The Medieval Review 11.04.17

Sponsler, Claire. John Lydgate: Mummings and Entertainments. TEAMS/ Middle English Texts Series. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2010. Pp. . . $15.00 ISBN 978-1-58044-148-3.

Reviewed by:

Christine Rose
Portland State University
rosec@pdx.edu

Sponsler's commendable edition of Lydgate's occasional works consists of fifteen mummings and diverse "entertainments" such as disguisings, a royal entry, and a Corpus Christi procession, plus an appendix containing two other texts previously associated with Lydgate's authorship, and worth having in the company of the securely-attributed pieces. While most of these performance pieces, written for royal audiences as well as for London mercantile guilds' festive occasions, were included in Henry Noble MacCracken's 1934 EETS edition John Lydgate: The Minor Poems vol. II (EETS o.s. 192), Sponsler notes that "few have been reprinted or reedited since then" (9). Her case for the collection in this form is that while Lydgate's enormous (140,000+ lines) corpus includes many verses for public and private entertainments and ceremonies, she has presented here those pieces deemed "mimetic in some way and that featured both oral and visual display" (1). Sponsler has capably reedited the seventeen works from the manuscripts; for many of them Cambridge, Trinity College Library MS R.3.20, a Shirley manuscript, is the source text. This affordable and interesting edition of works by Lydgate unavailable elsewhere in this arrangement adds another fine volume to the TEAMS stable of readily-accessible Middle English works for students and scholars. Hopefully, such a book will encourage the reading of these shorter Lydgate texts, and others will find them as compelling as I did.

In her introduction, Sponsler asserts that these minor poems of Lydgate are significant for literary and theatrical history (1). And this proves to be the case, as demonstrated by the recent critical reassessment (and rehabilitation) of Lydgate's poetic career characteristic of such volumes as Larry Scanlon and James Simpson's 2006 collection John Lydgate: Poetry, Culture, and Lancastrian England ; Maura Nolan's John Lydgate and the Making of Public Culture (2005); Lydgate Matters, eds. Lisa H. Cooper and Andrea Denny-Brown (2008); Simpson's volume in the Oxford English Literary History Reform and Cultural Revolution, esp. Chap. 2; C. David Benson's essay in the Scanlon/Simpson volume; and essays by Sponsler herself in Lydgate Matters and The Postcolonial Middle Ages, eds. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Michael Uebel (2000). In these scholarly works, the mummings, disguisings and occasional pieces by Lydgate are read with an eye to Lydgate's art and greatness as an "official" poet--he is not, however, diminished to the status of Lancastrian propagandist. Furthermore, Sponsler and these other critics consider how to interpret Lydgate's art in the light of the historical context and Lydgate's own position vis--vis the centers of power. More than ephemeral entertainments, in these occasional pieces, written mostly in the late 1420s and early 1430s, Lydgate has penned complex poetic statements about the King, the legitimacy and succession of the Lancastrians, and the young Henry VI's relationship to his London subjects, as well as recognizing and celebrating mercantile aspirations to the trappings of aristocratic elite culture. With these seemingly public performance works (mummings, disguisings, entries) the poet negotiates serious social and aesthetic questions that necessitates, as Maura Nolan has argued, a reading audience's attention (see Nolan, above, esp. 24-5).

While the pieces in this book might not be the first works of Lydgate to assign to students, this TEAMS volume showcases them as well as forwarding Sponsler's persuasive argument that the works are of lasting interest to us all. One can learn much about Lydgate's poetics, his notions of the theatrical, and his historical moment from the works Sponsler presents here, bolstered by her ample apparatus. This edition, along with the above-mentioned critical conversation constituting the resurgence of Lydgate studies, convincingly demonstrates that these were no mere occasional poems, knocked off to pander to royal or distinguished wealthy clients, but that at least some of these poetic performance pieces display strategies used by Lydgate to create works of poetic excess, generic play, patterns of allusion, and interpretive ambiguity far beyond the task he was set by the occasion of a royal entry or guildsmen's celebration of their patron saint. They are for the most part rhetorically (and possibly dramatically/visually) elaborate presentations, yet may not, at first reading, register their importance to the Lydgate canon. But Sponsler's edition invites us to appreciate the significance of the works as markers of political and civic events, penned by a poet who enriches each work with language and learning that insists on interpretation beyond the viewing of a royal or civic spectacle.

In various of the pieces that Sponsler gathers here, composed for specific late medieval English gala occasions, Lydgate encodes the expected Lancastrian uneasiness about legitimacy of rule, or displays Londoners' declarations of fealty while revealing their wary negotiation of the place of the king in their midst, or exhibits through classical and biblical allusion the fifteenth-century merchant-princes' aspirations to the elite literary cultural capital of the nobility. But with no evidence for any actual dramatic performances, it is the poetic freight that needs to be attended to, that transcends the specificity of the event and engages with larger issues of poetic responsibility. Sponsler emphasizes that these works show the range, erudition, and versatility of Lydgate's poetic accomplishments, and notes that modern ideas of theatricality do not account for these events as Lydgate has memorialized them. Blurring of generic boundaries characterizes the works included (and indeed much of Lydgate's oeuvre), but Sponsler additionally argues that while our traditional view of Lydgate associates him with the court or the city of London, his work must also be registered as "a product of East Anglian literary and religious culture" (4). Like the East Anglian dramatic works, the monk of Bury's performance pieces for the court or urban elite display "a tendency to bend religious material to secular ends"(5). These are vernacular performances about society and community and advice to the elite, Sponsler reminds us, as well as pleasing entertainments.

