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13.12.03, Bahr, Fragments and Assemblages

13.12.03, Bahr, Fragments and Assemblages

This is a smartly conceived set of studies of "compilations," "assemblages," and sometimes "fragments" as the form of books and narratives deemed particularly suited to London between the early fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Attention to "the fragment" as a distinctive late-medieval literary form is not new, especially in the case of Chaucer. Larry Sklute's Virtue of Necessity: Inconclusiveness and Narrative Form in Chaucer's Poetry dates from 1984; Rosemarie McGerr's Chaucer's Open Books: Resistance to Closure in Medieval Discourse from 1998. Neither is cited. But Bahr accurately displays what are in fact his greater debts to Walter Benjamin's experiments with compilation and the nature of how historical relics are defined by the changing views of later perceivers, to the "New Formalism" (via one of its medievalist practitioners Maura Nolan and, conscripted for the purpose by some recent comments against the reductiveness of historically illustrative uses of literature, Derek Pearsall), and perhaps especially to the increasing emphasis on the manuscript forms constituting medieval literary history--texts rather than works, as the saying goes. Bahr's dual goal is ideology analysis as well as charting the production of "the aesthetic" as a surplus to any merely communicative, paraphrasable, denotative meaning, applying this to an interesting array of assemblages (to use his term, which is carefully neutral about conscious or single authorial or scribal intention) that are associated somehow with fourteenth-century London. Following in codicological and regional focus Ralph Hanna's London Literature, 1300-1380 (2005), with its chapters on two key legal and literary compilations made in early fourteenth-century London, namely Andrew Horn's two custumaries and the Auchinleck collection of English romances, Bahr develops intriguing readings of those two compilations then adds readings of the First Fragment of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, especially the Knight's Tale and the Cook's Tale, and finally of the "Trentham" Gower manuscript, which presents Gower's late Latin and English pro-Henrician poetry and Gower's presumably late (but in fact undatable) French verse, including the Traitié pour essampler les amantz marietz, dedicated here in its unique copy to Henry IV.

These are all rewarding discussions, in particular observations and critical positioning. As Bahr's modest invitations for others to carry similar investigations further seem to acknowledge, the book's strongest contribution is its exemplarity for similarly historically informed and ultimately unfinishable reading. Nothing is or can be "definitive" in a reading of an assemblage, including where a given reader might focus or in what order that reader might proceed. On these grounds, Bahr's often fine-grained demonstrations of reading parts of works or parts of single manuscripts in terms of "compilational poetics" are subtle and fresh. The linkages to London's issues and conflicts, however, are thinner. How does a "textual unconscious"--a notion Bahr draws from Paul Strohm's Theory and the Premodern Text (2000), in turn taken by Strohm from Pierre Macherey, which Strohm aims in more widely historical directions via Pierre Bourdieu's theories of cultural capital--work in this case? In a laboratory flask, it often seems, only distantly warmed and catalyzed by the heat of London and Westminster politics and events.

In part this is the effect of compressing a number of large and complicated theories, contexts, and works into a small and easily readable book, in part of the kind of approach that preeminently values close readings of the evidence. The introduction presents a swift summary of the typical political conflicts with the king of fourteenth-century London, but otherwise the readings live in ideological and formal worlds of their own, and most bespeak civic ideologies that seem fairly anodyne. Though registering some "warnings," the choices and patterns of Andrew Horn's collections mostly assert collective urban authority against the powers of the king, and even, as Bahr's fine notice of Horn's changes to a passage from Brunetto Latini's Trésor show, the definition of the office of mayor (chapter 1). The combination of religious texts with Sir Degaré and the Battle Abbey Roll in Auchinleck's booklet 3 offers a way to let mercantile readers think about transferring religious values and materials to their secular mercantile sphere, thus raising possibilities for "effective models for the self-representation and self-conception of London's urban elite" (chapter 2, p. 114). In Chaucer's First Fragment of the Canterbury Tales, the Knight's Tale emphasizes the social containments (paralleling textual containments) of raw male instincts, but its status as an earlier tale reworked puts this noble and royalist perspective at a nostalgic remove, and the Cook's Tale, with its squalid and cynical reduction of the issues of Fragment I, undermines that courtly authority (a product of the 1380s, seen from the more anti-royalist London of the 1390s), and moreover casts a net of urban and mercantile associations--including associations with the key mercantile world of Flanders--for the rest of The Canterbury Tales (chapter 3). The selection of works in the Gower "Trentham" manuscript is seen subtly to resist the Lancastrian succession and deposition of Richard II that most of Gower's works in the manuscript overtly laud, since the Traitié pour essampler les amantz marietz documents a married love affair that suddenly goes bad but just as abruptly is resolved, suggesting, in the common (but unstated) analogy of kingship as marriage, the implausibility of how a new regime and king might painlessly supplant and rectify an unpleasant king and an old regime gone sour.

More context--which Bahr certainly applies on occasion, and regularly invites other scholars to supplement--would give more depth and edge to Bahr's otherwise intriguing and often compelling readings. A general omission in Bahr's version of a "textual unconscious," moreover, is a sense of how narrative forms have histories, with implicit ideological charges. The list of nobility who supposedly came with William the Conqueror known as The Battle Abbey Roll in Auchinleck, for instance, which Bahr is indeed almost alone in probing and close-reading in a kind of ideological analysis (though interesting passing comment on it now appears in Robert Adams' Langland and the Rokele Family: The Gentry Background to Piers Plowman [2013], pp. 35-36), could be further pursued within its context of noble historical narratives and heraldic productions, rather than regarding it simply and rather playfully as Bahr does from an implausibly presentist mercantile readership. Given the (admittedly dubious) status of antiquity conveyed by The Battle Abbey Roll, and its correspondences with later historical lists and the brass plaque in the Abbey itself, said (again dubiously) to replace one made by William I himself, I doubt that many medieval readers gazing at the small space left on its final ruled line would take its message to be "you too can appear here" (p. 150). More likely, if allowing the Roll to spill onto a final leaf left mostly blank has any calculation here, it would be to solicit heralds or other purveyors of noble history to tell merchant readers what else they ought to believe about English history and noble lineages.

At the same time, Bahr's acute and flexible attention to the immediate textual evidence allows him to open some provocative possibilities for the kinds of learning and textual sophistication--including textual playfulness--that somehow entered the increasingly documentary world of late-medieval London textuality. His readings of Horn's epigram, in which the gates of horn and ivory from the Aeneid book 6 are shown coyly to figure, and the later recopying of that epigram "as a kind of ex libris" at the bottom of a page by an unknown early reader (pp. 66-68; could it be John Carpenter?), are intriguing, even revelatory.

Bahr's readings as a whole open stimulating ways to "think with" miscellanies and assemblages from London. The codicological or scribal literary history that we medievalists seem increasingly focused on takes an important new step here, into a theoretically more self-conscious and potentially historically much denser perspective, which can put manuscript assemblages next to at least somewhat calculated literary compilations and posit social implications of the results--both in specific terms, and, more intriguingly, in the proposition that aleatory textual play or mobile browsing (we may note that Chaucer explicitly describes such a style at the opening of his Legend of Good Women, one of his several fragmentary works) itself has both social and literary importance. The stratagem of applying all this to the textual productions of late-medieval London is apt in ways that seem likely to continue to unfold. In his own assemblage, Bahr adroitly weaves together both positive, recoverable social and literary meanings of the compilations and fragments he takes up, and a sense of the desire, elusiveness, subjectivity, and evocation of shared interpretation that such unfinished, accretive, and many-authored forms allow.