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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chapter one starts with a discussion of the different ways in which human bodies and nonhuman things carry and communicate – or fail to communicate – knowledge. It engages with thing theory (especially Brown, Bennett and Harman) to demonstrate that both Grendel’s mother and the giants’ sword found in her underwater hall are riddle-like things that resist the kinds of reading that Æschere, a rune-knower and advice-bearer, was meant to provide for King Hrothgar. By killing and decapitating Hrothgar’s reader, Grendel’s mother highlights an anxiety within Beowulf about ‘things’ that defy human interpretation and convey monstrous, marginal, or unknowable messages instead. Although Beowulf acknowledges that a wide range of artefacts can be read, the text also reveals that certain enigmatic things exceed their role as readable objects. Liminal things like the giants’ sword carry alien stories and histories into the safety of the mead hall, disrupting a longstanding human reliance upon legibility and altering the way that literate communities interpret that which has come before them.
Chapter four continues to pursue the theme of assemblage. This chapter looks at how the books, relics and other material things associated with the cult of St Cuthbert reshaped ‘universal’ Christianity within a distinctly Northumbrian environment in the seventh and early eighth centuries. It begins by moving the focus from an animal body (whalebone) to a human (saintly) body, thinking about how the saint – both as text, in the hagiographical evidence, and as relic, in the case of the incorrupt corpse – assembles and performs differing elements of Christianity through his body. But as well as acting as an assembly, the saintly body is also a thing that crosses the boundaries between life and death, animate and inanimate, organic and artefactual. The second part of the chapter homes in on the Lindisfarne Gospels, dedicated to God and St Cuthbert. Like the Lives of St Cuthbert, the gospels reshape a universal sign (the body of Christ as Cross) into a perceptible thing.
The fifth and final chapter turns its attention to the other side of assemblage – that is, the way that things break up and break away. The poem usually referred to as The Dream of the Rood is a fragile thing that has been broken apart and pieced back together time and again. It is not a sound or coherent whole, in any of its forms (manuscript poem, runic inscriptions, silver cross reliquary) but an elusive assortment – at once breakage and assemblage – that invites us to participate in its ongoing process of becoming. The chapter begins by closely analysing the poem as it exists in the Vercelli Book manuscript, carrying out a reading of the text in light of thing theory, looking at how the various things represented in the poem (tree, beam, beacon, gallows, rood, body) transform one another, but how they also shift and shape the human ‘dreamer’ as he speaks his vision. The second part of the chapter explores the connections, and tensions, between a late tenth-century manuscript poem and a rune-inscribed stone sculpture from the eighth century: The Dream of the Rood and the Ruthwell monument. It has been difficult to keep these two things together in a sustained and meaningful way and yet it has been almost impossible to break them apart.
The book begins with a substantial introduction, which outlines the theoretical context of thing theory, considers some of the ways in which it has been brought into contact with medieval studies to date, and addresses its implications for early medieval literary culture more specifically. The word ‘thing’ now carries a great deal of weight in critical theory. Therefore, the introduction engages with the Old English þing as an assembly in the etymological, as well as material, sense and offers a detailed study of the origins of the word ‘thing’ in Old English and related Germanic languages. This is followed by an examination of how Anglo-Saxon riddles give voice to things in ways that overlap with modern ideas about the ‘agency’ and ‘vibrancy’ of nonhuman entities. Finally, an accessible overview of the speaking subjects and speaking objects in Anglo-Saxon literature (e.g. the Exeter Riddles) and material culture (e.g. the Alfred Jewel) demonstrates that the boundaries between subject and object, animate and animate, human and nonhuman, are not immutable but shaped by literary and cultural conventions