“Take Writing”: News, Information, and Documentary Culture in Late Medieval England
By Hyunyang Kim Lim
PhD Dissertation, University of Maryland, 2006
Abstract: This dissertation analyzes late medieval English texts in order to understand how they respond to the anxieties of a society experiencing the growing passion for news and the development of documentary culture. The author’s reading of the Paston letters, Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale, and the Digby Mary Magdalene demonstrate these texts’ common emergence in an environment preoccupied with the production and reception of documents. The discussion pays particular attention to actual and fictional letters in these texts since the intersection of two cultural forces finds expression in the proliferation of letters. As a written method of conveying and storing public information, the letters examined in this dissertation take on importance as documents. The author argues that the letters question the status of writing destabilized by the contemporary abuse of written documents. The dissertation offers a view of late medieval documentary culture in connection with early modern print culture and the growth of public media. The Introduction examines contemporary historical records and documents as a social context for the production of late medieval texts.
Chapter 1 demonstrates that transmitting information about current affairs is one of the major concerns of the Pastons. The chapter argues that late medieval personal letters show an investment in documentary culture and prepared for the burgeoning of the bourgeois reading public. Whereas Chapter 1 discusses “real” letters, Chapter 2 and 3 focus on fictional letters. Comparing Donegild’s counterfeit letters in The Man of Law’s Tale and the Duke of Gloucester’s confession (1391), Chapter 2 discusses the impact of documentary culture on the characterization of the narrator. The chapter argues that The Man of Law’s Tale communicates Chaucer’s reservations about the reliability of written documents.
Chapter 3 explores medieval dramatic representation of ideological resistance to documentary culture and the government’s dependence on textual authority. Focusing on the problem of disinformation in the Digby Mary Magdalene, the chapter discusses how developments in late medieval documentary culture are mobilized to demonstrate that the visual dimensions of theater give access to spiritual truths with a kind of immediacy, which the written document cannot provide.