Theses Doctoral

Revisionary Retelling: The Metapoetics of Authorship in Medieval England

Barlow, Gania

When Geoffrey Chaucer depicts characters debating the flaws of his works in The Legend of Good Women, or when Marie de France tells histories of literary transmission to frame her Lais, these authors are writing what I describe as metapoetic narratives. By "metapoetic" I mean that their works are in part about the making of poetry, commenting on the authors' poetic activity and creative processes from within. My dissertation, "Revisionary Retelling: The Metapoetics of Authorship in Medieval England," examines how this self-conscious mode of writing enables certain vernacular authors to reflect on their positions as retellers of well-known narratives and established literary traditions. I argue that such self-reflection is central to the efflorescence of vernacular literatures in medieval England.
In the last few decades, scholars have called into question the idea that the Middle Ages valued only established literary authority and had no interest in originality, with recent critics noting how medieval authors do make conscious use of the interpretive and distorting possibilities of translation and retelling. Although this line of criticism has been revolutionary, it still tends to view literary authority as inherently limited, so that newer authors must remain entirely subordinate to their sources or seek to replace them. This dynamic of limited authority would seem to be intensified for Anglo-Norman or Middle English retellers; long-standing scholarly narratives have similarly cast the English vernacular languages as competing for linguistic authority with Latin and French. "Revisionary Retelling" challenges these understandings of vernacular creativity by bringing to light the alternative conceptions of authorship and literary authority being invented and explored by writers working in both Anglo-Norman and Middle English. Rather than simply accepting or rejecting a subordinate status, authors such as Marie de France, the Orfeo poet, Thomas Chestre, Geoffrey Chaucer, and John Lydgate take a revisionary view of the challenges inherent to translation and retelling: challenges such as intertextual dependencies, interpretive distortions, and the recombination of traditions. In their metapoetic narratives, these writers theorize authorship and literary authority by dramatizing those types of literary challenges, as well as their processes of revision more broadly. As these authors tell stories about the possibilities and problems of vernacular retelling, they simultaneously imagine and enact a type of authorship--and a type of authority--based in creative revision.
The first chapter traces this metapoetic mode back to Marie de France's Anglo-Norman Lais, arguing that Marie offers a vision of authorship as an ongoing, trans-historic process of collaborative interpretation. Chapter Two examines how later Middle English lay authors consciously use their second-class status in relation to the French lays to leverage themselves into a position of critical distance from the traditions on which they draw. The third chapter argues that Chaucer willfully depicts his own canon as dependent and unstable in his catalogues of his works, and thereby takes ownership of the challenges of vernacular authorship and invents himself as an authoritative Middle English writer. In my fourth chapter, I suggest that the proliferation of literary authorities in John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, which might seem to constrain and subjectify the text, counter-intuitively asserts the equal value of writing across languages, time, and retellings. Together, these four chapters demonstrate the rich complexity of medieval critical retelling and the power of retold narratives to creatively revise not just their sources, but also literary history itself.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Crane, Susan
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 7, 2014