Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
19.03.03 Meyer-Lee/Sanok, eds, The Medieval Literary

19.03.03 Meyer-Lee/Sanok, eds, The Medieval Literary

This difficult, dense, and richly rewarding collection of essays argues that we have an urgent need for a better history of late medieval English literature. The authors suggest that this history should 1) broaden our sense of the medieval literary beyond Chaucer and his poetry, 2) draw attention to the ways that Middle English writing was both useful and aesthetically pleasing, 3) emphasize the performative qualities of literary experience in the period, and 4) attend to historical specificity but also acknowledge that twenty-first century readers experience the medieval through the present.

The book responds to the recent history and present state of late medieval English literary criticism. When, at the close of the twentieth century, scholars of Middle English literature became invested in historical/philosophical paradigms in which the literary was understood as marked by the historical, that is, in which literature's particularity and formal instantiation are material history, the social configurations of Chaucer's world became synonymous with his poetry (Strohm's influential Social Chaucer [1989] and provides a convenient time stamp). Chaucer, then, became a major figure who defined the late medieval period on two fronts: in terms of literariness--the forms of his writing became the forms of Middle English literature as we understand it--and in terms of history--the socio-political-professional relations we can trace in his life and writing became definitive of late medieval English society and culture.

At the same time, scholars' understanding that Chaucer's works intersected with a range of discourses led to criticism that explored some of those textual and discursive traditions. Openness to form, to textual variety, and to non-literary works that broadened our understanding of Chaucer also broadened our knowledge of late medieval textuality. The outpouring of important scholarly books about English writers and written works--Margery Kempe, Richard Rolle, "insurgent writing"--from the 1990s makes it clear how significant this critical history was for expanding our understanding of late medieval English literate culture. Furthermore, this expansion is ongoing. We need consider only the most recent monographs from authors in the present collection, Seeta Chaganti's Strange Footing: Poetic Form and Dance in the Late Middle Ages (2018) and Catherine Sanok's New Legends of England: Forms of Community in Late Medieval Saints' Lives (2018), to get a sense of the range, subtlety, and learning that is characteristic of the field as it stands.

So, why do we need a new history if this work is already being done? The problem seems to lie in our as yet unfinished efforts to generalize across subfields and subspecialities so we can move beyond familiar models. At the same time that growing numbers of scholars explore a Middle Ages whose written culture has come to include women writers, devotional texts, anonymous poetry, letters, drama, and moral exempla, the literary and aesthetic history that continues to dominate the field is still Chaucerian. As Emily Steiner points out in her scintillating essay in the present volume, our history of Middle English literature "from a stylistic perspective" still "seems to reach its zenith with Geoffrey Chaucer in the 1390s" (243). Despite important books and articles that have broadened our understanding of the kinds of writing that were important in the later Middle Ages, we still struggle to incorporate that scholarship into a narrative of late medieval literary history.

The Medieval Literary: Beyond Form aims to jumpstart the work of rewriting late medieval literary history, that is, to move beyond tightly bound and familiar models to find ways to document our understanding of late medieval English literary culture by attending to the expansion of the field. The book's stated purpose is "to meditate upon the question of the relation between form and the literary, to explore its complexities, and to reach toward a set of provisional positions" and the essays in the collection do this by "reconsider[ing] the place of form both in the long-established reception of some of these texts as literary and in the presumptive exclusion of others from that category" (6). The book's chapters are divided into three categories: instrumental forms, form performed, and temporalities of form. Collectively, the local analyses construct a new history that embraces the useful as well as the aesthetically complex, involves active engagement and dynamic interaction between texts and people, and speaks beyond as well as to the historical moment in which late medieval English literature was written. The goal, to be clear, is not to loose sight of Chaucer but to place his works in a broader context.

The essays in The Medieval Literary build their claims by providing conceptual lenses that allow readers to move beyond familiar definitions of the relationships among literature, form, and history. I describe five of these lenses, summarize the individual essays briefly, and point toward ways that these local arguments reshape our understanding of late medieval textuality.

