Michelle Warren

title.none: Strohm, England's Empty Throne: Usurpation and the Language of Legitimation (Warren)

identifier.other: baj9928.9907.010 99.07.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Michelle Warren, University of Miami,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Strohm, Paul. England's Empty Throne: Usurpation and the Language of Legitimation, 1399-1422. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998. Pp. xiv, 274. $35.00. ISBN: 0-300-07544-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.07.10

Strohm, Paul. England's Empty Throne: Usurpation and the Language of Legitimation, 1399-1422. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998. Pp. xiv, 274. $35.00. ISBN: 0-300-07544-8.

Reviewed by:

Michelle Warren
University of Miami

In his most recent book, Paul Strohm seeks to explain the structures that legitimated Lancastrian rule after the deposition of Richard II. Relying on Slavoj Zizek's theories of ideology, Strohm astutely adopts methods of cultural psychoanalysis for historical investigation. Zizek's interpretive methods represent the latest permutation in the complex genealogy of the unconscious psyche in modern thought. Stated simplistically, Zizek reinterprets Jacques Lacan, who in turn reinterpreted Sigmund Freud. Whereas Freudian psychoanalysis exposes individual unconscious desires by analyzing linguistic irregularity (the now proverbial "Freudian slip"), Lacan shifted the site of analysis to ordinary language and its structures of absence. For Zizek, by contrast, culture itself is structured like the unconscious, and thus like language. At its best, Zizekian psychoanalysis suggests the "unconscious" motivations of cultural communications; texts and images become "symptoms" of the cultural unconscious.

Applied to historical analysis, Zizekian psychoanalysis can expose the structures that shape "unconscious" patterns of desire for historical actors. For Strohm, then, the truth of history resides primarily in the structures that shape textual communications as expressions of ideological desire. Strohm does not seek the "kernel" of true occurrences "behind" or "within" fictions; rather, he finds truth in discursive performances themselves (129, 213, 214). In England's Empty Throne, Strohm does not offer new information about events during the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V but rather new information about the dynamics of legitimation that shaped various cultural phenomena in the first quarter of the fifteenth century.

After Henry duke of Lancaster imprisoned Richard II and made himself Henry IV, the Lancastrian court manufactured legitimate kingship symbolically. Strohm articulates an intriguing thesis about these Lancastrian performances: the ghosts of illegitimacy reveal themselves precisely where legitimacy seems most strongly affirmed. Strohm thus identifies Lancastrian England as an anxious culture obsessed with its own perversions. He argues that resistances to Lancastrian legitimacy--from Lollard heresy to counterfeiting to treasonous plots--were all in some sense constructed by the forces of Lancastrian paranoia: "All equally attract Lancastrian enmity by treating the world as irreducible matter, as what it seems to be, rather than what it might be made to seem" (152). By successfully foiling these enemies, the monarchy proved its legitimacy. Moreover, each of these threats specifically challenges belief in transubstantiation--of bread into Christ, of silver into coin, of a duke into a king. Disbelief becomes the political unconscious that will not be repressed (31), the "symptom" of Lancastrian anxiety that also legitimates Lancastrian authority.

This thesis illustrates one of the basic ideological maneuvers that Zizek attributes to the totalitarian state: "if there is no opposition it must be invented, since the Party needs external and internal enemies so that, in the name of this danger, it can maintain the state of emergency and total unity" (For They Know Not, 252). This paradox, repeatedly manifest in Strohm's analyses of Lancastrian culture, also exemplifies Zizek's imperative "Enjoy your symptom!": since the symptom is also the locus of true identity, it becomes a locus of desire and source of pleasure. Each of Strohm's cases illustrates a different Lancastrian symptom; each implies the others through the Lacanian notion of "quilting," whereby the significance of a seemingly isolated phenomenon can pierce through the entire cultural system. The result here is a fascinating image of discourses in convergence.

Strohm finds the visible products of Lancastrian neuroses everywhere--in legal records, poetry, historiography, religious treatises, royal ritual. The chapters, like the discourses they analyze, portray both Lancastrian desire and the pleasure of stubborn resistance. Chapter 1, "Prophecy and Kingship," elucidates how prophecy enacts legitimacy. The next two chapters demonstrate how Lancastrian authority gave shape to its own enemies, again in order to bolster dynastic legitimacy. Chapter 2, "Heretic Burning: The Lollard as Menace and Victim," shows the paradoxical construction of the heretic, at once a terrible threat and an incompetent fool; Chapter 3, "Plots," shows a similar dynamic at work in plots against the king, which sometimes appear to have been invented so that they could be foiled. Chapter 4, "Reburying Richard: Ceremony and Symbolic Relegitimation" follows Chapter 1 in focusing on royal assertions of control. Here, both Henrys sought to contain rumors of Richard's survival, rumors that Strohm relates directly to images of Lollard sedition. Chapter 5, "Counterfeiters, Lollards, and Lancastrian Unease," brings all the discourses of resistance together, as Strohm relates counterfeiters to heretics, heresy to treason, and the usurping king back to the counterfeiter; for Strohm, the pro-Lancastrian poet Hoccleve serves as a nexus for all of these discourses. Chapter 6, "Joan of Navarre: That Obscure Object of Desire," offers Henry IV's second wife as a further example of a discourse that resists Lancastrian symbolic control. Chapter 7, "Advising the Lancastrian Prince," turns again to Hoccleve, as well as Lydgate, arguing that their official optimism about legitimacy is always shadowed by the fact of usurpation.

