Robert Barrett

title.none: Staley, Languages of Power (Robert Barrett)

identifier.other: baj9928.0509.005 05.09.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Robert Barrett, University of Illinois at Urbana Champagne,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Staley, Lynn. Languages of Power in the Age of Richard II. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2005. Pp. xiv, 394. (hb). ISBN: 0-271-02518-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.09.05

Staley, Lynn. Languages of Power in the Age of Richard II. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2005. Pp. xiv, 394. (hb). ISBN: 0-271-02518-2.

Reviewed by:

Robert Barrett
University of Illinois at Urbana Champagne

In Languages of Power in the Age of Richard II, Lynn Staley investigates various Middle English "attempts to articulate the concept of princely power" during the twenty-three years of the reign of Richard II (ix). She divides those attempts into two groups divided by a single historical event, the Merciless Parliament of 1387-88. Richard's humiliation therein at the hands of the Appellants is, in Staley's estimation, not only a political crisis, but an ideological and linguistic one as well. Capping years of challenges to Richard's royal power, the Merciless Parliament alters the nature of courtly address in late-fourteenth-century England: as Staley argues, there is a shift from pre-Parliament texts of courtly supplication to post-Parliament texts of wise (if prudently veiled) counsel.

Chapter 1, "The Hawk on the Wrist and the Fool in the Chimney Corner," concentrates on a series of works from the pre-Parliament group. As Staley notes, each of these texts--Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, Clanvowe's Boke of Cupide, Gower's Confessio Amantis, and Usk's Testament of Love--uses "the language of courtesy or erotic petition in order to explore the much more dangerous subject of power" (2). In that sense, each work demonstrates its debt to the chivalric ideology that structured the court of Richard's grandfather, Edward III. However, the authors of these poems soon discover that courtly speech fails as a semiotics of power, especially during the crisis of authority that grips England in the late 1370s and early 1380s. When the prince is in a position of weakness, how can a courtly discourse centered on his person serve any useful function? Staley begins her analysis here by looking at Troilus and its "exploration of the fundamental impotence of a courtly mode that could, in the end, only fall back on gesture" (6). Chaucer's poem presents a court culture characterized by, on the one hand, a Pandarus who knows the emptiness of his eroticized language and, on the other, a Troilus who refuses (or is unable) to acknowledge that emptiness. Staley compares Troilus's chivalric failure of self-understanding to the lack of self-awareness displayed by Palamon and Arcite in the Knight's Tale--in both texts, Chaucer tests the limits of courtly language and finds it wanting.

At this point, Staley broadens her scope: she compares the openings of Gower's Confessio, the F-version of Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, and Clanvowe's Boke. Each text gives us an author-narrator located in hierarchical relation to a source of power (and thus enabled to comment on the ethics of rule and the utility of love discourse). Gower "encounters" Richard while boating on the Thames; Chaucer is subjected to Cupid's anger; and Clanvowe seeks out the nightingale at Love's command. Staley's reading of Clanvowe is particularly apt here: the plain-speaking cuckoo undercuts the love rhetoric of the nightingale, suggesting limits to chivalric discourse (as well as strategies whereby poets can criticize dominant linguistic modes without exposing themselves to counter-critique). Yet, and this is key to Staley's argument, all three works still trust in the prince's ability to overcome bad counsel and rule effectively. It's only as the 1380s move toward their end that we see poetic faith in Richard (or, rather, in the princely role he occupies) begin to waver. Usk's Testament is symptomatic of this breakdown in courtly languages of power. In the Testament, Usk attempts to use love discourse to justify his political actions--a move undone by his execution in the aftermath of the Merciless Parliament. Staley also discusses Gower's revision of the Confessio in the late 1380s and early 1390s, noting that the poem shifts from a specific focus on Richard's person to a broader exploration of the nation. Chapter 2 ends with an excellent discussion of Chaucer's Franklin's Tale: here Staley reads the Franklin's synthesis of the other pilgrims' discourses as linguistic confusion, the taking of "a position without a position . . .. His voice is only the desire for conciliation; his accord is meaningless compromise, and his troth lacks grounding in truth" (72).

