The Wheel of Language: Representing Speech in Middle English Narrative, 1377-1422

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2008-04-22

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This dissertation examines representations of speech in narrative poetry in English between 1377 and 1422, a four-and-a-half decade span marked by almost constant political, religious, social and economic upheaval. By analyzing the work that late medieval writers imagined the spoken word to perform - or, alternately, by examining how speech acts functioned performatively in medieval literary discourse - the author demonstrates how the spoken word functioned as a defining link between the Middle English text and the cultural tumult of the late medieval period. More important, by focusing on speech as a distinct category within linguistic discourse, the study allows for a reappraisal of the complicated relationships between text and cultural environment that have been illuminated by scholarship on the politics of vernacularity and the development of the English language.

Chapter one uses The Manciple's Tale to probe Chaucer's engagement with the nominalist philosophy of William of Ockham, a philosophy which opposed the via antiqua and threatened to overturn the linguistic, epistemological, and ontological hierarchies that had been prevailed in various forms since the writings of Augustine of Hippo. Chapter two analyzes representations of sacramental and priestly speech in the anonymous Saint Erkenwald. By doing so, it redirects the critical conversation about the poem away from the role of baptism in redeeming the righteous heathen and toward the eucharistic theology that undergirds it, a critical that shift extends our understanding of the poem's engagement with the emerging Wycliffite heresy and with typological notions of medieval Christian identity. Chapter three focuses on the works of Thomas Hoccleve, fifteenth-century Privy Seal clerk and would-be court poet. By examining the overtly performative speech acts in Hoccleve's Marian lyrics, particularly "The Story of The Monk Who Clad the Virgin," it establishes the existence of an idiosyncratic economy of speech within the poet's canon, an economy that becomes paradigmatic for the mingled systems of monetary and interpersonal exchange that prevailed in the Lancastrian dynasty's early decades.

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