09.06.06, Nuttall, The Creation of Lancastrian Kingship

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Jonathan Newman

The Medieval Review baj9928.0906.006


Nuttall, Jenni. The Creation of Lancastrian Kingship: Literature, Language and Politics in Late Medieval England. Cambridge Series in Medieval Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. 187. ISBN: 9780521874960.

Reviewed by:
Jonathan Newman
University of Toronto

The relationship between late medieval England's political discourse and its poetry has been a prominent topic in Middle English literary studies for well over a decade now. Jenni Nuttall's first book, The Creation of Lancastrian England: Literature, Language and Politics in Late Medieval England, is all the more welcome for presenting an argument that is economical, orderly, and nuanced, but comprehensive enough to provide an accessible introduction to the topic. With its relatively slender volume, editorial surety, and general usefulness, it is an appropriate addition to the roster of the Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature. In this book, Nuttall examines how the tropes and topoi used to justify the deposition of King Richard II give terms to political discourse and debate that usually evades any simple reduction to acts of resistance or propaganda.

The author studied with Paul Strohm, whose England's Empty Throne examined the discourse by which the Lancastrians legitimated their rule and obscured the circumstances of their usurpation. [1] Nuttall interrogates many of the same Lancastrian texts as does Strohm, including parliamentary records (this book is one of many fruits that Given-Wilson's edition of the Rolls is sure to bear), chronicles like Adam Usk's, the Brut, the Annales Ricardi Secundi, and poems including the works of Hoccleve, Gower, Scogan, and the author of Richard the Redeless and Mum and the Sothsegger, among others. But while Strohm's analysis focuses on "favoured Lancastrian themes of dynastic succession, legitimacy [underwritten by orthodoxy], and nationalism," Nuttall looks at the concept of 'kingship' rather than dynasty. This shift brings into view how writers in the Middle Ages addressed concerns about governance of the self, the household, and the kingdom as a whole. And where Strohm looks at the ways in which Lancastrian tries (with mixed success) to elide the deposition and transfer of power from the record, Nuttall looks at how the very discourse surrounding that even furnishes the political imaginary of Lancastrian chroniclers, poets, and parliamentarians.

Nuttall jettisons post-structuralist gestures in favor of the analytical practice of J.A. Pocock and the Cambridge School of political historians in order to articulate the relationship between language (the political discourse justifying the deposition) and power (Lancastrian kingship), Pocock flourished contemporaneously with Foucault and made some analogous points about how a discourse, once deployed, recirculates and realigns power relations. Pocock's work contributes to Nuttall's analysis the idea of "'paradigms', ways of talking or writing which 'structure thought and speech' in favour of certain explanations or certain versions of events" (3). By using the idea of paradigm to mean something more historically and functionally precise than "discourse," Nuttall manages to narrate the generation, spread, and adaptation of a political discourse originally intended to underwrite Lancastrian legitimacy, but which subsequently provided the terms of debate over governance for both critics and supporters of Henry IV and V.

Paradigms, as Pocock defines them, are springboard of innovations and creative adaptation of pre-existent discourses; they give rough limits to the political imagination and define terms both for the imposition of and resistance to power. Nuttall analyzes as paradigms the "stereotypes and topoi" surrounding the deposition of Richard II and the authorization of Lancastrian rule. Her principle argument is that the demerita notoria, the invective that swarms around Richard's person in official Lancastrian accounts of the usurpation, give rise to a distinct set of concerns about royal authority and power that "mould" subsequent discourse--both praising and critical-- about Lancastrian rule. In the organization of her book, the author divides this political discourse into two spheres of concern: the household, the topic of Part I, and the fiscal management of the kingdom, the topic of Part II.

In Part I, "Household Narratives, " the author examines the sources, deployment and dissemination of what she variously calls the "Ricardian stereotype" or the "depositional paradigm"--the demerita notoria's discourse on good and bad kingship invoked by Lancastrian partisans to justify the deposition of King Richard II. These include a set of associated charges which Nuttall lays out in Chapter One according to a scheme devised by Giles of Rome in De regimine principum in his description of the tyrannical king, "governing...on his own impulse and in his own interests" (11): the king is immature, beholden to luxury and flattery, and does not admit the counsel of truthtellers. While some account of Giles's own sources would be interesting, it is not strictly necessary to the task of setting out some vital features of Lancastrian representations of Richard: his tyranny, profligacy, immaturity, and hostility to honest counsel. De regimine principum provides Nuttall with a systematic overview of the tyrannical traits informing the accusations against Richard II. In chapters two through five, the author describes how representations of these traits proliferate in the chronicles of the period and leap to such obviously topical poems as the anonymous Richard the Redeless and Mum and the Sothsegger and Gower's Cronica Tripertita. Devoting special attention to Hoccleve, Nuttall deftly synthesizes the wealth of Hoccleve scholarship that has emerged in the last decade into her argument about how Hoccleve's "polyvalent" poetry uses depositional topoi directly and indirectly to address different audiences within the king's affinity. Hoccleve and other writers alter and adapt the Ricardian stereotypes for purposes both critical and supportive of Lancastrian kingship as well as for private purposes. The author organizes her comparison of these discursive trajectories around a controlling image of the "geography of the household" as the spatial representation of access to power.

