Emily SteinerMar 11, 2023
John Trevisa's Information Age
Knowledge and the Pursuit of Literature, c. 1400
Oxford University Press 2021
What would medieval English literature look like if we viewed it through the lens of the compendium? In that case, John Trevisa might come into focus as the major author of the fourteenth century. Trevisa (d. 1402) made a career of translating big informational texts from Latin into English prose. These included Ranulph Higden's Polychronicon, an enormous universal history, Bartholomaeus Anglicus's well-known natural encyclopedia De proprietatibus rerum, and Giles of Rome's advice-for-princes manual, De regimine principum. These were shrewd choices, accessible and on trend: De proprietatibus rerum and De regimine principum had already been translated into French and copied in deluxe manuscripts for the French and English nobility, and the Polychronicon had been circulating England for several decades.
John Trevisa's Information Age: Knowledge and the Pursuit of Literature, c. 1400 (Oxford UP, 2021) argues that John Trevisa's translations of compendious informational texts disclose an alternative literary history by way of information culture. Bold and lively experiments, these translations were a gamble that the future of literature in England was informational prose. This book argues that Trevisa's oeuvre reveals an alternative literary history more culturally expansive and more generically diverse than that which we typically construct for his contemporaries, Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland. Thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century European writers compiled massive reference books which would shape knowledge well into the Renaissance. This study maintains that they had a major impact on English poetry and prose. In fact, what we now recognize to be literary properties emerged in part from translations of medieval compendia with their inventive ways of handling vast quantities of information.
Emily Steiner is the Rose Family Endowed Chair Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. She is known for her work on medieval literature and middle English literature and culture.
Morteza Hajizadeh is a Ph.D. graduate in English from the University of Auckland in New Zealand. His research interests are Cultural Studies; Critical Theory; Environmental History; Medieval (Intellectual) History; Gothic Studies; 18th and 19th Century British Literature. YouTube channel.