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Medieval Autographies

Medieval Autographies

The "I" of the Text

A. C. Spearing

In Medieval Autographies, A. C. Spearing develops a new engagement of narrative theory with medieval English first-person writing, focusing on the roles and functions of the “I” as a shifting textual phenomenon, not to be defined either as autobiographical or as the label of a fictional speaker or narrator. Spearing identifies and explores a previously unrecognized category of medieval English poetry, calling it "autography.” He describes this form as emerging in the mid-fourteenth century and consisting of extended nonlyrical writings in the first person, embracing prologues, authorial interventions in and commentaries on third-person narratives, and descendants of the dit, a genre of French medieval poetry. He argues that autography arose as a means of liberation from the requirement to tell stories with preordained conclusions and as a way of achieving a closer relation to lived experience, with all its unpredictability and inconsistencies. Autographies, he claims, are marked by a cluster of characteristics including a correspondence to the texture of life as it is experienced, a montage-like unpredictability of structure, and a concern with writing and textuality.

Beginning with what may be the earliest extended first-person narrative in Middle English, Winner and Waster, the book examines instances of the dit as discussed by French scholars, analyzes Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue as a textual performance, and devotes separate chapters to detailed readings of Hoccleve’s Regement of Princes prologue, his Complaint and Dialogue, and the witty first-person elements in Osbern Bokenham’s legends of saints. An afterword suggests possible further applications of the concept of autography, including discussion of the intermittent autographic commentaries on the narrative in Troilus and Criseyde and Capgrave’s Life of Saint Katherine.

“A deeply challenging and engaging book, Medieval Autographies: The ‘I’ of the Text should be required reading in every graduate course in medieval English literature. In wonderfully nuanced close readings of various late medieval texts, A. C. Spearing extends and further theorizes his earlier groundbreaking work in Textual Subjectivity. His proposal of ‘autography’ as a new way of conceptualizing medieval first-person writing should have profound bearing on how future scholars conceptualize, designate, and discuss ‘character,’ ‘intent,’ and ‘voice.’ “ — Peter W. Travis, Henry Winkley Professor of Anglo-Saxon and English Language and Literature, Dartmouth College

“A. C. Spearing dares us to think without anachronistic notions, and teaches us, by impressive example, how to become better readers of medieval French and English poetry.” — Ad Putter, University of Bristol

“Professor Spearing proposes in this new study a nuanced and persuasive theoretical framework for interpreting late medieval first-person narratives without anachronistic dependency on autobiography and modern preoccupations with narrative coherency. Drawing on postmodern theory and French scholarship on the dit, Medieval Autographies promises to spark conversation that extends beyond the Medieval English circle to include French medievalists who will find a worthy cross-disciplinary discussion initiated and literary theorists who will discover a sorely understudied corpus whose relevance is made manifest.” — Deborah McGrady, University of Virginia

ISBN: 978-0-268-01782-8
E-ISBN 978-0-268-15843-9
360 pages
Publication Year: 2012

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A. C. Spearing is the William R. Kenan Professor of English at the University of Virginia.

“In Textual Subjectivity, Spearing argued that we had to find a better means of criticism than to ascribe every authorial clumsiness to the ironies of a fallible narrator, or to rescue those parts of Chaucer’s works that the critic found bad through the claim that they were intentionally bad . . . Instead, it was the critic’s assumptions that needed changing. In Medieval Autographies, he argues for a similar change with regard to excessive claims of poetic brilliance, insisting that we need to get beyond claiming that even the least plausible medieval works were really structured with a great but almost invisible subtlety that only the individual critic has been able to see.” — Times Literary Supplement

“Spearing analyzes the autographies of a number of medieval authors, ranging from the widely read Chaucer, through the less well-known Hoccleve, to the unjustly obscure Bokenham (the further study of whom Spearing hopes to encourage). This important and carefully reasoned study. . . . should be eagerly read by specialists teaching about the Middle Ages. Highly recommended.” — Choice

“Medieval Autographies engages with writings in the first person in a way that is sensitive towards what we know of medieval textuality and ideas of self, rather than resorting to modern categories such as ‘dramatic monologue’ or ‘stream of consciousness.’ Spearing encourages the reader to appreciate the free and loose structures of the poems discussed, rather than imposing cohesion through analysis.” — Parergon

