Chivalry Revisited: In Print and Online

Article excerpt

Voices from the High Middle Ages are being rescued from long neglected

manuscripts through the Middle English Texts Series project. Until now,

the study of the vernacular literature of romance, poetry, and protest

in English from 1000 to 1550 has focused on a canon of core authors:

Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, Langland, and Malory. The Middle English

Texts Series, or METS project, is expanding that canon by making obscure

and out-of-print works available in durable, reasonably priced scholarly editions and on the Internet. More than one hundred texts are online at the METS

website, complete with scholarly essays and linked annotations for easy navigation

between text and notes.

"The METS editions have transformed the teaching of Middle English across the world," says Russell Peck, general editor of the series and professor at the University of Rochester. Courses dealing with literature of social and ecclesiastical protest or stories of heroic women from the Old Testament in Middle English verse, which simply could not be taught before, are now being offered. "Students of medieval literature have some small notion of this from Chaucer's satires of the friar, but now we have these primary documents, which are very exciting to study."

The METS editions shed new light on daily activity, religion, social change, political unrest, and women's lives and writing in the Middle Ages. The texts represent a wide sampling of literary genres, styles, and rhetoric, ranging from early Scots poetry and medieval romances to stories of saints' lives. Texts are accompanied by scholarly apparatus-essays and notes designed for beginners through specialists-and are particularly friendly to the contemporary reader, as they are written in the modern alphabet, without Middle English thorns, edhs, and yoghs.

The Middle English Texts Series began in 1990 with a group of scholars determined to widen the selection of texts available for their medieval courses. They surveyed two-hundred-fifty scholars on which texts they would like to see included in the series and who would be qualified to edit the texts. Sixty-four editors have chosen to donate their expertise and labor, writing scholarly notes and collaborating in the complex editing process.

METS produces six or seven volumes a year and has published twenty-eight volumes already. By May 2000, forty volumes should be available. The series includes the only student editions in Middle English of The Book of Margery Kempe and Gallacher's The Cloud of Unknowing, a key text about medieval English mysticism; medieval English political writings; the first scholarly publication of the Middle English Breton Lays; and the definitive volume of Robin Hood and other outlaw tales.

Works such as The Plowman's Tale and Piers the Plowman's Crede expand what we know about ecclesiastical protest in the fifteenth century. The Plowman's Tale, an apocryphal Chaucerian tale, and Piers the Plowman's Crede, which takes off on the Tale, are satiric attacks on monastic establishments. "Piers the Plowman's Crede presents a poor man's quest for spiritual truth," explains James Dean in his introduction. The narrator consults a number of friars from different orders in the hope of learning the Apostles' Creed, but is disappointed. Instead of discovering the "graith," or the plain truth, the speaker encounters friars who apparently do not know the Creed and are more concerned with insulting rival fraternal orders and obtaining money from the narrator than discussing religion. Finally, the narrator meets a plowman named Piers who tells him the friars are hypocrites and teaches him the Creed in ordinary language. The poem articulates the age's predominant stereotypes of fraternal corruption and hypocrisy, and is a source of information about antifraternal and church reform movements of the late fourteenth century.

Why I Can't Be a Nun, an early fifteenthcentury poem portraying a young woman who wishes to become a nun, criticizes the corruption of ecclesiastical institutions and addresses the dilemma this presents to a pious young woman. …