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Research at St Andrews

Literary Theory and Literary Roles

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)


Medieval literary theory, generated in the educational system and commentary tradition, consisted of systems and conceptual tools for interpreting and communicating the teachings of canonical works. It also offered a range of roles for a writer to adopt or cite for reworking authors (auctores) and authority (auctoritas), as well as materials of lesser prestige. A fascinating hierarchy of literary roles, as variously practised by writers, was delineated by St Bonaventure. This ascended from the humble scribe (a mere copyist), via the compiler (a re-arranger adding nothing of his own) and then the commentator (who ostensibly only explicates the words of the others), to the author, an autonomous asserter who only resorts to the words of others to confirm his own self-styled materials. These roles had considerable implications for Chaucer. This chapter also looks at the terminology for interpreting texts deriving from the academic prologue (accessus) and at different schemes for the understanding of levels of meaning within texts. It closes with a brief mention of the relationship between prescriptive poetics and interpretation in medieval rhetorical tradition.


Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationGeoffrey Chaucer in Context
EditorsIan Johnson
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages7
ISBN (Electronic)9781139565141
ISBN (Print)9781107035645
Publication statusPublished - 11 Jul 2019

Publication series

NameLiterature in Context
PublisherCambridge University Press

    Research areas

  • literary theory, commentary, author, authority, commentator, compiler, scribe, rhetoric, interpretation, accessus

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  1. Theorizing the Miscellaneous and the Middle English Biblical Paratext 

    Johnson, I. R., Jan 2020, (Accepted/In press) Late Medieval Religiosity in England: The Evidence of Late Fourteenth and Fifteenth-Century Devotional Compilations. Renevey, D., Cré, M. & Denissen, D. (eds.). Turnhout: Brepols, p. 83-108 26 p. (Medieval Church Studies; no. 41).

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  2. Rendering Readers' Soulscapes: Variant Translation of Interiority in the Late Medieval English Pseudo-Bonaventuran Tradition

    Johnson, I. R., 2020, (Accepted/In press) "Writen in a grete boke": Manuscript Culture and Medieval Devotional Traditions: Essays in Honor of Michael G. Sargent. Brown, J. N. & Rice, N. (eds.). Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)

  3. Boece, Boecius (Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius)

    Johnson, I. R., 2020, (Accepted/In press) The Chaucer Encyclopedia. Newhauser, D., Gillespie, V., Rosenfeld, J. & Walter, K. (eds.). Wiley-Blackwell

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  4. Introduction: Interpreting Changes in Daily Religious Practice in the ‘Long Fifteenth Century’

    Johnson, I. R. & Rodrigues, A. M., 2020, (Accepted/In press) Religious Practices and Everyday Life (1350-1570). Johnson, I. & Rodrigues, A. M. (eds.). Turnhout: Brepols, (New Communities of Interpretation).

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  5. Bridging the Historiographical Divides: Religious Transformations in “New Communities of Interpretation” in Europe (1350-1570)

    Johnson, I. R. (ed.) & Boillet, É. (ed.), 2020, (Accepted/In press) Turnhout: Brepols. (New Communities of Interpretation)

    Research output: Book/ReportAnthology

ID: 54080017