15.08.36, Gasper and McKinnell, eds., Ambition and Anxiety

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Ellen Thorington

The Medieval Review 15.08.36

Gasper, Giles E. M. and John McKinnell, eds. Ambition and Anxiety: Courts and Courtly Discourse, c. 700-1600. Durham Medieval and Renaissance Monographs and Essays, 3. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2014. pp. vi, 270. ISBN: 9780888448620 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Ellen Thorington
Ball State University

The court as a center of literary production in medieval and early-modern Europe has long been the focus of scholarly attention. Yet, as the editors of this handsome volume on courts and courtly discourse observe, to focus solely on the European court is to overlook elements within courtly literary production that are common not just to European courts, but to their equivalents in Islamic and far Eastern societies. In bringing together these ten articles, the editors have assembled a compilation that moves beyond these confines to consider the courts of Tang China and the Ottoman Empire, while still taking Western European courts as its main focus. Arranged chronologically, the essays cover a wide time frame, c. 700-1600, and encompass a variety of different courts and traditions. At the focal point of the discussion is the person of the poet whose work, as poet-emperor, as court poet or as relative outsider, offers fascinating perspectives on the court, on the relationship between poet and patron, and on literary production as the product of these factors.

Giles Gasper and John McKinnell's extensive introduction carefully outlines the project and offers a thoughtful definition of the court itself. As a place of refined culture, the court was often associated with a particular ruler, or with a group of noble families or high-ranking officials. Literary works composed for and about courts tend to celebrate the ruler and the values of the court and often ensure the posthumous reputation of both. David McMullen's meticulously researched discussion of the use of verse by the Chinese Emperor Xuanzong (685-762) opens the volume. Extensive information about the Tang court makes this article accessible to non-specialists and supplies necessary context for the ways in which Xuanzong's verse--as well as that of poets at his court--supports his authority as emperor and allows him to champion traditional values. The skaldic verse explored in John McKinnel's study is employed to similar ends, for the poets of the tenth century Norwegian courts had to adapt pre-Christian imagery and language to praise newly converted rulers or risk their displeasure. Remaining in the same time period, Daniel Anlezark examines the problem of readership in the Anglo-Saxon MS Oxford Bodleian Junius 11 (960-990). He makes a strong argument that the volume was composed for a powerful lay patron whose likely dealings with kings left him seeking models--such as those depicted in Junius 11--where divine sovereignty prevails over earthly rulers. Jeffrey Ashcroft explores the details of the poet-patron arrangement through contextualizing remuneration made to Walther von der Vogelweide (c. 1170-c. 1230) by Bishop Wolfger and others of his patrons. Walther's artful use of such genres as the "cloak poem" added to his ability to play on courtly values earn him professional and social status as well as tangible reward. Social status and social consciousness are also at play in Neil Cartlidge's discussion of the Old French jeux-partis. The product of a notably bourgeois society in the thirteenth-century town of Arras, the jeux-partis provided the space to showcase courtly values and demonstrate the refined intellectual abilities of both performers and audience.

Moving forward in time to the Tudor courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII, Elizabeth Evershed's study of John Skelton's work demonstrates the contradictions of the courtly experience. Skelton's Bowge of Courte (1498), which provides the most pessimistic view of courtly life of all his works, was written when he, as court poet and tutor to the younger Henry, shared the most in its benefits. John McKinnell's careful reading of Colkelbie Sow (c. 1501) demonstrates the ways in which the poet plays with his audience, flattering them by poking fun at literary genres and persons they considered lower-class, and mocking them directly. Yet folly becomes the means to deeper wisdom, and the poet clearly incorporates his understanding of both higher and lower class values present in society, a knowledge surely appreciated by the likely audience of lawyers associated with the court of King James IV in Edinburgh. Helen Swift again takes up the relationship between poet and patron in her study of Jehan Du Pré's Le Palais des nobles dames(1534). Du Pré, she argues, expands and plays upon the various manifestations of the medieval narrator, combining these with the first person narrator typical of early modern works. He does this in order to draw attention to his catalog of virtuous women and to crown his patron, Marguerite de Navarre, as the "premier poet in the chamber of learned ladies" (215). David Cowling looks at the satirical work of Henri Estienne (1531-1598), notably his criticisms of excesses in language and dress at the court of Henry III. Estienne rejects Italianate influence as a symptom of the ignorance and elitism to be found among courtiers; his preference for the classical languages and for humanism reflects both contemporary political undercurrents and nascent patriotism. In the final article, Christine Woodhead reaches beyond the bounds of Western Europe to the court of the Ottoman sultan Murad III (1574-1595). She makes a strong case for the sultan's influence on poetic production during his reign, detailing his role as both patron and poet, and suggests avenues for further research.

This fine collection is destined to become a key reference work on the literary tradition of the courts. The essays are of clear value to scholars, yet also provide rich background indispensable for students and the non-specialist reader. Beautifully organized and thematically coherent with extensive bibliography, the volume's chronologic and geographic scope permits a broader perspective and demonstrates that the court as center of literary production is a cross-cultural phenomenon. The two articles on Eastern societies frame the collection, uniting it through the common thread of the ruler whose influence as patron and occasionally as poet serves as the motor behind much of the courtly literature discussed. The volume thus provides new insight into Western European high culture by expanding the horizons through which it is normally viewed. This multicultural perspective makes the volume a welcome addition to scholarship on courtly discourse and a foundational work for further interdisciplinary exploration of the world of the court.

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