03.04.15, Barr, Socioliterary Practice in Late Medieval England

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David Matthews

The Medieval Review baj9928.0304.015


Barr, Helen. Socioliterary Practice in Late Medieval England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pp. 229. ISBN: 0-19-811242-4.

Reviewed by:
David Matthews
Citi Universitaire

Helen Barr has previously edited Piers Plowman's Crede, Richard the Redeless, Mum and the Sothsegger and The Crowned King in The Piers Plowman Tradition (London, 1993) and written a monograph on these poems, Signes and Sothe: Language in the Piers Plowman Tradition (Woodbridge, 1994). Her new book is a more ambitious monograph, taking up some concerns from the earlier interest in the "Piers Plowman tradition" but ranging further and looking to make more methodologically complex claims. Its focus is principally on vernacular texts by Ricardian writers and their immediate successors in the early fifteenth century. It could be seen, then, as part of the recent tradition in Middle English studies which recognises the way in which the Ricardian landscape has been critically strip-mined and moves on to the promising new seams of "Lancastrian" writing. Paul Strohm is one who has made this move and his influence is particularly evident (and acknowledged) here.

As the uncompromising title accurately suggests, the book examines the socioliterary status of several texts, drawing on various theories of discourse, particularly the work of Gunther Kress and the relevant writings of Michel Foucault. The approach is explicitly materialist, seeking to elucidate various late medieval writings "as examples of socioliterary practice" (1), a notion which looks back to Etienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey's essay, "On Literature as an Ideological Form" (English trans., 1981). One important assumption Barr makes is that these texts are explicit commentaries on their times: "writers recognized orders of discourse and could mobilize them to produce social commentary" (3-4). She "attempt[s] to bypass the dichotomies 'literature and history', 'text and context', and 'form and content'" (7). The introduction which discusses these works is a little compressed; the footnotes have to work particularly hard at this point. But the approach, with its obviously Marxist lineage, is nevertheless clearly spelt out.

The study ranges chronologically back to Wynnere and Wastoure and forward to Hoccleve's To Sir John Oldcastle and Lydgate's The Churl and the Bird. The usual Ricardian suspects are there, with considerations of The Manciple's Tale, Pearl, the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women and The Nun's Priest's Tale, but the examination of the poems of the Piers Plowman tradition, Gower's Cronica Tripertita, Wycliffite sermons and The Boke of Cupide takes it far beyond the narrow Ricardian focus. The chapters are loosely grouped around themes rather than constituting a single larger argument. Chapter 3, "Unfixing the King: Gower's Cronica Tripertita and Richard the Redeless and chapter 4, "The Regal Image of Richard II and the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women," are concerned with the projection of regal presence and are reminiscent of the work of Strohm on the nervous Ricardian and Lancastrian stagings of regal power. The first of these chapters opens with a lengthy consideration of Richard II's attempt "to control the representation of his role as king" (63) and his "staging of regality" (64) through his building of a retinue and the deployment of the badge of the white hart. In the alliterative poem Richard the Redeless, composed in 1399, the white hart is detached "from its ceremonial and regal discourse" and returned to its natural origins (69) in a way which focuses negative critique on Richard, his policies, and their "lawless brutality" (69): Richard's retainers are re-imagined in the poem "as wild animals rampaging through the kingdom..." (69). In the Cronica Tripertita, by contrast, Gower never mentions the badge, which Barr regards as deliberate and as "eras[ing] the regal symbolism of the badge in which the king so heavily invested" (73). She continues:

What more powerful way of obliterating the majesty of the former king than by refusing textual space to the key icon of his kingship: the white hart? The absence at the centre of Cronica Tripertita corresponds to Gower's attempt at its conclusion to figure the king as blank, an empty space. (75)

