Cornell University Press

Noise and Knowing in Late Medieval England

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Late medieval England was an age of ferment and noise: popular revolts protesting labor laws and restrictions on wages exploded across the country; the theologian John Wyclif and his Wycliffite followers, also called lollards, were increasingly vocal in expressing their sense of the injustices and spiritual impoverishment of the institutional church; an efflorescence of lay piety and writing in the vernacular sought to distribute knowledge and the authority that came with it outside of church hierarchy. World of Echo: Noise and Knowing in Late Medieval England examines this clamorous moment—not unlike our own today—attuning itself to noise and voice in order to probe how we have historically encountered ways being and knowing at the margins of our understanding. 

World of Echo shows how medieval thinkers conceived of a range of sensoria and voice—including extrasemantic experience and expression—in terms of noise. In doing so, it attends not only to what we would call noise today but also amplifies how language and other signified sound could—and can—be experienced as noise, outside of precise signifying representation or meaning. While the Middle English word “noise” and related terms could have many of the negative connotations of pollution and disorder it has today, they also had positive associations. As a noun, “noise” denoted both unpleasant discordant sounds and also pleasant sound or music. The Middle English lexicon of noise was deployed in two directions. Those with institutional and educational power often used it to dismiss the voices of those without power: women, the poor, etc. In these formulations, those without the “correct” knowledge or understanding were like animals, attending to sounds rather than doctrine and expressing their knowledge with bawling, bellows, grunts, and more. 

World of Echo shows how medieval thinkers conceived of a range of sensoria and voice—including extrasemantic experience and expression—in terms of noise.

At the same time, as the medieval authors at the center of this book show, noise was also means of exploring other ways of knowing and being based not in rational understanding but in what we would now call an aesthetic experience of language: a mode of perception attuned to sounds and textures, and to the proliferation of significance that such experience creates. The mystics Richard Rolle and Margery Kempe both trace a kind of “echoic mysticism” through which each cultivates knowledge of divine and neighborly love through an immersive experience of heavenly sound echoed back in the mystic’s own voice. William Langland’s “poetics of lolling” offers a means of attunement to the ways that sounds of language can multiply its sense, opening space for slow and recursive habits of thought that amplify interpretive significance. Chaucer’s early dream vision, The House of Fame, in which immersion in what medieval grammarians called the vox confusa—the “confused voice” they associated with objects, animals, and women—offer a key means of invigorating the poetic voice of the dreamer. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s half-deaf Wife of Bath, with her exuberant “jangling” voice, traces a form of experiential lay literacy alternative to the violence of clerical authority. Though these authors inherit long-standing anxieties about noise, all of them take seriously lay noisemaking and the knowledge it produces.

At the same time, as the medieval authors at the center of this book show, noise was also means of exploring other ways of knowing and being based not in rational understanding but in what we would now call an aesthetic experience of language: a mode of perception attuned to sounds and textures, and to the proliferation of significance that such experience creates.

In 2020, the ways we talk about achieving social justice tend to focus on representation, insisting, for example, that we broaden the range of identities for the voices who get to speak, and so represent a fuller range of perspectives and experiences; or that we name the people who have suffered and died from the brutality of police, thus representing the people who have been tragically invisible. These impulses and actions speak vital truths that too often are silenced. Yet, as the world of echo of the Middle Ages reminds us, there are uses of language outside of or beneath direct representation that also matter: such an orientation may well help us to know and to feel others if we listen to their noise.

*Featured photo by Gary Butterfield.

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Adin E. Lears is Assistant Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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