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13.05.01, Coley, The Wheel of Language

13.05.01, Coley, The Wheel of Language

David Coley's study of medieval English literary conceptions of speech is intriguing and insightful. Through a series of close readings, Coley reveals a variety of Middle English poetic strategies for conveying the effects of the spoken word and what agency it exerts. In its broadest sense, this book thinks beyond a binary distinction between oral and literate forms of communication, and it shows how medieval understandings of the power of speech can inform new readings of many a familiar text. In his analysis of Geoffrey Chaucer's The House of Fame, for instance, Coley usefully disrupts simplistic notions of literal and figurative meaning. He shows how this poem transforms contemporaneous modes of acoustic theory to re-conceive speech not only as "broken air" but also as a phenomenon that animates increasingly personified "embodied utterances" (28).

In addition to "highlight[ing] the role of the spoken word" in literary and historical texts," this study interweaves a sociopolitical argument as well, "suggest[ing] the vital importance of speech in both the literature and the history of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England" (4). Among other things, Coley reveals how "poetic representations of speech define, respond to, comment on, and are sometimes contingent on important cultural issues, including the Lollard heresy, the dissident philosophies of thinkers like William of Ockham, the deposition of Richard II, and the seismic economic and political shifts that occurred during the Lancastrian dynasty" (5). While the ambitious scope and range of topics at play throughout this study can at times feel a bit unwieldy, I do find this book succeeds its primary objective: it foregrounds the intricate and remarkably varied ways that medieval poets conceived the transformative agency of speech.

The Introduction (Chapter one) establishes the two major interventions of this study. In addition to unpacking intertwined conceptions of and discourses about speech in Middle English poetry, the book investigates how particular concerns about "the transformative potential of sacramental language" in late-medieval England underlied discourses like Lancastrian claims to power and anti-Lollard polemic (9). One "take home message" of this study (among many insights) is the idea that poetry actively participates in urgent contemporaneous political discourses and social concerns. To put this more strongly, any literary attempt to represent the spoken word in late-medieval England is inherently a political act. In composing literary works, Middle English poets adopt discursive postures that suggest (at times obliquely, but other times overtly) a political stance toward the power of language itself.

Chapter two engages Chaucer's The Manciple's Tale with Ockham's philosophy of language, revealing how the poet explores the potential of the spoken word to transform (perceptions of) the world. Coley examines the Manciple's "thorough anatomization of speech acts, both efficacious and inert," situating the transformative powers of speech in the context of Ockham's nominalism (32). Coley then extends this approach to brief analyses of non-narrative Chaucerian works, including his short lyrics and A Treastise on the Astrolabe.

Chapter three turns to Saint Erkenwald, focusing on the efficacy of sacramental language in the poem. Coley lucidly reads this work as exploring the contours of English Christian identity, showing how medieval England thought about its relationship not just to a pagan past but more specifically a Judaic one. Coley maintains that poet "uses baptism as a stalking horse for still more central orthodox rite, the sacrament of the Eucharist" and Wycliffite debates on transubstantiation (71). At the same time, Coley posits that the exhumed judge in the poem functions as "a symbol of Old Law and a half-living vestige of England's pre-Christian past," with the implication that "British pagan is not a virtual Jew but virtually a Jew" (107, 111). Coley ultimately intertwines these two strands of his argument, showcasing how strongly "the poem spoke to widespread cultural anxieties over the Jewish origins of English Christianity" as well as pervasive concerns over the "Church's perceived susceptibility to range of heterodox and heretical threats" (72).

Chapter four, which examines Thomas Hoccleve's devotional poetry, is one of the most informative and insightful portions of this study. In his analysis of Hoccleve's "The Monk Who Clad the Virgin," Coley advances Ethan Knapp's notion of "self-reflexive arrangement" between the monk and the Virgin in this work to a redefined "economy of speech" or interpersonal economy throughout Hoccleve's devotional lyrics; in Coley's words, the poet creates a "complex dynamic of exchange in which both supplicant and intercessor are locked into mutually dependent relationship predicated on the causative potential of the spoken prayer" (115). The ensuing reading of the "Complaint of the Virgin" is quite revealing in this regard, as it showcases how "Hoccleve's Marian poetry posits spoken prayer as a de facto currency whose ability to perform necessary salvific work is related to its ability to circulate freely" (133). The final sections of this chapter most provocatively suggest the transformative agency of poetic composition itself: lyric expression serves as a venue for Hoccleve to work through his own cognitive processes and mental state (his "þouȝtful maladie"), and it also allows the poet to employ a unexpectedly multivalent range of numismatic discourses.