In a further turn of the screw in this chapter, Barr argues that as it imagines the death of the reigning king, Gower's text is treasonous in the terms of the 1352 statute on treason and so apparently works against its own author's intentions. The following chapter continues the theme of Richard's staging of kingship and argues "that the Prologue to Chaucer's Legend of Good Women may be seen both to reproduce, and to intervene in, the process of image-making as a means of displaying power and maintaining political control" (80). The description of the procession of Cupid and Alceste is considered as "reproduc[ing] key features of Ricardian regal iconography" and Cupid himself recalls Richard (91). But Chaucer's depiction is no "unthinking investment in image- making"; Barr aims to show "that Chaucer was very well aware of the politics of representation" (94). When Alceste gives advice to princes, her words could be seen simply as belonging to the standard advice genre. But much of what she says is very close to actual and specific criticisms of Richard in the later years of his reign. In this chapter Barr uses Laclau and Mouffe's concept of suture and argues that Alceste exposes what Richard himself wanted sutured "in the elaboration of his regal image" (98).

The final two chapters and the afterword are linked by Wycliffite themes and particularly the representation of the peasant in these and other writings. Of these chapters, 6, "'Blessed are the horny hands of toil': Wycliffite Representations of the Third Estate" seems a little oddly placed in that it is a survey of Wycliffite representations of labour rather than, like all the other chapters, an argument based on close reading of two or three key texts. The final chapter argues for the importance of the Lollard context to Mum and the Sothsegger and The Boke of Cupide, suggesting that the first is an example of a text that could be "seen to articulate Wycliffite sentiments if read by someone familiar with the cultural value of key terms in the religious debate," and that the second is more cautious, a text that "deploy[s] a common currency of linguistic features which were recognizable to fellow advocates, thus allowing them access to the particular Wycliffite inflection of the discussion" (159) but in a way that made it difficult for orthodox readers to prove heretical intent. Of the remaining chapters, 5, "'From pig to man and man to pig': The 1381 Uprisings in Chaucer's The Nun's Priest's Tale" re-examines the poem's well-known brief reference to the rising and, through its consideration of peasant depictions, is linkable to the chapters on Wycliffite writings. Chapter 2 (previously published in Medium Aevum) is about mercantile discourse in Pearl, describing the poem as an example of socioliterary practice through its connection to the mercantile world, when more typically in its critical history it has been seen "as a beautiful artefact" (40). The first chapter, "Constructing Social Realities: Wynnere and Wastoure, Hoccleve, and Chaucer," looks at the alliterative debate poem, Hoccleve's "Oldcastle" and The Manciple's Tale to show "how a variety of texts deploy changes in social demography, or conveniently ignore them for polemically political purposes" (11).

The book stands or falls on how plausible and productive these readings of texts are; how provocative, how useful in the classroom or in the extension of further research. Socioliterary Practice in Late Medieval England is particularly successful and useful in the way in which it explores some texts that have been little read or studied. At the same time it makes provocative points about much-read texts. The arguments could be contested at many points but, given that they are carefully made and based on close analysis of the texts, they always command respect. The book's descriptions are less "thick" than those in the historicism of Strohm or Lee Patterson -- the referencing is extensive but principally points to secondary literature rather than original sources. Some of these notes are not entirely satisfactory: the passing contention in relation to The Boke of Cupide that "it was a rule of medieval school's debate that arguing one's adversary into silence conferred victory" might be accurate but needs more than a reference to Scattergood's edition of Clanvowe's works to support it. Nevertheless, the drawing out of the subtly encoded staging of various late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century tensions deserves to be read and should have a big influence, in particular, on future thinking about Lollardy and vernacular literary texts.

