Jill Mann is one of our best close readers of medieval texts. Reading her work in Life in Words, a selection of fifteen of Mann's essays on Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and Malory originally published between 1980 and 2009, one is regularly reminded of the pleasures of reading literary criticism in which elegant close reading is supported by judiciously-controlled historicism.
The seven essays about Chaucer are "Troilus' Swoon" (1980); "Shakespeare and Chaucer: 'What is Criseyde Worth?'" (1989); "Chance and Destiny in Troilus and Criseyde and the Knight's Tale" (1986, rev. 2003); "Chaucerian Style and Themes in the Franklin's Tale" (1982); "Anger and 'Glosynge' in the Canterbury Tales" (1990); "The Authority of the Audience in Chaucer" (1991); and "Parents and Children in the Canterbury Tales" (1983). The four on the Gawain-poet are "Satisfaction and Payment in Middle English Literature" (1983, also on the Clerk's Tale, with observations on Piers Plowman and the Shipman's Tale); "Price and Value in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (1986); "Courtly Aesthetics and Courtly Ethics in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (2009); and Sir Gawain and the Romance Hero" (1994). The four on Malory are "Knightly Combat in Le Morte D'Arthur" (1982); "'Taking the Adventure': Malory and the Suite du Merlin" (1981); "The Narrative of Distance, the Distance of Narrative in Malory's Morte Darthur" (1991); and "Malory and the Grail Legend" (1996). The essays were published in accessible journals and anthologies, except for "The Narrative of Distance," which was originally two lectures that were available only in a pamphlet published by Birkbeck College. That nine of the fifteen essays appeared in the 1980s testifies to Mann's astonishing output during that decade.
All of the essays in Life in Words are models of critical inquiry that reach far beyond the topics indicated their titles. Here it will not be possible to characterize all of them, and a few sentences will have to suffice for each. "Troilus' Swoon," for example, is about love's dynamic and its vocabulary--words such as bynde, obeisaunce, thralldom, servyse, and process--with the swoon (in Book 3) expressing Troilus's obedience to Criseyde, a "demonstration of surrender" (18) that paradoxically dispels Troilus's fears and enables him to assume a dominant role, at least until Criseyde is sent to the Greek camp. Surrender to the higher power of love is also at issue in "Chance and Destiny" and "Chaucerian Style and Themes," which tighten the connection that Chaucer makes between subjection to love and subjection to nature, fortune,cas, aventure, necessitee, and destinee in the three works where Chaucer perhaps most profoundly engages "the question of whether the world is governed by 'fortunows hap' or by a benign ordering power" (60), and the qualities of patience needed for human beings to endure in a world of perpetual change (79).
In "Anger and 'Glosynge,'" the Summoner's Tale proves to have a psychological depth that takes it beyond its bathroom humor and associates it with other Canterbury Tales in which anger motivates the teller (Reeve's Tale, Friar's Tale) or a character (Manciple's Tale), and in which patience, anger's opposite in the vices-and-virtues tradition, is counseled (Wife of Bath's Tale, Franklin's Tale, Melibee, Clerk's Tale). Anger and glosying are both denials of reality that share "a blinkered insistence on reducing the world or the text to a mirror image of one's own narrow desires, instead of opening the self to the impact of an external reality" (86). "Anger and 'Glosyng'" is one of this collection's most significant essays, as it not only explains the placement of the Friar's and Summoner's tales within the misnamed "Marriage Group," it shows how the themes of anger and glossing embrace the larger conflict between human desire and metaphysical powers that defines tales such as the Knight's Tale and, arguably, the Canterbury Tales as a whole. Another large-scale investigation is "The Authority of the Audience in Chaucer," a knowing piece about miscarried readers' responses in Chaucer's works--e.g., the Reeve's belief that the Miller's Tale is about him because it satirizes a carpenter--that argues finally for Chaucer's "magnanimity" towards readers such as Harry Bailly, who want literature to be a mirror for their own likes and dislikes, and to whose judgment Chaucer humbly subjects himself by cutting off the parodic Sir Thopas and obliging the Host and the other pilgrims with the moralizing Melibee.
Together, "Satisfaction and Payment" and "Price and Value" show how words expressing payment, sufficiency (innogh) and value (prys) mark Chaucer and the Gawain-Poet, in Pearl, Gawain, and the Clerk's Tale, as inhabitants of a culture transitioning between chivalry and commerce. "Price and Value" also suggests a profile of the Gawain-Poet as a cleric who was so comfortable in the courtly and mercantile value systems that he accorded them "equal dignity" (186), rather than privileging one over the other. Nevertheless, as "Courtly Aesthetics" has it, the Gawain-Poet's clerical sympathies must have leaned towards the court, since in so many ways Gawain--not merely by the pentangle and green girdle that represent their bearer--uphold the ancient aristocratic association of inner virtue with outward appearance.
