Anne Laskaya

title.none: Davis, Writing Masculinity (Anne Laskaya)

identifier.other: baj9928.0805.002 08.05.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Anne Laskaya, University of Oregon,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Davis, Isabel. Writing Masculinity in the Later Middle Ages. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, vol. 62. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xiii, 222. $85.00 (hb) ISBN-10: 0-521-86637-5, ISBN-13: 978-0-521-88637-8. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.05.02

Davis, Isabel. Writing Masculinity in the Later Middle Ages. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, vol. 62. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xiii, 222. $85.00 (hb) ISBN-10: 0-521-86637-5, ISBN-13: 978-0-521-88637-8. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Anne Laskaya
University of Oregon

Exploring masculine subjectivity and male sexuality linked with the ethics of labor and issues of domestic space, Isabel Davis' Writing Masculinity in the Later Middle Ages offers new readings of late medieval English masculinity as it is represented in the work of five male authors: William Langland's Piers Plowman, Thomas Usk's Testament of Love, John Gower's Confessio Amantis, Chaucer's Canon's Yeoman's Prologue and Tale, and the poetry of Thomas Hoccleve. The book ambitiously seeks to treat these texts as instantiations of "a new kind of London life writing," male life writings that "are less acts of memorialization or recollection" and more clearly "expressions of confession and conscience" (5). Davis examines the "anxious masculine self at the interstices between his labour and his domestic life" (7). Her claims about anxiety-ridden, late medieval masculine selves are, then, grounded in literary characters, situations, language, and/or narrators, but they sometimes also include the male authors' historical lives within their purview. Davis does not argue for one pattern or dynamic characteristic of late medieval London masculinity, but rather evaluates the various gaps between idealized masculine models of selfhood and the subjective anxieties found represented in each literary text. Davis is on a hunt, then, for evidence of subjective anxiety; this takes her sometimes into discussions of specific historical contexts, sometimes into rudimentary psychological analyses, sometimes to close readings of the rhetoric in a text, and sometimes into productive inquiries into a text's relationship to genre, authority, cultural lexicons, and the literary legacy of the past. She writes:These literary texts all invest in the moral orthodoxies of their age, valorizing both conformity and industry, and yet they produce narrators that are, by comparison, compromised--sometimes tragically, sometimes comically and sometimes both. At the same time as engaging with cultural ideals of masculinity, the narrators of these literary texts identify themselves not as good, industrious men but variously as idle, avaricious or insufficient workers, inappropriate or unrewarded lovers or husbands, as adolescents or children. In so doing, they interiorize wider, cultural anxieties about male irresponsibility and appetite...The singular commixture of comedy and anxiety in the portraits of these narrators is a representation of a new masculine modality: a kind of urbanitas, a pragmatic, non-heroic identity that is an unsteady accommodation between the "common good" and the interior, appetitive self. At once socially interpolated and original, individually determined constructions, these narrators are homeless within their own texts. (11) Davis' first chapter, "The masculine ethics of Langland's Piers Plowman," elucidates connections between language, work and sexuality, arguing that the language of work functions "euphemistically" for a language of sexuality. She finds Langland's text, especially as it is revised over time, increasingly ignores the work of women and praises the work of men, aiming to represent the restoration of both moral and social order as a kind of rural- masculinist-heroic undertaken not only in the field of labor but also within the domestic household. Following feminist critics who have established quite thoroughly the male subjectivity dominating the marriage of Lady Mede material in Passus II-IV, Davis turns her attention to other locations in Piers Plowman where Langland "marginalize[s] the standard medieval preference for virginity, negotiating a more privileged place for marriage and fatherhood within his theological poetics" (14). But for Davis, the husband, while praised in Langland, is not a unified subject; instead, he is indeterminate, conflicted, a conflation of labor and sexuality, a fractured self. Like Teresa Tavormina, Davis reads Langland as praising marriage and family, but unlike Tavormina, Davis emphasizes men's sexuality and argues for its fusion and foundational relationship with issues of social justice, mercy, work, governance, spiritual salvation and truth. Carefully examining Biblical passages and canonical texts (like Augustine) that address marriage and procreation, and then the way citations from this material appears in Piers Plowman, Davis demonstrates the way Langland chooses to emphasize the importance of male governance within marriage and the household and the way male desire is best "wreked" as a "wepene kene" within marriage. She explores both Langland's theo/politico/sexual preferences for men's marriage and his inevitable confrontation with established medieval Christian ideological preferences for virginity, finding the tensions that result from this confrontation writing themselves all over Langland's texts and within the subjectivities represented there.

