Punctuation, Intertextuality and the Standardization of English

The section that intrigued me the most about chapter one of the OUMEM begins immediately after the chapter’s introduction- particularly the discussions of punctuation and figurative language in early medieval manuscripts.  In the poem modernly referred to as The Blacksmiths, the speaker narrates the happenings of two blacksmiths at work.  He/she uses onomatopoeias to create the noises of the blacksmiths panting from their work as well as pounding iron- “tik . tak . hic . hac .” and so on (Kerby-Fulton 42).  The scribe uses the periods as an indication of where the reader should stop or pause.  With a pause between each noise, the reader can more realistically imagine the blacksmiths swinging their arms into their air (the pause) before crashing their hammers down into the softened metal (the onomatopoeia).  Simple punctuation was nothing new at this time period; upon a small bit of research I learned that periods (or similar punctuation symbols) could be traced back to ancient Greek and Roman writing- the “periods” signaled when/how long the orator should pause before continuing.  Although punctuation was far from becoming standardized, we see here some of the earliest predecessors to modern English grammar.  The purpose of the periods in this excerpt from The Blacksmiths is to render the poem more intelligible to the reader.  Punctuation essentially serves that exact same function today.

Another interesting point this chapter raises is the presence of idioms in early English manuscripts.  Kerby-Fulton points out two uses of the regional word “goke/goky” to refer to a cuckoo- one of the northern dialect in Chorister; one from the Southwest Midlands dialect by Langland.  She mentions that it is uncertain whether this example of jargon was common throughout different regions or whether it was a “signal of influence” (44).  As many of you guys have already noted on this blog, the concept of intertextuality in a world before printing presses, widespread literacy and the standardization of written English is incredible.  Yet the content of the stories in these manuscripts were likely spread orally as well as through print media.  It’s amazing to think of the pains the people went through to create and spread information and literature.  In the modern world of print and digital media, it’s something we definitely take for granted today.

Making Connections: Scribal dialect, spoken dialect, written word.

Strangely enough, like Sienna noted, it didn’t really occur to me that Langland, and all Middle English manuscripts creators existed in a world of multi-media – written and spoken word. In their time, even more than modern time, spoken narratives and verse were incredibly popular. This post links the concept of multi-media to what Thomas posted about spoken dialect. There is a good amount of influence between the way that different dialects influence the technique of creative writing, specifically Langland’s alliterative verse. A way to answer this question that the reading provides is to study the manuscript much like an archeologist studies a fossil. When you examine the details of scribal hand technique you get another form of media, the “dialect” of the hand of the scribe. Even with this form of what the OUMEM calls “paleographical dating” there are questions and discrepancies, however. “one can be fooled by…an older scribe who has not kept up to date with changes in script, or a young scribe trained by an older one in some remote area, or a scribe who is simply albiet awkwardly imitating an older hand”. This does allow another media to synthesize information through and to study as it converses with itself and evolves over time.
In regards to dialect and words, the evolution of alliterative verse as a technique that marries written and spoken word shows “evidence …of a still comfortably, playfully trilingual world.” The use of certain phrases and idioms for the sake of alliterative verse shows the vocabulary pool that the copyist or scribe of the time had to choose from. Often, scribes would rewrite some poems to fit the alliterative style of the entire anthology or put two poems side by side which marry somehow through stylistic technique, content or context. The first chapter of OUMEM addresses this phenomenon when they are discussing the Harley scribe and compiler on page 46.
The choices of stylistic technique and ordering of anthologies that scribes and compilers made can provide evidence about the constantly evolving influence that dialect, language, and scribal technique had on the world of readers and vice-versa; these choices can also provide evidence of the attitude of the scribe themselves.

Developing the English Voice

After reading the last passage in the book, one thing that stuck out to me were how diverse the dialects across the English region were. The book lists Worcestershire, East Anglia, Yorkshire, Anglo-Ireland, as well as London as epicenters of various regional forms developing out of Anglo-Saxon English. I find it really interesting that in a space we would consider to be somewhat concentrated in our Modern world, that such a diversity in language can be found.

The book also mentioned how these various regions developed their prose and alliterative verse differently. The purpose of the structure of writing was to prompt the reader to take breaths and pauses where necessary when reading the text aloud. I thought this was really interesting when considering the various regions and their different uses of the English language. Today, when people from different parts of England (or even our country, for that matter) speak, there is a notable difference despite speaking the same language. The region as a collective has its own distinct sound and tone when using the language, speaking at pace particular to the region. For example, when considering the U.S. for instance, one typically describes the South as having a “slow drawl” while the North is seen as more fast- paced and abrupt speech. I wonder if these different regional tones and manners of speech may have developed due to the way that each region wrote them structurally. How has punctuation and structure affected regional tonality and accent?

