On Bells and Rebellion: The Auditory Imagination and Social Reform, Medieval and Modern

  • Adin E. Lears
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Using T. S. Eliot’s notion of the “auditory imagination” as a frame, this chapter examines three interconnected treatments of song and chant to show how authors across time have explored the capacity of the voice to facilitate both social cohesion and mob mentality. The so-called rebel letters associated with the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 highlight how embodied textual engagement was a key aspect of lay literacy in late-medieval England—one that the rebels employed as part of their efforts to build resistance to established power structures. William Langland’s treatment of song in the Prologue to Piers Plowman is more ambivalent, warning that an embodied experience of language can overtake conscious thought even as he suggests that such engagement is a crucial means to make sense of his own poetry. Finally, in his utopian novella, A Dream of John Ball, the late nineteenth-century scholar and craftsman William Morris, who was familiar with both the rebel letters and Piers Plowman, found an idealized understanding of the communal elements of song was well-suited to his socialist ideology.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Adin E. Lears
    • 1
  1. 1.Virginia Commonwealth UniversityRichmondUSA

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