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23.05.18 Steiner, John Trevisa’s Information Age

23.05.18 Steiner, John Trevisa’s Information Age

John Trevisa is one of the most boring or most interesting literary figures of late-fourteenth-century England. On the one hand, he was merely a workaday clerk, who translated popular Latin texts, such as Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon and Giles of Rome’s De regimine principum, into English at the behest of his aristocratic patron, Thomas de Berkeley. On the other hand, he was an Oxfordian colleague of John Wyclif, poetic contemporary of William Langland, radical glossator of universal history, bold inventor of the first alphabetical index in English, literary theorist of a vernacular “encyclopedic” style, and undisputed champion of compendious genres. In John Trevisa’s Information Age,Emily Steiner pursues this somewhat elusive latter Trevisa to identify an “alternative literary history by way of information culture” (1), all without neglecting the mundane reality of the Gloucestershire clerk, who embodies the politics of labor and patronage that underwrite vernacular translation projects of the period. The result is a brilliant work of scholarship that carefully (and at times playfully) examines Trevisa’s corpus of work--including his vernacular renderings of lengthy prose treatises, paratextual finding aids, and accumulative annotations--to identify the “properties” of a rhythmical and scientific style that (in)forms the very makings of English literature and information culture.

Steiner begins by setting the scene in “The Paris of the West,” otherwise known as Gloucestershire, and specifically within the confines of Berkeley Castle, the home of the baron Thomas de Berkeley, who appears to have supported Trevisa’s studies at Oxford in the 1380s and funded his eventual translations of Higden’s Polychronicon (1387), Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s De proprietatibus rerum (1398), and Giles of Rome’s De regimine principum (1402). Through the production of these works, Trevisa and Berkeley attempt, on a miniature and regional level, to elevate a “still unscholarly and disordered” (25) English tongue to the status of learned language that could match French prestige of Charles V’s court, the host for numerous writers and translators commissioned to produce dozens of vernacular books and to enhance the power of the ruling class. Within Berkeley’s circle, Trevisa becomes both a translator and glossator, who crafts what Steiner repeatedly calls a “vernacular metagenre,” which both renders Latin compendia into comprehensible English and amplifies the translations with curious or localized details designed to capture the attention of the English reader. In the case of the Polychronicon, Trevisa occasionally adopts a resistant disposition, inserting his own surly ripostes to Higden’s glosses, marked “R” for Ranulph, and labeling them “Trevisa,” his full last name, revealing “the English translator’s one-upmanship with the Latin compiler” (31). These annotations also reflect a writing about the past that Steiner calls “radical historiography,” which grapples with universal history to critique ecclesiastical orders and to redefine the nature of relationships between the laity and the clergy. This latter dynamic is provocatively explored in “Dialogue between a Lord and a Clerk,” a debate about the rationale for translating Higden’s immensely popular Latin compilation, which appears in five of the fourteen surviving manuscripts, as well as William Caxton’s 1482 printed edition, that contain Trevisa’s translation of the Polychronicon. Despite the Clerk’s objections that the Latin of Higden is already universal, the Lord wins the argument to make the chronicle available to English readers, a claim Steiner suggests is “modeled by the form and content of the Polychronicon itself, which extends from geography to history and from Creation to the English present,” and “an argument, not for an international community of Latinate clerks but rather for lay lordship, from which material and intellectual benefit should extend to as many people as possible” (76). Trevisa accordingly inserts annotations to Higden’s text that reflect this lay aristocratic interest and critique of the clergy, a disposition also embodied and extended by William Langland, who engages with universal history in Piers Plowman to argue for clerical disendowment. Through a thorough description of his Oxfordian education, the learned ambitions of his Gloucestershire patronage, his compendious translational practices, and his “radical” affinities with Langland’s alliterative politics, Steiner in the first three chapters convincingly establishes Trevisa’s prodigious contributions to English historiography.

Buried in the center of the book in the fourth chapter, “Alphabetical Logic,” is a somewhat unexpected gem: the claim that Trevisa produced the first alphabetical index written in the English language. Steiner is careful in the way she describes this discovery, which she acknowledges “is an impossible claim to make” (108) given the difficulty of identifying indexes in manuscripts and their regular omissions in modern editions of medieval books. Nevertheless, Steiner argues that the index, which survives in eleven manuscripts, “behaves like a first attempt at an official English alphabetical index” and reflects aspirations for English to be “an indexical language...capable of technological literary invention” (109). To support this claim, Steiner examines the Latin finding aids that inform Trevisa’s English version, especially Higden’s 1300-word index for his Polychronicon, which alphabetized entries to the third letter, an efficient and effective method that made his Latin compendium exceedingly easy to consult. By contrast, Trevisa’s index is exceedingly difficult to consult because it contains words that begin with W, thorns, and yoghs, characters that are not represented in Latin finding aids, and because Trevisa’s starting words often do not refer to traditional subjects and instead highlight juicy bits of stories, such as “Nether preveyt chose is hool, 6.9,” which describes St. Dunstan’s discovery of the incorruptibility of St. Edith’s “secret parts” upon her exhumation (123). As Steiner aptly puts it, this “tabloid index...reminds us that the history of English letters is not so easily mapped onto the history of information technology, and further, that provisional technologies offer creative solutions well worth the rediscovery” (124). While it is not definitively clear that Trevisa created this index, Steiner persuasively demonstrates though an analysis of marginal notes, a helpful appendix of the index contained in British Library, Additional MS 24194, and a comparison of the index with another anonymous translation of thePolychronicon that this finding aid is the work of the Gloucestershire translator. The chapter ends with a discussion of Caxton’s use of Trevisa’s index in his print edition of the Polychronicon and the English Concordance to the Wycliffite Bible, which both reveal a “burgeoning vernacular literary culture at once generative of vernacular finding aids and, at the same time, deeply indebted to an established--and ultimately, triumphant--tradition of Latin scholarship” (142). While Trevisa’s index may not have usurped the prestige and efficiency of its Latin contemporaries, it provides an attractive “literary” model of indexing that readers and printers reproduced in the coming centuries.

