This chapter pays tribute to David Lawton, a pioneer and leading scholar in the field of voice studies in Middle English. Over the course of the past 40 years David Lawton has produced scholarship of continued relevance. From his earliest work on alliterative poetry to his recent edition of Chaucer, he has pioneered editorial innovations. At the same time, his work on narratology has both deployed and questioned the structuralist turn. His attention to otherness and empire engaged the postcolonial condition before it had a name. His work on theology and religious history prefigured a critical religious studies.
The racialisation of voice precedes the invention of race in the fifteenth century. Its most salient form within late medieval, Christian Europe is the comparison of the voices of non-Christian peoples to those of nonhuman animals, and the characterisation of their voices as inarticulata (unintelligible), drawing on the influential, fourfold categorisation of vox (voice) made by the late antique grammarians Donatus and Priscian. The hierarchical sorting of voices into the human and the bestial, the human and the barbaric, the intelligible and the unintelligible still shapes the way that we hear a supposed ‘essence’ of race in voices today. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale, Canacee’s ability to understand birdsong connects the human and the nonhuman by figuring a nonhuman voice as vox articulata (articulate, intelligible). Giorgio Agamben names this point of conjunction and separation between the human and the animal a ‘caesura’, and urges that we must seek to understand the historical construction of the conflict between the animality and the humanity of man in order to address the violent political and social consequences of that separation. Poetry’s origins in in-spiration , breath, invites us to put race and poetics together at a moment in US and global history when Black people are struggling to breathe.
Concentrating on v.1479–80, the point at which the knight Arveragus ‘brast anon to wepe’, this chapter offers a reading of The Franklin’s Tale that foregrounds the disruptive presence in that tale of the body as a conduit for truths about the self that challenge those that can be consciously tolerated and intelligibly uttered. When we weep, the body is speaking. Here, as it forces a sudden disruption and decline in Arveragus’s speech register and ethical focus, the voice of the body erupts in such a way as to crystallise one of the tale’s most urgent concerns with what might really constitute truth, unravelling what has gone before, putting the reader’s experience on a different footing and forcing a reappraisal of the characters’ self-concepts. And this, in turn, raises questions about the relationship between, on the one hand, the rhetoric and ideals explicitly at work within the world of the tale and, on the other, the felt presence not only of its teller, the Franklin, but also of its author, Chaucer.
The voice of ‘Sir John Mandeville’, author and protagonist of Mandeville’s Travels, is an illusory textual effect: Mandeville, as we all know, was not Mandeville, and probably did not travel. Mandeville’s first-person experiences are plagiarised from those of genuine travellers; yet the text forges a distinctive voice that unites its disparate sources and the positions, in Michel de Certeau’s terms, of ‘voyeur’ and ‘walker’. This voice constitutes what David Lawton names ‘a public interiority’: generations of Mandeville’s readers occupied his position. Hence, for someone who did not exist, Mandeville generated significant material traces, including two grave sites, at Liège and St Albans. Mandeville’s English readers added additional biography to flesh out the character, emphasising, variously, his Englishness, his knightliness and his scholarship. Two manuscripts of the Travels visualise him both as author and as traveller: in BL, MS Harley 3954, he is a humble guide and pilgrim; and in the luxurious BL, MS Additional 24189, he is an elegant aristocrat.
The introduction stages the concept of ‘voice’ as a narrative, literary and conceptual topos that is then elaborated across the volume. It considers the fraught nature of voice as an embodied yet fleeting phenomenon that leaves only traces of its existence as a memory, a textual remnant or as a transient sensation of aerial vibrations. Tracing the development of the theoretical debate of voice and what it might constitute from antiquity to modern critical theories, it seeks to showcase its multiplicity, its evasiveness and its potentiality, both as a narrative tool and as a mode of understanding medieval approaches to and perceptions of literature, vocality and aurality. It expands across classical theories on voice, narratology, feminist criticism and interdisciplinary studies on auditory perceptions. Ultimately, it presents the multiple meanings of voice – i.e. the notion of the authorial voice, the implicit or intended aurality of the text and vox as authority or moral imperative, but also, in a Bakhtinian sense, the multiplicity of narrative voices within a text and the aural soundscapes provided by absent, imaginary and actual voices.
