- Affective Literacies: Writing and Multilingualism in the Late Middle Ages by Mark Amsler
This formidable work is the nineteenth issue of a notable series that encourages connections across disciplines and a geographical and chronological broadening of focus. The vitality of the series, and this volume in particular, comes from a determination to let a diversity of approaches deepen our understanding of human activity.
The book contains seven chapters – minimally annotated – an Introduction and Afterword, and is supported by a lengthy bibliography and indices. The Introduction and first three chapters present the dense theoretical landscape within which Mark Amsler situates his study. The last four chapters of the book use these theoretical tools to explore specific areas of socially constructed literacy in the period of 1100 to 1510.
Amsler’s central argument is that ‘later medieval literacies were fundamentally shaped by their persistent multilingualism and textual performativities and that different literate groups reworked ideas of grammar and textual authority to create new relations of power, agency, and resistance from the production and reception of written texts’ (p. xxii). It is an argument that draws heavily on the work of James Gee’s Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses (Routledge, 2008), among others including Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieu, Deleuze, Bakhtin, and Street. Within this framework, texts are given agency as sites for the social construction and deconstruction of power and identity.
The first chapter, ‘Theorizing Medieval Literacies’, seeks to reconsider the validity of entrenched, simple binaries, especially the opposition of literate clergy and illiterate laity, and the privileged position Latin holds within that framework. For Amsler, literate discourses are more heterogeneous than this model suggests. The diversity of literate products, inclusive of written, oral, administrative, literary, religious, paratextual, private and public modes, and the interactions between these illustrate the fallibility of simple oppositions. What is apparent is the indivisibility of these textual behaviours, of Latin and vernacular literacies, from one another.
Chapter 2, ‘Language Ideology and Marginal Latins’, describes how Latin and vernacular literacies express and disrupt power structures in the [End Page 137] Middle Ages with a particular focus on England. The activities in which these literacies met, in glossing, code switching, translation, style, and syntax, were wide ranging. Amsler is as attentive to the impact of contemporary debates about the place of Latin in the linguistic spectrum (drawing on the work of Robert Kilwardby, Roger Bacon, Guillaume de Conches, Peter Helias, and Dominicus Gundissalinus, among others) as he is to the way that linguistic authority was physically mediated on the manuscripts themselves.
Chapter 3, ‘Affective Literacies’, treats in detail the practices and attitudes that constitute the subject of the whole volume. Affective literacy for Amsler denotes ‘a range of emotional, spiritual, physiological, somatic responses readers have when reading or perceiving a text’ (p. 103). Amsler explores this by looking at the fetishisation of texts as objects and the way this regulated and destablised social relations.
Chapter 4, ‘Reading Assimilation and Jewish Latin Textuality’, is the first of a sequence of focused studies that trace the themes established in the first section in particular contexts. In this chapter, Amsler uses the contentious Opusculum de conversione sua, attributed to Hermann of Scheda and defined as a ‘borderland text’ by Gee, to explore the way the relationship between Hebrew and Latin literacy constructed identity and authority.
In Chapter 5, ‘Ovid’s Mythography and Medieval Readers’, Amsler looks at a range of interpretative strategies devised to deal with morally problematic scenes, the rape narratives, in the Ovidian corpus as a means of engaging with the inter-textual politics of canonicity through the notion of the hypo-text and archive. Amsler traces this politics from Ovid through to Berchorius, Christine de Pizan, and Chaucer, among others.
Chapter 6, ‘Grammar of Unruly Latin in Middle English Writing’, challenges traditional accounts of medieval vernacularisation by demonstrating how normative multilingualism and multi-literacy was. In this complex context, Amsler shows how Latin was not...