Event—Scholarly Seminars

Michael Johnston, Purdue University


Literature and Knowledge in Late Medieval England: A Codicological Perspective

Michael Johnston, Purdue University
Respondent: Nicole Clifton, Northern Illinois University

Numerous studies have explored the relationship between information-based texts (e.g., medicine, encyclopedias, astronomy) and literary texts within the premodern world, showing how surprisingly porous—by our modern standards—the boundaries often were. Almost all of these studies approach the question from an epistemological or ontological perspective. My project, by contrast, considers this question from a codicological perspective: that is, I ask what the surviving manuscripts can tell us about the relationship between forms of discourse, with a specific focus on England, 1350–1500. In this investigation, I identify two main ways in which literary and non-literary discourses overlapped and interpenetrated. First, I argue that most literary texts were copied by scribes whose main employment was the production of documents (charters, bonds, wills, etc.), and thus that all such texts arose within the same “codicological ecosystems.” Second, I offer close readings of several manuscripts preserving literary and nonliterary texts together, focusing specifically on a diverse set of manuscripts produced in English households. These manuscripts contain a combination of land documents, medical recipes, mathematical treatises, and literary texts. Ultimately, my project argues that manuscript culture was quite comfortable with the cohabitation of the literary and the non-literary.