contributor.author: Jesse G. Swan

title.none: Horrox and Jones, Pragmatic Utopias (Jesse G. Swan)

identifier.other: baj9928.0401.004 04.01.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jesse G. Swan, University of Northern Iowa, jesse.swan@uni.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Horrox, Rosemary and Sarah Rees Jones, eds. Pragmatic Utopias: Ideals and Communities, 1200-1630. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. x, 286. $60.00. ISBN: 0-521-65060-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.01.04

Horrox, Rosemary and Sarah Rees Jones, eds. Pragmatic Utopias: Ideals and Communities, 1200-1630. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. x, 286. $60.00. ISBN: 0-521-65060-7.

Reviewed by:

Jesse G. Swan
University of Northern Iowa
jesse.swan@uni.edu

A festschrift, by definition, celebrates and honors a scholar of immense noteworthiness by publishing, ideally, exceptional essays by equally exceptional intellectuals on topics or methods drawing on those of the honoree. Impressively, Rosemary Horrox and Sarah Rees Jones have accomplished this with their volume for Barrie Dobson, Pragmatic Utopias.

As a practice of interpretation, historical criticism is a matter of reading. What is read and how one reads usually distinguishes historians, and it is one of this volume's best qualities to provide an ample complement of readings. Accordingly, the volume presents essays that deal with non- literary documents -- by far the bulk of the collection-- as well as some that treat literary texts. Such a division between literary and non-literary texts is not the editors'-- they organize the essays chronologically according to subject matter-- but it highlights many important issues the book engages, including the modern disciplinary division that the honoree variously contributed to and sought to cross, the different sorts of conclusions usually drawn from various forms and genres, the value of crossing disciplines by thinking of individual texts in terms usually applied to other documents, and, perhaps most suggestively, the possibilities available to those who can advance from crossing disciplinary manners of reading into transcending them.

Some essays express overtly an anxiety over crossing lines, such as when, in attempting to resolve the apparent "historical paradox" of the decision of Hugh of Balsham, Bishop of Ely, to found a college "not for his monastic brethren, but for secular clerks," despite his order's concern "to provide a university education for its most promising young monks" (60), Roger Lovatt denigrates the evidence of "tone and language" in favor of "precise injunctions" (77), a methodological gesture that removes him from paradox and places him in singular, if qualified, conclusions, such as, "We can only say with reasonable certainty that he founded in Cambridge an independent college-- its independence perhaps forced upon him against his better judgment-- for poor, secular scholars who were to follow as appropriate the rule of Merton" (77). Similarly pursuing "continuity and singleness" (175), Peter Biller's "Fat Christian and Old Peter: ideals and compromises among the medieval Waldensians" deals with, in order implicitly to reject, the records that remain-- they are only "the views of the extremists, the polemicists and the dreamers" (184)-- so as to propose a vision of most Waldensians as compromising their ideals in order to continue as an order. Biller writes that the "frustration is that there is only silence from men of probably middling views, such as Fat Christian and Old Peter" (184), by which he means there is no document purporting to report first-hand the views of these two dissenters, who are referred to by others in the inquisitorial records.

Other essays draw on various non-literary records in an effort to re-appreciate experiences of groups of people or people's experiences of certain late medieval and early modern institutions. Janet Burton, in "The 'Chariot of Aminadab' and the Yorkshire priory of Swine," shows how, in "acting under acute financial pressures," "the way in which [the prioress and nuns of Swine] responded somewhat redresses the picture of medieval religious women as unable to act for themselves" (38). Burton accomplishes this by suggesting that the "evidence from Swine does not suggest that the canons were there in order to occupy positions of authority, but rather to provide spiritual succour and literacy" (37). Also taking finances to be of prime, real importance in defining significance, rather than spiritual or academic "ideals," Malcolm G. Underwood's "A cruel necessity? Christ's and St John's, two Cambridge refoundations" and R. N. Swanson's "Godliness and good learning: ideals and imagination in medieval university and college foundations" compare the foundations to modern business and suggest how the statutes for the universities are not prescriptions as much as safeguards against economic difficulties. Also addressing a perceived problem with previous readings of records, but addressing the issue of popular relations with the nascent judiciary, Anthony Musson, in "Social exclusivity or justice for all? Access to justice in fourteenth-century England," finds that the poor had much more "access" to "justice" than many have assumed to be the case: "Indeed, far from bringing alienation from the king's courts, the widening scope of royal justice observable over the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (in terms of opportunities for redress and in the range of legal remedies available) not only provided greater access at the local level, but also catered for the litigious tendencies of at least some sections of the peasant and urban communities" (137). More broadly, and taking an ideal from Thomas More's Utopia, Claire Cross traces and poses some explanations for the correlation between the reduction of ordinands and the rise in their formal educational credentials in "Realising a utopian dream: the transformation of the clergy in the diocese of York, 1500-1630."