Like Chapters 1, 4, and 7, the conclusion, "Coda: The Amnesiac Text," focuses on overt claims to legitimacy. Strohm argues that the texts he has investigated are all part of a "program of official forgetfulness" (196), in which the repressed event nevertheless returns. The empty throne is in fact sufficiently full: even an empty center can constitute good citizens by engaging their desires (213). Strohm's ultimate point is that historical discourse is always empty at its center, just as the throne remained potentially empty during Lancastrian rule. Meaning resides rather in the historical unconscious, the neuroses that occupy the periphery.

To many historians, this may all sound like an evasion of history, a renunciation of the search for true events and reliable narratives about them. Yet the psychoanalysis of culture, as practiced by Zizek, seriously addresses issues of real historical import, such as the ongoing struggle over ethnic legitimacy in the Balkans. There is thus every reason to believe that more distant yet equally real historical traumas, such as the Lancastrian usurpation, will yield new aspects of their true history through cultural psychoanalysis.

It is unfortunate, however, that Strohm has not overtly addressed the critical resistance that may be generated by the boldness of his methodological claims. As illustrated by the unmodified adjective "Lacanian" that introduces the book's methodological motor (xi), Strohm relies on an implicit structure of legitimation that almost invites resisting readers to disbelieve. While in Zizekian terms the manufacture of dissent strengthens Strohm's critical authority, some readers may have difficulty finding pleasure in the symptoms of their critical desires. Strohm might have palliated such anxieties by directly engaging some of Zizek's own discursive performances. Analyzing Richard's reburial, for example, Strohm evokes the troubled space "between two deaths" as developed by Lacan and extended by Zizek (110n42, 111, 118n80). To lend this space historical specificity, Strohm cites the familiar (to medievalists) concept of the king's "two bodies" as developed by Ernst Kantorowicz (104, 117). At the center of this chapter, then, lies a philosophical and ideological conjunction of psychoanalytic and royal "death", both of which leave spectral residues that attract desire. Tellingly, Zizek himself concludes his critique of totalitarian ideology by turning to Kantorowicz (For They Know Not, 254-56). If Strohm had explored Zizek's appropriation of Kantorowicz, England's Empty Throne could have defined a clear genealogical affiliation between medieval studies and cultural psychoanalysis.

The image of the empty throne itself offers another example of methodological symbiosis. Beginning with reference to Lacan, Strohm delineates the convergence of desire and lack in the throne (202); Strohm goes on to tie the scandal of emptiness to Kantorowicz's theories of sacral continuity (203); the exposition folds back toward Zizek (204n22, 206) and Lacan (206, 207). In the process, Strohm leaves the impression that Zizek himself discusses England's empty throne (For They Know Not, 206n32). Zizek's analysis, however, circles around the birth of democracy in the French Revolution: this is the "empty throne" of the monarchy per se. Zizek (For They Know Not, 11) and Strohm (207) both use Hans Christian Andersen's tale of the emperor with no clothes to illustrate the power of this empty center. Lack thus occupies the center of all the tales spun here. The structure of Strohm's converges on Zizek's in several important and historically illuminating ways. Yet where Zizek's tale loops toward democracy, Strohm's surrounds the continuity of monarchical authority. In ideological and political terms, Strohm uses Zizek to explain how an empty throne remained full, whereas Zizek explains the desire for a permanent evacuation of royal subjectivity. This ideological tension, however, remains submerged in England's Empty Throne.

Ultimately, I find Strohm's thesis compelling and his method truly illuminating. While I have long admired Strohm's methods of cultural analysis, psychoanalysis itself has not always attracted my attention or seemed an entirely legitimate method of historical explanation. Strohm's book has challenged me to think deeply about these issues, and to read both theory and history through new perspectives. For readers willing to pursue similar theoretical adventures, England's Empty Throne is full of rich rewards.


Zizek, Slavoj. Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. London: Routledge, 1992.

---. For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor. London: Verso, 1991.