Singing the New Song

9780812240511: Hardback
Release Date: 4th January 2008

6 illus.

Dimensions: 152 x 229

Number of Pages: 312

Series The Middle Ages Series

University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.

Singing the New Song

Literacy and Liturgy in Late Medieval England

In Singing the New Song, Katherine Zieman examines the institutions and practices of the liturgy as central to changes in late medieval English understandings of the written word.

Hardback / £50.00

In Singing the New Song, Katherine Zieman examines the institutions and practices of the liturgy as central to changes in late medieval English understandings of the written word. Where previous studies have described how writing comes to supplant oral forms of communication or how it objectifies relations of power formerly transacted through ritual and ceremony, Zieman shifts the critical gaze to the ritual performance of written texts in the liturgy—effectively changing the focus from writing to reading.

Beginning with a history of the elementary educational institution known to modern scholars as the "song school," Zieman shows the continued centrality of liturgical and devotional texts to the earliest stages of literacy training and spiritual formation. Originally, these schools were created to provide liturgical training for literate adult performers who had already mastered the grammatical arts. From the late thirteenth century on, however, the attention and resources of both lay and clerical patrons came to be devoted specifically to young boys, centering on their function as choristers. Because choristers needed to be trained before they received instruction in grammar, the liturgical skills of reading and singing took on a different meaning.

This shift in priorities, Zieman argues, is paradigmatic of broader cultural changes, in which increased interest in liturgical performance and varying definitions attached to "reading and singing" caused these practices to take on a life of their own, unyoked from their original institutional settings of monastery and cathedral. Unmoored from the context of the choral community, reading and singing developed into discrete, portable skills that could be put to use in a number of contexts, sacred and secular, Latin and vernacular. Ultimately, they would be carried into a wider public sphere, where they would be transformed into public modes of discourse appropriated by vernacular writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland.

List of Illustrations


Chapter 1. Ex ore infantium: Literacy and Elementary Educational Practices in Late Medieval England
Chapter 2. Singing the New Song: Literacy, Clerical
Identity, and the Discourse of Choral Community
Chapter 3. Legere et non intellegere negligere est: The Politics of Understanding
Chapter 4. Extragrammatical Literacies and the Latinity of the Laity
Chapter 5. ""Þe lomes þat y labore with": Vernacular Poetics, Clergie, and the Repertoire of Reading and Singing in Piers Plowman
Chapter 6. Reading, Singing, and Publication in The Canterbury Tales



This study began—and in fact still begins—with Chaucer's "litel clergeon," the infantile hero of the Prioress's Tale. My initial interest was not so much in the tale itself but in the early educational practices it represented and their formalization in that distinctively medieval institution, the "song school." Presuming, as I did, that reading ability was regularly acquired by learning to sing, I had hoped to discover the implications of such a practice for a historical understanding of literacy. After I had surveyed the extant evidence and current scholarship, however, two things became apparent: first, that the "song school," as a determinate institution that remained a stable element of elementary education throughout the medieval period, was in part the creation of modern scholarship; and second, that this creation was inflected by attitudes toward and investments in the medieval liturgy that had not been fully examined. As the project continued, the "song school" became merely the starting point for a much more extensive study of medieval liturgical practice and its relationship to literacy. The present book represents only a partial result of this investigation.

Many scholars acknowledge innovations in literate practices in England in the fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century period covered by this study. Most of these innovations, however, have been related to the ascendancy of the vernacular, which is seen as competing with, and even subverting, Latin as the firmly installed language of privilege. Such changes are frequently attributed to an aspiring laity, often characterized as "increasingly literate," though this literacy is most often associated with vernacular speculative and devotional writings. Liturgical practice—Latin textual practice governed by ecclesiastical institutions—rarely enters significantly into such discussions. The cultural function of the liturgy is generally considered one of conservative repetition, not innovation or creation. My study of patterns in educational benefaction connected with song, however, suggested a different picture: that liturgical practice was in fact central to fourteenth- and fifteenth-century developments in the field of literacy. In attending to the terms by which young boys would be initiated into some form of clerical status, patrons of liturgy and learning were able to dissect and stratify components of clerical literacy at an institutional level. Further research revealed that the institutional gestures of wealthy benefactors represented merely one instance of the centrality of liturgy to issues of learning and literacy. Whatever innovations emerged elsewhere, liturgy remained a site in which changing textual practices and religious values were integrated in a culture that still conceived of itself as a Christian textual community for whom the performance of sacred texts played a vital role.

