Singing the New Song: Literacy and Liturgy in Late Medieval England

Singing the New Song: Literacy and Liturgy in Late Medieval England

Singing the New Song: Literacy and Liturgy in Late Medieval England

Singing the New Song: Literacy and Liturgy in Late Medieval England


In Singing the New Song, Katherine Zieman examines the institutions and practices of the liturgy as central to changes in late medieval English understandings of the written word. Where previous studies have described how writing comes to supplant oral forms of communication or how it objectifies relations of power formerly transacted through ritual and ceremony, Zieman shifts the critical gaze to the ritual performance of written texts in the liturgy--effectively changing the focus from writing to reading.

Beginning with a history of the elementary educational institution known to modern scholars as the "song school," Zieman shows the continued centrality of liturgical and devotional texts to the earliest stages of literacy training and spiritual formation. Originally, these schools were created to provide liturgical training for literate adult performers who had already mastered the grammatical arts. From the late thirteenth century on, however, the attention and resources of both lay and clerical patrons came to be devoted specifically to young boys, centering on their function as choristers. Because choristers needed to be trained before they received instruction in grammar, the liturgical skills of reading and singing took on a different meaning.

This shift in priorities, Zieman argues, is paradigmatic of broader cultural changes, in which increased interest in liturgical performance and varying definitions attached to "reading and singing" caused these practices to take on a life of their own, unyoked from their original institutional settings of monastery and cathedral. Unmoored from the context of the choral community, reading and singing developed into discrete, portable skills that could be put to use in a number of contexts, sacred and secular, Latin and vernacular. Ultimately, they would be carried into a wider public sphere, where they would be transformed into public modes of discourse appropriated by vernacular writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland.


This study began—and in fact still begins—with Chaucer’s “litel clergeon,” the infantile hero of the Prioress’s Tale. My initial interest was not so much in the tale itself but in the early educational practices it represented and their formalization in that distinctively medieval institution, the “song school.” Presuming, as I did, that reading ability was regularly acquired by learning to sing, I had hoped to discover the implications of such a practice for a historical understanding of literacy. After I had surveyed the extant evidence and current scholarship, however, two things became apparent: first, that the “song school,” as a determinate institution that remained a stable element of elementary education throughout the medieval period, was in part the creation of modern scholarship; and second, that this creation was inflected by attitudes toward and investments in the medieval liturgy that had not been fully examined. As the project continued, the “song school” became merely the starting point for a much more extensive study of medieval liturgical practice and its relationship to literacy. The present book represents only a partial result of this investigation.

Many scholars acknowledge innovations in literate practices in England in the fourteenth-and early fifteenth-century period covered by this study. Most of these innovations, however, have been related to the ascendancy of the vernacular, which is seen as competing with, and even subverting, Latin as the firmly installed language of privilege. Such changes are frequently attributed to an aspiring laity, often characterized as “increasingly literate,” though this literacy is most often associated with vernacular speculative and devotional writings. Liturgical practice—Latin textual practice governed by ecclesiastical institutions—rarely enters significantly into such discussions. The cultural function of the liturgy is generally considered one of conservative repetition, not innovation or creation. My study of patterns in educational benefaction connected with song, however, suggested a different picture: that liturgical practice was in fact central to fourteenth-and fifteenth-century developments in the field of literacy. In attending to the terms by which young boys would be initiated into some form of clerical status, patrons of liturgy and learning were able to dissect and stratify . . .

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