Reading Literature Historically: Drama and Poetry from Chaucer to the Reformation 9780748681020

Pioneer of early-modern literary historicism reads Medieval & early Tudor drama & poetry historically How far s

162 83 1MB

English Pages 216 [210] Year 2013

Report DMCA / Copyright

DOWNLOAD FILE

Polecaj historie

Reading Literature Historically: Drama and Poetry from Chaucer to the Reformation
 9780748681020

Citation preview

Reading Literature Historically

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd i

08/01/2013 08:23

For Kevin

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd ii

08/01/2013 08:23

Reading Literature Historically Drama and Poetry from Chaucer to the Reformation

Greg Walker

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd iii

08/01/2013 08:23

© Greg Walker, 2013 Edinburgh University Press Ltd 22 George Square, Edinburgh EH8 9LF www.euppublishing.com Typeset in 10.5/13 pt Sabon by Servis Filmsetting Ltd, Stockport, Cheshire, and printed and bound in Great Britain by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon CR0 4YY A CIP record for this book is available from the British Library ISBN 978 0 7486 8101 3 (hardback) ISBN 978 0 7486 8102 0 (webready PDF) ISBN 978 0 7486 8103 7 (epub) ISBN 978 0 7486 8104 4 (Amazon ebook) The right of Greg Walker to be identified as author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd iv

08/01/2013 08:23

Contents

Acknowledgements Introduction: Literature and History: The Risks of Conversation

vii 1

Part I: Drama 1

Early Tudor Drama and the Arts of Resistance

13

2

‘To Speak before the King, it is no Child’s Play’: Godly Queen Hester in 1529

36

Flytyng in the Face of Convention: Protest and Innovation in Lindsay’s Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis

63

3

Part II: Poetry, 1380–1532 4

Courtesy and Chivalry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

93

5

The Plowman’s Tale and the Politics of 1532: A Cautionary Tale?

121

6

Rough Girls and Squeamish Boys: The Trouble with Absolon in The Miller’s Tale 169

Index

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd v

199

08/01/2013 08:23

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd vi

08/01/2013 08:23

Acknowledgements

I am very grateful to all those friends and colleagues who have shared their ideas and offered invaluable advice and support through the writing of this book. In particular I would like to thank George Bernard, MarieHélène Besnault, Tom Betteridge, Michel Bitot, Gordon Campbell, Sarah Carpenter, Anne Marie D’Arcy, Janette Dillon, Sarah Dunnigan, Jose Maria Perez Fernandez, Penny Fielding, Alastair Fowler, Alan Gillis, Richard Hillman, Kevin Jacklin, Claire Jowitt, James Loxley, Joanne Kantrowitz, Aaron Kelly, Tony Kushner, André Lascombes, Ken Millard, Bella Millett, Vince Newey, Emma Parker, Mark Rawlinson, David Salter, Randall Stevenson, Olga Taxidou, and Meg Twycross. I am especially grateful, as ever, to Professors John J. McGavin and Elaine Treharne for their friendship and advice well beyond the call of duty, and to Sharon, Matt, Dave, and Tessa the dog for being there throughout. In practical terms I am grateful to those editors who have allowed me to draw on material from earlier publications in revising the chapters which follow: Richard Hillman for work in Theta, the editors of The Chaucer Review, Peter Happé and Wim Hüsken for material in Interludes and Early Modern Society (Rodopi, 2007), Elaine Treharne for Writing Gender and Genre in Medieval Literature (The English Association, 2002), and Anne-Marie D’Arcy and Alan J. Fletcher for those parts of the chapter on The Plowman’s Tale published in Studies in Late Medieval and Early Renaissance texts in Honour of John Scattergood (Four Courts, 2005). Another presence whose gently teasing, critical influence I have felt while writing, and still more while revising these chapters is that of the late Kevin Sharpe. His absurdly early death has robbed early-modern studies of perhaps its most energetic, provocative spirit, and many earlymodernists of a good friend and counsellor. In dedicating this book to him I can only gesture towards my gratitude to him for dialogues and friendship over the years. Thanks Kevin, it’s just not the same without you.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd vii

08/01/2013 08:23

‘It is my contention that, far from being simply monotonous or partisan, the literature of the Caroline court reveals debate, ambiguity and anxiety, and so offers a rich case study of political discourse, of social and political ideas . . .’ ‘I hope to have shown that, working within the conventions and modes of court drama, masque and love poetry, [the writers of the Caroline court] . . . engaged in a searching examination of the ethical and political issues of their age, and proffered counsel to the ruler through criticism and compliment.’ (Kevin Sharpe, Criticism and Compliment: The Politics of Literature in the England of Charles I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. x and xi)