1. Thought Experiments

Steiner's essay about Richard de Bury, the last piece in the collection, performs a thought experiment: imagine that late medieval English literary history begins not with Chaucer but with the bibliophile Richard de Bury. The essay traces Bury's remarkable involvement with material books--he amasses an enormous collection, employs people who make books, and composes his Philobiblon about his collecting habits--in relation to ideas about literary value. Bury, Steiner argues, "simultaneously looks forward to the English Renaissance and backwards to medieval encyclopedic writings" (264) and his collecting shows us how medieval English literary history might be seen as "first and foremost…an issue of acquisition and conservation, rather than one of vernacularity" (259). Impatient with a history focused on texts in Middle English (Bury writes in Latin) and composed in the brief period from the late fourteenth century to the introduction of printing, Steiner makes the case for an expansive history of literature that takes into account the materiality of books, social power, and formal and linguistic variety.

2. Linguistic Patterns

The first two essays in the collection, Claire Waters's piece about Marian tales and Ingrid Nelson's concerning the lyric "erthe toc erthe" and Walter of Bibbesworth's Tretiz, both expand our definitions of the medieval literary by concentrating on linguistic patterns, repetitiveness and amplification or dilation, that are considered non-literary by modern critics. Water's essay is grounded in the modern conception of originality. An original, extraordinary literary work has been understood "to give rise to new forms" (29); Marian literature is indeed generative but it gives rise to more Marian works. In place of novelty, Waters develops a theory of the medieval literary as repetitive. In works by a thirteenth-century monk, the prolific author of Marian miracles, Gautier de Coinci, the fifteenth-century clerk of the Privy Seal, Thomas Hoccleve, and in the anonymous South English Legendary, she demonstrates that Marian miracles call on readers to reimagine "originary moments" (25) that are novel in their repetitiveness and generative in practice. Reading Marian tales becomes an aesthetic experience of repetition and readers, in Waters's analysis, become artists as their "attentive engagement with language" becomes an active practice of textual participation.

Just as Waters's essay is a meditation on a concept, repetition, that seems to count against literariness but comes, in her analysis, to define it, Nelson's is an extended discussion of dilation, which, despite modern concentration on condensation as aesthetically pleasing, she argues is typical of the medieval literary and was understood as aesthetically significant. She investigates the anonymous, widely circulating lyric "erthe toc erthe" and Walter of Bibbesworth's Tretiz, a rhymed poem which differentiates between similar sounding words and their meanings in relation to wordplay and dilation. Nelson draws attention to the generative nature of dilation as she reads across a series of versions of the lyric. When she turns to the Tretiz, she argues that in teaching language through "equivocal" wordplay the poem associates aesthetic experience and social practice.

3. Visual Landscapes

The essays by Jessica Brantley, and by Kathryn Kerby-Fulton and Andrew W. Klein both redefine the late medieval literary by drawing attention to the visual aspect of the medieval experience of reading. Brantley's "Forms of the Hours in Late Medieval England" asks if something that seems gratuitously practical, a liturgical calendar, could have been understood to be a work of literature. She analyzes Lydgate's Kalendare, a versified list of saints' days, in the context of book of hours and "fixity of form" (63). Brantley demonstrates that Lydgate's poem responds to and reshapes liturgical forms in order to contruct an aesthetically complex work. Drawing on the material and linguistic forms of books of hours, Lydgate, Brantley explains, "approximate[s] liturgical structures in a lay, vernacular, literary environment" (77). She demonstrates that the poem's aesthetic value needs to be understood as visual as much as it is verbal: the medieval literary cannot be understood if the visual dimension is dismissed.

Like Brantley's piece, Kathryn Kerby-Fulton and Andrew W. Klein's essay emphasizes the visual nature of late medieval literary practice. The authors emphasize the ways modern, printed editions obscure dynamic potential by regularizing textual arrangements that, in the manuscript context, carried meaning. They focus, first, on Harley 2253's presentation of King Horn and demonstrate how the manuscript's page layout draws attention to its place in literary tradition. The manuscript takes King Horn, a poem in aabb rhyming couplets, and arranges it in two long, rather than four short, lines. Kerby-Fulton and Klein develop the nature of manuscript performativity further by tracing manuscript representations of "bobs," the rhymed lines that follow alliterative long lines in the alliterative tradition. Manuscripts represented bobs variously, sometimes in later poems in the straightforward manner of printed editions of works but in others, like Cotton Nero A. x's representation of the bob in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, alongside the alliterative lines. They argue for the performative significance of such "floating" placement of the bob and speculate that this kind of placement was associated with experimental aesthetics.