The essays on Malory frankly confront the jarring features of Malory's narrative: repetitive, unconnected episodes that are hard even to remember, much less to sequence; large numbers of seemingly undifferentiated characters; main characters such as Gawain who leave the narrative only to reappear as seemingly different people; a vocabulary that seems to confuse physical and moral virtues. To reduce this distance between Malory and modern readers, "Knightly Combat" suggests banishing the modern concept of literary "character" from Malory criticism, instead proposing that what should guide our reading of Malory is a cluster of keywords that structure the Morte Darthur: aventure,worship,body,departe,hole, togidir, felyship. The then-new approach to reading Malory called for in this essay is now part of the mainstream in Malory criticism. In "Narrative of Distance, Distance of Narrative," Mann focuses on how Malory's seemingly disjointed narrative together with its repeated keywords create distance between Malory's Arthurian figures and between the narrative and the reader. Patterns of separation and reunion, distance and closeness, fragmentation and wholeness, alienation and reconciliation are revealed as the structural principle of the Morte Darthur; and similarly, by alternating between events that take place on and off "stage," the narrative purposefully draws closer to and further from the reader emotionally, morally, and finally temporally. "Malory and the Grail Legend" concludes the Malory section, beginning helpfully with a summary of the grail legend before Malory before turning to the question that all first-time readers of Malory must ask: "why should the mystery of the Eucharist be the goal and climax of knightly endeavour" (318)? Mann's answer, in brief, is that the grail quest re-enacts chivalric adventure as it is presented everywhere else in the Morte Darthur: as "an elaborate interplay of distance and closeness, fragmentation and integration, separation and union" (319) in which the violent bodily ruptures of combat are sacralized on another level by the passion and death of Christ.
Mann notes in her preface (viii) that she has made stylistic improvements, but not substantive changes, to the essays; regularized the citations to follow the Toronto style sheet; and, in some places, added more recent secondary sources. I take this to mean that future citation of these fifteen essays should be to their Life in Words versions.
Jill Mann's approach to medieval literature is as easy to describe as it is difficult to practice: set aside prejudices and assumptions; let the authors speak, respecting the historical gaps between them and us; and consider the many contexts within which they speak. This collection thus reflects Mann's career-long attention to the language and culture of Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and Thomas Malory. Mann's "Author's Preface" begins with an explanatory anecdote that registers painfully at a time when the academic study of literature suffers diminishing enrollments. Mann recalls an engineer turned college bursar who routinely scoffed at people for not knowing how their cars work. (She must have had to spend far too much time in this person's company.) One day she retorted, "And I think it's disgraceful that most people use language every day and never think about what it is that they are using and how its vocabulary structures and determines their thoughts. That is what we literary scholars do" (vii). The engineer replies that he'll have to ponder that. Whether he did or not, Mann doesn't say. Thus the collection is titled Life in Words because "words have a life of their own" and because "human life is lived in words" (viii). Mann modestly declines to refer the title to her own life, lived in words, but it fits her, as well.
If for Mann, "we literary scholars" think about what language is, and how words shape and determine thought, for Mark David Rasmussen, who selected and published these essays between two covers, Jill Mann is one of the few professional medievalists who read canonical medieval authors in the humanist tradition: "Quite simply...in recent years, apart from Jill Mann's work, reading historically in order to connect with the past has been the road not taken within medieval literary studies" (xxv). In his "Editor's Introduction: Jill Mann's Patience," Rasmussen glumly announces that his aim in publishing this collection is to recall medievalists from the "estranging" historical criticism that we practice when we concentrate on topics such as manuscripts, local history, and non-canonical authors. He fears that ever since the advent of "exegetical" criticism under D. W. Robertson, medieval literature has been losing its appeal to the "non-specialist reader," who reads literature for pleasure and for meaning applicable to life (xxvii). Presuming that this book makes its way into the right hands, Jill Mann's essays, he imagines, represent the cure to the "allergy" (xxix) of overzealous historicism.
Whether the historicism of contemporary literary scholarship has alienated modern students, who are the usual non-specialist readers medievalists encounter, is debatable. My students, at any rate, have always responded well to manuscripts, local history, and non-canonical authors. However, they have responded with far more enthusiasm and intelligence to Jill Mann's work than to the work of many other professional medievalists, and this is why I am grateful for this anthology of essays by her. The best reason for collecting Jill Mann's essays is not that they might counteract current trends in medieval scholarship--because if they haven't so far, they probably won't now--but because they are such accessible, reliable, and illuminating guides to medieval literature, and because Jill Mann's eloquent critical voice so deserves to be heard and emulated.