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Handling Medieval Literature
The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Literature in English. Edited by Elaine Treharne and Greg Walker. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Coming in at 774 pages, this is a big enchiridion. By the end of Elaine Treharne's "Prologue: Speaking of the Medieval," however, the physical bulk seems less noticeable. This is because "Speaking of the Medieval," itself an excellent essay on medieval literature, is written to light the way ahead. And as one finds, the prologue models the particular combination of clarity and depth strived for in each of the following thirty-five chapters, which are grouped into five chapters each and organized within seven parts.

Part I, "Literary Production," begins with A. S. G. Edwards's exemplary short introduction to medieval textuality. The history of the scribal transmission of texts—from early monastic scriptoria through later commercial scriptoria to amateur collector-scribes and early print—is inseparable from that of the literature itself. Material, cultural, ideological, and technological developments in this history are taken up, in relation to specific texts, in this part's subsequent chapters. Part II, logically, treats literary consumption. Who was reading (or listening to) these texts? Who was paying for these manuscripts? How did they use them and keep them? Indicating why such questions are important and how they are investigated, these chapters [End Page 403] address multilingualism, genre and its relation to class and gender, romance and vernacular literacy, the educational use of texts, and, as in the case of early drama, the performance of texts. Part III, "Literature, Clerical and Lay," features chapters on the composition, transmission, and translation of texts as variously occasioned by forces Latin and English, ecclesiastical and profane. Readers, especially ones new to medieval English writing, might be surprised to find areas of continuity where rupture has been generally supposed, such as that between Anglo-Saxon and Middle English sermons, the subject of Bella Millet's contribution. Diane Watt's "Authorizing Female Piety" is valuable for its attention to women's writing and to medieval English mysticism.

Other chapters continue the discussion of mysticism and the important topic of transgressive and anticlerical writing, as well as homiletics. Part IV, "Literary Realities," deals with literature, history, and material culture. Each chapter is grounded in a historical moment when texts have found a conduit between the abstract and the concrete. These occasions are popular rebellion, historiographical practice, the nascent secular drama, and—in an especially engaging chapter by Gillian Rudd on the Middle Scots poet William Dunbar—flowers. Medieval subjectivity cannot be equated with modern psychological categories of awareness, and medieval autobiography was a rhetorical event more often than a revelatory one. Part V, "Complex Identities," takes on the fascinating problem of individual personhood in the Middle Ages. Chapters in this part explore medieval ideas of race, nationality, and religion, as well as different ways of approaching the topic and designation of "Englishness." Part VI, "Literary Place, Space, and Time," explores the effect of national, regional, and linguistic differences within the borders of England, which included subaltern states Wales, Ireland, and Scotland and whose center was increasingly recognized as London. The formation of particular reading communities and the geography of romance are also addressed. This part, in many ways continuous with part V, will be important reading for those interested in the question of English national identity. Part VII, "Literary Journeys," addresses the recognition of a broader geography— both political and imaginative—which includes pilgrimage, migration myths, and the attraction and repulsion of the exotic and monstrous. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's chapter here on John Mandeville's Travels is detailed and illuminating. Alfred Hiatt's chapter on maps, illustrated with examples, is fascinating for its insights into the physical world medieval people thought they lived in.

The volume concludes with coeditor Greg Walker's epilogue, titled [End Page 404] "When Did 'the Medieval' End? Retrospection, Foresight, and the End(s) of the English Middle Ages." Historical periods are our own invention, and probably a necessary one, but, as Walker writes, "we think we know where they are, but as soon as we look at them more closely, certainty ebbs away in a miasma of...