Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Socioliterary Practice in Late Medieval England

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Socioliterary Practice in Late Medieval England

Article excerpt

Helen Barr, Socioliterary Practice in Late Medieval England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). vii + 229 pp. ISBN 0-19-811242-4. L35.00.

By redefining Middle English literary writings as social discourses, Helen Barr connects a variety of late-medieval texts within a social environment newly energized by working-class ambitions and Wycliffite challenges. The consequences of demographic shifts are discussed as topics common to Wynner and Wastour and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, for example, while social analysis works brilliantly to discover new significance in Hoccleve's To Sir John Oldcastle (chapter i). Even Pearl can be explored outside the closed hermeneutic system contrasting literal and figurative senses in order to explicate the social status of jewellers and the corporate organization of heaven as a liveried company within the new mercantile reckoning of time (chapter ii). Famous for his badges of the white hart, Richard II's extravagant use of cultural magnificence to keep power on display in masterworks such as the Wilton Diptych provoked Lancastrian responses in Richard the Redeless and Gower's Cronica tripertita that sought to dismantle regalian symbolism in order to expose deficiencies in the king's rule (chapter iii). These assaults upon King Richard were anticipated in the prologue to the Legend of Good Women, where Chaucer boldly resisted the cultural tyranny of this 'regal image' and defended his own translations against charges of heresy (chapter iv). The English-language representation of Jack Straw's rampage embedded in the Nun's Priest's Tale placed Chaucer's beast fable in the context of the bestial characterizations of the 1381 rebels by Gower and Walsingham, with imagery designed to emphasize the unbridgeable differences between peasant and aristocratic cultures (chapter v). …

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