Behind the Book with Stephen M. Yeager

From Lawmen to PlowmenStephen M. Yeager is the author of From Lawmen to Plowmen: Anglo-Saxon Legal Tradition and the School of Langland. In From Lawmen to Plowmen, Stephen M. Yeager offers a fresh, insightful explanation for the alliterative structure of William Langland’s Piers Plowman and the flourishing of alliterative verse satires in late medieval England by observing the similarities between these satires and the legal-homiletical literature of the Anglo-Saxon era.

How did you become involved in your area of research?
As a reader I’ve always loved formal experimentation, from the provocations of avant-garde literature to the more familiar surprises of genre-bending commercial fiction. I was drawn to medieval studies as a researcher because I was fascinated by the ability of medieval literature to consistently confound my expectations about what texts are likely to do. There’s something especially exciting about being pushed to examine your notions of “literature” itself by writers like Wulfstan and Langland, who seem to act as if their highly unusual texts are nothing but conventional articulations of common sense. As exciting as formal experiments can be, it’s even more exciting to go back to the beginning, and see where the conventions came from.

What inspired you to write this book?

I started my research with a fairly basic question: if alliterative verse in the fourteenth century is a sign of conscious archaism, as some scholars have argued about alliterative romances like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, then why is Piers Plowman alliterative? Nothing about this highly political, satirical text seems particularly archaic; so what does the choice of this unusual verse form for Piers Plowman tell us about that text? By the same token, what does the text tell us about alliterative verse?

When I began to look at the evidence, I quickly found that the most obvious precedents for political, alliterative writing in the earlier English corpus were not poems and romances, but homiletic law codes and legal documents. These legal, historical texts had continued to circulate throughout the later Middle Ages, influencing vernacular works in multiple genres along the way. Hence if I was going to answer my question about the Piers Plowman tradition, I was going to have to rethink the continuity in English writing from the Conquest to the fourteenth century, expanding the field to think about the broader formal overlaps between early English legal documents and poems, found for example in intermediate genres like chronicle and homily.

Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
It’s been said somewhere that every book is an autobiography, no matter the subject, and I think there’s some truth to that statement. For that reason, I can only envision very long and very short answers to this question. I’ll stick with a short one: I learned that the image of the poet Laȝamon in the manuscript London BL Caligula A.ix, appearing on the cover for the book, is the earliest known portrait of an English language author.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?
There comes a moment in the writing process where you have to stop thinking so hard. Instead of challenging yourself and pushing your conclusions further, you have to go back over the conclusions you already have, to make sure that the arguments that lead to them are organized well enough for a reader besides yourself to understand them.

Of course, revisions are not particularly difficult in their own right—indeed, they often come with their own quiet pleasures. The difficulty for me was in the transition from researching to revising. Going over my work, I saw all of the roads for further research it had opened up, and it took a lot of effort to hold myself back from pursuing them.

What are your current/future projects?
I’m following up on a few points in the conclusion to From Lawmen to Plowmen, to think about Chaucer’s memories of Anglo-Saxon England in The Canterbury Tales. Or course Chaucer doesn’t say much about the Anglo-Saxons, but the few mentions in the Tales do have a striking tendency to appear at moments of rupture and authorial self-representation. People have written a great deal about Chaucer’s self-conception as a vernacular poet in relation to earlier English romances; but what about his relationship to earlier English legal texts and documents, many of which were still being copied and circulated in the fourteenth century?

What do you like to read for pleasure? What are you currently reading?
My main criteria for picking a book is that it be as different as possible from the book I previously read. Besides literary fiction I enjoy science fiction, book-length journalism, and the occasional thriller; but I’m a short sales-pitch away from trying anything.

Right now I’m reading a novel called The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, primarily for pleasure but also for work. The novel was long-listed for the Booker prize in 2014, and it tells the story of a man who leads a group of guerrilla fighters against the Normans in the immediate aftermath of 1066. The most striking thing about the book is its use of a kind of hybrid Old/Modern English dialect, which the author calls a “shadow tongue.” The book uses this dialect to great effect, and it gives us a portrait of a world that is both convincingly medieval and recognizably, troublingly contemporary.


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