The Medieval Review 11.03.04

Oliver, Clementine. Parliament and Political Pamphleteering in Fourtheenth-Century England. Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2010. Pp. 232. $115 ISBN 978-1-903153-31-4. .

Reviewed by:

Kathleen E. Kennedy
Pennsylvania State University

Clementine Oliver's book on Ricardian political writing has been a long time in the making, and therefore it is no surprise that it touches on numerous areas of current scholarly interest to both historians and literary critics and provides a new interpretation of the events of late fourteenth century England. Oliver chooses as her base text an account of the tumultuous parliaments of Richard II's reign written by a contemporary and occasional eyewitness, Thomas Fovent. His narrative had an unusual afterlife, as it was copied again in the mid-fifteenth century and printed three times in the 1640s as part of the pamphleteering leading into the Long Parliament. Oliver analyzes Fovent's text in great detail, weighing its validity and sources for each parliament, the infamous Good, Wonderful and Merciless parliaments of 1376, 1386, and 1388 respectively. Oliver discovers that Fovent crafted his narrative using a range of official and semi-official sources, as well as providing his own eye-witness accounts. Perhaps even more importantly, Fovent edited his sources and presented a coherent viewpoint to his audience. Oliver argues persuasively that Fovent voiced the interests of the bureaucratic class and of the London tradesmen, rather than being an Appellant propagandist as is frequently assumed. At once educated and urban, Fovent and others like him saw parliament as the sole means of sound government, over both nobility and king, according to Oliver. Parliament and Political Pamphleteering is made up of seven chapters and an afterword. Chapter One addresses the issue of pamphlets directly, and Oliver argues that the ubiquity of pamphlets in the seventeenth century had its origins in the struggles surrounding the Good Parliament of 1376. That Fovent's work should have been reprinted three times in the early 1640s is nothing short of extraordinary, and makes an exploration into Fovent and his work an easily understood necessity. Relying heavily on T. F. Tout, Oliver introduces Fovent's bureaucratic milieu as one that worked together with London craftsmen for reform against the merchant oligarchy allied with the king. The next set of chapters explores pamphleteering concerning the Good Parliament and the Wonderful Parliament. Oliver begins her exploration in Chapter Two with what she contends is a semi-official report concerning the Good Parliament embedded in the Anonimalle Chronicle. As the official record of events, the parliament roll, shows bias, the counter-narrative of the Anonimalle is a key resource for those studying the development of parliament. In Chaper Three Oliver introduces Fovent himself through some admirable prosopography in order to argue against the traditional assumption that Fovent's pamphlet was pro-Appellant propaganda. Instead Oliver uncovers a more complicated network of familial and social ties, in which Fovent's brother and father both served as MPs for Shaftesbury, where Fovent's father also served as mayor; this causes Oliver to hypothesize that Fovent hailed from a particularly parliament-focused family. After being helped to a benefice by his relative the Abbess of Shaftesbury, Fovent resided in London from the 1380s and worked as customs officer there in 1390s. His work collecting tunnage and poundage placed him squarely within the tense relationship between London tradesmen and the merchant elite, groups both king and Appellants wooed. Indeed, given how regularly gentry served as MPs, more interesting than the Fovent family's time in parliament might be a son of a gentryman becoming a Londoner and supporting the tradesmen against the merchant oligarchy. In Chapter Four Oliver discusses how Fovent and other chroniclers made use of a number of semi-official reports on the events surrounding the Wonderful Parliament, and she claims the increasing number of these documents may have inspired Fovent to craft his pamphlet. In discussing the appeals central to the Wonderful Parliament, Oliver provides fresh evidence for the Appellant bias of the parliament roll at this point, and for Fovent's interest in using the roll's anti-Royalist bias in his own work. Fovent abridges the appeal selectively in order to concentrate on allegations relating to disregarding Parliamentary decisions. Oliver's analysis of Fovent's editing is particularly good here, and she argues convincingly that Fovent wrote for a London audience, rather than being an Appellant mouthpiece. If Chapters 2-4 introduce Fovent and describe his use of semi-official documents to patch together his pamphlet into a single seamless narrative, Chapters 5-7 concentrate on how Fovent builds his narrative of the Merciless Parliament specifically. Oliver begins by illustrating Fovent's interest in the exposure of secrets in the years leading up to the Merciless Parliament, and she argues that Fovent saw Richard as particularly invested in a secret administration, rather than an open bureaucracy. Moreover, Richard's misuse of documents encouraged the London civic administration's misuse of documents. This problem was exemplified for Fovent by the Brembre administration, and so Oliver reveals Fovent's support of Northampton convincingly: for Fovent the only good administration was a public administration, and Northampton ran on this issue. Oliver's classification of the Merciless Parliament as an urban spectacle related directly to London politics is thought-provoking, as is her claim that parliament became an institutional mouthpiece for the London public during the Merciless Parliament. Following the executions of Brembre and Tresilien, Oliver claims that the public, parliament, or possibly Fovent himself began to suffer from revenge exhaustion, and Fovent wraps up his narrative quickly. This forces Oliver to close using a selection of chronicles that express serious concerns with the perceived illegitimacy of Richard's so-called Revenge Parliament in 1397. In the end Oliver argues that late fourteenth-century bureaucrats like Fovent were instigators of the new literary form of semi-official document, and when these were urban and editorial, they became pamphlets. Writing an interdisciplinary monograph presents unique challenges for the author. Generally, Oliver follows a historian's path and even in this tradition tends toward conservative readings. She adopts T. F. Tout's administrative history as a foundation for her argument, and while she cites recent historians who have taken issue with Toutian historiography, she does not engage in this debate. Therefore, while Chris Given-Wilson, Mark Ormrod, Gwilym Dodd, and John Leland all feature in Oliver's notes, their arguments rarely appear substantively in Oliver's text. If Toutian interpretation is due for a resurgence, then those who have questioned his approach must be answered as part of that process. In a similar fashion Oliver fails to engage with recent literary critics who have explored issues central to Parliament and Political Pamphleteering: like the historians, most critics are relegated to the notes. From Emily Steiner to Wendy Scase, literary critics have articulated increasingly finely-grained ways of writing about texts like those semi-official documents used by Fovent and more editorial texts like Fovent's own. Matthew Giancarlo argues for the centrality of parliament, in actuality and in ideal, to late medieval English literature and culture, and Oliver's failure to engage Giancarlo's work is significant. Giancarlo follows Ethan Knapp in exploring the ways in which government institutions shaped people and the literature they produced, something that Lynn Staley does on a larger scale, arguing for a fundamental shift in style as Richard's government gave way to Henry's. Given the many ways Parliament and Political Pamphleteering connects to recent scholarship, Oliver's failure to place her informative, provocative book into serious dialogue with this scholarship is unfortunate.