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  • From Lawmen to Plowmen: Anglo-Saxon Legal Tradition and the School of Langland by Stephen M. Yeager
  • Eric Weiskott
Stephen M. Yeager. From Lawmen to Plowmen: Anglo-Saxon Legal Tradition and the School of Langland. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014. Pp. 280. $65.00.

This book constructs a new genealogy for the Piers Plowman tradition of Middle English alliterative verse. Through a combination of discourse analysis and close reading, Stephen Yeager situates the Piers Plowman tradition in a literary and documentary longue durée extending back through twelfth- and thirteenth-century alliterative verse to the tenth-/eleventh-century homilist Wulfstan.

In the introduction, Yeager forswears belief in the continuity of alliterative meter and nominates “Anglo-Saxon legal-homiletic discourse” (4) as a pre-Conquest ancestor for “the school of Langland.” Chapter 1 defines this discourse as a symptom of transitional literacy, expressed in [End Page 338] a cluster of self-authorizing rhetorical strategies, such as proverbs and alliterating lists. Chapter 2 reads the rhetorical, generic, codicological, and cultural contexts of Wulfstan’s writings as exemplary of this discourse. Chapters 3 and 4 take the recopying of Old English texts at Worcester as the occasion to explore the ideological functions of Anglo-Saxon discursive forms in three twelfth- and thirteenth-century alliterative poems: the First Worcester Fragment, the Proverbs of Alfred, and Lawman’s Brut. Chapters 5 and 6 read similar discursive forms (now fraught with new ideological functions) in two post-Langlandian alliterative poems: Richard the Redeless and Mum and the Sothsegger. In the conclusion, Yeager indicates how his arguments recontextualize other canonical works of Middle English poetry.

This account of the evolution of a group of formal strategies from Old to Middle English succeeds on a number of fronts. First, the book succeeds as a local history: all of Yeager’s featured texts have ties to Worcestershire or Gloucestershire, lending geographical, institutional, and sometimes even codicological specificity to his reconstructed literary-historical longue durée. Second, Yeager takes pains to show how rhetorical gestures cross formal and generic boundaries in English writing. One of his central claims is that the disciplinary protocols of literary studies and diplomatics simplify, in complementary ways, a multifarious medieval English textual culture. This broadly historicist study reads literary structures in Anglo-Saxon charters as readily as it reads forms of documentation in Mum and the Sothsegger. Third, this book recuperates Wulfstan as a mover and shaker in English literary history. Indeed, Wulfstan is the unlikely hero of From Lawmen to Plowmen. Chapter 2 is the most closely argued in the book, making a strong case for understanding Wulfstan’s homiletic and legal writings as different expressions of a single response to developments in textual culture and ecclesiastical institutions. In the remainder of the book, Wulfstan continually reappears as a source, an inspiration, a precedent, or an adjacent manuscript item. Fourth, Yeager shakes up literary-historical commonplaces by positioning Langland at the center, rather than the periphery, of an English alliterative tradition. Finally, this book directly connects Old English and Middle English literature. Too often, these subfields are regarded as non-overlapping magisteria; Yeager traces continuities in “documentary poetics” (162, quoting Emily Steiner) across 1066, in part by emphasizing one point of contact between the two halves of [End Page 339] medieval English literary history: the antiquarianism of the Tremulous Hand of Worcester in the thirteenth century.

If this book succeeds in showing what is lost when literary historians project 1066 as an end point or a zero point, its specific arguments nevertheless reinforce the Old/Middle divide. Throughout the book, “Anglo-Saxon legal-homiletic discourse” functions as a consolidated discursive formation, which appears first as a suite of literary and textual practices (for Wulfstan), then as an archive to be recopied (for twelfthcentury scribes), a lost textual-institutional unity to be lamented (in the First Worcester Fragment and Proverbs of Alfred), a historiographical attitude to be redirected (for Lawman), a documentary form to be renovated (in the Piers Plowman tradition), and an ideological model to be rejected (for Chaucer and the Gawain-poet). Yeager’s early chapters extrapolate an “Anglo-Saxon” discursive mode largely from Wulfstan’s oeuvre: one would have...


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pp. 338-341
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