K’zoo 2010


I’m digesting Kalamazoo. These are initial comments from one perspective–post more . . .

With kudos to Fiona Somerset, again, we had three very interesting Lollard Society sessions. The first concentrated on Eastern Europe, in which speakers argued for new connections and non-connections between Huss and Wyclif. Many key points came out of this, more than several posts could cover: one for me was that later medieval arguments over heterodox theology were often intra-mural, between clerical groups–as opposed to 12th or 13th-century arguments, which were more likely to be prompted by independently-minded, extra-mural preachers such as Waldes or Francis. These later arguments over theology, then, become arguments over the nature of the community within the later medieval church. That is, to tie this in to later sessions, the impulse for reform had leaked into the church’s walls.

Our second session contained readings of some textual evidence: each of the papers developed specific evidence to argue for–as I read it–a middle ground of readers or communities who were seeking ways to define themselves spiritually, largely, not exclusively, within the bounds of orthodox belief. Traces of heterodox belief might be found, but not so much that it would be very polemically evident.

In the third session, I’d like to say that my own paper was the provocative entry, but it was too initial; it presented some evidence to argue that the first generations of Wycliffite writers tried to discipline English for rather non-vernacular ends. Mary Raschko gave a very interesting reading of an odd copy of the Glossed Gospels, the copy of “Long Luke” in Trinity College, Oxford–it does seem to be rather bluntly heretical, even though the Glossed Gospels are supposed to be clean of reformist rhetoric. Perhaps the most compelling paper of the session, though, was by Ryan D. Perry, of UC-Berkeley, who argued for a concerted effort within the extended Beauchamp-Arundel household to promulgate copies of Nicholas Love’s Life of Christ as a rigidly orthodox response to reformist and Wycliffite writings: the implication is that this was pushed by family money, with instructions to scribes (such as John Shirley) to produce these manuscripts.

“Reformist” writing, then, is a much broader category than the heterodox (ultimately hereticated) writing of the Wycliffites, and though push-back often came along the trajectory which defined orthodoxy against heterodoxy, the push for reform was not primarily a matter of theology. Many of our panels have worked on this “grey area” between orthodoxy and heterodoxy before. Maybe, as was voiced by comments in a couple of these sessions, one label for this is “paradoxy”: belief that is not heterodox and not orthodox but a suspended combination of opposites, of “amphibious” or “hermaphrodite” conjunctions: “wycliffite vernacularity,” “polemical commentary’: the problem with this, however, is that it buys into the orthodox-heterdox trajectory as definitive.

In any event, the way that this all came together for me this time was in Kathryn Kerby-Fulton’s plenary address on Saturday morning, “The ‘Clerical Proletariat’ and the Rise of English.” Kerby-Fulton’s argument was to identify this reformist group as the wide pool of unbeneficed clerks during the high and later middle ages. They worked as scribes, and adjuncts for parish priests, and in various other necessary but unstable or otherwise peripatetic jobs. (I was looking for a modern analogy: maybe they are the adjunct professoriat, or migrant worker/clerics.)

English was not–Kerby-Fulton made a clear point of this–a natural language for them to write in: I think that her point was that writing English for this group would be a bit like a modern student trying to write down language that they could make sense of (say, a thick British dialect in an untravelled American’s ears) but for whose sounds or rhythms there were no accepted literate forms. The parallel is not quite the same, since this was also the language that they spoke, but it is close. It was guess work, and when they were tasked with writing something in English by some quirky aristocrat who decided that she wanted an English rather than an Anglo-Norman or Latin text, or when they wanted to mock their employers, or when they just bored, they might have fun trying to shoe-horn the sounds into letters.

I am interested in seeing what comes further: if these folks were the group who fanned the dying embers of English after the Conquest, does the fact that English was such work to copy present a problem? If they were so powerless, how did they gain traction at the latter half of the fourteenth century? One answer to this that she proposes is the growth in bureaucracy–which would include the chancery, for instance: I wonder how this dovetails with, for instance, John Fisher’s arguments from a number of years ago on the “emergence of standard English“? How did historical events such as the Great Death play a part in this narrative? And what of ramifications: How does the fourteenth-century development of drama play into this? Was Chaucer’s Clerk an example of this under-employed class? I’m looking forward to where this goes.

Beyond the middle ages, a second moment for me was the Sunday morning session on teaching the History of the Language. I’ve posted on this before, and I will again. Arguments were made about the centrality of HEL to the consideration of language in the English major–Tara Williams, if my notes are correct, made the point that (I’m paraphrasing) “We spend a great deal of time educating our students that literature has a social context: HEL teaches them that language has a social context as well.” Well put. I confess to a moment of schadenfreude in hearing that others share my frustration about the textbook offerings for this course.

Now I have good food for the summer (I mean, the books I bought). What did I miss–any other thoughts?


Author: Derrick Pitard

I teach medieval and early modern literature, the history of the language, introductions to literature, Latin, and writing at Slippery Rock University.

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