19.12.15 Blatt, Participatory Reading in Late-Medieval England

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Jennifer N. Brown

The Medieval Review 19.12.15

Blatt, Heather. Participatory Reading in late-medieval England. Manchester Medieval Literature and Culture. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2018. pp. vii, 261. ISBN: 978-1-5261-1799 (hardback) 978-1-5261-1800-4 (ebook).

Reviewed by:
Jennifer Brown
Marymount Manhattan College
jbrown1@mmm.edu

Heather Blatt's new book productively puts medieval texts in dialogue with digital media theory. The questions that she lays out in her introduction point to her desire to examine the ways that the writers of texts interacted with, depended on, and produced in dialogue with their readers, their environments, and the materiality of their media. She suggests early on that the role of the reader's actual participation in the making of the text has been somewhat overlooked by modern critics, if not by the writers themselves who understood this dynamic: "Writers in late-medieval England imagine readers as possessing the authority to change the text, turn a page, or move away from a work, all modes of participation, and they established a discourse that emphasized these and other modes of readers' participation" (2). Blatt's introduction also lays out the history of digital theory and pushes against the idea that digital media somehow ushered in an age where reading was no longer passive, arguing that the book will demonstrate how the very active reading strategies employed by late medieval English readers--before print book culture takes firm hold--can also be seen through this lens. Later, in her first chapter, she argues that our moment today reflected in digital media and its theories is comparable to that of the late middle ages in that we are both part of a time when technology is changing the way that things are read and the ways in which reading can be participatory.

The book is divided into major sections, "Participatory discourse" and "Evoking participation," with the former taking on the ways that readers participate in the creative process ("Corrective reading" and "Nonlinear reading") and the latter the ways in which writers' strategies invoke a different kind of reading from their audiences ("Reading materially," "Reading architecturally," and "Reading temporally"). One of the great strengths of this book is the wide range of texts and genres with which Blatt engages, close reading in exciting ways texts that rarely get much critical ink. The chapter headings gesture to the main texts she looks at, and I will list these below, but every chapter reaches beyond its main focus and pulls in or parallels other contemporary writings, or speaks to texts that are the focus of other chapters, and in this way Blatt really shows how her theoretical approach can be broadly applied to the age and place she studies. I think all scholars of late medieval England could find something of value here, whatever their generic or thematic focus.

Her first chapter, "Corrective reading: Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and John Lydgate's Troy Book," examines emendation invitations from readers--a popular topos from writers that invites a kind of correcting from audiences, either named specific readers or more general ones. She reads this through the critical lens of an "closed-access" or "open-access" model of editing. Blatt uses Chaucer as the example of the former, where he speaks to specific readers (Gower, for example) to correct his errors, noting that this kind of invitation "informs us about writers' expectations regarding what work readers should or should not perform, and it highlights the diverse strategies writers employed in anticipating and shaping participation with their audiences" (31). Lydgate represents the latter model, inviting more general correction. In this model, he develops a sense of reader agency. This kind of "crowd sourcing" offers a sense of community to the writers. And the readers "participate in relationships both with the text and the writer as the objects of their correction" (43).

Blatt rounds out her "Participatory discourse" section with her second chapter, "Nonlinear reading: the Orcherd of Syon, Titus and Vespasian, and Lydgate's Siege of Thebes." Nonlinear reading is, of course, one of the central capabilities of hypertext and as such is a primary feature of digital media. Here, Blatt looks at the ways in which medieval texts can encourage or demand a nonlinear reading path, either through narration or layout. For the Orcherd, the translator's direction to read nonlinearly "promotes its interpretation as desirably consumable in an intense, lingering way" (65). Other texts demonstrate it in their layout or codices, where texts run together that are elsewhere separate, encouraging a nonlinear form. She notes that this strategy of nonlinearity is demonstrating a confidence in more sophisticated reading practices and strategies among readers, a growing familiarity with the text.

The chapters in the second section, "Evoking participation," are more narrowly focused than the first two, looking at specific kinds of reading invoked by certain texts and close reading them in relation to that idea. Chapter Three is "Reading materially: John Lydgate's 'Soteltes for the coronation banquet of Henry VI'" and expands Blatt's gaze beyond a codex into texts that are represented in what she terms "extracodexical" ways. These include things like wall hangings, vases, and other items that may have words or phrases attached to them. Subtleties were "decorative or sometimes edible tableaux presented as the culmination of a course or as a high point of an entire feast" (111). Lydgate's text describes the subtelty and then explains what it signifies. Blatt examines how the space of Westminster Palace is evoked in the text and discusses the interplay between the real item and its description.

