The textual context of the vernon manuscript
Duncan, John (John Robert)
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This dissertation comes out of my interests in the occasionality of medieval texts, and in the ways medieval theories of textually and literature could be applied to vernacular literature of fourteenth-century England. I wanted to study how these theories could be applied to a medieval manuscript, and the Vernon is an ideal candidate for this. At first glance it seems to a unorganized collection of texts that do not belong together: some are contemplative, some teach basic religious values; some are allegorical, others are narrative; and some are treatises, others are emotive lyrics. Throughout the dissertation, I examine how the genesis of the manuscript can be explained in term of medieval theories of literature. These theories define concepts of structure and genre that are far removed from our own and these reveal more underlying cohesion to the manuscript than there first seems to be. Medieval scholars defined structure in non-linear, relational ways. They define genre as modes of presentation and reception, which are closely related to the occasion of the manuscript. These reveal that the Vernon manuscript is not a loose gathering of vaguely related texts, but rather a carefully organized compilation of texts that define a program of religious instruction for a particular community of secular or semi-secular believers. The manuscript's title, Sowlehele, or Spiritual Healing defines this program. The Vernon is written for a community. The texts in the manuscript are removed from their original intended audiences and presented as part of a program that teaches basic, orthodox, religious instruction to a group of people at various levels of religious knowledge. One of the primary aims of the texts and the manuscript is to teach its readers to follow the middle life, which encourages them to incorporate religious practice into their secular lives and to strengthen their communities through this. The Vernon thus satisfies the desire that late fourteenth century people had for religious instruction in the vernacular and the church's need to maintain orthodoxy in those turbulent times.