Thursday, November 29, 2012

Lists, Numeracy, and the Culture of Reckoning in Late Medieval England

Martha Rust, New York University

Friday, December 7
7:30 p.m.
CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue
ROOM 9204 (*note change from our usual room)

Lists, Numeracy, and the Culture of Reckoning in Late-Medieval England

Typifying late-medieval interest in minute details of the Passion, a Middle English poem advises readers that if they would worship “syngerly” every drop of blood Christ shed during the crucifixion, they should say one hundred Pater Nosters every day for fifteen years. The devotional practice recommended in this and many other short works in Middle English would seem also to exemplify a phenomenon Thomas Lentes has labeled “counting piety” since they entail accounting for great quantities of all manner of things--from Pater Nosters, to drops of blood, to wounds, and more. However, when we stop and ask ourselves what techniques such accounting might have entailed, it quickly becomes clear that a facility with counting as we customarily think of it--a matter of assigning in ordinal sequence one number to each object in a collection in order to determine how many objects are present--would not have been necessary for carrying out these devotions. The words ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred would not have been uttered as a practitioner finished her daily quota of a hundred Pater Nosters, for instance; instead, by using a rosary, she would have drawn upon an alternative mathematical competency, one that measures quantities by referencing the size of a set rather than the sequence of ordinal numbers. Since finding equivalence by means of establishing a one-to-one correspondence between two sets is its fundamental operation, I call this alternative method of counting “reckoning,” drawing upon two of the many senses of “reckoning” in Middle English: “settling accounts” and “enumerating”--or “listing.” As I show in this paper, a close look at written lists reveals that they present the basic materials for this method of counting and thus call upon not only literacy but a kind of numeracy as well--that is, a facility with “reckoning” a quantity of items rather than counting them. A recognition of the verbal and pseudo-numerical aspects of written lists makes way for the identification of works that activate both: a mode of composition I term a poetics of reckoning.

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