16.10.17, King and Woodcock, eds., Medieval into Renaissance

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Lee Manion

The Medieval Review 16.10.17

King, Andrew and Matthew Woodcock, eds. Medieval into Renaissance: Essays for Helen Cooper. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2016. pp. 295. ISBN: 978-1-84384-432-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Lee Manion
University of Missouri

This handsome volume honors a preeminent scholar on romance as well as one who has done much in her scholarship to explore the continuities and connections between the medieval and Renaissance periods in a variety of genres, including drama and pastoral. All of the contributors are former students of Professor Cooper (English, University of Cambridge). The volume's editors are to be commended for striking a fine balance in regard to the difficulties confronting any Festschrift, namely the tasks of acknowledging the book's dedicatee, providing a sense of coherence to the essays, and challenging the contributors to provide thought-provoking work. Medieval into Renaissance succeeds on all these fronts.

Andrew King and Matthew Woodcock supply a brief introduction that surveys some of the major statements about literary periodization from the past four decades and that concentrates on the idea of remembrance to shape the ensuing collection. Drawing on major statements by James Simpson, Margreta de Grazia, and A.C. Spearing, among others (including the book's honoree), the editors seek to counter our tendency to look for signs of incipient modernity with a focus on "preservation and memory" (6). Overall, they identify "the value of making bold claims about literary history" (14) as a significant topic for debate in the book's essays, which discuss the genres of romance, pastoral, and drama, as well as in future studies.

Alexandra Gillespie begins the collection with a piece about authorship and authority framed primarily through Spenser's relationship to Chaucer in The Shepheardes Calender. Gillespie focuses on Spenser's (or E.K.'s) somewhat disingenuous attribution of the proverbial phrase "Vncovthe unkiste" to Chaucer as well as his use of the apocryphal Plowman's Tale. Her essay combines lexical and bibliographical history (i.e., how the "wandering" of The Plowman's Tale in early modern editions of Chaucer's works parallels the Plowman's roving nature in the frame to that tale) with a broader study of ironic and self-reflective authorship as a response to the problems of literary preservation and reception.

In the second essay, R.W. Maslen responds to two aspects of Cooper's work on romance: the notion of the "meme," or idea that is transmitted genetically from generation to generation while allowing for change, and her discussion of magic that does not work. Maslen's piece correspondingly follows the "anti-meme" of armor that fails; it is an anti-meme, he explains, because it thwarts the narrative problem of dullness and because it strips down the knight, "draw[ing] attention to the fragile humanness of the romance's male protagonist" (39). The essay surveys armor's function within the romance genre across medieval and Renaissance texts, including Chaucer, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Malory, and Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, concluding that this anti-meme works against the mechanical and symbolic aspects of the fully armored knight by highlighting the problematic flesh underneath.

Megan G. Leitch's piece similarly invokes and adapts one of Cooper's tools of analysis for the romance genre, in this case the concept of "family resemblance." Leitch discusses several neglected fifteenth-century English prose romances, arguing that they can be seen to constitute a family or sub-genre that itself reflects on "a wider range of familial anxieties" (56), perhaps in response to the Wars of the Roses. As she explains, many of these romances, such as the prose Siege of Thebesor prose Melusine, not only share a general pessimism about chivalric cohesion, but also concentrate on problems in family inheritance in their depictions of characters who do not transmit good qualities in aristocratic lineages successfully or who too easily inherit negative traits. Since this gloomy view of family inheritance persists in some early sixteenth-century texts, Leitch suggests that a negative ethical discourse may link these medieval and Renaissance texts together and may reward further study.

In the fourth essay Aisling Byrne makes a striking contribution by discussing several medieval English texts copied or adapted in Ireland in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries. In so doing she extends Cooper's point about the longevity and popularity of the romance genre from the medieval to the early modern period while also noting some differences in their reception. In particular, Byrne's identification of the influence of the Burgundian court and its crusading emphasis on Irish reading habits at both the elite and the more humble levels begs further investigation. This influence, she explains, may have led to English romances such as Guy of Warwickand Bevis of Hampton being translated and read alongside versions of the Fierabrasstory in manuscript; it also may elucidate why the Irish translation of the insular version of Octavian "enhanced the crusading theme of the work by reframing this romance within a Carolingian setting" (80). In addition, Byrne's piece ends by suggesting that the Irish scéalta rómánsaíochta (romantic tales), long considered separate from the European romance tradition, should be reconsidered in light of those broader influences and concerns.

The essay by James Wade continues the collection's exploration of periodization by considering the relationship between popular romances and theological error. Taking up Andrea Hopkins' notion of the penitential romance, Wade follows the early modern changes to medieval texts that themselves never really modeled the sacrament of penance in an institutional manner. Guy of Warwick's transformation into a Renaissance stage version, for example, "shows a willingness to represent Catholic practices and ideals on stage, without criticism or comment" (100), while Thomas Lodge's adaptation of Sir Gowther in his 1591 prose version Robert the Devil draws a distinction between Lodge's present and the Catholic past by historicizing the action. Wade concludes by examining the penitential aspects of Shakespeare's King Lear, which ultimately fail to achieve a happy ending because of the play's pagan setting.

Mary Flannery's piece focuses on the marginal, transitional figure of John Skelton, particularly his poem The Garland of Laurel. Describing laureate discourse as a poetics of loss and of remembrance, Flannery explains that "writing like a laureate involves continually looking to the past, seeing the past as present, and writing for the future" (110). This Janus-faced conception of the laureate plays out in the poem's fictional representation of Skelton being crowned a laureate with Gower, Chaucer, and Lydgate as onlookers. Flannery first reads the poem's depiction of the origin of the laurel crown in the myth of Apollo and Daphne as showing how gratification is perpetually delayed, and then turns to the poem's presentation of the continual passage of time, which works against the laureate's desire for perpetuity. In the end Flannery shrewdly suggests that we can contrast Skelton's perspective on the laureate's evolving position in time with our own efforts to fix authors in discrete periods.

