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Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages

Ethics and the Mixed Form in Chaucer, Gower, Usk, and Hoccleve

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

Literary scholars often avoid the category of the aesthetic in discussions of ethics, believing that purely aesthetic judgments can vitiate analyses of a literary work’s sociopolitical heft and meaning. In Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages, Eleanor Johnson reveals that aesthetics—the formal aspects of literary language that make it sense-perceptible—are indeed inextricable from ethics in the writing of medieval literature.
Johnson brings a keen formalist eye to bear on the prosimetric form: the mixing of prose with lyrical poetry. This form descends from the writings of the sixth-century Christian philosopher Boethius—specifically his famous prison text, Consolation of Philosophy—to the late medieval English tradition. Johnson argues that Boethius’s text had a broad influence not simply on the thematic and philosophical content of subsequent literary writing, but also on the specific aesthetic construction of several vernacular traditions. She demonstrates the underlying prosimetric structures in a variety of Middle English texts—including Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and portions of the Canterbury Tales, Thomas Usk’s Testament of Love, John Gower’s Confessio amantis, and Thomas Hoccleve’s autobiographical poetry—and asks how particular formal choices work, how they resonate with medieval literary-theoretical ideas, and how particular poems and prose works mediate the tricky business of modeling ethical transformation for a readership.

264 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature

Medieval Studies


“A sophisticated , revealing study about the ethical imperative present in Middle English texts that are of a mixed form, specifically those works that are ‘prosimetric,’ containing a mixture of prose and verse. . . . Highly recommended.”

A. L. Kaufman, Auburn University at Montgomery | Choice

“An engaging and insightful study. Focusing primarily (but not exclusively) on foundational English authors Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, Thomas Usk, and Thomas Hoccleve, Johnson brings a careful formalist approach to medieval literary criticism that is ever mindful of the ethical dimensions of reading—not only for medieval audiences, but also for scholars in the present. . . . This multifaceted book is worth reading all the way through for its extraordinary and attentive close readings. . . . It invites readers to carefully consider how crafted literary works achieve their artistic effects, and it models forms of literary criticism that are both rewarding to the intellect and satisfying as aesthetic experience.”

Medieval Review

“Johnson is an absolutely brilliant close reader. . . . Provocative and generative, this book will rightly be read, taught, and discussed for years to come.”


"Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages is essential reading for medievalists with critical investments in the Boethian tradition, Middle English poetics, and New Formalism within medieval studies, not to mention all those working with the titular authors whose seminal texts provide the raw material for Johnson’s brilliant study. More technically, the book’s subtitled focus on the Mixed Form points toward the benefits of engaging with prose poetics as well as verse poetics, and will prove tremendously useful for scholars working with Middle English prose texts. Johnson shows persuasively that the literary theory of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England was a metapoetic mode that inhered within, and was produced in tandem with, formally experimental prometric protrepsis, not in discursive, literal explanation of specific theories and their workings."


"Offers fruitful readings that not only encourage new approaches to literary Boethianism but also restore the importance of form and aesthetics to an understanding of Gowerian ethics."

Gower Bibliography

“This lucid and insightful study offers a new way of thinking about the necessary relation of form and ethics in late-medieval writing. In Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages, Eleanor Johnson examines the mixed form—notably the combinations of verse and prose that constitute the prosimetrum—from Martianus Capella and Boethius to Chaucer, Usk, Gower, and Hoccleve. For these authors, experiments in form become an active site for ethical engagement, and for mirroring a narrator’s journey in a reader’s. Johnson’s exciting book will be indispensable for those readers interested in reimagining the uses of formalism in medieval literature and medieval literary studies.”

Jessica Brantley, Yale University

Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages is as daring as it is original, for it not only shows us just how many Middle English texts share a prosimetric structure, but the extent to which their writers understood the ‘mixed form’ as a means for ethical transformation, a way of making literature not only a forum for defining or representing ‘the good,’ but also an instrument that caused readers to feel it, in the deepest, aesthetic sense. Johnson’s close attention to literary style, to rhythm (of both verse and prose), and to form in the broadest sense answers to the general thirst in all literary studies for a return to the text. But the book will be most eye-opening to those who care about the English Middle Ages and its most commonly read texts, as it uses the closest of readings to work back to a wholly new understanding of what the writers of these texts thought literature was for.”

Christopher Cannon, New York University

“This rivetingly original work is the book we’ve all been waiting for. In this relentlessly thematic age, Eleanor Johnson shows us why form still matters, to us and to our comprehension of the literary past, and she does so with bracing intelligence and a fine eye for formal and stylistic detail. Moving from Boethius and his continental legacy into the Middle English tradition, Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages tells a compelling story about the intricate yet transformative effects of prose and poetry as imagined and practiced in a range of works in several languages. Johnson is a kind of literary-critical mechanic, revealing with brilliance and skill how particular formal and rhetorical elements work discretely and together to shape the readerly process—not for its own sake, but for the larger premodern project of personal ethical transformation. The research is first-rate and the arguments original, and the book will have an immediate and lasting effect on the study of medieval literature.”

Bruce Holsinger, University of Virginia

Table of Contents

On Spellings and Translations

Introduction  Formalism and Ethics: The Practice of Literary Theory

1. Formal Experiments with Ethical Writing: Prosimetrum and Protrepsis
2. Sensible Prose and a Sense of Meter: Chaucer’s Aesthetic Sentence in the Boece and Troilusand Criseyde
3. The Consolation of Tragedy: Protrepsis in the Troilus
4. Prosimetrum and the Canterbury Philosophy of Literature
5. Political Protrepsis: Usk and Gower
6. Hoccleve and the Convention of Mixed-Form Protrepsis

Conclusion A Mixed-Form Tradition of Literary Theory and Practice


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