After establishing Trevisa’s mark on indexical language and universal history, the rest of the book focuses on another important segment of information culture, the medieval encyclopedia, and specifically the vernacular reception of Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s De proprietatibus rerum. Steiner observes that these Latin compendia, which host knowledge about the natural world, “were not merely sites for medieval poets to mine, but were themselves prompts for literary invention” (144). For Steiner, Trevisa’s translation of Bartholomaeus’s encyclopedia reflects the development of a cadenced prose style that we can trace into modern science writing. While we tend to associate “informational texts” with dullness, Trevisa demonstrates that “the modern distinction between literary and informational texts does not always obtain” (148). Trevisa’s approach to the encyclopedia is highly literary, recognizing the mechanisms of versification for meaning making and engaging with the aesthetic properties of natural elements. Steiner suggests that “Trevisa’s translation is neither bloated nor idiomatic but deliberately is clear that Trevisa regards encyclopedic properties as rhetorical ornaments, and he tries to capture the ornamentality of the elements by varying the syntax and multiplying properties” (157). Trevisa amplifies the literariness of his prose by making use of alliterative doublets and rhymed pairings to develop cadenced prose, thereby enhancing the sensuality of the aesthetic properties of the information he conveys to his readers.

The last two chapters continue the tale of reception for De proprietatibus rerum by turning to a French verse encyclopedia and an English print version of Trevisa’s translation. As a “parallel example” (177) and versified alternative for Trevisa’s prose rendering, Le Livre de Sydrac is a compilation of thirteenth-century Latin and French encyclopedias, such as Gossouin de Metz’s L’Image du monde. Steiner argues that these informational compendia established rhetorical, and surprisingly poetic, principles that developed into a vernacular science writing style we can detect within modern popular science publications. Despite being understudied, Sydrac was remarkably popular in its day, surviving in over fifty-three manuscripts and translated into several languages. Steiner engages with a version composed in English couplets to argue for the development of an “encyclopedic poetics,” which draws on dialogic structures and rhetorical devices that “help readers wrap their minds around things that are unknowable, abstruse, or immeasurable” (195), such as the number of grains of sand on the earth or drops of water in the ocean. In so doing, poetic encyclopedism makes information literary and accessible to a variety of readers. As we reach the sixteenth century, many encyclopedias have begun to appear in print, including numerous versions of Bartholomaeus’s De proprietatibus rerum. Steiner ends the book with a discussion of Stephen Batman’s amplification of Trevisa’s translation, Batman vppon Bartholome, which she suggests transforms “a medieval information genre in to a Renaissance megagenre” (211). Batman orients his compendium for an increasingly global and modern audience by relying on the organizational and descriptive “properties” of Bartholomaeus’s encyclopedia, which embody the logic of accumulation that informs annotation within paratextual spaces, especially the margins. Steiner examines Batman’s vocabulary to suggest that he “reclaims the text for English and England by suppressing the text’s latinity” (217), “experiments with Trevisa’s cadence, syntax, and lexis” and “mimics the rushing doublets of Trevisa’s encyclopedic style” (219). Ultimately, Batman’s updated and amplified encyclopedia affirms Trevisa’s enduring legacy of transforming the English vernacular into a literary language suitable for classifying and describing knowledge about the world.

By the end of the book, Steiner convincingly establishes that Trevisa is far from the humdrum figure he may appear to be. And in the spirit of the accessible style that Trevisa developed, Steiner accomplishes this feat through clear and engaging prose often adorned with witty turns-of-phrase. For example, as a way to characterize Trevisa’s derisive commentary on Higden’s befuddlement about the contested locations of Christ’s garment, Steiner drops a delightful “dad joke”: “tunics have a habit of going missing” (80). Steiner’s eloquence is further adorned by twenty-three illustrations, which serve as visualizations for her arguments--these are particularly useful for comprehending the idiosyncratic arrangement of Trevisa’s index. I can think of few scholarly monographs that rival this one in its balance of deft critical readings of crucial passages and comprehensive treatment of an oeuvre, all while posing questions for future work. For example, how might we track the radical politics of Trevisa’s historiography or encyclopedic style within his translation of Giles of Rome’s De regimine principum? Likewise, given the book’s occasional discussion of Trevisa’s poetics--particularly his insertion of quatrains into his Polychronicon and his consistent use of alliterative and rhyming doublets--what can we learn about late-fourteenth-century perspectives on the relationship between poetic rhythm and prose style? These questions will undoubtedly provoke others, especially for scholars of Wyclif and Langland, figures who arise prominently within Trevisa’s orbit and the margins of Steiner’s text, the very place where knowledge is designed to accumulate. For those seeking to understand the development of vernacular information culture in late medieval and early renaissance England, I cannot imagine a better figure to study than Trevisa and a better scholarly companion than this marvelous book.