20.02.02 Hanna, Patient Reading / Reading Patience

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John F. Plummer

The Medieval Review 20.02.02

Hanna, Ralph. Patient Reading/Reading Patience: Oxford Essays on Medieval English Literature. Exeter Medieval Texts and Studies. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2017. pp. xii, 370. ISBN: 978-1-78694-055-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
John F. Plummer
Vanderbilt University, emeritus

Patient Reading / Reading Patience consists of four parts: a set of five essays on language, literacy, grammar and reading in late medieval England; a set of four essays on book production in that same time and place; a set of essays which seek to move out from particular books to develop a clearer sense of the reading community for which those books were produced; and finally four chapters focused on the figure of Patience in Piers Plowman. Eleven of the thirteen initial essays are reprinted, largely unrevised, "excepting some updating of references and, in two cases (essays 4 and 7) the provision of addenda at the end" (xi).

The first essay, "Literacy, Schooling, Universities," lays the foundation for all that follows, exploring in some detail what it meant to be literate, or "grammatical," in the late middle ages. Hanna makes the point that medieval literacy differed from modern "ocular" literacy in being primarily oral; students attended lectures and engaged in disputations; they were unlikely to sit a written exam, but rather expected to demonstrate an ability to translate a French or English sentence into Latin ex tempore. Here and in the second essay, "Vernacular Exegesis in Fourteenth-Century England," Hanna stresses the importance of oral instruction in fostering and developing what he calls "commentative thinking." Such thinking was on display from the pulpit in sermons filled with allusions, exempla, analogies and figures. Additionally, commentative discourse would engage in multiple citations of biblical, patristic, classical and scientific texts. Sermons constructed in such a commentative style "are always moving away from English contexts and suggestively setting audiences on their way to the richness of non-biblical and non-English materials of all sorts, from classical literature to history to bits of moralized natural science" (45).

The third essay concerns itself with the problem of English vernacularity, taking as its starting point Lambeth Palace Library MS 260, which contains The Northern Homily Cycle and The Prick of Conscience. The manuscript has been offered as a testimony to the growth of English vernacular literary consciousness, a proposition which Hanna flatly rejects. He notes that these texts make up 60% of the volume, and the rest, almost all in the same scribe's hand, is Latin: sermons, sermon outlines, exemplum materials, and a highly detailed Latin "tabula" to The Prick of Conscience. Using the attempts of Carleton Brown and R. H. Robbins to identify and record instances of English verse in this and other similar manuscripts, Hanna argues that such texts--as presented in the manuscripts--inhabit a "hazy linguistic frontier," and are misrepresented as "literary," let alone "lyric." It is unknown whether the sermons were delivered in Latin or English, and the scribes give no indication on the page of linguistic boundaries or prose vs. verse boundaries. At least one of the sermons exists in other manuscript versions, and comparing them makes clear that the lines between English and Latin are fluid indeed, one manuscript having Latin where others record English, and the texts often shifting back and forth within a single sentence.

In "Editing Middle English Lyrics," Hanna takes up the instance of one of the most prominent of Middle English devotional lyrics, printed on the first page of Brown's edition of fourteenth century religious lyrics, beginning "Wyth was hys nakede brest and red of blod hys syde," a meditation on the sufferings of the crucified Christ. The problem with regarding this text as an "original native effusion" is that it is a translation of a Latin text which accompanies it in all the manuscripts. A careful reading and comparison of the examples allows Hanna to argue that the scribes were "thinking through" the Latin text, seeking the most accurate English equivalent. In their sermon context, the Latin and English versions constitute a starting point from which a meditation on the crucifixion could be developed, and a plausible reason for the existence of so many such items is their portability: "Snatches such as these provide what an audience can remember, and carry away from church for private devotion" (75).

In "Performing Exegesis: Lyric and Sermon in Cambridge University Library, MS Gg.6.26," Hanna takes up again the English/Latin "Wyth was hys naked brest / Candet nudatum pectus" to illustrate how it could operate performatively in the context of an Easter sermon. Commentative reading, during which the student is trained in "apposition," oral translations of English or French statements into proper Latin and vice versa, offered the opportunity for play, for the demonstration of verbal performative skill. Nowhere was this playful skill more in evidence than in such sermons. The "lyric," embedded in a sermon, serves less as affective language per se as "an introduction of topics to be developed" in the course of the sermon.

