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From Literacy to Literature: Elementary Learning and the Middle English Poet

From Literacy to Literature: Elementary Learning and the Middle English Poet

Literary practice is more deeply shaped by basic literacy training than we have noticed. The recitation of rhyming language precedes the acquisition of reading and writing (in the form often called the ‘abc’s’). The consequences of this hysteron proteron were particularly influential for English writers of the late fourteenth century, since the constant movement out of Latin into English in elementary education, in daily translation exercises, but also as the English-speaking poet learned Latin, made Ricardian poets – and Chaucer, L and Gower in particular – acutely and newly aware that English had a grammar. The result is what can be described as an Age of Grammaticalization. The defining characteristics of this period’s style are, first, the elevation of grammar to a formal principle, so that key moments and even large sections of a major poems are shaped according to grammar’s terms and relations, and, second, the absorption of grammar-school exercises to poetry, so that the movement into Latin from English and vice-versa not only may define a whole poetic texture (as in PPl and the Confessio Amantis) but may be thematized to carry the most important meanings of a whole poem (as in Chaucer’s ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’). An examination of the relationship between such basic literacy training and literature in the fourteenth century makes it possible to think about the longer history of literacy’s role in the production of what we consider to be literature and literary culture.


PMLA, 129:3 (2014), 349-64


Cannon, Christopher