Sponsler's streamlined and helpful introduction begins with Lydgate's milieu, and offers a section on John Shirley's importance to the Lydgate canon, especially referring to the performance pieces from Trinity R.3.20. Shirley's inclusion in his manuscript of details about the occasions for the texts and other matters, including glossing, indicates what that contemporary scribe feels constitutes a key to the reading of the work. Other sections in Sponsler's introduction address notions of performance and the form such entertainments took, Lydgate's style (most of these poems are in rhyme royal and in the "aureate" diction for which the poet is recognized), and editorial decisions about textual matters. Sponsler discusses the vexed and often interchangeable terms "mumming" and "disguising" (7), and concludes that any definite distinctions between the two are complicated by the history of the use of the terms--detailed in a footnote on that page. Lydgate's choice of forms has interpretive consequences, as Sponsler indicates. She provides her own working definition of each form, following Shirley's taxonomy: "disguisings" are distinguished from "mummings" by being longer and written in iambic pentameter couplets rather than rhyme royal, as in the performances at Hereford and London.

The edition includes as its first text a lively performance-piece on unresolved strife between husbands and wives in Bycorne and Chychevache. Here we encounter Bycorne and Chychevache, the fat and thin horned beasts, and a group of husbands lament that they must chastise their wives who seek to overmaster them, or face being devoured by Bycorne. One wife then appears briefly, being devoured by the thin Chychevache, who speaks of his feeding on women meek as Griselda, but complains of finding meager fodder amongst the women he now encounters. The last speaker, an old man, mourns his patient wife devoured by Chychevache, declaring that men will indeed be the food of Bycorne, since they "stonde in dreed" of their wives whom they do not dare oppose. The Disguisings at Hertford, also concerns husbands complaining of unruly wives, and wives grumbling about their cowardly husbands. When these the two parties appeal to the king, he "considerethe and makethe raysoun his guyde" (l. 227) in judging the case, and will allow the wives to have their "fraunchyse" for a year until men can substantiate by law that they should indeed be sovereign. The poem does not end hopefully for the husbands, though, and predicts they will live on in unhappy servitude.

The London disguising portrays the ladies Fortune, Prudence, Righteousness, Fortitude, and "Feyre and Wyse Attemperance" to the king, with the last four--good public virtues for those who govern-- taking residence with the king for the next year. The other texts consist of the lavish entry of the young Henry VI into London after his coronation as king of France in 1432; the legend of St. George; Mesure is Tresour; five mummings: Bishopswood, Eltham, Windsor, for the Goldsmiths of London (on Fortune, with the central story about David and the Ark of the Covenant--a mix of chivalric, biblical and mercantile registers), and for the Mercers of London (an outrageous blend of the geographical, mythical and literary, in honor of the mayor, celebrating London as an earthly paradise); a short update to Lydgate's Fall of Princes called Of the Sodein Fal of Princes in Oure Dayes; a pageant of knowledge; a Corpus Christi procession; and the Soteltes at the Coronation Banquet of Henry VI. The appendix has a mumming of seven philosophers and the text of the celebratory speeches at Margaret of Anjou's Entry into London of 1445. The edition includes a useful bibliography, glossary, textual notes to manuscript variants, and explanatory notes (although a few of these latter seem too elementary for the probable academic audience of this volume: Hector of Troy is identified [n. to l. 255 p. 93] and Griselda [n. to l.87 p. 85]). The numerous Chaucerian echoes in the texts are cited. Probably the notes to l. 272 and 274, p. 99, of Henry's Triumphal Entry need to be combined, and the term "puy" on p. 119 defined (puys are religious/social musical performance societies in honor of the Virgin Mary). Before each set of explanatory notes sits an informative headnote on the work, which could be more helpful at the start of the actual text rather than at the beginning of each set of notes.

We are fortunate to have this edition, a book to complicate our readings and deepen our responses to these occasional (but not "ephemeral") works of Lydgate's. I was not prepared to find these texts as rich and interesting as they are, thanks to Sponsler's framing and to her other work on Lydgate and that of those critics cited above, some crucial reading for the apprehension of Lydgate's artistic achievement in these important and neglected pieces. While seeming perhaps a Lancastrian mouthpiece, the bookish Lydgate's striving as an artist to make the most of his public chances to advise the king or his subjects in the guise of entertainment and praise, as in these pieces, results in more art than what the occasion demands, and more irony. The evidence here shows that he employs genre- transgression, flatters merchants and goldsmiths, and showcases erudite classical learning or biblical allusion in the mummings of those not likely to appreciate it, but who savor the elitism it represents nonetheless. Lydgate moves between audiences of royalty and civic mercantile leaders with chameleonlike agility; he transforms spectacle into poetry; and challenges the real through presenting the ideal (see Benson, "Civic Lydgate" in Scanlon and Simpson, 163). While these works may not have been actually dramatized, reading them as literary performances in the light of their intended, restricted audiences and acknowledging their composition in times of tension about the rightful possessors of power asks us to recognize in them vernacular poetic texts of a most accomplished artist and social commentator. Poetry, to Lydgate, can forge aesthetic links between the aristocrat and the merchant, the king and his subjects, the king and his right to rule. Sponsler's edition provides the ideal opportunity to revisit these texts. Scholars and students who encounter them will apprehend that the Lydgate oeuvre consisted of not just the overupholstered major works, but these short hybrid genre- bending texts that may amplify our understanding of the poet and his sense of his position as a reshaper of history and society.