09.06.17, Rayner, Images of Kingship in Chaucer

Main Article Content

Robert J. Meyer-Lee

The Medieval Review baj9928.0906.017


Rayner, Samantha J.. Images of Kingship in Chaucer and his Ricardian Contemporaries. Chaucer Studies 39. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2008. Pp. 177. ISBN: 9781843841746.

Reviewed by:
Robert J. Meyer-Lee
Indiana University - South Bend

In any book review, the intended audience of the study in question is obviously an important consideration, one that in this present instance is especially crucial. As Images of Kingship in Chaucer and his Ricardian Contemporaries is the thirty-ninth entry in D. S. Brewer's Chaucer Studies, a series that has given us such stimulating recent monographs as Allen Mitchell's Ethics and Exemplary Narrative in Chaucer and Gower (2004) and Kathryn Lynch's Chaucer's Philosophical Visions (2000), one may expect it to be aimed at an audience of scholars of late medieval English literature. Yet much about this book suggests that a more suitable audience is one relatively unfamiliar with the texts under study and the interpretive issues that they have raised--an audience of, say, undergraduate students in a survey or Chaucer course. Such an audience will benefit from the considerable space devoted to elaborated summary of poems by Gower, Langland, the Gawain-poet, and Chaucer; the basic introductions to these authors at the respective outsets of each of the book's four chapters (e.g., "Langland was probably a cleric, born in the Malvern area of Worcestershire circa 1330" [35]); the handbook-like coverage of the work of the latter three authors; and the jargon-free, admirably clear, straightforward exposition. In contrast, readers expecting a scholarly monograph will be disappointed by the relative lack of either in-depth argument or original scholarship (in, for example, sources, historical contexts, late medieval political thought, or manuscripts); a general disinclination to sustained engagement with current critical issues; and the book's odd tendency to depreciate the relevance of its own topic for the texts under study.

The book's abstract signals its character quite accurately:

This book aims to widen understanding of these [four Ricardian] poets through an examination of the theme [of the "idea of kingship"] in Confessio Amantis, Piers Plowman and the works of the Gawain-poet and then setting these against the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, the most well-known and well-read of the Ricardians. It brings the other poets' work into sharper focus, showing that despite a diversity in style and approach, common concerns and attitudes underpin all of the poets under consideration.
Evident in this description is the introductory and survey-like nature of the book. For example, Rayner's intended audience is, apparently, one who needs reminding that Chaucer is "the most well-known and well-read of the Ricardians." And by "examination of the theme" of kingship, Rayner means the straightforward method of laying out literary texts before her readers, delineating those aspects that meditate on or in some other way signify kingship, and offering some commentary on the significance of these aspects and an overall characterization of them. The book's first chapter applies this method to Gower's Confessio, largely restricting its scope to the poem's Frstenspiegel-like book 7, which it exhaustively summarizes; the remaining chapters aim at broader coverage, with chapter 2 offering a passus-by-passus commentary on Piers Plowman, chapter 3 supplying separate sections on each of the four poems commonly ascribed to the Gawain-poet, and chapter 4, after briefly reviewing some of Chaucer's pertinent lyrics, providing sections on Chaucer's dream poems, Troilus and Criseyde, and the Canterbury Tales.

This commitment to such broad coverage gives the student reader a sense of each author's entire corpus and what parts of it do and do not somehow comment on kingship. But for the scholarly reader, this coverage means that a significant amount of space is occupied by texts (or portions of texts) largely irrelevant to the book's topic. For example, in the discussion of Chaucer's House of Fame, Rayner tells us, "Although this poem is about the reputation of the good, the brave and the highly skilled, kings features feature very little" (98). And, after devoting twelve pages to the Book of the Duchess, Rayner concludes, "The subject of the poem is Blanche's death, and the subtlety with which Chaucer manages her eulogy shows how effective inexplicit imagery can be in offering tactful sympathy. Kingship is part of that structure of consolation, but does not, despite the royal nature of its central mourner, dominate it" (97). Scholarly readers will be puzzled by the decision to devote so many of the book's 162 pages of text to works that Rayner herself finds minimally relevant to her topic. Student readers, however, may be grateful to learn which of these works do and do not prominently features ideas of kingship.

The passage from the book's abstract quoted above also indicates the study's prioritization of compare-and-contrast analysis over argument (as evident in such formulations as "setting these against the works of Geoffrey Chaucer" and "brings the other poets' work into sharper focus"). What arguments the book does articulate tend to be derivative (Rayner frequently turns to other critics to voice her conclusions, much more rarely challenging other critics' arguments) or very general, such as this one at the end of chapter 2: "Piers Plowman exposes rottenness in all estates, but in the Dreamer's eight visions develops a progressive sermon of hope that becomes an argument pointing back to its own beginning with the 'feeld ful of folke' all going about their business, most of them concerned only with self-serving ends. Hope is still possible, but only if people will listen and change" (60). Student readers may be glad for such overall characterizations of these texts and accompanying descriptions of how they do and do not resemble one another. Scholarly readers will not find such conclusions especially enlightening. Indeed, these readers will already know that the works under study possess, as Rayner's abstract puts it, "a diversity in style and approach," and they will also fully expect--since these authors share a very specific historical context--the works to express "common concerns and attitudes" toward kingship.

