Isabel Davis

title.none: Smith, Arts of Possession (Isabel Davis)

identifier.other: baj9928.0403.009 04.03.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Isabel Davis, University of York,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Smith, D. Vance. Arts of Possession: The Middle English Household Imaginary. Series: Medieval Cultures, vol. 33. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. Pp. xviii, 318. ISBN: $23.00 0-8166-3951-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.03.09

Smith, D. Vance. Arts of Possession: The Middle English Household Imaginary. Series: Medieval Cultures, vol. 33. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. Pp. xviii, 318. ISBN: $23.00 0-8166-3951-5.

Reviewed by:

Isabel Davis
University of York

The central argument of D. Vance Smith's book defines the household as a configuration of things, of possessions, and inhabiting as about finding ethical accommodation within a practice of ownership. The introduction begins playfully, exploring the etymological associations between, for example, household (oikos) and economy, and inhabiting (inhabeo) and having (habeo). Smith's is an intriguing, provocative thesis and one that allows him considerable scope to explore, in his inimitable eclectic and agile style, a number of different ethical concerns about systems of exchange and economic cultures under the broad (when so defined) heading of household. Although the subject headings on the title page of Arts of Possession mention, amongst other things, "House furnishings in literature", "Family in literature" and "Home in literature", this volume is really more concerned with the ethics of property and materiality in a more abstract sense than it is with quotidian household things, affective familial relationships, or emotional attachments to houses in and of themselves. This is born, in part, from adopting the rural noble manor and, ultimately the peripatetic royal household as a model for investigation rather than, say, the urban household. Smith considers the household exclusively as an economic and administrative unit, the "space within which economic circulation occurred", as opposed to a literal, physical space or a place of emotional, familial or conjugal negotiation. Smith adopts the model of the medieval household supplied in work by historians of high culture such as David Starkey's famous article on the late Middle Ages: "The Age of Household". In doing so Smith tends to overlook work which provides evidence for, and analysis of any alternative kind of household; given his interest in medieval romance, the work of Felicity Riddy on family and household in that genre and, in particular, her article in Roberta Krueger's excellent 'Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance' is a notable omission from the bibliography.

Smith is adept, as this and his previous publications show, at generating new questions for consideration but also at approaching some very old questions from new angles. Accordingly Smith produces a somewhat miscellaneous volume, with an exceptionally wide range of reference--from classical to post-modern--and one that has a number of astute things to say about late medieval cultural ideologies and how we might theorize them with the tools supplied by, variously, Marx, Freud, Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari, Goux, Baudrillard, Mauss and Bataille. This interest in cultural theory leaves space, however, for some inspired readings of the Middle English literature. Whilst the first two chapters use an assortment of primary sources, referring to conduct literature, household accounts, popular romance, the 'Canterbury Tales', amongst other things, the final four chapters each take, for special consideration, a particular text, namely and respectively: "Winner and Waster", "Piers Plowman", "Sir Launfal" and "The Alliterative Morte Arthure". Smith's analyses of particular passages are often stellar. For example, the early discussion of the way in which the "Richard Coer de Lyon" poet renders the macabre and the cannibalistic rites at the centre of his poem in the terms supplied by the practice of domestic management sets a high standard for the rest of the book. The fourth chapter, on "Piers Plowman", supplies an original reading of the tearing of the pardon scene--an episode that is now a notorious crux in Langlandian studies. The most impressive chapter, I think, is the fifth, on "Sir Launfal"; it is fluent and convincing, with an argument that twists through a text for which Smith evidently has a profound sensitivity. Smith's readings of the poem's interest in spectacles of display and materiality supports, through example, his strident defence of the literary merits of the Middle English romance form.

Smith's volume also produces some fascinating readings of other kinds of text and evidence; household account books, heraldic devices, merchants' marks and seals, for example, are productively combined with his literary sources. In his discussion of heraldry and merchants' marks Smith develops one of the volume's central strands: its discussion of the relationship between the merchant class and the aristocracy, in an unacknowledged shift to urban rather than rural culture. Smith rejects the idea that the mercantile community was aspiring in class terms, collecting extensive evidence--from distraint cases and the like--for the failure, indeed the reluctance, of this group to assimilate themselves into the ranks of the armigerous even where they met the grade in terms of wealth and especially landed wealth. Smith describes the merchants of late medieval England as "reticent" and "marginal", seemingly content to stand as spectators of aristocratic display: "In almost every symbolic domain of medieval London we see a similar situation: merchants contemplate, enjoy, and even use the signs of aristocracy while, as in the (chivalric) pageants, they remain on the verges of the world that those signs represent" (96). Merchants' marks and seals, Smith argues, were designed in part to appropriate heraldic emblems but, crucially, used the particular devices that "belong to the less important group of heraldic charges, the ordinaries or marks of difference", and that in fact that they were conceived differently: "engendered out of, the material traces of 'copia', the surplus that makes exchange of any kind possible. And the semiotics of mercantile signs is appropriately acquisitive and agglutinative where the traditional practice of heraldry is exclusionary and determined" (94).

