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Clerical Discourse and Lay Audience in Late Medieval England.

Fiona Somerset. Clerical Discourse and Lay Audience in Late Medieval England.

Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. ix + 241 pp. $64.95. ISBN: 0-521-62154-2.

This learned, analytically astute, and carefully argued book, based on the author's dissertation, examines the problematic notion of "lewed clergie" at work in late medieval English reform writings that translate Latin clerical learning into vernacular criticism of the clergy. Manipulating the meanings of "lewed" (having to do with the laity as a status group or with lay illiteracy and ignorance) and of "clergie" (having to do with the clergy or with their characteristic learning), authors who were almost certainly of the clergy wrote themselves, or the narrators of their works, indeterminate "extraclergial" positions from which to manifest and/or mask the operations of their texts. Attention to the rhetorical strategies in the texts and to the publication histories of the texts thus suggests that the "extraclergial" stance was as often a tactical ploy as an actual appeal to a broad vernacular audience.

This vernacular reformism grew out of a reform of religious instruction of the laity that can be traced back to the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and that involved the creation of Latin and vernacular teaching materials, a rhetoric of criticism of clerical failings, and an admission that these failings and their criticism were of direct concern to the laity. The works examined by Somerset use this position to defend not simply vernacular teaching of the essentials of the faith but the vernacular transmission of relatively advanced clerical information and methods of argument.

Part of the larger movement from the mid-1300s to translate Latin learning into English and, especially during the reign of Henry V, to make English an "official" language of government, this reform literature was highly controversial in the period from the mid-1370s to 1410, due particularly to the role of vernacular culture in the Peasant Revolt of 1381 and the growing awareness of the problem of heresy. Such materials threatened not only to spread anti-clericalism but to redistribute social power by enabling the laity to evaluate the arguments of the learned and produce arguments of its own. The authors of these works, says Somerset, "are far from oblivious to the threat to their own clerical privileges implicit in their unprecedented form of address. Typically, they distance themselves from the clergy they criticize and ally themselves with the laity, yet continue to employ the kinds of sophisticated argument that grant them clerical legitimacy (12-13)."

After an introduction to the ideas and plan of the work in chapter 1, the body of the book is divided into two parts. The first, chapters 2 and 3, deals with a period of experimentation in addressing vernacular audiences between the 1370s and 1390s. Chapter 2 deals with Piers Plowman and William Langland's major and growing concern to legitimate learned vernacular writing that models a critical and questioning stance for a lay audience. Chapter 3 assesses the purposes of the vernacular translations produced by John Trevesa in association with his patron, Sir Thomas Berkeley. While it seems that the entirety of England's lay population belongs to the imagined potential audience of these works, the publication history suggests that only a segment of the lay nobility, which Trevesa and Berkeley hoped to move to action, was the actual target audience.

The second part of the book, chapters 4 through 6, looks at Wycliffite works and refutations of them published from the 1390s to about 1410, as the pursuit of controversy in the vernacular began to meet with systematic contestation. Chapter 4 examines the Latin response of the Dominican Roger Dymmok to the Wycliffite Twelve Conclusions attacking involvement of the clergy in government. Chapter 5 looks at the Upland Series, "an extended series of textual interventions" that takes off from a set of questions posed by "Jack Upland" attacking the mendicant orders. Chapter 6 examines vernacular teaching of argumentation as seen in The Testimony of William Thorpe, which exemplifies ways to defend the Wycliffite standards of scriptural truth and natural reason. This chapter is especially interesting for its close look at the use made of the techniques of learning, particularly the advanced logical game of "obligations," of which Somerset gives a brief but most lucid explanation.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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