09.11.06, Youngs, Humphrey Newton

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Michael Johnston

The Medieval Review 09.11.06

Youngs, Deborah. Humphrey Newton (1466-1536): An Early Tudor Gentleman. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2008. Pp. 257. ISBN: 9781843833956.

Reviewed by:
Michael Johnston
Purdue University
mjohnst@purdue.edu

Humphrey Newton (14661536): An Early Tudor Gentleman represents the first book-length examination of the life and writings of Humphrey Newton, a gentleman from early Tudor Cheshire. Newton's commonplace book (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Lat. Misc.c.66) forms the centerpiece of this study. While focusing on one book compiled by one rather insignificant man may sound like a modest undertaking, such a book could only be written by a scholar with an impressive range of interdisciplinary skills. Youngs contextualizes her discussion of Newton within the major scholarship on the late medieval gentry, while simultaneously engaging with the most important recent work on late medieval vernacular literary production and circulation. Youngs's study thus contributes to two rather neglected areas of late medieval studies: the literary culture of early Tudor England and the literature of the minor gentry, both of which suffer neglect in most literary histories of the later Middle Ages.

Youngs's interdisciplinary approach should invigorate study of the social history of the late medieval gentry. As she points out (2-3, 8-9), almost all of the focus within studies of particular county communities or within histories of the gentry has revolved around the more powerful members of the gentry (usually referred to as the "county gentry"), as most of the surviving archival records relate to this stratum of society. By providing a detailed picture of a member of the minor gentry (a class that numbered 3,000-10,000 by most estimates), Youngs takes a necessary step towards redressing this imbalance.

In the Introduction Youngs outlines the major trends in the historiography of the gentry and suggests that an analysis of Newton's life and writing provides unique insights into late medieval social history. In this chapter, she also introduces the reader to the two main manuscripts that form the basis of her study: Newton's commonplace book, which occupies the lion's share of the study, as well as the sixteenth-century cartulary compiled by Newton's son (London, British Library MS Additional 42134A). Chapter Two, "The Newton Family," explains how thoroughly typical Newton was of the late medieval gentry. He was, like almost all of those of his social station, keenly interested in the identity of his ancestors: as an arriviste, he needed to establish his genealogy and pedigree. Moreover (in a pattern made famous by the Pastons), his marriage put Newton's social standing on firmer ground, greatly broadening his land holdings. And, as Newton settled into the life of a Cheshire esquire, he turned--as would be expected--to concerns over his nuclear family, seeing to the marriage of his children and seeking a new coat of arms that would properly express his family's position.

The next three chapters turn towards more detailed analyses of his place within the socio-economic matrix of the early Tudor aristocracy. Chapter Three, "Humphrey and the Law," provides a fascinating insight into Humphrey's service to his social betters as a manorial steward and a legal advisor--of sorts. Youngs provides the interesting and important reminder that we must not assume that Newton's social betters would have exclusively sought legal advice from those with formal training in the law. As many entries in his commonplace book attest, Newton clearly knew the law regarding land and inheritance, and though he never studied the law formally, Youngs has identified many occasions during which Newton served his neighbors as a legal advisor. This is an important contribution to the history of the late medieval gentry, and one imagines many men of Newton's status similarly were employed as legal advisors by their neighbors. Newton also served the more wealthy gentry, and sometimes the nobility, of Cheshire as a steward who oversaw manorial courts. This is a valuable discussion, for we know so little about who ran manorial courts in late medieval England. The notes Humphrey took about the running of such courts show us, in Youngs's words, "a gentleman-bureaucrat who supported his family and his business plans with a modest but regular income from his role in the administration of justice in Cheshire and its environs" (67). One assumes Humphrey's forms of service were quite common, but we have so few examples that Youngs's findings are a welcome addition.

Chapter Four, "Land and Lordship," is the final chapter in this cluster focusing on Newton's socio-economic position. In this chapter, Youngs continues to present Newton as representative of his class: "In common with other gentry landlords, Humphrey invested considerable time and effort in the estates both personally and via a team of paid officials. The competitive nature of the gentry meant that it was an accepted part of a gentleman's life to have concerns over inheritance, boundary disputes and grazing rights" (69). As Youngs shows, ultimately Humphrey relied on the legal system both to defend his right to property and to extend his claims to the property of others. His was not a spectacular life marked by violent conflict over land, and in this he is unlike his more sensational, and better-known, near-contemporaries, the Pastons.

The next three chapters move away from the concerns of the social historian into the domain of cultural history. In Chapter Five, "Beliefs," Youngs reads the religious texts in Newton's commonplace book as evidence for the utter conventionality of his religious beliefs and practice. Newton was interested in religious texts that were practical, "instructing on how to live well, rather than detailed theological exposition" (107). In this chapter, she draws heavily on the work of Eamon Duffy, and she quite rightly compares the religious impulses of Newton to Robert Thornton, a manuscript compiler of the minor gentry from a generation before Newton. In Chapter Six, "Lifestyle" (the most convincing chapter), she turns to the question of how the literary texts Newton has copied into his commonplace book relate to his socio-economic position. To this end, Youngs discerns five main themes that run through the literary texts that Newton copied out: medicine, astrology, political prophecy, local and national history, and literature of moral advice. Again, Newton's conventionality--this time in the realm of his cultural interests--comes to the fore in Youngs's analysis: "If a late fifteenth-century gentleman had made a check-list of works that were de rigueur, it would look a lot like Humphrey's reading habits" (175).