The ancient Greek word parrhēsia designates speech that is bold, frank and free, holding nothing back; a parrhēsiastēs is a person who gives voice to such speech. Although the word was little used in Latin literature and had no precise Latin equivalent, the concept was transmitted to medieval western Europe in rhetorical theory and the New Testament. In this chapter I propose that the concept of parrhēsia may help to register the irruptive force, pointedness, risks and complexity of certain acts of saying in Piers Plowman, a fourteenth-century English vision poem. For most of this chapter, I focus on a single discursive feature of Piers Plowman: moral admonishment addressed in the second person to audiences outside the represented world of the poem. I argue that monitory address is an important and well-defined feature of Piers Plowman, that the poet’s confidence in his monitory voice grows during his composition of the poem and that this feature of the poem culminates in Conscience’s parrhesiastic addresses to bishops and the king in the C version Prologue. As a coda to this argument, I propose a reading of the dreamer as a figure of wisdom-seeking parrhēsia.
Punctuation and the voicing of late medieval devotional literature
This chapter examines scribal alterations to systems of punctuation employed in several medieval works of devotional literature, including Anselm of Canterbury’s Orationes sive Meditationes and William of Waddington’s Manuel des péchés. Within such works, scribes modify marks of punctuation with striking frequency. Such modifications reveal that scribes considered themselves as having a degree of interpretive licence when punctuating a work; even if they otherwise took pains to reproduce the text of a work faithfully, scribes could provide an original ‘voicing’ or ‘performance’ of that text through their adaptations of its punctuation system. The regularity with which scribes modified the punctuation of the works they copied out, I suggest, provides valuable evidence of medieval delimitations of acceptable forms of scribal agency and reaffirms the complex multivocality of medieval works. To alter the punctuation of a work was to reshape the parameters of its textual form through the manipulation of its pauses and changes to its syntactic rhythm, thus influencing the potential voicings and interpretations of a work as it circulated in multiple copies over time.
Margery Kempe’s meeting with the leprous woman has, for the past generation, been read as an instance of ‘the touch of the queer’, a reading recently bolstered by the assumption that the Red Ink Annotator’s comment on the episode is ‘Be strange and bold’. That comment is in fact ‘Be stronge and bold’, and Margery’s encounter with the leprous woman, so this chapter argues, is better understood as an instance of what David Lawton identifies as ‘public interiorities’, which ‘exist as a text before they are inhabited, often in a shared first-person, by a particular speaker or group’. In this case, Margery is speaking the voice of St Paul (Ephesians 6.11), a public interiority that pervades The Book of Margery Kempe. Other elements of the Book that have been read as ‘queer’, too, such as the mayor of Leicester’s accusations regarding Margery – read as implying that she had sex with the wives of that city – might more accurately be understood as conventional and normative. There are certainly elements of the Book that can productively be taken as ‘queer’, but the voice of St Paul at work here points to more complicated realities than ones suggested by such readings.
Medieval literary voices explores voice as both a textual remnant and an enlivening communicative presence within medieval texts. Its impressive line-up of essays deepens our understanding of medieval literature by revealing the many ways in which textual voices, far from simply being effects of literariness, are forceful presences that evoke the elusive voices lurking behind and beyond the literary text; they capture the absent authorial voice, the traces of scribal voices and the aural soundscape of the uttered text. The volume considers medieval literary voices across a broad range of texts, from the classical and biblical heritage to post-medieval literary representations. It explores multiple dimensions of medieval voice and vocalisations, also paying attention to the interactions between literary voices and their authorial, scribal and socio-political settings, particularly late medieval English literary production. It contends that, through seeking the voice of the absent or long-gone author, the literary voices contained within the text, and the imaginary and actual voices that shape medieval texts’ receptions, we can begin to understand the ways that medieval voices mediate or proclaim an embodied selfhood or material presence, how they dictate or contest moral conventions and how they create and sustain narrative soundscapes.
Humphrey Newton and Bodleian Library, MS Lat. Misc. c. 66
This chapter sheds new light on the literary activities and preoccupations of Humphrey Newton (1466–1536) and on the materials in his manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Lat. Misc. c. 66), an assortment of genealogical, legal, medical, religious and literary material, some of it authored by Humphrey himself. Humphrey has been seen as an inferior gentry imitator of courtly poets such as Chaucer and Lydgate, and the chapter reconsiders and revises this assessment by investigating his engagement with the trope of the parrot, traditionally seen as a mimic of the voices of humans. Focusing in particular on Humphrey’s poem I Am a Bird of Paradise and the accompanying drawings in his hand (previously dismissed as ‘doodles’), the chapter points out that, for the poet and his household, the parrot was a heraldic device that was problematic. The parrot tropes and conceits that Humphrey mimics therefore have particular local significance and value, and this reading brings sharply into focus the materials in the manuscript as traces of community literary production and exchange, relationship building and identity formation.