Singing the New Song
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Singing the New Song
Literacy and Liturgy in Late Medieval England

Katherine Zieman

312 pages | 6 x 9 | 6 illus.
Cloth 2008 | ISBN 978-0-8122-4051-1 | $59.95s | £39.00 | Add to cart
Ebook 2011 | ISBN 978-0-8122-0388-2 | $59.95s | £39.00 | About | Add to cart
A volume in the Middle Ages Series
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In Singing the New Song, Katherine Zieman examines the institutions and practices of the liturgy as central to changes in late medieval English understandings of the written word. Where previous studies have described how writing comes to supplant oral forms of communication or how it objectifies relations of power formerly transacted through ritual and ceremony, Zieman shifts the critical gaze to the ritual performance of written texts in the liturgy—effectively changing the focus from writing to reading.

Beginning with a history of the elementary educational institution known to modern scholars as the "song school," Zieman shows the continued centrality of liturgical and devotional texts to the earliest stages of literacy training and spiritual formation. Originally, these schools were created to provide liturgical training for literate adult performers who had already mastered the grammatical arts. From the late thirteenth century on, however, the attention and resources of both lay and clerical patrons came to be devoted specifically to young boys, centering on their function as choristers. Because choristers needed to be trained before they received instruction in grammar, the liturgical skills of reading and singing took on a different meaning.

This shift in priorities, Zieman argues, is paradigmatic of broader cultural changes, in which increased interest in liturgical performance and varying definitions attached to "reading and singing" caused these practices to take on a life of their own, unyoked from their original institutional settings of monastery and cathedral. Unmoored from the context of the choral community, reading and singing developed into discrete, portable skills that could be put to use in a number of contexts, sacred and secular, Latin and vernacular. Ultimately, they would be carried into a wider public sphere, where they would be transformed into public modes of discourse appropriated by vernacular writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland.

Katherine Zieman teaches English at the University of Notre Dame.

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