Book Reviews

John H. Fisher, The Emergence of Standard English. The University Press of Kentucky Copyright 1996 ISBN 0813119359 (cloth: alk. paper) ISBN 0813108527 (paper: alk. paper)

How do you give a Chaucer scholar a fit? Tell them you’ve read Who Murdered Chaucer? — A Medieval Mystery by ex-Monty Pythonite Terry Jones et al.

How do you give a Chaucer scholar another fit? Tell them you read Who Murdered Chaucer? before attempting Chaucer himself. Who Murdered... is a beach book — an enjoyable romp, superbly illustrated, yet full of blokish anachronisms. Jones suggests that Chaucer was murdered in secret on account of his heterodox beliefs. An interesting theory; but I digress...

Care for something a bit more conventional? Look no further than The Emergence of Standard English by John Fisher (pleasantly Tudor-ish sounding name, that!). Fisher is a Chaucer expert of the old school and Professor emeritus of English at the University of Tennessee. His book is technical - a collection of essays produced over some 20 years. According to the bibliography, Chaucer scholars study the inks used in the various Canterbury Tales manuscripts, and argue over the proper sequencing of the tales. How dull is that! Fisher’s stated subject — how English emerged from the ashes of the Norman invasion to kick French out — is hard to spoil, however, and the author makes the most of it. Chaucer is featured in the book — but not in the starring role. We Tyndalians think of Chaucer and Shakespeare as shapers of the English tongue. Fisher rather downplays their influence. Tyndale is (surprise!) absent.

Who, then, have been the real shapers of the language? Fisher salutes the role of ‘entrepreneurial lexicographers and grammarians’ (a tradition continued, he might now agree, by Eats Shoots and Leaves and other middlebrow style guides). And he nods in the direction of the English clergy, who have followed their own path throughout our country’s history.

‘Whereas the Anglo-Saxon clergy had been quite independent and inclined to translate scripture and learning into English, the Norman clergy were strong adherents of Rome and were inclined to conduct all of their affairs in Latin.’

So men of the cloth were important — but not the main event. The author’s agenda becomes clear when he says ‘Concurrently with the Wycliffite writers, the government and merchant classes in London began to turn to English’. The author’s thesis, then, is that the English language was moulded and regularized by the clerks and officials of the Chancery — the emerging civil service, in other words. The author quotes a useful definition: ‘Chancery was the Secretariat of State in all departments of late medieval government’.

I had imagined that chaos continued in English orthography up until Samuel Johnson. Not so. Progress was made in imposing consistency as early as the 1400s, even if some of the choices adopted by Chancery scribes went the way of the dodo (Caxton chooses “them” over the Chancery “theym”).

Chancery spelling was diverse, but the main thing was that spelling variations no longer represented dialectal differences in pronunciation. Chancery was nowhere near universal. Fisher reminds us of the huge North/South divide in that time. ‘Typical examples of non-Chancery legal writing include northern spelling of the preterite as “t” (asket, assemblet, anoydet)’.’The motto of the Chancery scribes was not ‘if it feels good, do it.’ A sense of error is often noticeable in their manuscripts; Fisher spots a caret used to add “h” to “warf”.

Remember, this was the language of officialdom, not of pilgrims or the Wife of Bath. Chaucer the poet was championed in the 1400s, of course; but as a safely dead purveyor of the English language and emerging nationalist sentiment (newly in favour under Henry V), rather than as the author of insolent and religiously questionable material (very much out of favour under Henry IV and V). Chaucer and his contemporaries could not have pulled off a revolution by themselves. For English to displace the longentrenched languages of bureaucracy (Latin and French), support needed to come straight from the top. And it was soon forthcoming. In 1416 Henry V made five proclamations in English to the citizens of London, requesting supplies and mobilizing soldiers and sailors. From his second invasion of France in August 1417 to his death in August 1422 Henry V’s official communications were prepared in English, generally by secretaries but reflecting the king’s own style and preferences.

So, spare a thought for the Mandarins of 14th century Westminster, whom historians have overlooked. As academic theses go — language revolution implemented by Whitehall — this is not calculated to set pulses racing or to send protesters into the streets. But there is some truth to the following sentence:

‘The compact, disciplined, hierarchical body of civil servants is not merely an antiquarian curiosity but a fact of capital importance in the evolution of standard written English, since this is the group who introduced English as an official language of central administration between 1420 and 1460.’

