15.01.18, Hsy, Trading Tongues

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Suzanne Conklin Akbari

The Medieval Review 15.01.18

Hsy, Jonathan. Trading Tongues: Merchants, Multilingualism, and Medieval Literature. Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2013. Pp. 237. ISBN: 9780814212295 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Suzanne Conklin Akbari
University of Toronto

Trading Tongues: Merchants, Multilingualism, and Medieval Literature can be situated in the context of a number of studies that have appeared over the last decade on the multilingual vernacular contexts of medieval Europe. These include work by scholars such as Ardis Butterfield and Jocelyn Wogan-Brown, focusing on the interrelation of French and English in the British Isles; Alison Cornish and Simon Gaunt on the mixed Franco-Italian literary tradition of the medieval Mediterranean; and Catherine Leglu and Karla Mallette on plurilingualism and language switching in Spain and Sicily. Hsy's work goes beyond these, however, in his bold effort to integrate his study of the medieval setting with contemporary theories of hybridity, creolization, and "borderland" writing (especially the work of Gloria Anzaldúa), thus producing a critique that does not merely attempt to apply modern theoretical paradigms to pre-modern phenomena, but actually uses the analysis of pre-modern texts to interrogate those modern paradigms. As Hsy puts it, "Medieval writing...can show as much potential to transform our own modes of thought as modern perspectives are equipped to change our views of medieval writing" (209).

In his invitation to readers to "unleash the full potential of peripatetic modes of thought" (209), Hsy articulates a theory of "peregrine" reading--evoking both the flight of the falcon and the path of the pilgrim--consisting of "a transhistorical and cross-linguistic outlook that results in moments of wondrous estrangement from conventional disciplinary frameworks" (205). In the work of a less rigorous scholar, such claims might seem dubious, too far unmoored from the mundane efforts of the literary historian to capture the texture of the vibrant multilingual cultures of medieval England. Hsy's patient examination of manuscript archives and meticulous attention to details of translation, however, provide a solid scholarly substrate that is at once nuanced and exhaustive, a resource for students and scholars as well as a richly suggestive collection of avenues for potential future research.

Trading Tongues opens by introducing the spatial dimensions of language use, especially the ways in which zones of shared or rival languages can be characterized (following Pratt) as "contact zones." Accordingly, Hsy traces "instances of sociolinguistic fluidity, exchange, and interpersonal negotiation" (5), highlighting the role of "translingual writers" (6)--a term partly adapted from Gloria Anzaldúa's work on "borderland" writing (6)--but which Hsy makes very much his own. Hsy makes this theoretical formulation richly visible through a sophisticated and insightful study of two English poems: while The Stores of the Cities "abstracts the city," through labeling or signposting significant sites (and sights), London Lickpenny "explores the city as an intricately rendered lived experience" (22). In chapter 1, Hsy turns to two works by Chaucer (the House of Fame and the Shipman's Tale), considering how quantification--whether of coin or of "tidings"--is expressed. In his thoughtful study of the Shipman's Tale, Hsy shows how the "rekkenynge" of debts can be construed as both economic transaction and literary account. To provide a context for this reading, Hsy looks to the contemporary account record books of the London merchant Gilbert Maghfield. Through a close comparative reading, Hsy unearths the various "Frenches" of Chaucer's world: as Hsy puts it, "Chaucer's Middle English poetry is heavily inflected by local varieties of Anglo-French and sensitive to the multilingual capacities of his audience" (53). Such an approach allows Hsy to show "the poet's intricate relationship to the city and its many tongues" (54), and to interpret literary and linguistic activity--whether composed by the poet or the merchant--not so much in terms of translation so much as in terms of "translingual writing," with "the simultaneous activation of languages at any one moment in any given literary text or any similarly stylized document" (56). With this chapter's intense focus on the relationship and rivalry of French and English, Hsy explores Chaucer's "complex bi-vernacularity" (56).

Chapter 2, "Literary Code-Switching and Writing in Transit," continues the focus on Chaucer, placing his poetry of sea travel in the comparative context of his contemporary and rival John Gower, as well as the earlier fourteenth-century Italian poet Boccaccio. All three of these writers tell a related, parallel narrative: that is, the story of Constance (Chaucer's "Custance," Gower's "Couste," Boccaccio's "Gostanza"), and all three explore the complex relationship that the heroine has to the local languages she encounters in the course of her voyages. Hsy moves out from the bilingual or bi-vernacular context of chapter 1 to consider how Chaucer "triangulates his text along a French-English-Italian axis," moving outward into a "polyglot nexus of trade and travel – encompassing the North Sea as well as the Mediterranean" (79). The chapter closes with a study of the French nobleman Charles d'Orleans, who during his prolonged captivity in England wrote lyrics in both languages. Through a close reading of these parallel lyrics, Hsy demonstrates how Charles mirrors his own cross-channel status in his choice of poetic forms, expressing his "consistent geo-affective longing: a desire to return to continental France" (87).

