Review of Week 5: Feb 8, 10
This week we read Alison Truelove’s “Literacy” from Gentry Culture in Late Medieval England. We continued with Ashmole 61, focusing on poems 5-8 while relating them to the previous poems we’ve read. We also kept Mortimer chapter’s, “What to Wear” and “What to Eat and Drink,” in our minds while reading the poems.
On Tuesday, Michael presented Truelove’s “Literacy,” recapping how she declared the literacy rates to be quite high among the gentry although they varied greatly, even within the household. Truelove’s article discusses how literacy began as a necessity, (for documentation purposes) rather than a luxury. Dr. Seaman noted that literacy began as a practical desire versus an abstract one (pleasure reading). We also talked about the different factors used to judge literacy levels, recognizing how difficult this often is, primarily due to the fact that secretaries often did the writing. It was suggested that with analyzing articulation comes the issue that many people like Elizabeth Stonor (of the Stonor family letters in Truelove’s essay) didn’t want to get their hands dirty; they would rather dictate than do the labor of writing. Dr. Seaman also pointed out that although we can learn about women’s behavior through literature like these letters, it may not be all that reflective of the larger group. She analogizes it by recognizing that a modern t.v. show like Sex and the City would not be reflective of women in our society.
We looked at the medieval gentry’s valuing of oral communication and asked ourselves why they valued it maybe more than written. One reason is privacy, for written words could fall into the wrong hands, another is the fact that speaking is unifying because everyone can do it, and thirdly, for many (primarily women) there was no need for writing because reading was done orally and publicly.
We continued with Ashmole 61 poems. We primarily discussed “Sir Isumbras,” noting parallels and differences from “Saint Eustace.” One similarity we noticed was that both characters are reduced to laboring and having everything taken away from them, with heaven as the reward. One main difference we noted was that while Saint Eustace was told what he was to do, Sir Isumbras was given a choice.
We delved into the presence of an angel in “Sir Isumbras.” The defeat in the end is not simply justice, but is seen as divine justice because of the angel (like the divine justice we see in “Saint Eustace.”)
Another notable part of “Sir Isumbras” is the fact that gold serves as the means for recognition. Isumbras recognizes that his misery, or penance, may be up, while his wife (now the queen) recognizes him via the gold. We discussed how this may serve as reassurance to the wealthy audience that one can be a good Christian while being wealthy.
We noted the importance of penance in “Sir Isumbras” and how disregarded that value seems to be in our society. On Thursday we followed this up by examining Sir Isumbras’ penance more closely. He is quick to agree with all the negative things that are happening to him and takes full responsibility. His tries to comfort his family by saying it is “our” fault and to be glad because it should be worse. We questioned why he automatically said “our” instead of “my.” Dr. Seaman pointed out that it was Medieval concept that everyone has a sinful nature and were taught to believe that everything they had was a gift from God. Also, the aspects of unity plays into this and is also reflected in the upholding of the family reputation that we have been seeing so much. Going off the idea that everything is a gift, line 324 in “Sir Isumbras” demonstrated how wealth was not referring to money, but instead what is good in life, which in this case is her husband.
Finishing up with “Sir Isumbras,” Dr. Seaman noted that the Medieval notion of tragedy is much different from our own. Medieval tragedy is the most often the fall of someone in a prominent position. They believed in a wheel of fortune and that loss of success was the nature of fortune; nothing is secure regardless of who you are. This is important to keep in mind as the semester progresses.
We looked at the three didactic texts (poems 6-8) that follow. “The Ten Commandments” is presented as more of a conduct manual rather than a guide as it is in scripture. We noted how didactic it felt, even though it was the familiar Ten Commandments. Dr. Seaman noted it is socializing the reader, complete with rhyme and meter.
Lastly, we began to look at “Dame Courtesy” and how it expresses that virtuous living is an investment in the future of one’s social position. This concern with life on Earth seems to be pretty unconventional. Dame Courtesy supported her table manner concerns with the idea that it’s necessary so as to not be seen as a boy or unlearned. This reiterates what we have been seeing in many of the texts so far: that everyday behavior makes your reputation. This is reflected in Mortimer’s “What to Eat and Drink” with his focus on behavior at the dining table, an action that could make or break you.
Dr. Seaman noted that the Stonor and Patson family letters extend through multiple generations including in-laws, friends, etc.
“As [Michael] Clanchy has stated with reference to an earlier period, ‘lay literacy grew out of bureaucracy, rather than from any abstract desire for education or literature’” (Truelove 86).
“Moreover, in a culture that often still valued oral communication as highly as (if not more highly than) that which was written, we must be careful to avoid equating an ability to read and write proficiently with being educated and cultured” (Truelove 88).
The internet is a good analogy for the printing press. The introduction and use of written literature began much like our introduction of the internet and e-mail.
“And [the bird] seyd, ‘Abyd, Syr Isombras.
Thou haste forgette what thou was
For pride of gold and gode.’” (lines 43-45)
“’For all the care that we be inne,
It is for oure wyked synne,
For we are worth myche more.’” (lines 106-108)
No Key Terms
Preview of Week 6 (Feb 15, 17)
Jade will be class secretary this week.
We shift on Tuesday from a focus on literacy to one on religion, an issue that we of course have addressed in a number of ways throughout the semester. Now, we will do so head-on, with the assistance of the Gentry Culture essay on the topic by Christine Carpenter (for which Eric H. will lead discussion as his presentation) and another in the Cambridge Companion more specifically focused on religious writing in medieval England. For Tuesday, we will prepare seven more very short items from Ashmole 61, most of them prayers that would b used for personal devotion.
Poems 16-18 from Ashmole 61 will receive our attention on Thursday. These include an unusual (and unique to Ashmole 61) text, the Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools, and a prayer as well as a moral narrative. Leslie will direct our discussion of the Youngs chapter on “Cultural Networks” (of which religious faith is a part) from Gentry Culture, we will consider the debate, dialogue, and dream vision genres (some of which we encounter in Ashmole 61, in today’s readings the Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools) through a chapter by Kruger in the Cambridge Companion, and we will read a bit more from Mortimer, on “What to Do.” As before, we’re likely to incorporate Mortimer’s chapter primarily in terms of how it offers us further context for approaching the Ashmole 61 texts.