“Medieval Autographies is a thought-provoking, elegantly written book that challenges us to think about subjectivity as a literary effect available for ‘a [wide] variety of expressive purposes,’ rather than as the expression of a particular narrator’s point of view. . . . Spearing offers an interpretative framework that might fruitfully be applied to many more texts than his book considers and which will stimulate some worthwhile reflection on what we choose to value in them.” — Review of English Studies

“Spearing’s book is engaging and perceptive. Grounded on a careful consideration of the primary texts and a nuanced and capacious reading of his peers’ works, Medieval Autographies adds a convincing argument against the assumption that we can find modern expressions of subjectivity in medieval texts.” — Renaissance and Reformation

“On the heels of Textual Subjectivity . . . A. C. Spearing once more provides the leverage for medievalists to remain relevant. Added to his ‘supergenre,’ the medieval category of ‘autography,’ defined as ‘extended, non-lyrical, fictional writings in and of the first person’ takes up center stage in Medieval Autographies: The “I” of the Text.”Sixteenth Century Journal

“One of the many strengths of this book is Spearing’s sensitive and careful close readings of the texts themselves. . . . The book is an excellent corrective to certain tendencies in recent medieval scholarship that overstress hidden qualities and psychological complexities in narrators who are either naïve, obtuse, or unreliable. . . . As stimulating as it is engaging, this is a very important book.” — Renaissance Quarterly

“Medieval Autographies does an excellent job of highlighting both the fluidity of the Middle English poetic “I” and the inventiveness of some of its more familiar wielders. . . . At the same time as he illustrates the fruitfulness of his approach to Chaucer, Spearing also reassures his reader that abandoning familiar narrator-based readings of the author’s work need not take all the fun out of explication.” — Studies in the Age of Chaucer

“This book offers an account of an often-noted but less often explained development in later medieval literature: the preponderance of texts written in the first person. . . . Spearing argues that the Middle English interest in the first-person prologue emerges out of the Old French dit.” — Modern Philology

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Medieval Autographies

The "I" of the Text

A. C. Spearing

 Medieval Autographies: The "I" of the Text
Paper Edition
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In Medieval Autographies, A. C. Spearing develops a new engagement of narrative theory with medieval English first-person writing, focusing on the roles and functions of the “I” as a shifting textual phenomenon, not to be defined either as autobiographical or as the label of a fictional speaker or narrator. Spearing identifies and explores a previously unrecognized category of medieval English poetry, calling it "autography.” He describes this form as emerging in the mid-fourteenth century and consisting of extended nonlyrical writings in the first person, embracing prologues, authorial interventions in and commentaries on third-person narratives, and descendants of the dit, a genre of French medieval poetry. He argues that autography arose as a means of liberation from the requirement to tell stories with preordained conclusions and as a way of achieving a closer relation to lived experience, with all its unpredictability and inconsistencies. Autographies, he claims, are marked by a cluster of characteristics including a correspondence to the texture of life as it is experienced, a montage-like unpredictability of structure, and a concern with writing and textuality.

Beginning with what may be the earliest extended first-person narrative in Middle English, Winner and Waster, the book examines instances of the dit as discussed by French scholars, analyzes Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue as a textual performance, and devotes separate chapters to detailed readings of Hoccleve’s Regement of Princes prologue, his Complaint and Dialogue, and the witty first-person elements in Osbern Bokenham’s legends of saints. An afterword suggests possible further applications of the concept of autography, including discussion of the intermittent autographic commentaries on the narrative in Troilus and Criseyde and Capgrave’s Life of Saint Katherine.

