14.05.11, Elliott, Remembering Boethius

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Kylie Murray

The Medieval Review 14.05.11

Elliott, Elizabeth. Remembering Boethius : Writing Aristocratic Identity in Late Medieval French and English Literatures. Burlington: Ashgate, 2012. Pp. 178. ISBN: 978-1-4094-2418-5.

Reviewed by:
Kylie Murray
Balliol College, Oxford

Remembering Boethius is a welcome and valuable contribution to the growing body of scholarship on Boethius' late-medieval vernacular reception. By shifting her focus away from the self- proclaimed English vernacular translations of the Consolation by Chaucer (c. 1380) and Walton (c. 1410), Elliott's monograph both extends and challenges the existing studies of Alistair Minnis and Ian Johnson which have dominated the Boethian scholarly landscape. Elliott's coverage of literary responses to the Consolation from France, England, and Scotland opens up the possibility of a more comparative approach which will usefully inform the next phase of research on Boethian afterlives.

The book comprises six chapters, each concentrating upon one key text. The first four chapters explore French texts: Machaut's Confort d'ami (1357), Remede de Fortune (c. 1340s), Fonteinne Amoureuse (c. 1360-61), and Froissart's Prison Amoureuse (c. 1372/73); English material is represented in Chapter 5 by Usk's Testament of Love (1380s), and the book concludes with a final chapter on Scotland's first dream-vision poem, James I's Kingis Quair (c. 1424). Elliott comes to some engaging conclusions about how Boethius is perceived and responded to in this period. She convincingly argues that the texts all treat Boethius similarly, inflecting the Consolation towards an aristocratic and political agenda, serving to "unsettle conceptions of the Consolation as unequivocally endorsing a radical rejection of temporal things" (1). Elliott shows how, instead of the more usual detachment from the mundane that is associated with the Consolation, each work reconfigures Boethian ethics to advocate an active engagement with the terrestrial world through the negotiation of political or amatory identities.

Chapter 1's key argument is that Machaut's Confort d'ami applies Boethius' experience to that of the medieval statesman, here, Machaut's captive narrator, Charles II of Navarre, especially in the use of imagination to provide solace in the face of desire and loss. This chapter presents an interesting new reading of desire in the Boethian tradition, arguing that excessive desire is "a cognitive problem rather than a libidinal one" (30), and that the correct application of cognition is they key to "developing ethical character" (40). Ultimately, Machuat's text renders Boethius an apposite exemplum, and illustrates how the Consolation is to be interpreted as an advisory work of especial relevance to aristocratic readers.

Chapter 2 continues the consideration of how Boethius is directed towards a courtly, aristocratic audience, with specific reference to Machaut's Remede de Fortune. This is manifested in two ways: firstly, the poem's foregrounding of desire, subordinating the political to the amatory, and secondly in its application of Boethian wisdom to contemporary society, particularly through the themes of mnemonic arts, literary skill, and an advisory tenor. Machaut follows Boethius' technique of highlighting these through the use of the meditative state arising from mental distress and adversity.

Chapter 3 explores the themes of desire and captivity, merged in the "prison of love" topos upon which Machaut's Fonteinne Amoureuse is founded. Ostensibly about Jean, duc de Berry's exile and imprisonment in England, the poem engages directly with Boethius' recasting of the prison as a place of education. In addition to Boethius and the narrator's shared circumstances of captivity and exile, Machaut's work also shares a Boethian preoccupation with the necessity of memory, contemplative states, and the imagination in literary production. Ultimately, these characteristics bring about correct readings and interpretations of desire, which underline the resonance of Boethian philosophy with aristocratic values.

Chapter 4 further dwells upon the connections between desire, literary production, and textual circulation, as seen in Froissart's Prison amoureuse. It ultimately argues that both poet and patron in this text are "subjects of Boethian redemption" (95). Wenceslas of Brabant is newly identified as "a renewal of the Boethian model" (85): the combination of his literal imprisonment, and the literary trope of love creates an "instructive value of Froissart's work [that] is not limited to the particularities of love or politics, but is germane to the human condition" (85). The text adheres to the Boethian paradigm whereby the solitude of captivity provides suitable conditions for exercising memory and composing literature.

