Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
21.08.16 Sobecki, Last Words

21.08.16 Sobecki, Last Words


The five main chapters of this book explore a selection of poems and verse compilations produced by authors connected by patronage or profession to the courts of successive Lancastrian kings. They deal with Gower, in the form of the trilingual "Trentham manuscript" (London, British Library Addit. 59495), with Hoccleve's Series, with The Libelle of Englyshe Polycye, with Lydgate's Testament, and with the works of George Ashby collected to in Cambridge University Library MS Mm. 4. 42. Produced or in some cases revisited and compiled into coherent sequence during their authors' later years, the poems reflect variously on policy, current affairs, social relations, and the circumstances of individual lives. Sobecki seeks to understand the material and generic forms taken by these writings in relation to the concerns of the authors who brought them into being. He is especially interested in authorial voices and the range of circumstances that helped to shape them; and in the impulses that prompted his selected poets to review their writing careers in relation to the public world. Prominent in his undertaking is an urge to make sense of pressing questions for students of literature. How and why does it matter to learn about the historical contexts in which authors lived and worked? What information is yielded by manuscript copies of medieval writings, and how can this contribute to understanding?

Sobecki's enormous energy as a researcher brings to light information that gives him new purchase on some of the material covered here. His deciphering of a fragmentary sixteenth-century inscription in the Trentham manuscript persuades him that the manuscript must have resided with Gower at the house of St Mary Overys in Southwark, and remained there until the house was dissolved in 1541; identification of Gower's own hand among those of the contributing scribes suggests a personal interest in the compilation, which may have taken shape in conciliatory mood, in Gower's final decade, as a celebration of Anglo-French amity. On the evidence of a newly discovered reference to Hoccleve in the will of John Bailey, a fellow Privy Seal clerk, a new date for the composition of Hoccleve's Series is here suggested, with a reading of the constituent parts that directs attention to the possibility that Hoccleve's experiments with the therapeutic value of literary composition grew from grief at the loss of a friend. An author is found for The Libelle of Englyshe Polycye, once associated with Adam Moleyns, clerk of the ruling council during the minority of Henry VI but now generally regarded as anonymous. Sobecki assigns it instead to Richard Caudray, Moleyns's predecessor as clerk, and someone whose evident later interest in the Admiralty and seagoing matters fits plausibly with the Libelle's content. For George Ashby, Sobecki finds new life records, and by comparing signet letters in The National Archives with the single surviving manuscript of the Active Policy of a Prince and Dicta et opiniones diversorum philosophorum determines that this is an autograph copy, perhaps made for presentation to Prince Edward, son of Henry VI.

The additions to knowledge offered in the book, once turned to the purpose of argument, have potential of differing kinds. Life records locatable in wills or accounts of payment can undoubtedly help to locate individuals in time and space, or to suggest relationships between them. Scribal hands, though, seem altogether more slippery to deal with. Some of the black and white illustrations supplied here are not sufficiently large or clear to be very helpful in confirming scribal identity, and in a culture where scribal training was directed at achieving uniformity rather than distinctively individual hands it is often difficult to assess differences and similarities. Even if one accepts that Gower's hand appears in the Trentham manuscript, and that the scribe of Ashby's signet letters also copied Cambridge University Library MS Mm. 4. 42, it is not altogether clear what can be made of the information, and some of the arguments advanced here move forward at a pace that may not seem altogether justified by the evidence. For example, if Ashby was, like Hoccleve, a scribe who worked on literary manuscripts as well as business documents (a suggestion advanced here on p. 161 but not followed up), his work on the Cambridge manuscript may have been simply another commission rather than a personally motivated presentation copy.

These are small gripes in the context of my admiration for the rich mass of evidence from documents of many kinds that Sobecki deploys in the book. One especially illuminating thread of argument traces the interplay between documentary and poetic forms that seems an important feature of so much fifteenth-century verse writing, one previously addressed in studies of Hoccleve by John Burrow and Ethan Knapp. Sobecki highlights the Libelle-author's evident familiarity with petitions and legal instruments (the term can indicate a bill as well as a little book); in support of his case for Richard Caudray as author he signals Caudray's responsibility for documents now assembled in a two-volume Book of Council, and his later roles in compiling the Register of the College of St Martin-le-Grand, and an expansion of The Black Book of the Admiralty. Lydgate's verse Testament, described here as a palinode dedicating the poet's life's work to God, is mapped onto other examples of testamentary discourse. Ashby's writings--a work known as Prisoners' Reflections as well as the Active Policy and Dicta compilation---are seen as the creations of a self-shaped by the bureaucratic forms which preoccupied Ashby's working life in the service of Henry VI and Queen Margaret.

Sobecki's own reflections on the scope and themes of his book, outlined in an introductory chapter, direct attention to the selves projected by his chosen authors, all of whom write in the first person and with reference to what would readily be recognised by fifteenth-century readers as their real experiences and social connections. Some space is devoted here to positioning the book's aims in relation to current arguments about the premodern self and its forms of expression, with attention drawn to the conditions of premodern literary production which generally meant that works circulated, at least initially, among readers known to the author. In these circumstances it is hardly surprising to find writings voiced by what seem "real" selves, speakers whose construction has prompted recent critical attention in the form of A. C. Spearing's explorations of "autographies" (fictional writings in the first-person). Since Sobecki's focus is however mostly on non-fictional writings, he looks elsewhere for critical terminology to serve his purposes. From the philosopher and cultural historian Charles Taylor he draws the notion of the "porous" premodern self, unbuffered from its environment; and from linguistics and clinical psychiatry the idea of the "indexical self", defined through its social contexts and interactions. To the extent that these terms press home the embeddedness in distinct environments of the authors treated here, they are useful: working in the offices of the signet and privy seal must have fostered outlooks different from those gained through service on the governing council or from the experiences of life as a well-connected lawyer or a Benedictine monk. But how much they in any way extend or nuance the simple formulation of 'author and context' is perhaps questionable. The "indexical" label is anyway somewhat distracting (to me, at least), calling to mind images of dusty scholars sorting their file cards into alphabetical order rather than worrying about how to elucidate aspects of the premodern self.

Given the sheer amount going on in this book some introductory positioning is nonetheless helpful in clarifying the different frames of reference to which its arguments are pinned, and to signal what Sobecki adds to existing critical discussion of fifteenth-century political writing (Paul Strohm's work is an important touchstone here). The chapters on Gower and Lydgate began life as journal articles, and there is good reason to supply pointers to the coherence of what might otherwise look to be a collection of disparate case studies. In sum, this book contrives to be simultaneously about Lancastrian writing, authorial self-representation, the significance of late medieval documentary forms to literary composition, and the value of analysing the material features of manuscripts. The notion of "Last Words" invoked in the title--the contention that the compilations treated here relate to moments of their authors' withdrawal from public life, and are thus in some sense "narratives of extraction"--also floats sporadically to the surface, relevant more obviously to some of the works considered than to others. Readers will make their own assessments of the new claims that the book advances, particularly those concerning authorship of the Libelle and the scribal contributions of Gower and Ashby, but even those who resist the force of these specific arguments are likely to find much matter and interest in the combinations of information and critical analysis presented here.