In the third chapter, Hsy turns to a closer examination of Gower (who had served mainly in a comparative role in chapter 2), considering Gower's choice to write his three major narrative poems in each of the three languages of late medieval England: Anglo-French, Anglo-Latin, and Middle English. Hsy persuasively shows that Gower's multilingualism is "messier" than is often thought: Gower does not simply move progressively from one preferred language to another, but rather "experiments with a manifold voice," producing some works that are bilingual, others that are trilingual, "eschewing any tidy segregation of tongues" (91). Further, Gower's French is not simply "Anglo-French"; rather, "Gower deftly negotiates different registers of French that map onto different social spheres, business and courtly" (113), producing a "hybrid, trans-Channel idiolect...that alternates at will between registers: local/Continental and professional/courtly" (113).

By going on, later in chapter 3, to juxtapose his examination of Gower's multilingualism with a study of the early printer William Caxton, Hsy both illuminates the response to Gower's language in the world of early printed books and also brings out the ways in which, over the fifteenth century, perspectives on multilingualism in England had shifted. By considering Caxton's continental ties, moreover, especially his long residence in the Low Countries, Hsy further complicates his study of the many tongues of England: Dutch enters into the polyglot mix, alongside the many other languages (French, Latin, Italian, English) of late medieval London life. Caxton was not only a printer but also a translator, and his prefaces reveal a great deal about the development of ideas about the rival vernaculars--and the task of the translator--in the last decades of the fifteenth century. Dutch emerges, for Caxton, as a kind of "intermediary or 'relay language' between French and English" (123), producing a more complex relationship between the source language of French and the target language of English, which causes English to become both "alien and estranging" for Caxton (124).

Having introduced the productive complication of Dutch in the treatment of Caxton's work in chapter 3, Hsy then expands this focus in the fourth chapter with his turn to The Book of Margery Kempe. Hsy extends his consideration of multilingual England into the Germanic vernaculars, showing how Dutch and German language comprehension was present in Margery Kempe's own East Anglian hometown of Lynn, and exploring the ways in which Kempe narrates her own cross-linguistic encounters during her travels--not only in the Low Countries and northern Germany, but also in the Holy Land and in Italy. Hsy persuasively demonstrates that the travels narrated in Kempe's Book show a protagonist who mediates--clumsily and roughly, to be sure--the various barriers of language. In Italy, for example, she communicates with a Continental lady who provides financial support through "an interlinguistic process that results in a 'comown' tongue that belongs to neither speaker" (140), a process that Hsy compares fruitfully to modern studies of how creole or pidgin languages are formed. Other encounters in the text, whether on land or at sea, whether with German-speakers or with French, exhibit a similar fluidity and "permeability of language-worlds" (155).

Chapter 5 ("Merchant Compilations and Translingual Creation") is perhaps the most exciting and innovative portion of Trading Tongues. Through a close examination of merchants' compilations, produced at the end of the Middle Ages, Hsy brings alive the experience of multilingualism in the pre-modern city. Positing that "each of these collections is best examined on its own terms as an idiosyncratic textual and linguistic universe" (158), Hsy takes care not to cherry-pick interesting fragments but rather to try to capture the entire vivid world that the book conjures up. Focusing particularly on moments of "code-switching" or "movement across different languages" (159), Hsy sheds light on the acts of translation and compilation, as well as--most significantly--the merchants' understanding of how their various "tongues" might be reconciled. This is a rich and dense chapter that will engender much further research into the emergence of early Renaissance modes of thought, especially the revival of Greek learning and the ways in which so-called "court" literature entered (at a surprisingly early date) into the mercantile realm. These compilations, Hsy argues, are "textual contact zones…where languages can coexist and transform one another" (159).

In his conclusion, Hsy returns to the pivotal figure of the noble Charles d'Orleans, now considering this author of French and English lyric as a figure of exile who was mindful not only of the clumsiness with which he composed poetry in what was not his mother tongue (English), but also of how he had become increasingly estranged from his own mother tongue (French) during his decades of exile. In these final pages of Trading Tongues, with their intense focus on the corporeality of spoken language, we can see the seeds of potential new research directions that take into account how the body shapes and is shaped by language. Hsy suggests that the lyrics of Charles d'Orleans evoke the way consonants would have to be trilled, vowels to be sounded, "emphasizing the tongue's very status as a physical organ" (197). Trading Tongues is a thought-provoking, even daring account of multilingualism during the later Middle Ages, one that is certain to stimulate ongoing conversations about the movement of language across space and time.

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Author Biography

Suzanne Conklin Akbari

University of Toronto