Title Background

<i>The Book of the Incipit: Beginnings in the Fourteenth Century</i>

The Book of the Incipit: Beginnings in the Fourteenth Century

In looking at the successive attempts of PPl to begin, and to keep beginning, to begin dreaming again and again, this book reverses the way the poem’s teleology and structure have been understood for the last thirty years, since Morton Bloomfield in 1962 argued for the poem’s deeply apocalyptic concerns by focusing on the poem’s most obvious, and puzzling, feature: its reiterated beginnings, and its apparent and deep concern with the politics, ethics, and theology of beginning. It argues that the poem’s very perplexity of form, its difficulty with beginning, is a problem that reaches deep into the heart of a number of discursive practices, that the problem of beginning was invested with increasing urgency in the fourteenth century, imagined and grappled with in the court, the church, the university, the workshops, the fields, and the streets of fourteenth-century England. Arguing that readers should understand both medieval and contemporary beginning as far more than formal exercises or rhetorical problems, but rather as the constitution of our very lives, this book shows how a poem profoundly concerned with beginning must imagine it in terms beyond or prior to the rhetorical-from the incipit itself to the titulus, the principium, the artes praedicandi, the artes dictaminis, genealogy, historiography, logic, and physics. The medieval practice of beginning involves the far more urgent and pervasive one of how to make a beginning-any beginning-in the real world. L’s poem exemplifies a widespread interest in beginning in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, interests that appear, as the book demonstrates, in such divergent fields as the physics of motion, the measurement of time, logic, grammar, rhetoric, theology, book production, insurrection. The rebeginnings of the poem in its successive versions, the book also demonstrates, inform and are informed by the social and political uses of beginning in 1381 and 1388. The poem resists both a formal articulation of social action and the easy equation of beginning with form as a kind of ideological bad faith, a surrogate for action and responsibility. The poem’s absorption with beginning allows it to interrogate the philosophical and political instability of forms, and, more importantly, to imagine alternatives to the oppressions, the determinisms, of form. This book offers a theoretical, predominantly phenomenological, understanding of beginning that departs from both the formalisms of Edward Said and A. D. Nuttall and most medievalist and modernist treatments of closure (Rosemarie McGerr and Frank Kermode), conceptualizing, following Husserl, Heidegger, Arendt, Deleuze, and Blanchot, a work’s beginning as a figure of the beginning of work itself, the inception of language as the problem of beginning to which we continue to return. [DVS]

Rev. Christine Chism. YLS 16 (2002): 186–90; Edward Wheatley. MÆ 71.2 (2002): 331–32; Ralph Hanna. Speculum 77.4 (2002): 1398–99; Mí?eál Vaughan, Journal of English and Germanic Philology 102.1 (2003): 143–46.


Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.


Smith, D. Vance