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Theory and the Premodern Text

Paul Strohm
Volume: 26
Copyright Date: 2000
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Theory and the Premodern Text
    Book Description:

    Insisting on the imaginative multiplicity of the text, Strohm finds in theory an augmentation of interpretive possibilities-an augmentation that sometimes requires respectful disagreement with what a work says-or seems to want known-about itself. Coupled with this strategic disrespect is a new and amplified form of respect-for the text as a meaning-making system, for its unruly power and its unpredictable effects in the world.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9265-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xvi)

    I recently attended a lecture by Bruno Latour in which he discussed a Chinese proverb, the gist of which was “Show a fool the moon and he looks at your finger.” The folly in question overemphasizes the interpretative framework or strategy that renders the phenomenon visible (the pointing finger) at the expense of the phenomenon itself (the moon). Obviously, a balance is to be sought, in which the role of theory in identifying a problem is acknowledged, yet the object of study is also respected. Needless to say, this balance is threatened by overmuch indulgence in “theory” for its own...

  5. Part I: Space, Symbolization, and Social Practice

    • 1 Three London Itineraries: Aesthetic Purity and the Composing Process
      (pp. 3-19)

      The mixed character of social self-representation emerges in “street-level” narratives by three writers who chart itineraries within the medieval city of London. The writers and writings in question are Chaucer in Friday Street, Usk making his way to Willingham’s tavern, and Hoccleve returning home via the Thames to the Privy Seal. In the course of these descriptions, each writer draws, variously, upon established urban resonances; upon the organizational expectations of non- or extraliterary genres, and also upon analogies and precedents drawn from the most prestigious possible literary sources.

      Before turning to the texts in question, however, some note must be...

    • 2 Walking Fire: Symbolization, Action, and Lollard Burning
      (pp. 20-32)

      The 1401 burning of Lollard ex-priest William Sautre was the first of its kind in England. Whatever insulation the passage of time might be hoped or imagined to offer, that event raises issues of the most urgent present importance. This essay was written in the year of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, murderous assaults on doctors at abortion clinics, and shortly before the murder of an African American in Texas by chaining and dragging behind a pickup truck and the crucifixion of a gay student, left dangling on a wire fence in Wyoming. Nor are the files of Amnesty International lacking in...

    • 3 Coronation as Legible Practice
      (pp. 33-48)

      We medievalists are more complacent about our cross-disciplinarity than we have any right to be. To be sure, we are unique among academic fields in the extent to which our journals (such asSpeculum) and our conferences (Medieval Academy, Medieval Institute) foster cross-disciplinary encounter. But such encounters are more often shoulder to shoulder than face to face. We most often read the article or attend the paper in “our field” without actually leaving the security of our disciplinary home. Such are the emotional and material comforts of the disciplinary home that little explanation need be offered for the academic reluctance...

  6. Part II: Time and Narrative

    • 4 “Lad with Revel to Newegate”: Chaucerian Narrative and Historical Metanarrative
      (pp. 51-64)

      Whatever might be said of the “Cook’s Tale” as a fragment, it embraces a brief but relatively complete narrative of Perkyn Revelour’s emergence, rebuke, and social descent. The Cook’s recital begins with a description of Perkyn’s “gaillard’s” temperament and disposition to merriment. It progresses to a series of interrelated examples of how he earned and enjoyed his reputation as “revelour” par excellence, including his attendance at festive processions or “ridyngs” (I.4377); his commitment to dancing (I.4370), hazard (I.4383–87), and “mynstralcye” (I.4394); his skill at attracting adherents in the form of a loyal “meynee” (I.4381); his comprehensive tendency to “riote”...

    • 5 Fictions of Time and Origin: Friar Huberd and the Lepers
      (pp. 65-79)

      Texts employ many strategies to extract meaning from time. One vital technique involves the construction of narrative sequences—arrangements of episodes that are diachronic, in the sense that they progress, that one thing follows another. At the highest level of organization these texts are also teleological in the sense that they entertain a destination, or at least “go somewhere.” Yet another technique is antisequential, in the sense of supposing that time can be stopped, that an event can be arrested and displayed for static consideration. Yet another stabilizing stratagem secures the text itself in time, supposing that a text comes...

    • 6 Chaucer’s Troilus as Temporal Archive
      (pp. 80-96)

      My reflection begins with the archive, the repository. I am stimulated in this discussion by Derrida’sArchive Fever,¹ in which he suggests that an archive incorporates two different impulses: one conservative or stasis-seeking, one progressive or institutive. The “fever” in the archive, as Derrida describes it, is the fever for repetition, a bias in favor of nonrenewal that inscribes the death drive at its very heart. Yet, I wish somewhat to separate myself from Derrida, by reflecting upon the more constructive or potentially progressive aspect of the archive. This is the “institutive” sense in which the archive is seen as...

