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22.08.23 Fonzo, Retrospective Prophecy and Medieval English Authorship

22.08.23 Fonzo, Retrospective Prophecy and Medieval English Authorship

Kimberly Fonzo’s book-length enquiry focuses on the tendency of later critics to exaggerate the prophetic discourse of medieval authors and to depict them as extraordinarily clairvoyant in their ability to predict progress in those critics’ own time(s). The core authors upon whose work Fonzo’s study turns are the Ricardian stalwarts William Langland, John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer, for whom the campaign of re- (or perhaps mis-) interpretation of their prophetic language, she argues, has been especially influential. Such predictions, erroneously (deliberately or otherwise) attributed to medieval authors, Fonzo proposes to refer to as “retrospective prophecies.” Her study aims to lay bare the effects of these retrospective prophecies on authorial reputation and the reception of such authors’ works. She asks why Ricardian authors in particular were susceptible to the practice and attempts to strip away the layers of prophecy added artificially to these works ex post facto, so as to restore the “complex and creative prophetic personae that they [the Ricardian authors] sought to cultivate, often in defiance of rather than compliance with the discourse of political prophecy” (11).

The book is split into four chapters, the first considering the more general place of political prophecy in the French and English courts, and the second, third and fourth each covering a different one of Fonzo’s selected authors. In the first chapter, the landscape of political prophecy at court is examined through the lens of what Fonzo describes as the two most cited political prophets, the Sibyl and Merlin. In the case of the former, it is the Last Emperor prophecy and its adaptations in works by Christine de Pizan, Eustache Deschamps and others that form the focus of discussion. Fonzo argues that such adaptors rarely use the Sibyl as a means formally to place pressure on the position of the French monarchy (Kings Charles V and VI being the monarchs in question), but rather employ prophecy as a tool for exploring their own authority as authors. This, Fonzo, argues, ultimately leads to the Valois kings tolerating political prophecy in literature with far more patience than their counterparts across the Channel. Galfridian and/or Merlinic prophecy, indeed, seems to have been perceived as far more threatening to those on the throne, leading to what Fonzo calls “prophetic anxiety” and the need for her chosen three Ricardian authors to seek new and different prophetic approaches. Fonzo’s juxtaposition of the relative positions of the French and English courts is a helpful way to open her analysis, as it shows the evolution of the particular conditions in which Langland, Gower and Chaucer would be working.

William Langland and his Vision of Piers Plowman form the focus of the second chapter. Here, Fonzo seeks to rehabilitate what she sees as Langland’s intention for the prophecies in Piers Plowman to have a parodic function, which she sees as having been obscured by the Protestant appropriation, in the sixteenth century, of the prophecy attributed to Clergy. This re-use would give the impression that Langland had predicted the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Fonzo’s view is that the prophecies were actually aimed at inspiring personal reform, but that their political remediation made them out to be apocalyptically spiritual in their messaging. Fonzo’s analysis in this chapter is neatly done, and is nicely illustrated with textual examples, though the debate itself is not new. Nonetheless, Fonzo’s enquiry goes some way to reigniting the discussion as to how we should interpret Langland’s use of prophecy.

In the third chapter, Fonzo turns to John Gower’s apparent prediction of the downfall of Richard II in his Vox clamantis. This is a highly successful and intriguing study, thanks to its fascinating return to the manuscripts. Fonzo argues that this interpretation of Gower’s work only happened because Gower appended the Cronica Tripertita to the work after 1400, thus adding the pertinent predictions after the event. In the case of Gower’s Confessio Amantis, which the author revised multiple times, though not in terms of its political prophecies, Fonzo is able to show that Lancastrian supporters may have been responsible for the emphasis laid upon Gower’s forecasting of Richard II’s fate, since they opted to copy and promote only the first recension of the text. In short, manuscripts show no clear evidence that Gower had predicted Richard II’s fall from power, but rather that acts of (re-)publication visible in these manuscripts’ pages demonstrate how the agency of others has led to the persistence of Gower’s reputation, in some circles, as more prophet and less poet.

The fourth and final substantive chapter considers Chaucer’s The House of Fame, and the way in which the author attempts to fashion for himself a prophetic role within the text’s dream visions. Fonzo argues that Chaucer takes at least partial inspiration from Dante in his depiction of himself in the moral role of Enoch and Eli, who have the task to tame a mob. This practice Fonzo terms “prophetic citation,” and she posits that this scene, when coupled with Chaucer’s reputation as a non-religious sceptic, has led not only to the nationalistic recasting of Chaucer as mocking Dante’s devotion to Catholicism, but also to the enduring perception of Chaucer being divinatory. In short, Fonzo argues--and convincingly so--that the legacy of “Chaucer’s prophecy” has been brought about, often subconsciously, by “editors and readers [...] for the timeless connection to them [the authors] that they want to feel” (141).

Overall, Fonzo’s book is a triumph. Readable and lively, its most pertinent achievement is perhaps its revelation that our modern preoccupation with looking for “truths” in medieval literature to demonstrate continuing relevance today is not specific to twentieth- and twenty-first-century readers and scholars. Ascribing prophetic power to medieval authors, as Fonzo shows has been done historically to Langland, Gower and Chaucer, constitutes no less an act of retroactively imbuing works with meaning that is germane to the current day.