Because my primary interest is literacy, for the purposes of this study I have treated liturgy—at least the central liturgical activities of reading and singing on which I focus—primarily as verbal practice. In so doing I by no means wish to deny the importance of the musical textuality of song; I merely concede that song's relationship to other uses of the written word can be elucidated most easily by focusing on its verbal aspects. In like fashion, I have privileged the verbal aspects of the liturgy over other ritual and sacramental action, using the term "liturgy" to refer above all to the Liturgy of the Word and related verbal practices. While isolating the verbal does limit the investigation, it has the virtue of focusing attention on the salient paradox of medieval Christian liturgy: that it participated simultaneously in the worlds of both orality and literacy. My examination of this hybrid textual practice and the institutions and social relations it engendered is meant to serve as a counterpoint to studies by M. T. Clanchy and Richard Firth Green that have clearly demonstrated that the late medieval period was a time of transition in terms of uses of writing in other spheres of social interaction. Both have described how writing came to supplant oral forms of communication or how it objectified relations of power formerly transacted through ritual and ceremony. The presence and persistence of a ritual practice that from its inception was based on the written word does not contradict their findings, but it does complicate any binary distinctions between oral and written and between ritual and documentary culture that one might be tempted to extrapolate from them.

Though it involved both oral and written practices, medieval liturgy is more commonly associated with orality and ritual or traditional culture. As a performative practice centered on the voice, it elicits notions of embodied, communal knowledge that requires physical proximity to be enacted. Liturgy is thus the quintessential signifier of presence or, more specifically, of a recuperative presence that allowed the Word of God to be re-presented and thus heard as the voice of God. The common claim that punctuation used in manuscripts is descended from neumatic notation of music—a claim Leo Treitler has persuasively called into question —suggests that liturgical song stands in the minds of many as a metonymy for an originary performativity and orality of all language, not merely sacred language. Historical accounts generated by this notion of language tend to be narratives of loss—the loss of the audible voice of God or, more generally, the loss of organic social relations structured by embodied, communal knowledge or tradition. Such accounts are proffered not only by scholars we might associate with older modes of criticism, like Eamon Duffy and Walter J. Ong, but also by those like Michel de Certeau, who are aligned with postmodern thought. The conception of voice that liturgical song seems to exemplify is, in other words, aligned not merely with a "nostalgic" definition of traditional culture but also with a particular construction of modernity as a condition of permanent alienation—one that is fundamentally opposed to the presence of the voice and the hermeneutical enclosures of the liturgical.

These are, of course, relatively standard critiques of attitudes toward the premodern (though a more thorough critique would also have to account for the explanatory power of studies by Ong and de Certeau that continues to make them engaging and useful in spite of the rigid, teleological categorizations). More intriguing, perhaps, than the potential for liturgical song to stand for a romanticized presence within conceptions of premodernity is the potential for it to signify the obverse. Especially in accounts of the later, autumnal centuries of the Middle Ages, liturgical performance is just as likely to stand for a sense of absence or lack of self-presence usually associated with writing as it is with the presence assigned to the voice. Closely related to Enlightenment notions of rationality and free speech, such views are often connected to the practice, more widely attested in the later Middle Ages, of singing Latin song without training in Latin grammar. Chaucer's "litel clergeon" is the most prominent example of this habit, though it was by no means universal and, I will argue, it was less widespread than has been assumed. For some, such uncomprehending performances merely exemplify the alterity of medieval textual practice, if not medieval culture as a whole. For others, it has broader political implications. Usually considered a lay activity, illiterate singing or singing without understanding represents the laity's active participation in their own disenfranchisement from latinate culture in general. Figured simultaneously as a site of presence and absence, liturgy appears "both everywhere and nowhere in the cultural history of premodern England."

