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Date: 05 Jul 2004 02:47:33 +0100 From: Simon Meecham-Jones Subject: English in the Middle Ages
Machan, Tim William (2003) English in the Middle Ages, Oxford University Press.
Simon Meecham-Jones, affiliated lecturer, English Faculty, University of Cambridge
OVERVIEW This book is an interdisciplinary study, designed to illuminate what Machan describes as 'a kind of grey area between linguistics and medieval studies' (p. ix). Machan's purpose to recreate some understanding of historical context as a necessary tool for the critical interpretation of historical and literary texts -- in Machan's own words 'I ... have been concerned throughout with detailing the nuances and complexities of language use in the medieval period, and with showing how these nuances distinguish the pragmatics of medieval English from those of the post-medieval period' (p. ix).
SYNOPSIS Chapter 1 The Ecology of English. The first chapter acts as a twenty- page introduction to the conceptual dilemmas the book is designed to address. Machan presents a wide-ranging discussion of the relationship of language use to the creation and expression of tropes of identity from the linguistic status of Angle and Saxon settlers to the political implications of the use of the Finnish language in the nineteenth century. He emphasises the importance of 'linguistic beliefs' and mentions the proposition, (in diverse forms) by Fisher, Wallace and Turville-Petre that the rise of the vernacular in late-medieval England be linked to the development of an (at least implicitly) national/nationalistic model of cultural empowerment. Having noted that these hypotheses 'to a greater or lesser extent, make sociolinguistic claims' (p. 8), Machan critiques these claims not by disputing their factual particularities, but by relating them to a broader theoretical analysis both of the 'development and use of the social meanings and functions' (p. 9) of medieval English and the methodologies of how such meanings might be studied. Machan takes over from Haugen and Mufwene the metaphor of 'the ecology of a language', that is 'the structured, learned, and analyzable sociolinguistic relationships that obtain between speakers and the linguistic varieties they use -- whether channels, registers, dialects, or distinct languages -- in sustaining particular social and even natural environments'. (p. 10). Machan argues that this model 'diverges markedly from previous approaches to late-medieval English', and seeks to make it a useable model by stressing the applicability of the Uniformitarian Principle. The proposition of such a model is hedged with caveats concerning the ideological and methodological difficulties in uncovering the 'social semiotics' enacted through written or spoken discourse.
Chapter Two The Baron's Wars and Henry's Letters -- language planning and social meaning. Machan develops the methodology of 'linguistic ecology' in an extended examination of the unprecedented issue of two letters in English by Henry III in 1258 as a stratagem in Henry's contention with Baronial opposition, later dubbed 'the Barons' wars'. Machan critiques the interpretation by Emerson, Clanchy, Burnley and others of the choice of English for the letters providing evidence for emerging 'impulses of linguistic nationalism' (p. 25). Instead he presents a extensive account of the expression of hostility to 'foreigners' in contemporary sources, using these to construct an interpretation based on Henry III's 'manipulation of the foreigner question' (p. 58). From this detailed historical re-contextualization, more theoretical conclusions about the status of English are then advanced, again using the (nineteenth century) models of Finnish and Norwegian as a point of contrast.
Chapter Three Language, Dialect and Nation. Flanked by the more empiricist studies of chapters two and four, this chapter provides the theoretical basis for Machan's attempt to answer the question he has set himself, 'If Middle English was not a group-defining mediation of nationalism, I ask, what role did it play within the linguistic repertoire of late-medieval England?' (p. 73). The model developed is of diglossic (or triglossic) language use, structuring patterns of social division, evidenced in vignettes and references from an impressive array of twelfth to fourteenth century primary sources. Machan notes the presentation of language contact in Norman and Angevin chronicles as being apparently 'unnatural' (p. 81), as well as socially situated, and he reminds us of the prevalence of medieval multilingualism without pursuing how far evidence of pragmatic multilingualism might undermine the more structured and hierarchical diglossic model. The chapter concludes with brief sub-chapters on 'Registers, varieties and meanings', 'Standard languages and language ecology', and 'synchronic variation and diachronic change'. The first of these sub-chapters concludes that 'nothing in the record of Old or Middle English ... implies the kind of correlation between regional variety and social stratification' (p. 94), a conclusion which is echoed in the representation of the limited scope and influence of medieval processes of the standardization of English. In the final sub- chapter, Machan considers the role of Lollardy in 'constructing the status of English' and comes out firmly in dismissing the importance of this mode of religious discourse, as opposed to 'more sociolinguistically significant areas such as business ... or government' (p. 107).