Blatt continues to look at extracodexical texts in Chapter Four, "Reading architecturally: the wall texts of a Percy family manuscript and the Poulys Daunce of St Paul's Cathedral." Here, she examines the descriptions of two wallpaintings: those at the Percy estate described in a manuscript, and a mural in the cloister at St. Paul's Cathedral. The manuscript describes the rooms in "a rare textual anthology": where the wall texts are located, how they relate to the rooms around them, and how they may be accessed (130). This localizing gestures outside of the codex and allows the reader a kind of architectural "virtual tourism," akin to a video showing a destination. Blatt again turns to Lydgate's verses on the dance macabre later included in the Dance of Poulys mural at the Cathedral. Blatt moves easily back and forth between physical space and textual description in this chapter, herself demonstrating what she intends to prove here: how reading and moving through space are linked, and "that reading evokes both learning and inhabitation, developing a resonance between immersion in the household or cathedral and immersion in a book" (157).

Her final chapter before concluding, "Reading temporally: Thomas of Erceldoune's prophecy, Eleanor Hull's Commentary on the penitential Psalms, and Thomas Norton's Ordinal of alchemy" looks at the relationship between time and reading. Here, she cites digital media scholar Raine Koskimaa in describing four levels of temporality in a narrative digital text: user time, discourse time, story time, and system time. Blatt argues that these can map onto medieval reading practices as well, using a passage from Richard Rolle which she close reads as her example. She then turns to Thomas of Erceldoune's prophecy, which has many temporalities encoded within the poem--the narrative voice that is telling the story as it unfolds, the historical events it narrates, and future prophecies inside. A shift from a first-person narrative to a third-person narration also requires temporal work on the part of the reader. "The temporal mobility implied by the shifting perspective of the narrating point of view thus challenges readers to orient the poem temporally in relation to themselves" (179). Blatt closes the chapter by turning to Eleanor Hull's Commentary, where Hull tells her readers that they do not need to follow the text linearly, and the Ordinal of alchemy, where the author Thomas Norton encourages readers to re-read his work, but not change any of it, and suggests that rereading has its own temporalities. I found this chapter to be the most theoretically fleshed out, although every chapter clearly engages with digital media theory and demonstrates how the medieval can be read against or within it.

Blatt concludes with a postscript entitled "Nonreading in late-medieval England," showing how her book and the texts she has examined through this lens of digital media theory have demonstrated the variety of reading practices available to medieval readers--and how this practice was dependent on and interactive with its environs, its materiality, and the readers' own embodiment. She ends by looking at "nonreading," for example in the case of Chaucer's Wife of Bath, who refuses to read the book her husband wields as weapon, and Chaucer's Criseyde, who does not read a letter delivered to her by her uncle Pandarus. Blatt also argues that doodles, or writing one's name in a volume, speak to acts of nonreading as well. These are "a conspicuous moment in which the writer does not pay attention to the text" (199). In this way, a book functions differently than a website, where one can perhaps leave comments, but not interface as one may like with the text. She ends by suggesting that understanding this past of medieval participatory reading can address the concerns about literacy today and the way that the internet and computers have altered reading fundamentally--indicating that, in fact, they have not at all.

Lydgate looms large throughout and forms the core of many chapters and the satellite discussion of others; I think addressing his centrality would have been useful--why does he embody so many of the strategies and concerns that Blatt highlights here? In which ways does he depart from his contemporaries? Blatt's book also has some very useful appendices that clearly list examples of her theses--all the emendation invitations she has found are laid out in Appendix A, all references to nonlinearity are in Appendix B, and the Percy family wall texts and their locations are in Appendix C. These have the dual effect of reinforcing her argument and of generously making the material available for those who wish further study. I was impressed overall with Blatt's well written and thoughtful volume, seeing familiar texts in new ways and intrigued by ones that I did not know. It will be useful to scholars of Middle English both inside and outside of Digital Humanities.

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