16.04.04, Somerset and Watson, eds., Truth and Tales

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Yin Liu

The Medieval Review 16.04.04

Somerset, Fiona, and Nicholas Watson, eds. Truth and Tales: Cultural Mobility and Medieval Media. Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2015. pp. xiv, 360.. ISBN: 978-0-8142-1271-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Yin Liu
University of Saskatchewan
yin.liu@usask.ca

The subtitle of this volume, "Cultural Mobility and Medieval Media," is perhaps an attempt to appeal to potential readers coming from the trendy field of media studies, but the only real "new media" aspect of this collection of essays is the fact that it is available, as are other titles published by Ohio State University Press, both in traditional print format and in pdf files on a less costly CD-ROM. Otherwise the material herein contained is simply good solid scholarship, the type of historically informed and aesthetically sensitive writing that is still the strength of medieval studies, and it has no need of any media-theory spin to make it valuable or relevant to a reader at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

In their preface to this collection, editors Fiona Somerset and Nicholas Watson present us with an engaging image of a scholar at work: he is surrounded by bookshelves, a northern English ballad is playing from the speakers of his computer, and the floor is covered with towering stacks of books and papers. The colleague thus fondly pictured from memory is Richard Firth Green, for whom this volume is a festschrift, based on papers presented in 2012, at a special meeting, in his honour, of the Canada Chaucer Seminar. The honouree has contributed the first chapter in the collection, on two medieval exempla he calls "The Vanishing Leper" and "The Murmuring Monk," demonstrating convincingly that they are, in effect, urban legends. Since one defining characteristic of medieval urban legends, as of their modern counterparts, is that they are fictional tales believed to be true, Green draws our attention, as he has done in so much of his previous work, to the historically contingent meanings of "truth" in contexts where oral and literate narrative forms make sometimes similar, sometimes disparate, truth-claims--as in late medieval England, which is the common ground of the essays in this book.

The editors have attempted to provide a framework for the collection by grouping all but the first and last papers into three main sections of four chapters each. The first section, "Repetition and Continuity: The Claims of History," is the most coherent, featuring papers that explore the literary dimensions of particular historical moments. Thomas Hahn's chapter, "Don't Cry for Me, Augustinus," compares Augustine's response to Virgil's Dido, in the fourth century, to Chaucer's in the fourteenth; while both men expect readers to react emotionally to Dido's story of loss and betrayal, Augustine deplores such emotionalism, seeing it as immature and undisciplined, while Chaucer, who repositions Dido as a medieval romance heroine, assumes it to be a natural, even a learned, response to successful literary technique. In Stephen Yeager's rich essay, "The New Plow and the Old," the word "plow," which in Middle English was both a farm implement and a unit of arable land, is the focus of debates about orality, literacy, law, and just taxation in Piers Plowman. M. J. Toswell's chapter on "The Exegesis of Tears" addresses the question of whether Lambeth Homily 17, preserved in a twelfth-century manuscript containing other homilies with Anglo-Saxon precedents, was likewise based on an Anglo-Saxon homily now lost, or was a twelfth-century creation; and Toswell concludes that the dichotomy between continuity and original creation is in this context somewhat of a false binary. Fiona Somerset's chapter, "Mingling with the English," investigates ways in which Layamon's Brut, especially in its animal similes, breaks down any neat correlation between land, people, and language in the history of Britain, presenting its readers with a history in which the inhabitants of Britain have always intermingled in complex ways.

The heading of the next section, "Cultural Divides and Their Common Ground," attempts to find a unifying paradox in an irreducible diversity of essays. In "Unquiet Graves," Alastair Minnis, who has been recently working on histories of paradise, describes a confidently orthodox view, from the fourteenth-century English poem Pearl, of human relationships in paradise. Michael Johnston's chapter on "Mercantile Gentility" in an exemplum from Cambridge University Library MS Ff.2.38 raises fascinating points of connection between this little-known tale of a rascally franklin and his generous merchant son, and the far better-known Franklin's Tale by Chaucer. The "Resident Aliens" of Lisa J. Kiser's essay are medieval mice, trespassers of boundaries between animal and human spaces. Barbara A. Hanawalt's chapter, "Toward the Common Good," on food-related fraud in medieval London and legal attempts to curb it, is full of wonderful insights into literary instances, especially from Chaucer.

The section entitled "New Media and the Literate Laity" contains a great deal of material on lay literacy but not so much on "new media," a term somewhat misleadingly used here, since the only medium discussed in this chapter that was new even in the Middle Ages is print. Nicholas Watson's chapter, "The Ignorance of the Laity," places the Twelve Tracts on Bible Translation from Cambridge University Library MS Ii.6.26 in the context of fifteenth-century concern over lay illiteracy in England. Two possible responses were to insist on the virtue of not being overeducated (as in Langland, where the Plowman is the leader of spiritual reform), or, conversely, to push for improved education of the laity; but Watson points out that these two alternatives were rhetorical positions not always achieved in practice, where responses were more nuanced and adaptive. In "York Merchants at Prayer," Robyn Malo argues, through an examination of confessional formulas in the Bolton Hours, that such formulas are a distinctive vernacular genre that reflects lay rather than clerical thought. Kathleen E. Kennedy's "A London Legal Miscellany" studies one such miscellany, "Arnold's Book," to enrich our understanding of the transition from manuscript to print in England, observing that legal miscellanies of this sort were as commonly produced and circulated as were genres that have received greater scholarly attention, such as books of hours. In "Tourists and Tabulae," Michael Van Dussen, starting from a detail in Chaucer's House of Fame, discusses a fascinating instance of medieval public textuality, inscribed plaques mounted on walls or monuments.

If the papers collected in this book, despite the editors' ingenious structural scheme, sometimes resist easy classification, the final chapter of the collection is clearly positioned to invite comparison with Richard Firth Green's opening piece. Andrew Taylor's "Oral Performance and the Force of the Law" juxtaposes the song of Taillefer before the Norman army at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 with the song of Mary Johnston, chief Antgulilibix of the Gitxsan people, during legal proceedings for a land claim at Smithers, British Columbia, Canada, in 1984. Just as Green uses the modern concept of the urban legend to understand medieval exempla, Taylor shows that an appreciation of the force of oral performance at a turning point of medieval history can inform debates over the value of oral performance in modern legal processes.

This framing of the collection between studies of the historically situated meanings of "truth" in oral and literate contexts effectively reminds us that other ways of clustering these papers are possible, and that other commonalities may emerge. Certainly all these papers deal, in some way, with the complex relationship between truth and tales, and with the dynamic interactions of literature, law, and history in late medieval England--recognisably areas in which Richard Firth Green has done foundational work. In this respect, the essays in this volume, all of high quality and scrupulously edited, are a testament to the importance and influence of that work. As I read through the book, I found myself constantly asking new questions, and learning of new texts that I would like to investigate. Surely this is in itself a sign of successful scholarship.

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