Title Background

<i>Imagining an English Reading Public 1100-1400</i>, 1100-1400</i>

Imagining an English Reading Public 1100-1400, 1100-1400

This book argues that the translation of reading habits, rather than the translation of textual content, lies at the heart of controversies about late medieval vernacular writing. While modern colloquial usage of habit implies mindless repetition, and Bourdieu’s sociological studies posit habitus as an unconscious state to which one must ‘awaken’, the Middle Ages defined habitus as a tool for achieving rationally considered goals that would otherwise be out of reach. Such habitus was paradigmatically transmitted in the grammar classroom, where the interplay of governance and subordination in each speech-act initiated the schoolboy into a normatively ordered community. Increasingly, however, thirteenth- and fourteenth-century writers sought to formulate vernacular languages capable of extending some of these benefits to non-Latinate readers. Using all of the tools at their disposal, from orthography to mise-en-page to self-consciously literary language, these writers sought to define new, universally accessible forms of habitus, and at the same time to inculcate that habitus in their readers through the process of reading itself. In doing so, they provided the crucial conceptual framework that enabled the development of a vernacular reading public. The book’s final chapter, ‘PPl and the Formation of an English Literary Habitus‘, argues that L, faced with the unwelcome interpretation of his text by the 1381 rebels, addressed the habituation of his audience as a pressing problem. In revising the B text, L sought to define a class of authorized vernacular readers by expanding and systematizing his treatment of existing alternatives to the initiatory habitus of Latin grammar, chiefly English grammar (in the C-text grammatical metaphor) and penitential pilgrimage (in the confession of the Deadly Sins and the folk’s quest for satisfaction). This two-tiered system of vernacular readership does not, however, satisfy the moral imperative to make habitus, as perhaps the paramount tool for achieving stable Christian virtue, universally available. As PPl moves from Visio to Vita, then, these paradigms give way to the search for an inclusive and specifically literary vernacular habitus, the stakes of which are encapsulated by the predicaments of Haukyn the Active Man and Activa Vita. In the process, the Vita marks the coming-of-age of vernacular habitus in England more generally, providing a forum for instruction and exploration as well as a form in which vernacular habitus can reach a genuine reading public. (KB)

Rev. by: 
  • Denise L. Despres, Review of English Studies, 62 (2011), 468-70; 
  • Liv Robinson, Notes & Queries, 58 (2011), 608-09; 
  • Emily Steiner, Studies in the Age of Chaucer, 33 (2011), 300-02
  • Michael Johnston, Medium Ævum, 81 (2012), 150-52;
  • Richard J. Moll, The Medieval Review, 12.06.38 (http://hdl.handle.net/2022/14573);
  • Stephanie Hollis, Parergon, 29.1 (2012), 197-99;
  • Andrew Cole, Speculum, 87 (2012), 1163-64.


(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).


Breen, Katharine