An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

January 7, 2014

Bergvall: Meddle English: New and Selected Texts

Caroline Bergvall, Meddle English: New and Selected Texts. Callicoon, NY: Nightboat Books, 2011. Voice recordings can be accessed on PennSound:

Reviewed by Kara L. McShane (

Caroline Bergvall’s Meddle English is an experimental volume, collecting a wide range of texts and producing a mix of genres and media that are unified in the spirit of experimentation and exploration. Functionally, she has created a medievalizing pastiche that mirrors for modern readers the medieval experience of a miscellany. The volume is very much in keeping with Bergvall’s earlier work: her books (Goan Atom, Eclat, and Fig) are notable for the same typographical and editorial markers of visual and literary forms that define Meddle English. In Meddle English, however, Bergvall explicitly embraces the messiness and flexibility of Middle English and seeks to create it in Modern English, juxtaposing Middle English with netspeak. The experience of reading Meddle English is unsettling and disruptive, as well as discursive; as Bergvall writes, “my personal sense of linguistic belonging was not created by showing for the best English I can speak or write, but the most flexible one. To make and irritate English at its epiderm, and at my own” (18). Regardless of Bergvall’s intent, the result is an experience of medievalism that advanced students and scholars will savor while non-specialists may find confusing: by mixing forms and genres together Bergvall recreates medieval literary and cultural practices. Bergvall seeks to capture the experimentation and play of language, as well as eclectic content, that was common in 14th century England. The volume is multimodal, including images, sound files, and innovative textual arrangement. Consequently, this review will concentrate on the larger themes of the volume and the means by which Bergvall realizes these themes rather than moving piece by piece through the work.

Writing and Materiality

The book provides a metadiscourse on its own medium, as the materiality of writing is a central preoccupation for Bergvall. In two texts, “First Take Track One” and “Fuses,” Bergvall explores dictation and transcription. Bergvall says of these pieces that “transmission here is urgency and meticulous pleasure at material handling” (162). “Material Compounds” addresses the materiality of writing, its physical presence and the implements that make it possible: paper, brackets, books, and translation. Bergvall comments on the transience of these physical materials: “pieces will survive by chance by accidents, a few sheets here or there, the randomness of someone’s archives” (135). This is a problem familiar to medievalists, one that Bergvall extends to our modern written ephemera. “Cat in the Throat” extends this theme to deal with the materiality of speech itself, its relationship to muscle movements and the words various cultures use to describe the act of clearing one’s throat. As she writes, “Spitting out the most intimate and most irretrievable, the most naturalised source language, so-called mother tongue, is a dare, it is dangerous. It starts a whole process of re-embodying one’s language’s spaces” (156). These statements help recreate the status of the vernacular in Chaucer’s time in the present; as medievalism involves the re-imagining of the Middle Ages, Bergvall constructs language as perhaps continuously medieval, always at a moment of shift and change, imbued with political force.

Code Switching

Code switching, the shift between languages or linguistic registers, is a key feature of Meddle English. “Cropper” includes Norwegian and French insertions, with one line in each of these three languages comprising one stanza. In her comprehensive notes, Bergvall identifies the poem “Goan Atom” as “the first full-length piece in which I started exploring bilingual writing techniques, notably in the form of micro code-switches” (163).[1] Several of these switches use Latin, as when Bergvall writes “Mater Regina was my first kiss” (99). These micro-switches call to mind the interspersed French or Latin words used in works like The Book of John Mandeville, The Vision of Piers Plowman, or Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale. In contrast, “Cropper,” with its line-by-line linguistic shifts, is perhaps more in keeping with lyrics like those in MS Harley 2253. Nearly every stanza consists of three lines, each in its own language:

          Some bodies like languages simply disappear
          noen cropper liksom sprÃ¥k blir simpelthen borte
          disparaissent comme les langues. (150)

Bergvall thus moves this very medieval practice into modern writing, though with a twist: some of her own code switching moves between modern and Middle English, making the medieval past another register for contemporary authors to engage.

Code switching in the linguistic sense is a major component of Bergvall’s work, but she also engages in visual code-switching as pieces in the book shift between modes. The book opens with “Heaps,” a single page of the same line (“a heape of language”) handwritten four times with slight letter variations. “Lobes,” a series of inkblot style images toward the end of the book, disrupts the idea of texts as wholly verbal. The short “Goodolly” is presented as an image of typewritten sheets, with words typed over each other and smaller pieces of typed paper layered on top of others. (A paperclip, for example, is visible in the image, partially covering one word.) While these pieces are the most obviously visual works in the book, Bergvall also experiments with the layout of more traditionally textual works; for example, several stanzas of “Goan Atom” are printed upside down, while several pages contain only one letter. These visual experiments disrupt the modern notion of textuality, creating a more medieval aesthetic in which images themselves are texts.

