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  • Singing the New Song: Literacy and Liturgy in Late Medieval England
  • Ann Sadedin
Zieman, Katherine, Singing the New Song: Literacy and Liturgy in Late Medieval England (Middle Ages), Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008; cloth; pp. xvii, 294; 6 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. US$59.95; ISBN 9780812240511.

Zieman’s work brings together a range of seemingly diverse fields – educational practices, literacy, liturgy, devotional literature, ecclesiastical politics, church history, the roles of the vernacular and Latin, and the work of Chaucer and Langland – in a densely argued exploration of aspects of reading and singing in England from the late thirteenth century to the early fifteenth. It could perhaps best be summarized as an investigation of what Zieman calls the ‘unmooring’ of various skills and activities that were originally related to choral practice. She shows how what began as contained liturgical practices developed into a much broader range of literacies and social articulations, involving new tensions between authority and privacy, externalization and internalization, public and personal, comprehension and magical uses of texts, and the evolution from these tensions of a literary language deeply informed by liturgical and devotional influences.

Chapter 1 charts the proliferation of the practices of reading and singing beyond their original choral institutional settings, examining, in particular, evidence relating to the song school. The focus in Chapter 2 is the ecclesiastical community, with much detail about tensions therein, the roles of the various players, and their influences on textual practices. Chapter 3 describes the rise of private or ‘contractual’ liturgy and its implications for the role of understanding, and Chapter 4 explores various uses of liturgical and devotional texts in a society in which such texts could be believed to have a vertu more potent when not understood. These chapters provide the groundwork for the [End Page 216] masterly analysis of devotional language and shifts in poetic voice in Langland and Chaucer in the last two chapters.

Zieman assimilates a vast amount of information and scrupulously explicates previous interpretations; indeed, she occasionally seems to be arguing against her own views, and one sometimes wishes for summaries or generalizations. Nor does she provide a general conclusion; her analysis is presented in what seem to be six closely related articles. Complex analysis relying on current theory (Althusser and Habermas are the main theorists invoked) inevitably calls for specialized language, but apart from passages of heavyweight abstractions, Zieman’s style is lucid, elegant and scholarly.

The few typographical errors are mainly omitted pronouns, which makes a reference to ‘this pubic fund of texts’ (p. 147) the more surprising. The book is handsomely produced and provided with substantial notes, bibliography and index. It should prove an invaluable resource for scholars in a range of disciplines. [End Page 217]

Ann Sadedin
University of Melbourne


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