March 24th: Julian of Norwich

The term “affective piety” is defined as a religious zeal in which the worshiper meditates deeply upon the emotional and physical sufferings of holy figures. After having read both the introductory material to Julian of Norwich and A Revelation of Love, how would you describe the influence of affective piety on Julian and her outlook? What kinds of rhetorical devices help Julian achieve this level of zeal and, finally, what could you say about her purpose as a medieval writer?

The Medieval Writing Experience: Not Too Unlike Our Own

Now that we’re at the end of Chapter 1, we have learned about the different styles and quirks that ultimately make a scribe as well as the close-knit niche literary circles to which he/she belonged. Each author and scribe is mysterious in his/her own right to modern scholars, but I found it particularly interesting that Kerby-Fulton includes in the text some fairly well-known aspects of some of the major poets’ work that remind us of the modern fiction writing culture we experience in the modern day. We may not need to do any guesswork with books today (because we utilize advanced, digital printing technology and no longer need to copy material by hand), but author/editor purposes remain unchanged. In Piers Plowman, for example, the person who manually churned out his extremely long text (whether it was a “moonlighting” Langland himself or a hired scribe) was in charge of the codicology of the work: the hand in which it was written and the distinctive, telling traits of the manuscript writing itself. However, the author maintains his “overall tone of indignation” despite scribal control (73). Of course, if Langland was his own scribe, he had all the more power to keep his intentions intact. Chaucer is a prime example of scribal power vs. authorial intention; his unfinished Canterbury Tales were “ravaged by scribal intervention” and were likely subject to what Kerby-Fulton refers to as “rolling revision” (74-5), or continual editing. Chaucer’s poetry even directly criticizes his scribe Adam Pinkhurst/Scribe B as a rapist of sorts – one who has too much power to change and permanently mess up the original author’s work. In the end, though, I perceived both Chaucer and Langland as effective authors due to their unique, even radical tones. In the ever-hilarious Miller’s Tale, Chaucer’s “insistent use of ‘hende’ [is] as overt to medieval readers as it is to us” (85). If you’ve ever read this story, you know that it is what we have come to know as quintessentially Chaucerian in working class subject matter and playful tone. Nicholas is young, cunning, and sexually forward with Alisoun, his equally vulgar female partner; hence his description as “hende”/”handy.” It makes one wonder, though, how much of it is Chaucer’s own voice.

The Dream Vision & Exploring Corruption in the Church

I understand that Piers Plowman is a complex, multifaceted work and so I do not want this blog post to come off as a sweeping general assumption about the author’s purpose in creating the work; rather, I want this to serve as a potential modern interpretation based on subtle moments I noticed that feed into some themes I have noticed in our historical/contextual readings. My interpretation is likely informed, too, by my own personal experiences with newer texts and movements. With that being said, Passus 5 seemed to be an extended personification of some of the Seven Deadly Sins. More abstract ideas like Reason and Repentance are endowed with human-like traits, too, and are combatant toward the monstrous, unappealing entities of sin. I thought it was telling, first of all, that the Dream Vision genre was used here to visualize abstract ideas that would have been – I’m guessing – unacceptable or awkward to explore without the permissive genre that allows for just about anything. Though Dream Visions like most literary forms have a rough sort of formula they follow, this particular genre allows for endless possibilities. Dreams can be crazy and nonsensical on the surface, but sometimes they reveal to us some of the most important life truths (or, in this case, Truths). I argue, then, that the Langland poet chose the Dream Vision so that he could subtly hint at the Church’s fallibility when it comes to corruption and sin.

At the very opening of the poem, readers are given something resembling an introduction to the scene. We are told that “Reason preaches a sermon to the king and all the realm, urging the whole community to reform” (1). This indicates that human reason is the one directing this entire production and that everyone involved needs some degree of reform, Reform, of course, is a buzzword pertaining to the Church; especially in these times, it was the subject of several accusations and acts of reform. Repentance, one of the true solutions in the reform, “[makes] Will weep water with his eyes” (l. 60). If Will, the narrator, is also our author, this would indicate a direct involvement with the Dream Vision and its purpose. The narrator also refers to the Priests finding out about the corruption of the Friars (figures often viewed with disdain in medieval works – at least in the case of Chaucer). The whole situation just seems to open up the possibility of softly urging the Church to reform – or at least listen to those who want change.

