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13.06.25, Gayk and Tonry, eds., Form and Reform

13.06.25, Gayk and Tonry, eds., Form and Reform

This is a very stimulating and many-sided collection of studies of later fifteenth-century English literature, nearly all after Lydgate (apart from a brief treatment of Lydgate himself in Robert J. Meyer-Lee's essay on Skelton). There are some rough edges to those sides, but mostly those too contribute to the sense of the volume as an ongoing exploration both of how medieval literature might challenge or sustain a general and supposedly new focus on literary "form" (in the PMLA- and Critical Inquiry-anointed term, "new formalism"), and how in particular that methodological challenge or confirmation might play out when focused on a complicated "transitional" period, c. 1450-c. 1530: roughly between Lydgate's death and Skelton's, between manuscript culture and printing, between Lollard-hunting and Lutheranism, and between Chaucer's followers or quasi-followers and something much wider.

The volume does not provide any sustained narrative of this literary history or cultural span; on the surface at least, theoretical and formal arguments are more prominent. This is a sign of where the most astute medieval literary scholarship currently is, or feels the need to be, yet it is not a position that guarantees the capaciousness or consistency of all the results. Granted, that is in fact one of the volume's general principles. The heaviest emphasis on theory (though not, for the most part, Theory) appears at the beginning and end: at the beginning, in Kathleen Tonry's simulating and critically informed survey of how a medieval "pluralism" of forms challenges any unitary (and, inevitably, non-medievalist-generated) description of or explanation for literary form; at the end, in James Simpson's essay on how the modern (Theory) idea of the "death of the author" looks next to Skelton's self-dissolution into the persona of Drede in the paranoid Bowge of Court, which, Simpson deftly argues, poses readers with an existential (and "ethical") challenge to decide whether to grant authorial control to the effects of the text, or "remain" in a state (implicitly a rather intellectually and "ethically" immature one) of the "hermeneutics of a free play of meanings" (196).

Tonry's introduction is denser and more abstract than the other essays (certainly more than Simpson's, who adopts the most patiently simple style in the book), and her claims seem designed to make it hard for us as well to sum up the literary features or their contexts of the historical span in question. Yet Tonry's claims are precise in fending off the massive pressures of teleology to which accounts of this "transitional" period especially are subject, and this protective action is a major task in itself. As she says, "these essays lend more specific texture to the years directly before the Reformation, but do so with attention focused on local formal innovations that emerge--if only temporarily--free from narratives that arc toward an historiographical break. Together these chapters resist patterns and trajectories" (8).

True, "together"; yet each chapter seems to point to one fairly large proposition or another about the span of literary history in question, and for me, these (as well as the fact of the sheer variety of such propositions) constitute the volume's greatest interest. This edgy period emerges as intriguing because, on the one hand, there are so many kinds of important developments, but, on the other, no one narrative--literary or cultural--seems at all able to handle them all. How apt to end with Skelton's strange clinging to the dubious persona Drede, even after he has announced his labors in writing the poem.

The volume's organization itself mixes modal, generic, and authorial principles of division: part 1 is "The Materials of Form"; part 2, "Forms of Devotion"; part 3, "Reforming Skelton." Part 1's two chapters treat the readerly elements of the Brome play of Abraham and Isaac (Jessica Brantley), and the quasi- or fere-humanist style in script and Latin of Thomas Chaundler and the Oxford community featured in an Oxford University letter collection from the period (Andrew Cole). Those two essays define what would be considered in more standard terms of literary and cultural history, respectively, the expansion of literacy and bookishness into vernacular drama, and the Anglo-Latin absorption of continental humanist style.

But both authors use those relatively standard historical frameworks to offer inventive and intriguing claims about literary and rhetorical form. Although a sense of the period's increasing vernacular bookishness is not news, Brantley's scrutiny of what may be called the bibliographic coding of the Brome play is fresh and revelatory. She draws attention to the remarkable explicitness of the stage-directions, yet also to their peculiar location on the page, presented in the same block of text as the speeches--more relevant to a privately read text than a players' book. These seemingly-extrinsic material details are nonetheless further linked to the highly bookish intrinsic nature of the play, which invokes the abstractions of typology as it gestures to contemporary immediacy, in the address to present parents whose children have died. The result, Brantley argues, speaks to "a practice of private reading" (39) as well as constituting a new challenge, if we need one, to the dematerialized premises of "close reading."

