Answerable Style assembles the work of thirteen influential scholars of Middle English literature. I agreed to review Answerable Style because of my interest in medieval dialogues and debates, and the book does include important discussions of Mum and the Sothsegger and The Parlement of Thre Ages, but the conversations that provide the book's impetus are more modern, as Andrew Galloway's introduction makes clear. Galloway explains that the book responds to literary scholars' current interest in formalism and the literary, asserting that medievalists have long explored such topics and maintaining that scholars of later periods would do well to attend to that work. Thus, the "answerable" modifier refers to the ways medievalists answer contemporary questions. Another important conversation concerns how modern literature continues to answer questions raised in its medieval antecedents and, additionally, how medieval literature responds to works in other languages and periods. Furthermore, the volume demonstrates how much current scholarship builds upon Ann Middleton's influential work. Indeed, the collection had its origins at a University of California, Berkeley, conference on "Form after Historicism," held in her honor (3), and the title is borrowed from her 1973 article on "Ælfric's Answerable Style: The Rhetoric of Alliterative Prose." All but two chapters reference her work, and individual authors often respond to her scholarship directly, many to her ideas about public poetry, some to her methodology, and others still to her analyses of specific texts. "Style's" denotations are equally expansive, and the chapters explore it in terms of rhetoric, aesthetics, genre, and language. Grady and Galloway divide the collection into two parts: the first explores the relationship between Latin and the vernacular (primarily Middle English) and, the second concerns the literary within the vernacular (again, primarily Middle English, but also with discussions of Anglo-Norman and Italian). The divisions are useful, but they mask the fact that two authors, Langland and Chaucer, dominate Answerable Style. Therefore, I will organize the chapter summaries into three categories: Chaucer, Langland, and others.
The chapters on Chaucer's work do not concentrate on a single poem, but all of the arguments highlight form and aesthetics. Katherine Zieman and David Lawton recuperate the idea of "voice" from New Criticism. Zieman maintains that The Canterbury Tales reworks issues of narrative voice raised in The House of Fame and Piers Plowman, and argues that The Man of Law's Tale demonstrates Chaucer's awareness that a "rhetorically produced 'I'" can reveal public truths (85). Lawton's wide-ranging chapter focuses on the voice of Chaucer's persona as a vehicle for the expression of shared human experience. He refutes Middleton's decision to omit of the poet from her consideration of public poetry on the grounds that Chaucer wrote for a small, specific audience and not for the entire community. To make his case, Lawton traces a history of the Orpheus myth in Western literature, from Boethius to Machaut to Chaucer to Proust, arguing that the Orpheus figure provides a model for articulating human suffering. Taking a slightly different tack, Steven Justice considers Chaucer's experiment with subjectivity in Troilus and Criseyde. He claims that, in Dante, Chaucer discovered a technique that creates characters with shared pasts and subjectivity by including specific but ambiguous details that "imply a coherence they do not disclose" (183-184). Frank Grady and Lee Patterson attend to genre rather than character. Grady considers the juxtaposition of hunting scenes and tragic tales in The Parlement of the Thre Ages and The Monk's Tale to assert that both hunting and tragedy impose order on contingent events, a practice that produces what he calls "the seigneurial poetics of later Middle English writing" (196). Patterson's essay, a reprint from Acts of Recognition: Essays in Medieval Culture (2009), argues that Troilus and Criseyde does not conform to a Boethian definition of tragedy; instead, it follows the medieval definition of tragedy as classical epic, equating it with history and characterized by a high style. Galloway provides a source study of The Clerk's Tale, but rather than detailing how Chaucer adapts his sources, he argues that the English poet challenges Petrarch's "aesthetics of renunciation" (140). Galloway demonstrates that Chaucer's tale problematizes Petrarch's assertion that emotions can be controlled. Ultimately, Galloway contends that Chaucer equates Petrarch with Walter and his narrator, the Clerk, with Griselda to show that strict obedience to authority can be subversive.
