Faculty Bookshelf: Fiona Somerset

Books by Fiona Somerset

A Companion to Lollardy Book Cover

A Companion to Lollardy (Brill, 2016). With J. Patrick Hornbeck II and Mishtooni Bose.

The last twenty-five years have seen an explosion of scholarly studies on lollardy, the late medieval religious phenomenon that has often been credited with inspiring the English Reformation. In A Companion to Lollardy, Patrick Hornbeck sums up what we know about lollardy and what have been its fortunes in the hands of its most recent chroniclers. This volume describes trends in the study of lollardy and explores the many individuals, practices, texts, and beliefs that have been called lollard.

Joined by Mishtooni Bose and Fiona Somerset, Hornbeck assesses how scholars and polemicists, literary critics and ecclesiastics have defined lollardy and evaluated its significance, showing how lollardy has served as a window on religion, culture, and society in late medieval England.

truth and tales

Truth and Tales: Cultural Mobility and Medieval Media (Ohio State University Press, 2015). Editor, with Nicholas Watson.

In the medieval period, as in the media culture of the present, learned and popular forms of talk were intermingled everywhere. They were also highly mobile, circulating in speech, writing, and symbol, as performances as well as in material objects. The communication through and between different media we all negotiate in daily life did not develop from a previous separation of orality and writing, but from a communications network not unlike our own, if slower, and similarly shaped by disparities of access. Truth and Tales develops a variety of approaches to the labor of imaginatively reconstructing this network from its extant artifacts.

This collection includes fourteen essays by medieval literary scholars and historians. Some essays focus on written artifacts that convey high or popular learning in unexpected ways. Others address a social problem of concern to all, demonstrating the genres and media through which it was negotiated. Still others are centered on one or more texts, detailing their investments in popular as well as learned knowledge, in performance as well as writing. This collective archaeology of medieval media provides fresh insight for medieval scholars and media theorists alike.

feeling like saints

Feeling Like Saints: Lollard Writings After Wyclif (Cornell University Press, 2014)

“Lollard” is the name given to followers of John Wyclif, the English dissident theologian who was dismissed from Oxford University in 1381 for his arguments regarding the eucharist. A forceful and influential critic of the ecclesiastical status quo in the late fourteenth century, Wyclif’s thought was condemned at the Council of Constance in 1415. While lollardy has attracted much attention in recent years, much of what we think we know about this English religious movement is based on records of heresy trials and anti-lollard chroniclers. In Feeling Like Saints, Fiona Somerset demonstrates that this approach has limitations. A better basis is the five hundred or so manuscript books from the period (1375–1530) containing materials translated, composed, or adapted by lollard writers themselves.

These writings provide rich evidence for how lollard writers collaborated with one another and with their readers to produce a distinctive religious identity based around structures of feeling. Lollards wanted to feel like saints. From Wyclif they drew an extraordinarily rigorous ethic of mutual responsibility that disregarded both social status and personal risk. They recalled their commitment to this ethic by reading narratives of physical suffering and vindication, metaphorically martyring themselves by inviting scorn for their zeal, and enclosing themselves in the virtues rather than the religious cloister. Yet in many ways they were not that different from their contemporaries, especially those with similar impulses to exceptional holiness.

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Wycliffite Spirituality (Classics of Western Spirituality) (Paulist Press, 2013). Editor and translator, with J. Patrick Hornbeck II and Stephen E. Lahey.

Both in its own time and subsequently, the Lollard or Wycliffite movement of religious reform in late medieval England has been described in predominantly negative terms: historians, theologians, and literary scholars have emphasized the ways in which Wycliffites and their supporters rejected the doctrines of the institutional church, argued against such practices and structures as permanent endowment and the papacy, and constructed themselves as a remnant of true Christians persecuted by Antichrist. Luckily, however, there are other sources of evidence for the spiritual and devotional practices of Wycliffites and their communities. On the one hand, some particularly attentive bishops preserved in their registers many otherwise inaccessible details of the ways in which heresy defendants practiced their faith. On the other hand, recent scholarship has made it indisputable that any serious study of this late medieval heresy must engage critically and extensively with the texts written by those condemned as heretics.

This new volume in the Classics of Western Spirituality series is a collection of modern English translations of Wycliffite texts and heresy trial records which disclose that, far from practicing a wholly negative Christianity, Wycliffites were as keenly interested in the spiritual life as many of their contemporaries. While Wycliffite spirituality, like that of many a persecuted Christian group, placed high value on the confession of faith and readiness to endure persecution or even martyrdom, they did not think of themselves as heretics who had rejected Christianity. Indeed, they engaged closely with contemporary pastoral and spiritual movements, and their attempts to provide an alternative spirituality were better developed and more coherent than scholarship has yet acknowledged.

