12.03.05, Cooper, Artisans and Narrative Craft

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Katherine Little

The Medieval Review 12.03.05

Cooper, Lisa H.. Artisans and Narrative Craft in Late Medieval England. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. 296. ISBN: 978-0-521-76897-9.

Reviewed by:
Katherine Little
University of Colorado at Boulder

Readers of Chaucer's poetry are certainly familiar with seeing poets in terms of craftsmen, poetry in terms of craft. One might think of the first line of The Parliament of Fowls: "The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne," where craft seems to refer as much to poetry as to Love. The comparison of poets and craftsmen seems entirely natural, so much so that some scholars have accepted it on its face without asking about what exactly a craftsman might mean in the late medieval period (see, for example, V. A. Kolve, Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative). Lisa Cooper's study asks us to look more closely at the ubiquity of the comparison in the literature of medieval England, and her study's great strength is in defamiliarizing that comparison by historicizing the artisan.

The explicit goal of Artisans is an ambitious one: to examine how artisans and the language surrounding them aided the development of medieval literature. Cooper writes, "my primary aim is to explore some--by no means all--of the stories that late medieval English culture told itself about artisans, while my principal argument is that the impulse to tell those stories is a fundamental aspect of late medieval cultural and narrative practice" (3). From this perspective, the study resembles Emily Steiner's Documentary Culture and the Making of Medieval English Literature, which also takes what traditionally have been seen as non-literary forms and objects (such as the charter) and argues for their importance in the development of literary texts (such as Piers Plowman). But the individual chapters of Artisans do not prove, in this reader's opinion, that artisans are at all "fundamental to cultural and narrative practice," anymore than any other figure who commonly appears in literary texts--the king, the rural laborer, a woman, etc. The thesis of this study might be more appropriately described in terms of the generality: "medieval authors found them [artisans] good to think with" (7).

The mode of this "thinking with" is genre, and each of the chapters is organized around a literary genre or genres: the vocabulary, legendary history and fabliaux, spiritual allegory, and mirrors for princes (chapters 1 through 4 respectively). Although this focus on genre ostensibly ties to Cooper's stated argument--that artisans are fundamental to the development of narrative--most of the chapters offer interesting historical arguments about the relationship between a particular text and contemporary concerns about artisans. Both chapter 1 and chapter 3, the strongest chapters, argue convincingly for the transformation of established or familiar genres in the fifteenth century. Chapter 1 explores topical vocabularies (texts used for language instruction), arguing that they demonstrate "how a literate elite attempted to come to term with artisans by defining the terms for them" (22). The chapter begins with the depiction of artisans in the foundational Latin texts written by Adam of Petit Pont, Alexander Nequam, and John of Garland in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Here Cooper finds evidence for the accepted scholarly view--that these centuries saw an increase in "the economic and political power of artisans, merchants, and other professions not easily categorized within the traditional schema of the 'three orders'" (23). Then Cooper turns to an extended discussion of Caxton's Dialogues in French and English (1480-83), which teaches merchants "how to speak to and about artisans with authority rather than engaging in dialogue with them" (36). In distinguishing merchants from artisans, the text reflects contemporary concerns: "merchants' need to draw firm boundaries between themselves and craftsmen" (37). Cooper concludes this chapter with a fascinating point that the text potentially undoes the work of the guild: "the Craft alphabet...rather than joining the members of the craft community to one another, instead works imaginatively to sever those relations and connect each artisan separately to the speaker (and reader) of his or her name" (47). This point raises an important question about the representation of artisans more broadly: do texts about artisans work against the development of the "associational form" of the guild, to borrow David Wallace's language? This reader would have liked to see this question taken up in relation to some of the other genres under discussion.

