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Wyth her owen handys: What Women’s Literacy Can Teach Us about Langland and Chaucer

Wyth her owen handys: What Women’s Literacy Can Teach Us about Langland and Chaucer

Early in her book, Margery Kempe describes how ‘sum proferyd hir to wrytyn hyr feelings wyth her owen handys’; she refuses, having been commanded in her soul that ‘sche schuld not wrytyn so soone’. This scene, where Kempe imagines writing her own book, seems difficult to reconcile with the passages where she talks about her different scribes, but perhaps she understood dictation to a secretary as a means of writing ‘wyth her owen handys’. Cannon traces the history of composition by dictation, noting, for example, the process by which lectures and sermons were taken down as reportationes, and then corrected by the original speaker. Kempe describes a process like this, listening as her secretary reads her book back to her, and ‘helpyng where ony difficulte was’. This is a kind of literacy that was ‘distributed between two persons’ (p. 286). Cannon proposes that Chaucer and L first transmitted their texts to scribes by oral dictation, in a similar way to Kempe. Burrow and Turville-Petre account for the differences between alpha and beta readings of PPl B by arguing that the scribes made ‘heavy weather’ of a disorderly textual situation, working with various additions in the margins and on loose leaves, but without L’s direct supervision. Cannon argues, however, that the differences between these hypothesized versions are ‘not so much scribal as compositional, with alpha and beta looking for all the world like different Langlandian performances of Piers Plowman‘; they are ‘exactly what we would expect should a poet have made minor revisions as he dictated one version of his poem while looking at another, or simply forgot some lines, or added a few, when dictating from memory’ (p. 292).


Essays in Criticism, 66.3 (2016), 277–300.


Cannon, Christopher