Armstrong's newest monograph, The Virtuoso Circle, is itself a piece of virtuosity. His examination of late fifteenth-century French poetry is the embodiment of a process that Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus term "surface reading," especially that mode in which the text is read for "the intricate verbal structure of literary language" (Surface Reading: An Introduction, 9-10), highlighting the qualities that demand to be seen in each text rather than what is hidden. Armstrong's study not only includes a close inspection of the texts themselves, but also explores notions of competition between poets, the manuscripts that bear witnesses to the collaboration and competition of poetry making, and the cultural milieus in which texts were produced, both social and political. While earlier studies have provided much illumination on the cultural context of this poetry, few pause long with the individual text. A focused attention to form, rhyme, syntax, and rhetorical devices over and above the meaning of each poem lends Armstrong authority in his assessment of the value of each text and the texts as read together. Herein lies Armstrong's contribution to the study of fifteenth-century French poetry. The scope of his study includes not only the well-known authoritative poets Alain Chartier and Charles d'Orléans, and but extends to include lesser know but equally influential poets like Pierre Nesson, Michault Taillevant, Georges Chastellain, and Jean Molinet.
The study opens with a chapter on Alain Chartier and the poetic cycles inspired by his Belle dame sans mercy. Poems of Baudet Herenc, Achilles Caulier, and two anonymous poems are examined within the context of the Quarrel of the Belle dame sans mercy. Clear and detailed analysis of the poetics of the poems in the series reveals the skill of each poet, and the ingenuity of each variation is carefully explained. This appreciation of their accomplishment strikes a real contrast with the dismissive assessment of Gaston Paris and Arthur Piaget verbalized in the many Romania articles they published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on the subject. Indeed, Armstrong's razor sharp focus on the mechanics of each poem even records the percentage of rhymes for each poem that is pauvre, suffisante, riche, or leonine. (Not to worry: Armstrong provides a full glossary at the end to remind us of the definitions of the rhetorical devices, forms, and other poetic tools used by the poets.) Other graphs and charts collect information such as stanza form and rhyme scheme so that poems can be compared to each other, revealing the level of accomplishment and competitive inspiration in each poem.
The second chapter continues the focus on Alain Chartier, but expands to include other works of Chartier and the competitive reaction they inspired. Included in this chapter is first an examination of the contest between Chartier and his friend Pierre Nesson with the Lay de Paix / Lay de Guerre pair. Armstrong next turns to examining Chartier's Breviaire des Nobles and Michault Taillevent's Psautier des Vilains. The chapter closes with an analysis of another of Taillevent's poems, Passe Temps and Pierre Chastellain's initial response, Temps Perdu, and his final response, Temps Recouvré. These couplings are similar in that the dueling poets consciously and strategically try to one-up each other using their knowledge of poetic form and rhetorical devices. Armstrong particularly notes the formal and narrative sophistication of these very popular poems of moral discourse as they adapted their strategies to improve their competitive position.
Chapter three brings us to a special milieu, a sort of laboratory of research for poetic ingenuity: Charles d'Orléans' chateau of Blois, peopled with the best and brightest of social and literary circles. Poems under Armstrong's microscope are those contributions to that very special autographical manuscript, Paris, BnF, ms. fr. 25458, known as the manuscript that records the "concours de Blois." The contributing poets of this collection include first and foremost the royal prince Charles, himself an exceptional poet who set the standard for his fellow poets. Following up on the excellent work done by Jane Taylor, Mary Jo Arn and Jean-Claude Mühlethaler, Armstrong carefully looks at pairs of poems, judging the quality of the original verses and the ripostes that attempt to outdo them. These exchanges, often witty and humorous, demonstrate the poetic virtuosity of their interlocutors. Armstrong painstakingly parses each poem, indicating how each poet challenges his compatriot in versification, rhyme scheme, stanzaic form, thematic turns and use of imagery. "The Blois poets," he tells us, "seem to approach language and poetic technique in a scientific, professional manner...Their work conveys and constructs social relationships; it is a form of recreation; but, as analysis of their language and technique has demonstrated, it is also a collegial enterprise of adding to the sum of knowledge of poetry" (116).
The fourth chapter follows the escalation of complexity in the competition and collaboration of various poets, extending into the work of the later fifteenth century. Characteristic of these exchanges, however, is the often overt political overtone sharpened from the years of civil war pitting France versus Burgundy. The political and military aggression between the duchy and the kingdom was voiced in literary exchanges, with poets challenging each other on both aesthetic and ideological grounds as they were "expressing profound truths through figurative language" (125). These "poetic jousts" as Armstrong refers to them (118) include interplay between George Chastelain and Jean Castel, Christine's grandson; Chastelain and Jean Robertet; Molinet and René Tardif, then Molinet and Guillaume Cretin, Molinet and Jean Nicholai. As Armstrong succinctly puts it: "Franco-Burgundian exchanges constantly reveal a process of competition between poets. At stake are not only artistic reputations, but also princely prestige: in this political and cultural context, (poetic) knowledge is undoubtedly power" (154).
Concluding, Armstrong sums up the earlier discussion of diverse poetic techniques of inter-textual engagement between poets, and broadens his scope into the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, when France challenged Italy in the Neapolitan military campaign. Unlike the competitive stance of the earlier Franco-Burgundian challenges, these writings reveal a common political stance in which solidarity was essential. Armstrong focuses his analytical eye on the works of André de la Vigne, Jean Marot, Pierre Gringore, and Jean Lemaire de Belge. Verses were composed and used as a sort of propaganda to justify King Louis's military maneuvers in Italy and turn popular opinion against the Pope. Continuing to challenge their predecessors with more elaborate and difficult poetic forms, their verses were innovative and technically adept with evermore-refined verse constructions.
Armstrong adeptly demonstrates the innovation and technical agility in the poetic circles of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. We can see through his analysis of the development of poetic virtuosity how an ever-increasing body of knowledge conveyed through poetry was collected. With a sharp focus on analyzing verse, prolific footnotes and references, and thought-provoking conclusions, Armstrong's monograph is a must-read for every scholar considering the work of the poets included. For those of us who are practitioners of "surface reading," it is a pleasure to be shown the intricate art of the text, guided with careful and methodical attention, to what is offered in plain sight.