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Elizabethan Silent Language Time-Bound Words: Semantics and Social Economies from Chaucer's England to Shakespeare's.

Mary E. Hazard, Elizabethan Silent Language Time-Bound Words: Semantics and Social Economies from Chaucer's England to Shakespeare's

Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2000. xii + 32 figs. + 345 Pp. $55. ISBN: 0-8032-2397-8.

Peggy A. Knapp, Time-Bound Words: Semantics and Social Economies from Chaucer's England to Shakespeare's

New York: St. Martin's, 2000. vii + 224 pp. $59.95. ISBN: 0-312-22404-4.

These two books are concerned, in very different ways, with the systems through which meaning was made in England in the late medieval and early modern periods. Hazard's book attempts the enormous task of charting the "silent languages" of gesture, painting, architecture, plate, coins, food, processions, rituals and many other elements of Elizabethan life and culture which, in concert with written and oral language, "communicated, complicated, reinforced, or challenged cultural values" (17). Here it is the fascinating wealth of detail, rather than an overarching theory of silent language, which seems most valuable. Knapp's book, on the other hand, offers a more modest focus on 11 key words, each of which "points to both the horizon it helps to define in the Middle Ages, and to a new understanding of society and culture as new conditions arise in what we have come to call the early modern period" (8). As she traces the semantic changes that accompanied the end of feudalism and the Protestant Reformation, howe ver, these "time-bound words" open out to reveal a broad yet firmly grounded view of major historical shifts.

Although Hazard begins her book with the admission that "to approach a culture remembered for its literature through its silent language must seem misdirected if not downright perverse" (1), such a project must now seem much less odd than it did when she began working on it some years ago. In the meantime, as her introduction acknowledges, many scholars have attended to the role of material objects, gestures, and rituals as integral parts of the semiotic systems of early modem English culture. While some of these other studies provide more focused and theoretically sophisticated accounts of the ways in which objects and movements could be meaningful, the breadth of Hazard's scope and her unusual organizational scheme yield new information and insights.

Hazard's overall argument offers a familiar world picture: that "the main elements of the semantic system of Elizabethan silent language were in many cases those of literal language, with resources in religion, in antiquity as translated through humanist tradition, in custom and law, in the continental Renaissance, and in Tudor historiography," yielding a system which "assumed as given values... the masculine norm, young adulthood, courtly service, discernment of ethical and aesthetic dimensions in all aspects of life, a comprehensive rule of decorum, and the preservation of religious, political, and social hierarchy" (17). Her decision to organize the book spatially and temporally, moving from simpler and static to more complex and dynamic forms, runs the risk of repetition at some points, but also offers fruitful and unexpected juxtapositions. Beginning with "Line and Plane" (which includes discussions of drawing, maps, needlework, knots, ciphers, and linear designs of many kinds) she moves through "Surfac e, Shape, and Substance" (fabrics, embroidery, color, jewelry, coins, plate, and buildings), to "Position, Gesture, Motion, and Duration" (architecture, table service, progresses, funerals).

While these accounts often cover familiar ground -- for example, on the subject of fashion: Elizabeth's elaborate costumes, attempts to enforce sumptuary laws, controversies over cross-dressing -- there is such a wealth of detail gleaned from inventories, pamphlets, letters, and other sources, that the books conveys a richer and more palpable sense of the material surface of Elizabethan life than other studies do. Later chapters, in particular, glean new insights from the juxtapositions that emerge as a result of their spatial organization; for instance, a chapter on "Place, Boundary; and Position" considers the dissolution of the monasteries, the alteration of great houses to provide more impressive entrances, the shift from dining in the great hail to a more private chamber, and the role of the hall screen, in relation to larger social movements which moved cultural value from religious to secular, public to private, place to process. This book provides a vivid sense of what it must have been like to live a life shaped by such a proliferation of meaningful objects and movements. Both graduate students and more established scholars will find a treasure trove of material here for further study.

Peggy A. Knapp seeks to offer a new philology more attuned to "cultural formations of past eras" by tracing eleven keywords "through a couple of centuries of wear and tear and using these semantic histories to both track ideological forces and reread complex texts" (2). Her introduction grounds this project in relation to a debate between Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jurgen Habermas regarding the relationship between language and culture and the extent to which language from the past can give us access to some kind of truth about that past. Knapp suggests that "cultural studies of older periods necessarily takes place in the problem space of the Gadamer-Habermas debate" (4), offering the sensible conclusion that historical change is "both created by those who participate in it and limited and occluded by the social formation, including the linguistic formation, in which they live" (7). This theoretical introduction is very brief, and provides a partial and somewhat idiosyncratic window on much larger and more comp licated ongoing debates about the interrelationship of language and ideology. It does not, and perhaps ought to, cite recent studies that seek to place late medieval and early modern theories of language in relation to current theoretical debate (for example, the work of Judith Anderson, Anne Ferry, and Richard Waswo). However, the real interest and value of the book lies in its detailed and historically informed focus on the words themselves. Knapp suggests that the book's main contribution to theoretical debate lies in these "details," and that seems right.

The words that she has chosen will resonate with anyone who has taught Chaucer, Shakespeare, or other authors from both periods: they are corage/courage, estat/estate, fre/free, gloss, kynde/kind, lewid/lewd, providence, queynte/quaint, sely/silly, thrift, and virtu/virtue. I suspect that most of us who teach these authors have addressed the changing meanings of some of these words, however, I learned a great deal from all of Knapp's etymologies. For instance, although the general outlines of the shift from Middle English "estat," meaning "standing" or condition," to a narrower Modern English sense that refers to ownership of property will be familiar to most scholars, Knapp traces this change in relation to medieval estates theory, the Protestant Reformation, and through complex uses of the word by authors who play on its ambiguous and shifting meanings. As a result, she conveys a fuller sense of the ways in which each word was inflected by a wide range of social changes as well as calling attention to the layered and sliding senses of the word in a variety of texts. While providing an excellent sense of the ways in which semantic change can be correlated with central narratives of historical change, Knapp also attends to quirky digressions from the logic of history -- for example, the fact that on the way from saintliness to frivolity, "silly" had a period of close association with sheep. Ideologies of gender are relevant for most of these words, and her attention to this factor further enriches the mix.

Although each chapter is focused on a separate word, they circle around similar issues and often converge in especially resonant works that contain charged senses of several of the words. For example, Chaucer's "Miller's Tale" contains significant uses of "lewid," "thrift," "sely," and "queynte," so that by the end of the book, Knapp's comments add up to a richly contextualized reading of that tale. Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice similarly plays on "estate," "thrift," "kind," and quaint, and Knapp's etymologies interestingly open up the range of things these words can mean in that play. As Knapp suggests at several points, this book is especially useful as a "good way of teaching students to begin to enter medieval and early modern life-worlds" (191). In fact, both of these books provide useful and vivid introductions to the lived textures of the early modern world. I could easily imagine assigning parts of both books to graduate and undergraduate students, and both will be invaluable to beginning teachers .
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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