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Translations of Authority in Medieval English Literature
Cambridge University Press
9780521515948 - Translations of Authority in Medieval English Literature - Valuing the Vernacular - By Alastair Minnis

Translations of Authority in Medieval English Literature

In Translations of Authority in Medieval English Literature, leading critic Alastair Minnis presents the fruits of a long-term engagement with the ways in which crucial ideological issues were deployed in vernacular texts. The concept of the vernacular is seen as possessing a value far beyond the category of language – as encompassing popular beliefs and practices which could either confirm or contest those authorized by church and state institutions.

Minnis addresses the crisis for vernacular translation precipitated by the Lollard heresy; the minimal engagement with Nominalism in late fourteenth-century poetry; Langland’s views on indulgences; the heretical theology of Walter Brut; Margery Kempe’s self-promoting Biblical exegesis; and Chaucer’s tales of suspicious saints and risible relics. These discussions disclose different aspects of ‘vernacularity’, enabling a fuller understanding of its complexity and potency.

ALASTAIR MINNIS is the Douglas Tracy Smith Professor of English at Yale University. Recent authored works include Magister Amoris: The ‘Roman de la Rose’ and Vernacular Hermeneutics (2001), and Fallible Authors: Chaucer’s Pardoner and Wife of Bath (2007). In addition, he has edited or co-edited fourteen other books, including (with Ian Johnson) The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, ii: The Middle Ages (2005). He is also the General Editor of Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature.

Translations of Authority in Medieval English Literature

Valuing the Vernacular

Alastair Minnis

Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo, Delhi

Cambridge University Press
The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge, CB2 8RU, UK

Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York
Information on this title:

© Alastair Minnis 2009

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 2009

Printed in the United Kingdom at the University Press, Cambridge

A catalogue record for this publication is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication data

Minnis, A. J. (Alastair J.)
Translations of authority in medieval English literature : valuing the vernacular / Alastair Minnis.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-521-51594-8 (hardback)
1. English literature – Middle English, 1100–1500 – Criticism, Textual. 2. English literature –
Middle English, 1100–1500 – History and criticism. 3. Transmission of texts – England – History –
To 1500. 4. Authority in literature. 5. Translating and interpreting – Political aspects – England –
History – To 1500. 6. Latin language – Translating into English – History – To 1500. 7. Politics
and literature – England – History – To 1500. I. Title.
PR275.T45M56 2009
820.9′001 – dc22 2008039996

ISBN 978-0-521-51594-8 hardback

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of URLs for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this publication, and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.

To Jacques, with affection and admiration


List of abbreviations
Introduction: valuing the vernacular
1     Absent glosses: the trouble with Middle English hermeneutics
2     Looking for a sign: the quest for Nominalism in Ricardian poetry
3     Piers's protean pardon: Langland on the letter and spirit of indulgences
4     Making bodies: confection and conception in Walter Brut's vernacular theology
5     Spiritualizing marriage: Margery Kempe's allegories of female authority
6     Chaucer and the relics of vernacular religion


I thought of three things in writing an extensive introduction and a series of notes. It was a literary joke – hence I referred twice in Slave Song to T. S. Eliot, because Eliot had also joked and provided a kind of spoof gloss to The Waste Land. On another level, we had been arguing for a long time that Creole was a distinctive language. We made a lot of politics out of that. It was part of the nationalism in the 60s. We had our own airline, environment, landscape, and fruits, so we should have our own language. If we were going to take that seriously we should provide translations to our poems. But the third reason is the most serious…I wanted to question the relationship between the work of art and the critical industry that arises because of that work of art.1

Here the Guyanan British poet David Dabydeen is explaining why, in Slave Song (1984), he provided his Creole poems with translations and a commentary (comprising an introduction and notes) in Standard English. His intentions would have been utterly comprehensible to those fourteenth-century Italian writers who sought to establish an illustrious vernacular in face of the hegemony of Latin, which in their day enjoyed the prestigious position occupied by Standard English in Dabydeen's Britain. I am thinking not only of Dante (who managed to praise the vernacular in Latin and Latin in the vernacular) but also of Francesco da Barberino (1264–1348), lawyer and lover of Provençal poetry. Francesco's Documenti d’Amore is, like Dabydeen's Slave Song, a tripartite work, wherein the central text, an Italian poem, is accompanied by a literal Latin translation and a substantial Latin commentary.2 Thus Dabydeen's confrères, in part fired by the Italian city-state version of ‘nationalism’, exploited the interpretive conventions of the ‘critical industry’ to aggrandize their mother language. Thereby the vernacular was valued.

In late medieval England, however, there appear to have been no formal hermeneutic enterprises of that kind, or any extensive ‘commentated translations’ of authoritative works, whether secular and sacred, on the model of those patronized by King Charles V of France. Such Middle English hermeneutic activity as did exist, and has survived, was largely of Lollard origin, or at least susceptible of infiltration by Lollardy. Perhaps it was fears of association with the ‘English heresy’ that inhibited the development of a substantial orthodox commentary-tradition in Middle English. Despite such fears, however, Middle English hermeneutics flourished by other means and in other forms – witness William Langland's attempts to find sensus spiritualis in the system of issuing indulgences or ‘pardons’, as demotically understood and practised, and Margery Kempe's allegorical constructions of female authority from quite unpromising materials, Biblical texts which threatened to keep women confined and contained within material marriage. In confronting such issues, along with those relating to the salvation of ‘virtuous heathen’ who lacked the benefit of conventional baptism, Middle English carried on the business of Latin intellectual culture. Here is a veritable translatio auctoritatis – a translation of authoritative discourse and methodology into the ‘vulgar’ tongue.

However, the relationship between Latin and vernacular posited in this book is more elaborate than that. It includes the notion of vernacular (in the sense of unofficial, non-institutional, disordered) theology being pursued in Latin, as professional theologians – taking their cue from the Lollard layman Walter Brut, who himself could write Latin – engaged in non-orthodox exegesis in the service of orthodoxy. Further, it allows for a concept of vernacular culture which transcends language to encompass acts of cultural transfer, negotiation, appropriation, and indeed resistance – within which wider context language-transfer could play a major role, but not necessarily. David Dabydeen declared himself attracted by the powerful, visceral ‘vulgarity’ of the Creole language as used by Caribbean canecutters, which was the linguistic inspiration of Slave Song, but he looked beyond language to ‘the vulgarity of the people, the vulgarity of their way of life’.3 And that is what I attempt to do in my final chapter, where, in respect of the cult of saints, ‘the informal, colloquial or distinctive’ religiosity of the so-called ‘common people’ is investigated, though the caveat must be entered that the clergy often participated in, promoted, and/or sought to control the vernacular practices which are my subject. Here, taking my point of departure from Chaucer's Pardoner, I try to access demotic activities and attitudes through medieval humour, and seek means of understanding medieval humour in demotic activities and attitudes.

In sum, Translations of Authority addresses the value and status of ‘the vernacular’ in the translation of, and engagement with, authoritative Latin learning. Further, it challenges the appropriateness of the distinction between Latin and vernacular (can Medieval Latin itself not be deemed a vernacular or a group of vernaculars?), and proposes that the very term ‘vernacular’ has a value which goes far beyond the category of language, to encompass popular cultural beliefs and practices which engaged in complex relationships with those authorized by church and state institutions. This book comprises a series of essays which address those interconnecting topics, four which have been published before – though in rather different (and shorter) versions, for I have substantially revised them for inclusion in this volume. I am grateful to the following presses for allowing me to re-use the relevant materials.

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