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13.03.19, Collette, The Later Middle Ages

13.03.19, Collette, The Later Middle Ages

Edited by colleagues at Mount Holyoke College, Carolyn Collette in medieval literature and Harold Garrett-Goodyear in medieval history, this collection brings together documents that were produced during the later medieval period. The title, The Later Middle Ages: A Sourcebook, conveys this much, but one must read the introduction or the detailed six-page table of contents to discover that the documents are limited to those produced in England and the editors' rationale in their selection. The description on the publisher's website advertises the volume as a "substantial anthology of documents" that "offers students of later medieval English literature, society and history a range of interdisciplinary perspectives through which to understand the literary texts from the period 1350-1550." [1] Since its intended audience is seated in classes of medieval literature, an explicit emphasis on language, writing, books, and readers is not surprising. Yet there is a great deal of interest in the sourcebook for instructors of medieval history courses and their students, too, since the editors select documents not only to provide context for the literature of the period, but also to construct the worldview of the culture. The book's introduction declares their criteria that the documents represent both the popular practices and beliefs of the era as well as those that were less widespread but had greater impact on subsequent cultural developments. The result is an eclectic and varied collection of literary artifacts as one might discover in a miscellany of the period, assembling a large number of diverse but carefully chosen texts connected by the purpose of the compilers. Like such a miscellany, this sourcebook can provide precious insights into the culture and concerns of medieval England. Unlike a medieval miscellany, these editors provide thoughtful explanations and introductions to each document to help its undergraduate readers access and appreciate that world.

The editors' introduction emphasizes that their purpose is to meet the challenge of "contextualing the literature" of the period for the modern student (12). They justify and explain their choice of documents to accomplish their aim and deal briefly with the nature and recovery of texts, historical narratives, the recent critical trends that have increasingly connected literature with its culture, and contexts. The last subsection is titled "How to Use This Book." Although it supplies some useful tips for reading and deciphering Middle English, it chiefly explains particular editorial choices made by Collette and Garrett-Goodyear and restates that their intentions is not only "to represent the imaginative paradigms," but also "to assemble an array of texts not easily assessable, voices speaking what may be unfamiliar and perhaps surprising values to modern readers" (14).

Collette and Garrett-Goodyear organize the 105 sources, nearly all drawn from longer documents, into seven parts connected to topics identified in the book's introduction. An introductory explanation frames each section's topic and makes the connection to the following documents. Part 1, entitled "The English Languages," showcases the diversity of Middle English, the multilingualism of medieval England, and contemporary justifications for translating works composed in French and Latin into the vernacular. An unusual selection is the love poem that incorporated all three languages in its composition, but there are also documents that reveal the macaronic discourse of the London merchants who mixed legal French and liturgical Latin with English phrases in their wills and guild records. Literary works and civic records, increasingly written in English in the fifteenth century, often reveal the rise of London English over other regional dialects.

The largest section is "Spiritual Affirmation, Aspirations, and Anxieties," which contains nearly twice as many documents as most of the others. Its introduction emphasizes the extent that Christianity, the institutional church, and personal spirituality shaped medieval culture and the selections are designed to convey that pervading influence in England. The documents include excerpts from wills, financial accounts, church liturgy, popular devotional literature, religious treatises, and Lollard vernacular criticism of the Roman Church.

The documents that comprise Part 3, "Violence and the Work of Chivalry," range from manuals of knightly chivalry, to cases from the records of the king's court and selections from letters in the Paston and Plumpton collections. They reveal the prevalence of aristocratic violence that upheld the chivalric ideal, successfully portraying the cultural complexity and anxiety of an era in which the traditional function of the military aristocracy was challenged and the landed elite were economically stressed.