Chivalric and erotic discourses like those deployed by the Franklin require the charisma of the prince for their intelligibility, and Staley's Chapter 2, "Inheritances and Translations," explores Richard's attempts to restore his charisma and reinvent his royal self after 1388. For Staley, that reinvention takes the form of an English translatio of Valois monarchy's sacramentalism: Richard hopes to reestablish his kingly image on the sacral grounds staked out by Charles V of France earlier in the century. Complicating Richard's efforts at translation are a host of local, English contexts hostile to the importation and adaptation of French regal ideology. The Merciless Parliament is obviously a factor here, but so is the Lollard attack on sacramentality in general. (As her discussion of the Wycliffite Tractatus de regibus indicates, Staley is particularly good at juxtaposing royal and Lollard discursive strategies.) Lollardy undermines Richard's efforts in another way: the Lollard advocacy of vernacular translation makes it difficult for an anti-Wycliffite court to adopt Charles V's program of court-centered vernacular translation--a program Staley describes in some detail, focusing particularly on its creation of a univocal and Aristotelian equation of the king's household with that of the nation.

Accordingly to Staley, this Valois influence can be seen in Ricardian portraiture, both in deluxe manuscripts and on palace walls. The image program Richard initiates at Westminster is part of this sacramentalization project, and so is the Wilton Diptych. Richard's autohagiographic evocations of Edward the Confessor are key here. Staley also adds Roger Dymmok's 1396-97 Liber contra XII errores et hereses Lollardorum to this list of sanctified Ricardian images, examining the illuminations that accompany Dymmok's defense of orthodox Latinity and regal sacrality. Finally, Staley presents us with the writings of Philippe de Mezieres, texts that combine a call for a new, sacramental chivalry (the Order of the Passion) with an appeal to Richard to establish peace with France via the sacrament of marriage. Philippe's works offer Richard a rationale for a sacred (and powerfully masculine) self. Nevertheless, the chapter concludes with Chaucer's undercutting of such pretensions to sacrality, paying particular attention to the Tales and their presentation of a world "not so much desacralized as 'asacral'" (140). The Nun's Priest's Tale is crucial to this analysis: Staley reads it as a mirror for princes, sound political advice that tracks Chauntecleer's linguistic development from discourses of sacral (and self-ignorant) regality to those of clever (and self-aware) wit. Staley doesn't argue that the tale is an allegory aimed specifically at Richard, but she does convincingly link it to the larger discussion of rule that we find throughout Fragment VII.

Chapter 3, "Princely Powers," expands the search for a discourse of "princely address" beyond the Westminster precincts of Richard's court (165). Noting the presence of multiple courts (and thus alternative centers of power) in the late fourteenth century, Staley concentrates on two in particular: the courts of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, and Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester. She sees the king's uncles as men equally interested in using literary patronage to establish languages of power. While writers like Gower and Richard Maidstone figure in this chapter, the primary literary focus is on the Pearl-poet. The Gaunt half of the chapter begins by looking at Gaunt's simultaneous support of the ambitions of both his nephew (Richard) and his son (Henry of Derby). As Staley points out, this "was not a question of divided loyalty but of a mutually enriching--or exploitative--series of moves" (171). Henry had a chance at fulfilling his father's thwarted dreams of kingship, and Staley demonstrates the careful steps by which Gaunt laid the foundation for a Lancastrian historiography that only became retroactively anti-Ricardian. Gaunt's patronage of the Carmelites tentatively leads Staley to a discussion of the Carmelite Richard Maidstone's 1392 Concordia as a mirror for princes aimed at Richard. This in turn sets up her analysis of Cleanness as an aristocratic critique of the collegiate communities within English cathedrals, communities set on transforming sacred closes into lay marketplaces. (Gaunt's close association with the cathedral community of St. Paul's receives a substantial amount of attention in this chapter.)

Staley then briefly considers both Patience and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as Gaunt-sponsored texts. The latter work is read as a post-1388 response to the social tensions of Richard's reign, rewriting the young king's comeuppance at the hands of older men as Arthurian legend. Staley's reading of SGGK also allows her to shift focus to Thomas of Woodstock: she notes that the dates of Gawain's confinement in Hautdesert correspond to those of Richard's 1387 confinement in the Tower of London on Woodstock's orders. She doesn't push this connection any further, aware that the poem continues to resist definitive dating. But she does argue that such coincidences suggest the extent to which Arthurian romance speaks directly to contemporary political concerns. The second half of Chapter 3 devotes itself to an analysis of Pearl as a product of Woodstock's patronage. Staley's line of approach here is to concentrate on Woodstock's daughter Isabel, given in 1384 as an oblation to the Poor Clares without Aldgate. The infant Isabel's entry into holy orders is metaphorically and liturgically both a funeral and a marriage, making her Staley's prime suspect for the jeweler-dreamer's dead daughter. Thomas of Woodstock, the poem's patron, thus becomes the one who has lost a priceless gem. Staley ends the chapter with a series of speculations regarding the London provenance of the Pearl poems, comparing the manuscript illustrations with those found in James le Palmer's 1350-75 London Omne bonum and reading the poems in conjunction with other London texts.