“A deeply challenging and engaging book, Medieval Autographies: The ‘I’ of the Text should be required reading in every graduate course in medieval English literature. In wonderfully nuanced close readings of various late medieval texts, A. C. Spearing extends and further theorizes his earlier groundbreaking work in Textual Subjectivity. His proposal of ‘autography’ as a new way of conceptualizing medieval first-person writing should have profound bearing on how future scholars conceptualize, designate, and discuss ‘character,’ ‘intent,’ and ‘voice.’ “ — Peter W. Travis, Henry Winkley Professor of Anglo-Saxon and English Language and Literature, Dartmouth College

“A. C. Spearing dares us to think without anachronistic notions, and teaches us, by impressive example, how to become better readers of medieval French and English poetry.” — Ad Putter, University of Bristol

“Professor Spearing proposes in this new study a nuanced and persuasive theoretical framework for interpreting late medieval first-person narratives without anachronistic dependency on autobiography and modern preoccupations with narrative coherency. Drawing on postmodern theory and French scholarship on the dit, Medieval Autographies promises to spark conversation that extends beyond the Medieval English circle to include French medievalists who will find a worthy cross-disciplinary discussion initiated and literary theorists who will discover a sorely understudied corpus whose relevance is made manifest.” — Deborah McGrady, University of Virginia

ISBN: 978-0-268-01782-8

360 pages

“In Textual Subjectivity, Spearing argued that we had to find a better means of criticism than to ascribe every authorial clumsiness to the ironies of a fallible narrator, or to rescue those parts of Chaucer’s works that the critic found bad through the claim that they were intentionally bad . . . Instead, it was the critic’s assumptions that needed changing. In Medieval Autographies, he argues for a similar change with regard to excessive claims of poetic brilliance, insisting that we need to get beyond claiming that even the least plausible medieval works were really structured with a great but almost invisible subtlety that only the individual critic has been able to see.” — Times Literary Supplement

“Spearing analyzes the autographies of a number of medieval authors, ranging from the widely read Chaucer, through the less well-known Hoccleve, to the unjustly obscure Bokenham (the further study of whom Spearing hopes to encourage). This important and carefully reasoned study. . . . should be eagerly read by specialists teaching about the Middle Ages. Highly recommended.” — Choice

“Medieval Autographies engages with writings in the first person in a way that is sensitive towards what we know of medieval textuality and ideas of self, rather than resorting to modern categories such as ‘dramatic monologue’ or ‘stream of consciousness.’ Spearing encourages the reader to appreciate the free and loose structures of the poems discussed, rather than imposing cohesion through analysis.” — Parergon

“Medieval Autographies is a thought-provoking, elegantly written book that challenges us to think about subjectivity as a literary effect available for ‘a [wide] variety of expressive purposes,’ rather than as the expression of a particular narrator’s point of view. . . . Spearing offers an interpretative framework that might fruitfully be applied to many more texts than his book considers and which will stimulate some worthwhile reflection on what we choose to value in them.” — Review of English Studies

“Spearing’s book is engaging and perceptive. Grounded on a careful consideration of the primary texts and a nuanced and capacious reading of his peers’ works, Medieval Autographies adds a convincing argument against the assumption that we can find modern expressions of subjectivity in medieval texts.” — Renaissance and Reformation

“On the heels of Textual Subjectivity . . . A. C. Spearing once more provides the leverage for medievalists to remain relevant. Added to his ‘supergenre,’ the medieval category of ‘autography,’ defined as ‘extended, non-lyrical, fictional writings in and of the first person’ takes up center stage in Medieval Autographies: The “I” of the Text.”Sixteenth Century Journal

“One of the many strengths of this book is Spearing’s sensitive and careful close readings of the texts themselves. . . . The book is an excellent corrective to certain tendencies in recent medieval scholarship that overstress hidden qualities and psychological complexities in narrators who are either naïve, obtuse, or unreliable. . . . As stimulating as it is engaging, this is a very important book.” — Renaissance Quarterly

“Medieval Autographies does an excellent job of highlighting both the fluidity of the Middle English poetic “I” and the inventiveness of some of its more familiar wielders. . . . At the same time as he illustrates the fruitfulness of his approach to Chaucer, Spearing also reassures his reader that abandoning familiar narrator-based readings of the author’s work need not take all the fun out of explication.” — Studies in the Age of Chaucer

“This book offers an account of an often-noted but less often explained development in later medieval literature: the preponderance of texts written in the first person. . . . Spearing argues that the Middle English interest in the first-person prologue emerges out of the Old French dit.” — Modern Philology

The Conway Lectures in Medieval Studies