Chapter 3 also begins with a foundational text, the spiritual allegory of Guillaume de Deguileville's mid-fourteenth century poem, Le pèlerinage de la vie humaine. Cooper argues that Deguileville's use of "craft allegory" in his poem seems to be at first glance a kind of empowering of lay action and thus similar to many lay devotional texts in this period: the believer is an artisan, working with the carpenter's square, which is associated with Christ. But, in fact, the poem ends up suggesting instead that the layperson is a kind of object or commodity, without agency, worked upon by vices, shaped by penitence and grace, who should be subject, therefore, to the institution of the church. It is this particularly conservative message that seems to have appealed to John Lydgate, who translated the poem in 1426. Cooper argues convincingly that Lydgate's translation responds to the threat of Lollardy, especially the association between artisans and heresy and social unrest. For the early fifteenth century, these concerns all collected around John Badby, an artisan and accused Lollard who denied transubstantiation and was burned at the stake in 1410.

Chapter 2 is a somewhat less successful attempt to read two kinds of literary genres, legendary history and fabliaux, in terms of the historical status of masons and other craftsman. Although the link between "real" artisans, in the two manuscripts written for and about masons, and literary texts, the comic poems, is quite promising, the chapter suffers from a lack of focus. Cooper uses the household as the term binding these two kinds of texts together, but it seems something of a stretch, and the chapter consists of a series of brief discussions that are only notionally linked. The chapter begins by arguing that the manuscripts "provide a substitute, if metaphorical, home for just such an ambulatory artisan [as a mason]" (59) and examines the legendary history by which masons "insert themselves within an intellectual tradition" (59). More interesting is the historical account of masons who, as wage workers, were often targets of attempts to control artisanal associations (62). The second part of the chapter, on the comic poems, reads the household as site of subversion and invasion. This point is clear enough, but it is hard to see, from the brief discussion, how the cuckolding in the poems responds to "contemporary anxieties...about artisanal association" (64).

Chapter 4, in contrast to the previous three, sets aside historical arguments to focus more narrowly on genre--the Mirror for Princes tradition. Moving quickly through John of Salisbury's Policraticus, the De Regimine principum of Giles of Rome, Lydgate's Fall of Princes, William Caxton's Game and Play of the Chesse, and the Mirror for Magistrates, the chapter argues that each "uses artisanal metaphor or episodes that involve crafting figures to ask its readers, often more than once, to contemplate the modes, means, and effects of princely action" (147). In claiming that artisans play a central role in the mirror for princes, this chapter attempts to prove the argument stated in the introduction (and neglected in the first three chapters)--that artisans are fundamental to the shaping of genre or narrative craft. But Cooper has a difficult time proving that her observations about the genre are a result of the artisanal metaphor in particular. Scholars now agree that mirrors for princes critique the king (e.g. 150) or celebrate poets (172) even without having attended closely to the role of artisans. Indeed, her conclusion underlines the generality of her observations: "As not just the Game and Playe but rather the speculum principum tradition as a whole makes clear, it is possible for artisans to serve as both positive and negative examples for noble readers" (185).

Cooper's study offers many fine and detailed readings of individual texts, and, as the first study to focus on artisans in literature, it is a useful introduction to the wide variety of texts in medieval England that represent them. It is unfortunate that it too often retreats from the big picture: addressing how these texts "talk" to each other or what they suggest for a history of artisans. For example, there are two intriguing potential arguments implicit in the study that would have been worth making explicit. First, that the texts written about artisans by those "outside" (vocabularies, spiritual allegory) attempt to destroy their associational forms and limit their agency, whereas those written by those "inside" (the masons) attempt to bolster these. From this perspective, the convention with which Cooper begins but does not examine in detail-- that the texts are not interested in the "real" artisan but in figuring "artisans either as an undifferentiated mass of makers, distinguished as a group from agricultural workers but not from each other, or else as individual men...working in a single and sometimes even unspecified craft" (6)--takes on an ideological significance. In idealizing and generalizing the artisan, writers helped, consciously or not, to diminish his/her "real" social and economic power or to allay anxieties about that power. Second, the references throughout to markets, commodities, commercialization, and wage labor suggest a compelling (and to this reader's mind, central) question about the role these texts played or refused to play in the growth of capitalism and readers' perception of it. If artisans were not the pre- capitalist workers that Karl Marx imagined and idealized, as noted briefly in the introduction, then how did these texts negotiate their complicated status?

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Katherine Little

University of Colorado at Boulder