In late medieval London we uncover the fragmented picture of an urban cultural space in which the literate and literary practices of reading and writing in the vernacular were exercised to a degree unknown in the previous two and a half centuries. As the English language, and at its head the London dialect, began to reform and recapture its old positions, its literature was simultaneously reaching new heights of poetic form, emotional sensibility and socio-political consciousness.
In London there existed an informal and often improvised network of professional scribes, artists and stationers working collaboratively and on commission – as Hanna puts it, ‘cultural organization [which] was a piecework and utilized temporary connections’. This is the unstable backdrop against which are set Chaucer’s Babel nightmare and Lydgate’s synthetic humility, Pecock’s exasperation and Hoccleve’s neurotic autobiography. No longer can we separate text from manuscript, author from the conditions which shaped him. The medieval book is not a kind of series of floating, transcendental signifiers, but an artistic and cultural artefact, ‘a scrap of the past, immobilized in a space that is reduced to the page or the book’ . It is the valuable cargo of the rich, a dangerous tool in the wrong hands, the architect of history, the writer’s unruly creation.
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© Tom Chivers, 2004 – do not reproduce or distribute without prior consent