Chapter 5 identifies Usk's Testament of Love as a more acutely autobiographical work, which may evoke his involvement in politics during the reign of Richard II, including his volte face in testifying against his former master, John Northampton, on charges of treason in the 1380s. This chapter encourages a reappraisal of the poem, by suspending judgment of Usk's actions, and instead examining its use of the Consolation, not only for recasting personal history in Boethian terms, but also for expressing concerns with the greater good, and with public service.

Chapter 6 treatment of the Kingis Quair discusses its authorship, its use of memory systems, and reads the three goddesses of the narrator's dream vision--Venus, Minerva, and Fortune--as analogous with the three-fold model of the brain in medieval faculty psychology, thus identifying the dream as an allegory of the process of apprehension. Elliott reflects on the Boethian role played by James I, who is widely acknowledged as the subject of the autobiographical narrative, even if not conclusively the poem's author. Elliott makes particularly astute observations about how a further emulation of Boethius is apparent in the role of memory work, contemplation, and nocturnal solitude in the text.

This is clearly a well-researched book, which engages with an extensive body of scholarship. It responds creatively to Boethius' Consolation, and provides original readings of a range of texts. In so doing, it presents some useful insights into the role of memory work in the Boethian tradition. It is particularly pleasing to see some consideration given to a Scottish work in the Boethian tradition, since Scotland remains the terra incognita of Boethius' reception in Europe, as is evident in the most recently published collection of essays on medieval Boethianism, N. Kaylor and P. Phillips (eds.), A Companion to Boethius in the Middle Ages (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012), which has chapters on Boethius' afterlives in England, France, Germany, and Italy, but omits Scotland altogether.

Indeed, more could have been made of the place of the Scottish Kingis Quair as the final text of those discussed in Remembering Boethius. It is slightly surprising to find the text categorized as "English," according to the book's title. A sharper sense of the place of all the texts in relation to each other would bolster Elliott's argument and add scholarly weight to the findings of the study; in particular, it would be helpful to see bolder attempts to define these works as part of a trajectory, inaugurated by Machaut's early works, continuing through Froissart, and emerging in England and Scotland. There is a gesture towards this issue in Elliott's observation, half-way through the final chapter, that "[i]t is possible that those other texts remembered within the Quair include the poetry of Machaut and Froissart examined elsewhere in this study, as the prestige and influence of French is articulated within the multilingual literatures and cultures of Scotland and England" (127). But this could have been better placed at the very beginning of her discussion of the text, and underpinned her treatment of James' poem. Greater attention could have been paid more broadly to the transmission of French material to England and Scotland, since, in many ways, Usk's Testament and James I's Kingis Quair form the culmination of the aristocratic self-fashioning which Elliott first pinpoints in the French texts.

Similarly, more cross-referencing between chapters would be a welcome addition to the book, and help the reader to better understand the close correspondences and affinities between the texts discussed. The heart as seat of memory, for example, is discussed in relation to Usk's Testament (98), and to the Kingis Quair (133), but without any cross-referencing between the two. The discussion of reading giving way to dreaming in the Kingis Quair (125) makes no mention of the earlier texts, despite the fact they all make use of dream states, and similarly deploy the literary dream towards expressing concerns with reading practices. Elliott writes consistently well on dream and vision in these texts; fuller cross-referencing would make her argument yet more persuasive. Some surprising typographical errors have made their way into the final published typescript, including "Lain" for "Latin" (6); Machaut's poem mis-spelled as "Fontaine," instead of "Fonteinne" on p.63; and the very opening words of the Kingis Quair, "heigh in the hevynnis" mis-spelled as "hich in the hevynnis" (129). Dating of texts is also sometimes inconsistent: no date is given at all for the Remede de Fortune, despite one being assigned to the other texts. Although Elliott admits "that the Remede predates 1357, when the Confort was composed" (41), no explanation is provided for the seemingly a-chronological order in which the texts are discussed. This would have been useful in orientating readers, especially as the other texts are all dated and appear in chronological order. In addition, the date of the Kingis Quair is given as 1423-1424 throughout, without any explanation, despite the fact that the accepted date is 1424, since it alludes to James I's marriage which took place in February year, and is understood to be occasioned by his return to Scotland to resume his kingship, in May. Despite such errors and oversights, the general impression of the book is one arising from thorough scholarship and a careful reading of Boethius.

Overall, this is a book underpinned by thought-provoking and lively readings of late-medieval Boethian afterlives. It will benefit students and scholars alike who work on English, French, and Older Scots languages, literatures, and cultural history.

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Author Biography

Kylie Murray

Balliol College, Oxford