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.
I’m always happy to share offprints, discuss ideas, or answer questions; just email me at spencer.strub [at] princeton.edu.
“Oaths and Everyday Life in Peter Idley’s Instructions,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 119.2 (2020): 190-219 (available on Project MUSE)
Idley’s teaching on oaths and vows is, on the face of things, an uncontroversial treatment of a vexed topic in late medieval religion. The oath is language in extremis—it is a speech act that invokes the sacred, binds the speaking self to its utterance, and inscribes its speaker in a relationship of obligation or accountability—and this perceived power made the value and use of oaths the subject of heated debate among theologians and lay believers. But fifteenth-century business, law, and governance all rested on sworn bonds; oathworthiness was one of the determinative qualities of gentle status. Pastoral theology was therefore obliged to navigate between stringent spiritual directives and a pragmatic accommodation of the practices of secular life. Idley resolves these ambivalences, and secular pragmatism—the worldly demands of gentility—wins out. In doing so, he provides an object lesson in how lay and clerical ethical interests may have genuinely diverged in the later Middle Ages.
“Learning from Shame,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 32 (2018): 37-75 (available on Brepols Online)
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)