Both of these assessments rely on considering liturgy as ritual. More specifically, they rely on a particular conception of ritual, one that depends, as Catherine Bell has noted, on a binary division between thought and action. Ritual simultaneously represents both the realm of embodied action instead of thought and the site in which action becomes thought. The images of liturgy as absence and liturgy as presence merely emphasize different aspects of this inner contradiction. Liturgy as disenfranchisement and its romanticizing converse—positions roughly assimilable to Protestant and Catholic historical narratives—are the Scylla and Charybdis of attitudes toward ritual between which this study attempts to chart a course. Such a project involves turning away from conceptions of ritual as a specific cultural mode or a defined set of practices toward a consideration of ritualization as "a way of acting that is designed and orchestrated to distinguish and privilege what is being done in comparison to other, usually more quotidian, activities." As such, ritualization can be said to occur in any culture and is not rooted in a particular cultural or social organization. More significantly, modes of ritualization can change, and these changes can be significant. This acknowledgment is especially important to discussions of liturgy, since some scholars have taken its cyclical structure to be opposed to history itself. Rather than label changes in practice as additions or accretions that merely reinforce the traditional character of late medieval religion or, conversely, as decadent departures from an authentic, originary state, I seek instead to examine the implications changes such as the rise of chantries have for the social relations that liturgy performs and the connections these relations bear to the reading and singing that is ritualized.

The activity with which I am most concerned is reading, which the Liturgy of the Word ritualizes as a clerical privilege and as an activity controlled by clerical institutions such as grammar. The changes I examine occur both at the level of practice—namely, how clergy and layfolk are expected to behave in relation to the performed Word—and at the institutional level—namely, what kind of institutions, corporations, or social groups generated liturgical services and determined their ostensible purpose—both of which deal with the critical question (much contested in late fourteenth-century England) of how sacred texts should mediate religious experience. The ultimate outcome of these changes was to destabilize the possible functions of ritualized reading and singing such that they could serve purposes beyond communal celebration of the Word and beyond performing the clerical stewardship of sacred texts. In the most extreme cases—for example, lay recitation of Hours (which, although it could be described as private and "devotional" rather than public and "liturgical," nonetheless remains a ritualized practice)—these changes affected the institutionally regulated circumstances that define ritual practice: who performs the action, at what times, and in what settings. As a result, practices that were figured as metonymic of clerical literacy as a whole could also be perceived autonomously, as practices separable from clerical authority. While this development changed perceptions of the verbal aspects of the liturgy, it also had implications for literate practice as a whole in that "reading and singing" were articulated as discrete activities, and in some cases discrete skills, unmoored from the institutional setting that defined and regulated their appropriate use. Chapter 1 charts this process of destabilizing or unmooring by looking at the transformation of the "song school" as an institutionally embedded entity to the various deracinated skills and activities that were originally derived from choral practice. Throughout the study, I place all such unmoored practices under the rubric so often used to describe them: "reading and singing."

This unmooring, to my mind, is not part of the general alienations or deracinations that characterize modernity. The institutional setting I designate as the "origin" of reading and singing—the choir and the choral institutions that housed them—was defined in terms of one among many idealized notions of community that existed in medieval culture. Though these communities exhibit some social dynamics characteristic of traditional culture, as I describe most extensively in Chapter 2, they do not exemplify communitas even in idealized depictions. The practices of reading and singing become unmoored not because of any dissolution or loss of this institutional context but rather because the practice spread beyond its boundaries. In this respect, the deracination to which I refer is part of a larger transformation of the ways in which late medieval culture categorized, distributed, and regulated its intellectual resources, the necessity of doing this in some form being an aspect of any sociopolitical structure. The result is not a set of "free-floating" practices but rather of practices redefined and recontextualized in different settings. Over the longue durée, larger patterns of change emerge. Among the most important, also discussed in Chapter 2, is a shift in the definition of "literate" from primarily repertory-based knowledge—that is, familiarity and facility with culturally important texts—to primarily skill-based knowledge—ultimately, the capacity to decipher unfamiliar texts, though this transformation extends beyond the medieval period. The unmooring of reading and singing signals a critical moment in that shift—one that is the result not of rejecting liturgical performance but of increased liturgical and devotional activity.

