Main blurb (for internal use only - CHECK BEFORE USING IN PRINTED PUBLICITY):Like "Old English" literature, "Middle English" literature is, by definition, offered to view to modern readers bearing a linguistic and historical identity, as if it could be comfortably defined in such terms. But even more than Old English literature-indeed, arguably more than any period-defined body of English literary materials before or since-Middle English literature occupies a vast and astonishingly varied range both linguistically and culturally. To be sure, an overall narrative of the "rise," "triumph," and "decline" of Middle English literature is possible, and in its broad features relatively commonplace. One form of it might go like this.
The disintegration of a "standard Old English" and of the genres it supported in written texts is gradually evident after the Norman Conquest (although this event is most strongly registered and commented on only about a generation after the Conquest, when both the cultural memory of pre-Conquest culture was more decisively broken, and also when retrospective efforts to assimilate its ethical, literary, and cultural effects were more openly pursued), followed by the gradual redefinition and increasingly confident expression of indigenous narrative forms and genres of writings in the next century and a half (c. 1200-1350), at time when the interconnections of Middle English works with one another were less important, and usually less certain, than their imbeddedness in political, economic, social, institutional, and religious culture generally.
The overall status and quantity of such writings in English followed inversely the rapid rise then slow decline of French and Latin as authoritative languages-a trajectory proceeding along with those languages' increasing identification as "courtly" and "monastic" languages, and with English's increasing identification as a feature of "national identity."
By the later fourteenth century, this re-elevation of the cultural status and intellectual and literary authority of English helped lead to a "take-off" of poetic works and of the claims to authority by their makers, when in the late-fourteenth century an array of stellar authors addressed and fostered an increasingly literate lay audience: in turn, this was followed in the fifteenth century by a softening of literary innovation into verbose imitativeness and formlessness, a gradual transformation of the language into Early Modern English, and a diffusing of literary confidence, all appearing with the onslaught of frequent political disruption and a new stringency of religious surveillance, culminating with the Reformation when the foundation was laid for the humanist genres and ideologies that flourished in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. This account is reasonable, so far as it goes: one of its several problems, however, is its assumption that the focus of the "main event" of this dramatic narrative should be on England rather than the English-speaking areas of the British Islands, and indeed almost exclusively on London.
The north, including Scotland where English was very significantly used from the late fourteenth century: the west, where in England, an important body of writings well preceded and followed the "take-off" of London poetry in the late fourteenth century, and as far as Ireland where at least one significant group of works show that Hiberno-Irish literary production was present from very early fourteenth century: and the rest of the east and south of England, where the real flourishing of the fifteenth century in the form of vernacular drama appeared-all these are areas that need incorporating into any history of Middle English literature, and which would help indeed London's central role in producing and disseminating texts to be seen in a clearer perspective. But not just the auctores, "makers," or "authors" in those areas, or indeed just the authors in London are worth pursuing.
For another general problem with the narrative crudely sketched above is how strongly it is shaped by a relatively narrow band of individual authors, rather than including the textual communities of scribes and readers in which the meanings of those and other works were sustained and reshaped, and, even more striking, the less definable individual makers contributing to the manifestly collaborative narrative endeavors of the period, such as the Lollard sermon cycle and the civic drama extant in cycles or fragments. Finally, the narrative above casts the fifteenth century as a formal and imaginative decline, in part because such strikingly original achievements as the collaborative vernacular civic drama is usually given short shrift in comparison to the works of Chaucer's followers, in part because the achievements in Scottish historical prose and poetry are not always brought directly into Middle English literature, in part because manuscript production, and its concommitant, editorial creativity-preemininent achievements of the fifteenth century-rarely play significant roles in literary histories by comparison to "original" literary production.
As many scholars are increasingly emphasizing, the fifteenth century is fully deserving of appreciation: indeed, it is in one sense like much Middle English literature, in that its achievements are in forms that jar with our own categories of and assumptions about "the literary." As including the first decades of printing, the fifteenth century also raises questions about how the nature and basic understanding of textuality frames and shapes the Middle English period (questions that in turn are provocative for our own period of transformation in the speed of circulation and data resources of information).
With the Norman Conquest (1066), the new king's textual survey of England in Domesday Book (1086), and, still more, with the rapid and totally novel proliferation from the Conquest on of texts as embodying the power to define economic and social rights, shaping everything from history writing to religious devotion and heresy, to the emergence of the early "professions" in our sense including the lay civil service that ultimately produced the literary communities of fourteenth-century London-with all these changes, the Middle English period was inaugerated with a fundamental shift in the nature of textuality, easily apparent in the texts' physical nature (such as the development of cursive) and quantity (such as the estimate that perhaps 8 million charters were written in the thirteenth century).
So too the Middle English period closed with another fundamental shift in the invention of the printing press, which not only hastened the language changes that produced early Modern English, but also was inextricably involved with the religious changes, new intellectual standards and styles in humanist Latin and humanist literature (changes that were generally corrosive on the status of women, who in medieval culture arguably enjoyed a higher and more widely varied range of social and intellectual options), and increasingly London-centered English world of literary, dramatic, and cultural production. The changes of the sixteenth century in religion, literature, and political centralization were in varied ways anticipated by the mass-production of manuscripts and the other cultural changes of the previous century: but the arrival of printing drastically accellerated those changes, an acceleration which suggests that a literary history of Middle English would not be in keeping with current understanding of such cultural contexts as information transmission and segregation if it did not maintain throughout a sense of this as a shaping force.
It will thus be one of my contentions that, although Chaucer, Gower, Langland, and the Pearl-poet-the noted masters of the entire range of Middle English, all found in the reign of Richard II-define literary possibilities of astonishing range and depth and stand as the most obvious source of the period's lasting influence and critical reception, and therefore justify a considerable proportion of attention, nonetheless, the cultural focus, geographic scope, and formal and other sympathies of a history of Middle English must include these within a very broad field of cultural and literary history, by means of which their centrality can be contemplated carefully and critically. The achievements of the great 'Ricardians,' for example, must be set next to the stature and interest of truly collaborative endeavors, such as heretical sermon cycles and civic drama, the large body of anonymous alliterative writing, the wide context of writing and disseminating Middle English literature throughout the British Isles, and the creative and shaping editorial and translating activities accessible in the major codices found in the period.
This will be a history of literary cultures as well as literary history, and it will place a strong emphasis on contemporary endeavors to define textual and other kinds of literary communities, on the part of well-known authors as well as anonymous scribes, wealthy patrons, powerful religious institutions, women heretics, and other less powerful civic and rural communities that increasingly were in conflict with the religious institutions that constituted the great centers of power and knowledge throughout the period, but which were destroyed only when the crown absorbed their resources into its own centralizing structures and ideologies.