The chapters on Piers Plowman are more concerned with source material than those on Chaucer's poetry. Traugott Lawler asserts that more of Langland's poem is translation than has been traditionally acknowledged, explaining that Langland rarely translates his sources point-by-point; rather, his study shows that Latin materials are woven throughout the imagery and diction of Piers Plowman. Ralph Hanna contends that Langland knew Lorens of Orlean's Somme le roi (c. 1279) as well as its English translation, the anonymous Speculum Vitae (c. 1350-1370), and that its narrative form inspires that of Piers Plowman. Hanna finally rejects C.S. Lewis's dismissal of the poem as "fragments but not a poem" and asserts that Langland was more au currant than Chaucer and Gower (139). Wendy Scase traces the stylistic influences of Langland's poem by showing how the Piers-tradition poets (particularly, the authors of Pierce the Ploghman's Crede, Richard the Redeless, and Mum and the Sothsegger) obey strictures for Latin composition taught in grammar schools, but not with a Latin base-text. Indeed, she maintains that the tradition poets respond to Piers Plowman as if it were a classroom text, even though it is a vernacular work. Scase ends by asking whether the poem was already a classic text taught by schoolmasters or whether the poets in the tradition sought to make it one, concluding that further research is needed to answer that question. Katherine Breen and D. Vance Smith both highlight specific characters in Langland's dream vision. Breen begins with the Latin vocabulary that Anima uses to define himself in passus 15 to explore the text's use of "sory Laten" (95). She concludes that Anima exceeds both English and Latin and in doing so creates a hybrid text that complicates the poem's personification allegory and deepens its theological teaching. Smith argues that Dame Studie represents a larger environment than scholars usually acknowledge, associating intellectuality with households and law courts, and not just the work of schools. To account for the gendering of Studie, he connects Langland's figure to Emma Cranford, wife of John de Catesby, who kept the accounts for their estates beginning in 1380-1381.
Finally, Maura Nolan and Rita Copeland focus on alternative authors. Nolan's perspicacious essay considers the understudied Mirour de l'Omme. In particular, she compares the poem's description of Fortune with his naming of the Virgin Mary. Nolan concludes that Gower's poem experimentally reconciles sensory data with tradition and morality, allowing him to imagine that literary authority can convey agency on a poet without requiring that he neglect didacticism. Rita Copeland's article on the medieval reception of Horace's Ars poetica opens the volume and makes the best case for why scholars of later periods should pay attention to the Middle Ages. Building on her studies of medieval commentaries on the Ars poetica, Copeland reviews the important role Horace's poem played in medieval education and notes that medieval scholars saw little use in translating the work, so that it remained associated almost exclusively with Latinity. By the middle of the twelfth century, however, she maintains that teachers sought new approaches to Latin grammar and composition and that works like Geoffrey of Vinsauf's early thirteenth-century Poetria nova began to displace the Ars poetica in schools, leaving Horace's "old" poetics to sixteenth-century humanist scholars interested more in philosophy than in pragmatic pedagogy, and allowing it to become a canonical text in modern literary theory.
The book is beautifully presented: the editing is thorough, the binding solid, and the cover design beautiful. My one complaint pertains to the index, which limits itself primarily to proper names. It does not even include "public poetry," a concept that many authors adopt from Middleton's famous essay, "The Idea of Public Poetry in the Reign of Richard II" (1978). That problem would be alleviated if the book were purchased in electronic form, which would be word searchable, and the Ohio State University Press is to be commended for offering both paper and electronic versions of their publications and for selling the CD for $14.95. That price makes this collection appropriate for advanced courses on Middle English literature, since the book compiles accessible and productive essays about form and style while reflecting on the myriad literary influences in medieval England. Whether it will convince non-medievalists to pay attention to our work is less certain. Few essays move beyond the Ricardian era, although many make the case that the medieval texts discussed are relevant to contemporary ways of thinking. Ultimately, what strikes me most about the essays is their testament to how many answers medieval literature offers to questions about "form after historicism" and the historicity of form.