Chapter Four 'What's a dialect before it's a dialect?' seeks to demonstrate in practice the virtues of the 'linguistic ecology' model through detailed considerations of Chaucer's 'Reeve's Tale' and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The analysis of the Reeve's Tale begins with the assertion that 'however much variation in style and register he may use, Chaucer consistently writes in what modern linguistics would call one dialect' (p. 112) In reaching this judgment, Machan contrasts lexical choice with an absence of significant variation in phonology, morphology and syntax. The Reeve's Tale is partially distinguished from this pattern, and its more evident concern with linguistic variation becomes the starting point for an extended and original reading which marks out linguistic variation as an index of social ambition. In a brief interlude 'Disorder, disruption, discourse', Machan seeks to extend his conclusions, using passages from The Parlement of Fowles and other Canterbury Tales to advance the idea of Chaucer as a writer whose linguistic conservatism reflected a political conservatism -- ' by representing a stable linguistic ecology as a reflection of a stable social order and vice versa' (p. 136). This is followed by a reading of 'a courtly sociolect' in Sir Gawain as both a means of affirming class relationships and, paradoxically, revealing 'their own tenuousness, as well as that of late-medieval courtly culture' (p. 160).
Chapter Five 'After Middle English'. Machan uses Crowley's 1550 edition of Piers Plowman as a starting point to draw together evidence for the Early Modern development of notions of the relationship of language to nation and cultural self-construction which other critics have sought to discover, at least implicitly, in the pragmatics of medieval literary and formal language. Machan redefines his purpose as the injection of a necessary scepticism, firstly into an understanding of 'medieval England's representation of itself' and secondly into 'the application of modern sociolinguistic expectations', particularly those concerned with the discourses of nationalism, 'to the ecology of Middle English and the late-medieval status of English' (p. 177).
EVALUATION There can be no doubt that, in its application of sociolinguistic methodologies to literary and governmental texts, this volume marks out a significant position in the debate on the status of English in medieval England. If the idea of integrating the insights of linguistic research into literary criticism is scarcely new, this book is notable in presenting such an approach not as a pious aspiration but as a practical, and probably necessary, programme for researchers in Middle English literature, as well as Historical linguistics. In his insistence both on the achievabilty (with reservations) of such models of interpretation, and its importance in avoiding post-hoc ahistorical distortion, Machan makes the case elegantly and resolutely for the importance of drawing on the repertoire of linguistic analyses in the elucidation of literary texts, while the 'case-studies' from Chaucer and Gawain and the Green Knight serve as persuasive demonstrations of the ways in which such analyses can discover levels of nuance unrevealed by other models of historical and literary examination.
Inevitably, the purpose of this volume attempts an ambitious project and the confident (if memorable) title risks creating expectations of the promulgation of a 'general theory of everything' -- an expectation which Machan pointedly and repeatedly frustrates but which, in its absence, still makes its presence felt. The sheer scale of the subject under discussion -- the linguistic beliefs expressed through the use of English across almost a thousand years of changing social conditions -- mean that there is an occasional tension between Machan's precise and perceptive presentation of the specific and the forging of more general theoretical positions. It is a tension manifest in the transition from the sustained and imaginative account of Henry III's letters in English into the central chapter 'Language, Dialect and Nation.' which, for all its energy and intellectual fleetness, must be considered the least convincing element of this volume -- perhaps because the function it attempts to execute is impossible. In this chapter Machan argues for a diglossic/triglossic model, using not Fergusson's original model of two forms, higher and lower, of the same language, but subsequent developments of the idea of diglossia, figured on an analogous model of different languages used in a similar division of function. In the thirty pages allowed to this chapter, there is insufficient space for Machan to consider to what extent evidence survives that would support a sufficiently hierarchical model of language use to justify the use of the term 'diglossia'. . Whereas it seems unarguable that, in the immediate Post-Conquest period, English characteristically fulfilled 'lower' variety functions, it seems certain, also, that, in differing contexts, Anglo-Norman fulfilled 'higher' variety functions, but perhaps occasionally 'lower' variety functions in relation to Latin. Machan suggests in passing, but lacks space to pursue, the notion that the diglossic model seems persuasive in analysing twelfth century language use in England, but unconvincing in interpreting language use in the late fourteenth or fifteenth centuries. The complexity of 'linguistic beliefs' about the nature of English, and the changes in those beliefs through the later Middle Ages, prove resistant to summation in a single chapter.