Having established the Ricardian stereotypes from the substance of De Regimine Principum, Nuttall turns in the second chapter to the texts which disseminate these stereotypes in the early part of Henry IV's reign, specifically the transplantation of passages in the Record and Process in the parliament rolls to the Annales Ricardi Secundi and their echoes in the Vita Ricardi Secundi, Continuatio Eulogii, Richard the Redeless, and Gower's Cronica Tripertita. These texts employ the paradigmatic discourse about Ricardian tyranny that underwrote both the process of the transfer of power and retroactive legitimation of Lancastrian rule (17-26). With a glancing survey of their literary antecedents, the author highlights the fabricated nature of the depositional chargesRichard's extravagance, etc.as "unproved and unfounded by historical fact" (20). One might suspect a Yorkist agenda at work, but Nuttall later shows how similar charges accrue to Henry IV with equally insubstantial material support.

In chapter three, "Politicizing pre-existent languages," Nuttall mines some literary sources of the topoi that flesh out the Ricardian stereotypes. From de Casibus narratives (28-33) comes the idea of Richard as the victim of fortune's wheel rather than Lancastrian machination. From vestimentary or anti-sumptuary satire (33-38), which draws alike on the Bible, comes the association between plain clothes and truth-telling, between foppery and flattery. This segues neatly into a spatial analysis of the common medieval narrative that physically places the plainly dressed truthteller outside the corridors of power, which are populated instead by boyish and extravagant flatterers (38-40). As with her use of Pocock, her incorporation of Felicity Heal's work on the spatial politics of the early modern great household is a fine example of unostentatious interdisciplinarity. [2] Some of this chapter's material is well- trod, but besides being comprehensive and well-documented, it economically sets up the subsequent chapters' examination of how these topics were taken up by Lancastrian writers.

In chapter four the author analyzes how the poet of Richard the Redeless and Mum and the Sothsegger "translates this political rhetoric into political reality" (37); she collocates the 'temporarily prioritized' discourse surrounding the deposition in poems, chronicles, and other documents, including Philip Repyngdon's widely circulated letter to Henry IV. Here also, Nuttall adheres to the path forged by Strohm, but this chapter also lays the groundwork for the links between Richard and Mum and contemporary courtly texts treated in the next chapter.

Chapter five, the culmination of part one, contains sustained and forceful readings of poems written Gower, Scogan, and Hoccleve in the years shortly following Henry IV's coronation. Here, Nuttall achieve the goal set out in her introduction:

Rather than making any simple distinction between subordinated and uncritical reproducers of Crown propaganda and those who opposed and challenged it, we must therefore map out a new position occupied by these writers (5).
If, as Nuttall argues, depositional paradigms were in "the process of escaping from the control of their originators" (5), we can glimpse this process in these authors' "responding creatively to depositional rhetoric" by making it respond to different situations with "multiple emphases" (55). While providing solid readings of Gower and Scogan, Nuttall's contribution to Hoccleve scholarship is especially valuable; her reading of the Male Regle and Regement of Princes synthesizes Burrow's groundbreaking observations about Hoccleve's unconventional use of convention with more recent work on his fraught professional berth by Nicholas Perkins and Sarah Rees-Jones. [3]

In Part II, "Credit and Love," the author shifts her attention from the household to a "parallel...discussion of Crown finances and of the Crown's fiscal relationship with its subjects" (75). Henry IV's reign was repeatedly hampered by financial problems--he had renounced some of Richard's means of collecting revenue, but incurred new costs from suppressing repeated rebellions in Scotland, Wales, and England. Forced to renege on his the promises he made at accession, Henry re- adopted direct taxation. According to parliamentary records, the resulting popular resentment by the commons revisited on him the very charges leveled against Richard at the deposition--the spurious but widespread belief that untold fortunes were tucked away somewhere, and that what money was being spent was going to undeserving parties. Nuttall's mordant articulation of the discrepancy between the imaginary wealth of the kingdom and its actual deficit is timelier now than when her book was published in 2007.

