Discourse and Dominion in the Fourteenth Century

Discourse and Dominion in the Fourteenth Century: Oral Contexts of Writing in Philosophy, Politics, and Poetry

Jesse M. Gellrich
Copyright Date: 1995
Pages: 320
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7sz7s
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  • Book Info
    Discourse and Dominion in the Fourteenth Century
    Book Description:

    This wide-ranging study of language and cultural change in fourteenth-century England argues that the influence of oral tradition is much more important to the advance of literacy than previously supposed. In contrast to the view of orality and literacy as opposing forces, the book maintains that the power of language consists in displacement, the capacity of one channel of language to take the place of the other, to make the source disappear into the copy. Appreciating the interplay between oral and written language makes possible for the first time a way of understanding the high literate achievements of this century in relation to momentous developments in social and political life.

    Part I reasseses the "nominalism" of Ockham and the "realism" of Wyclif through discussions of their major treatises on language and government. Part II argues that the chronicle histories of this century are tied specifically to oral customs, and Part III shows howSir Gawain and the Green Knightand Chaucer'sKnight's Taleconfront outright the displacement of language and dominion. Informed by recent discussions in critical theory, philosophy, and anthropology, the book offers a new synoptic view of fourteenth-century culture. As a critique of the social context of medieval literacy, it speaks directly to postmodern debate about the politics of historicism today.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2166-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    • Chapter One VOX LITERATA: ON THE USES OF ORAL AND WRITTEN LANGUAGE IN THE LATER MIDDLE AGES
      (pp. 3-36)

      Scholarship on oral and written language has generally assumed that since medieval societies developed after the advent of inscription, they do not illustrate what has been called ʺprimary orality, the pristine orality of cultures with no knowledge of writing.ʺ¹ But neither can they be called ʺilliterate,ʺ if we mean by that term that they were untouched by the influence of writing, including the skills it encouraged. Rather, we are dealing with a historical situation in which orality persists in ʺresidualʺ form, and its principal channel of expression is the written word itself. From this point of view, medieval writing has...

  6. Part One: Philosophy
    • Chapter Two THE VOICE OF THE SIGN AND THE SEMIOLOGY OF DOMINION IN THE WORK OF OCKHAM
      (pp. 39-78)

      ʺManuscript culture in the west remained always marginally oral.ʺ¹ As a description of the influence of literacy on the European middle ages, this proposition attempts to characterize the seemingly paradoxical situation in which cultural traditions handed down by word of mouth persisted in spite of changes introduced by writing and reading. Although thought processes and behavior were gradually altered by such developments, particularly after the printing press, this claim suggests that the borderline established by the advent of script was much more fluid than it may appear; and written versions of epic poetry or chronicle history which rely on oral...

    • Chapter Three ʺREAL LANGUAGEʺ AND THE RULE OF THE BOOK IN THE WORK OF WYCLIF
      (pp. 79-120)

      If William of Ockhamʹs work suggests the delicate balance between voice and writing in the first half of the fourteenth century, the project of John Wyclif in the second half tips the scale much more decidedly in the direction of familiar traditions—in philosophy toward ties with realism from the ʺancients,ʺ and in the world of religious affairs toward support for the orality of language (both vernacular English and vulgar Latin). Scholarship on Wyclif, and on late medieval thought in general, has not taken up in any systematic way the possibility that these two topics, realism and spoken language, are...

  7. Part Two: Politics
    • Chapter Four ORALITY AND RHETORIC IN THE CHRONICLE HISTORY OF EDWARD III
      (pp. 123-150)

      A transition from philosophy to political writing is assisted by familiar scholarly categories about the kind of history composed in fourteenth-century England: it was an age that produced an unprecedented number of philosophical histories, works that approach the past as a record of ʺuniversalʺ truths and ʺexemplaryʺ morals necessary in the present. Such works represent the ʺshapeʺ of history as the expression of specifically medieval modes of perceiving the natural and supernatural universe.¹

      But the fourteenth century was also a time in which a new sense of the past as different and separate from the present also emerged to a...

    • Chapter Five THE POLITICS OF LITERACY IN THE REIGN OF RICHARD II
      (pp. 151-192)

      Chronicle histories through the end of Edward IIIʹs reign (1377) present us with a paradox: on the one hand, authors are concerned—in a modern idiom—to ʺget it in writing,ʺ so that a report fleetingly circulating by word of mouth did not evaporate; and yet on the other, they perpetuate one of the oldest commitments in medieval tradition when they borrow the styles and strategies from the arts of eloquence to vitalize and validate the written record. The rhetoric of history writing under Edward III throws light on the general inquiry I have been pursuing into why orality persisted...

  8. Part Three: Poetry
    • Chapter Six THE SPELL OF THE AX: DIGLOSSIA AND HISTORY IN SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT
      (pp. 195-226)

      The tension between orality and writing which I have explored thus far in philosophy and chronicle history is also a considerable factor in the genre of poetry commonly recognized for its ties to both of these projects of the fourteenth century, chivalric romance. Because the development of this genre in the so-called alliterative revival of the time has had a long—though contested—association with oral tradition, I turn now to the example ofSir Gawain and the Green Knight.

      When Middle English scholars first suggested that the oral-formulaic character of Old English poetry was apparently ʺrevivedʺ in the mid-thirteenth...

    • Chapter Seven ʺWITHOUTEN ANY REPPLICACIOUNʺ: DISCOURSE AND DOMINION IN THE KNIGHTʹS TALE
      (pp. 227-272)

      In the previous chapter, I suggested that by exploring how written and oral conventions ʺdisplaceʺ each other,Sir Gawainfocuses on a critique of language which is only implied or ignored in philosophical and historiographical projects of the fourteenth century. The capacity of language to reflect on itself (metalanguage) becomes all-important as a property of poetry because it responds specifically to the nature of rule in the court of King Arthur. The poem shows how metalanguage creates an environment that prevents displacement from succeeding as a structure of dominion, and thus it exposes the heart of Arthurian politics as a...

  9. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 273-296)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 297-304)