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15.09.38, Justice, Adam Usk's Secret

The Medieval Review

15.09.38, Justice, Adam Usk's Secret

This is a clever book which at times gets carried away with its own cleverness. The "secret" of the title is not some new fact or supposition about the shadowy and dangerous career of the Welsh lawyer and chronicler Adam Usk (d. 1430). It is, rather, a "trick of style," one element of which was Usk's use (or at times non-use) of the ars dictaminis, the rhetorical training that was "second nature to lawyers" in the late Middle Ages (112), in order to write a chronicle which appeared to "act like an unwilling informant, imperfectly concealing knowledge too dangerous to declare" (132). Seeming to set his narrative on a certain course, Usk had a habit of pulling himself up short with phrases such as "But Plato bids me keep silent," or "What more can I say?" The effect is to leave the reader thinking Usk knows more than he is willing to say. On the other hand, he seems quite prepared to write openly about events which, one might imagine, he would be well advised to be more discreet about--the broken promises of a king, or brutal executions.

Such observations about this individualistic writer are not entirely novel. Twenty years ago, two simultaneous but independent studies of Usk's chronicle by Andrew Galloway and myself expressed similar thoughts: that its voice is "pervasively confessional, but never fully confessing"; that it is "a chronicle in which silence is more than a simple absence of noise"; that Usk "enjoys giving the impression that he knows more than he tells." Steven Justice generously acknowledges the influence of these earlier studies, yet clearly feels that there is more to be said--and he is right. The best part of this book is chapter 8, which analyses Usk's Latin cursus, the pattern of cadence employed for sentence or clause endings in mediaeval Latin prose. Especially notable, and a brilliant piece of detective work based on close and sensitive reading of the text, is the observation that it was just at the moment when, as a rioting student at Oxford, Usk had his first brush with the law--following which he says "I feared the king and his laws, and I placed a bit between my jaws"--that he adopts a less rhythmical and more unsettling style, one which was admirably suited to his balance of revelation and concealment.

Justice also devotes considerable space to discussion of the abrupt juxtapositions with which Usk's chronicle is peppered, but here his arguments are not always convincing. For example, chapter 3 ("Fear") analyses the sequence of events recorded in the chronicle during the parliament of 1399. These are, in close order: (i) Henry IV's coronation, the creation of his son as Prince of Wales, and "other acts of beneficence and justice"; (ii) the "sudden violence" of John Hall's brutal execution for his involvement in the death of the duke of Gloucester; (iii) the freakish discovery by two royal valets of five eggs in which they could perceive "the exact likenesses of men's faces in every detail"; (iv) the removal of the deposed Richard II from the Tower of London "in the silence of darkest midnight...wailing and shouting that it pained him to have been born." Justice invests these juxtapositions with a menacing significance "that disarranges, evacuates, Henry's coronation and the coherence of the political world" (40-43). Is there not a simpler explanation? Henry's coronation was on 13th October, the prince's creation on 15th, Hall's execution on 18th, and Richard's removal from the Tower on 29th. We do not know the date of the discovery of the anthropomorphic eggs, but it is a good bet that it occurred--or at least that Usk heard about it--between 18th and 29th October, for, like many medieval chroniclers, he preferred to record events in chronological order when he had the means to do so (a point which he emphasizes elsewhere in his chronicle), and his report on the parliament of October 1399 in fact follows closely the known order of events, although he is, as ever, prone to digression. As Hayden White pointed out many years ago, medieval chroniclers often eschewed narrative closure, which inevitably makes their juxtapositions abrupt at times, but whether that abruptness is meaningful is questionable. This is not, however, to deny the unsettling effect of the gruesome details for which Usk seems to have had a penchant.

To read a text carefully is good practice, but to over-read it can make things unnecessarily complicated. Chapter 6 ("Grief") involves prolonged discussion of the phrase pro dolor ("alas") which, it is argued, is usually used by Usk as a "cold and unpersuasive disavowal of grief," a "gesture mechanically made," the screening effect of which "also makes grief the secret that hides behind that screen" (93-95). Usk's chronicle is unusually, indeed invitingly, personal for its age, and he is not afraid on occasions to reveal his hopes and fears, but second-guessing his thought-processes and/or emotions to this degree seems rather ambitious. Nevertheless, this is a well-structured book, and the over-arching progression of the argument from introduction to conclusion is controlled and logical. It makes a novel and significant contribution to our understanding of Usk and his chronicle, and potentially to the study of medieval chronicles (and other texts) more generally. Justice succeeds admirably not only in conveying his enthusiasm for a text which has intrigued many scholars but also indicating important ways in which intentionality in medieval literature can be elucidated--or, indeed, unintentionality, for as he points out the latter can be just as interesting as the former. It is the balance between them that makes Usk's text a rewarding source of investigation.