Saturday, September 8, 2012

Interpreting medieval sources: Orality, aurality, and textuality

Treason trial, King's Bench 1477-8. The National Archives, Kew.
 I’m in quite a productive flow state at the moment with the research for my PhD proposal, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the methodology I'm going to use for interpreting my primary sources. I’ve already talked a bit about the political uses of language and what it might mean when a writer uses French or English in a culture where being English was increasingly being defined against French difference, but where the records of law and government nevertheless remained multilingual. Another question that is occupying me is how best to deal with the complex, multilayered nature of these types of sources that were circulated for political purposes. By this I mean that texts like the letter of the Lords Appellant to the citizens of London (as discussed in this post) were initially created as written documents, but they also circulated orally (read out in public) and so were received in aural form. In some cases, such as that of statutes, the written text was in French but was circulated in English through being orally translated as part of the process of public proclamation. Such texts might then go through another iteration of translation and circulation as they were copied into chronicles or into the rolls of parliament.

This quite complicated process of multilingual, multimedia circulation and reception generated some stimulating discussion at a lecture on politics and government that I taught last week as part of a course on late medieval England. I don’t like to talk at the students for too long, so I usually break up the lecture component with discussion of relevant primary sources as we go. In this lecture, we were talking about contemporary views of what makes for ‘good governance’ and what avenues for protest were available if people didn’t think they were getting it. One of the sources we discussed was a text that has come to be known as the ‘manifesto’ of Archbishop Scrope. Briefly, by 1405, Henry IV’s honeymoon as the new king of England was over and a group amongst the nobility (centred mainly in the north of England) was agitating for reform.[1] They had drafted up a set of articles demanding that the king take a series of measures for the restoration of ‘good governance’. To me, one of the most intriguing aspects of this uprising (which ended with the Archbishop of York Richard Scrope and the Earl Marshal Thomas Mowbray being executed for treason) was the way the leaders used the circulation of texts to engage armed support for their cause amongst the people of York and its surrounding districts. Here is how events were captured by Thomas Walsingham, the author of the St Albans Chronicle[2]:
When the archbishop saw that he was surrounded by many who were willing to fight, he had the … articles written down, published in the highways and byways of the city of York, and publicly fastened to the doors of monasteries, so that any person who wished could ascertain the nature of his case. [The archbishop also had the articles preached by parish priests.]
These are the articles intended to achieve correction and restoration so as to avoid dissent and disagreement, which are likely to occur in the kingdom because of a lack of justice, unless it please God of his grace and the estates of the realm to give help in these matters.

First of all, the bad governance in the kingdom must be corrected in accordance with truth and justice, and be so ordered as to deal with the insupportable burdens which affect all grades of the clergy, to make amends for injustices and calumny committed against the estates, both spiritual and temporal, for the preservation and liberty of holy Church…

Secondly, to order remedial action to be taken about subjection and annulments which lords are very likely to suffer to the prejudice of both their own persons and their inheritances, contrary to their station enjoyed by right of birth and the laws employed and made on behalf of their predecessors.

Thirdly, to order the correction of harsh regulations and insupportable taxes and aids, extortionate and oppressive demands, which rule the lives of nobles, merchants, and the commons of the realm, bringing ultimate impoverishment and ruin upon those who would be bound to be true supporters of all the estates, both spiritual and temporal, if they were well and properly governed. Further, to punish willful squandering of funds, namely expenses claimed for private individual advancement from the considerable possessions and wealth of the aforementioned nobles, merchants, and commons, and to ensure the restoration of those possessions for the good of the realm.
 Walsingham then adds:
These were the articles that were written in English, whose sense I have translated almost word for word, and have inserted them here as they were expressed, without any bias. [In other words, he has translated them from English into Latin because…] This seemed necessary to me because of the plainness and inelegance of the language, which is not easily rendered in elegant style, if the sense of the original is to be preserved.
Now, the themes of complaint represented here are rather standard for the time but there are a couple of interesting features about this text. First, it was written in English and copies nailed up around the city of York, implying that at least a decent chunk of its intended audience was presumed to be literate and they, no doubt, were then expected to read it out to their non-literate fellows. The second point is that by circulating the text in English, the archbishop and his noble supporters seem to be tapping into a rather dangerous precedent set by the 'peasant' rebels of 1381, whose supposedly seditious texts were also circulated in English.[3] It has to be said that by 1405, although England was still multilingual, there were a growing number of literary works being written in English (Chaucer, Gower etc.) and a number of these contained both veiled and explicit complaints about governance. English texts – particularly the Bible in English – were also associated with the so-called Lollard heresy, which advocated that the faithful should read scripture directly rather than receiving it through preaching. Mark Ormrod has suggested that literary and poetic works in English may not have been perceived as politically threatening in the same ways that a written English Bible was in part because they were generally circulated by being read out – that is, their orality/aurality neutralised an implicit threat perceived to reside in a written English text.[4] If this is true, then the written circulation of Scrope’s manifesto in English seems to be a deliberately provocative political move as well as having more pragmatic purposes given its intended readership.