Nor is Fisher a reductionist or revisionist:

‘(…) myth may not illuminate the past, but it tells us much that is significant about the present and our aspirations for the future’; ‘To deny or denigrate (…) myth is just as unsatisfactory to scholarship and criticism as it is to promulgate that myth naively.’

There are fascinating nuggets in here. William the Conqueror’s administration made a stab — an exceedingly brief, short-lived stab — at using Saxon Standard in official pronouncements. Was this a gesture of conciliation?

An all-important British industry – brewers — hopped into the language controversy in 1422 when they announced that henceforth, their records would be kept in English. Making this announcement in Latin rather spoiled the effect.

What of printing? William Caxton gets the glory in history books and in PBS documentaries (The Story of English etc.). But his role, for Fisher, was as a ‘transmitter’. In a miracle of faint praise, Fisher notes that ‘modern written Standard English continues to bear the imprint of Caxton’s heterogeneous practice’. The groundwork for a somewhat standardized English prose — and for British wit and pithy understatement — was laid long before Caxton’s presses swung into action.

Neil L. Inglis, November 2005.

James Carley,The Books of King Henry VIII and His Wives. British Library. London. 161 pages, (copiously illustrated) 2004 £20 ISBN 0712347917.

‘Of the making of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.’ How true. Yet every now and then a book comes along that turns that weariness into a profound and lasting pleasure, opening up whole new fields of investigation. The Books of King Henry VIII and His Wives — the subject of this review — is one such.

Now it is customary amongst reviewers, even when considering an otherwise excellent book, to offer some adverse criticism or other. Indeed, there are those who think it obligatory to do so. I am at a loss to follow them, however. Sumptuously illustrated, this book is written both for scholars and other ranks, and opens up — particularly for the other ranks — an entirely new perspective on royal thinking as it affected the Reformation. The author, James Carley, one of the few true experts on Henry’s reading habits, takes us on a sweep over the whole gamut of the royal libraries’ contents, introducing us to books scientific, philosophical, historical, geographical, biblical and so on, bringing titles to our notice that most of us have never heard of.

Henry VIII studied closely books from all over the Continent and from all periods up to his own time, as the frequent marginalia in his own hand testify, and this has to produce a profound change in the way that many of us have been taught to think of Henry. On a popular level, our impressions of this king have been formed by those such as Charles Laughton, who famously portrayed him as a belching glutton throwing chicken bones over his shoulder at mealtimes; or by Keith Mitchell who played him (magnificently) in later life as the piggy-eyed dupe of the bishop of Winchester — both portrayals fall woefully short of the man, yet they have greatly influenced the modern popular view. But Carley takes us on another journey altogether, and shows us that Henry VIII, through his reading, certainly did tower above his contemporaries as an intellectual, and it was his library that fed that intellect. The course of England’s — and hence the world’s — history only took the direction it did through the books that Henry devoured.

What came as a real shock to me because I have seen never a hint of it in all my years, is that Henry’s intellectual enquiries even stretched to owning a scrying glass (‘in which the king was said to see everything’ and which, because it contained a ‘familiar spirit’, is also said to have shattered at the moment of his death pp. 25-6), along with an unhealthy interest in the work of one Bardi, a notorious necromancer and spiritualist. Now that is a side to Henry VIII that is entirely new to me, as I’m sure it will be to everyone else. Only Carley brings it out.

But that is not all. In what has to be the most exciting part of his book, the author takes us on an introductory journey into the minds and reading of Henry’s wives, and this also opens up entirely unsuspected vistas concerning these women who were — in every sense of the word and in their own individual ways — real and effective powers behind the throne of Reformation England. They were not, contrary to popular press, mere breeding mares for the king, but each shaped the future of England as surely and as ably as any politician. Indeed, England’s two mightiest and wiliest politicians, Wolsey and Cromwell, were both shipwrecked against at least two of the king’s wives. Four of these queens have a chapter each, dedicated to their own book collections. Predictably, the two denied their own chapters are Anne of Cleves and Jane Seymour, although their brief contacts with books as either presents or ornaments are mentioned.