Chapter Seven, "Writer," addresses Newton's lyrics. This is a chapter that will interest many readers, as Newton is--thanks to the seminal work of Rossell Hope Robbins--best known to literary historians as the author of a series of lyric poems. Youngs begins this chapter by surveying scholarly work on the commonplace book, a type of manuscript that exploded in popularity in late medieval and early modern England. She then proceeds to an analysis of Humphrey's own verse, and though she describes him as a "confident" writer (177), she suggests that he "was no master" (192). Youngs's analysis is balanced, resisting the temptation to dismiss Newton as a mere poetaster. She insightfully demonstrates how Newton constructed an image of himself as a lovesick courtier, attempting to participate in the modish literary conventions of his day. Based on the mise-en-page, Youngs makes the argument that the lyric which Robbins called a "Gawain epigone" was in actuality not likely written by Newton but was rather copied from an exemplar (195). This observation is potentially an important contribution to the history of alliterative poetry, and I found myself wishing Youngs would linger slightly longer over this codicological detail--to which she only gives one paragraph. The conclusion, Chapter Eight, entitled "Humphrey: The Man and His World," nicely ties together the main strands of the study.

My only substantive criticisms of this book are the inconsistency of its transcription practice and the number of transcription errors. An explanation of the transcription practice in a preface, or, at the very least, in a note attached to the first transcription, is wanting. The first such explanation does not come until p. 128 n.102, where she notes that, at least in this passage, she is adding punctuation and expanding contractions. At times Youngs modernizes the i/y distinction, while at times she does not. For example, on p. 47, she has modernized the phrase "will desir," which in the manuscript reads "wyll desir." Again, on p. 77, she renders the manuscript's "denye3" as "denies." However, on p. 107, she preserves the manuscript's y in the word "swerynge." In addition, there are several places where she omits a word or a letter, or adds a word that is not in the manuscript: e.g., on p. 15, "Howbeit it hath been said that the anncestor of Neutone" should read "Howbeit it hath beene said that the ancestor of Neutone"; again on p. 15, "have been so named tyme out of minde" should read "have beene so named tyme out of minde. " Similar transcriptions errors occur on pp. 25, 37 (three times), 47, 48, 107, 111, 128, and 162. Finally, on two occasions Youngs provides the wrong folio numbers for passages from the manuscript: p. 117, n. 51 should read "Bodl, MS Lat. Misc.c.66, fo. 22v," while p. 128, n. 102 should read "Bodl, MS Lat. Misc.c.66, fo. 45r." Though none of these errors substantively detracts from Youngs's analysis, they nevertheless comprise a rather unfortunate series of editorial oversights. The bibliography is, in general, quite thorough. However, Young's argument, instead of relying on Friedrich W.D. Brie's EETS edition (from 1908), would have benefited from Lister Matheson's magisterial study of the prose Brut, as well as the description of Brut manuscripts produced by the Imagining History project at Queen's University in Belfast (available online).

These reservations notwithstanding, I found this to be a careful, compelling, and well researched discussion of Newton's life--accentuating in careful detail both its socio-economic and cultural aspects. The maps and plates nicely support the discussions and are well produced. Appendix Two also provides a handy and accessible sketch of the texts Newton copied (though one wishes references to the New Index of Middle English Verse had been included). As I sat in the Bodleian Library trying to work my way through MS Lat. Misc.c.66, I realized just what an accomplishment Youngs's study is. This manuscript, as it stands today, is quite difficult to read. It has been disbound and now lies in a series of mounted quires, each wrapped in thick, modern paper. When you request this manuscript, you receive a box containing a stack of these individually wrapped quires, on which are written often bewildering notes left by the conservationist from the Bodleian. (I found this one, which has been inscribed at the foot of the modern paper that holds fol. 65, representative of the complexity of this manuscript: "The 'mousehole' at the bottom left implies that when this damage occurred, the leaf lay (reversed and upside-down) at the start of the manuscript.") Given the difficulties of even navigating this manuscript, it is impressive that Youngs was able to extrapolate such a compelling and convincing narrative.

Youngs's careful analyses of Newton's commonplace book remind us that the literary and the documentary worlds of late medieval England were not so discrete as modern disciplinary boundaries would have it. Newton composed original poetry and inscribed prayers in the same codex in which he kept his manorial accounts. In this regard, Youngs's study stands in the tradition of Richard Firth Green's Poets and Princepleasers, which similarly foregrounded the material contexts in which poetry was practiced. Given Youngs's emphasis on late medieval English social history, religious practice, and literature, her book offers much to those who, following in the footsteps of Humphrey Newton, are interested in all three areas of study.

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Michael Johnston

Purdue University