Finally, it's noteworthy that the monastic chronicler Thomas Walsingham finds it necessary to translate the articles into Latin before copying them into his chronicle. As a conservative churchman, he may well have found the English language not only ‘inelegant’ but also theologically and politically dangerous because of its association with heresy during this period. Or, although I have not a skerrick of proof for this, I suppose it is also possible that as a cleric he was much more comfortable and fluent working in Latin than in English.

So where does this leave me with interpreting these kinds of political texts? Good question, and one to which I certainly don't have an answer yet. As a historian, the written texts are all I have left to work with and - as is clear from Walsingham's tinkering - surviving copies may have strayed far from their originals through the processes of translation and transcription. Within these texts, there may be hints of how they were heard and interpreted at the time and of what actions they precipitated, but there is really no way for me to know definitively how they were received. However, as I'm interested in understanding how these these texts shaped political struggles between living human beings, I need to figure out some way to negotiate their complicated intertwinings of orality, aurality, and textuality.

[1] General studies of this rebellion include W. Mark Ormrod, ‘The Rebellion of Archbishop Scrope’ in Gwilym Dodd & Douglas Biggs (eds.), The Reign of Henry IV: Rebellion andSurvival, 1403 – 1413 (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2008), pp.162-179; Douglas Biggs, ‘Archbishop Scrope's Manifesto of 1405: “Naive Nonsense” or Reflections of Political Reality?’, Journal of Medieval History 33, no. 4 (2007), pp.358-71; Simon Walker, ‘Rumour, Sedition and Popular Protest in the Reign of Henry IV’, Past & Present, no. 166 (2000), pp.31-65.
[2] John Taylor, Wendy R. Childs, and Leslie Watkiss (eds.), The St Albans Chronicle: The Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham II. 1394-1422, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp.442-5.

[3] The texts included letters and poems purported to be by the rebel leaders. On this topic, see Steven Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 (Berkeley, CA., 1994).
[4] W. M. Ormrod, 'The Use of English: Language, Law, and Political Culture in Fourteenth-Century England,' Speculum 78, no. 3 (July 1, 2003): 750–787, at 783-4.


Gavin Robinson said...

This is surprisingly similar to the 1640s (surprising for me anyway, but maybe it shouldn't be): multiple copies of documents put up in public places and read out to the illiterate. Printing probably meant there were more copies but it doesn't seem to be a fundamental change. It looks like there's already some kind of 'public sphere' in the 15th century.

Bavardess said...

There is in fact quite a bit of work going on at the moment to understand the emergence of what can broadly be called a 'public sphere' in England from the later 14thC. However, from what I've read of this it still seemed to be restricted to London and other larger urban centres (e.g. York) where perhaps a larger percentage of the population are either literate or are being exposed to proclamations, public preaching etc. There is also a class/social status element, as many of those actively participating in these wider political debates/struggles were still members of what can broadly be called the 'ruling elite'. I'm not sure how this compares to the later period, but I do think that incidents like this one in 1405 suggest a need to revisit the traditional narrative that a public political sphere was predicated on the rise of mass print culture from (roughly) the 16-17th centuries.

Judith Weingarten said...

Just to say that this post is now up on History Carnivalesque # 89:

Bavardess said...

Thanks for the mention, Judith! I will have to get over there and read the other Carnivalesque posts.