One intriguing aspect of 16th-century book-reading that Carley deals with is the transition of the practice of reading from that of a public exercise to a private one, a transition reflected in the changing format of book production. It is as a private reader that we are able to glimpse Henry VIII forming his policies, his world-view and the world-changing events that these brought about. For that reason alone (though there are many others), I would urge all who are in any way interested in the English Reformation to read no further until they have read and re-read Carley’s book, for it does bear repeated reading. It is a literary goldmine in every sense, and my one regret — which can also serve as my obligatory adverse complaint — is that it was not written fifty years ago. How enriched and broadened our studies would have been by now!

Bill Cooper, November 2005.

Christine Peters, Patterns of Piety: Women, Gender and Religion in Late Medieval and Reformation England. Cambridge University Press pp. xv + 389 £45 ISBN 0521580625

Recent studies of the Reformation have tended to present it as a movement which enhanced the masculine character of religious experience and created an environment in which women felt uncomfortable and alienated. Despite its emphasis on the spiritual equality of the sexes, Protestantism is widely regarded as having simultaneously eroded the female role models provided by the Virgin Mary and the saints and reinforced the patriarchal subjection of wives and daughters to their husbands and fathers.

In Patterns of Piety Christine Peters subjects these historiographical commonplaces to searching scrutiny. Her book seeks critically to re-examine the connection between gender and religion in the context of late medieval and early modern England and to assert that the impact of the Protestant Reformation on this nexus was far more ambivalent and complex than has often been assumed. Exploiting an impressively wide range of textual and visual sources — from sermons, religious treatises and conduct books to churchwardens’ accounts, wills, ballads, wall paintings, sculptures and embroideries - Peters argues that the role of gender in shaping both the stereotypes and realities which comprised pre- and post-Reformation piety has been overstated.

In the first half of the book, she investigates the significance of the rise in late medieval society of a Christocentric strain of religious devotion which focused attention on the interaction between sinful humanity and the suffering Christ, suggesting that ‘the whole slant’ of these trends was ‘to reduce the extent of biological essentialism in defining the relationship of men and women and the saints’ (p.l29). By diminishing emphasis on the maternal attributes of the Virgin Mary and complicating the negative image of Eve with notions of mutual male and female responsibility for the Fall of mankind from grace, she argues, late medieval Catholic piety provided ‘a bridge to [the] Reformation in terms of religious understanding’ (p.4). This theme is pursued in Part II, where Peters explores the ambiguities of gender associations and responsibilities in the wake of the advent of Protestantism, highlighting the ways in which Mary continued to be revered as a model for emulation and the capacity of popular Old Testament stories like those about Susannah and Bathsheba to sustain readings which were unsettling to, if not subversive of, the patriarchal order. These and other features, she contends, muted and counterbalanced the Calvinist tendency to envisage God as a distant, awesome and all-controlling deity who epitomised male authority.

Peters thus inserts some important and salutary qualifications into the unduly pessimistic picture of women’s deteriorating experience in this period which has been painted by some feminist historians. She also adds some interesting nuances to accounts of late medieval piety which dwell too heavily on its static- and unchanging quality. But not all aspects of the analysis presented here are equally convincing. Peters may be too quick to dismiss the problems of scribal mediation and interference in her search for gendered patterns of religious affiliation in will preambles, and in reacting against the prevailing emphases of the historiography, she at times perhaps swings too far in the other direction. Surely the claim that late medieval devotional tendencies ‘rendered the nuances of gender almost meaningless’ (p.345) is something of an exaggeration. Elsewhere, by contrast, Peters’ eagerness to avoid over-simplification renders her argumentation so subtle as to seem somewhat convoluted and confusing. It remains unclear, furthermore, how far the complexity of the gender roles she discerns in the texts and images she so carefully dissects were recognised by their contemporary readers and spectators: the potential gap between authorial intention and popular reception is an issue which is perhaps insufficiently discussed and confronted.

Nevertheless, this is a book that raises questions which are critical to our comprehension of religious change and transition in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Consistently sensitive and suggestive, Patterns of Piety also offers us a far more textured and interesting set of answers to them than we have had hitherto.

This review by Alexandra Walsham first appeared in History Today.