Word as Bond in English Literature from the Middle Ages to the Restoration

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University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989 - Language Arts & Disciplines - 338 pages

For centuries, the transmission of power in feudal European society depended on a code of fidelity, of political allegiance, and truth to one's word. The word as bond extended to include not only the pledge of allegiance between subject and king, but the troth-plight between lovers, the vow of friendship, and the judicial oath. Society was ultimately based upon a gentleman's or gentlewoman's word that was itself underwritten by the Word of God.

J. Douglas Canfield argues that English literature of the feudal epoch placed this master trope of word as bond at the center of conflict. The trope does not passively reflect social reality; rather, it helps to define, to constitute the society and its values. Both society and literature were preoccupied by the contest between fidelity on the one hand and its antithesis, betrayal (with the political and sexual anarchy that it threatened) on the other. In literature, the conflict was usually resolved through supernatural aid, the intervention of the Logos, which guaranteed the validity of the word.

Canfield analyzes over 25 representative works, focusing on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dryden, in the five dominant modes of aristocratic literature-romance, comedy, lyric, tragedy, and satire. In each chapter, he offers three examples, one from the Middle Ages, one from the Renaissance, and one from the Restoration.

Canfield's study proceeds synchronically, attempting to show that the trope is always under stress. The language of heroic romance coexists with the language of subversive comedy and absurdist satire. In an Afterword, he suggests why the trope disappears--not from the discourse, where it remains to this day, but from the center of conflict in English literature after 1688.

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About the author (1989)

J. Douglas Canfield was Professor of English and Director of the Graduate Program in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Arizona. He was the author of Nicholas Rowe and Christian Tragedy and editor of Twentieth Century Interpretations of "Sanctuary."

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