Title Background

<i>Quoting Speech in Early English</i>

Quoting Speech in Early English

Before quotation marks became a widespread convention, English texts were organized more fluidly, employing varying lexical and textual strategies for marking represented discourse. When we add our present-day quotation marks to editions of Middle English texts, then, we also overlay our modern hermeneutics of speech representation, with its expectations of faithful reporting and carefully delineated voices. In doing so, we mask the less-determined nature of early speech marking, and obscure the ways that its plasticity functions as a narrative and stylistic tool. Quoting Speech in Early English provides the first full study of speech representation in late medieval English, and it puts the results of this study into their cultural and literary context by examining perspectives on faithfulness in quotation and by providing new readings of the works of WL, Chaucer, and the Gawain-poet.

The first section, ‘Methods of marking speech’, provides a study of speech presentation in early English. It examines manuscripts and early print texts to document the varying practices employed by scribes and sixteenth-century compositors to indicate reported speech. Before the introduction of punctuational methods of marking voices in the narrative, premodern texts marked speech through a combination of scribal methods (ink color, marginal notes) and intratextual methods (verbs of speaking, vocatives, interjections, shifting of pronouns or verb tenses). This study examines particular passages from the MSS of PPl and Nicholas Love’s Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ to provide a window into different scribal methods for marking and organizing reported speech. The case study of the PPl MSS shows the proliferation of organizing strategies used by scribes: the variation in line spacing, ink color, abbreviations and notae that all visually order the levels of discourse to indicate auctoritas and changes in speaker. This section next employs data from the Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse to argue that in the absence of a consistent means of marking reported speech through punctuation, the verbs of speaking (such as seien or quethen) functioned more grammatically in early texts than they do in contemporary written English, and played a greater role in discourse organization.

The second section, ‘Interpreting reported speech: defamation depositions, sermons, chronicles’, examines the ways that late medieval English methods of speech marking influenced the cultural conceptions of quotation. Since reported speech passages were marked in less-determined ways than they are in modern texts, these methods constitute a different system – or, more properly, many systems – of speech marking with less-pronounced divisions between speech reporting and narrative, and a less-pronounced assumption that an expression of direct speech constitutes a verbatim report. This chapter examines notions of faithfulness in speech reporting through three studies: a sample of slander depositions (up to 1600), a sample of late medieval sermons, and a sample of late medieval English chronicles. The samples indicate that the premodern conception of faithfulness in speech representation contrasts with the present understanding owing to differing pragmatic constraints upon the presentation of speech. A verbatimness ideal is one factor which influences the speech presentation, but other pragmatic factors militate against verbatimness in each genre.

The third section, ‘Reported speech in literary texts: stylistic implications’, builds upon the results of the study of speech marking and the investigation of conceptions of quotation to show how late medieval authors used the plasticity and indeterminacy of speech marking with literary effects. For PPl, the marking of speech passages in the manuscripts has often been a matter for editorial uncertainty, as we see in famous editorial quandaries such the length and onset of Rechelesnesse’s speech in the C text or the speaker for the ending of the A text. Speech marking methods are particularly relevant for a text like PPl, characterized as it is by extended monologues with no manuscript punctuation to remind readers of the speaker. These indeterminacies of speaker have ideological and interpretational significance, and the fluidity in speech marking can have a sermonic and pedagogical aspect as the voices of the characters blur with the voice of the narrator, and the voices of Will’s guides become Will’s own voice. This section of the book provides new readings of critical cruxes in the works of Chaucer, L, and the Gawain-poet and discusses the ways that overlaying our modern punctuation onto Middle English texts forecloses both the fluid speech marking of late Middle English and its attendant hermeneutic assumptions about the nature of representing speech and narration.

Studying the pragmatic and discourse organizing strategies of English texts from 1350-1600 is essential to reading ME works and to understanding the cultural assumptions implicit in the production of early written texts. This book joins linguistic and literary methodology to consider the ways that ME MSS distinguish represented speech from narrative and to consider the implications of early methods of speech marking for our reading and editing of ME texts. (CM)

Rev. by Merja Stenroos, YLS, 26 (2012), 292-96.


Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011


Moore, Colette