Making the Jump from Critical Methods to Interpreting Medieval Literature

        To begin interpreting literature from an unfamiliar culture, think about the texts of these stories as "symptoms" of the social and political anxieties of their audiences and authors.  What do the problems motivating the action tell you about what these people worry about?  How do the resolutions offered by the texts suggest the hopes and fears  and wish-fulfillments that animate them?  If "psychoanalytic" reading seems too strange, try Marx--what do these people value and how do they express those values?  What kinds of things and behaviors indicate high status, i.e., high "sign-exchange value" if you remember your English 215?  Or try New Criticism.  Can you see, at least in the Middle English texts, the authors using poetic techniques (metaphor, simile, thematic images, etc.) to resolve "tensions" in the plot to produce a resolution in irony, paradox, or ambiguity such that the poem yields some kind of deeper truth about its subject?  But if you do use NC close-reading, remember that you must read the passages in Middle English out loud in order to detect the vocal possibilities which reveal irony, paradox, ambiguity, or humor.

        Because audiences for older narratives tended to prefer familiar plot and character types, Structuralism can be especially powerful as an interpretive tool.  Look for repeating patterns of action, and characters fulfilling functions similar to those found in the folk tales analyzed by Vladimir Propp and Stith Thompson.  Especially when reading a collection of similar narratives, look for an emerging "myth" that they all may be retelling, following the structuralist anthropology of Levi-Strauss.  Click here for some Structuralist approaches to the breton lais.

        Reception theory, closely allied with the Reader-Response theory studied in 215, offers tools for tracing the cultural evolution of a narrative told in more than one era.  Retellers of tales face interesting choices whether to "follow their authors" or to innovate, adapting the tale to make it more appealing or just more understandable to the contemporary audience.  Such adaptations are crucial clues to changes in the mentalities of people in different eras of a culture.  Think of changes closer in time to our own era--how would retellings of nineteenth-century orphan-hero narratives like DeFoe's Moll Flanders, Burney's Evelina, or Dickens' David Copperfield, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist be changed by an author working in a Post-Modern culture?  The Middle English author retelling Marie de France's breton lais, or the earlier Middle English "Gawain-Romances," similarly has adaptive choices to make which leave traces of cultural movement on the narrative, what Paul Zumthor called "mouvance."  Click here for some ways to use the evidence of those adaptations to analyze literature as evidence of cultural change and culture as a shaping force upon the literary work.

        Cultural Criticism, especially the semiotic analysis of visual and verbal culture practiced by Barthes, Culler, Scholes, and others, offers perhaps the most powerful critical strategy of all.  Read the literature as an expression of the authors' and audiences' inner worlds, their "umwelt" or "mentalité."  "Characters," like Roland Barthes' studio wrestlers, enact dramatic roles for writer and reader, playing out fantasies of power, injury, vengeance, forgiveness, and triumph.  "Settings," like the pages of a glossy French cooking magazine or a Medieval noble's great hall, are coded with places and ceremonies that enable those dramatic roles to be expressed.  Because literature always is a re-presentation of life, or some imaginative transformation of life, its status is inherently theatrical and expressive of social/psychological anxieties and desires.  Click here for a discussion of "umwelt" and "mentalité" as critical approaches to interpreting Medieval literature.