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd viii

08/01/2013 08:23

Introduction

Literature and History: The Risks of Conversation

This is a book about drama, poetry and politics in the period from the age of Chaucer and the Gawain-poet to the onset of the English and Scottish Reformations in the mid-sixteenth century. It explores, and hopes to demonstrate, both the potential value and the potential pitfalls of reading the literature and drama of this period ‘historically’, that is, in dialogue with historical events and the political cultures of the communities which produced and received it. The chapters that follow will examine a wide range of dramatic and literary texts from the period, some of which, like Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, the late medieval English romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or the Scottish herald, Sir David Lindsay’s monumental drama, Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis (performed variously in 1540, 1552 and 1554) are relatively well known. Others, like the early Tudor Interlude of Godly Queen Hester (?1529) or the anonymous fifteenth-century addition to the Canterbury Tales, The Plowman’s Tale, are perhaps less so. What unites each of the chapters is that they take their cue from the late Kevin Sharpe’s contention, quoted as an epigraph to this book, that studying the literature of a historical period provides a far richer experience of its culture and politics than consideration of more notionally ‘historical’ documents alone. To read literature historically allows us to see how contemporary men and women deployed the ideas, concepts and symbols that mattered to them and how they represented their own relationships to such ideas and symbols. It allows us to hear them discussing questions of morality, identity, belief, private and public probity and responsibility openly and at length rather than tacitly, or in the midst of other things. And it permits us some insight into how those men and women might respond, emotionally and aesthetically (as well as intellectually, strategically or pragmatically) to moral, social and political issues. To read literature historically is, then, also to attend to history imaginatively and aesthetically, with a wider, fuller regard to the concerns, at once both intimately

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 1

08/01/2013 08:23

2

Reading Literature Historically

personal and broadly cultural, that underpinned political action, and the beliefs and responses that gave meaning to an individual’s behaviour. As I read the literary texts discussed here, I always have in mind what they might have meant to the readers and audiences who experienced them, whether as manuscripts or printed texts, read privately or listened to in a group, or as dramatic performances witnessed at specific moments in time, and how those readers and viewers might have applied what they read or witnessed to other aspects of their lives. Literature in this period, I will argue, was always political, in the sense that it was attentive to and addressed issues of personal, social and cultural concern, and was expected to do so by those for whom it was written or performed. To cite Sharpe again: Culture cannot be divorced from politics in any age, and in Renaissance England their interdependence and interpenetration were consciously acknowledged and even deliberately pursued. The humanists ascribed to the literary and visual arts an ethical or didactic function. And because the public life and private were viewed as one world, because, that is, the function of the state was held, following Aristotle, to be the provision of the good life, what we delineate as ‘the arts’ was integrated with the world of politics too.1

In this period, poems, prose tracts and plays were supposed to be ‘improving’, persuasive texts, in the sense that they were assumed to address serious religious, moral and social issues, compelling their readers, hearers and witnesses to ask themselves hard questions about their own values and conduct and about the condition of the societies, groups and institutions in which they lived and laboured. Drama in particular was designed to chastise the sinner and spur on the slacker, to offer good examples to encourage virtue, and bad ones to suggest the awful consequences of vice. As Hamlet would claim at the very end of the sixteenth century, it should ‘hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure’.2 That was the theory at least, and, as we shall see, the didactic brief that it offered to dramatists and actors gave them a licence to address the most sensitive of political and cultural issues, and before the most elevated and interested of audiences. Literary texts and dramatic performances were also political – engaged in social and cultural work in the world – because their readers and witnesses were social and cultural beings, who encountered and experienced those texts, not in some separate sphere of existence marked out for leisure activity, but in the midst of their social and cultural lives. They read poems and prose tracts alongside political treatises, religious texts and documents of state, copying extracts from each into their com-

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 2

08/01/2013 08:23

Literature and History

3

monplace books and ‘tables’ to furnish matter for future discussion and contemplation. They watched plays in the same halls and chambers of the same palaces and houses in which they lived and worked as ministers, courtiers, servants and scholars, and in company with the men and women with or for whom they worked. In this sense the drama of the fifteenth and early sixteenth century was a profoundly different institutional phenomenon to that of the later, Shakespearean playhouse. As Stephen Greenblatt noted of that form of theatre and its successors, its ‘triumphant cunning’ was to make its spectators forget that they are participating in a practical activity, to invent a sphere that seems far removed from the manipulations of the everyday . . . and this belief gives the theatre an unusually broad licence to conduct its negotiations and exchanges with surrounding institutions, authorities, discourses and practices.3