A further conceptual difficulty, most pressing in the third chapter, but present throughout the volume, concerns Machan's treatment of 'the use of English' as a non-problematic concept. It was not his purpose to consider the morphological development of the language from the West- Saxon written standard to Chancery English, but the failure to determine what should be considered 'English' merely sidesteps the importance of defining the boundaries of what constitutes a language. The influence of Code-switching on the lexical (and morphological) development of the language is wholly absent from this volume. Curiously, and presumably for reasons of space, Machan chooses not to make the expected connections between his study of 'medieval contextual practice' (p. 19) and the growing academic debate on medieval multilingualism, even though the issues raised by multilingualism in medieval England are clearly crucial in establishing a 'linguistic ecology' of medieval English. To give an example, Rothwell's accounts of the limited geographical currency of Anglo-Norman are cited in a footnote but the implications of his conclusions for the diglossic model proposed (could it have been a South-Eastern diglossia only?) are not pursued.
Similarly, no linguistic ecology of medieval English is achievable without considering the effects, whether great or insignificant, of language contact between Middle English and the 'native' Celtic languages -- Welsh, Irish and Cornish. Machan contentiously (or inadvertently) includes Wales, Scotland and Ireland within his conception of 'late-medieval England' (p. 73) but then disregards the importance of these non-English languages in influencing the status of English, even though such issues of language must have been acute, not least in English colonized settlements in Wales and Ireland, perhaps importing a new diglossic model in which English assumed 'higher' variety functions.
In a book which tackles such a complex set of dilemmas and developments, it is inevitable that most readers will find conclusions to dispute and, less often, questions of substance insufficiently explored. It is unlikely, for example, that every scholar of Lollardy will assent to Machan's conclusion that 'The Lollard controversies, in fact, had no impact on the general fifteenth-century increase in vernacular manuscript production or incipient valuation of English literature (p. 107). Similarly, Machan's assertion that Chaucer's poetry articulates the poet's longing for a stable linguistic ecology seems incomplete and lacking secure foundations in the absence of any discussion of The House of Fame, a poem which might be said to be explicitly engaged with the nature and consequences of linguistic ecology. Such reservations should, perhaps, be read as evidence of the importance of this volume in focusing attention on the many sociolinguistic difficulties which require sustained academic consideration, and which impede our reading of Middle English texts. In the wealth of primary and secondary sources analysed, in the detailed and subtle interpretation of canonical literary texts and, primarily, in its insistence on the importance of attempting to understand the 'linguistic ecology' of Medieval English, Machan's volume offers an invaluable resource, which will surely provide the starting point for many new directions in academic research -- and, with luck, become the first volume in a sequence of such studies.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Simon Meecham-Jones. MA. (Oxon), Ph.D (University of Wales, Aberystwyth). Since 2000, affilated lecturer, English Faculty, University of Cambridge. Lecturer, tutor, examiner, assessor for (variously) courses in 'Varieties of English', 'History of the English Language', 'Language for Literature', 'Medieval Latin Literature'. Visiting lecturer Royal Holloway (University of London) & Middlesex University. Publications and Research Interests in Chaucer, Gower, Medieval Latin Lyric poetry, Language and Cultural Contact in Medieval Britain. Co-editor (with Dr. Ruth Kennedy) 'Writing the Reign of Henry II', publication date January 2005 (Palgrave New York).