In Invention and Authorship in Medieval England Robert R. Edwards argues that "literary authorship develops in medieval England from discrete acts of invention--that is, from the discovery of expressive possibilities within and against established conventions of reading and writing" (xi). He cautions that his book is not an attempt to "devise a single theory of medieval English literary authorship" (xvi), nor is it a complete survey or catalogue. Instead, his focus is on writers within those chronological and geographical constraints "who claim authorship within and against dominant practices" (xxxii). Overall, the project is a worthy one, and Edwards grounds his ideas in thoughtful readings of the primary texts, covering a helpful range of authors and works. The conclusions he reaches, however, will likely not be revelatory for many scholars of medieval literature. This volume can strengthen your knowledge of medieval authorship but will probably not revise it. It would best be suited for readers who need an introduction to the topic and to scholarly positions on issues of authorship in the middle ages.
The book is organized into three parts. Part I addresses Bede, Walter Map, and Marie de France as writers who invent or create models of authorship in different ways. In the opening "Prelude" on Bede, Edwards argues that "Bede's practice reflects a significant reformulation of classical authorship" (6). Rather than conceive of writing as "an instrument of pagan worldly ambition" (like a classical author with patronage and a secular public audience) or as a product of "elite Christian pastoral teaching" (like Augustine or Ambrose), Bede approaches writing as "a means for sustaining a different social reality, the alter orbis of spiritual and intellectual withdrawal that divides him from both the world and ascetic monasticism" (6).
In chapter 1, Edwards describes Map as consciously engaging a tension between authorship and "counter-authorship," which he defines as "a form of authorial self-definition that exists in virtue of its differences from official literary roles, the higher genres of literary discourse, and the sociopolitical imaginary that those roles and genres sustain....It operates by contrast to dominant formations in literary culture, yet it depends on them in order to function" (16-17). It is a position that is both protective and freeing and that allows the author to make the reader the ultimate source for the meaning and completion of the work. In chapter 2, Edwards argues that Marie de France's project as an author is the creation of a "hybrid classicism in which she operates as a counterpart and conscious alternative to a Latin auctor" (34). He suggests that her bold self-positioning as Ovid's "authorial successor" (40) parallels her elevation of vernacular stories as she makes them "carry the same exemplary and allegorical value as Latin texts" (38). One key way in which she accomplishes this is by "transform[ing] the Ovidian interim of pleasure into some form of stable consolidation" (52) while still "leav[ing] open an interpretive 'surplus'" for readers (55).
Part II focuses on Gower and Chaucer as writers whose understandings of authorship involve more complex relationships to auctoritas. The title of this section, "Authorship Direct and Oblique," conveniently summarizes Edwards' analyses: if Gower is directly engaged in authorship, Chaucer approaches it more obliquely. The central claim of chapter 3 is that "[a]uthorship is the necessary condition of 'moral Gower'" (66). Gower's writings, through their reliance on "[p]reaching and prophecy" as "two important models of authorship" (71), reveal that he believes he "surpasses Vergil by having literary and salvation history on his side" (96). Gower is, ultimately, a "revisionary poet, bidding to write himself into literary tradition" (103) as a "vernacular classical author with an established canon of works sustained by commentary and a context of reception, even if those are fabricated by the author himself" (98). In chapter 4, Edwards argues that Chaucer constructs authorship as a careful dance between "imitation and refusal" (105). He traces in Chaucer's early works the idea that "authorship operates as a social force," one that "becomes visible in discursive and narrative contexts as authority"; that authority, in turn, "simultaneously asserts and belies its own power" (119). In the Canterbury Tales, the focus turns towards the "judicial and moral burden" of authorship in terms of "speaking properly," or, more broadly conceived, of "succession and faithful imitation" (137). Thus, it is fitting in Edwards' view that the Tales end with the Parson, who "ends the translatio of authorship...by turning from the proper words of established sources and antecedent writers to authority itself, to the 'vertuous sentence' (X.63) that regulates how proper words are to be understood" (146).
Part III considers Thomas Hoccleve and John Lydgate as writers who, in contrasting ways, "simulate" authorship in response to their contexts in literary history and socio-political climates. Both writers find themselves in a situation where they can neither use nor reproduce earlier models of authorship. Instead, they "discover alternatives that simulate authorship": "they turn to their immediate vernacular forebears as an occasion rather than a determinate or directly available source for authorship" (150). Edwards explains that this leads to "a strategy of imitation, typically couched in a rhetoric of deference and belatedness" (151). For both Hoccleve and Lydgate this is a not a flaw but a "conscious choice," due partly to their sociopolitical contexts. Hoccleve, like Chaucer, reckons with the "juridical sense of authorship" (174) but also situates himself "as a worker within a network of textual production" (168). In response to patronage, he writes for royalty and for the court, for "men who need regulation" (165). He intentionally writes works that are "calculated to be partial and defective" (164) but also "a visible reproduction that stands in for the original" (167). Whereas for Hoccleve patronage is "prospective" (155), for Lydgate it is a thing to be exploited in his construction of a "'stile counterfet'--a visibly partial reproduction of narratives, themes, and charateristic modes of expression with established cultural authority" (177). He intends for his audience to "detect" his simulation of authorship because he wants his work to be "seen for the literary artifact and authorial vehicle it is" (179). In the afterword, "The Afterlife of Medieval Authorship," Edwards returns to the "defining feature" of authorship in each of the writers considered in the book: an "agency" that is "exercise[d]" both "externally, with respect to literary culture, and internally, with respect to poetic creation" (197).
Invention and Authorship in Medieval England is a solid exploration of the writers it considers and lays out clearly the main issues and ideas facing modern readers in appreciating the complexities of medieval English authors' contexts and purposes. It does not offer substantially new contributions to our understanding of medieval authorship--the ideas in the chapters on Marie de France, Gower, and Chaucer are especially familiar--but it will certainly prove helpful for those wishing to learn about the various ways authorship was constructed across the centuries of the English middle ages.
Note: Individual readers interested in purchasing the book should be aware that the publisher's website offers a pdf ebook format for a much more affordable price ($19.95 at the time of this review).