The Idea of the Vernacular: An Anthology of Middle English Literary Theory, 1280-1520 / Edition 1

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This pioneering anthology of Middle English prologues and other excerpts from texts written between 1280 and 1520 is one of the largest collections of vernacular literary theory from the Middle Ages yet published and the first to focus attention on English literary theory before the sixteenth century. It edits, introduces, and glosses some sixty excerpts, all of which reflect on the problems and opportunities associated with writing in the "mother tongue" during a period of revolutionary change for the English language.

The excerpts fall into three groups, illustrating the strategies used by medieval writers to establish their cultural authority, the ways they constructed audiences and readerships, and the models they offered for the process of reading. Taken together, the excerpts show how vernacular texts reflected and contributed to the formation of class, gender, professional, and national identity. They open windows onto late medieval debates on women's and popular literacy, on the use of the vernacular for religious instruction or Bible translation, on the complex metaphorical associations contained within the idea of the vernacular, and on the cultural and political role of the "courtly" writing associated with Chaucer and his successors.

Besides the excerpts, the book contains five essays that propose new definitions of medieval literary theory, discuss the politics of Middle English writing, the relation of medieval book production to notions of authorship, and the status of the prologue as a genre, and compare the role of the medieval vernacular to that of postcolonial literatures. The book includes a substantial glossary that constitutes the first mapping of the language and terms of Middle English literary theory. The Idea of the Vernacular will be an invaluable asset not only to Middle English survey courses but to courses in English literary and cultural history and courses on the history of literary theory.

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Editorial Reviews

The 57 offerings, most excerpts, provide material for a history of English literary theory and practice in the two centuries before the early modern period. Their discussions of composition, cultural position, real and imagined audience, and reception are followed by five essays inspired by, if not all actually from, the series of Cardiff International Conferences on Medieval Translation. These explore such topics as the politics of Middle English writing, and historicizing postcolonial criticism. The glossary assumes readers already know how to pronounce Middle English. Paper edition (unseen), $23.50. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
From the Publisher
The Idea of the Vernacular is one of the most worthwhile new publications that the field of Middle English literature has seen in some time. [This] is a necessary book for all who study and teach Middle English literature, and for their students.”
—Robert S. Sturges, JEGP
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780271017587
  • Publisher: Penn State University Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/1999
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 528
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 9.94 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jocelyn Wogan-Browne is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool.

Nicholas Watson is Professor of English at the University of Western Ontario.

Andrew Taylor is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Saskatchewan.

Ruth Evans is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Wales, Cardiff.

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Table of Contents

Using This Volume: A Note on Conventions and Treatment of Text
Pt. 1 Authorizing Text and Writer 1
1.1 Chronicle: Prologue 19
1.2 The Bruce: Prologue 24
1.3 Complaint of Venus: Envoi 26
1.4 The Testament of Love: Prologue (Extract) 28
1.5 Translation of Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy: Prefacio Translatoris 34
1.6 The Complaint: Prologue and Extract 38
1.7 Troy Book: Prologue (Extract) 42
1.8 Amoryus and Cleopes: Prologue and Ending 50
1.9 Active Policy of a Prince: Prologue 56
1.10 Cyrurgie: Prologue (Extract) 61
1.11 Legendys of Hooly Wummen: Prologus 64
1.12 Speculum Devotorum (Myrowre to Devout Peple): Prefacyon (Extract) 73
1.13 A Revelation of Love (Short Text): Prologue and Chapter 6 78
1.14 The Book of Margery Kempe: Two Prologues 84
1.15 The General Prologue to the Wycliffite Bible: Chapter 12 (Extract) 91
1.16 Prologue to the Donet and The Repressor of Over Much Blaming of the Clergy (Extracts) 97
Pt. 2 Addressing and Positioning the Audience 107
2.1 Northern Homily Cycle: Prologue 125
2.2 Dialogue Between the Lord and the Clerk on Translation (Extract) and Epistle to Thomas, Lord Berkeley, on the Translation of Higden's Polychronicon 130
2.3 Ordinal of Alchemy: Prohemium 138
2.4 On Translating the Bible into English (Extract) 146
2.5 The Holi Prophete David Seith (Three Extracts) 149
2.6 The Knowing of Woman's Kind in Childing: Translator's Prologue 157
2.7 Life of St. Gilbert: Prologue 159
2.8 The Rule of Seynt Benet: Prefatory Letter 162
2.9 The Amesbury Letter: Prologue 165
2.10 Translation of Christine de Pizan's Book of Fayttes of Armes and of Chyvalrye: Prologue 169
2.11 Confessio Amantis: Prologue, Two Versions (Extracts) 173
2.12 Knyghthode and Bataile: Proem 182
2.13 The Nightingale: Prose Introduction and Proem 186
2.14 The Croxton Play of the Sacrament: Banns 190
2.15 South English Legendary: Prologue 195
2.16 Translation of Geoffroy de la Tour-Landry, Book of the Knight of the Tower: Prologue 200
2.17 Spektakle of Luf: Prologue 205
Pt. 3 Models and Images of the Reading Process 209
3.1 A Talking of the Love of God: Prologue 222
3.2 Pseudo-Augustinian Soliloquies: Prologue and Digression 224
3.3 The Cloud of Unknowing: Prologue 230
3.4 A Revelation of Love (Long Text): Explicit 233
3.5 The Orchard of Syon: Prologue 235
3.6 Pore Caityf: Prologue 239
3.7 The Prick of Conscience: Prologue (Extract) 241
3.8 The English Psalter: Prologue 244
3.9 Dives and Pauper: Part One, Chapters 1-3 (Extract) 249
3.10 The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ: Prologue (Extract) Mirrour of the blessed lyf of Jesu Christi 252
3.11 Sermon of Dead Men: Peroration 255
3.12 The Mirror of Our Lady: Three Prologues 258
3.13 The Wars of Alexander: Opening 265
3.14 Cursor Mundi: Prologue (Extract) 267
3.15 Translation of Poggio Bracciolini, Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus Siculus: Prologue (Extract) 271
3.16 Eneados: Book V, Prologue 276
3.17 Reynard the Fox: Prologue 280
3.18 Fables: Prologue 281
3.19 Piers Plowman: C Text, Passus XV (Extract) 285
3.20 The Book of Ghostly Grace: Epilogue (Extract) 288
3.21 A Commentary on the Penitential Psalms: Psalm 50 (Selections) 291
3.22 The Book of Margery Kempe: Book I, Chapters 58-59 (Extract) 297
3.23 The Kingis Quair: Opening 300
3.24 Translation of Christine de Pizan's Book of the City of Ladies: Chapter 1, with Dedicatory Verses by Henry Pepwell 304
Pt. 4 Five Essays 311
4.1 The Notion of Vernacular Theory 314
4.2 The Politics of Middle English Writing 331
4.3 Authors, Scribes, Patrons, and Books 353
4.4 Historicizing Postcolonial Criticism: Cultural Difference and the Vernacular 366
4.5 An Afterword on the Prologue 371
Alternative Arrangements of the Excerpts 379
Glossary: The Language of Middle English Literary Theory 393
Middle English Terms 395
Select Latin Terms 447
Abbreviations 449
Index of Manuscripts and Early Printed Books 451
Bibliography 453
Index 493
About the Editors 505
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