09.05.05, Cole, Literature and Heresy

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John M. Ganim

The Medieval Review baj9928.0905.005


Cole, Andrew. Literature and Heresy in the Age of Chaucer. Cambridge Series in Medieval Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge Universtiy Press, 2008. Pp. xx, 298. ISBN: 9780521887915.

Reviewed by:
John M. Ganim
University of California, Riverside

For the past twenty years, marked by the publication of Anne Hudson's The Premature Reformation in 1988, the place of John Wyclif and Lollardy in late fourteenth and early fifteenth century literature has served as something of a litmus test, though what it was testing was not always clear. For some scholars, it has served as a window into the unofficial imagination of the late fourteenth century, inseparable from the sweeping social forces of the time, from the Rising of 1381 to the explosive growth of vernacular literature. Their suppression, in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century, has been regarded as an ominous assertion of orthodoxy through brute force and omnipotent surveillance. For others, the tendency to see a Lollard under every rock and bush is an exaggeration of the breadth and depth of Wyclif's influence, and misunderstands the capaciousness and broad cultural tent offered by the late medieval church. For Andrew Cole, in Literature and Heresy in the Age of Chaucer, the actual impact of Wycliffite ideas, especially as they are expressed in literature, are more complex than scholars have heretofore have assumed. His argument is something of a tour de force, reanimating a debate that seemed to have run its course, and offering new ways of thinking about the relation of theology and literature, as well as about the social practices they both reflect and shape, justify and criticize. If I had to translate Cole's thesis into a sound bite, it would be that Wycliffite ideas are transformed from a hermeneutic into a heuristic in late medieval literature. Well, an academic sound bite anyway. Cole himself argues that it is essential to undo the "lurid appeal of the sound-bite" of the Church's own propaganda concerning Wycliffism, particularly its use of the epithet "lollard" (Cole's preferred usage is lower-case and in quotation marks). We need, he suggests, to disaggregate lollardy and its late medieval associations from Wycliffite ideas and ideals themselves, lest we reenact the very marginalization that the Church sought. Lollardy was purposely employed as a term of slander lumping together a simplified version of Wycliffite and other heterodox ideas in such a way as to sound as alarming as possible to the orthodox medieval Christian. Late medieval English writers, however, resist this slanderous association in various ways and explore the promise of reform and renewal that was at the heart of Wycliffite theology, even if they were very far from his doctrinal positions.

As I write this review, I lament that I am not able to attend a fascinating conference being held at this moment at the University of Oxford, entitled "After Arundel" and organized by Vincent Gillespie. In the wake of the articulation of a "vernacular theology" by Nicholas Watson and others, many of us have focused on the transition between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as ushering in a new orthodoxy, represented politically by the Lancastrian usurpation and theologically by the career of Archbishop Arundel and culminating in the "Constitutions" of 1408, condemning translation of the Bible in English. Not so fast, Andrew Cole, would say. He reexamines the role of Arundel's predecessor, Courtenay, and the proceedings of the Blackfriars Council of 1382, marked by a cascade of attacks on Wyclif's ideas, though not, because of the separate jurisdiction of the university, Wyclif himself. Wyclif died in 1384, but his followers took his ideas in many different directions, espousing various kinds of theological, social and educational reforms. Cole argues that the Blackfriars Council and other early prosecutions of Wyclif's followers were designed to frame the movement as a subversive and dangerous popular insurrection. This situating of Wycliffite ideas would allow them later (no earlier than the late 1380s argues Cole) to be associated with the pejorative "lollard." At the same time, the strategy of Wyclif's enemies turns out to be only superficially effective, ironically resulting in a virtually undetectable proliferation of similar ideas even in apparently mainstream authors and works.

