Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Medieval Writers and their work - J A Burrow


This is an introduction for students to Middle English literature, which Burrow defines as 1100 to 1500. I think he stretches the period somewhat and would argue that England and Scotland had caught up with the Renaissance well before 1500. However, Burrow's survey of the field in Chapter One is invaluable. It introduced me to several figures I did not know and reminded me of others I haven't looked into deeply enough.After that, I'm afraid, I didn't like Burrow's methodology overmuch. Writers, audiences and readers - fair enough, it made the point that many people, possibly most, received these texts as performance, but we know virtually nothing of readers or writers. Personally, I always tend to the belief that more people could read than we are led to believe. Ignorance was a policy of the Restored Monarchy and its government after 1660. Major Genres was a fashionable way of categorising literature in the Eighties when this book was written, but again, what evidence is there that writers thought of their work that way? Modes of meaning - sorry; it meant nothing whatever to me.

Overall, then, this is a book to get you arguing, which is always a good thing. My major criticism, however, is that Burrow spends far too much time on Chaucer. Chaucer is too near the end of Middle English to be a driving force. He had the benefit of being John of Gaunt's brother-in-law, which was almost as cast-iron a guarantee of publication in Caxton's time as a public school education is today. Chaucer is loved for the Miller's Tale and the Wife of Bath. No one gives much of a toss about the rest. For true Middle English, and true independence of thought, Burrows should have allotted at least as much space to the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But he was probably from Lancashire or even further north and was never going to get published before the Nineteenth Century.

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