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Please use this identifier to cite or link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/1807/16758

Title: William Morris and Medieval Material Culture
Authors: Cowan, Yuri
Advisor: Cuddy-Keane, Melba
Department: English
Keywords: Victorian Literature
Medieval Literature
Book History
William Morris
Issue Date: 19-Jan-2009
Abstract: In the mid-nineteenth century, when organizations such as the Early English Text Society began making an increasing variety of medieval texts accessible to Victorian readers, the "everyday life" of the past became an important subject of historiography. For many of William Morris's contemporaries, this project of social history and textual recovery provided welcome evidence to support either narratives of nostalgia for an ordered past or a comforting liberal sense of progress; for Morris himself, however, the everyday life of the medieval past offered an array of radical possibilities for creative adaptation. Morris's broad reading in newly recovered medieval texts, his library of manuscripts and woodcut books, and his personal experience of medieval domestic architecture were more instrumental in developing his sense of the past than were such artefacts of high culture as the great cathedrals and lavishly illustrated manuscripts, since it was through the surviving items of everyday use that Morris could best approach the creative lives of ordinary medieval men and women. For William Morris, the everyday medieval "art of the people" was collaborative, de-centralizing, and devoted to process rather than to the attainment of perfection. Morris consistently works to strip ancient texts of their veneer of authority, resisting the notion of the rare book as an object of cultural mystery and as a commodity. His response to the art of the past is a radical process, in which reading is not mere "poaching" on the hegemonic territory of capital and cultural authority, but an immersive activity in which any reader can be intimately and actively engaged with the artefact from the earliest moment of its production. Such active reception, however, as diverse and fallible as the individuals who practice it, requires in turn an ongoing creativity in the form of adaptations of, and even collaboration with, the past. Morris's theory of creative adaptation was consequently itself not static, and this dissertation traces its evolution over Morris's career. In his early poetry, Morris reveals his sense of the limitations of the historical record as his characters grasp simultaneously at fantasies and physical objects to make sense of the crises in which they find themselves, suggesting the incomplete and unstable circumstances of textual reception itself. In the socialist lectures and fiction of the 1880s, Morris makes use of surviving and imagined fragments of medieval material culture and domestic architecture to describe an aesthetic that can embrace creative diversity, co-operation, and even imperfection across historical periods. In the works produced by his Kelmscott Press, the material book itself becomes a collaborative site for artists, illustrators, and editors to work out the active reception and dissemination of the popular reading of the past. Finally, in the romances of the 1890s, Morris describes a diversity of possible social geographies, ultimately articulating a vision of the romance genre itself as a popular art, equally capable of transformation over time as are the artefacts of everyday life that Morris creatively employs in his fictions throughout his career.
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/1807/16758
Appears in Collections:Doctoral
Department of English - Doctoral theses

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