Part 4 focuses on "Scienta: Knowledge, Practical, Theoretical, and Historical," highlighting the vigor of the medieval age and its technology, experimentation, observation, and imagination that nevertheless bowed to the authority of classical models. The variety of sources aptly expresses the wide-ranging curiosity of medieval scholars and the practical know-how of laborers and artisans. One of the most interesting and perhaps lesser known of the selections is the excerpt from Sidrak and Bokkus, a verse adaptation in Middle English from a thirteenth-century French prose compendium of knowledge set as a dialogue between King Bokkus and a wiseman named Sidrak in ancient Bablyonia.

"Book Production: The World of Manuscripts, Patrons, and Readers," deals with many aspects of the book trade and book ownership and discusses the moral impact of reading. The ordinary artisan and merchant appear in "The Book Trade from William Caxton's Dialogues in French and English" that describes in idiomatic fifteenth- century English the individual contributions to the business in books of Gervase the Scrivener, George the book-seller, and Josse the parchment-maker. Less obvious in this or the preceding section on learning is the realm of students or the university.

Part 6, "Producing and Exchanging: Work in Manors and Town," comprises documents such as manorial custumals and court records that reveal the complicated relationship between landlord and peasant tenants and the regulation of urban workers by employers and town authorities. The demographic crisis of the plague and the impact of the subsequent social and economic upheavals of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are evident.

The final section of readings presents the political context of later medieval England, "Polity and Governance, Unity and Disunity." They are selected to exhibit the characteristics of good kingship, the value of patronage, the workings of parliament, the weight of church authorities, the use of family, and the role of wives in exercising power and enforcing justice. The documents are again varied: a parliamentary petition, a political tract, court records, letters, and an extract from Christine de Pizan's The Treasury of the City of Ladies.

Collette and Garrett-Goodyear kindly provide both a "Timeline of Historical Events" and a "Timeline of Literary Events" after the Preface, but the topical organization of the sources throughout the book pays little regard to chronology within the period. This is generally a virtue and shows how culturally inappropriate the customary periodization that ends the medieval period at Bosworth Field may be. Each topical section of documents rambles comfortably back and forth from thirteenth-century manuscripts to Caxton's prologues.

Most of the selections are drawn from published texts or compilations. Citations of these sources are not buried in footnotes, but compose the heading of each document, and the editors clearly indicate the original language in which they were written. The notes to illuminate obscure Middle English words and phrases are quite useful, but a glossary would also be helpful if the editors expect their readers to "skip from text to text and subject to subject" (15). Words explained in one selection are not always repeated in a later text. A bibliography for further reading chiefly composed of historical monographs follows each category of documents, limited to the topics it addresses.

The documents in this sourcebook vividly portray the vertical power relationships in medieval English society. Less emphasized, however, are personal or horizontal relationships within families, between friends or spouses. Marriage and family appears fleetingly in court disputes, the liturgy of marriage, or the letters of the gentry, but here is a missed opportunity to include the unfamiliar voice and experience of ordinary folks to balance the elite and literary notions of the romances prominent in medieval English literature. For example, consistory court records in marriage disputes may have been in Latin, but throughout the fifteenth century the bishops' scribes increasingly took pains to record the exact English words spoken in the informal consent of a bride and groom in a tavern or on a bench by the front door of a house where there was no liturgy or priest involved. [2]

Despite these mild criticisms, this collection largely fulfills the goal set by its editors, establishing a useful context for medieval literature and revealing common cultural assumptions. It has already proved its worth to this history instructor who will begin teaching first-year university students The Book of Margery Kempe in an interdisciplinary humanities course this fall. The sourcebook provided documents that illumined Margery's world peopled with pilgrims and Lollards and supplied not only citations but excerpts of Nicholas Love's The Mirror of the Blessed Life and The Prick of Conscience, making clear for me and my students the context of Margery's tearful devotional imaginings.



1. (accessed 8 June 2012).

2. Consistory records of this sort have been translated and published by Richard Helmholz in Marriage Litigation in Medieval England (Cambridge University Press, 1974), and by Shannon McSheffrey in Love and Marriage in Late Medieval London (Kalamazoo, MI: Western Michigan University, 1995).