James Morey

title.none: Shoaf, ed, Thomas Usk, Testament of Love (Morey)

identifier.other: baj9928.9905.001 99.05.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: James Morey, Emory University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Shoaf, R. Allen, ed. The Testament of Love. TEAMS Middle English Texts Series. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1998. Pp. xiv, 455. $20.00. ISBN: 1-580-44001-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.05.01

Shoaf, R. Allen, ed. The Testament of Love. TEAMS Middle English Texts Series. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1998. Pp. xiv, 455. $20.00. ISBN: 1-580-44001-0.

Reviewed by:

James Morey
Emory University

From the very first page of the introduction, Professor Shoaf's edition provides a substantive, informative, and engaging scholarly examination of a lesser known Middle English prose text: Thomas Usk's Testament of Love. The edition is primarily a literary study, but Shoaf's use of history, philosophy, and textual criticism is a fine demonstration of how complicated and sophisticated the study and presentation of medieval texts must be. Even as I sympathize with what must have been a very difficult editorial task, I am reminded that we become medievalists partly because we get to do this kind of research and detective work in order to earn the privilege of drawing the best conclusions we can from intractable evidence. The work is an extended dialogue, in three Books, between the imprisoned Usk and the allegorical figure of Love who, on the model of Lady Philosophy in Boethius's De Consolatione, comforts and instructs her pupil on mostly conventional themes: the instability of fame and the threat of envy; truth-telling and truth-divining; the source of evil (124 and passim); the vanity of riches (164); "gentylnesse" (144); free will and divine foreknowledge (most of Book III); the search for true felicity (152); marriage and the relationship between the sexes (121); the relationship of man to the elements, beasts, "spirites that dwellen in the ayre" (117), angels, and God. In these respects, the work is a kind of encyclopedia of proverbs, lore, and philosophy, to which Shoaf's summary on pages 44-45 (taken from Stephen Medcalf's essay in the Burrow festschrift [[1]]) provides a guide, though I wish it were more detailed, or that there were an index to the text and notes, so that material could be found more easily. There is only one source of the Testament--William Thynne's printing in 1532--so readers may be surprised to see two texts in parallel in Shoaf's edition. On the bottom, just above the glosses, appears a "diplomatic transcription" (2) from Thynne so as to provide "a sixteenth-century reading of TL according to the conventions of that age" (3, note 8). On the top, Shoaf explains how he presents a pointed version of the work representing my efforts at construing it. Thus, I offer the contemporary reader the constant choice, in the absence of any other choice, between the sixteenth-century editor's, Thynne's, construction of Usk and the twentieth-century editor's construction of Usk, mine. (2) In an interesting discussion of how "editing is originary deconstruction" (xi), Shoaf is acutely aware of the editorial challenges presented by any such presentation, and TEAMS is to be commended for making space available to print both texts. Thynne inevitably intervenes, since his printing is the only source text we have. Shoaf's edition is thus not a "construction" of Usk, but his reconstruction of a fourteenth-century text mediated by a sixteenth-century one. Shoaf makes this point abundantly clear elsewhere in the introduction, but his phrasing on page 2, quoted above, is open to misinterpretation. I must also point out that nowhere in the introduction or in the edition itself is the reader clearly told which text--top and bottom--is which. I fear that many undergraduate users of the edition unfamiliar with folio numbers and virgules will not perceive the difference. Headings, at the very least on the first page of the text, are called for. Shoaf has done an excellent job of editing, however, and he is scrupulously fair to the four previous editors of the Testament: Thynne in 1532, Walter Skeat in 1897, Virginia Jellech in her 1970 Washington University dissertation, and John Leyerle in his 1977 Harvard dissertation. Shoaf also quotes extensively in his notes from Claes Schaar's Notes on Thomas Usk's "Testament of Love", and he carefully arbitrates among the many emendations and explanations provided by them and by others.[[2]] Since the text is often corrupt, or at best cryptic, Shoaf aims to provide the reader with the means to make his or her own editorial decisions. Even after sometimes extensive rearrangement and emendation of the text--which Shoaf does not indulge in--it is by no means clear what some sentences mean. For example, lines 791-793 of Book II read as follows in Shoaf's text which, here as elsewhere, differs only very slighty from Thynne except with regard to the punctuation: And if thyne eyen weren as good as the lynx, that maye sene thorowe many stone walles bothe fayre and foule in their entrayles of no maner hewe shulde apere to thy syght that were a foule syght. In the note, Shoaf quotes from Leyerle's paraphrase, which emends "hewe" to "he3ed" (exalted):And if your eyes were as good as those of the lynx that can see through stone walls, both ugly and handsome in their inwardness would appear in no way exalted; that would be an ugly spectacle.(365) Elsewhere, especially in Book III, an extended discussion of free will and predestination (based largely on St. Anselm's De Concordia, excerpts from which are in Appendix 3), turgid logic-chopping is not uncommon:For a tree is nat alway by necessité white. Somtyme, er it were white, it myght have be nat white, and after tyme it is white it maye be nat white. But a whyte tree evermore nedeful is to be white, for neither toforn ne after it was white myght it be togider white and nat white.(3:336-339) In the face of what sometimes amounts to "bewildering nonsense" (396--Leyerle's description of another vexed passage), Shoaf prudently opts for minimal editorial intervention. Whether the confusion results from faulty scribes, careless printers, or from Usk himself, in the absence of manuscript witnesses little more can be done. To balance the scales more in Usk's favor, the following passages, among others noted by C. S. Lewis as examples of Kunstprosa in early English, give a sense of how Usk could master the homely and sublime styles.[[3]] Immediately before the narrator boards an allegorical "shyppe of traveyle" he finds himselfby woodes that large stretes werne in, by smale pathes that swyne and hogges hadden made as lanes with ladels their maste to seche. I walked thynkynge alone a wonder great whyle. . . .(1:267-269) In a discussion of the Chain of Being, the narrator comments of Man that Nowe is his soule here, nowe a thousande myle hence; nowe ferre, nowe nygh, now hye, nowe lowe, as ferre in a momente as in mountenaunce of tenne wynter, and al this is in mannes governaunce and disposytion.