Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 May 2015
To take a spatial approach to the study of medieval texts is to emphasize the importance of reading texts in place; a critical practice of context-driven interpretation which places an interpretive weight upon the geography of the place in which a text is consumed, producing what one might call an emplaced reading of a given text. This chapter is an experiment in just such a practice of reading: an attempt to reconstruct what a particular narrative may have meant to a community of readers in a particular place at a particular time. What I am interested in attempting here is to consider how the material context of a place might affect the reading of a text. How might the physical urban landscape of early fifteenth-century London provide a hermeneutic frame for understanding the urban reading contexts of the Middle English narratives of St Erkenwald, The Siege of Jerusalem, and Titus and Vespasian?
A Literary City: Writing London, Reading London
Just as the book was made by the city – using London's scribes, craftsmen, and inter-regional networks – so the city is made by the book.
In this chapter I examine late-medieval London, home of a burgeoning audience for Middle English popular literature, and a resonant site of anxieties surrounding geographically-defined notions of English identity. London is a complex site of identity negotiation within the developing national fantasy of Englishness: the porous nature of the cosmopolitan port-city as a liminal contact-zone, contaminated by contact with and the presence of the other in the form of merchants and other foreign contaminants, whether human or as material commodities. The problematic nature of the heterogeneous medieval city was such that civic authorities regularly sought to regulate the nature of the urban populace. Here I wish to interrogate the role that popular narrative may have played in the construction of a fantasy of a homogeneous urban Englishness in late-medieval London, both through acts of writing and through acts of reading.