Chapter 3 describes some of this increased activity in more detail—specifically, the socioeconomic and cultural implications of the rise of "private" or, as I call it, "contractual" liturgy. These changes, I claim, did more than determine who had access to and who "understood" the liturgy and its texts. They opened up speculation as to what constitutes understanding in the first place as well as what sociopolitical function understanding might play. As I claim in the latter part of this chapter, concerns about these changes find expression in the postpandemic fixation with unbeneficed mass priests, who appeared to represent the disruption of social and linguistic order. These issues had formerly been—and to a large extent continued to be—regulated by grammatica, the "master discourse" of medieval language and learning. Chapter 4, however, examines ways of interacting with sacred texts and sacred language that fell outside the parameters of textual engagement determined by grammatical institutions. Though these "extragrammatical" practices could involve anything from pragmatic uses of documents to vernacular theology, I focus on the varied uses of Latin liturgical and devotional texts by those both with and without grammatical training. While I am sensitive to medieval definitions of literacy and do, in fact, discuss medieval terminology in detail in Chapter 2, I also define the extragrammatical practices of these chapters as "literacies." In such instances, I use the term "literacy" to acknowledge strategic but unofficial practice, defining literacy as any practice that allows the systematic manipulation of the symbolic capital associated with clerical letters. This definition, though broad, should not be confused with metaphoric uses of "literacy" to refer to any kind of discursive mastery whatsoever. Though literacy as I define it technically does not necessarily require interactions with litteras, let alone knowledge of grammar, it is connected to the social power of litteras that is performed in the ritualized reading of the liturgy. The unofficial or unspoken nature of these literacies also accounts for the fact that I follow Clanchy in relying heavily on anecdotal evidence, though I have benefited greatly from the more systematic research of scholars such as Nicholas Orme, Jo Ann Moran Cruz, Roger Bowers, and Leona Gabel.

The final two chapters explore the impact of the various practices and attitudes I describe in the first four chapters on the production of Middle English literature, particularly on the works of William Langland and Geoffrey Chaucer. Though this study had its genesis in a literary text, I see vernacular making as one of many areas of cultural production inflected by the changes associated with reading and singing. Prior studies of liturgy and literature have tended to deal at the level of literary allusion or quotation, treating the liturgy primarily as a text or set of texts upon which writers drew. My examination, however, considers liturgy and devotion as textual practices. My focus on reading and singing, furthermore, attends to emergent rather than traditional or residual textual practices. Several passages that I examine in both writers' texts—the C 5 apologia of Piers Plowman and Chaucer's Prioress's Tale and Second Nun's Tale among them—show the affinities these poets saw between their own emergent literary practice and modes of reading and singing that were the subject of public debate. Both kinds of extragrammatical practice arose from the fragmentation of clerical literacy that grammar and liturgy once unified. While they had pretensions to forms of authority and to public signification, they also had unstable institutional positions—a proliferation of proper places from which one could speak and personae one could inhabit beyond those regulated by Church and Court. As a result of this instability, matters of the ethics, intentions, and social and spiritual value of verbal production were set in sharp relief. Above all both practices were marked with a kind of linguistic and textual self-consciousness I situate under the category of "voicing": concerns about the ways in which "public" language circulates, the relationship of speaker to utterance, or the various ways that individuals and groups might incorporate or assimilate themselves to preexisting texts and verbal performances.

Though the study was never intended to be comprehensive, the issues of liturgical and devotional practice treated here impinged upon more spheres of activity than could be examined in a single study. Some of the topics I chose to leave out deserve some explanation. I avoided extensive discussion of Lollardy in part because I think that it would be more productively examined in a study that reaches further into the fifteenth century so as to include a fuller range of material than could be accommodated in this study. More important, so many representations of Lollardy, from the Reformation on, have been put forth to celebrate their championing of biblical translation and lay access to scriptures as democratizing gestures. Though more recent work has shown both that many of these hermeneutical matters were not solely the preserve of Lollardy and that Lollard hermeneutics were not as democratizing as they might at first appear, the focus of attention has remained on the conventicles and vernacular hermeneutics, which, while in no way inappropriate, has the potential in the context of this study to devolve into a dualistic approach pitting vernacular dissent against latinate privilege that I am trying to avoid. Given that the Lollard position on the Eucharist was one that reconceived the terms of its ritualized signification rather than dismissed it and given that what scant evidence exists suggests that at least some Lollards may have heard or conducted services in Latin, it is likely that Lollardy's relationship to ritual is more complex than has been recognized and deserves a full study in its own right.

