The Medieval Review 15.04.26

Watt, David. The Making of Thomas Hoccleve's Series. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013. pp. xvi, 258. £70.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9780859898690 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Elizabeth Harper
Mercer University

David Watt's The Making of Thomas Hoccleve's Series is an important new addition to Hoccleve studies. Watt's book offers a sophisticated reading of Hoccleve's Series based on its manuscript contexts, bringing together consideration of Hoccleve's imagined audiences, such as the addressees of his poetry, with a consideration of his actual audiences, the people who actually read, commented on, and copied his manuscripts.

Watt begins, unusually for a scholarly book, by describing the composition of his own book, noting how the manuscript changed in response to imagined readers, actual readers, and the publication process. He offers the history of his own book as a parallel to the history of the Series as narrated by the Series itself. In this way he invites readers to consider the process of writing as an important part of understanding Hoccleve's literary production.

Chapter 1, "'Among the Prees': San Marino, Huntington Library, MS HM 111 and the Audience in and for the Series," examines the different imagined, potential, and actual audiences for Hoccleve's Series. Watt argues that Hoccleve intentionally foregrounds certain imagined audiences for many of his poetic works, including potential aristocratic patrons such as Lady Hereford and Duke Humphrey, so that his diverse other readers--who might include members of the putative patron's household, Hoccleve's colleagues in the London bureaucracy, and other members of his social network interested in religious reform following the Council of Constance--could consider how those imagined readers received his writing. He also argues that the diversity of readers meant that Hoccleve's work was read and interpreted in a variety of different ways: for instance, the autobiographical material, which would have pleased London readers who knew Hoccleve personally, was sometimes dropped by scribes in favor of his more universal moral writings.

Chapter 2, "'I this book shal make': San Marino, Huntington Library, MS HM 744 and the Structure of the Series," situates the Series within the context of commercial manuscript production in fifteenth-century London. Watt shows that Hoccleve produced some of his texts in the form of booklets, which allowed him to change, recombine, and revise the literary form of the Series as a whole long past the moment at which he had finished writing a particular component. Watt argues that the physical form of Hoccleve's manuscript is essential to understanding its composition and purpose. Booklet production allowed scribes to maximize their profit and minimize the risks of their profession--risks such as losing access to an exemplar prematurely, copying works that no one would buy, or failing to finish a job because of illness or old age. He argues that Hoccleve's concern for commercial profit was coupled with a concern for spiritual gain, which could be achieved through the production of spiritually valuable books but endangered by the same risks.

Chapter 3, "'That Labour Y Forsook': Durham, University Library, MS Cosin V.iii.9 and the End of the Series," begins at the moment in the Series when Thomas stops translating "Learn to Die," a text he previously declared that he would translate in whole. Watt suggests that this moment is central to the meaning of the Series because it shows that Thomas is able to make good judgments about his own abilities. Watt argues that the production of a work like "Learn to Die" was potentially risky on two levels. First, excessive thought might make any individual writer mentally ill or prone to error and heresy. Second, because Thomas had previously offended important people, those people might suspect even a text as apparently orthodox as "Learn to Die" if he is the one copying it. Since the question of Thomas's recovery from mental illness is central to the preceding Complaint, the apparent incompleteness of the Series is itself an answer to the Complaint: Thomas now has enough discretion to correct himself. His willingness to reform his own ideas is reflected in his willingness to accede to the taste of his potential reader Lady Westmorland, substituting a tale from the Gesta Romanorum and supplying a moralization for it. He thus offers himself as an exemplar of individual reform, while the tale he supplies exemplifies both individual and ecclesial reform.

Chapter 4, "'The Substaunce of My Memory': London, British Library, MS Additional 24062 and the Re-Formation of Character in the Series," continues the focus on ecclesial reform by arguing that Hoccleve develops the Series as a fifteenth-century information technology for moral education. Watt compares the construction and uses of the Series to the construction and uses of BL MS Additional 24062, Hoccleve's own formulary (compendium of model documents to aid clerks in learning their craft), which may have served its compiler as a kind of prosthetic memory. Watt argues that Thomas's "thoughtful maladie" had both intellectual and spiritual effects because it disrupted his ability to associate and organize memories, and thus disrupted his ability to reflect on Scripture or apply its lessons to himself. For Watt, the Series thus acts as a kind of formulary for the soul, one that includes not just exemplars that help him reform his own character (such as his truncated treatment of Isidore of Seville's Synonyma and "Learn to Die"), but moralized tales such as "The Tale of Jereslaus's Wife," which Watt argues would have been read as an allegory of the English church's recovery from heresy, and the "Tale of Jonathas," which Thomas explicitly positions as a negative exemplar for younger male readers who must learn from Jonathas's failure to learn.

