Review of Week 2: January 18, 20 (by Clifton McCallum and Michael Reazin)
Tuesday we set the stage for discussing the Middle Ages, discussing specific dates that traditionally define the medieval period. Specifically, and probably most importantly, we noted that the dates that define the period are approximately between 476 and 1500; however, it really just depends on what historical event one may chose to mark the beginning of the Modern English. We then took a look at Kline’s introduction where we learned from the paragraph just before the section titled “Redefining the Period” that altering the scholarly process is helpful in challenging traditional methods and techniques for approaching the past. Also, in the “Extending the Medieval Period” of Kline’s introduction we discussed how the medieval was “previously viewed as an era of dullness and superficiality, [whereas] the fifteenth century is now seen as a period of cultural ferment and contestation.” Then we moved on to discussing Gastle’s essay on historical context. Gastle, we found, uses a traditional top-down method of attempting to make a vast sweep over history and literature, connecting the two through crises that marked the ages. Because events and the dates of literary publication are not certain, finding direct correlation between key events and textual content can prove to be a bit problematic. We found that Gastle fails to make this connection, continually prefacing his claims with a rendition of “while few ME writings deal directly with______.” Then we finished our discussion, highlighting the thesis for Mortimer’s The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England. Mortimer wants us to approach the medieval period sympathetically. That is, we should have a personal reaction to the challenges of living in previous centuries and earlier cultures, and our understanding of what makes one century different from another.
Thursday we discussed the logistics of our presentations. Then we split into groups to discuss ME Exercises 2-4. We then practiced our ability to critique and analyze texts when we discussed Mortimer’s Chapter three, titled “The Medieval Character”. We found that this chapter was “self-congratulatory” of our culture at times as compared to that of medieval times as Dr Seaman noted toward the end of class. Mortimer oversimplifies the medieval character, boasting a voice of superiority with respect to the people of this time period. Remember, this chapter is a bit of an anomaly as compared to Mortimer’s overall reading of the past. Lastly, we discussed the Bynum interview. Bynum uses devotions, theology, and philosophy texts in her work to bring into account the many different outlets of culture. Then we discussed how during the Middle Ages there were channels through which women could find agency. A sense of female agency could be derived from joining a cloister, teaching, working in crafts, or brewing beer.
“Additionally, the redefinition of ‘the medieval’ as a more broadly construed temporal [time], geographical, multilingual and international period has led to a wider variety of texts to study” (Kline).
Leslie told us that the importance of expanding the amount and types of literature read within medieval texts “gives us a better feel for what it was like during that period.”
Who gets to tell their stories? Who gets to define the canon? Or even further than that, who gets to define what is worthy of study? Along this thread Dr Seaman asked rhetorically, “why not incorporate everyone in the conversation?”
Traditional approaches to reading the past tend to other it, distancing us from it, while Mortimer says “We should always remember that what we have in common with the past is just as important, real, and as essential to our lives as those things which make us different” (4).
Premodern Period: a non-hierarchical way that medieval scholars prefer to refer to the time between 476 and the so-called Renaissance (and the Renaissance itself is now more commonly known as the Early Modern period [1500-1700], to avoid the implied hierarchy of “Renaissance,” which suggests that something needed to be reborn from).
Protestant Reformation: 1517
Printing Press: 1476
War of Roses: 1485
Grammar: While discussing the exercises assigned for homework, we concluded that word order is more important in modern English; whereas, ME was still influenced by inflection that is a product of the Germanic origins of Middle English in Old English, which has heavily inflected and did not depend on word order for the grammatical meaning of a sentence.
Preview of the coming week (by Dr. Seaman):
On Tuesday, we will shift our attention from our historical understanding of the past to, more specifically, issues of literary history. We will read a couple of pieces from one of the textbooks we’ve not yet encountered–the Cambridge Companion to Medieval Literature–including the editor’s introduction and a chapter on the vernacular (in this case, of course, Middle English). In his introduction, Scanlon will re-situate us in terms of some of the cultural issues Gastle raised for us (including Lollardy, literacy, the 1381 Revolt, and the relationships among the languages co-existing in England: Latin, French, and English). Scanlon also addresses, in pages 5-7 of the Introduction, some of the concerns we first encountered with Kline. I strongly encourage you to return to Kline’s essay alongside Scanlon’s, to see what sense you can make of the different views these two scholars present on developments in Middle English studies of the past 20 years or so.
In “Re-inventing the Vernacular,” Scase traces for us the ways English was actively developed into a literary language, from its status in the post-Norman Conquest period as the language of the laborer (and not, thus, of culture). This is an issue in which a number of you have expressed interest, so I will be glad to have some class time to discuss this fascinating period of transition in further depth.
We will have our first student presentation on Tuesday, as Kiwanee bravely guides us through Seth Lerer’s PMLA article “Medieval English Literature and the Idea of the Anthology.” Be sure to read Kiwanee’s precis before coming to class (which will be posted under the Presentation menu on the blog), and also give some thought to her discussion questions, so that you can be an informed and active audience. Consider your preparation a gift to your fellow student. Lerer’s essay was really formative for me in my project on fifteenth-century manuscript anthologies. I hope you find it equally provocative.
We will also be finishing up the Middle English exercises, just in time to begin reading some Middle English a week later. We will talk more specifics in relation to the exercises (which I would’ve done more carefully last week had I not been so ill), either Tuesday or Thursday, depending on when we have the most time for it.
On Thursday, which I’ve called “Meeting Our Readers” day on the course schedule, we will crack open Codex Ashmole 61, to read the editor’s introduction. Pay close attention to the information Shuffelton presents, noting in the margin any terms or concepts that are unfamiliar to you, and thinking critically about what he chooses to highlight in his introduction. Why do you think he pays attention to what he does, given that this edition was produced specifically for a student audience?
We will read another Mortimer chapter and will use this opportunity to discuss further details presented in this chapter as well as in previous ones. Last Thursday, regarding the “Medieval Character” chapter, we talked at length about some of the assumptions that seemed to be driving his choices and the implications we sensed for them. Now I’d like to make sure that we accompany that critical discussion with some discussion of some of the specific information he provides us about living in the 14th century.
Josh will be up for our second student presentation, on Green’s chapter “Textual Production and Textual Communities” in the Cambridge Companion. As with Lerer’s essay on Tuesday, you should prepare for Thursday’s class by reading Josh’s precis on the blog and considering the questions he poses there, so you can actively participate in the discussion. Green introduces us to the notion of “interpretive communities,” which will be vital to our reading of Ashmole 61. Read that section on p. 26 slowly, ensuring you understand this concept before then following along as Green applies the concept to Middle English literature and its various reading communities. Pay special attention to what he says about anthologies, given that this will be our central focus this semester.