Cole's chapter uses an instance of English assimilation of Latin humanism to redefine in equally fresh ways a literary issue that (thanks to David Lawton's arguments about it) has become a recurrent focus in fifteenth-century studies: dullness. But whereas Lawton influentially redefined the postures of dullness in English fifteenth-century authors, Cole here redefines analogous postures in Latin, and academic, writers. He focuses first, and with admirable specificity, on the peculiar fere-humanist script that Thomas Chaundler developed, then on the postures of petition that the Oxford register of letters presents. The interest, Cole shows, in the long-considered "artless" letters of appeal in the registry, lies in their emphatically local style, desires, and interests, cloaked in heavy embellishment and elegance, especially in their desperate appeals for patronage and support by Duke Humphrey. That the Duke was responsive to this should be the first clue that Cole is on the right track.

Cole's translations of the humanist Latin he quotes, however, are often inadequate, an unfortunate casualty of an essay bursting with lively and original ideas. As both disclaimer and mea culpa, I can add that I was myself briefly shown a prepublication version of this essay and, struck then as now by its acuity in describing the literary strategies of a distinctly English Latin petitionary writing, I overlooked these errors. It is important to rectify that in part if only to indicate how adroitly the petitioners pursued their craft--an adroitness that in fact supports Cole's points to the full. One instance is a letter from Oxford to Duke Humphrey thanking him for his book donations: "By means of the aforementioned study and vigilance, not only can others translate from Greek, but also by great contemplation your new works are forged in our language, not for us alone but even those most eloquent and learned men of Italy who toil!" (57). This renders what Cole prints as "Quantis insuper lugubracionibus et vigiliis, non modo ut ceteri ex Grecis traducant, sed et contemplacioni magnitudinis vestra [miscopied for vestre, i.e., vestrae] nova in nostrum [miscopied for nostram] linguam excudant opera, non nostrates solum sed ipsi etiam eloquentissimi et doctissimi de Italia viri insudaverunt!" Instead, translate: "By how much daily study and nightly labors do [the scholars and writers praising you] not only--like others--translate [old works] from Greek, but also, in contemplation of your magnanimity, pound out new works in our language; and not only do writers of our country labor [in this way], but so too even the most eloquent and learned men of Italy!" The context of the sentence shows that universal praise of Humphrey and its literary results, including in English literature (surely they had Lydgate in mind), are being described, not how "the activities that the duke himself supports at Oxford (namely, study) do the Italians themselves some good" (57). But there is no doubt that Cole's basic point is sound. The letter shows how Duke Humphrey's mere existence stimulates great things to happen in the literary and intellectual world--how much more when Humphrey actually contributes to that effect himself.

It is clear that the intricate classical Latin constructions produced by these would-be but (by our standards) quite skilled humanists need a great deal of care, especially in capturing the abundant, and Ciceronian, uses of the subjunctive for wishes and purpose-clauses. For "Igitur pro Deo exsurgere dignetur potencia paveat potenciam principis, sicut leonis vestigia pertimescunt animalia singula...; ut vestre serenitatis oratrix sub proteccione vestra, sicut sub illustrissimorum principum vestrorum progenitorum hactenus communita, in pace lactet filios suos in scienciis et virtitibus, ad ecclesie, fidei et regni decorem, proficuum et honorem," Cole's translation reads, "Therefore on behalf of God the power of so great an invisible prince deigns to take action against new misfortunes of this kind, as that inimical infestation, the common people, is frightened by the power of the prince, just as the tracks of the lion frightens [sic] every single animal...; so it is of your serenity, the university [lit., 'female supplicant' (sic)], defended thus far by your most illustrious ancestor princes, under your protection nurtures in peace her sons in studies and virtues, for the church, the glory of the faith and kingdom, achievement and honor" (58). Translate instead: "Therefore, for God's sake, may the power of so great an invincible prince deign to rise up against the slackness of the unheard of evils of this kind, so that the hateful plebian infestation might tremble at the power of a prince, just as every animal is terrified of the footprints of a lion... so that the female orator of Your Serenity, defended under your protection just as she has been up to now under [the protection] of your most illustrious progenitor princes, might nurse in peace her sons in the sciences and virtues, for the decor, success, and honor of the church, the faith, and the kingdom." The subjunctives in the Latin constitute the register's petitionary gunpowder.