Matthew Woodcock's essay discusses early modern adaptations of the medieval satirical complaint, specifically in the works of Thomas Churchyard and Robert Crowley. Using examples of the genre from Chaucer, Gower, and Langland, Woodcock makes a strong case for the indebtedness of reformer authors such as Churchyard, Crowley, and other "commonwealth" writers to the medieval tradition. Crowley, for example, who published an edition of Piers Plowman in 1550, speaks for the poor in satirical tracts such as The Way to Wealth, while Churchyard's Davy Dycars Dreame takes its titular character directly from Langland's poem. However, as Woodcock explains, the "question of who is speaking" in these works "is a central concern" (138), since Crowley and to a greater extent Churchyard adopt a self-conscious authorial stance that purports to transmit complaints received from others to a wider audience. This stance, which distinguishes them from the earlier medieval tradition, may derive from an awareness of the possibilities of print culture and its broader audience.

Nandini Das's article on the place and use of Arcadia in the early modern period engages with similar concerns as Flannery's essay on how laureate poetics point backward and forward in time, but Das's piece explores the relationship of the pastoral and memory. She does so by setting descriptions of Rome and its ruins from Petrarch to Spenser alongside treatments of Arcadia in literature, travel narratives, and cartography. Das notes how the layered nature of Rome reveals the stages of history to the viewer or reader. In contrast, Arcadia acts as "a locus of imagination and memory" that is "unmoor[ed] in time and space" (161). In other words, Arcadia's identity as a place of loss and absence from Greek myth through Virgil and into the Renaissance enables it to become a "site for the imagination itself" (161), something which helps to explain the Scot William Lithgow's disappointment in his actual visit to Arcadia in his 1614 travel narrative as well as the name's use in various maps and accounts of northern America, including a letter by the Florentine Giovanni da Verrazzano. Ultimately Arcadia resists memorial layering through its elusiveness, becoming an emblem for fiction itself.

Jason Powell's study of fatherly advice in Hamlet continues to explore apprehensions about family inheritance raised earlier in the volume. As Powell explains, the problem of verbal authority, specifically the use of commonplaces, is that such advice is readily detachable and can be employed by false surrogates. By connecting scenes of instruction in Hamlet to the general fund of wisdom available to Shakespeare and his audience through examples such as Cato's Distichs and Isocrates' Ad Demonicum, Powell teases out ironic nuances in Claudius's advice to Hamlet to forget his father, Polonius's advice to Laertes, and the ghost's demand for remembrance. Shakespeare's play has a "persistent obsession with surrogation" (186), and it resolves the problem of family inheritance only with "yet another act of substitution" (186) as Fortinbras assumes control.

Joyce Boro's essay performs a fine reading of the anonymous play Swetnam The Woman-Hater (published 1620) in light of its source material and the early modern English pamphlet debate about women referenced in the play's title. As Boro explains, the play derives its main plot from the late fifteenth-century Spanish romance Grisel y Mirabella, yet Swetnam adapts that source not only to capitalize on the controversy begun by the real Joseph Swetnam's misogynist text of 1615 but also to pathologize the king's melancholy and imbalance via humoral theory. Without the "feminine" component of mercy, the monarch creates a "hyper-masculine court in which unbalanced, misogynistic characters...can thrive" (195). The contrast between the king's misogyny and the presentation of his son as embodying both masculine and feminine traits shows the work "subverting the essentialist dichotomy of male and female" (205) and even, potentially, implies a critique of James I's court vis-à-vis that of Elizabeth I.

Andrew King's piece moves further into the seventeenth century, exploring Samuel Sheppard's The Faerie King (c. 1648-54) and his ambivalent response to Charles I and his execution. At the same time, the essay reflects several of the previous pieces' arguments about authority and tradition, since Sheppard anxiously negotiates his relationship to Spenser's Faerie Queene while performing a kind of authorial self-erasure through the portrayal of his own text as a neglected monument. Through careful close readings of the intertextual echoes of Spenser's Redcrosse in Sheppard's work, King shows how Ariodant, the fictionalized version of Charles I, pursues an unlimited sovereignty to the detriment of himself and his subjects, in addition to failing to distinguish between good and bad counselors. Ariodant's language escapes his control, just as Sheppard's narrative frequently invites readers to adopt a certain political perspective "only to find the support of the narrative withdrawn" (220). This ambivalence is further complicated by the poet's self-reflexivity, since Ariodant also represents his own fears of literary failure. In general King makes an important case for more attention to Sheppard's work.

The final essay by Helen Vincent extends into the eighteenth century via a study of chapbook retellings of Sidney's Arcadia, particularly the Argalus and Parthenia story, which first circulated independently in Francis Quarles's early seventeenth-century version. Tracking how Argalus and Parthenia "made the transition from the culture of the educated elite to popular print" (238), Vincent notes some inherent problems confronting those trying to identify different chapbook editions while distinguishing a previously unrecognized third popular print version of the story. In addition to revealing something about the development of prose fiction, the evolution of these various versions also "bring[s] Sidney's depiction of a marriage which reconciles virtue and desire into a world where such an ideal of romantic love as the preferred basis for marriage... was becoming a norm" (247) among several classes.

Beyond her evident influence on the contributors, at the end of the book Professor Cooper's impact is reflected in a noteworthy tabula gratulatoria. Medieval into Renaissance is a welcome tribute for her as well as a valuable contribution to the study of medieval and early modern literature, particularly as regards questions of periodization.

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