“Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.”
That claim by Francis Bacon, published in 1597, sums up the three activities at the heart of studying English. Reading fills our minds with new possibilities, but those possibilities remain a jumble until we try to express them to someone else.
“Conference” in Bacon’s time could mean conferring or discussion, and discussion helps us sort out what we’ve read so it’s more ready to hand. “Conference” could also mean “bringing together for comparison,” and by bringing together a range of works over a semester, features are heightened through contrast or ring with fuller resonance.
Finally, in discussion we may try out any number of claims that are in fact inconsistent with each other. So we write in order to explore significance, to see what the scattered details add up to exactly.
“What are you reading?” “Words, words, words.”
That’s Polonius and Hamlet, my favorite literalist. The words we read in medieval and Renaissance lit courses offer us the stories that people told in England for “sentence” (moral insight) and “solace” (pleasure), to use Chaucer’s terms. (We still read for the same things, though Chaucer took delight in showing how complicated the relationship between the two is.)
We talk about the way people and cultures make meaning through stories—meaning about gender, authority, true love, salvation, indigestion, self-reflection, nature, and so on. Since there’s quite a gulf between medieval or renaissance culture and our world, our first step is to talk about the kind of meaning that the texts are trying to make in their own terms. Then we can talk about how the stories challenge our assumptions.