So too care is needed to capture the craftily unctuous ways the writers can set up the great good that Humphrey can do for Oxford--and for Humphrey's own glory. Cole's translation blurs the evidence for his apt focus on that: "And certainly so many monuments are abandoned, you supply, among us very excellent and expensive volumes destined for future times in perpetuity, and although the tongues of men flatter, such monuments never conceal the fame of the glories of the prince" (60). That should instead be "So many of these monuments [of literature praising Humphrey] have indeed survived--namely, outstandingly famous and precious volumes promising an expectation [of your fame] among us in perpetual future ages--that even if the tongues of men should fail, they [the books] would never hide the fame of so great and so glorious a prince" ("que sane monumenta relicta sunt tot, supple, preclara ac preciosa volumina apud nos perpetuis futuris temporibus expectare debencia, que etsi lingue hominum defecerunt, tanti tamque gloriosi principis famam nunquam abscondent"). It is difficult Latin; that was part of the point. It was difficult in a new way from the scholastic logical Latin that previously dominated the university. Yet Cole is right to speak of how such humanist forms always contain their opposite (60)--not only in what they implicitly oppose, but also in the Latin they turn into Ciceronian periods. The construction volumina... expectare debentia is plausibly classical but seems too ornate, euphuistic; supple as a bookish, academic word for "namely" ('supply') is not classical at all.

These minor corrections aside, in strategies and particular focus, Cole's chapter sets forth an entirely new picture of the continuities and "important links" (64) between late medieval and Renaissance poetic and rhetorical style. Yet it is worth further pondering how even such a generally bravura display of local interests and postures illuminates precisely the kind of longer "trajectory" that the premise of the volume resists.

Part 2, "Forms of Devotion," begins with two complementary chapters on vernacular hagiographers, Osbern Bokenham (Karen Winstead) and John Capgrave (Shannon Gayk); if overall historical framing were the volume's point, these might have been reversed, since Bokenham drew on Capgrave. But the chapters offer important though discrete snatches of literary and cultural history. Winstead presents the first literary-ideological assessment I have encountered of the newly discovered collection of Bokenham's English saints' lives, the "Abbotsford Collection," which she shows has a surprisingly tolerant interest in the learned and religious authority of the women saints Bokenham presents--surprising because, as Winstead shows, and as the "Abbotsford Collection" allows her to display by stronger contrast, the previously known collection of his Lives in London, British Library, Arundel MS 329 are programmatically the opposite: subtly undermining of women's authority and powers, they insist on institutional, male authority except through the unexpected power of grace. We can't tell the dates of original composition precisely enough to be sure of what shifts the two collections represent in Bokenham's general outlook. Winstead understandably posits (but only speculatively) the more "complex" Abbotsford presentations as the later ones, signs of a "change in Bokenham's thinking" (her emphasis), leaving those in London, British Library, Arundel MS 327 as the "unrepresentative selection of the most conservative" that Bokenham had written, assembled by his fellow Austin-friar Thomas Burgh (85). This is plausible, and its assumptions admirably transparent. But like all historical narratives, her bibliographical one is freighted with our own ethical imperatives. Gayk's shorter essay on Capgrave's prologues is a delicate appreciation of his use of the idea of tasting and eating vernacular literature, and posits an alternative to the "aureate" and monumental ideas of fifteenth-century style as important as Cole's focus on the academic industry of Latin petitionary letters.