The Second Chapter, "Them and Usk: writing home in the Middle Ages," argues for a generous reading of both the strategies and the subjectivities evident in Usk's Testament of Love. Responding to the assertions of Paul Strohm, Michael Hanrahan, Marion Turner, and others who have viewed Usk and his Testament with critical mistrust, Davis wants us to read the text as evidence of a "conflicted, anxious and fragmented representation of the subjective self, or autos, and its relationship to the society within which it was produced" (39). She considers the narrator, Thomas, "a reader both of his text and of himself," finding in his "jumble of registers and influences...a representation of the heterogeneous and socially interpolated individual; the form resembles errancy both of memory and the subjective nature of lived experience" (46). Rhetorical moves made by Thomas are Davis' main focus, and of these, her discussion of diminutio is insightful and provides evidence supporting a more generous reading of the text. Although she emphasizes the narrator's literary strategies, Davis does, at times, respond to scholarship that has placed the Testament within its unique historical moment. She prefers, however, to bypass the notorious political labyrinth surrounding both Hoccleve and his Testament, focusing instead on the text's relationship to contemporary issues of class and marriage. Davis asserts: "Usk's version of matrimony is part of a new discourse that advocated wedlock as a positive masculine life-style choice and which provided a hortative justification for what was a relatively novel option, but one being taken increasingly by those, like Usk, in a semi-clerical occupation...[the work] glamorized the lifestyle of secular professionals and married householders" (72). In her hands, the Testament of Love represents heterosexual fantasies in need of the consolation of a good marriage and the yearnings of an emerging social identity (the semi-clerical professional) for social stability and status.

Book IV of John Gower's Confessio Amantis provides the ground for Davis' third chapter, "John Gower's 'strange places': errant masculinity in the Confessio Amantis." She begins her discussion, however, by examining Gower's Prologue where parallels are woven between the heroic Brutus founding a "new Troye" and Gower, the writer-narrator, contributing his labor to the "act of national foundation" (76). In this robust reading, Davis also draws on de Certeau's theoretical discussions of narrative and space found in his Practice of Everyday Life, a text Davis uses to advantage at several points throughout her monograph. The comic parallel between Brutus and the "cut-price hero" Amans (Gower's narrator), helps Davis assert that in Book IV, Amans not only rejects the masculine identity of errant knighthood, but also "in that rejection...becomes 'errant' in another sense, being a representative of a new masculine modality: a dubious, homeless, undetermined and sometimes transgressive, indeed errant masculinity" (78). This homeless "vernacular masculinity" arises, Davis argues, from the social and economic traumas and changes precipitated particularly by post-plague England. Davis, following James Simpson, reads the multiple personae Amans encounters as dramatized "interior negotiations." She writes, "The subject of the Confessio is represented by a plurality of personae and protagonists, and it is in the spaces between them--'strange' unmapped textual spaces--that I locate the autobiographical motive" (79). These spaces make room for critiques of knighthood as well as critiques of power assertions via violence; they critique the slothful man who, unlike the knight, represents immobility and does not act; they provide space for critical analysis of social ills and a nostalgic space for an idealized but vanished past, and they open up a location for what Davis calls "a kind of urbanitas, a city-based and middling opening up of new ethical possibilities with new 'masculine plots' that were expressed in a new medium: English poetry" (93). This chapter is particularly strong and written so clearly that even readers possessing only passing familiarity with the Confessio will find it meaningful and resonant with other materials concerned with "self-fashioning" in the late Medieval and Early Modern periods.

