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Abstracts: Volume 87, Numbers 1 & 2 (2008)

Special Issue: New Work on the Middle Ages
Edited by Kathy Lavezzo and Susan E. Phillips

Introduction by Kathy Lavezzo and Susan E. Phillips 

Dressing and Redressing the Body

"Fashioning Change: Wearing Fortune's Garments in Medieval England" by Andrea Denny-Brown

This article examines the way in which the embodied figure of Fortune spoke to formulations of consumer behavior in late medieval English literature and culture. Boethius’s conception of Fortune as the controller of worldly prosperity provided writers throughout medieval England with a theoretical structure through which to explore the pleasures and dangers of materialism. Late medieval writers such as Chaucer, Lydgate, and Charles d’Orléans greatly amplify the inherited notion of Fortune’s powers over changes in clothing, and in doing so they create in Fortune a type of proxy for the newly-emerging concepts of fashion and self-fashioning. These poets associate Fortune with the most fashionable garments of the day and ascribe to her control over the nuances of style and novelty. While each writer addresses the ramifications of these observations differently, collectively they identify the particularly English vice of varietas vestium, or transitory dress, as one of the constitutive ideological structures of their day.

"Corporeal Anxiety in Soul and Body II" by Glenn Davis

The Old English Soul and Body II, which presents a grim vision of bodily mortification after death, culminates in a particularly gruesome passage that depicts the systematic destruction of the body, piece by piece. Many critics have read this corporeal imagery as metaphorical, a visible manifestation of sin, but this essay argues that the imagery should be read literally as well. By presenting a physical body in need of repair, the poem exploits an anxiety about corporeality to spiritual ends by urging the reader to do everything possible during life to avoid such a bad end in the grave. In this regard, the interest of Soul and Body II in spiritual prophylaxis mirrors an interest in physical prophylaxis found in numerous Anglo-Saxon medical recipes and prayers, which, this essay suggests, provide an important historical and cultural context for understanding the poem.

Performing Manuscripts/Manuscripts as Performance

"Is There a Minstrel in the House?: Domestic Entertainment in Late Medieval England" by George Shuffelton

This essay traces the recurring appearances of minstrels throughout the varied texts of Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 61, a late medieval household miscellany. From Sir Orfeo’s portrait of a minstrel king whose redemptive performances can heal all wounds, to a unique stanza criticizing selfish minstrels added to a Lydgate satire, Ashmole 61’s texts continually circle around the image of the minstrel as a definition of entertainment’s relationship to domestic life. Moving beyond Ashmole 61, the argument considers discussions of minstrelsy and household life in Piers Plowman, Winner and Waster, and Middle English romances. Other domestic miscellanies (such as the manuscripts of Robert Thornton) offer further evidence. In all these texts, the minstrel appears crucially important for the imagination of domestic entertainment, and for the articulation of certain domestic ideals, such as generosity, the pleasure of surplus, familial sacrifice, and grace.

"Choreographing Mouvance: The Case of the English Carol" by Seeta Chaganti

Dance offers visible and concrete form for the motion, often understood as abstract, in Paul Zumthor's term mouvance. In dance practice, dance aesthetics, and choreography, the tension between control and instability has always played a crucial role. Dance lends illuminating form to this same tension in the study of textual tradition. The dance world's push-and-pull between mastery and abandon provides an embodied shape for the gestures of interchange between manuscript variants. Using the conventions of the round-dance to structure a comparison between two versions of the English "Holly and Ivy" carol, this essay suggests that dance tradition, in lending form to mouvance, reveals the workings of a conflict between control and instability inherent within the transmission process.

Traversing Secular and Sacred Spaces

"'As mote in at a munster dor': Sanctuary and Love of the World" by Elizabeth Allen

In the Middle English poem Patience, Jonah's tumble into the whale's gullet is described as if he were entering a cathedral. This essay explores the consequences of understanding the whale less as a penitential space than as a sanctuary. Through an examination of the so-called Hawley-Shakell affair, the essay argues that sanctuary documents point to particularly worldly and opportunistic uses of sacred space. Patience demonstrates Jonah's opportunism, as well as his isolation, but it also embraces both God's and Jonah's love of this world.

"Holy Familiars: Enclosure, Work, and the Saints at Syon Abbey" by Claire M. Waters

Review Essays

"Modern and Medieval Books" by Jessica Brantley

The study of the "whole" medieval book is flourishing, but still manuscript scholars rarely write "whole" books of their own that use manuscript study to make large, synthetic arguments. Even rarer is the book-length literary study that focuses on one medieval manuscript alone. This review essay investigates why this might be, surveys recent books on the subject of manuscripts, and advocates for more sustained work on individual literary manuscripts.

"The New Fifteenth Century: Humanism, Heresy, and Laureation" by Maura Nolan

This essay explores recent work on the fifteenth century in England, arguing that the efflorescence of scholarship on this century demonstrates the significance to the larger project of English literary history of the transitional time between the Ricardian age and the emergence of the Renaissance. It places this new scholarship between the two modes of historicism—-Ricardian historicism and Renaissance new historicism—-that have dominated the field of literary study since the late '80s, and suggests that the turn to the fifteenth century is in part a response to those structures of thought. Several angles of approach to the relationship between the fields are represented in a few recent books: manuscript study, literary history, the study of new words and the changes of meaning in older words, close reading of both poetry and of records, the use of political theory and aesthetic theory, and more. The essay concludes by making a case for the importance of form (literary, political, social) in the study of periods and eras, arguing that it is through form that history is written in the first place--and that form has the capacity both to assert and to deconstruct the historical period as well as the transhistorical object, making it a flexible and necessary tool not only for early poets but also for contemporary scholars.