Like Brantley's essay on the Brome book in the "Material Forms" section, although displaced from hers in the "Forms of Devotion" section, Rebecca Krug's essay focuses on bookishness in her study of written religious dialogue, including The Fifteen Oes, Margaret Beaufort's translated small excerpt of The Imitation of Christ, and The Book of Margery Kempe. Although not scrutinizing the codicology so much as the literary stylistics of these works displaying spoken encounters with God, Krug is equally interested in the phenomenon of voices in texts, and in the privately devotional genres where that was both emphatic and peculiarly meaningful. Unlike the typological distancing that Brantley identifies, the bookish voices that Krug presents are "intimate" and full of presence, not the self-conscious irony or bottomless nostalgia of a search for "authentic" logocentrism: not so much Chaucerian as Hocclevian. Yet Krug offers a fascinating formulation for the absences and thus longings in the devotional texts she discusses. "Modern scholars want to hear Margery's voice because that is what we are missing"; in contrast, medieval readers found God's voice the voice they could not hear directly and so read to get closer to (124). They turned to Margery's Book and the other devotionally "speaking" works to capture a sense of intimacy with God by indirection, overhearing those addressing him.

Part 3, "Reforming Skelton," though most specific in focus, presents the volume's widest literary historical claims. Meyer-Lee's essay on Skelton's Replycacion uses Lydgate's construction of the idea of "literature" in the Life of Our Lady as a nearly divine incarnation to contrast the secularly established and politically prestigious status for "the possibility of literature" (134) that Skelton charted. In describing a pivot from a quasi-sacral medieval notion of literature to a quasi-politicized Tudor one, the chapter offers an important epitome of cultural transition in the second half of the fifteenth century: aureate to laureate, religious to political centers of authority, manuscript to print (Meyer-Lee usefully dwells on the royal authorizing of print in Skelton's period). Meyer-Lee closes by stating that in Skelton's Replycacion "one sort of articulation of the literary in the English vernacular came to an end" (158). The trajectory of the account is thus rather precisely the sort that Tonry would resist: "narratives that arc toward an historiographical break" (8). Yet his is a rich and useful storyline, especially since Meyer-Lee doubles its narrative arcs into dialectical terms, whereby "the literary" is increasingly defended and emphasized just as it appears less like gold dew from heaven.

Mishtooni Bose tackles Skelton by reference not only to another contemporary, John Audelay, but also through William Langland's Piers Plowman, especially the criticisms of making poetry offered by Ymaginatif in that poem, an outlook that Audelay took in with his demonstrable knowledge of Piers Plowman and that, perhaps spontaneously reconstituted, Skelton reflects as well. Mildly interestingly but less profitably, Bose frames this tension between creative insights and fallible human abilities around the image of "useless mouths" found in Simone de Beauvoir's fictional narrative of famine-stricken fourteenth-century Flanders. Presumably that invocation is meant to break the spell of any conventional literary historical narrative. But the most seminal feature of Bose's essay is her demonstration of how both Audelay and Skelton treat heresy as well as orthodoxy and its institutions in satiric forms. Her fine display of how precariously Skelton's verse maintains "the clear moral dichotomies between heresy and orthodoxy" (164) seems well able to draw wider attention to Skelton, in a contemporary critical context in which a host of adept literary scholars--many included here, especially Bose, Cole, Brantley, Krug, and Simpson--have been at the forefront of showing just how significant religious history, including the challenges of defining "heresy," is for literary understanding.

Simpson's closing "ethical" challenge of choosing authorship or not would seem to point to such situating, in spite of his avoidance of nearly any contextual information (except in the abundant notes) for The Bowge of Court. By defining that poem's "paranoia," however, Simpson deftly invokes the sensibility of the Henrician court. Indeed, the alternate option that Simpson offers, of ignoring the historical authorial agent by allowing ourselves to "remain in a hermeneutics of a free play of meanings" (196), is, even within the poem, impossible in the terms Simpson presents. Paranoia implies a center, an ego, to any play of meanings; paranoia requires a center of consciousness even as it also implies a questioning of any such thing. In touching on this principle of hermeneutics by way of reading The Bowge of Court, Simpson identifies a discernable late fifteenth-century paradox of authorship. It is a general issue, but, like all the essays here, it turns out to have a local habitation and a name.