The Ohio State University Press

Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture

Edited by Ethan Knapp

Published by: The Ohio State University Press

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Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture

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Inventing Womanhood

Gender and Language in Later Middle English Writing

In Inventing Womanhood, Tara Williams investigates new ideas about womanhood that arose in fourteenth-century Britain and evolved throughout the fifteenth century. In the aftermath of the plague and the substantial cultural shifts of the late 1300s, female roles expanded temporarily. As a result, the dominant models of maiden, wife, and widow could no longer adequately describe women’s roles and lives. Middle English writers responded by experimenting with new ways of representing women across a variety of genres, from courtly poetry to devotional texts and from royal correspondence to cycle plays. In particular, writers coined new terms, including “womanhood” and “femininity,” and refashioned others, such as “motherhood.” These experiments allowed writers to develop and define a larger idea of womanhood underlying more specific identities like wife or mother and to re-imagine women’s relationships to different kinds of authority—generally masculine and frequently religious. By exploring the medieval origins of some of our most important gender vocabulary, Inventing Womanhood defamiliarizes our modern usage, which often treats those terms as etymologically transparent and almost limitlessly capacious. It also restores a necessary historical and linguistic dimension to gender studies, providing the groundwork for reconsidering how that language and the categories it creates have determined the ways in which gender has been imagined since the Middle Ages.

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Revivalist Fantasy

Alliterative Verse and Nationalist Literary History

Revivalist Fantasy: Alliterative Verse and Nationalist Literary History by Randy P. Schiff contributes to recent conversations about disciplinary history by analyzing the nationalist context for scholars and editors involved in disseminating the literary historical theory of an Alliterative Revival. Redirecting Alliterative Revivalism’s backward gaze, Revivalist Fantasy re-engages with the local contexts of select alliterative works. Schiff revises readings of alliterative poetry as Francophobic, exploring the transnational imperialist elitism in the translation William of Palerne. He contributes to the discussion of gender in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by linking the poem’s powerful female players with anxieties about women’s control of wealth and property in militarized regions of England. The book also explores the emphatically pre-national, borderlands sensibilities informing the Awntyrs off Arthure and Golagros and Gawane, and it examines the exploitation of collaborative composition in the material legacy of the Piers Plowman tradition. Revivalist Fantasy concludes that Revivalist nationalism obscures crucial continuities between late-medieval and post-national worlds and that critics’ interests should be channeled into the forging of connections between past and present rather than suspended in the scholarly pursuit of origins. The book will be of interest to scholars of editorial history and translation studies and to those interested in manuscript studies.

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Scribal Authorship and the Writing of History in Medieval England

Based on new readings of some of the least-read texts by some of the best-known scribes of later medieval England, Scribal Authorship and the Writing of History in Medieval England reconceptualizes medieval scribes as authors, and the texts surviving in medieval manuscripts as authored. Culling evidence from history writing in later medieval England, Matthew Fisher concludes that we must reject the axiomatic division between scribe and author. Using the peculiarities of authority and intertextuality unique to medieval historiography, Fisher exposes the rich ambiguities of what it means for medieval scribes to “write” books. He thus frames the composition, transmission, and reception—indeed, the authorship—of some medieval texts as scribal phenomena. History writing is an inherently intertextual genre: in order to write about the past, texts must draw upon other texts. Scribal Authorship demonstrates that medieval historiography relies upon quotation, translation, and adaptation in such a way that the very idea that there is some line that divides author from scribe is an unsustainable and modern critical imposition. Given the reality that a scribe’s work was far more nuanced than the simplistic binary of error and accuracy would suggest, Fisher completely overturns many of our assumptions about the processes through which manuscripts were assembled and texts (both canonical literature and the less obviously literary) were composed.

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Trading Tongues

Merchants, Multilingualism, and Medieval Literature

Trading Tongues offers fresh approaches to the multilingualism of major early English authors like Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, Margery Kempe, and William Caxton, and lesser-known figures like French lyricist Charles d’Orléans. Juxtaposing literary works with contemporaneous Latin and French civic records, mixed-language merchant miscellanies, and bilingual phrasebooks, Jonathan Hsy illustrates how languages commingled in late medieval and early modern cities. Chaucer, a customs official for the Port of London, infused English poetry with French and Latin merchant jargon, and London merchants incorporated Latin and vernacular verse forms into trilingual account books. Hsy examines how writers working in English, Latin, and French (and combinations thereof) theorized the rich contours of polyglot identity. In a range of genres—from multilingual lyrics, poems about urban life, and autobiographical narratives—writers found venues to consider their own linguistic capacities and to develop new modes of conceiving language contact and exchange. Interweaving close readings of medieval texts with insights from sociolinguistics and postcolonial theory, Trading Tongues not only illuminates how multilingual identities were expressed in the past; it generates new ways of thinking about cultural contact and language crossings in our own time.

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Translating Troy

Provincial Politics in Alliterative Romance

For Geoffrey Chaucer and many of his contemporaries, the literary life of England began in ancient Troy. In Translating Troy: Provincial Politics in Alliterative Romance, Alex Muellerexplores Middle English alliterative romances that challenge this genealogical fantasy and decentralize Troy as the eastern origin of western authority. Until the sixteenth century, the Trojans were widely believed to be the ancestors of the English people: the destruction of Troy led to the birth of Rome and eventually the foundation of a New Troy in Britain. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the fall of Troy was such a popular subject that the production of Troy books became an industry in itself. Products of a northern network of alliterative poets, the poems Mueller investigates resist the pervasive fashion to envision England as the inheritor of imperial power. Translating their Latin sources into concussive verse well suited for the rhythm, pace, and spectacular violence of battle, the poems belie enthusiasm about Trojan ancestry through critiques of the chivalric practices cherished by the metropolitan nobility. The consistency of their metrical choice, militaristic subjects, and anti-imperialistic sentiment suggest that these northern romances emerged from a Trojan word-hoard of provincial skepticism toward aristocratic claims to sovereignty. 

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Truth and Tales

Cultural Mobility and Medieval Media

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In the medieval period, as in the media culture of the present, learned and popular forms of talk were intermingled everywhere. They were also highly mobile, circulating in speech, writing, and symbol, as performances as well as in material objects. The communication through and between different media we all negotiate in daily life did not develop from a previous separation of orality and writing, but from a communications network not unlike our own, if slower, and similarly shaped by disparities of access. Truth and Tales: Cultural Mobility and Medieval Media, edited by Fiona Somerset and Nicholas Watson, develops a variety of approaches to the labor of imaginatively reconstructing this network from its extant artifacts. Truth and Tales includes fourteen essays by medieval literary scholars and historians. Some essays focus on written artifacts that convey high or popular learning in unexpected ways. Others address a social problem of concern to all, demonstrating the genres and media through which it was negotiated. Still others are centered on one or more texts, detailing their investments in popular as well as learned knowledge, in performance as well as writing. This collective archaeology of medieval media provides fresh insight for medieval scholars and media theorists alike.

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