The book's fourth and final chapter, "French Georgics and English Ripostes," moves even further than Chapter 3, extending Staley's analysis outside court boundaries altogether. In this chapter, Staley reads Chaucer and his contemporaries alongside "the French literature of the household," literature she identifies as "medieval georgic" due to its debts to pseudo-Aristotle's Economics and Vergil's Georgics (265). Both the French and English cases demonstrate the ways in which "works of domestic economy and pastoral management . . . are linked to a concept of nationhood" (267). However, each nation handles this linkage in a different fashion. In the case of France, Charles V's patronage of household writing (set up in Chapter 2) locates order in the sacralized person of the king. English medieval georgic sees order differently, situating it instead in the conflict between individual households and royal power. French georgic is univocal; English georgic, multivocal, "a construction of power as bound by a duty to order, rather than as informed by the order of grace" (267). Staley concentrates on three French household texts in this chapter: the 1371 Livre du Chevalier de la Tour Landry, the ca. 1394 Le menagier de Paris, and Philippe de Mezieres's 1385-89 Livre de la vertu du sacrement de mariage. In each of these texts, no matter what its intended audience may be, the husband is presented as "the sole figure of power in a wife's field of concentration," much as the French literature on kingship positions the monarch as the sacral focus of all politics (274). The problems of hierarchy are either ignored or downplayed in favor of the wife-subject's loyalty and obedience.

When medieval French georgic is translated into the English context, it undergoes a transformation in tune with the different tenor of English politics. The idea of nation presented in English georgic is "not so much conceived hierarchically . . . as bound horizontally by means of practical and judicial considerations and rights" (307). Unlike their French counterparts, female protagonists in English georgic possess an "intelligence or virtue" that "undermines unjust figures of power" (314). The alliterative Pistal of Susan (one of Staley's favorite texts throughout the entire study) transforms the Biblical account of Joachim and Susanna into "a poem about a miscarriage of justice that employs marriage as a trope for what is at risk in an unjust realm" (318). Langland's Piers Plowman and the anonymous Mum and the Sothsegger are also discussed in this chapter (the latter in regard to its revision of Vergil's Georgics bees). But once again, it is Chaucer who dominates: "in the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer describes not household order but household disorder, creates a governor whose ability to maintain a productive order is rooted in tenuous and limited compromise, and presents a world where Philippe de Mezieres would have much to do in order to realize the sacrality he saw as a remedy for a world's fissures and absences" (325). Harry Bailly, with his georgic interest in productivity and the passage of time, is a focal point here: his Aristotelian attempts to link his domestic authority with the political authority the pilgrims grant him are undercut by the reality of Goodelief's refusal to do his bidding. In the end, Staley argues, English georgic texts "work against the tendency to image the realm as the king's household" (331). Indeed, as she will go on to note in her Epilogue, the evidence of 1390s household literature from beyond the court transforms a contemporary royal "text" like the Wilton Diptych into an anachronism at the very moment of its articulation. The image belatedly attempts to shut down discourse with a spectacle of power--but the poems do not, testifying to a lively English debate about the limits and responsibilities of rule.

As the length of this review demonstrates, Staley's arguments are expansive and complex. Numerous side-debates characterize Languages of Power, fascinating insights that I have had to ignore in the interests of space. At times, the sheer scope of Staley's analysis causes the book to meander (requiring a frequent repetition of key argumentative points to resituate the reader in the main line of discussion). Moreover, Chapter 3 fails to convince me of its main points (that both Gaunt and Woodstock served as patrons to the Pearl-poet). As she admits on several occasions in the chapter (e.g., the discussion of "ifs" on p. 205), Staley relies far too heavily on supposition and circumstantial evidence to make her claims irresistible ones. But the book as a whole is an excellent account of a discursive formation and its deployment. My misgivings about some of Staley's specific claims (like those regarding Thomas of Woodstock, Isabel, and Pearl) give way to a larger sense of appreciation regarding the book's command of the late-fourteenth-century debate over power. I want to single out for attention Staley's exploration of French texts: late medieval Anglo-French literary exchanges have tended to play second fiddle to Anglo-Italian contacts in recent years. Languages of Power reminds us once again of medieval England's "French connection," but in an expansive (and non-courtly) sense that adds to earlier scholarship on Chaucer and his French sources. I therefore recommend the book enthusiastically.