Other important topics proved too vast to incorporate meaningfully into the study within the conceptual framework I had developed. Among these is the rise of vernacular drama. While the development of the Corpus Christi cycle is contemporary with and related to the unmooring of reading and singing, most extant evidence comes from later in the fifteenth century. The amount of recent scholarly work that considers definitions of drama, as well as the dynamics and politics of performativity, makes this area one that, like Lollardy, could not be usefully subordinated to my focus on literacy and textual practice. The same is the case with the liturgical practices of women religious. The function of liturgy in the lives of women religious has been overlooked, as I have suggested elsewhere, in favor of topics more likely to demonstrate their intellectual achievements. Women religious also served a critical role in the development of devotional practice as well as clerical attitudes toward such practices. Beyond a brief discussion of these matters in Chapter 4, they await a full exposition of their importance elsewhere.

The chronological scope of the study as I originally pursued it stretched from the late thirteenth century, when interest in choristers first becomes noticeable, to the middle of the fifteenth, by which time there is evidence that liturgy and learning were on divergent paths: forms of benefaction such as the chantry school, which did not require choral duties of its scholars, the specifically "musical" exploitation of boys' voices in the production of polyphony, the first signs that English was being taught as a subject rather than a medium of written language instruction, and the separation of the chapel staff and administrative staff in the foundation of Eton are just a few of the indicators. As I began to relate this material to other modes of religious experience and ecclesiastical politics—trends in private devotion and pastoral teaching, the rise of the perpetual chantry, and the use of literacy tests in claims to benefit clergy—it became clear that this scope needed to be curtailed in some fashion. This study, therefore, deals with the period from the late thirteenth to the earliest years of the fifteenth century. This limitation is based, first, on my desire to connect the issues of this study to fourteenth-century vernacular writers, chiefly Chaucer and Langland. Second, the first half of the fifteenth century offers complexities that require more sustained treatment, such as the promulgation of Arundel's Constitutions, along with other anti-Lollard initiates, and Henry V's founding of the monasteries of Syon and Sheen, which became major centers of textual production as well as "powerhouses of prayer." This book, therefore, should be considered the first part of a larger project.

This book has been long in the making. More people have helped than I could ever possibly acknowledge. I have benefited greatly from helpful conversations with Henry Abelove, Katy Breen, Celia Chavez, Giles Constable, Bruce Holsinger, David Lurie, Marie Anne Polo de Beaulieu, Masha Raskolnikov, Michael Roberts, Martha Rust, Emily Steiner, Fiona Somerset, Zrinka Stahuljak, Robert Swanson, Jelena Trkulja, Steven Vanderputten, John Vincent, Heinrich von Staden, Katy Vulic, and Laura Weigert, who helped me with the articulation of ideas and readings or translations of particular texts. I am indebted to Michael Clanchy, Ralph Hanna, Jerry Singerman, and Nicholas Watson for the advice and encouragement they offered at critical points in the drafting of the manuscript as well as to the Institute for Advanced Study, whose Friends Membership provided me with the financial, scholarly, and moral support to complete the manuscript. Caroline Bynum, Marianne Constable, Jo Ann Moran Cruz, Indira Karamcheti, Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Bob Longsworth, and Khachig Tololyan were all gracious enough to read parts of the manuscript at various stages, offering helpful criticism and comments. Special thanks go to Allan Isaac and especially to Elizabeth Schirmer, who both went far above and beyond the call as collegial sounding boards, interlocutors, and readers. Finally, this book would never have come to fruition were it not for the enduring assistance of Steven Justice and Anne Middleton, who did all of the above and much more. This book is dedicated to my parents, William and Mary Jo Zieman, who supported me throughout the process, and to the memory of Robert Brentano, a wonderful scholar and teacher who first taught me what documents were.

Katherine Zieman teaches English at the University of Notre Dame.