The Use of English and the Public Sphere, c.1300 to c.1500

(Convenors: Dr Ian Forrest, Dr Benjamin Thompson, and Dr John Watts)

From early in the fourteenth century, the English vernacular became an increasingly important medium of public expression. It was richly, if variously, conceptualised – as the vehicle of national identity, as the rough language of ‘lewed folk’, or as the ‘common vois’ of the realm – and it was growing in vocabulary, in uniformity and in the range of written and spoken forms in which it could be used. By the end of the century, a supple literary English had been developed to rival Italian and French, ways of using English to express religious teaching had been found and exploited, and a formalised Chancery English, for use in the communications of government, was about to emerge. Skills of reading and writing were becoming more widespread in society, consciousness of the power of public writing was almost universal and awareness of the rhetorical possibilities and socio-political implications of the new vernacular was spreading. These developments were full of importance for the public aspects of contemporary life. While Habermas’ notion of a ‘public sphere’ raises a cloud of problems for medieval historians, most of us would accept that in these centuries, some kind of ‘public’ existed, and that the English vernacular rapidly became one of its most important and legitimate media. This course aims to explore the implications of that central cultural, social and political development. Although its importance has long been recognised by scholars of Middle English literature, it is a relatively new area of concern for the mainstream historians of the period, and one which opens up new possibilities for the understanding of later medieval political culture, religion and social interaction. Among the issues to be explored in the seminars for this course will be:

• The meaning and measuring of literacy
• The ‘public’ as concept and reality
• The conceptualisation of the vernacular and its significance
• Literary English and social English (perhaps involving some thinking about the relationship between historical and literary approaches to the ‘rise of English’)
• The use of French and Latin in a vernacular age
• The circulation of written materials (manuscripts and the book trade)
• ‘Lollardy and Literacy’: religious instruction in the vernacular
• Bills, libels and pamphlets: vernacular politics
• The vernacular transmission of notions of society
• A new paradigm: problems of methodology and integration with mainstream understanding.

Preparatory reading                     Sessions outline                    Bibliography                   Sample exam questions