A New Narrative: the Power of Images Alongside Text

After reading pages 172-189 in OUMEM, I have a pretty different idea of how images supplemented medieval texts within the bindings of a manuscript. The last reading we dealt with briefly mentioned the way images had the power then to take the story in a different direction, but I didn’t realize that some images are actually completely obtuse and abstract renderings of the actual text – for better or for worse. In the case of the Pearl Manuscript, the miniaturist found ways to link all three poems (Pearl, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight respectively) with Biblical motifs. The editors of OUMEM is careful to note that “the artist can be seen not only as rendering ‘the first critical judgment of these poems’ but as creating on overarching spiritual narrative by linking the poems collectively” (173). This is a crucial role for someone to play, especially because scholars now seem to be heavily reliant on images and symbols. Their art served as a conduit for their own personal interpretations of the text and are now pretty important guides for us. I found it intriguing that, as opposed to more modern narratives, medieval stories’ underlying morals and meanings are contradicted by their illustrations, not enhanced by them. When I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, I did not even perceive it in the way that the artist seemed to. In relation to that of the artist, my interpretation was pretty much based on the poem’s face value: the most literal translations of its words. I see now that the illustrations were procured in a way that evokes revered or well-known Biblical representations; the beheading of the Green Knight is presented as an example of “the circumcision or the beheading of John the Baptist” (185). The OUMEM editors also link the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight illustration’s use of an otherworldly landscape to the motif of afterlife visions; this element, they argue, is one that unites the three Pearl poems. Again, I wouldn’t have perceived the text itself in this way without 1) having a more extensive knowledge of Biblical and medieval trends/tropes and 2) (most importantly) actually being able to see the illustration while or shortly after reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It makes sense, though, for the miniaturist to have opened up possibility for that sort of analysis. Widely regarded as a romance, the poem would not have seen much success to members of the church if it hadn’t been able to appeal to “the secular court” as well as “the heavenly one” (189).

There’s a Poem in There: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Fitt I (Middle English)

As with any universally influential text that is through time made readable (translated, republished, etc.) for many walks of life, countries, and languages, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has a flourishing and entirely different sound/feel in its original form that gets quite literally lost in translation. Reading first through the modern English translation of the poem, I got the sense that the lexicon/diction of the poem was just awkward – especially if read aloud. Of course, my experience (and I’m sure everyone else’s, too) reading with much more care through the Middle English version was quite different. I was actually pleasantly surprised at how much better Fitt I sounded. Anyone who has studied poetry or anyone who even just appreciates poetry knows that the entire art form itself lies in the very sound of the words, the syllables, the meter of the lines, the way it all looks and feels together. I really appreciate the way our Broadview editors lay out the two very distinct versions side-by-side; this helps us both come to familiarize ourselves with the approximate meaning of Middle English vocabulary AND get an authentic, first-hand experience with the actual rhythm of the poem itself. Even if we aren’t entirely sure of the profound implications associated with some of the Middle English words, it is fairly easy to a) use contextual clues or compare the Middle English text to the original text to pick up on the gist of the word or line and b) hear the words in our heads, knowing that the characters used in the Broadview are entirely familiar to us (aside from taking on slightly different/accented sounds). A line that clearly illustrates this significant shift in sounds is at the very beginning of Fitt I:

[Middle English]

The borgh brittened and brent to brondez and askez,

The tulk that the trammes of tresoun ther wroght…

[Modern English]

The city laid waste and burnt into ashes,

The man who had plotted the treacherous scheme… (ll. 2-3)

The words used in the original text’s example, though without meaning for us today, allow for the poem’s vibrant, traditional alliterative style. Since this was a tried-and-true value of poetry in the Middle Ages, I think it is important to experience these words the way they were meant to be rehearsed. Their arrangement, syllables, and timing lend a singsong, boisterous tone to the poem that just isn’t there in the Modern English translation. On the whole, I have really appreciated hearing what would have probably been a rousing poetic performance back in the day. Just for the sound of it (if nothing else), Fitt I in Middle English was a fun read.

The Formidable Challenger & the Brave, Humble Knight: Different Uses of the Blazon Convention

Every time I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I am completely taken by the long and detailed exposition imagery of the gigantic, beastly Green Knight and the humble underdog, Sir Gawain. It’s interesting to me that the blazon/effictio (“laundry list”) convention is used to both paint a portrait of a seemingly formidable enemy as well as the enemy’s corresponding unlikely noble hero. Both descriptions evoke a sense of respectable strength, but the Green Knight appears otherworldly and fierce upon the relatively “normal” and whitewashed wintry court backdrop. The giant figure is “grattest in grene when grevez ar bare” and is so richly aglow that “forthi for fantoun and fayryye the folk there hit demed” (207, 240). The fact that the court views the giant as some strange once-in-a-lifetime sighting should be reason enough for concern/alienation. We know he is someone worthy of courtly respect, though, because he is “brayden ful ryche” – even his horse seems to command respect (220). Though Gawain’s blazon features none of the mighty physical traits that make the Green Knight so outwardly formidable, he is described as powerful in heart and purpose. His most conventionally admirable trait, then, is his dedication to Jesus and Mary. He is so reverent in battle that he has an “image depaynted” on his shield of Mary herself (649). Therefore, even though the rich descriptions of both men are significant, Gawain’s heroic visage ultimately holds the most conventional value.