Where I find the book less convincing is in its theoretical aspirations. The kind of explicitly theorised and avowedly theoretical approach that is outlined in the opening pages is not something usually associated with medieval studies as disseminated by this press nor the university that houses it. The book is a welcome counter-balance to the kind of empirical, often manuscript-focused work that comes from Oxford and which, while respectable in itself, will do little to push forward into new realms for Middle English literary study at a time when, as hardly needs restating, that study appears to be under such institutional threat. But Barr's book, while it points the way to productive new areas, does not do a great deal that is reproducible. To be fair, she explicitly states that she does not propose "to offer up a theoretical model of historical linguistic enquiry which will then serve as a template for the critical analysis of all late medieval writing" (8). Elaborating on her aims, she writes of her intention to revivify close reading. Habitually associated with "socially deracinated study," close reading can be viewed in another way: "the formal features of language used in literary texts are essentially freighted with social resonances and...to examine the literary language of texts in detail is simultaneously to examine the kinds of sociological work performed by literary texts" (8). She states that "It would be fanciful and meretricious" to imagine that an "over-arching" theory could be provided (9).

I think, by contrast, that it is reasonable to ask that a method should be reproducible. The fact that the method, here, is explicitly represented as not necessarily reproducible actually results from the fact that book is seriously under-theorised in certain respects. The introduction, though very clear, leaves some issues vague. How exactly are texts socioliterary? What do we do with the fact that they are socioliterary once we have demonstrated it? These are surprisingly difficult questions for this book. A key term in Socioliterary Practice in Late Medieval England is "resonance," as numerous examples attest: the way in which registers of poetic diction are deployed in Wynnere and Wastoure, for example, "carry social resonance" (13); in the Pearl Maiden's elaboration of cortaysye, "the social resonance is rather unstable" (57-8) and in general, as the quotation above proposes, "the formal features of language used in literary texts are essentially freighted with social resonances..." In this last sentence there is more than simply a problem with an ugly mixed metaphor. The idea that literary texts "resonate" with social significance is inevitably reminiscent of New Historicist discourse -- oddly so, because New Historicism is nowhere directly discussed in this book. The key notion of social "resonance" in literary texts is in fact quite evasive about what exactly is going on. Barr aims, as I have already said, "to bypass the dichotomies 'literature and history', 'text and context', and 'form and content'." That verb "bypass" is significant. The old problem of the text-context binary is suppressed here rather than confronted. That texts are examples of socioliterary practice seems to me nevertheless a valid and here, well-argued proposition. It is indeed no longer a particularly controversial contention. But at the same time Barr wants literary texts to be literary texts -- things which can be read off against a social realm which, inevitably, is seen as separate. Approaches which suggest that there is no text-context divide because texts are in fact part of the context are always in danger of arguing the whole category of the literary out of existence. Needless to say, Barr does not do that; a consequence is that there is some hedging about how it is exactly that texts do what they do.

One result is a dependency on the very familiar figure of the author and it is clear that such social significance as inheres in these texts does so because the author intentionally wanted it so. This can be seen in the opening statement about authors' recognition and manipulation of orders of discourse and from numerous later examples: "Gower's conclusion effects a powerful effacement of Richard II" (74); "The absence at the centre of Cronica Tripertita corresponds to Gower's attempt at its conclusion to figure the king as blank, an empty space" (75); "Chaucer's social practice in this tale, presumably one which John of Gaunt skipped, is as radical as his exploration of social semantics in The Manciple's Tale" (127). Even an anonymous author can be marshalled in this way: "the poet of Richard the Redeless demystifies the political artifice in order to foreground the lawless brutality of Richard's policies" (69). None of these propositions is falsifiable; perhaps Gower and Chaucer really did intend these political positions. If so, then a more radical Chaucer emerges from this book than in most recent work on his political positioning; to produce him, a lot of emphasis is placed on that single line about Jack Straw in The Nun's Priest's Tale and the gag about John of Gaunt skipping the tale is really more nervous than it appears. As so often, to discover a radical statement by a medieval author we have to imagine that somehow those in power did not notice the message that is nevertheless so clear to us. More generally the preoccupation with what these writers intended weakens the possibility that this form of "socioliterary practice" might be reproduced. But that should not be seen as detracting from the strengths of this particular instance of socioliterary practice: this is a provocative and at times powerful book, one welcome at the very least for its intriguing and productive forays beyond the Ricardian canon in order to extend the possibilities of Middle English literary study.

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David Matthews

Citi Universitaire