09.04.11, Giancarlo, Parliament and Literature

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Sarah Peverley

The Medieval Review baj9928.0904.011


Giancarlo, Matthew. Parliament and Literature in Late Medieval England.. Cambridge: Cambridge Univerity Press, 2007. Pp. xiv, 289. ISBN: 978-0-521-87539-4.

Reviewed by:
Sarah Peverley
University of Liverpool

Parliament and Literature in Late Medieval England offers an eloquent and thought-provoking exploration of the complex relationship between parliament and poetry in England. Utilizing a range of historical and literary materials in support of his thesis, Matthew Giancarlo argues that the remarkable developments that took place in parliament and literature during the period c. 1376-1414 were connected by a "mutually informing and mutually dependent set of discursive and textual practices (ix)." Following a brief overview of the evolution of parliament and the importance of concepts such as "representation" (aesthetic and electoral) and "voice" (individual and communal) to his study, Giancarlo divides his book into six chapters, which examine "points of intersection" (21) between the ideologies and formations of parliament and public poetry in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.

Chapter one ("Parliament and voice in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries"), the first of two "historical" chapters, focuses on the evolution of parliament in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. It underscores the prevailing influence of the baronage in parliament of this period and associates this dominance with a conspicuous emphasis on "baronialism" in contemporary literary depictions of parliaments and assemblies, particularly Arthurian parliaments. Using examples drawn from the chronicles of Peter Langtoft and Robert Mannyng, and the romance of Havelok the Dane, Giancarlo maintains that literature such as this endowed "the quasi-formal practice of parliaments with the authority of tradition" (44), and, in turn, may have given momentum to "the vigorous development of parliament in the early fourteenth century" (46). In this chapter, Giancarlo also explores the Pentecostal paradigm of apostolic assembly, and the notion of speaking with one, divinely inspired, communal voice: the vox populi as vox Dei.

The notion of vox communis is explored further in chapter two ("Parliament, criticism, and complaint in the later fourteenth century, 1330-1400"), which charts the rising power of the parliamentary Commons after 1327 and the introduction of the office of Speaker. Focusing on the later fourteenth century, and using texts such as the Modus Tenendi Parliamentum, Giancarlo offers insightful examples of the "authoritative representativeness" (68) of the Commons and of the Speaker's ability to embody of the "twin ideals of multiplicity and unity, communitas and unitas" (88), suggesting that both concepts contributed to the emergence of new literary forms. Alongside this, he analyses the idea of parliament as a forum for complaint, the rapid escalation of legal petitioning, and the development of a documentary culture in contemporary literature, as evidenced by the extraordinary account of the Good Parliament of 1376 in the Anonimalle Chronicle.

Like the first chapter, this section of the book presents some ground-breaking ideas, but it is let down by an inaccuracy in its account of the "Mercers' Petition" submitted to the Merciless Parliament of 1388; Giancarlo suggests that John Northampton, whom he describes incorrectly as mayor of London, was "probably compelled by the Appellant lords to bring forward a bill of complaint against the former Lord Mayor Nicholas Brembre" (73), but Northampton had not been mayor since 1383, when Brembre took over that office. At the time of the Merciless Parliament Nicholas Exton held the mayoralty and Northampton was in exile.

Chapter three ("Property, purchase, and parliament: the estates of man in John Gower's Mirour de l'Omme and Cronica Tripertita"), the first of four "literary" chapters, focuses on John Gower and two of his lesser studied texts, Mirour de l'Omme and the Cronica Tripertita. Opening with an account of the Septvauns Affair of 1365-66, a property dispute involving Gower, Giancarlo argues that Gower's experience of the petitionary process and parliamentary representation opened up new possibilities for poetic representation and prompted him to "use parliaments as the scaffolding for narratives of judgement, loss and recovery" (120). The "sense of a fractured self" distinguishing Gower's poetry is linked, Giancarlo claims, with the contradictions inherent in a single speaker articulating the vox populi (93).

In the fourth chapter, "'Oure is the voys': Chaucer's parliaments and the mediation of community", the author explores the influence of parliament on Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls and "The Tale of Melibee", texts in the poet's oeuvre that have again received scant critical attention from scholars. Centring on two common concerns of parliament--petitions and marriage--Giancarlo attempts to demonstrate that the poet's artistic form, with its diverse range of individual and communal voices, "bears more than a metaphorical resemblance to the practice of parliament as Chaucer himself experienced it" (177). While this chapter successfully builds upon the work of other scholars, such as J. A. Burrow and Ethan Knapp, by putting forward some fascinating examples of clerkly poets using the petition as "both a bureaucratic instrument and a literary form" (144), the historical documents used to add weight to Giancarlo's argument are not as effective as those cited in other chapters. The section entitled "Marriage and Parliaments: The Case of Elizabeth de Burgh", for example, focuses on an episode from the early fourteenth century, which seems to bear little relevance to the period in which Chaucer was most active as a writer.

Giancarlo's fifth chapter, "Parliament, Piers Plowman, and the reform of the public voice", is more sophisticated in aligning contemporary political affairs and parliamentary forms with Williams Langland's Piers Plowman. His discussion of Sir Thomas Hoo and the Good Parliament of 1376 sits well with the ensuing discussions of Lady Meed's trial and the Bad Parliament of 1377, and helps to underline how the allegory in Passus 2-4 of Piers Plowman is dependant on, and illuminated by, a parliamentary setting. Giancarlo goes on to contend that Langland found "a speaking voice through the poetical representation of political representation, through a deliberative and contestive imagining of a deliberate and contestive political assembly" (199).

The sixth and final "literary" chapter, "Petitioning for Show: Complaint and the Parliamentary Voice, 1401-14", concentrates on the anonymous fifteenth-century poems of the Piers Plowman tradition: The Crowned King, Richard the Redeless and Mum and the Sothsegger. Giancarlo uses them to demonstrate that as parliament became more powerful "it lost is capacity--or at least, it is no longer looked to, by artists--as a structuring idea for the arrangement of narrative" (209). Drawing its examples from the aforementioned poems and two petitions from 1414, this chapter reflects on issues of speech and access, sickness and truth telling, concluding that, for the authors in question, the "act of showing complaint provides both the impetus for versifying and the object of complaint itself" (252).

Parliament and Literature in Late Medieval England concludes with the suggestion that by 1415 "the particular moment in late medieval England for parliamentary poetry, if not the poetry of parlement and discussion, had largely run its course" (255). Giancarlo justifies closing his monograph in Henry V's reign by demonstrating how later fifteenth-century writers, such as John Lydgate, helped to move the focus of representativeness back towards the king as the embodiment of the realm and its people.

In sum, this study offers a new and persuasive way of thinking about parliament's centrality to the development of Ricardian and early Lancastrian poetry and its narrative forms. Not surprisingly, there are many literary works and political documents that Giancarlo could have drawn upon to lend credence to his theory, a number of which might have been more apt than those examined meticulously here, but the strength of this book lies in its ability to demonstrate the fresh perspectives that become available to historians and literary scholars when the extraordinary, symbiotic relationship between two of late medieval England's greatest institutions is scrutinised. Giancarlo's study makes an admirable contribution to the field of medieval studies and it will no doubt become a standard work of reference for those working on political thought, the history of ideas and English literature of the later Middle Ages.

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Author Biography

Sarah Peverley

University of Liverpool