"Lambeth Palace Library, MS 487: Some Problems of Early Thirteenth-century Textual Transmission" opens the second part of Patient Reading: "Nasty Books: Collection Procedures." The Lambeth manuscript consists of homiletic materials, some Old English and some Middle. As had been previously established, the book joins two sources, one using an Old English graphemic system, and the other Middle English. Based on codicological evidence, Hanna concludes that the scribe switched back and forth between these sources, and had originally intended to produce a smaller book, but ended up extending it as materials became available, and finished by "concluding" the volume four or five times. Comparing Lambeth to two other homiletic manuscripts containing some of the same texts, Hanna argues that, though the textual overlap of Lambeth and two British Library manuscripts had led earlier researchers to hypothesize a central center of production of a particular spirituality (e.g. the "Katherine Group"), the codicological evidence implies "a much less centralized and organized group of texts, available only fitfully and sporadically to book producers and the readers they served" (206).

"Producing Magdalen College MS lat. 93" turns to another "nasty book." John Dygon, lawyer, secular priest, and finally a recluse at Sheen, donated at least nineteen volumes to Magdalen, and was active in their production, as both supervisor and scribe. The volume under consideration is extremely difficult to describe, consisting primarily of sermons and homilies. An original index of the book indicates that Dygon produced the manuscript as a series of independent booklets, and that he conceived of arranging them in different orders and groupings. Thus, MS lat. 93 may represent a "last" rather than "final" arrangement.

"A Fifteenth-century Vernacular Miscellany Revisited" considers the materials involved in the discovery by Kathleen Smith in 1966 that seven Bodleian books, mostly in the Rawlinson collection, originally constituted a single medieval book. The material is the work of three scribes, and was produced originally as a series of fascicles. Hanna sets out to reconsider the materials' watermarks, to extend Scott's analysis of the fascicles, and to use these analyses to offer new suggestions about the original medieval book. The case is highly complex, since the original volume was broken and rebound, then rebound in an order differing from the original, and then re-rebound by Rawlinson: "there is evidence for at least three separate bindings of these materials," and Hanna seeks to reconstruct the original medieval ordering of the materials and their production. Considering the watermark evidence and the medieval scribes' system of signatures, Hanna concludes that "while there seems...no indication that the booklets are anything but unified in their production, there is a real question as to whether they were so in their binding. It is perfectly plausible to assume that there are two 'books' here." Pursuing the evidence of marks of readership/ownership in the material, Hanna argues persuasively that we can "place the 'vernacular miscellany' in a single context, the London Mercers' Company, by 1519 at the latest" (135).

"Humphrey Newton and Bodleian Library MS Lat. Misc. c. 66" examines the case of a late fifteenth / early sixteenth century commonplace book produced by a country gentleman of Cheshire, which R. H. Robbins, in the course of compiling his Index of Middle English Verse, had offered as evidence of "the penetration of the Chaucerian lyric style into the hinterlands" (145). The volume does indeed include some literary pieces, or pieces of pieces, including 27 lines of Chaucer's Parson's Tale, a few lines of the Knight's Tale, and a brief excerpt from the Brut. But Hanna argues persuasively that even these brief belletristic fragments seem to have been recorded more for their instrumental value than their beauty, and make up only a small portion of the whole volume. Among other kinds of texts are found prophecies, calligraphic exercises, templates for legal documents, physiognomies, charms, instructions on table settings, formulas for writs, genealogies, and pedigrees. Prayers and pardons are also included, specifically in forms that suggest they were viewed as investments, recorded "in the form of an account roll" (158). So while the volume does attest to Newton's access to Middle English literature, the volume he produced suggests a late medieval Cheshire literary culture that was markedly pedestrian and instrumentalist in temper.

"Yorkshire Writers" examines a number of late fourteenth century Yorkshire books to make the case for "the precocity of vernacular literary composition in the north of England" (162). Hanna gives particular attention to BL MS Cotton Galba E.ix, taking it to suggest a "sense of what should belong between two boards and to the rich stock of texts available in Yorkshire" during this period; its texts include the Prick of Conscience, Ywain and Gawain, The Seven Sages, and political/historical poems by Laurence Minot. Hanna traces the work of the scribes of this manuscript in others, and argues, primarily on the evidence of four particular manuscripts, for "an extensive transmissional community sharing both texts and production procedures" (170). Hanna pursues these northern scribes and these books in the following chapter, "Some North Yorkshire Scribes and Their Context," seeking to "localize the textual community most likely to have produced, and then to have first used, these substantial volumes" (183). That community, Hanna shows, was centered in Ripon, a market town, producer of woolen cloth, and home to its minster, both a collegiate church and a parochial one, serving a large parish. The minster ran two schools, a choristers' school and a grammar school, which the minster was required to staff. Ripon also had two hospitals, one endowed sufficiently to house six clerics, and the other providing bed and board for four poor scholars, "that is, fodder for the grammar school" (190).

