Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Lingua Materna and the Conflict over Vernacular Religious Discourse in Fifteenth-Century England

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Lingua Materna and the Conflict over Vernacular Religious Discourse in Fifteenth-Century England

Article excerpt

In late medieval England, the vernacular proved to be an effective medium for those attempting to demystify religious discourse that previously had been coded mainly in clerical Latin.(1) Increasing use of the vernacular posed a double challenge to the discursive domains in which divine power and knowledge were constituted: first, by making the scriptures available in the vernacular to all English-speaking people and, second, by making the eucharist a symbolic event interpretable by all Christians.(2) The rise in number of people able to read and/or write in the vernacular and, relatedly, Lollard degradation of the priesthood opened the explosive possibility that lay men and women could participate without the use of Latin in the most important theological discussions.(3) As scholars such as Margaret Aston, Anne Hudson, and Miri Rubin have shown, by the fifteenth century, religious writings in the vernacular clearly had moved theological discourse from the exclusive domain of the clergy into the homes of private citizens.(4) Widely disparate groups of people, posed questions regarding, for example, the eucharist and the workings of transubstantiation: participants included not only scholars, theologians, bishops, and reforming friars, but also the aristocracy and gentry, as well as townspeople and guild members, like the witnesses and defendants in the Norwich heresy trials, and bourgeois housewives, like Margery Kempe. Such use of the vernacular as a vehicle for theological discussion, however, did not pass without vehement opposition. As an anonymous fifteenth-century writer complained, "For as they dampned Christ so now oure bishopes dampne and bren goddes lawe/for bycause it is drawen into our mother tounge."(5)

This essay examines a range of mid-fifteenth-century clerical responses to the use of the "mother tongue." These responses are exemplified on the extreme negative end by John of Exeter, the transcriber of the heresy trials held at Norwich in 1428-31, and by the officials in Leicester and York who examined Margery Kempe in 1417 for heresy; the more positive end of the spectrum is represented by Reginald Pecock in his formal theological treatises, written in the vernacular in the 1440s and 50s, and by Osbern Bokenham in his Legendys of Hooly Wummen, composed around the years 1443-47. Each one depicts the struggle over who should have access to religious discourse as a gendered contest between a potentially transgressive vernacular, feminized as the Lingua Materna or "the mother tongue," and the authoritative Latin of the male-dominated Church. Despite its heretical potential, however, the vernacular remained an important and practical means of teaching the laity, and so it could not simply be dismissed as inferior. Clerical writers like Pecock and Bokenham, who wanted to address lay audiences, needed to distinguish between proper uses of the vernacular for teaching the laity and improper uses of it to demystify theological discourse. They did so by negotiating a gender distinction within the vernacular (rather than between English and Latin), masculinizing what they regarded as proper uses of English and feminizing improper uses of what they called "the mother tongue." Although, as we shall see, Pecock's efforts to delineate a vernacular suitable for composing syllogistic prose proved too radical in its sudden leap away from conventional notions about the production of theological discourse, Bokenham's more successful negotiation of a gender distinction within the vernacular relied upon creating apparently uncontroversial bridges between his own hagiographical poetry and an existing vernacular literary (rather than theological) tradition.

While the term Lingua Materna denoting one's native language appears frequently in classical Latin texts, the English counterpart, "mother tongue," does not emerge, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, until John Wycliff uses it in the 1380s. In Wycliff's writings, the terms "mother tongue" and "native language" appear interchangeably and with apparently neutral connotation (despite his advocacy of the vernacular): the mother tongue is simply the language one speaks (he points out in his discussion of the Pater Noster and the Creed, for example, that Jesus and his disciples spoke in their own mother tongue, not Latin). …

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