Here’s a video where a guy uses 67 different accents in the English language that are all particular to a place/ region:

Patterns and Points

One of the questions posed in our reading for today dealt with the possibility f intertextuality. In some cases the Piers manuscript uses idioms which seem to echo another Manuscript the Chorister’s. In certain passages of the Chorister the author uses idioms which occur in Piers some year later. The reading suggests that there are two possibilities hear: either Langland is referencing the work in Chorister or he is referencing and idiom that this other author also referenced because they were both clerks running in circles in which the idioms were common. Personally I find it hard to decide which of these possibilities were more likely. Langland is proven to favor intertextuality, the reading suggests that Piers is a distillation of works Langland read as a child and an adult (as all writer do he used what he knew). But would it have been ore likely that he heard these idiom’s by word of mouth. What is interesting to me is that for the first time I am realizing that Langland (and writers like him) exist in a world of multimedia: oral and written. Langland derived his speech from his people and his books: that way it is impossible to tell which propagated certain features of his text. Today we live like this, being bombarded with idioms and phrases which are outside our dialect, which we use just as readily as we might some words more natural to our dialect. I think it is fascinating that or book traces the way Langland might or might not have been influenced by his surroundings.

A Strange Hand

In the third section of chapter 1 (of the OUMEM) “Gawain and the Medieval Reader: The Importance of Manuscript Ordinatio in a Poem We Think We know,” the authors begin with a discussion about the anachronistic use of Gothic textualis rotuna media in Cotton Nero. That is, a style characteristic of the 13th century present, here, in a manuscript that dates to the second half of the 14th century. Scholars refer to this as a “strange hand.” They conjecture that this anachronism is due to the scribe’s, supervisor’s, or patron’s feeling “that this was the kind of script appropriate to English verse.”

This idea is one of many that I’ve come across that brings the scribes and audiences of these medieval times to the present and humanizes them. They exhibit cultural tendencies and develop habits the same way we do. It is a misleading result of our orientation to history that we wouldn’t expect, say, a scribe from one century to become preoccupied with a convention from a prior century. It is this misconception that persons from one historical period wouldn’t be conscious of a prior one–that we, in the present, are the grand observers of all these compartmentalized historical periods that weren’t, themselves, curious or aware of their own history, which came before (redundancy?).

This phenomenon is analogous to our own aesthetic preferences and usages of past styles (music, fashion, literature, film, etc.) We even have medieval and gothic and just about an period’s style fonts available on word processing applications, to make a more direct analogy. Its natural that there would be manuscripts with a “strange hand.”

Piers as a Christ-Like Figure

In reading Passus 7 and Passus 18, I am reminded of the use of plowmen in medieval literature. Like Langland, Chaucer uses a plowman to represent one of the good guys in his Canterbury Tales. Perhaps it is the assumption that a plowman works hard, is diligent, honest and relatable that makes him a suitable candidate for representing a “good” character in a story. Langland uses the plowman in an especially interesting way. In Passus 18, I got the sense that Piers the Plowman is intended to be a Christ-like figure. Passus 18 gives a detailed and recognizable story of Christ riding into Jerusalem and His crucifixion. Both stories are seen in the Bible, but Langland goes into less detail than we originally get in the Bible, and instead spends a lot of time focusing on the Harrowing of Hell, a story not depicted in the Bible but still well known. During his dream at the beginning of Passus 18, Will witnesses “Someone resembling the Samaritan, and somewhat Piers the Plowman” riding into Jerusalem (10-11). Faith explains to Will that “This Jesus will joust in Piers’s arms, In his helmet and his mail coat, human nature” (22-23). I had a difficult time knowing exactly what Faith means in this explanation, and I took it to mean one of two things: either Jesus is wearing a disguise of Piers while he jousts in Jerusalem, or Piers himself is acting as a stand-in for Jesus. Either way, it seems that Langland is using Piers in close reference with Christ, and Piers is intended to be understood as a Christ figure who helps guide Will through his theological allegory, in search of what it means to live a good Christian life.


Thus far in the semester, dream visions seem to hold a really prominent place in Middle English Literature. The dream vision is supposed to be a recounting of what the author may have seen in a dream or vision and how it applies to their waking life. This is not so different from my own experience with dreams before taking this class. I am really fascinated by them and every time I have a pretty vivid one, I tend to do research on various symbols that stick out to me and that I can remember the next morning (a great site for this is http://www.dreammoods.com/dreamdictionary/). I like to piece the various symbolic meanings in my dream together in order to make sense of the storyline and how it make sense to me personally. For example, a common dream that people tend to have involves death, which can symbolize either the end of something or a rebirth in their waking life. In other words, the dream is supposed to be representative in some way to the author/ person’s personal perspective and what they see in the world/ the waking life.

I guess what piques my interest about this mostly relates back to the author itself and is moreso a question I’ve been thinking about than anything else. If the dreams that we have are reflective of our own lives, how much of these Middle English dream visions are associated with the author’s own personal life? For instance, how much of Piers Plowman is directly from the author’s own experience? And if it is only a dream that they’ve had recounted, what of that dream applies to their own perspective of the world?