Throughout, Rayner notes possible points of contact between literary texts and political context, but she intentionally downplays these. Some remarks in her preface imply a rationale for this decision. Observing that the "extraordinary political events" of the Ricardian period have "recently generated work applying New Historicist theory to investigate the impact Richard II's reign had on the poets and their writing," she distinguishes her own work from this "recently generated" one, explaining, "This study, however, concentrates on the texts themselves, and attempts to identify whether, by following the theme of kingship through the work of each poet, a coherent response can be seen that can be called distinctly 'Ricardian'" (vii). While student readers may take comfort in the straightforward exposition this method promises, many scholarly readers will find difficulties in these remarks. For example, aside from the problematic locution of "New Historicist theory" (as New Historicism is famous for resisting uniform theorization), those critics she later identifies as "historicist"--Lee Patterson, Paul Strohm, and David Wallace (1)--would, I think, object to the implication that they do not provide detailed examinations of "the texts themselves" to accompany their analyses of the relations of those texts to other documents of the period.

To be fair, Rayner may not intend this implication, but she is plainly seeking a rationale for not performing the sort of extensive historical contextualization for which Patterson, Strohm and Wallace are known--and not performing this contextualization for a topic for which it is so seemingly apt. At the end of her introduction she more explicitly articulates such a rationale, but here it is not one of principle but merely the pragmatic one of book size: "as a literary analysis, [this study] will concentrate only on what can be found about kingship in the works themselves...This decision has been made purely on the grounds of space, as an examination of [other things] would enlarge this book to unmanageable proportions" (4). Rayner is no doubt correct that a thoroughly contextualized study of the idea of kingship in such a large proportion of the oeuvres of the four authors she covers would require a great many more pages than comprise the typical monograph. But this fact alone does not legitimate her decision to exclude most contextualization, for what might be gained from such exclusion remains questionable. Scholarly readers, as I have suggested, will not find the breadth of coverage adequate compensation for the exclusion of contextualization, and would find more value in a study of this length that was more selective of its texts and, accordingly, more penetrating in its argumentation and far-reaching in its scholarship.

The decision to exclude substantial contextualization also affects, more subtly, the kinds of overall conclusions that the book obtains. Because, among these authors, only Gower offers blunt and extensive discussion of kingship, a strict focus on "the texts themselves" may lead one to conclude that kingship per se is not, after all, very important to these texts. And, indeed, this putative relative irrelevance of kingship per se becomes, by the book's end, an important feature of the "coherent response" to the topic that Rayner has discovered in Ricardian poetry. As she remarks on the final page, "Each poet offers a perspective very different to the next, and yet in this central belief in the harmonizing influence of God shows how this provides all the stability that the world needs. Earthly kings may come and go, may be good, bad or indifferent, but it is the kingship of the inner self that truly matters" (162). For Rayner, in other words, what the Ricardians share about the idea of kingship does not as much pertain to actual kings as to the use of the idea as a trope for the absolute sovereignty of God and the imperative of moral self-rule. No one, I think, would dispute that these poets do indeed use the idea of kingship as such a trope. But, by avoiding substantial contextualization, Rayner has obscured the traces of the many less explicit ways the texts under study may speak to literal kingship, such as the verbal and rhetorical habits, ideological assumptions, and circumstances of production and reception that these literary works share with other documents of the period (that which Strohm has called a work's "textual environment"). Rayner's conclusion that kingship per se is not a central concern of these authors, except perhaps for Gower, is thus greatly conditioned by her method.

Readers coming to Images of Kingship will hence be disappointed if they are expecting a monograph akin to, say, Matthew Giancarlo's Parliament and Literature in Late Medieval England (2007), which similarly considers how a feature of late medieval English governance is refracted in the literature of the period but which involves a thoroughgoing and bidirectional contextualization. Such a book is not the sort that Rayner has chosen to write, as she makes plain. Instead, a more suitable audience, as the book's opening and closing references to John Burrow's venerable Ricardian poetry (1971) suggests, is one for whom Ricardian poetry as an aesthetic category (as distinct from a historical one) is a new idea that requires defense and elaboration. For example, students in a literary survey course, especially one that includes consideration of representations of kingship across several periods, may gain from this book an appreciation of the specific character of the Ricardians' artistic predilections in this regard--although such an audience would likely wish for glosses of the harder Middle English, such as that of the Gawain-poet, as well as translations of Latin.

Article Details

Author Biography

Robert J. Meyer-Lee

Indiana University - South Bend