Interestingly Smith doesn't address the problem from the opposite side, considering the demilitarization of the aristocracy and the failure, or reluctance of young, gentle-born men to take up the right to bear arms in this period. Whilst Smith is interesting on the ways in which mercantile self-representation customized aristocratic conceits in novel and distinctively un-aristocratic ways, he doesn't speculate on what was singularly attractive about the mercantile ethos that enabled it to rival the aesthetic paradigms of courtly communities; I think the answer lies in some of this book's silences and in the particular emphasis, within bourgeois household ideologies, on conjugal affection and domestic piety. In this volume Smith seems to set up intimacy and privacy as antitheses to economy and community; but it was precisely the generation of affective ideologies of intimacy and privacy that countervailed new economic and political power in legitimating discourses. In short, I think that Smith finds "reticence" because he is looking at the wrong sort of household, prioritising the noble households like those in the "Wife of Bath's Tale" as opposed to those in her "Prologue", that are more loquacious on the subject of urban bourgeois ethical codes.

I was surprised, given Smith's sparkly article in Becoming Male in the Middle Ages that there was so little consideration of gender in the late medieval household, but ultimately Arts of Possession is not interested in individual subjectivities. Smith rarely shows a curiosity about who inhabits his households, in who his economic actors are, in who constituted the readership of medieval romances, in differentiating the alternative personae in the poetry he analyses, in how characters like, say, the Wife of Bath are conceptualized as negotiations between social groups and interior desires. To give just one telling example, Langland the author of "Piers Plowman" is repeatedly conflated with his narrator, Will, until p. 136 when Smith remembers to tell us that he is agnostic about their relationship in a sentence which indicates his lack of interest in the reflexive subjectivities of Langland's poem: "... the mediating inscriber of the poem, whether we call him 'Will,' the Dreamer, or Langland...". The chapter on "Piers Plowman" offers a strong contribution to our knowledge of how that poem constructs a deeply ambivalent attitude to merchants and their social place, however, in a book on household it is curious to observe its blindness to the poem's preoccupation with the ethics of, say, marriage and parenthood and how they might relate to its invective against social and economic ills. Why, for example, is Will's marital status central to his interrogation under the terms of the labour statutes by Reason and Conscience in Passus V the C-text? In this 'apologia' Will indicates that the source of the poem's reflexive anxiety comes from the disjunction between his marital status and his quasi-clerical occupation; like the merchants who, Smith notes, fell outside of standard medieval estate taxonomies, the secular, married clergy represented a group on the cusp between traditional social identities and a nascent bourgeoisie who were devising new ethical paradigms which were exhibited primarily in the domestic realm.

My final reservation is about the style of this book that might, I think, discourage its use in the undergraduate classroom and so marginalize its contribution to central themes within medieval studies. The Medieval Cultures Series at Minnesota has established a reputation for producing excellent, affordable volumes that are aimed at a diverse audience. Whilst many in the series are interested in the application of modern critical theories to medieval research they regularly include, in their early chapters, the resources to understand the key ideas under discussion; Smith assumes a much greater understanding of political, economic and cultural theory in his readership. Some of his contributions to those theoretical debates, such as his interesting anti-oedipal reading of the management of surplus within the medieval household, are hidden within the endnotes rather than explicitly written into the text. Foreign phrases are used liberally and not always translated, whilst abstract discussion is not always pinned down with the use of textual, graspable example; I admired Smith's close textual work and felt that it could have been used more extensively. Whilst Smith has clearly and commendably done a great deal of primary research for this volume, his endnotes seemed reluctant to admit to using published sources. For example, on p. 128 Thomas Usk's "Appellum", which Smith apparently consulted in the Public Record Office in London, is used in a way that confuses its motive, which was to denounce, rather than defend, John of Northampton (perhaps consulting it in one of the many available published transcriptions might have made its comprehension easier?). Surely such resources are there to be used and students that follow should not be encouraged in a similar discomfort?