In the fourteenth century, orthodox writers attempt to label heterodox writers as "lollard," while heterodox writers attempt varieties of textual resistance to such a stereotype. As one would expect given that Cole is one of the editors of the Yearbook of Langland Studies, Piers Plowman plays a critical role in his thesis. Rather than censoring itself or expressing a newfound orthodoxy, the C-Text of Piers Plowman actually offers an engagement with the agenda of Wycliffism. By adding material to the C-Text, Langland complicates the association of "lollard" with reformist ideals. The "lunatyk lollares" of C.9 needs to be considered in relation to the "poor pacient" (C.9.178) and desert fathers (C.9.196 203), which Langland presents as a positive account of patient poverty, a virtue for all Christians. Antifraternal satire thus can be separated from its association with lollardy.

Writers such as Chaucer and Langland, could express serious Wycliffite ideas at the same time that they lampooned "lollards" (throughout, Cole purposely refuses to capitalize the word). Cole focuses on the Treatise on the Astrolabe, noting the resemblance between Chaucer's description of the challenge of translation in his preface to that work and a Wycliffite tract on translation. Lydgate's poetry on the Eucharist, however idiosyncratic, finds no need to defend itself against heterodoxy. In the "Procession of Corpus Christi," Lydgate, according to Cole, approaches a "figural theology" (152) that might seem to parallel the Wycliffite position. Rather than distancing himself from Lollard heresy, Lydgate frames his imagery in terms of a long view of theological history. Recently, Nicholas Perkins and Ethan Knapp have argued for a good deal of agency in Hoccleve's apparently abject persona, offering serious advice to the Lancastrians. Cole goes one step further, suggesting a modicum of sympathy with Oldcastle on Hoccleve's part. Margery Kempe's "shame" is modulated by an identification with the Bishop of Lincoln, once accused of heresy. In reacting to accusations of "lollardy," she negotiates the poles of orthodoxy and heterodoxy without submitting to either category.

In Chaucer and the Good Society (1986), one of the few items missing from Cole's copious documentation, Paul Olson proposed that writers such as Chaucer and Langland accepted Wyclif's critiques but not his solutions. The point in mentioning this is not to prove that Cole has missed something, but that, although assertively articulated, the more general outline of Cole's thesis is not as controversial as it might seem. Rather, the original value of Literature and Heresy is in its local analyses and the adroit way Cole maneuvers between canonical and obscure texts, illuminating the connections between them. He renders newly important and interesting texts such as Clanvowe's The Two Ways, Pierce the Ploughman's Crede and Mum and the Sothsegger (not that Mum isn't interesting in its own right.) He is attentive to manuscript compilations and how and why texts appear in the contexts they do. The title of his book promises more about Chaucer than it delivers, and the wording of the relation between literature and heresy suggests that the book might be making claims about a poetics or aesthetics involving the two topics, but this is not the case. Rather, Cole is interested in tracing rhetorical strategies that establish and then subvert the borders of orthodox and heterodox expression. Literature, broadly conceived, is treated as a medium for statements about alternative spiritual practices that would be censurable in formal theology.

This is a densely argued book, though its individual sentences are clear and lucid. Cole's argument is often framed in terms of extending or correcting recent scholarship on Wyclif, so readers unfamiliar with these previous positions will not have an easy time following his twists and turns. Cole is generous with his citations even when he is in debate with them. The book appears in a series from Cambridge University Press that has produced some of the most influential work on his topics of the past twenty years, some of it by authors whom he engages in his argument, such as Ralph Hanna, Rita Copeland, Fiona Somerset, and Wendy Scase. Literature and Heresy holds its own among them, which is saying a great deal. Unfortunately, the pricing of these books by Cambridge in hardbound format is prohibitive, and they become affordable to most academics only when and if they appear in paperbound editions. The dust jacket is an amusing and interesting painting by Kent Knowles called "Lollere in the wynd," illustrating the famous line from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in which the Host insults the Parson after the Parson complains about the Host's swearing, perhaps commissioned for this volume, since it gets Cole's thesis so well. But the book will also recall for many readers the painting by Ford Madox Brown of "Wyclif on Trial," in which an imperious John of Gaunt leaps to Wyclif's defense, portraying an earlier tribunal that led to Blackfriars. Even if Wyclif didn't have so many enemies, with friends like John of Gaunt, he probably didn't need them.

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Author Biography

John M. Ganim

University of California, Riverside