14.04.10, Fletcher, The Presence of Medieval English Literature

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Sarah Harlan-Haughey

The Medieval Review 14.04.10

Fletcher, Alan J.. The Presence of Medieval English Literature: Studies at the Interface of History, Author, and Text in a Selection of Middle English Literary Landmarks. Cursor Mundi, 14. Turnhout: Brepols, 2012. Pp. x, 304. ISBN: 978-2-503-53680-4.

Reviewed by:
Sarah Harlan-Haughey
University of Maine

This book serves as an example of what happens when an expert in a specific field (in this case, late medieval popular preaching) turns his capacious knowledge gained in a lifetime of specialized study to "canonical" texts, thus sharing a unique and indispensable perspective on the matter that might not otherwise be gained. While full of specific insight, this work does suffer from uneven chapters, a side effect of having been loosely organized around a broad theme. Some of the most compelling are the shorter chapters, which make specific points that change a reading of a canonical text in a useful way. These are deeply interesting, and are stand-alone pieces--they might have worked better as articles. The author's challenge to a facile or unexamined acceptance of the commercially defined Middle English canon, though framed as a central concern, is only fully visible in the introductory and concluding chapters. These help situate major canonical work within the context of popular preaching in the late medieval world, a field to which Fletcher has contributed a great deal.

The first chapter, entitled "Presences," sets forth the study's premise: "this book will try to understand how each text under review may have been felt to be present to the society in which it was originally conceived; and second, it will try to understand how that society was present within each text" (4). If that seems a broadly- defined central concern, it is. It frees the author from any unifying thematic focus and allows him to explore any aspect of these texts that may relate to either or both of these presences. In the introductory material that follows, it becomes even clearer that no central concern unites these chapters, no matter how much the author works to clarify what he means by the "presence of medieval literature." That may perhaps be the goal, as the author's description of his paradoxical mode of looking at these canonical texts is instructive and inspiring: "the ostensible object of their study [the text] is most fully perceived by also looking away from that object and by seeking to establish in which alternative directions one can most helpfully look in order to understand the object's location; by seeking to comprehend where some of the neglected directions of the object's cultural relations may lie; and by attempting to offset the object's presence to us now, the place from which we necessarily start, with an enhanced sense of its former presence, through empirically and theoretically informed investigation, may be thought to have been" (17). While this sentence outlines an interesting and useful approach to literary study, it is also an example of the author's challenging prose.

In general, it seems the more engaged and convinced and enthusiastic the author is, the clearer his prose becomes. Some of the introductory material is convoluted enough to be almost illegible. Unfortunate mixed metaphors, complicated rhetoric studded with critical jargon, and ideas expressed too complexly for easy comprehension plague the first and second chapters in particular. The author has a habit of producing a great deal of evidence before showing us the point. This can make it difficult to follow or see the relevance of what is being presented. In general, there seem to be too many vague and elaborately worded verbal signposts. This reviewer would like to see fewer, more straightforward and useful markers of the landscape of the argument.

Chapter 2, which explores "The Interpretive Stakes of Place, Time and Author" in the Middle English poem The Owl and the Nightingale, marks an auspicious beginning to the body of the study, as it presents a strong argument for the author of the poem to have been a Dominican in the diocese of Winchester in Guildford. The chapter convincingly argues that the original readers of this poem were likely members of the clerical class, and would have understood the birds' debate as a self-conscious poem about a "textually productive binary" that created a "potent social force field" (21). This reading suggests a debate about truth as a relative entity debated or understood within the confines of dialectic.

Chapter 2, perhaps the strongest stand-alone piece in the volume, explores the horrific catalogues of the ambiguously dead--or taken--in the Middle English Lay Sir Orfeo. The author explores the ways in which this catalogue might have unsettled audiences at the time. After a confusing introduction (56), he explores persuasively the mirage-like "disturbing power of the text" that raises anxieties in the audience without offering them closure, through juxtaposition of three distinct contemporary discourses. The first discourse is that of Christianity regarding the problematic nature of the kinds of death catalogued in the fairy castle's horrors. The second discourse influencing the text is astrology; Fletcher makes the convincing argument that the various maimings and states of near or complete death mentioned in the catalogue of victims in the poem could be attributed to the malign influence of the planets, in particular Mars and Saturn (67). These two contrary discourses point to a contemporary debate on whether or how Christian doctrine and astrology can be reconciled (68). The author acknowledges that astrological causality is not mentioned explicitly in Sir Orfeo; this absence of closure, he argues, is central to the unsettling effect the catalogue of horrors would have had on its contemporary audience. The third discourse is also the least visible in contemporary texts--that of fairyland (or the Otherworld) as a means of explaining "taken" lives. The author insightfully notes that no specific mechanism of fairy abduction is clarified, thus making these entities' motivation and role in the story even more unsettling (73). We know the fairies are up to something, but not why or how. This uncertainty, the author argues, offers refuge from oppressive certainty. The final part of this chapter focuses on the performative ramifications of harping in contemporary London society.

