Medieval Literature, Theory, and Beyond

Much 20th century literary theory does not work well when applied to medieval literature. The ideas of formalism, structuralism, reader response, and new historicism (for example) very rarely produce strong readings/interpretations of individual medieval texts. One reason for this problem is that much contemporary theory is designed to function on a genre or wider level, and suggests that texts of certain kinds share a certain set of features (for reasons defined by the theory). Medieval writing displays too much range of style for such ideas to work. A second reason for the incompatibility is that medieval writers and scholars had their own ideas about literary theory and practice which do not match well with the modern theories. Medieval literary theory as practiced and understood by medieval writers has been getting more attention in recent decades, and this scholarship agrees on the point that medieval writers appreciated both canonical styles (the auctores) and individual creativity (inventio). {I will present a more detail consideration of these ideas soon.}

I bring up the idea of literary theory, modern and medieval, because there is a way to adapt current literary theory to medieval literature, and that is to take the terms and key concepts and adapt them and/or combine them (as opposed to attempting to apply the entire theory).  For example, Thomas Reed borrows terms and ideas from Bakhtin and Gilman, and applies them to debate poetry, and Katherine Little borrows from Macherey, Alpers, Marx, and others to apply to late medieval poetry.

Now for confession time. I don’t especially like modern “literary theory” because it too often takes medieval texts out of their original context and gives them readings that may be interesting and intelligible to a contemporary reader, but that are entirely foreign to the culture which produced the texts in the first place.  Literary criticism should  not ignore the actual text in order to produce meaning, nor should it ignore the circumstances (literary, historical, cultural etc) under which the text was first produced.

Here’s what all of this has to with my own work (beyond my personal understanding and practice in terms of theoretical approaches): I am (as mentioned in an earlier post) trying to work on two projects at once. Newer project considers the concept of the medieval pastoral poem as adapted to the university setting, while big (older project) considers Gower’s Confessio Amantis as a debate poem. I looked into Katherine Little’s Transforming Work in hopes that it might work for both projects. The bad news: the argument will only be useful in my pastoral project. The good news: some of her theoretical references will be helpful in both. (Note: I will always advise students and scholars to mine the Works Cited of any publication for your own personal gain. This works every bit as well with digital sources (like Wikipedia) as with print.) Pierre Macherey published A Theory of Literary Production in 1966 (in French; the translation in English was done in 1978) using ideas from Marx and Freud to first define and then outline the practices of ‘literary criticism’.  The ambiguity and manipulation of the art vs science dichotomy to create meaning that Macherey sets up will prove useful in both projects.

Before I end up with further project ideas (more is better than none though), I will pause for now to return to work on working through my ever-expanding reading list for my Gower analysis, while keeping an eye out for ideas that might be useful for the pastoral paper or any other project ideas that might arise. Stay tuned…