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  • Voice in Later Medieval English Literature: Public Interiorities by David Lawton
  • James B. Harr III
Voice in Later Medieval English Literature: Public Interiorities By David Lawton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. <>

Characterization and the use of framework narrative in the traditional sense have long dictated academic approaches to late-medieval literature, and while there have certainly been deviations, particularly as emerging critical theories are embraced by medieval scholarship, focus often returns to standard hermeneutical approaches to literature of the Middle Ages. In his recent book, Voice in Later Medieval English Literature, David Lawton takes a fresh look at late-fourteenth to fifteenth-century literature and examines the medieval voice specifically articulated in (but certainly not limited to) the works of Chaucer and Langland through the analysis of public interiorities and modern criticism. "Public interiorities," as Lawton defines them, "are pieces of language—as speech or text—which already exist before they are revoiced by a new user" (8). He uses this term to uncover a layer of text neglected by previous studies as a means to reveal an interlinear voice, while concurrently repositioning medieval scholarship away from its preoccupation with "authority." In doing so, the intertextuality between classical, biblical, and medieval examples is exposed and a prevalent—and overlooked—element in medieval literary studies emerges.

The book commences with a clear presentation of authorial objectives while briefly anticipating possible counterarguments. For example, Lawton mentions that he deliberately omits John Gower from the discussion as the breadth of his work and his place in Chaucerian discourse require a separate and devoted project. After briefly providing instances of public interiorities as a means to introduce the reader to the term, Lawton moves to the use of voice in literature. He carefully foreshadows his integration of modern examples to parallel and further elucidate the voice in medieval texts. In doing so, he simultaneously projects a relationship between the literary past and present, emulating "the practice of medieval authors" (11). Arguably, a significant challenge for Lawton [End Page 124] is in acknowledging a conceptualization of the voice while temporarily obscuring any delineation between the spoken word and the written word. As he readily admits, "Voice will not be easy to define, for it is not a determinate order of signs like figures or tropes but a volatile series of suggestions or cues that move between theme and address, between text and reader" (2). However, it is apparent by the end of the book that he has surmounted this difficulty.

Divided into two parts, the book first focuses on voice and public interiorities. The second half of the book takes the concepts explicated in Chapters 1–4 and applies them to Piers Plowman, The Canterbury Tales, and fifteenth-century poetry. In Chapter 1, Lawton uses an example that would have been both recognized and embraced by the late-medieval writer: Saint Paul. In the context of Chaucerian texts, he uses Paul's voice to initially set up a conversation that has Chaucer, "the opposite pole to Paul on voice" (19), conversing with the apostle through his characters. For example, Paul's tenets are reflected in the sermon given by the Pardoner and (indirectly) rejected by the Wife of Bath. It is in this chapter that Lawton connects the voice to the soul, referencing several examples including those found in medieval art, making the concept of voice abstract. Chapter 2 moves to articulating the relationship between voice and public interiorities, thus imbricating the two distinct terms while using the modern (Proust) to juxtapose the medieval (Chaucer and Machaut). Lawton sums up this chapter by writing, "The voice…is complicated, bitter, full both of other texts and of more personalized grievance. It is a strange mixture of anger and urbanity, but no less public a voice for that" (60). Chapter 3 looks to modern critical theory and invokes Habermas's Offentlichkeit (public sphere) to define "public interiorities." Lawton is careful not to suggest that the two are the same but clearly asserts, "Public interiorities are not public spheres, however, though they arise precisely from the convergences and divergences...


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pp. 124-126
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