Litany in Passus 7

Truth sent them a letter under his secret seal

Telling them to buy freely, just as it pleased them,

And then resell what they buy and keep the profits,

And use them to fund hospitals and help the sick,

And promptly to repair hazardous roads

And to fix bridges that are broken down,

And find dowries to marry maidens or make them nuns,

Provide food for poor folk and prisoners too,

Send students to school or to train as apprentices,

And support religious orders and endow them better.

The priests call to their men telling them to sell their goods and not to buy (in essence they were meant to keep their money and not spend it on the land, not let it trickle down into the population) But Truth sends these priests a litany (which I have copied above). The litany calls for wide spending: Truth says buy this and that–aid the infrastructure of the land, fix things, feed people and so forth. Truth is democratic, like Whitman, it spins a list of goods, things to be done. The litany has always been a democratic (and somewhat socialist) rhetorical device. Think of Hillary Clinton naming off the people she will help. Truth is concerned with many people and does not confine itself to help the few as does the Pope. This idea is an interesting way to think about the poem as democratic or socialist. Truth (a hero in this poem) aids the lowly plowman and tells him be free and buy his cow. Truth does not favor the wealthy, it favors the everyman, the average joe, the plowman (whatever you want to call him).


Sinning Bodies

When a writer personifies a certain abstract idea they rarely give it a literal body, Piers Plowman does. However they are not physical in predictable ways: one might think that gluttony wold be depicted as an over gorged lord (as is often the depiction), but the the writer choses to challenge the audience by making these sins physical. Envy comes forth and describes himself as thin, he says “I haven’t been able to eat, for many years, as a man ought to do, Because envy and bad feeling are hard to digest.”(120-1) Personally I’ve never thought of envy in this way but the implication is crystal clear. Envy makes one endlessly hungry because an envious individual cannot sustain himself of his own accomplishment.The author does not offer a literal translation of the sin as we might (he was pea green with envy). Rather the sin becomes a physical ailment, a disease, symptom.

Likewise, “Wrath wakes up with two white eyes,” as if he is blind. Strangely Wrath is so physical that he can walk among friars and priests; he even has an aunt who was once a nun, he works in the kitchen. Wrath is not separate from humanity as so many others, even Envy seems to stand aside and covet. Wrath walks among man he says “I, Wrath, never rest/ But follow these wicked folk, for such is my lot.” (150-1) Wrath is a servant with white eyes. He has no leadership no agency. Yet we often think of anger as a powerful and self assured sin. We do not think of anger as a servant.

Essentially, my point is that these poems use personification to humanize and complicate sins. Repentance is in real conversation with sin. The poem feels remarkably human.

Do Well

It wasn’t until near the end of Passus 7 that I got a clear picture of the way Piers Plowman reprimanded certain practices of the Church. My first hint came from lines 110-112:

“And it was written as follows, in witness of Truth: “Those who have done well shall go into eternal life; Those (who have done) evil (shall go) into eternal fire.”

While on this surface this might seem a simple statement- good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell- I believe it carried connotations that were actually revolutionary to this period. If people could reach heaven by simply being good people, what need was there for an authoritative clergy? And what of the whole business of buying pardons for sins? You could be a terrible person, but if you were a terrible rich person you could potentially just buy your way out of any pile of bad behavior. And what constituted bad behavior? Was it only violating the laws and guidelines set out by the Bible itself, or were there additional restrictions that the Church decided to be “bad behavior”? Piers Plowman does not seem to want to do away with pardons and the Church entirely, it just seems to be pushing against the idea that money can overtake action as the primary means of getting to heaven. Lines 180-195 present the moral of Passus 7 pretty clearly (notice “Dowel” is a substitute for the words do well):

“But to trust these triennials, truly, it seems to me, Is clearly not as reliable for the soul as Dowel. Therefore I advise you men who are rich on earth, You who rely upon your treasure to buy triennials, Don’t be so quick to break the Ten Commandments; 185 And namely, you rulers, mayors and judges, Who possess the wealth of this world, and are considered wise men, To purchase for yourself pardon and papal bulls. At the dreadful judgment, when the dead shall rise And all come to Christ to give their accounts, 190 How you led your life here and kept His laws, And how you aquit yourself each day—the judgment will reveal. Neither a bagful of pardons nor provincial’s letters [will help you]— Even if you belong to the fraternities of all five orders, And have twice as many indulgences—unless Dowel helps you, 195 I assess your patents and your pardons at the value of one pie’s crust!”

Aside from criticizing the monetary culture of the Church, this passage also seems to push against legalism. Its focus on “how you aquit yourself each day” does not seem to be on the breaking of abstract rules, but on the treatment of other people. I think this is part of why Piers Plowman has stuck around for so long, because its claims can still resonate with many cultures and beliefs today.