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Early Non-Clerical Reading Practices in Britain

Annika Pattenaude
’s (English) dissertation explores reading strategies that depart from the conventional, formal practices of clerics in premodern culture. This “amateur reading” project focuses on writers and texts of the fifteenth century when literacy, literary technologies, and access to literature were expanding exponentially. Annika approaches her topic from the perspective of affect studies, a field that encompasses the emotional and phenomenological experience of reading, to ask: How did “amateur” readers learn to interpret literature? What heterogeneous meanings could be derived from texts of the era and how can understanding the lay demographic give a more complete picture of the development of literary culture into the Renaissance?

She turned to primers, fables, moral narratives and ballads since these would have been more readily available to non-clerical audiences. Annika is exploring how the form and media of the texts provide clues to how they were being read. Her research took her to the British Library, Bodleian Library, and National Library of Scotland.

This trip focused on two chapters. First is the heterogeneous reading practices around medieval fables, a simple genre used to teach young students to read. These were recorded and circulated in diverse formats that could invite disparate reading practices: some formally mark the start of each new story, while others separate the moral and the story, and still others run together the narratives and moral lessons. Some texts are illustrated or illuminated; some are quite plain. Some even interweave fables with non-fable stories. These differences suggest that a genre regarded as straightforward reading instruction actually invited a variety of interpretations.

The second focus was the work of John Skelton, which circulated in both manuscript and print form in the fifteenth century. Skelton’s poems take multiple forms – in manuscripts surrounded by glosses and envoys or printed in neat rectangular stanzas – and the same poem might appear in various formats. Annika’s research explored how these different formats might have accommodated different readerships. Do the various print versions anticipate a wider lay audience? What is the upshot of print versions that simplify the sprawling multilingualism of the manuscript form? These questions will help shape her investigation of the relationship between amateur readers represented in Skelton’s poetry and the actual fifteenth-century readers who encountered his work.