Two essays treat documents commonly associated with historians, but they do so in a sensitive, literary manner. In a remarkable essay that should draw many readers to the volume, P. J. P. Goldberg carefully attends to the wording and structure of a set of ordinances of the city of Coventry for 1492 and revised in 1495 in context of the attendance records of the leet court, "the medieval imagination" (105), and the politics of "Lollardy," understood as "a particular set of values rather than a specific creed" (103). By this method, Goldberg is able to make several astute observations, such as, "The economic imperative of depression and a scarcity of employment is thus seen not as the cause of vagrancy, but rather as a consequence. In a godly city where all who are able labour honestly, prosperity will follow" (110), and, through them, to justify the contention that the ordinances together form a "programme" that "represents a radical reform manifesto associated with one particular faction characterized by marked Lollard sympathies. The ordinance directed at single women was thus a key plank in a utopian vision of a godly and ordered society in which all knew their place and all worked to the common good" (97). Patrick Collinson matches Goldberg's sensitivity in a short essay on a sermon, A caveat for clothiers, by Thomas Carew of Bildeston, entitled "Puritanism and the poor." It was, Collinson discloses, Carew who "first drew me to the subject of Puritanism and poverty . . . [when he] plucked my sleeve as I browsed in the Huntington Library in California with his Certyane godly and necessarie sermons, published in 1603" (242). In the essay, Colllinson defines terms, such as "Puritanism" and "the poor," and justifies speaking "anachronistically" of Carew's "christian socialist agenda" (249). Carew, it seems, was up to something other than, or at least in addition to, castigating the rich and relieving the poor of his town, Bildeston, with his sermon's deployment of facts and figures, which is the feature of the sermon most uncannily Victorian and thereby inspires Collinson's supposed anachronisms, since the "evidence of wills and inventories suggests that the town was by no means as polarised as Carew's sermon alleged" (252).

With similar literary sensitivity, two essays concentrate on literary texts in historical contexts. Explaining some features of More's Utopia, such as the thematic issue of governing a society in which most people do not have property, Sarah Rees Jones, in "Thomas More's 'Utopia' and medieval London," indicates how, in its negative-positive juxtapositions, Utopia imitates, even parodies, the language of London written customs. Through this appreciation of the language of the work and the language of London culture, Jones is able to show how some of the ideals of Utopia reflect London's pre-humanist civic writers: "More's vision of a utopian 'future' was built upon foundations drawn from London's idealised past" (130). With similar adeptness, but with a broader view, Derek Pearsall's "'If heaven be on this earth, it is in cloister or in school': the monastic ideal in later medieval English literature" explores William Langland, Geoffrey Chaucer, and John Lydgate in terms of how the monastic ideals expressed in their work result from an incipient and then an advanced decline of such possibilities.

While all the essays take varying degrees of cognizance of literary and non-literary texts, and while most of the essays concentrate on one or the other type for interpretative, rhetorical, and, perhaps, disciplinary purposes, three essays seem most adept on drawing on both literary and non-literary texts in ways mutually illuminating, deferential, and ennobling. Drawing on 15th-century ballads and legal records, A. J. Pollard's "Idealising criminality: Robin Hood in the fifteenth century" indicates how Robin Hood as "a forester turned poacher and highwayman" (167) was "paradoxically . . . both a thing of the past and of the future" (168), while Miri Rubin's "An English Anchorite: the making, unmaking and remaking of Christine Carpenter" draws on film and archival records to illustrate how different forms of historical knowledge of women's lives are effected through different means: "For these, and more, links with the past we must be grateful to thoughtful film-makers such as Chris Newby. Scholars such as Barrie Dobson will make it possible for us to know enough, from the strong testimonies of archival sources, to be able to contextualize and correct; but to view, and thus sense, the loneliness of the night spent in an anchorhold is an experience which even the most professional of medieval historians cannot, should not, do without" (217). Margaret Aston's "Imageless devotion: what kind of an ideal?" draws on many texts, among them St. Bernard's Sermon on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Peter Smart's Short Treatise of Atlases, and the poetry of John Donne, to suggest how "the task of reforming mental imagery" (195) was accomplished during and after the Reformation's destruction of physical images. Aston's dexterity and perspicacity yields much, including the realization that, for the Re-forming religious visionary, "The ideal was a kind of white blankness, an openness to the divine essence untrammelled by physical form" (198).

Drawing on nineteenth-century literature to read a set of fifteenth-century almshouse statutes, Colin Richmond, in "Victorian values in fifteenth-century England: the Ewelme almshouse statutes," writes the most progressively postmodern essay of the collection. While some readers might find the essay's structure mechanical and the sections' sentences inelegant, and while these readers might feel that their patience is left unrewarded by recognizable explanations, other readers no doubt will appreciate the participation elicited and the possibilities opened by the same features. Richmond shows, by comparing the Ewelme and Heytesbury statutes, that the former are quite unusual, and then suggests, by an adroit comparison, that the principal founder of the almshouse, Alice Chaucer, "seems more like the wife of a Victorian industrialist than the widow of three husbands who had fought in the Hundred Years War" (236). Through his essay's sections, Richmond is able to see the designated beneficiaries in a different, critical historiographical light, namely, that the "Ewelme bedesmen" were, the proto-Victorian arrangement suggests, "the new secular workhorses of prayer, employees of a hard but fair task mistress who was adamant she would have her twopenny worth and for whom the moral probity of her workers was essential to the success of a quasi-commercial, quasi-industrial, quasi- religious enterprise" (237). Also, and quite illuminatingly, the last section of the essay, entitled "Memorials and Modernity," offers a brief, pre-modern ejaculation of sorts on the problems of modern historiography, problems that occlude many forms of historical knowledge, especially those "connected to eternity," something modern historiography and "Round-the- Clock Capitalism has no time for" (237). Richmond's views require an astute, talented, literary capacity to perceive and indite, just as they evoke such qualities in his readers. This essay surely will be variously the most valued and the most detested of the collection, according to individual readings.

Such is the rich collection, complemented by a warm appreciation by John Taylor and a handy "Bibliography of Barrie Dobson's published works." The editors are to be commended for many things, not least of which is their success in securing essays by talented scholars and devising a broad, diverse collection reflecting the interest and humanity of the honoree. We are all fortunate to have the honoree and his contributions to scholarship, just as we are all fortunate to have this collection inspired by him.