Lorraine Attreed, Holy Cross College

title.none: Ferster, Fictions of Advice

identifier.other: baj9928.9612.001 96.12.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Lorraine Attreed, Holy Cross College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Ferster, Judith. Fictions of Advice: The Literature and Politics of Counsel in Late Medieval England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. Pp. xii, 216. $32.95. ISBN: ISBN Cloth 0-8122-3332-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.12.01

Ferster, Judith. Fictions of Advice: The Literature and Politics of Counsel in Late Medieval England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. Pp. xii, 216. $32.95. ISBN: ISBN Cloth 0-8122-3332-8.

Reviewed by:

Lorraine Attreed, Holy Cross College

As La Rochefoucauld observed, "Men give away nothing so liberally as their advice." The liberality of such gestures, and their meaning within the context of historical events, provide the focus for Judith Ferster's interdisciplinary study of counsel in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England. Historians and literary critics alike have much to learn from this book, and formalists among the latter are especially reminded of the value a historical context can bring these writings. Students of medieval politics can profit from the ways in which these texts are revealed to contain messages that subverted power structures while ostensibly supporting the ruler they addressed.

Ferster's introduction describes the history of the Fuerstenspiegel tradition, at the center of which lies a ninth-century Arabic text. The Secretum Secretorum purported to contain Aristotle's advice to Alexander on rule and power. Ferster sets forth her plan to study English translations of that work, in addition to Chaucer's Tale of Melibee, various works of Gower, and Hoccleve's Regement of Princes. A final chapter examines new and old elements in that classic of advice to rulers, Machiavelli's The Prince. The introduction includes a review of the literature on the topics of advice, subversion of authority, censorship, and the encoding of opposition in literary works.

Chapters two and four contain little new to historians but set down some useful background. In the second chapter, a study of public discourse and the institutions of power in medieval England, Ferster examines the nature of parliament and the opportunities it provided for its members to speak freely and critically to the king. The actions of Peter de la Mare and Thomas Haxey are usefully though often simplistically summarized, with reference to the history of deposition within England. English monarchs, she shows, were limited and constrained by institutions such as parliament, but rarely controlled by them and only in the most dire circumstances ever destroyed by them. The fourth chapter reviews conciliar structure during the fourteenth century, with brief examinations of the depositions of Edward II and Richard II, and the crises of Edward III's later years. Ferster calls our attention to the uses men active in government made of the language of advice manuals, tracing the vocabulary they borrowed from the mirror for princes tradition.

Ferster dedicates two chapters to different translations of the Secretum Secretorum. The earliest English translation, Governance of Lordschipes, was written about 1400 for Guy de Vere of Valence by one of his clerks. Although the work adopts the ruler's point of view and delivers to him Aristotle's time-honored advice to Alexander, the very nature of the work forces the ruler to submit to the advice of an underling and admit there is room in his conduct for improvement. Ferster notes the inherently leveling nature of advice which ranges from diet and hygiene to the need to treat all people equally. This potentially dangerous mixture of deference and challenge was far from straightforward: the work is filled with contradictions and covert messages so that its meaning truly becomes "the secret of secrets."

James Yonge's 1422 translation of Secretum Secretorum for his employer James Butler, earl of Ormonde, receives explication within the context of Henry V's ventures in Irish affairs. Like other writers of advice, Yonge uses the language of deference to elevate himself, indeed identifying himself with the wise Aristotle of his text. Ormonde is depicted as a second Alexander, a patron of learning who shares discourse with his educated clerk. Ferster argues persuasively that the translation was intended as much for Henry V as for Ormonde, presenting the earl as the proper choice for lieutenant of Ireland. Despite the addition of Irish material and fulsome praise of the Lancastrian line, Yonge's work did not have its intended political effect. Ormonde did not receive the appointment, and one is left to wonder whether depicting a noble in need of advice was truly the best way to convince an employer of a job candidate's credentials.

Chaucer's Tale of Melibee has confused its interpreters for centuries. Its basic structure and its topical references tempt readers to treat it as an advice manual connected to the crises of the 1380's, when Richard II faced opposition from the Appellants and parliament criticized his choice of advisers. However, Melibee's lack of progress in the work and his inability to learn from Prudence create such contradictions that formalists have concluded it undercuts its meaning too much to be an advice manual and that it has no political significance at all. Ferster chooses to embrace the contradictions, pointing out that royalist Chaucer could have been comforting the much- criticized king. By creating a comic tale of confusion and inconsistency, he might have been observing that advice, such as the kind parliament wanted to force on Richard, would produce its own problems. The imagination must work overtime to accept this interpretation, but as Ferster notes this is a fine example of how "deconstruction and historicism can work together" (p.106).

John Gower's writings have provoked similar reactions among critics. Ferster briefly reviews the contemporary political elements in four of Gower's works, and discusses how differences in the languages he chose to write in affected the political messages he communicated. She then focuses primarily upon Confessio Amantis and Cronica Tripertita. The former, a work in English, contains the usual platitudes about advice, but then proceeds to undermine or deconstruct the main paradigm of advice. The Biblical stories chosen by Gower contained a muted warning for Richard, led by his young and bad advisers to separate himself from his people. Gower's defense of the people is clearer in the Cronica, which hails the voices that praised (and raised) Henry IV, in a unanimity that made them by 1399 the voice of God. To Ferster, Gower contributed to the erosion of support for Richard II by his ability "to make the language of advice part of political discourse, honing it as an instrument for criticizing the king" (p. 134).

Thomas Hoccleve's Regement of Princes, written 1411-12 for the future Henry V, presents problems similar to those of Yonge's translation. The author had relatively low status and strong self-interest (Hoccleve hoped to collect an annuity). The work was written during the prince's tenure on the council during his father's illness, and its recommendations of liberality and generosity jarred badly with the government's efforts to cut spending. Nevertheless, by treating Henry as prince and heir, a future ruler who will take good advice, Hoccleve legitimated the usurping Lancastrian line. For his pains and his daring, he obtained his annuity, with arrears.

Ferster completes her study with a look at Machiavelli's The Prince. The earlier English works had already prepared the reader for the subversive, self-contradicting, and ironic elements of the advice genre, so that the 1513 volume appears far less novel than Renaissance historians have insisted. What is new in Machiavelli is his refusal to soften his message of political expediency and the necessity for immoral action. If he is novel, it is because he calls himself novel and trend-setting, having learned well the lessons of Renaissance writers who glorified their present by denigrating the medieval past. Ferster discusses the idea that The Prince was intended to be a revolutionary handbook to reveal the tactics of tyrants, but in the end Machiavelli's true intentions remain shadowy.

The concluding chapter explores parallels with contemporary politics of the 1980s and 1990s, interesting speculations in an election year. It is, however, difficult to see Clinton and his youthful staff as modern counterparts of Richard II. Ferster raises some important questions about the readers of such advice books, arguing that middle-class merchants, country gentry, and trilingual chancery clerks all had growing roles in government and interest in such texts. Her true contribution lies in the connections she has revealed between these works and the political scene of the day. Her work explores the complex methods by which ideas about power and its distribution in society were developed, extended and disseminated. She has examined the means by which rulers received communication from the public they served, and she requires historians and formalists alike to cooperate in their interpretation of the past.