"Dum Ludis Floribus": Language and Text in the Medieval English Lyric

Article excerpt

The past decade has seen a revived, scholarly attention to the medieval English lyric. This renewed energy comes from a variety of sources. One is a response to years of relative neglect. Anthologies and readers have, since the 1970s, tended to reprint the same small clutch of Middle English lyrics, with criticism largely centering on close readings of a naively, formalist nature. (1) The otherwise comprehensive Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, published in 1999, devoted little more than a few pages to such familiar items as "Sumer is icumen in," a couple of the famous Harley Lyrics, and an idiosyncratic choice of verses by Franciscan poets. For many students and scholars of the early twenty-first century it had appeared that medieval lyrics had been written out of medieval English literary history, or as if the developments in historicist criticism and attentions to religious dissent had effectively sidelined these little poems to the undergraduate survey. (2)

Much of this neglect has been remedied by scholarship that sees the medieval English lyric precisely in these critical environments. Poems long viewed as simple statements of desire have come to be understood as carefully mediating erotic love and religious devotion, on occasion with specific reference to the doctrinal debates of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. (3) Many verses that have been ignored as merely topical or local have been shown to participate in broader questions about political rule and religious authority. (4) And larger, theoretical concerns about the lyric itself--the nature of the first person speaker, the relationship between individual utterance and dramatic sequence, the place of music in the Latin and vernacular experience of British shorter poetry--have reframed the discussion of the medieval text. (5) Old verities about medieval "literature" as simply "formal writing that gives or purports to give pleasure (with or without edification)," have been challenged by critical reassessments of the social auspices of manuscript production and of the very question of what "formal writing" itself might have been. (6)

That writing would have been produced not just in English, but in French and Latin. For over 300 years, these were the languages of commerce, court, and cloister in the British Isles. These three languages, as Thorlac Turville-Petre put it, "existed in harmony, not just side by side but in symbiotic relationship, interpenetrating and drawing strength from one another; not three cultures but one culture in three voices." (7) This view does not imply, of course, that every individual of certain educational or social accomplishment was tri-, or even bi-lingual. Nor does it imply that our modern, sociolinguistic understandings of bilingualism or code switching apply, mutatis mutandis, to the medieval English family. What it does imply is the awareness that the literate imagination in medieval Britain could go on in several languages and, more to the point, that this awareness could itself be dramatized in literary fictions. (8)

Perhaps the best known sites for such dramatization are the multilingual manuscripts produced from the end of the thirteenth to the middle of the fifteenth century in England? Many of them use English and French, or English and Latin, to bring together histories and romances, lyrics and religious writings. Some use all three. At stake is not simply to see these manuscripts as repositories of material that happens to be in different languages. The critic's responsibility is to do more than edit, read, and study works in Latin, French, or English in isolation from their linguistic companions. The critic's job should be to see how these compilations juxtaposed genres and languages to embody trilingual literary culture. Furthermore, it should be to see how the meaning of these literary texts lies not just in the words transmitted on the page but in the page itself. The physical appearance of the manuscript--its script, its layout, its selection of texts, its size, and so on--may be shaped by social, economic, and aesthetic values. …