Chapter six narrates how "retroactive representations of Richard's financial policies, in combination with promises and expectations which emerged following Henry's accession" (75) shaped financial debate in the kingdom and was refracted in the petitionary poems of Hoccleve--the Male Regle and the Regement of Princes: "Hoccleve does not submissively accept the language offered to him by the Crown to explain its financial difficulties and initiatives but deflects and deforms it" (86). Nuttall is not the first to notice how Hoccleve's representation of his own penury and former "fool-largesse" echoes the wider political debates of his time, but her treatment is distinguished by the depth and range of contextualization allowed by her sustained narratives about the generation and diffusion of paradigms through laws, council and parliament records, letters, and chronicles. By providing a sense of the density and frequency of this financial discourse in Hoccleve's milieu, she reveals a striking insolence in Hoccleve's seeming deference in his usurpation of "linguistic forms already sponsored by the Lancastrian Crown" to petition and criticize the crown.

Chapters seven and eight explore the discursive links between Henry's fraught finances and wider Lancastrian discussion on loyalty as "symbolic credit" between monarch and people. Chapter seven looks in particular at the Continuatio Eulogii again and a 1415 alliterative poem, Crowned King. The Continuatio reports the contention of the rebellious Percies and Archbishop Scrope that the "lack of financial credit produces a lack of emotional credit, a lack of belief in Henry's kingship and a corresponding lack of loyalty among his subjects" (96). The anxiety generated by these associations stems from a discourse of parliamentary negotiation that ostensibly prioritizes parliament's conciliar role and the relations of affection and esteem between people and monarch. In this paradigm, the people's goodwill toward the monarch is described as his greatest treasure; Nuttall's interpretation of the parliamentary records shows how the petitionary language of parliamentary address frequently pushes this metaphor toward the literal, "too close for comfort to the tenor it describes" (99)--the business of money itself. This discomfort, according to the author, generates "useful ironies and double meanings," allowing both parties "to negotiate exchanges of material and symbolic credit without explicitly alluding to the treats and concessions being made" (99).

These ironies and double meanings also enable Lancastrian texts to plays that are neither "rebellious criticism nor cowed propaganda", but "political engagements both pragmatic and innovative" (121). She arrives at this point through a complicated but well-supported argument showing how the metaphor equating the people's loyalty with material wealth narrows to express relation between king and the poet and his poetry. Nuttall traces the pseudo-Aristotelian trope of the truthtelling counselor as his king's valuable treasure from Chaucer's Legend of Good Women to the alliterative advice poem Crowned King. Her reading of the latter poem reveals its political alertness in the way it tactically reconfigures a public rhetoric equating national wealth with biological productivity in order to bring attention to the agricultural labor that sustains that wealth. In chapter eight, Nuttall brings this discussion back to Hoccleve's Regement of Princes, greatly enriching our understanding of the petitionary rhetoric of the Prologue and its connection to the discussion of good kingship that follows in the body of the poem.

In her conclusion, Nuttall situates the literary and political exchanges analyzed throughout the book in the social networks of Lancastrian authors--retainers and officials who comprised the personal connections which a bureaucratic clerk like Hoccleve and his peers might have enjoyed. She does so by tracing the personal connections that make up Hoccleve's and Gower's official life--those mentioned in the poems, and those linked them by documentary evidence (123). These social networks also describe the "routes through which the Crown's policies and linguistic choices might be disseminated to lower-ranking members of the bureaucracy" (125). "This circle of bureaucratic and household readers had an informed and detailed knowledge of current political discussion and action. We should therefore expect Lancastrian literature to be equally accurate and insightful, both in terms of policy and rhetoric" (125). In the course of her book, Nuttall's analyses have given us reason to credit this evaluation, showing us Lancastrian writers as not as propagandists or critics, but mediators and commentators.

This book provides a convincing account of how the Lancastrian literature offers not only another facet to the period's politics, but, circulating "side-by-side" with official and semi-official, "participates in the process of commentary, engaging closely with the Crown's own rhetoric" (127). Rather than bracket or dissolve the distinction between literary and non-literary texts, Nuttall puts them into conversation with one another. In this way, she reveals continuities between these different discourses, but and throws into relief the nuanced and layered qualities of Lancastrian literature which allow it to address differing messages to multiple readers. In this way, her book offers both a fresh and convincing take on Lancastrian political history and its rich, sustained readings of the period's literary texts restore their political valences without reducing them to partisan tokens.




[1] Paul Strohm, England's Empty Throne, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

[2] Felicity Heal, Hospitality in Early Modern England, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

[3] Nicholas Perkins, Hoccleve's 'Regiment of Princes': Counsel and Constraint (Cambridge: Brewer, 2004); Ethan Knapp, The Bureaucratic Muse: Thomas Hoccleve and the Literature of Late Medieval England (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001).

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Author Biography

Jonathan Newman

University of Toronto