In "Dr Peter Partridge and MS Digby 98," Hanna examines a manuscript, produced in Oxford by Partridge during the early years of the fifteenth century, containing Latin texts and indexes of texts of an anti-mendicant and Wycliffite bent. He then notes resonances between Digby's texts and Lollard, anti-mendicant texts produced in Middle English during the same period, most notably in Pierce the Plowman's Creed and "Friar Daw's Reply [to Jack Upland]." Arguing against the idea that Lollardy died out among Oxford schoolmen in the early 1400s, Hanna notes that Digby 98 includes an anthology of materials that also exist in vernacular form. These anglicized renditions are contemporary with the manuscript itself. They show parallels with Oxford [Latin] reading...devoted to the free preaching of Scripture and vernacular instruction" and suggest that the Oxonians "aimed to export their unorthodoxy to a new generation of academic...and nonacademic institutions" (237).

In "John of Wales and 'Classicising Friars,'" Hanna seeks to revalue the work of a number of fourteenth century Oxford friars whose use of classical materials in their exegetical work led Beryl Smalley to regard them as misrepresenting the historical qualities of such materials. As Hanna argues, at this point Oxford friars, though not humanists, had been working with classical texts for 75 years, going back to the work of Nicolas Trevet. John of Wales in particular finds examples of Christian virtues in many kinds of texts, and sees a continuity of effort between ancient philosophers, the apostles, and modern preachers; writers like John and Robert Holcot were intent on using the literary, memorable qualities of classical materials to give Christian moral topics "a certain kind of pleasurable life and memorial hold" (261).

"Still Harping On--Reading (:) Patience in Piers Plowman" brings the arguments of the earlier chapters into the service of a reading, most particularly of the figure of Patience in B Passus 13. As Hanna makes clear, the reading is not offered as an explication de texte, let alone a comprehensive reading of Piers; rather he reads as one who has been trained in a specific manner of reading, as outlined and demonstrated in the early essays on grammar and his 1978 essay. He is especially eager to show this reader's awareness that Piers is first and foremost a poem, a fact he feels is too often forgotten. Hanna makes a distinction between Langland's "writing voice" and his "dreamer voice," the latter modelling the poem's bad reader: "Such individuals tend to be...totalizing in approach, insensitive to nuance, incapable of getting past ingrained ideas, and in pursuit of what Langland's poetry notoriously refuses to provide, absolute explicitness of expression" (285). Langland's idealized audience, by contrast, will be those trained in grammar school and beyond in "commentative reading," deploying a trained memory and sensitivity to allusion and fine distinctions. An example of Hanna's sense of "accurate poetic memory" (289) is employed in his noticing an echo between two different scenes. In B 13.29, Patience is introduced as standing in a place: "Ac Pacience in þe Paleis stood in pilgrimes cloþes." Hanna suggests Patience is a stand-in for Piers himself, based on the echo here of B 10.463-68 and its insistence on the efficacy of pure "bileue," which allows "Souteres and shepheredes; swich lewed luttes / Percen with a Paternoster þe paleys of heuene." Another, and somewhat strained, example of the "grammarian's memory" is the argument that the B 11.250-55a passage alluding to Luke 10:38-42 must trigger an echo of the (uncited) sollicita es of the Vulgate, which will then remind us of Piers' statement in Passus 7 that "We sholde noȝt be to bisy aboute the worldes blisse / ne solicite sitis he seith in the gospel." The discussion of Patience and poverty, its frequent companion throughout Piers is, as Hanna notes, suffused with sollicitus, and in his view reading the poem "requires engaging with the poet's fundamentally commentative imagination, his product created from a rumination on a remembered text" (297).

Another example of commentative reading's deployment of trained memory and active sensitivity to the possibilities of allusions brings together in very suggestive ways the images of the parable of the feast, Luke 14:21-23, and 2 Corinthians' account of Paul's travails, which latter Hanna suggests might have read to Langland like a quest narrative, and Piers himself as a Pauline figure, engaged in an "labouring pilgrimage" on behalf of the Lord, all arising from Conscience's dinner party. Conscience is perhaps an exemplar of the "writer's voice's" idealized audience for the poem, eager to learn the lessons Patience has to offer. In B 13.158-63a, Patience echoes Paul's account of his vicissitudes and offers a model for a proper acceptance, even welcoming embrace of them. Patience's references to fire and flood here invoke Paul's shipwreck of sin and simultaneously the patience which allows one to endure such tribulations. Hanna suggests that Langland saw in these Pauline materials similarities to his dreamer's and to Piers' experiences, so that Paul's travels and travails become a kind of "labouring pilgrimage" while Piers' labor in his furrows can be read as a struggle to combat the fames Paul invokes. Whether or not one is persuaded in every detail of these readings, one is thoroughly impressed by the mastery here and potential power of "commentative reading."

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