14.09.27, Boffey and Edwards., eds., A Companion to Fifteenth-Century English Poetry

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George Shuffelton

The Medieval Review 14.09.27

Boffey, Julia and A.S.G. Edwards. A Companion to Fifteenth-Century English Poetry. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2013. Pp. x, 244. ISBN: 9781843843535 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
George Shuffelton
Carleton College

Who is this book for? Given the proliferating number of handbooks, guides, and companions to medieval literature, it seems a fair question to ask. In their introduction to this volume, Boffey and Edwards state that the book aims to "provide an overview of the state of scholarship in the field and of the significant issues that have emerged over recent decades when study of fifteenth-century verse has undergone such an extraordinary expansion" (2). Presumably this means that the assumed readers are graduate students or anyone who has not kept abreast of the rapid pace of new scholarship in the field--and since Boffey and Edwards are entirely right in describing this new scholarship as an "extraordinary expansion," many of us should confess to being in this latter group of readers. If this is indeed the intended audience, the book is quite successful.

The seventeen essays are arranged into three parts. The first two essays treat "Background and Context," the eight following essays are dedicated to "Authors," and the final seven essays treat "Themes and Genres." Boffey and Edwards provide a very brief introduction, and Edwards' final essay takes us "Beyond the Fifteenth Century." Though this closing essay is included in the third part on "Themes and Genres," it is really a kind of postscript that offers a good sense of how writers like Barclay, Hawes and Skelton looked back to the fifteenth-century, before subsequent generations "largely repudiated or ignored their own literary history" (234).

Many of the essays primarily serve as high-level review essays, summarizing the major critical debates of recent decades. David Watt's essay on Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes does this particularly well, as does Sarah James's essay on Capgrave and Bokenham's saints' lives. Like many of the essays in the "Authors" section, Watt's essay emphasizes the primary (and deeply interconnected) interests of criticism in the past two decades: the construction of auctoritas by fifteenth-century poets, and its relationship to political power.

Other essays catalogue a sprawling range of material and emphasize its diversity: Anthony Bale and Joanna Martin each take on varied portions of the enormous Lydgate canon ("Religious Poetry" and "Shorter Secular Poetry" respectively). Julia Boffey's essay on "Popular Verse Tales" deftly surveys comic tales and moral exempla in ten lucid pages. The Manual of Writings in Middle English covers the same material more exhaustively over a hundred pages; the recent Blackwell Companion to Medieval English Literature and Culture c. 1350-1500 and The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Literature in English largely ignore it altogether. Sheila Lindenbaum's essay on Thomas Hoccleve, John Scattergood's essay on Peter Idley and George Ashby, and Susannah Fein's essay on John Audelay and James Ryman are similar triumphs of concise, comprehensive summary; each would be a very good starting point for someone new to these poets. Lindenbaum's essay, for example, manages to make clear in only nine pages what is startlingly original and what is utterly conventional about Hoccleve's rhetorical postures. Nearly every essay in the volume includes an excellent, up-to-date bibliography; each of these serves in its own right as a guide to recent scholarship.

A few essays offer more original readings that go beyond summarizing previous scholarly arguments. Robert Meyer-Lee reads Lydgate's major poems as "memorial monuments" and concludes by suggesting avenues for further research into the lavishly illustrated manuscripts that preserve them. Daniel Wakelin makes a series of intriguing observations about English experiments with verse forms in his essay on "Classical and Humanist Traditions." Wakelin's is one of the few essays that address formal or aesthetic questions, and also one of the few that acknowledge a wider continental picture. Another is Ad Putter's recognition of the continued importance of French poetry on "Fifteenth-Century Chaucerian Visions."

Handbooks, companions, and edited volumes of literary history divide up the terrain in various ways. The boundaries set out by the title of this companion are generally adhered to rather literally, even when this poses some conceptual challenges. As mentioned, the volume's focus on English poetry means that few essays are able to deal with the influence of continental traditions; similarly, there is a limited ability to discuss the influence of the fourteenth century on the fifteenth. And defining the topic as "poetry" creates its own limitations. For example, an essay on "Romance" by Andrew King can only offer a partial view of its subject. King's essay is excellent, and is one that successfully acknowledges the influence of fourteenth-century literature on the period, but readers looking for an overview of later Middle English romance will need to supplement it with treatments of the prose corpus. Alfred Hiatt's chapter on "Historical and Political Verse" and Anke Timmerman's treatment of "Scientific and Encyclopedic Verse" deal with categories that are in some sense arbitrarily defined. But Hiatt's essay deserves special praise as an intelligent survey of a series of texts that might not otherwise seem to have much in common. A few essays are less successful in wrestling with the limitations imposed by the format. Both the treatment of "Patronage" by Carol Meale and "Forms of Circulation" by Simon Horobin display an impressive depth of learning, but these essays do not manage to deliver the same kind of coherent overview offered by some of the others.

Middle English lyric and saints' lives are the subjects of other Boydell and Brewer companions, hence the limited treatment they receive here. In most respects, the volume's limitations are thus easily explained as reasonable compromises. Organizing a volume around authors and genres may seem somewhat retrograde or unfashionable, but it makes the book easy to navigate and thus useful for the sorts of readers who might turn to a handbook like this one.

Those who study fifteenth-century English poetry will most likely continue to think of their area as understudied and underappreciated. This sense of neglect has, after all, been a great motivation for the wealth of research in the bibliographies assembled here. But this volume is not a sign of neglect: it is an impressive display of careful attention and mature scholarly interest.

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Author Biography

George Shuffelton

Carleton College