Alternative literary history

A decade of research by Emily Steiner has resulted in new book about the work of John Trevisa, a 14th century author who translated encyclopedias and other informational texts. 

person standing in a room with books
Emily Steiner, a Penn professor of English, has just published a book she has spent a decade researching and writing, “John Trevisa’s Information Age: Knowledge and the Pursuit of Literature c: 1400.” (Image: Peter Decherney)

For the past decade, Penn English Professor Emily Steiner has been reading medieval encyclopedias, specifically translations from Latin to English by the 14th century writer John Trevisa.

Trevisa and his innovative interpretation of the English language are the focus of Steiner’s just-published book, “John Trevisa’s Information Age: Knowledge and the Pursuit of Literature c: 1400.”

Book cover of Emily Steiner’s book “John Trevisa’s Information Age.”

“You could say that modern English literature originates with the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer, or you could locate its origins in the creation of the English reference book. If you privilege the encyclopedia over the lyric, your hero is the very understudied but hugely innovative John Trevisa,” says Steiner, the Rose Family Endowed Term Professor of English.

A professor at Penn since 1999, Steiner has been reading Trevisa since her graduate student days in college at Yale University. Trevisa studied at Oxford University in England in the 1370s, at the same time as some radical thinkers, including the first translators of the Bible into English.

Steiner’s research for the book ranged from medieval manuscripts in libraries to queries on the social media platform Twitter. “On #medievaltwitter, scholars from all over the world weigh in on new findings and share information,” she says. “It was the perfect forum on which to post material about an understudied but influential medieval writer like Trevisa.”

Steiner’s very first tweet, on Oct. 30, 2014, quotes Trevisa’s amusing description of the pinky finger: “The little finger is called ‘auriculus’ or ‘ere fyngir’: ‘for with hym we clawen and piken the eres.’ #trevisaquotes” (The pinky is called the “ear finger” because “we claw and pick the ears with it.”) Her Twitter account @PiersatPenn now has 22,000 followers.

Penn Today spoke with Steiner about her new book, which she hopes will appeal to those who study medieval English literature, English prose, and the history of information.

Hand pointing to text and an ancient symbol in an antique book.
Photo by Alex Schein, Penn School of Arts & Sciences. 

What is the book about?

This book is about the beginning of general knowledge for lay people, of the kind that you might find today in the ‘Encyclopedia Britannica’ or in a world atlas or on online sites such as Wikipedia, Quora, and Reddit. Although medieval authors didn’t use the word “encyclopedia,” they did amass large reference books that were precursors to the modern encyclopedia: books that assembled many subjects in one place and in authoritative ways, which non-experts could easily consult. The production of encyclopedias surged in Western Europe in the mid-13th through 14th centuries. Many were first compiled in Latin, which was the language of scholars, but were immediately translated into European vernaculars-—French, Italian, English, Dutch, German—and richly illustrated. During this same period, literature in these national languages was also on the rise. I track the ways in which reference books and encyclopedias, big voluminous compendia of information, were being translated, illustrated, and circulated to a wider audience. These reference books were the forerunners of Wikipedia—they modeled ways of compiling and accessing information—but they are also part of our literary heritage, alongside the poetry of Dante and Chaucer. 

Why John Trevisa?

I’m always interested in recovering medieval authors who are less available or less accessible to modern readers sometimes just because there are no good editions of their work.

What did Trevisa do?

He was a key player in the transmission of information from medieval academia to English lay people. He was funded by a powerful patron, the baron Thomas de Berkeley, of Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire, for whom he translated a popular natural encyclopedia, ‘De proprietatibus rerum,’ or ‘On the Properties of Things,’ by Bartholomaeus Anglicus. He also translated an important universal history called the ‘Polychronicon,’ or ‘A History of Many Ages,’ by an English monk named Ranulph Higden. Finally, he translated a well-loved manual of advice for rulers called ‘De regimine principum,’ or ‘On the Rules of Princes’ by Giles of Rome. His translations not only contributed to information culture as we know it today but also to the long history of English literature.

Open pages of John Trevisa book with ancient language and a round blue symbol among the text.
Photo by Alex Schein, Penn School of Arts & Sciences. 

How did you approach these massive volumes?

Normally, no one would read an ‘Encyclopedia Britannica’ straight through from the beginning to the end. You read it to just to look something up. You probably don’t notice the style, the vocabulary, the font, or the organization of the material, all the qualities that make an encyclopedia feel factual and authoritative. But what if you decide that encyclopedias and other reference books are forms of literature as well as repositories of facts? I chose to read them like an English professor and pay attention to questions of style, organization, and argument.

I discovered that translators, like John Trevisa, were enormously creative and resourceful. They also introduced a great deal of vocabulary into English for the first time, which makes sense because authors tasked with explaining to non-specialists the rotation of the planets, or the respiratory system, or the classification of fish, need many technical terms at their disposal. As modern readers, we have inherited the efforts of medieval compilers and translators to transmit information from older Latin traditions into a persuasive and scientific English.

Were there any surprises in your research?

Trevisa translated the ‘Polychronicon,’ the whole history of the world from the Garden of Eden to medieval England. It’s humongous—one volume can weigh 15 pounds—and very hard to read in the 19th century edition. One summer I decided it might be easier to read in manuscript. I went to the British Library and checked out giant 14th and 15th century tomes, several copied from Trevisa’s original. I was surprised to find that these manuscripts contain an alphabetical index, which is missing in the 19th  century edition. Eventually, I realized not only that this index was designed by Trevisa to help readers navigate the history, but also that it was likely the first official alphabetical index in English. It made me realize that not only do reference books have histories but so do the tools that we need in order to use them: indexes, tables of contents, glossaries, and so forth.

What other parallels did you see to modern reference sources?

One of the things that intrigued me was that the same questions are asked and answered in medieval reference books as they are on Quora and Reddit today, as, for example, ‘Why is the sea salty?’ or ‘Are there more grains of sand in the world or more droplets of water?’ or ‘Is wine beneficial or detrimental to health?’ When I looked up these questions on popular science websites, I found that the phrasing of the questions, and sometimes of the answers, is almost exactly the same.

Have Penn students been involved with your book?

One of the many great things about Penn students is they will read anything that you give them. Their willingness to embrace hard texts and new histories has been really important for helping me finish the book. In my course Medieval Worlds, I assigned a never-studied 16th century encyclopedia by the antiquarian Stephen Batman, a contemporary of William Shakespeare. It’s a fascinating text, which tries to incorporate information about indigenous peoples, animals, and plants encountered by European missionaries and colonists in the Americas. I broke the students up into teams and gave each a different part of the encyclopedia to report on and digest. I learned so much along with them.

What is your next book project?

I’m contracted to write a book about animals and medieval literature and culture: 10 short essays and about 100 images. I’m very excited to do this book in part because medieval writers and artists had really interesting and surprising takes on animals

Penn’s English Department will host a virtual book launch for Steiner’s “John Trevisa’s Information Age: Knowledge and the Pursuit of Literature c: 1400” from 1:30 to 3 p.m. on Friday, Nov 19.

More information is available at