Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Festivity, Order, and Community in Fourteenth-Century Ireland: The Composition and Contexts of BL MS Harley 913

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Festivity, Order, and Community in Fourteenth-Century Ireland: The Composition and Contexts of BL MS Harley 913

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Interpretations of British Library MS Harley 913 have in the past unduly privileged its Middle English contents, such as the well-known 'Land of Cockaygne', over its texts in medieval Latin and Anglo-Norman. A reconsideration of the contents of the manuscript as a whole tends to confirm that it originated with the Franciscans in Waterford; but it also suggests that the collection should be understood in terms of its thematic and literary coherence, and not as a programme narrowly identified with the interests of the friars or of the English community in Ireland.

Writing as the editor of the monumental new Cambridge History of English Medieval Literature, David Wallace has stated his sense of the importance of the perception that 'medieval literature cannot be understood (does not survive) except as part of transmissive processes--moving through the hands of copyists, owners, readers and institutional authorities--that form part of other and greater histories (social, political, religious, economic)'. (1) At face value, such a statement seems almost incontestable, even tautological (in that texts that did not form part of any transmissive processes, by definition, do not survive to be understood), particularly if Wallace's proposition is interpreted simply as an assertion of the academic value of attempting to read texts in terms of a sympathetic understanding of the circumstances in which they were created. Yet what is implied by this consciously historicist position is a more complex and controversial principle, which might be interpreted as an assertion of the priority of 'external context' over 'internal context' in validating the reading of texts. (2) That is, the physical relationships of texts, both among themselves in manuscripts and with other forms of material evidence in archives, art, and archaeology, are assumed to reflect the social structures of the time in which they were created and, as such, are taken to be a more reliable means of contextualizing medieval texts than the more abstract continuities of theme, image, phrase, form, and style that older generations of critics generally sought to establish. The reaction against the older methodology is signalled most clearly in Derek Pearsall's history of Old and Middle English literature published in 1977, which was deliberately organized 'so as to provide as much information as possible on poetry as a social phenomenon as well as an artistic one' rather than by what was then the 'much more familiar' arrangement 'according to genres'. (3) As Pearsall says, such formal criticism tends to 'distort the realities of medieval poems [...] by imposing on them categories of form derived from post-Renaissance theory' (p. 120). Certainly there is no question now about the timeliness or the effectiveness of his attempt to redress the balance of 'social' as against 'artistic' readings, as Wallace so clearly testifies. Yet, as I hope to show in this essay, there are situations in which the ideological categories currently invoked in order to explain the physical association of medieval texts in manuscript in terms of their 'social, political, religious, economic' affinities, can be almost equally distorting. The problem is that the tendency to see such extra-textual histories as 'greater' than textual ones, as Wallace does, rests on a preference for seeing the body politic in terms of distinct political and economic forces that many of the creators of medieval books often simply would not have shared. Not only do the operative terms of today's historical analysis not necessarily serve us well in our attempts to understand the way in which medieval readers (and medieval scribes, particularly) themselves perceived cohesion in and across collections of texts, but it seems to me that there are many cases in which groups of medieval texts express an imaginative congruity that implicitly refines or even contradicts the historicizable circumstances of their transmission, in this way making our understanding of the 'greater' histories necessarily conditional on our understanding of the interrelationship of texts, and not the other way around. …

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