perspective and places the anxieties about the use of English firmly within an educational and ethical tradition. While I would have wished for a study which more carefully engaged the content of the English writers who used and manipulated grammatical terminology, and while I am sure that not all individual arguments will gain widespread acceptance, Breen's approach is a welcome contribution to the increasingly crowded field of English vernacularity.


1. Prose Brut to 1332, ed. Heather Pagan (Manchester: Anglo- Norman Text Society, 2011), 55.

2. John Trevisa, "Trevisa's Original Prefaces on Translation: A Critical Edition," ed. Ronald Waldron, in Medieval English Studies Presented to George Kane, ed. Edward Donald Kennedy and Ronald Waldron (Wolfboro, NH: Brewer, 1988), 291.65-8.

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Author Biography

Richard J. Moll

University of Western Ontario