Chaucer's Canon's Yeoman provides the focus for Chapter Four and creates some potential difficulty for readers, since one pilgrim and his tale, extracted from the full complexity of masculinities represented in the Canterbury Tales, is used to ground the chapter. (This observation also holds for Davis' work on Piers Plowman and the Confessio. Because she extracts only moments from these immensely complex works to create the foundations for her arguments, evidence that might provide exceptions to, or qualifications of, her arguments for any one text are unattended. But Davis is not setting out to provide comprehensive readings of the larger texts; instead, she aims to foreground very particular themes in late medieval literary representations of masculinity, and her strategy reasonably, even if not exhaustively, satisfies the needs of her argument.) Obviously, the thematic linking of 1) an ethics of labor, 2) masculine subjectivity, and 3) the domestic world emerges frequently throughout Chaucer's Tales, not just within the Canon's Yeoman's Tale. Still, Davis effectively reads the Canon's Yeoman's "autobiographical confession" as one that "negotiates...contemporary ideals about moderate, obedient and industrious masculinity." She demonstrates that this text belongs "within a new form of masculine life writing that places labour at the centre of the construction of the self, and reads tools as extensions of the desiring body" 108-109. Davis also makes frequent, if passing, connections between the dynamics of masculine subjectivity in the Canon's Yeoman material and other tales within Chaucer's larger narrative. But this tale effectively foregrounds issues of transformation, unification, fraud, subservience, and truth, elements that circulate, combine and recombine, to construct an alchemy of destabilized masculine subjectivity. Here, Davis claims, Chaucer offers a view into interior corruption and into "the way in which people delude and damage themselves" (136) by allowing alchemists (of various kinds) to exploit fantasies and inner instabilities. Davis' powerful reading concludes that the Canon's Yeoman exposes the potential tragedy of opening up to just any "exterior manipulation[s] of our interior lives. And, conversely...[it also] warns against...the danger of interiorizing and embodying social, gendered and apparently authoritative expectations without question, of modelling the self on an exemplum" (137). Although Davis does not point to the Clerk's Tale in this chapter--since the character whose self is grounded on an exemplum there is female (Griselda)--Walter's forms of psychological and social "alchemy" also have connections to the claims Davis makes, and unlike the Canon's Yeoman, the Clerk's Walter, like so many of the other masculine subjectivities analyzed in her book, represents a kind of alchemist in marriage. The potential link I see here demonstrates the way Davis' arguments resonate productively with connections to material beyond the scope of her own arguments. The amount of material she weaves together and the complexities of her arguments make this chapter, and the book as a whole, fruitful reading.

Davis' final chapter, "Autobiography and Skin: the work of Thomas Hoccleve," deftly articulates a masculine subjectivity, a life-writing that contains some of the same elements and strategies she has analyzed in Langland, Chaucer, and Gower, but Hoccleve also forms a marked departure. Instead of positioning the husband (the male laborer and head of household) as a subject position to be admired, praised, considered key to social restoration and order, Hoccleve and his narrator (Davis argues) mourn the "middling" masculine location of married professional writer. In The Regiment of Princes, women, marriage, and heterosexual desire become obstacles to the homosocial monastic scribal world (cast as more stable than marriage) that is of greater status but that is simultaneously giving way, in the fifteenth century, to a new class of secular clerks. Davis understands Hoccleve's response to the anxiety of this fledgling social identity as a yearning for "home" (defined in the Regiment as the homosocial monastic world rather than a domestic scene). Hoccleve's narrative also enacts "an interiorization of [late medieval] cultural disapproval of men in his middling position" (161). Women threaten not just the narrator's professional aspirations but also his bodily integrity (i.e., his preference for chaste sexual abstinence); and they even disrupt the rhetorical-aesthetic design of the text. Digressions on women, marriage and sexual desire threaten (and for twenty-first century readers often overwhelm) the focus and success of Hoccleve's text.

While others have written extensively on Hoccleve's fractured "madness" and on his narrator's fantasy of a masculine wholeness imagined as attainable in a community of males, Davis builds on recent scholarship, providing a stunning and compelling close reading of Hoccleve's representation of writing as masculine suffering and work. Writing and its parchment become the "skin" enfolding the tensions and anxieties of Hoccleve's masculine subjectivity. Echoing long-standing monastic traditions that might read the everyday accoutrements and activities of scribal writing as a kind of imitatio Christi, both Hoccleve and his narrator respond to the pressures of urban masculine professional labor subjectivities with a nostalgia that seeks a monastic home unattainable for the married, secular, London professional. Thus, Hoccleve's texts, like those of Langland, Usk, Gower, and Chaucer, registers a significant change in masculine subjectivity arising in the late Middle Ages. In this chapter and throughout Writing Masculinity, Isabel Davis acknowledges the important arguments, evidence, and influence of other scholars. She also contributes her own fresh and insightful readings of significant and influential literary texts to our current discussions of masculinities and male textual self-fashionings in late medieval England.