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  • Singing the New Song: Liturgy and Literacy in Late Medieval England
  • Jay Diehl
Katherine Zieman. Singing the New Song: Liturgy and Literacy in Late Medieval England. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. Pp. 312. 6 illus. ISBN: 9780812240511. US$59.95 (cloth).

Katherine Zieman's study of the intersections between the liturgy and emergent literate practices in late medieval England is dense with excellent insights and will be a valuable resource for scholars of the literature, literacy, spirituality, and education of any period of the Middle Ages. In the book's compact preface, Zieman establishes several intertwined goals for her study. The first, and chief among them, is to suggest that the various well-known innovations in manipulations of the written word in fourteenth-century England should be linked not only to the rise of the vernacular but also to the changing role of textualized Latinate processes, particularly the liturgy. Following from this observation, Zieman challenges developmental models of literacy that see modes of ritual behavior as increasingly replaced by literate practices. Third, Zieman wants to treat the liturgy less as a self-contained ritual and more as a continuous process of ritualization, a stance that allows her to weave together multiple perceptions of the liturgy and so more easily accommodate the idea of ritual behavior within literate practices. The study that results from these objectives is an elegant exploration of the ways in which liturgical changes impacted the development of literacy, largely accomplished through an examination of the ways in which liturgical reading and singing became detached from their institutional contexts and recontextualized in other domains of cultural practice (a fact that, as Zieman notes, actually suggests an increase of liturgical activity during this period).

This process and its myriad implications are worked out across six chapters, four of which are historically inclined, two of which steer more toward literary analysis. The first chapter explores the relationship between liturgy and education, particularly grammatical education. Although [End Page 136] Zieman posits perhaps too stable a relationship between liturgy and learning prior to the fourteenth century, she convincingly demonstrates that the growth of song schools and emergence of choristers destabilized the meaning of liturgical "reading and singing" in relation to grammar and the relationship between these two activities. This led, in Zieman's terms, to the "unmooring" of reading and singing from their institutional context, transforming both the social relations coded in liturgy and attitudes toward grammatical training (38). The second chapter turns to the idea of "choral community" and a second form of destabilization, that of the link between clerical identity and literacy. Noting that expanding literacy necessitated delineating the sort of literacy that would define clerical status, Zieman shows how liturgical and choral practice became central sites for considering the nature of literacy and (perhaps more importantly) the nature of the relationship between text and performer and between clergy and laity.

Chapter 3 looks at what Zieman terms the "politics of understanding," that is, how the fragmentation of a unitary notion of literacy caused the nature of understanding itself to become a site of contestation. Zieman examines, on the one hand, lay understandings of the Mass as represented through vernacular Mass treatises and, on the other hand, the rise of "contractual liturgy" and private chantries that led to the possibility of illiterate (lewid) priests performing Masses. Through her analysis, she reveals how problems of liturgical understanding became paired with problems of textual comprehension, ultimately recasting modes of understanding and the social dimensions of literacy. The fourth chapter explores the idea of "extragrammatical literacies," those ways of partaking of the cultural capital associated with the written word that do not require strict knowledge of Latin grammar. In this chapter, the culmination of the historically inclined chapters, Zieman suggests an understanding of the period as composed of multiple "literacies," based on the diffusion of different elements that constitute the textual authority of Latin prayer into other forms of cultural action. The result of the diffusion of the liturgy were "forms of linguistic awareness beyond the phonemic as well as textual strategies beyond those taught in formal grammatical instruction" (133), and thus the creation of various...


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