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  • Imagining an English Reading Public, 1150–1400
  • Stephanie Hollis
Breen, Katharine, Imagining an English Reading Public, 1150–1400 (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, 79), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010; hardback; pp. 300, 13 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. £55.00, AU$190.00; ISBN 9780521199223.

Central to Katharine Breen’s study is an examination of medieval theories of habitus and its relationship to language and Christian virtue. Her focus on this topic reflects the influence of the sociologist Bourdieu, and the term is used by her in a broad, general sense to signify the set of acquired patterns of thought, behaviour, and taste that result from internalizing culture or objective social structures. Her investigation is primarily concerned, however, with medieval conceptions of habitus, particularly the acquisition of Latin grammar as a process which formed one’s moral being. Medieval theories of habitus, she argues, ‘overlap and richly complicate Bourdieu’s understanding’, and one of the aims of her multi-directional study is to reconnect Bourdieu’s habitus to its medieval origins by offering ‘a historically specific account of habitus [chiefly based on Sulpicius Severus, Isidore of Seville, and Thomas Aquinas] as a governing concept that can and should inform modern uses of the term’ (p. 8).

Whereas for Bourdieu habitus is primarily negative and unconscious, and hence difficult to change, medieval philosophers and theologians, though in agreement that many of its operations are subterranean, regarded habitus as a conscious tool for reforming fallen human nature in the direction of prelapsarian perfection. In contrast to the acquisition of fluency in the vernacular, generally regarded as devoid of grammar and passively ingested [End Page 197] like mother’s milk, the rules of Latin had to be learnt until fluency became second nature as the student became simultaneously regulated by the language he studied and the discipline of the (generally monastic) classroom in which he studied it.

Originally, therefore, the habitus of Christian virtue designated the inner and outer perfections of the cloistered religious, inextricably combining the meanings ‘settled disposition’ and ‘monastic clothing’. Reformers concerned with laypeople’s access to salvation sought to define other gateways to the habitus of Christian virtue that challenged the privileged role of Latin. Breen traces the history of the English word ‘habit’ from its first attestation in the Ancrene Wisse, whose author pries apart the outer and inner meanings hitherto regarded as virtually inseparable, through to 1370–1400. The expansion of meaning to include the clothing and ethical dispositions of laypersons in that period, earlier unthinkable because it implies the possibility of vernacular habitus, coincided with what Breen describes as ‘a crisis point’ of controversies surrounding the adaptation of Latinate habitus for lay audiences.

Collectively, Breen argues, efforts to develop a vernacular habitus provided ‘the crucial conceptual framework that underlies the development of an English reading public’ (p. 5). She also contends that the ‘translation’ of habitus into vernacular terms, rather than the translation of textual content, is central to late fourteenth-century controversies over the production of vernacular texts, and that it is ‘the foundational practice that supports complex vernacular writing’ (p. 6). Her declared aim is not to contribute to historicist study of an English reading public, but to investigate authors’ projections and manipulations of their audiences – the ways in which they imaged, created, and sought to control the readership of their texts, and the strategies they deployed to shape their reception.

Breen examines only two examples of works engaged in creating alternatives to Latinate habitus prior to the fourteenth century, and of these only the Orrmulum can properly be described as vernacular. Matthew Paris’s establishment of map-reading conventions in the itinerary maps added to one of his Latin chronicles represents a visual analogue to a literary writer’s deployment of strategies for controlling the reception of his work, but to blur the essential distinction between literal and metaphorical by terming this kind of non-linguistic communication ‘extreme vernacular’ (p. 12) merely edges us closer to the already imminent risk of universal adoption of the Humpty-Dumpty principle of language use. Two examples seem scarcely sufficient to establish the twelfth- and thirteenth-century existence of a phenomenon which, Breen claims...


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pp. 197-199
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