Chapter 5, "'My Skyn To Turne': Beholding the Series in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Selden Supra 53," turns to the question of how early readers of the Series understood its purpose and message. To answer this question, Watt examines the construction and annotation of MS Selden Supra 53, a compilation that also includes Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes and Lydgate's Dance of Death. First, Watt looks at a pair of stanzas in "Learn To Die" as they appear first in two autograph manuscripts and then in MS Selden Supra 53. Watt argues compellingly that the grammatical structure of these two stanzas force the reader to engage in the reflective process of rumination: the reader must return to the first stanza from the second before she can understand the meaning of both. He then shows how the placement of a miniature in MS Selden Supra 53 amplifies this ruminative process, indicating that the illustrator had read the Series with precise attention to its content and method. This suggests that MS Selden Supra 53 was intended by its compiler to be a collection of exemplary material, a mirror to "draw attention to the contrast between bodies as they are and bodies as they might be" (212), a conclusion amplified by the fact that the manuscript was compiled as a single codex, with a single organizing principle (suggesting a single purpose or occasion) rather than assembled piecemeal from a series of ready-made booklets. Moreover, Watt shows that readers in their turn treated the manuscript as a mirror of exactly this kind, annotating it in the margins and adding other related texts in blank spaces (or, in one case, binding them into the completed book) in ways that amplified its themes of urgency, the need for self-reflection, and the imminence of death.

In a short conclusion, titled "Go, Smal Book," Watt connects Hoccleve's project of self-amendment with the motto on his personal seal, "VA: MA: VOLUNTEE," which Watt reads as a deferral of authority akin to Hoccleve's deferral both to the putative readers to whom the texts are dedicated and to Hoccleve's actual readership, the fifteenth century audience eagerly seeking out devotional literature. He ends by suggesting that the real meaning of Hoccleve's text is in its exemplarity, with Thomas serving as an example of how to recognize the need for amendment. In so doing, Watt connects his arguments with many of the larger issues that Middle English scholars are occupied with: the nature of social and religious reform in the fifteenth century English church, the relative importance of Arundel's Constitutions in those reforms, the steps of commercial book production, and the complex manuscript culture in which Hoccleve both composed and copied.

I have not done full justice to Watt's arguments in this review. Indeed, it would be almost impossible to do justice to them, as Watt ranges across a wide variety of late medieval sources and documents. Yet I take Watt's main argument to be encapsulated on pages 13-14: "the texts that comprise the Series can be understood as parts of a coherent literary whole only if the reader imagines them as part of a coherent material whole...Yet no manuscript of the whole Series survives independently. Paradoxically, then, readers can imagine the Series as a coherent material whole only if they perceive the story of its making as a coherent literary whole." For Watt, the material form of Hoccleve's manuscripts is an integral part of their textual meaning, and he substantiates this claim with a number of close readings of individual passages or moments in the text, which he backs up with detailed analysis of the manuscripts in which the texts appear. He thus persuasively argues not just that Hoccleve intended the Series to help his readers reform themselves, but that his early readers and copyists understood and shared his intentions. Watt's work on this topic will shape the way that scholars read Hoccleve for years to come.

Watt is also careful to meet late medieval readers on their own terms by refusing to problematize their religious convictions. Here I wish he had gone further. While the reader is left with a strong conviction of the exemplary purpose of Hoccleve's writing, Watt sometimes sounds as if reform entailed more a rejection of self-will or an embrace of discretion than it did particular religious practices, dispositions, or beliefs. But this is a minor criticism given all the other things that this study undertakes and achieves.

Watt assumes that readers are all familiar with Hoccleve's writing in its autograph manuscripts, and, indeed with manuscript study in general. The book introduces its subject manuscripts in the introduction but provides little further description or context before launching into detailed analysis in each chapter. For this reason, the book is best suited for advanced graduate students and specialists, rather than an undergraduate audience (and even Hoccleve scholars will sometimes find it heavy going). However, the persistent will be rewarded.

Lastly, Watt hints that he has himself taken Hoccleve as a mirror, from the opening epigraph drawn from Hoccleve's "Dialogue," to the introductory description of his own composition process, to the conclusion with its envoi-like admonition to "go, smal book"--a quotation which gestures both toward the Series, going to its reform-minded readers, and toward Watt's own book, entering the world of scholarly inquiry to be read and commented on. Given Watt's argument, these touches strike an appropriately recursive note in a book which, along with A. C. Spearing's Medieval Autographies, will change how we read Hoccleve's writings for many years.

Copyright (c) 2015 Elizabeth Harper

Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login