4. Auditory Environments

Like the first four essays in the collection, the next three underscore the performative nature of the late medieval literary. Gayk, Novovich, and Bernau focus in their pieces on aurality and thus move the conversation further from fixed boundaries of language and form toward experience. Shannon Gayk's, "Idiot Psalms: Sound, Style, and the Performance of the Literary in the Towneley Shepherds' Plays," describes characters' responses to song as encoded within the Townley plays and extrapolates audience relationships to this response. The shepherds in both plays comment on the nature of their own singing performances and on angelic song. Gayk traces the "low style" of the shepherds' remarks, argues that they use the same terms for human and angelic song, and draws the audience into the productive nature of this aurality. The shepherds' "attempts at imitation of the high Latinate style…fall flat" (134) but they come, ultimately, to find "appropriate modes of praise" that bring together their "humble, earthly forms" and "divine praise" (138). This, in turn, draws audience into the dynamic process.

Like Gayk, Sarah Elliott Novacich asks what the nature of our understanding of medieval music in literature is given the fact that for us it is inaudible. Instead of pursuing the relationship between what is recorded in writing and what is not, she analyzes Sir Orfeo's absent music. Orfeo's imagined harping, she states, is not the same as a song in a manuscript that we do not hear but, rather, a symbol of the divine that goes beyond sound and a record in which performance, as a feature of music, is erased. She compares this with Dante's Paradiso, which, offers readers "an extraordinary, extra-linguistic experience at the end of a long poetic journey" and concludes by explaining that words are incapable of conveying the full experience of his vision. The essay traces a series of losses that might be associated with Orfeo--the loss of Orfeo's wife; the ephemeral nature of performance; the failure of music to offer consolation--and argues for the intertwining of loss with generative possibilities.

Anke Bernau's essay is underwritten by an understanding of translation as re-speaking. "Translating Form with Patience" proposes that there is a relationship between two kinds of translation: modern scholars' translation of Middle English poems into Modern English and the Pearl-poet's translation of biblical narrative about Jonah into the poem Patience. Her essay describes a range of responses concerning the act of literal translation from "displacement and dispossession of the original" to the opening up of new possibilities for artistic production (168). She then produces a reading of the Middle English poem in which she argues that Jonah is a figure who resists the biblical version of the story in which the prophet is God's mouthpiece. Bernau concludes by reflecting on the historical nature of late medieval translation, suggesting that debates concerning the Wycliffite Bible can be fruitfully linked to Patience's representation of Jonah as a translator.

5. Defamiliarization

Both Seeta Chaganti and Maura Nolan re-investigate the narratives of Chaucerian textuality by drawing our attention to non-medieval material. In "Terpsichorean Form: Geoffrey Chaucer's Franklin's Tale and Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty," Chaganti, like Bernau, asks how we can understand relationships between present and past in our reading of medieval literature. Chaganti's reading of Chaucer's Franklin's Tale rejects habitual responses to narrative as causal and linear. In place of modes of reading that attend only to sequential causality, Chaganti proposes a type of engagement that places observers inside the narrative itself. To explain this, she discusses Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970), a work of art, available as a film, that provides a "perceptual experience" of "directional reorientation" (196). Chaganti argues that Smithson's work is similar to the medieval experience of dance and she proposes an analysis of Dorigen's suicide speech in Chaucer's tale that "leads the reader to experience…terpsichorean participation in multidirectional perspective" (207). The medieval experience of form was, in contrast with our modern ideas, "kinetic, material, and non-textual" (210-211).

Like Chaganti's essay, Nolan's, "Illusion and Aspect in the Construction of the Face: Chaucerian Individuals, Chaucerian Types," employs contemporary visual art, Nicole Eisenman's Portrait of a Guy Smoking (2007), to make a case for Chaucer's use of form that transcends strict temporal ordering. She analyzes Troilus and The Man of Law's Tale to demonstrate the nature of the relationship between types and individuals. Her conclusion about Criseyde is illustrative of the essay's aims: "It is the paradox of form that the quality that produces Criseyde as a type is precisely that quality--her changeability--for which we know her as an individual" (240). Nolan concludes that faces are privileged sites of meaning because they are simultaneously general and unique. In her view, facial representation is "a privileged object of artistic representation" and "to represent the face is already to reflect upon the condition of art, upon representation itself"(241).

This collection teaches us to read and respond to late medieval writing as dynamic, surprising, various, and relevant both for medieval and modern readers. The book underscores the significance of both the past and the present in reading late medieval English literature. It reminds us that the most important criticism teaches us to think about how written texts create meaning rather than fixing the nature of that meaning. The Medieval Literary performs this work on every page.