Reorienting the narrative of digital media studies to incorporate the medieval, Participatory reading in late-medieval England traces affinities between digital and medieval media to explore how participation defined reading practices and shaped relations between writers and readers in England’s literary culture from the late-fourteenth to early sixteenth centuries. Traditionally, print operates as the comparative touchstone of both medieval and digital media, but Participatory reading argues that the latter share more in common with each other than either does with print. Working on the borders of digital humanities, medieval cultural studies, and the history of the book, Participatory reading draws on well-known and little-studied works ranging from Chaucer to banqueting poems and wall-texts to demonstrate how medieval writers and readers engaged with practices familiar in digital media today, from crowd-sourced editing to nonlinear apprehension to mobility, temporality, and forensic materiality illuminate. Writers turned to these practices in order to both elicit and control readers’ engagement with their works in ways that would benefit the writers’ reputations along with the transmission and interpretation of their texts, while readers pursued their own agendas—which could conflict with or set aside writers’ attempts to frame readers’ work. The interactions that gather around participatory reading practices reflect concerns about authority, literacy, and media formats, before and after the introduction of print. Participatory reading is of interest to students and scholars of medieval literature, book, and reading history, in addition to those interested in the long history of media studies.

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Reading practices and participation in digital and medieval media

The introduction lays the groundwork for Participatory reading by examining how participation and interaction are understood today in digital media, then assessing how reading practices involve acts of participation, creating the basis for assessing participatory reading in late medieval England. In addition, this chapter scrutinizes the benefits of developing a study tracing affinities between the medieval and the digital.

in Participatory reading in late-medieval England
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Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and John Lydgate’s Troy Book

This chapter begins with an exploration of an overlook aspect of the widespread medieval humility topos, used by Chaucer, Lydgate, and other late medieval writers. Far from simply expressing humility, the topos is often also used to invite readers to correct the text, thus laying the groundwork for a discourse of participatory reading in late medieval England. This chapter argues that emendation invitations represent an act of participatory reading demonstrating affinities with today’s crowd-sourced editing practices, and shows how Chaucer, Lydgate, Thomas Norton and William Caxton, alongside other writers, turned to the emendation invitation in ways that sheds light on how they anticipated and attempted to control their readers and their readers’ participatory reading practices.

in Participatory reading in late-medieval England
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The Orcherd of Syon, Titus and Vespasian, and Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes

This chapter compares how the invitation to read nonlinearly, familiar in hypertext media today and made explicit in The Orcherd of Syon, is used to elicit and to represent reading practices across late medieval English secular as well as devotional literary works that also include Titus and Vespasian and John Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes, in explicit, implied, and hybridized ways. In addition, the discourse evoked by invitations to read nonlinearly illuminates how medieval writers conceived of their readers as agentive participants in the work of textual interpretation. Finally, nonlinear reading gives rise to concepts traced across subsequent chapters, relying as it does upon a discourse of mobility, space, and temporality.

in Participatory reading in late-medieval England
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John Lydgate’s ‘Soteltes for the coronation banquet of Henry VI’

Mobility, alongside aural, textual, gestural, and performative meaning, becomes the focus of this chapter’s examination of John Lydgate’s “Sotelties for the Coronation Banquet of Henry VI.” Subtleties were presented at the 1429 Coronation banquet accompanied by verses composed by John Lydgate, which were performed as they were moved through the Great Hall at Westminster. This chapter argues that reading can be understood as an act that requires not simply participation through the apprehension of a textual message either visually or aurally—the most basic understanding of medieval literacy—but as an act that requires familiarity with other, material modes of meaning-making, all deliberately drawn on to invite and shape readers’ relations to the text. Drawing on understandings of forensic and formal materiality developed to evaluate digital works, this chapter intervenes in assessments of medieval materiality to offer a fresh framework for its analysis.

in Participatory reading in late-medieval England
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The wall texts of a Percy family manuscript and the Poulys Daunce of St Paul’s Cathedral

This chapter examines how texts painted onto walls in the Percy family’s principal estates of Leconfield and Wressel, preserved in the British Library manuscript Royal 18 D.ii, and in the mural of the danse macabre installed in a cloister at medieval St. Paul’s Cathedral in London invite consideration of the relationship between architecture, text, and image within and without the manuscript space. By turning to digital media theorists focusing on space, particularly those addressing architecture and embodied space, this chapter argues that the wall texts in their architectural frames elicit participation from readers whose bodies become the framers of knowledge as they move through and read the different estate spaces provided with wall texts.

in Participatory reading in late-medieval England
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Thomas of Erceldoune’s prophecy, Eleanor Hull’s Commentary on the penitential Psalms, and Thomas Norton’s Ordinal of alchemy

This chapter explores the significance of time to reading experiences by focusing on three fifteenth-century texts that encourage readers to make temporal choices as part of their reading experiences: Thomas of Erceldoune’s Prophesy, a prophetic text focused on the relationship between Thomas Rhymer and the Queen of Faerie; Dame Eleanor Hull’s Commentary on the Psalms; and Thomas Norton’s Ordinal of Alchemy. In the way these writers and texts invite readers to make temporal choices and interpretations through the reading process, they encourage readers to perform reading shaped by temporality. Such temporal performativity includes inviting readers to rethink relationships created by the chronology of history by moving nonlinearly through time.

in Participatory reading in late-medieval England
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Nonreading in late-medieval England

Considering the role of nonreading through the lens of digitally-inspired object-oriented theory that focuses on assemblages and relations within networks, this chapter argues that, when letters or books are more valuable for nonreading, their meanings, and the ways in which readers participate with them, change. This change affects books even in moments of reading, for it highlights their ever-present potential to act and be used in ways contrary to how writers might want them to work. Analyzing the role of nonreading through its literary instantiations in scenes like that from the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, and in manuscripts where readers draw or inscribe their names, encompasses acts of participation that resist and critique modes of participatory reading like those studied in previous chapters. In this way, nonreading could shift books into alternative networks, and highlights how medieval readers could take charge and make books and reading work for themselves.

in Participatory reading in late-medieval England