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Four Wycliffite Dialogues (Oxford University Press, 2009)

A critical edition of four previously unpublished heretical dialogues in Middle English, translated or adapted from Wycliffite sources composed circa 1380-1420. These previously unpublished prose treatises, cast as fictional dialogues, all survive in the form of single manuscripts, probably by different authors, but they cohere in their ideological outlook, subject matter, and debate form. The Dialogue between Jon and Richard concerns the four orders of friars; the Dialogue between a Friar and a Secular claims to be the written record of an oral debate that took place before a Lord Duke of Gloucester, and invites the lord to judge the two disputants: the friar offers a series of tendentious propositions on salvation, sin, and mendicancy, rebutted by the secular priest. The Dialogue between Reson and Gabbyng is a free translation and adaptation of the first twelve chapters of Wyclif’s Dialogus (Speculum ecclesie militantis). The Dialogue between a Clerk and a Knight stages a conflict between papal and imperial, or regal, power, insisting on the rights of the king and his lords to remove the goods of corrupt clergy from England. These dialogues provide a comprehensive introduction to Wycliffite belief, and arguments on a range of controversial topics. The edition includes an introduction, detailed explanatory notes, and a glossary.

lollards and influence cover

Lollards and their Influence in Late Medieval England (Boydell and Brewer, 2003; paperback 2009). Editor, with Jill C. Havens and Derrick G. Pitard.

Who were the Lollards? What did Lollards believe? What can the manuscript record of Lollard works teach us about the textual dissemination of Lollard beliefs and the audience for Lollard writings? What did Lollards have in common with other reformist or dissident thinkers in late medieval England, and how were their views distinctive? These questions have been fundamental to the modern study of Lollardy (also known as Wycliffism). The essays in this book reveal their broader implications for the study of English literature and history through a series of closely focused studies that demonstrate the wide-ranging influence of Lollard writings and ideas on later medieval English culture. Introductions to previous scholarship, and an extensive bibliography of printed resources for the study of Wyclif and Wycliffites, provide an entry to scholarship for those new to the field.

Contributors: David Aers, Margaret Aston, Helen Barr, Mishtooni Bose, Lawrence M. Clopper, Andrew Cole, Ralph Hanna III, Anne Hudson, Maureen Jurkowski, Andrew Larsen, Geoffrey H. Martin, Derrick G. Pitard, Wendy Scase, Fiona Somerset, Emily Steiner.

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The Vulgar Tongue: Medieval and Postmedieval Vernacularity (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003). Editor, with Nicholas Watson.

Deeply embedded in the history of Latin Europe, the vernacular (“the language of slaves”) still draws us towards urgent issues of affiliation, identity, and cultural struggle. Vernacular politics in medieval Latin Europe were richly complex and the structures of thought and feeling they left behind permanently affected Western culture. The Vulgar Tongue explores the history of European vernacularity through more than a dozen studies of language situations from twelfth-century England and France to twentieth-century India and North America, and from the building of nations, empires, or ethnic communities to the politics of gender, class, or religion.

The essays in The Vulgar Tongue offer new vistas on the idea of the vernacular in contexts as diverse as Ramon Llull’s thirteenth-century prefiguration of universal grammar, the orthography of Early Middle English, the humanist struggle for linguistic purity in Early Modern Dutch, and the construction of standard Serbian and Romanian in the waning decades of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Here Latin, the “common tongue” of European intellectuals, is sometimes just another vernacular, Sanskrit and Hindi stake their claims as the languages of Shakespeare, African-American poetry is discovered in conversation with Middle English, and fourteenth-century Florence becomes the city, not of Dante and Boccaccio, but of the artisan poet Pucci. Delicate political messages are carried by nuances of French dialect, while the status of French and German as feminine “mother tongues” is fiercely refuted and as fiercely embraced. Clerics treat dialect, idiom, and gesture—not language itself—as the hallmarks of “vulgar” preaching, or else argue the case for Bible translation mainly in pursuit of their own academic freedom.

clerical discourse cover

Clerical Discourse and Lay Audience in Late Medieval England (Cambridge University Press, 1998, paperback 2005).

This book investigates how late medieval English writers who translated specialized academic knowledge from Latin into English often projected unprecedented sorts of lay audiences for their writing, and worried about the potential results of making the information they presented more widely available. The well-known concerns with clerical corruption and lay education of writers such as Langland, Trevisa, and Wyclif are linked to those of more obscure writers in both Latin and English, some only recently edited, or only extant in manuscript. Works discussed include the Upland series (Jack Upland, Friar Daw’s Reply, and Upland’s Rejoinder), the lollard Twelve Conclusions and Roger Dymmock’s Reply, and the Testimony of William Thorpe.

“Somerset’s book provides the tools to push vernacularity studies…to a higher level, to the kind of serious scholarship the topic still needs.” Speculum