Chapter five offers an analysis of John Gower's Confessio Amantis. Coley makes a strong case that the Ricardian and Lancastrian recensions should be reincorporated into our broader understanding of the Confessio as an entire work, pointing out that the Ricardian passages emphasize speech and its powers while the Lancastrian version by contrast stresses a more bookish textuality (155). Attending to efficacious language with the Confessio's narratives, Coley traces the "political work that the Confessio Amantis performed for its dedicatees while revealing the linked concerns of two competing dynasties at a moment of profound historical transition for England" (156).

The brief Conclusion turns to a particular aspect of post-medieval (early modern) textual history through the figure of Chaucer's Plowman. Coley notes that Hoccleve's orthodox devotional poem ("The Monk Who Clothed the Virgin") is reassigned to the Plowman in one mid fifteenth-century manuscript (Christ Church Oxford MS 152), but William Thynne's 1542 printing of Chaucer's Works ascribes to the Plowman a different tale: a debate poem that transforms the Plowman-speaker, retroactively, into anti-papal, proto-Protestant figure. Conjoining one orthodox lyric and one reformist poem into a newly extended utterance of "a single, twice-created plowman," Coley demonstrates how the late medieval "spoken word was understood and apprehended not simply as a mode of communication but also an efficacious and active agent, one with the potential to effect substantive change, even the potential to create" (195).

Since this study attends to the transformative power of speech, it makes sense that Coley would engage with relevant works of modern speech act theory (Austin, Searle, Derrida), as well as medieval scholastic thinking (in particular Ockham and Augustine) on the agency of language and its capacity to shape--or actively (re)create--the world. While I understood the intellectual underpinnings of this approach as I read this book, I kept wondering how this methodology might engage with medieval theories of vox (voice) or aspects of translation theory (medieval or modern) that consider different approaches to language's capacity to transform. With the exception of the Hoccleve chapter, most of Coley's close readings explore the vocal utterance as represented within fictive narratives, but a more sustained attention to how speech is mediated through the performing voice of a (fictively) embodied poetic narrator would have been welcome. I felt that many layers of fictive voicing were more or less collapsed throughout the discussions of Chaucer (it was unclear if it mattered whether the discourse was ascribed to the Chaucerian narrator, a fictional pilgrim-character, or speaking characters within a pilgrim's narration); likewise, I asked myself how much it matters to Coley's argument that Gower's voice in the Confessio Amantis disperses itself across two different languages (Latin and English).

I realize Coley's study deliberately focused on Middle English poetry, so perhaps future work along these lines might consider how the transformative agency of language is conveyed across the multilingual sociopolitical landscape of late-medieval England. For the most part Coley aligns "speech" or "the spoken word" is aligned with Middle English vernacularity, but I would maintain that complex considerations of language choice--i.e, the decision to speak words in in English or in French or in Latin--played a significant role in how late-medieval English people conceived the agency of those utterances. Along these lines, I was a bit surprised that this study didn't show more engagement with recent scholarship on late-medieval English documentary culture and legal practice. For instance, literary scholars such as Candace Barrington, Mark Ormond, Wendy Scase, Emily Steiner, and others have attended to the complex mediation of speech that transpires through legal complaint and petitions. Such approaches might have added further resonance to Coley's turn away from a critical fixation on written textual apparatus to a whole set of social practices that synthesize efficacious oral and literate modes of communication.

Coley's study is wide-ranging and productive, and it invites many productive trajectories for future scholarship. I find the writing clear and the close readings are well researched, engaging, and thought provoking. Given the number of interventions this study makes across the domains of medieval literature, theology, politics, and modern speech act theory, I imagine that many different types of readers would find something of interest in this book.