- Author, Reader, Book: Medieval Authorship in Theory and Practice ed. by Stephen Partridge and Erik Kwakkel
In his Introduction to this collection of essays, Stephen Partridge describes the origins of the book as explored in a workshop at the University of British Columbia in 2004. The specific task of the workshop was to assess the continuing impact of Alastair Minnis’s influential book on Medieval Theory of Authorship (1984). Minnis’s book was based on medieval Latin scholars’ views on authorship as expressed in their introductions to academic and scriptural auctores. A final chapter adumbrated the influence of the medieval Latin tradition on vernacular writers. The purpose of the present book is to extend further the consideration of the concept and role of the author in medieval writings in English, French, and Dutch, with two essays also on Latin writers. A collection of essays dealing with such different writers and covering such a long span of time is inevitably unruly, and Partridge’s heroic attempt to demonstrate their coherence in relation to the theme of authorship—how individual authors announced and promoted themselves, how manuscripts emphasized their importance, how readers reacted to them—is strained.
The first essay, that of Minnis, here by an act of grace, has little to do with the book, since Minnis is really trying to fill in a gap in his own work, not on authorship but on medieval literary criticism. The problem that he did not deal with in his book on the subject is that the books of the Bible reveal themselves in literary analysis to have all the characteristics of poetry—being representational, figurative, imaginative, even fictive—as well as the power of moving people to virtue. In so far as they partake of the “ethical poetic,” does theology become a branch of ethics? The point was contentious and was labored to and fro. Many familiar authorities are cited. The next essay, by Sebastian Coxon, is on Walter Map and deals with a general literary function of authorship, that is, how authors adopt a distinctive way of talking about themselves—Map presents himself as witty, satirical, socially unprivileged—so that they become well-known as authorial personae. The essay is slight, and much space is devoted to quotations of Map’s witticisms at others’ expense, which have not worn well. The third essay, by Erik Kwakkel, offers analysis of single-author manuscript collections in Middle Dutch. He discusses how such collections were put together—whether in booklets or groups of booklets, whether written by different scribes, whether brought together at different times, whether with additions made to existing quires or new quires added to complete such additions. He is extraordinarily and minutely systematic at every level, and especially given to establishing an exact nomenclature—production units, extended production units, usage units, and so on. It is a taxonomy remarkable for its precision, accuracy, and serviceableness, and in its own way technically fascinating. A particular mark of its strength is that it is readily capable of being replicated with single-author collections from other languages and traditions, and even with genre-based collections. The problem with the essay in the present volume is that, though it does have to do with authorship, in that single-author collections assert the importance of the author in the most obvious way, authorship is merely a “given” of the argument, and not discussed any further in the terms set out for the volume.
There follow five essays on the more usual vernaculars. Anita Obermeier takes on a truly Herculean task in attempting to set The Manciple’s Tale at the center of Chaucer’s concern with authorship by showing how in a veiled way limitation [End Page 377] on free speech (the crow’s) is analogous to censorship of the author, with suggestions of the dangers of speaking out against it (as for Gower) in the days of a tyrant (Apollo, Richard II) and allusions to the fate of Ovid...