restricted access Re-forming Our Early English Curricula
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Re-forming Our Early English Curricula
Form and Reform: Reading across the Fifteenth Century. Edited by Shannon Gayk and Kathleen Tonry. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011.

The essays in this collection are a persuasive reminder that we should teach the literature of the fifteenth century. The eight critics who contribute to this volume point to the dynamic historical contexts, the theoretical cruxes, and the shifting materialities of this period's oft-neglected poetry, prose, and drama. After a useful introductory essay, the collection is divided into three thematic sections.

Kathleen Tonry's introduction outlines recent critical discussions of form and its relation to material and literary histories. While some attention to the work of John Lydgate (who died in 1449) has lately brought the early fifteenth century into the purview of more medievalists, texts from the mid-to-late fifteenth century continue to fall into the gap between the so-called Middle Ages and Renaissance. This volume brings these texts forward, and it does so with a committed attention to literary forms as both aesthetic and historical artifacts. Tonry's argument for seeing form as a genuinely historical category that produces history (rather than merely reflecting it) and her summation of the pitfalls of periodization make this essay useful for the teacher of any historical literature. [End Page 371]

Section 1, "Materials of Form," explores the ways that material texts revise understandings of form. Jessica Brantley's essay examines the manuscript of the Brome Abraham and Isaac play to argue that its rubrication, usually seen as marked for dramatic performance, in fact reveals a "practice of reading" (21). She further argues that this reading practice is a kind of performative and interpretive devotion, evoking memories of dramatic performance and providing visual clues to aid a reader in making typological connections. Breaking down distinctions between drama and poetry through a close engagement with materiality, this essay is an exemplary and accessible piece of scholarship that would teach well (along with the strange Brome play itself) to upper-level undergraduates or graduate students.

Andrew Cole's essay attends to both scribal letterforms and the contextual historicity of epistles by examining a set of humanist letters written between fifteenth-century chancellors of Oxford and various heads of state. He illuminates the way that these rhetorically powerful petitionary texts contain visual and rhetorical attributes that point both backward and forward in time. Such an analysis should remind us to teach the messy bridges between defined periods of literature instead of skipping between hermetic categories. In this the most polemical essay of the book, Cole calls for the following revisions to early English studies (with which I tend to agree): to extend the category of medieval literature through the fifteenth century, to reevaluate the relations between Latin and vernacular practices, and to consider more closely language's relationship to institutional settings and structures of power. The careful paleographic and codicological work of both Brantley and Cole witnesses the usefulness of these increasingly neglected skills, which should still be taught at least at the graduate level.

Section 2, "Forms of Devotion," looks at the ways formal experimentations engage with both reformist and conserving traditions. Its essays should remind us to teach the peculiar religious climate of later Lollardy, a crucial period of pre-Reformation history. Karen Winstead writes about a book of English saints' lives by Osbern Bokenham that had long been considered lost but was discovered in 2005. The recentness of this manuscript discovery and Winstead's engagement with the text's gender politics—she argues for its "intellectual liberalism" because it glorifies intelligent women—would assure students of the contemporary relevance of fifteenth-century texts.

Shannon Gayk's essay on metaphors of eating in John Capgrave's Life of Saint Katherine demonstrates a link to the now-trendy subject of food studies. Her analysis of the text's prologue points to the delightful weirdness of some noncanonical texts; in a dream sequence, a priest balks at being ordered [End Page 372] to eat a rotting book because he is unable to comprehend the intended metaphors (of consuming words, chewing them over). This example may well be used in an...