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  • Medieval English Manuscripts: Form, Aesthetics, and the Literary Text
  • Arthur Bahr and Alexandra Gillespie

The essays in this issue of The Chaucer Review have been gathered together in response to recent work in literary studies on form, aesthetics, and the place of the “literary” in critical theory and literary criticism.1 They are meant to address a question that has been important to work on medieval English manuscripts for some time, especially those bearing literary texts: what is the relationship between the study of medieval books and the study of medieval literature?2 We suggest that this question deserves new attention from a variety of perspectives in light of the “aesthetic turn” that has recently been taken in the wider field of literary research.

In their introduction to a special issue of PMLA devoted to “The History of the Book and the Idea of Literature,” Leah Price and Seth Lerer describe a scholarly impasse between critical and literary theory, on the one hand, [End Page 346] and the history of the book, on the other. They observe, for example, that the journal Book History, which has contributed to the development of its eponymous subdiscipline, is described by its own editors as an antidote to the “exhaustion of literary theory.”3 Literary formalism rather than literary theory has aroused the suspicions of some influential book historians (formalism is often construed in opposition to “high theory,” despite its own complex theoretical underpinnings). Seminal essays like D. F. McKenzie’s 1985 Panizzi Lecture “The Book as an Expressive Form”4 and Peter Stallybrass and Margreta de Grazia’s 1993 “The Materiality of the Shakespearean Text,”5 for example, make their case for the study of books against formalist work that disregards the fact that texts are only ever available to readers in some material form. The “sociology of texts” or study of “material texts” that they advocate is meant to counter formalism’s idealizing habits, especially as these involve isolating apparently authorial or original texts from the contexts of their production and reception.6

In work that has profited from the example of these essays, book history has come to fit quite comfortably with the aims of New Historicism, which likewise sought to resist both the treatment of the text as an organic, unified whole, “showing no marks of labor,” and the situation of critical practice “in some ideal space that transcends the coordinates of gender, ethnicity, class, age, and profession.”7 Books can readily be made part of how scholars think about the “textuality of history and historicity of texts,” to borrow Louis Montrose’s famous formulation;8 the more so because the work of historians such as Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, Elizabeth Eisenstein, Robert Darnton, and Adrian Johns has been so important in shaping the book-historical field.9 The scholar who pays attention to the book in which a text [End Page 347] appears can be seen to historicize both that text and his or her criticism in the process.

These general observations about literary and bibliographical scholarship overlap with but do not exactly match what can be said about work in medieval studies. Where print culture specialists have inherited “Annales” school methods of statistically grounded sociohistorical analysis from the likes of Febvre and Martin, some medievalists have responded to Paul Zumthor’s theory of mouvance and Bernard Cerquiglini’s “praise of the variant.” The result has sometimes been called “new philology,” a body of work that promotes the study of manuscripts as unique witnesses to the fluid status of the medieval text.10 Other work in manuscript studies remains more traditionally historicist. Wendy Scase has recently described “confidence in empirical research” as the basis for most medievalists’ codicological work.11 Ralph Hanna and Stephen Kelly and John J. Thompson, meanwhile, have argued that medieval book history must move toward the more theorized historicism of McKenzie’s “sociology of texts,”12 even as they acknowledge that the field lacks many generalizable methods that would enable such a move.

Here, we recognize that medieval manuscript scholars’ historical research has brought many rewards. Confident that there are facts about the past to be found in old books, those scholars have...


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pp. 346-360
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