Silent reading and the medieval text: the development of reading practices in the early prints of William Langland and John Lydgate

Scott, Diane Gillies (2015) Silent reading and the medieval text: the development of reading practices in the early prints of William Langland and John Lydgate. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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This thesis is concerned with reading practices and the late medieval vernacular text. More specifically, it is concerned with the ways in which the medieval text was read and received in early modern England. The analysis focuses on two texts in their early modern instantiations: the late fourteenth century allegorical dream vision Piers Plowman by William Langland, and the early fifteenth century Fall of Princes, a translation of Boccaccio’s De Casibus Virorum Illustrium by Benedictine monk John Lydgate. The thesis considers the reception of these poems as they are reworked and reread by successive editors and readers during the shift from script to print, and from a culture of orality to a culture of silent reading. The reception of and editorial policy applied to these texts are considered in relation to the political and religious upheavals of the sixteenth century, and to developments in literacy and literary culture.

The editions selected for analysis range from an early manuscript of a B-text version of Piers Plowman, Trinity College Cambridge, MS B.15.17, through to an early seventeenth century print of the Mirror for Magistrates, an early modern reworking of Lydgate’s Fall, published in 1619. The thesis engages with Zumthor’s theory of textual mouvance in that each edition is granted the authority of its own circumstances of production and reception. The synchronic analysis highlights the economic and political pressures which influenced and/or constrained editorial decisions. In charting the various editions through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the thesis provides a complementary diachronic perspective which places each edition within the wider history of textual transmission and in relation to developments in literary culture.

The combined synchronic and diachronic analysis of the printed late medieval text provides an insight into developments in reading habits and changing attitudes towards authorship and the functions of literature more generally. The evidence for the development of reading practices can be found in the interaction between the text and its systems of punctuation and paratext. Systems of punctuation and features of paratext act as guide and mediator between the text and the reader; it is these forms and levels of mediation, and the relationship between them, which can indicate patterns of literacy and reader engagement. Thus, developments in the systems of punctuation and paratext interact with changing models of the reader and the various types of ‘literate activities’ available to them (Salter 2012: 67).

The late medieval period has been described as a culture of ‘literate orality’ (Sponsler 2010: 1) and its readers exhibited a diverse range of reading practices. The oral and aural characteristics of literary culture gradually declined in the late medieval and early modern periods but a ‘critical mass’ of silent readers did not emerge until the end of the seventeenth century (Jajdelska 2007). Adopting and adapting Jajdelska’s theory of the changing reader model, this thesis focuses on the chosen texts as they appear before the emergence of this ‘critical mass’. The analysis of reading practices, therefore, pertains to the period of transition during which readers negotiated existing oral/aural reading environments while moving towards a predominantly silent reading culture. The thesis demonstrates that the transition was gradual and that sixteenth-century literary culture was diverse in both its reading habits and reading practices.

The emerging discipline of historical sociopragmatics provides the theoretical and methodological bridge between the diachronic description of punctuation and paratext, and the examination of reading practices. Historical sociopragmatics allows established insights from sociolinguistics and pragmatics to be applied to the written historical text, creating new opportunities for the recovery and analysis of textual production, editorial treatment and reader engagement. This thesis brings the sociopragmatic concept of ‘situational contexts’ (Culpepper 2011: 4) to the analysis of the physical page and, more specifically, to the interactions between punctuation and paratextual systems. By applying a sociopragmatic approach to the concept of the reader model, this thesis demonstrates that systems of punctuation and paratext provide important evidence for the history textual transmission, reader engagement and the development of reading practices.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: book history, philology, historical sociopragmatics, punctuation development, development of paratext, reading practices, history of literacy, medieval literature, Reformation printing.
Subjects: P Language and Literature > P Philology. Linguistics
P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Critical Studies > English Language and Linguistics
Supervisor's Name: Smith, Professor Jeremy J.
Date of Award: 2015
Embargo Date: 9 July 2021
Depositing User: Ms Diane G Scott
Unique ID: glathesis:2015-6356
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 20 May 2015 15:37
Last Modified: 09 Jul 2020 09:35

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