  7. Part III: Reading the Historical Text

    • 7 Prohibiting History: Capgrave and the Death of Richard II
      (pp. 99-111)

      Michel de Certeau observes that certain descriptive discourses have the effect of supplanting what they describe; of installing themselves in its place, thus preempting or even prohibiting its expression.¹ So does history writing stand in relation to the events of the past. However humble its professions, it effectively occupies and colonizes the place of recollection, deciding for itself the past’s undecidabilities. Yet the repressed past has its own resources and devices of repropagation. Which is to say that the past continually eludes the prohibitions of history writing, stages a continual “return” within the historical text—within, as de Certeau says,...

    • 8 Trade, Treason, and the Murder of Janus Imperial
      (pp. 112-131)

      The written record begins with the discovery of a body and the supposition of an unsolved crime. “It happened,” in the laconic words of the coroner’s inquest, “that a certain Janus Imperial of Genoa lay slain.”¹ The murder had occurred the night before, on 26 August 1379, in St. Nicholas Acton Lane, before Imperial’s London residence. Arriving to view the body, the coroner and sheriffs gathered a jury from among men of Langbourne and adjacent wards and set about to determine how and in what way this foreign merchant met his death.

      The jury’s inquest was only the first step...

    • 9 Shakespeare’s Oldcastle: Another Ill- Framed Knight
      (pp. 132-148)

      Many more things were imagined about and for John Oldcastle than he could ever have performed. But, even granting his exceptional stimulus to the creative and narrative imagination, how are we ever to reconstruct an itinerary linking the empirical Oldcastle to the arrant swaggerer and extravagant clown to whom Shakespeare, inHenry IV,parts 1 and 2, originally assigned that name? And to whom, in the recent Oxford Shakespeare and other editions in the making, that name has now been restored?¹

      Ruptures, orchestrated forgettings, and new departures separate the historical Oldcastle from Shakespeare’s extravagant creation. So many, in fact, that...

    • 10 Postmodernism and History
      (pp. 149-162)

      This essay began as an invited commentary on a highly stimulating conference on medieval “cultural frictions,” held at Georgetown University in 1995.¹ The conference title itself seemed to me valuably indicative of a somewhat awkward amalgam under which many of our current theoretical efforts proceed. The full title was “Cultural Frictions: Medieval Cultural Studies in a Postmodern Context.” Even casually scanned, it is seen to contain a number of somewhat discrepant emphases and choices, all of which indicate a current eclipse of history, either proposing substitutes or limiting its relevance.

      Culture over history.First to be noted in the umbrella...

  8. Part IV: Psychoanalysis and Medieval Studies

    • 11 What Can We Know about Chaucer That He Didn’t Know about Himself?
      (pp. 165-181)

      A text may state (and therefore discursively “know”) things about itself, and it may remain silent on other matters (and therefore not “know” them). In the latter case our interest and our inquiry need not cease, for texts still carry forms of pre-or nondiscursive knowledge within their bounds. I am here presuming the existence of a textual unconscious, effectively constituted by and extensively correlated with that which the text represses.¹ I will eventually suggest that the fullest understanding of a text must include attention to what it represses, to the gaps, traces, and other derivatives of a textual unconscious.


    • 12 John’s Locked Box: Kingship and the Management of Desire
      (pp. 182-200)

      Despite the possible implications of the “d-word” in my title, my present interest does not lie in broadly encompassing statements about mirrors or mothers, the acoustic or the pre-Oedipal. Certainly, desire is in some respects a transhistorical condition, one that crosses boundaries of time and even species, implicating not only humans of other times and places, but rabbits, fighting fish, and most other complexly evolved denizens of the planet. The trouble is that, so generally conceived, desire is everything and nothing at all, liable to characterization as what Terry Eagleton calls “a nameless hankering, unfulfillable by any of its particular...

    • 13 Mellyagant’s Primal Scene
      (pp. 201-214)

      A recent diatribe, cited in the introduction to this volume, accuses theoretical practitioners of disingenuousness in using early texts as vehicles for their own more contemporary interests: “It seems to me wrong to seek to advance your career by professing to be concerned with Shakespeare, while actually writing about what happens to interest you more, forcing a limited set of new interests onto the old topic, using that topic as an excuse to write about these more fashionable concerns.”¹ A different essay might pause to refute the sour assumption that only career-mongers and fashion victims pursue theory. I wish, however,...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 215-260)
  10. Indexes Protagonists, Events, and Selected Medieval Texts
    (pp. 261-270)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 271-271)