The chapter on Pearl is rich and tantalizing, a compelling course correction from critics who would subject Pearl to "historically determinist" readings (93). The somewhat awestruck tone of the chapter betrays a deep admiration and love for the richness of this poem. The author discovers a plausible new analogue to the poem's discourse of virginity in the Franciscan friar Nicolas de Aquevilla's sermons--thus locating a popular preaching context that explored how the innocent might receive salvation. The author points out that this question is not explored in the liturgy, which has been the standard resource for contextualizing religious thought relevant to this poem. Fletcher successfully shows Pearl to be "diversely dependent on clerical culture" (100), drawing upon a wider range of contemporary contexts. This reviewer particularly appreciated the section where the author explores the significance of the Pearl-Maiden's crown; he argues against an overly historicizing reading of the maiden's crown as an echo of Queen Anne's--the crown is made solely of pearls, becoming rather a strange symbol of the otherworld unknowability of the poetic heaven of the poem. Overall, the chapter convincingly places the Pearl-poet in a multivalent clerical context.

The Piers Plowman chapter is perhaps the most centered on the processes a medieval writer might have engaged in throughout a lifetime of authorship. The chapter is particularly illuminating of Fletcher's innovative ways of seeking the presence of medieval literature. Langland, like popular preachers of the period, may have approached his work not as a product but as a process subject to continual revision--as a means of redemption. The author's interpretation of Langland's process as "an exercise, and figure, of salus anime" (35), part of a modality of conversion similar to that seen in popular preaching (141), is convincing, even moving.

At one point in his study, the author contrasts his chosen "pointillist" method to the broad biographical strokes of a Pearsall, with its "big-picture dash and seductively broad brushstrokes" (145). Although the pointillist method does give us a sense of the richly textured context of popular preaching, perhaps a few more broad strokes would make sense for a book-length study. For example, the chapter on Chaucer's occluded connection with the language and discourse of heresy is perhaps too focused on a few instances in the poet's oeuvre--to the detriment of any kind of big picture, however grounded or modest. One loses track of the larger ramifications of these moments of heretical discourse; such a close focus makes it seem their relevance is being pushed too far. The chapter on Chaucer, as the lynchpin of the entire study, is by far the longest chapter--and as such, it is somewhat disappointing. It rehearses old questions about Chaucer's potential sympathy with heretical attitudes, and Fletcher stands in a good place to add something new to this conversation. Unfortunately, his focus is too narrow to provide a new perspective on the matter. Simply put, echoes of the heretical contexts that the contemporary audiences might have responded to in Chaucer's work are only explored in four very specific parts of Chaucer's large oeuvre--the treatment of the Pardoner and the Monk in The Canterbury Tales and the allusion to errour in "An ABC" and the prologue of The Legend of Good Women. Chaucer's work is famously saturated with nods to contemporary conversations and anxieties, and this chapter does not contradict that. Some fascinating tidbits are still gained from the chapter, however. There is an interesting reading of the Pardoner as hermaphroditic; this imagery is intriguingly contextualized within contemporary Lollard discourse (171). The most compelling section of this chapter comes at the very end, where Fletcher speculates that Chaucer's heretical leanings might have created a very anxious situation for the author when the Ricardian age came to its abrupt close. His argument is admittedly speculative but also persuasive, although one wonders why Fletcher refrains from mentioning Who Murdered Chaucer, the book on which he collaborated with Terry Jones and many other prominent medievalists. That book makes a similar speculative argument, and its absence from the text and his bibliography is a striking omission.

The final body chapter of this study explores anxieties of authority in Mallory's Morte Darthur. While this is the most coherently argued chapter, exploring Mallory's search for stable authority in a changing world, it is also a little self-evident. The examples Fletcher provides of Malory's search for textual authority in a world where such is hard to find--he cites tomb inscriptions, chronicles, and contemporary preaching as loci of contemporary anxiety about authority--can seem a little heavy handed, a slight falling off from the nuanced readings he provides of earlier texts. Nevertheless, many will find his reading insightful and useful, especially in a classroom context. Ultimately, while each chapter might do better on its own than in this volume, which seems too loosely-organized to hang together in a meaningful way, this book is full of insightful new interpretations of these complicated and marvelous texts. It succeeds in making the presence of these well-known works seem rich and strange, and adds further dimension to the critical conversations around them.

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Author Biography

Sarah Harlan-Haughey

University of Maine