Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381

Article excerpt

Steven Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381, The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics 27 (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1994)· xiv + 289 pp. ISBN 0-520-08325-3. $40.00.

The central focus of Steven Justice's attention, in this impressive study, is the group of short texts known as the 'Letters of John Ball'. He examines them from many points of view, and using a wide range of interpretative strategies, in developing his argument that the Peasants' Revolt, though it was portrayed in the chronicles as hostile towards writing, was more importantly an attempt to appropriate the instruments and powers of documentary culture. The Letters are 'acts of assertive literacy' (p. 24); they show a familiarity with and recognition of the importance of documents, and a certain ingenuity in annexing the documentary forms of the apparatus of privilege (the Letters imitate, for instance, the formal preliminary language of letters patent, pp. 67-8). Those who wrote and circulated them had a voice and knew how to use it, and were not the animal rabble that Gower and Chaucer and the chroniclers wanted to make them out to be. Their acts of destruction were 'informed, specific, and tactical' (p. 51). In drawing out these arguments, Justice shows how the history of medieval culture, if it is to be rewritten, will be rewritten not through a myopically subtle panning of the canonical literary texts (which, with book after book on Chaucer, is what we mostly get), but through a renewed examination of the fissures in the canonical, the spaces between history and texts, where the text is neither literary nor historical, nor - as one must say, to avoid the familiar taxonomical trap - both. Justice's energetic concentration on the 'materialist' disciplines of documentary study, his determination to 'squeeze the records until they talk' (p. 9), are inspiring. We can know the past better than the past knew itself.

The book has its recursive movement, inevitably, to Chaucer and Langland and Gower. There are strong chapters on the relation between the ideology of the Revolt and the ideas of Wyclif and Langland, and especially on the manner in which the Letters organize the enigmatic and 'literary' reformism of Piers Plowman into a coherent strategy for action. …

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