Bergvall’s Medievalism

It is worth considering two pieces in Meddle English independently from the themes they engage. These two works, “Middling English” and the “Shorter Chaucer Tales,” are the most direct in their medievalism and therefore particularly deserving of attention for audiences interested in medievalism.

“Middling English” is a type of poetic prose rumination on language in shift and flux. Bergvall thinks about language through metaphors of archaeology, spelling, soil, and exchange. In the process, she constructs a history of English as a language perpetually in flux. Bergvall notes that the work was written “to address my growing interest in researching Middle English and Chaucerian Structures” (160). Chaucer famously declares that “in forme of speche is chaunge,” that speech acts change things even as speech forms themselves change (Troilus, 2.22).[2] Bergvall’s medievalist work is grounded in this philosophy as she simultaneously explores and creates these linguistic changes.
The most explicitly medieval (and medievalist) content in the book is Bergvall's collection of "Shorter Chaucer Tales." These tales combine the code-switching and visual play present throughout Meddle English to enact and embody for modern readers the same experience of familiar confusion that Chaucer’s medieval readers could have experienced. They begin with "The Host Tale," which has the look and feel of Middle English: “The fruyt of every tale is for to seye; / They ete, and drynke, and daunce, and synge, and pleye” (23). The rest of the tale describes the food and drink one might expect at a feast in terms familiar to readers of Chaucer and medieval romance -- wines such as “ypocras, claree, and vernage” are drawn from the Merchant’s Tale, specifically from January’s attempts to prevent impotence (line 1807). Yet the Host’s Tale draws explicitly on the Miller’s prologue: “But first I make a protestacioun / That I am dronke.” These lines dwell alongside references to January and May, among other Chaucerian allusions. “The Summer Tale (Deus Hic, 1),” continues to use some of this Middle English-esque language, but its topic is clearly modern, with references to “Pope Johannes Paulus Tweye” and “Benedict XVI.” The poem describes the unavailability of liquor in Warsaw and Krakow when the pope is in Poland as well as the censoring of advertisements for contraceptives, tampons, and lingerie. “The Franker Tale (Deus Hic, 2)” continues this anticlerical approach and yet becomes even more experimental, with repeated and partial words and modern spellings alongside Middle English-esque words. Like the earlier tales, this one employs a type of pastiche, mixing the language of the Pope’s Letter to Women from July 1995 with Chaucer’s language: “To grope tendrely a conscience / In shrift; in prechyng is my diligence” is followed several lines later by “What great appreciation must be shown to those women who, with a heroic love for the child they have conceived, proceed with a pregnancy resulting from the injustice of rape” (33). Here, Bergvall’s medievalist project adopts the anticlerical and feminist strains often identified in Chaucer’s writing to address these social problems in their contemporary context.

Other pieces in the “Shorter Chaucer Tales” draw on the themes of translation and code-switching prevalent in the book. Bergvall identifies “The Not Tale (Funeral)” as a translation of Arcite’s funeral speech from Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale. "Fried Tale (London Zoo)” continues Bergvall’s earlier linguistic play by layering texting language (“gr8” (39) and the like), a character description drawing on conventions from Chaucer’s General prologue, and prose economic descriptions. Taken together, these pieces construct a medievalism heavily indebted to Chaucer’s own dialectical and linguistic experimentation that simultaneously speaks to modern social conditions. The experience of the “Shorter Chaucer Tales” is enriched by the sound files available on the web through PennSound. These audiotexts were created from Bergvall’s reading of four of the “Shorter Chaucer Tales” at the New Chaucer Society’s 2006 Congress. These readings employ Middle English-accented pronunciation where appropriate, making the language switches and shifts yet more distinct than the written page can achieve. While Bergvall’s invitation to the Congress suggests the ways in which medievalists have engaged with her work, these audiotexts allow Bergvall’s readers to have a more fully multimodal experience of these pieces. Thus, the work captures the performative, aural elements of medieval literature so often lost in contemporary recreations.

Complex and thoughtful, Bergvall’s Meddle English would be best suited for advanced students, though it could be used with considerable preparation for beginners. Her poetry is particularly useful, however, for teachers looking to bring a multimodal approach to teaching Middle English literature and for those who are interested in the intersections between medievalism and contemporary social issues.

Kara L. McShane
University of Rochester

[1] This poem confusingly shares its name with Bergvall’s earlier book, in which it was first published.
[2] Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Third ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.