Saturday, 26 May 2007

Paul Strohm (ed), Middle English (Oxford, 2007)

This volume appears as the first in a series called 'Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature'. As its editor explains in the introduction, it is not really designed to be a companion to anything. There are no 'major author' chapters for example. Instead, the chapter titles seeks to 'violate customary categorizations' (p. 2): 'Vision, Image, Text'; 'Symbolic Economies'; Episodes'; 'Feeling'; 'Learning to Live', for example. So it's not Middle English Literature or Middle English Culture or Textualities, or any such. No; we're past that very Twentieth Century approach. The result is a jumble, but very curiously pleasing. And how could a medievalist complain about such miscellaneous varietas? The book is valuable, interesting and full of gems.
There isn't the space to review every essay, though do have a look at the table of contents. The following are random thoughts and impressions. The book is divided into four parts, 'Conditions and Context', 'Vantage Points', 'Textual Kinds and Categories', and 'Writing and the World'.
Part one is very stimulating. The opening chapter, by Carol Symes, looks at the idea of the 'manuscript matrix', the complex interaction of canonical texts and canonical manuscripts. 'Nearly everything that we take for granted about the identification, classification, and evaluation of texts must therefore be subjected to rigorous scrutiny in the twenty-first century, so that we gain a new appreciation of the very different conditions in which all medieval writings came into being, while acknowledging that many of the texts that make up the medieval segment of the modern canon were elevated to that status based on a variety of criteria which does not account for the aesthetic, cultural, or social values of medieval people, nor the media through which these values were conveyed' (p. 21). [I'd have loved a bit more on Dante, especially since she cites Sanguineti's edition of the Commedia, p. 14 n18, unfortunately without comment on how this edition might have relevance to her argument]. Robert M. Stein's article, immediately following, similarly urges for a return to the manuscripts and a consideration of the codicological context of these texts in a multi-lingual environment. This issue is addressed, again, by Christopher Baswell's essay 'Multilingualism on the Page' (pp. 38-50). And later, Alexandra Gillespie in 'Books' urges a dynamic approach, implicating the likes of Foucault, MacKenzie and Adam Pynkhurst: 'If my first point is that there are lots of different ways of thinking about books, my second is that no one way of thinking about a book is secure in itself. A book is something that must be worked on and made sense of. It is discursively formed - and discursive formations, the forms of human knowledge, are partial and unstable' (p. 90). Some welcome essays surely include Bruce Holsinger's contribution entitled 'Liturgy', proceeding along a 'detheologizing' line of analysis [an approach familiar to all who've read Barolini].
And it would be remiss of me to ignore the remarkable essay entitled 'Vernacular Theology' by Vincent Gillespie (pp. 401-420), where he argues succinctly and elegantly [he rarely argues any other way] that 'vernacular theology' might now be better understood working 'with the assumption that each subperiod in medieval England produced multiple, interlocking, and overlapping vernacular theologies, each with complex intertextual and interlingual obligations and affiliations' (p. 406). His pages on Ullerston as a key figure in the Oxford translation debate will leave you hungry for more. It is hoped that this 'twenty-first century approach' will soon get another outing providing Gillespie with more space to explore and elucidate this fascinating figure.

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