(1:874-876) The language is difficult and the text is indeed often corrupt, but part of the difficulty stems from the technical language of logical argument, and the often confusing mode of arguing by contraries in extended comparisons. For these reasons, readers must pay close attention to the language and syntax in order to get anything out of the text at all. The lexicon in particular, which Shoaf is careful to preserve, gives the best sense of Usk's language. These features can benefit students learning Middle English, since there is no better way to develop a sense of Middle English words, syntax, and of this particular style of Middle English prose than by reading carefully, and by weighing alternatives. I suspect, however, that only graduate students and the most determined undergraduates are likely to read it through. In larger social, political, and literary contexts, the Testament gives some perspective on Usk himself and on two contemporaries, Chaucer and Langland. Usk was a scrivener, courtly lover, scholastic philosopher, and "failed politician" (14) who was imprisoned for conflicting associations with two rivals for the mayorship of London, John of Northampton and Nicholas Brembre (Usk's "Appeal" against Northampton is Appendix 2). Shoaf speaks of a "lingering sense of unease about the intelligence of a man so distraught if not also distracted" (14). He was executed in 1388 by order of the Merciless Parliament. Usk was clearly a reader of Chaucer, whom Love calls "myne owne trewe servaunt the noble philosophical poete in Englissh" (3:559-560), and in particular of Chaucer's masterwork Troilus and Criseyde. Shoaf, as an editor of that work, has a finely tuned ear for allusions and shared imagery, and many of his notes point out hitherto unnoticed verbal reminisences. In fact, the Testament has sometimes been ascribed to Chaucer, since Thynne prints it as part of Chaucer's collected works. Shoaf assumes that Thynne was guilty of this misapprehension, though Skeat argues that Thynne was not so naive and that the real confusion began with subsequent printers.[[4]] The subject matter shared with the House of Fame, and the proximity of that work to the Testament in Thynne's edition (immediately before) probably contributed to the perception. Some more information on who exactly thought Chaucer wrote the work, the implications of their assumption, and how and when the misattribution was discovered, is to be wished for given Shoaf's rather dogmatic assertion on page 1 that Thynne thought Chaucer wrote the Testament. Only in the last footnote in the introduction (25) does Shoaf admit the possibility that Thynne may have been more aware than some assume and that perhaps he concealed Usk's authorship in order to capitalize on the reputation of Chaucer. Usk's possible knowledge of Langland's Piers Plowman has been reexamined by Shoaf, John Bowers, Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, and Steven Justice. Ever since Skeat's edition, the assumption has been that the C-version of Piers must have been finished by 1386, the approximate date of the Testament, since Usk was thought to have quoted from that version. Shoaf and Bowers argue that the dependence is not as clear as once thought, and that our dating of the C-version must be reconsidered. Professor Bower's article on this important question convinces both Shoaf and me, and it is forthcoming.[[5]] Another possible source which Shoaf mentions is the Cloud of Unknowing (7-8), but as far as I can tell the only basis for this claim is the "verbal echo" (401) "cloude in unconnyng" (3:542). One of the most remarkable features of the text is the acrostic "MARGARETE OF VIRTW HAVE MERCI ON THIN USK." The text must be rearranged in order to restore this reading, and thus the acrostic provides a significant clue concerning the proper order of the chapters. The metaphor of the Margarite, or pearl, along with that of the knot, are the governing conceits of the work. Appendix 1 provides several selections concerning the pearl: from Pliny, Albert the Great, Marbod of Rennes, and some medieval encyclopedias, lapidaries, and bestiaries. Shoaf also provides as a frontispiece an illustration from Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 602, fol. 34 (a bestiary), of the sun shining on a pair of oyster shells, one open and one closed, and on the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child. The illustration sets up the parallel between the wondrous production of pearls and the miraculous Virgin Birth. Another ingredient is necessary for the pearl--moisture or "dew" from the heavens--here shown as rain falling from a cloud. The metaphorical connection of dew and the Virgin Birth is well-established, notably in the Middle English lyric "I sing of a maiden," and anyone interested in this image should consult Shoaf's discussion in his introduction and in notes on pages 375 and 415. For what it is worth, however, I would add that, in the frontispiece, some distinction seems to be made between the straight rays of the sun which fall upon the open oyster and the wavy rays of the sun which fall upon the closed oyster and the Virgin Mary. Mary and Christ are also drawn in the margin, and I suppose it possible that they, and perhaps also the wavy lines, were added later (though I have not seen the manuscript). Lastly, it is a bit odd, if dew is really one of the agents in question, why a cloud should appear at all. The parallel between dew and the Virgin Birth makes most sense to me because dew, like the Christ child, comes from "nowhere." Moisture on the ground does not surprise on a cloudy day, but seems miraculous on a bright, clear morning. Lastly, I would point out the number of proverbs which appear throughout the text. Shoaf identifies them, and cites the Latin collection by Walther, but for the Middle English proverbs Shoaf cites Skeat and Tilley, whereas the more complete and recent collection by the Whitings is omitted.[[6]] The bibliography should also note that there is now a facsimile of the Glossa Ordinaria, and that Ranulph Higden was a monk (monachi) not a king (monarchi).[[7]] The only other typos visible to my eye were the almost inevitable "Neophilogische for " Neophilologische on page 31, and misspellings of Jellech's middle name on page 34 and of Florence McCulloch's last name on page 421. There is a five page glossary. An electronic version of the edition is in place and in progress (as of this writing) at Here one can find the versions of the text, facsimiles of Thynne's printing, addenda, corrigenda, and audio of Shoaf reading. I could not find the frontispiece, however, and hope that it can be posted soon. With this kind of technological resource, and with a scholar as thorough and as expert as Shoaf, reviewers and reviews are almost superfluous. Professor Shoaf, and the General Editor of the series, Russell Peck, deserve our thanks and admiration for their excellent work in making lesser known Middle English texts more widely available.


