- Truth and Tales: Cultural Mobility and Medieval Media ed. by Fiona Somerset, Nicholas Watson
This collection, dedicated to Richard Firth Green, grew out of the fourth annual meeting of the Canada Chaucer Seminar (Toronto, April 2012). The volume’s fourteen essays move across and between the large topics of popular culture, orality and literacy, and media studies, with a primary focus on medieval English literature and culture.
The contributions are organized into three central sections: ‘Repetition and Continuity: The Claims of History’ (Thomas Hahn, Stephen Yeager, M. J. Toswell, and Fiona Somerset), ‘Cultural Divides and Their Common Ground’ (Alastair Minnis, Michael Johnston, Lisa J. Kiser, and Barbara A. Hanawalt), and ‘New Media and the Literate Laity’ (Nicholas Watson, Robyn Malo, Kathleen E. Kennedy, and Michael Van Dussen). These are bookended by two single-essay sections entitled ‘The Truth of Tales 1’ (Green) and ‘The Truth of Tales 2’ (Andrew Taylor). Intersecting the editors’ chronological/methodological groupings, one can discover various subconversations about, e.g., vernacular theology (Toswell, Minnis, Watson, and Malo), merchants and their books (Johnston, Malo, and Kennedy), the way in which literature encodes human-animal relations (Somerset and Kiser), and London law (Hanawalt and Kennedy).
In the Introduction, Somerset situates the contributions in relation to new developments in media studies and orality and literacy as these pertain to medieval English social and literary history. In ‘“The Vanishing Leper” and “The Murmuring Monk”: Two Medieval Urban Legends,’ Green traces two medieval tales across languages, discursive fields, and social contexts, arguing that the rubric of ‘contemporary legend’ offers a way to understand the social functions of some [End Page 152] promiscuous medieval texts. In ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Augustinus: Dido and the Dangers of Empathy,’ Hahn reads the uses of Dido in Chaucer’s House of Fame and Legend of Good Women against earlier and later depictions, contending that Chaucer has his two narrators enact a schoolboy cathexis on Dido in the course of founding ‘a new vernacular poetics’ (48). In ‘The New Plow and the Old: Law, Orality, and the Figure of Piers the Plowman in B 19,’ Yeager historicizes the figure of Piers Plowman in terms of fourteenth-century appropriations of Anglo-Saxon legal and homiletic documentary forms, concluding that Piers Plowman B 19 ‘is highly concerned with administrative transparency’ (75). In ‘The Exegesis of Tears in Lambeth Homily 17,’ Toswell discusses a short English homily on the exegesis of tears, found in two late twelfth- or early thirteenth-century manuscript collections, as paradigmatic of ‘a changing attitude to the vernacular in the second half of the twelfth century’ (95). In ‘Mingling with the English in Laʒamon’s Brut,’ Somerset uses the keywords leode ‘people; land’ and leoden ‘language’ to trace the poetics and politics of national belonging in the Brut. In ‘Unquiet Graves: Pearl and the Hope of Reunion,’ Minnis compares the Pearl poet’s representation of postmortem community to that of earlier, contemporary, and later texts, revealing that ‘Pearl offers a quite robust response to that desire for the postmortem persistence of family ties that has been such an abiding component of popular narrative and theological speculation alike’ (134). In ‘Mercantile Gentility in Cambridge, University Library MS Ff.2.38,’ Johnston reads an understudied Middle English poem alongside other literary treatments of the question of gentility within and beyond CUL MS Ff.2.38, uncovering literary reactions to ‘the ongoing interpenetration of the landed and urban spheres in late-medieval England’ (149). In ‘Resident Aliens: The Literary Ecology of Medieval Mice,’ Kiser canvasses the mice of late medieval fables for evidence of medieval attitudes toward real mice, focusing on habitat, diet, species terminology, and relationships to human life. In ‘Toward the Common Good: Punishing Fraud among the Victualers of Medieval London,’ Hanawalt introduces the written regulations and public punishments governing the manufacture and sale of bread, meat pies, and wines in late medieval London, with glances at mentions of millers, bakers, and...