New Medieval Literatures 17 ed. by Wendy Scase, Laura Ashe, and David Lawton
This book presents a collection of thoroughly researched, very well-written papers, exploring concepts of materiality. Each essay addresses assumptions of anthropocentric views of the world, identifying and analysing elements that disrupt such views.
Michael Raby locates his study in the Old English Boethius and Soliloquies, problematizing the relationship between animals and non-animals. He observes the struggle to articulate the differences between animals and non-animals as a linguistic problem, and notes the theological implications of this problem. His paper is a rich discussion of the ambiguities inherent in distinguishing creatures that occur within these texts.
Aaron Hostetter's 'Disruptive Things in Beowulf' discusses the power of the inanimate realm, although he ultimately rejects the New Materialist view of the power of objects, noting that the poem dismisses 'thing-power' (passim). He observes that even death is a rejection of the power of physicality. Within this study, however, he also has intriguing observations about the power of absent objects.
Eliza Zingesser's essay on 'Pidgin Poetics' examines bird language in lyric poetry. She offers a fascinating analysis, focussing on the twelfth-century Occitan troubadour Macabru's use of rhyme, sequence, assonance, and metrical structure. She undertakes a similarly rich analysis of Richard de Tournival's 'Psittacine Poetics'. Zingesser identifies the tensions between sound and sense, meaningful and meaningless language, and the power of 'the sonic over the semantic' (p. 80). [End Page 242]
R. Jacob McDonie identifies the link between 'melodious joy' (p. 91) as a musical encounter and as a song-friend in 'Performing Friendship in Richard Rolle's Incendium Amoris'. In analysing the significance of the 'melodious' as the expression of friendship, McDonie identifies the intersections of music, performance, friendship, and self, as a framework for Rolle's communal self. He concludes that Rolle is not a spiritual loner, but provides a model for mystical life, reframing his love of God and the expression of this love.
Diane Cady's study of 'Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale' is an intriguing examination of 'the intimate ties' (p. 117) between money and language, economics and aesthetics. She adds a layer to this with a discussion of gender and value. Cady examines storytelling and merchandizing as analogous enterprises and makes insightful observations about the gendered structure of storytelling, and the link between storytelling and incest. She concludes that medieval poetics broadly represent an economy 'in which commodification and desire are entwined with ideologies of gender and value' (p. 149).
The words used by priest and doctor, the 'metaphorical comparison between confessional and medical expertise' (p. 151), are examined by Joe Stadolnik in 'Gower's Bedside Manner'. This study elucidates the medieval manners of expert conversation and explores Gower's use of these manners as literary device. Stadolnik suggests that Gower is orienting his reader to the experience of textual confabulation, the telling of apt stories to inform or distract. By invoking medical conversations, Gower helps his readers to experience the text, fashioning 'a bespoke literary encounter' (p. 172) within a framework they understand.
Boyda Johnstone examines Lydgate's refashioning of Chaucer's House of Fame in The Temple of Glass. Her chapter, 'Vitreous Visions: Stained Glass and Affective Engagement in John Lydgate's The Temple of Glass', explores the affect of medieval glass, which reaches 'beyond its materiality' (p. 178). She argues that Lydgate establishes an aesthetic of stained glass that feeds into his narrative, as the characters within the poem absorb and re-enact the drama on the walls. Her study of the materiality of the glass, its fragmented nature and yet capacity to combine, and the ways in which this can be understood as a key to entering dream-vision imagery, is insightful and helpful.
Spencer Strub's 'The Idle Readers of Piers Plowman in Print' is an appropriate paper to draw the book to a close. It shifts the emphasis from what the readership of a book can tell us about the text, to what the book can tell us about its readers. Focusing on the reception of medieval literature, Strub narrows his study to Owen Roger's 1561 copy of Piers Plowman (the Bancroft Piers), and the New Haven Beinecke Library Piers (Id L26 550). His interest is in those 'idle readers' whose marks on the book are concerned with personal context or reflection, and not polemic. He notes that amongst these readers the text is frequently engaged with as Christian instruction, rather than as evidence for inter-confessional debate. He concludes that Piers was much more a living document in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries than previously thought. [End Page 243]
This is a fine collection of essays, with tantalizing points of comparison across them. For those interested in teasing out ideas around materiality, and how we engage with the medieval world from a twenty-first-century perspective, it is of particular value.