[1] Stephen Medcalf, "The World and Heart of Thomas Usk," in Essays on Ricardian Literature in Honour of J. A. Burrow (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), pp. 222-251.

[2] William Thynne, The Workes of Geffray Chaucer newly printed, with dyuers workes which were neuer in print before . . . (London, 1532. STC 5068); Walter W. Skeat, ed., Chaucerian and Other Pieces, vol. 7 of The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897); Virginia Bording Jellech, "The Testament of Love by Thomas Usk: A New Edition," (Diss. Washington University, 1970); John F. Leyerle, "Thomas Usk's Testament of Love: A Critical Edition," (Diss. Harvard University, 1977); Claes Schaar, Notes on Thomas Usk's "Testament of Love," (Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup) 1950.

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936) p. 230.

[4] Skeat, op. cit., pp. ix-x.

[5] John Bowers, "Dating Piers Plowman: Testing the Testimony of Usk's Testament," forthcoming in The Yearbook of Langland Studies. I wish to thank Professor Bowers for letting me see a copy of this essay. Kathryn Kerby-Fulton and Steven Justice, "Langlandian Reading Circles and the Civil Service in London and Dublin, 1380-1427," in New Medieval Literatures 1 (1997): 59-83.

[6] Hans Walther, Proverbia Sententiaeque Latinitatis Medii Aevi, 6 vols., (Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1963-1969); Walter W. Skeat, ed., Early English Proverbs of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910); Morris Palmer Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1950); Bartlett Jere Whiting and Helen Wescott Whiting, Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases From English Writings Mainly Before 1500, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968).

[7] Karlfried Fruelich and Margaret T. Gibson. Biblia latina cum glossa ordinaria: facsimile reprint of the editio princeps Adolph Rusch of Strassburg 1480-81. 4 vols. Brepols: Turnhout, 1992.