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REVIEWS concentrates on one aspect of gender in a particular episode, where one would welcome broader contextualization and a concomitantly sharper focus on (say) masculine accountability, or the interaction of both masculine and feminine agency. For example, it would be interesting to look at the role of the Arthurian court as closely as at the role of marriage in the comparative histories of Fair Unknowns, or to compare Perceval’s self-mutilation with Lyonet’s control over Gareth’s thigh wound. Malory’s work appears sometimes more relaxed toward gender than are his sources, and sometimes anxious to maintain a tighter control of gender—it is telling that Malory omits the eponymous hero’s experience of the fractured shield in the Prose Lancelot. At the same time, the Morte textually inscribes the problems inherent in the attempt to invoke and deploy gender as reading strategy and as control mechanism, and in consequence gender accrues an epistemological function, its investigation integral to an understanding of the Morte’s literary strategies. Armstrong ’s analysis could perhaps go further in its project to uncover the complexities and ramifications of Malory’s work, but in its acknowledgment of the text’s dense ambiguities, its concern to find a critical vocabulary appropriate to the subject, and its provocative lines of inquiry, this book forms a thought-provoking contribution to the continuing debate about gender in Malory. Catherine Batt University of Leeds C. David Benson. Public ‘‘Piers Plowman’’: Modern Scholarship and Late Medieval English Culture. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003. Pp. xix, 283. $45.00. Most readers find Piers Plowman a difficult poem, and its difficulty has long been considered part of its greatness. Unlike the Canterbury Tales, whose greatness, for modern readers, lies in its near-mythic accessibility, the greatness of Piers Plowman lies in its difference, the feeling that its difficulty might be overcome by careful study of its particular past. One of the most perplexing differences about Piers Plowman, however, is that it was so much a part of its own literary present. Not only does the poem address topical issues, and not only does it insist on its own PAGE 291 291 ................. 11491$ CH13 11-01-10 14:02:21 PS STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER currency, but also, for all its difficulties—some of which must have struck medieval audiences as such—the poem seems to have interested a variety of readers. We tend to think that a diverse readership indicates an accessible text, a text commonly understood in its moment, because we assume that ease of use is the same thing as ease of understanding. Likewise, we assume that time organizes a shared sense of culture. Yet the discrepancy between Piers Plowman’s style and reception continually invites us to re-historicize concepts such as ‘‘current,’’ ‘‘shared,’’ ‘‘accessible ,’’ or ‘‘public.’’ In his gracefully written new book, Public ‘‘Piers Plowman’’, David Benson challenges us to find a critical approach that will make ‘‘this great poem more accessible, exciting and necessary to modern readers’’ (p. xix). For Benson, an ideal literary criticism would accomplish this objective by situating the poem ‘‘in the broad cultural environment of its time and place’’ (p. 111), by which he means a nonelite, nonscholarly medieval culture. Benson argues, in other words, that the poem’s greatness —its difficulty—has to do, in part, with the way it participates in those cultural forms that were available to most medieval people. He argues further that what we now perceive to be the poem’s difficulty was, in its own time, a kind of catholicity, an appeal to a wide range of audiences, the acceptance of which is evidenced by the poem’s transmission . For Benson, such an appeal approaches democracy when read against a ‘‘public culture’’ comprised of those artworks, institutions, and spaces, which were not only accessible, but which also ‘‘blurred modern distinctions between secular and ecclesiastical use,’’ and which ‘‘permitted interaction and cooperation between different groups’’ (pp. 157– 58). As the title of the book suggests, ‘‘public’’ is the term with which Benson links the culture in which the poem participated to its disorderly composition and reception. To make these arguments, Benson divides...


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