contributor.author: Monika Otter

title.none: Summerfield, Matter of Kings' Lives (Otter)

identifier.other: baj9928.0105.007 01.05.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Monika Otter, Dartmouth College, Monika.C.Otter@dartmouth.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Summerfield, Thea. The Matter of Kings' Lives: The Design of Past and Present in the early fourteenth-century verse chronicles by Pierre de Langtoft and Robert Mannyng. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1998. Pp. vii, 319. $52.50. ISBN: 9-042-00344-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.05.07

Summerfield, Thea. The Matter of Kings' Lives: The Design of Past and Present in the early fourteenth-century verse chronicles by Pierre de Langtoft and Robert Mannyng. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1998. Pp. vii, 319. $52.50. ISBN: 9-042-00344-8.

Reviewed by:

Monika Otter
Dartmouth College
Monika.C.Otter@dartmouth.edu

The Matter of Kings' Lives takes a close look at two of those massive late-medieval productions that were popular and influential in their own time but hold little immediate appeal for modern readers. As Summerfield notes, these long verse chronicles have been judged unreliable by historians and pedestrian by literary scholars. Summerfield's close readings and cautious, understated conclusions will provide useful information to her fellow scholars working on late-medieval historiography; I doubt, though, that her book will succeed in winning over many new readers to the charms of the long verse chronicle.

One of the chronicles being a translation of the other, Summerfield very sensibly treats them comparatively. The key difference, as one might guess, is audience, and hence politics. Pierre de Langtoft's French chronicle is aimed at high- status readers; Summerfield shows that it was most likely commissioned by Anthony Bek, bishop of Durham, and its emphases and omissions closely match the bishop's political interests, especially in Anglo-Scottish relations. Robert Mannyng, on the other hand, explicitly aims his English adaptation of the chronicle at the "lewed"; Summerfield quite plausibly revives an earlier scholar's suggestion that this means the lay brothers and wage-earning entourage of Mannyng's own Gilbertine monastery. She rejects Turville-Petre's notion that Mannyng's emphasis on "Englishness" amounts to early "nationalism," or that his sympathy for the common man amounts to any sort of radical politics. In her reading--and this, to me, is the book's most intriguing suggestion--"English" and "French" become a kind of shorthand for a fuzzy but distinctly felt dichotomization of fourteenth century society into "high-born" and "low-born."

In its structure, the book betrays its origins as a Dutch doctoral dissertation. Where American dissertations emphasize a thesis, stated early and argued throughout, European dissertations tend to aim for coverage of a field and to end with their 'findings', usually cautious and not necessarily conclusive. Despite the obvious virtues of this approach (it would seem to encourage thoroughness as well as humility), it makes for less than thrilling reading. In this case, it means that readers must wade through pages and pages of somewhat generic background and somewhat pedestrian close readings before they are rewarded with actual insights and ideas at the end. The brief Chapter VIII (the last besides the summary "epilogue") is easily the most engaging part of the entire book.

Even more disappointingly, once Summerfield arrives at the "conclusions" part, she has little time or inclination to elaborate on those insights. When I finished the book, I wished she had started it where she ends it: positing as her thesis the dichotomized class structure of fourteenth-century England, and permitting herself to investigate this further. I wanted to know more about 'politics'. Just what kind of "solace" does "the matter of kings' lives" afford the lewed people of Sempringham? Summerfield's rejection of either proto-nationalist or proto-revolutionary readings seems judicious to me, but she puts little else in their place. In the end, she leaves her Mannyng with precisely the vaguely moralizing, vanilla, condescending schoolmaster image from which she set out to rescue him. In what sense, precisely, is he (or Langtoft) "political"? Not every book, it is true, has to be a "theory" book, but even for what it is and what it aims to do, The Matter of Kings' Lives is woefully under- theorized, its terms and goals under-defined, and its findings therefore predictably vague.

Still, there are sensible readings and valuable insights here; anyone working on Mannyng or Langtoft will certainly want to consult Summerfield's book.