All of my scholarship asks how readers and writers navigate rules for learning, feeling, and speaking. Sometimes such rules stymie creativity; sometimes they provide a fertile ground for artistic appropriation or subversion. Inevitably, however, they point to deeper cultural assumptions about selfhood, belonging, and meaning – assumptions that give us a new vantage point on old literature.
Book in Progress
Disciplining the Tongue proceeds from a perceived crisis of false display in late medieval England. The relation between the inner self and the outer world was understood to be prone to deception and hypocrisy. Speech became the main focus of this concern. To commend strict honesty, religious writers coined a vocabulary that linked speech and emotion. This lexicon included words like “scorn” and “shame” as well as those less recognizable today: “sclaundren,” for example, meant “to induce shame,” while “boistous” speech was honest, rude, and affectively harsh. This set of terms initially provided a devout reading public with a sense of belonging and a language for itself. “Boistous” texts fostered scorn, anger, and shame––emotions invariably identified with speech acts, each capable of binding a community of strangers together.
This lexicon proved portable, however, and found its way into foundational works of English poetry. Langland’s Piers Plowman dramatizes the process of personal learning and poetic revision through cycles of misspeaking and shame; Chaucer borrows the pleasures of pious speech to describe the Canterbury pilgrims’ “myrie” tale-telling. This movement across discourses points to the common ground on which literature and prescriptive religious writing meet, where antinomies of ethics and aesthetics resolve in a shared understanding of a speaking and feeling self.
Articles and Essays
“Learning from Shame,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 32 (forthcoming)
This essay addresses the role of shame in Piers Plowman, focusing on Will’s experience of misspeaking and rebuke in passus 11 of the B text. Fourteenth-century devotional writing moralizes shame as the awareness of one’s own sins, or as a collective emotion brought on vicariously by the sins of others or directly by their persecution. In contrast, Will’s shame emerges from the apprehension of his incompletion as a thinking and speaking agent. Rebukes from Scripture and Reason repeatedly cast Will back into a scene of remedial education. As Imaginatif explains, Will’s shame is useful because it breaks, remakes, and teaches. Will’s shame maps a process of learning. Because passus 11 begins where the A text ended, and because Imaginatif connects Will’s shame to his poetic making, this meditation on shame also reflects on the shame and legitimacy of Langland’s lifelong work of revision.
“The Idle Readers of Piers Plowman in Print,” New Medieval Literatures 17 (2017): 201-36 (available on JSTOR)
Accounts of Piers Plowman’s early modern reception tend to emphasize antiquarians and Protestant reformers, “readers for action” who used the poem for professional and political ends as an object of study or as evidence for ecclesiological polemic. This article discusses copies of the Crowley and Rogers editions of Piers Plowman now in the Bancroft and Beinecke Libraries, annotated by provincial readers in Derbyshire and Suffolk respectively, in order to articulate an alternative model of reception defined by “idleness” rather than action. The traces left by these “idle readers,” who had no clear professional investment in the poem or its contents, reveal a different way of engaging with the poem: distracted, pleasure-seeking, open to humor and surprise. Their responses suggest that not all early modern readers understood the poem as a useful artifact from a distant medieval past, but could treat it as a living document in their own moment. Because idle readers lack the readily identifiable motivations of reformers and antiquarians, however, they present methodological challenges to critics and book historians. Claims made about them must therefore be tentative and open to uncertainty.
For a full transcription of the annotations in the Bancroft Piers, see here.
Rebecca Davis, “Piers Plowman” and the Books of Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). Studies in the Age of Chaucer 39 (2017): 326-29 (available on Project MUSE)