The drama of the earlier civic pageants, of the rural parishes, the palaces of the royal court and the great houses of the nobility was not an institution in this sense at all, able to negotiate ‘with surrounding institutions, authorities and practices’. It had no permanent home, no independent infrastructure or permanent, dedicated staff. Rather it was a mode of activity conducted by and within other institutions – the urban communities of York, Chester or Coventry, the village communities of East Anglia, the metropolitan or provincial households of the clerical or secular elites, the universities, schools and Inns of Court, or the royal household. It was produced by and for those communities, and so conducted its negotiations with their authorities and practices from within rather than without, as an integral part of the society on which it commented and which it sought to influence. This gave its various negotiations with those authorities their particular character and potency, a potency always tempered and inflected by a sense of its own involvement with and complicity in the practices it represented and critiqued. What was true of the drama also held for the poetry and prose produced by and for those communities. Such literature proves under close analysis to be a rather more sophisticated and independent-minded form of social engagement and political lobbying than traditional accounts often allow, judiciously combining what Sharpe terms (in the observation which provides the second epigraph to this book) ‘criticism and compliment’ to achieve its ends in the fraught, unequal conversations with its patrons and intended audiences that it was designed to initiate. All such conversations were bounded by risks, both for the writers and performers of the texts and their readers and witnesses. By agreeing to read a poem, watch an interlude, or even simply to accept the dedication

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 3

08/01/2013 08:23

4

Reading Literature Historically

of a book, audiences and patrons tacitly accepted a relationship with that text or performance, agreeing to undertake a journey with the author or actors that was likely (given the conventions mentioned earlier that said that literature was supposed to ask hard questions of its readers and audiences) to be awkward, unpredictable, and very likely to touch upon some raw nerves. The conversations experienced on these journeys carried risks for all the participants, and so can reveal a good deal about the nature and operation of political culture in the period, its underpinning assumptions, spoken and unspoken. I gratefully borrow the phrase, ‘the risks of conversation’ that forms part of my title, from Sarah Beckwith’s study of the York Corpus Christi drama, Signifying God. There she speaks of the theological work performed by the York pageants in the following, highly perceptive terms: It is one of the premises of [this book] . . . that these plays do theological work. That theological work is not to be found as a set of contents, a doctrinal declaration. Indeed, part of the theological work the plays do is to render impossible the very notion of divine authority unrelated to a penitent community and the very notion of theological utterance unattached to the risks of conversation.4

The ‘doctrinal content’ of these pageants, Beckwith argues, ‘is not derivable like a kernel from a shell’, but rather consists in the intellectual and emotional work that it prompts in its witnesses. Jane Griffiths has recently made a similar point about the work of the early Tudor poet, John Skelton, which aimed, she argues, unlike the poetry of his predecessors Lydgate and Hoccleve, not to deliver direct instruction or rehearse and reinforce shared commonplaces, but to challenge its readers ‘to be wary, to read, to interpret, and to take nothing, least of all commonplaces, on trust’.5 Such poetry aimed not primarily to pass on useful information or contentious opinion (although Skelton also expressed the latter in abundance) but rather to fashion its readers into politically literate and astute critics of contemporary culture and its values. The bulk of its political work thus took place in the hearts and minds of those readers, as a function of their conversation with the text, and so was always likely to be volatile, unpredictable, and formed as much by what the reader brought to the text as what the text brought to the reader. This is literary engagement as process rather than transaction, what modern academia thinks of, in predictably deadening jargon, as knowledge creation rather than knowledge exchange. In seeking to read such texts historically, texts which are in one way or another records of lost engagements between readers, writers and performers, we need to be mindful of the fact that, as Beckwith suggests,

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 4

08/01/2013 08:23

Literature and History

5

it was not in any knowledge or information transferred between writer and reader, actor and spectator that their cultural work was performed, but in the conversation that occurred between them, a conversation which is only imperfectly audible to us through the multiplicity of traces hinted at in the text itself and the documentary records of its moment(s) of performance. The notion of a literary or dramatic text that makes full sense only in the context of the particular moment and context of its performance and reception, and which creates that sense through, and only through, the dialogue created with its witnesses (thus implicitly denying the possibility of any transcendent universal truth divorced from the conditions of its own utterance) seems perfectly to describe both the dangers and the radical potential of the texts I shall discuss in this book. All of these texts, both dramatic and poetic, are also conversations with authority (whether that authority is political, theological, cultural, moral, or a mixture of all of these), and conversations which are generated by the very act of their performance. Each text performs its cultural labour, not in the sense of delivering content – ‘messages’ – from writer and performer to reader or spectator, but in terms of prompts to those readers and spectators to perform work of their own, which, if responded to sympathetically, would cue them to experience a process of thought and feeling which is transformative, or potentially so. Such texts do not try to inform their audiences about a particular idea, but to encourage them to experience and explore it vicariously with them. In this way, Sir David Lindsay’s Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, discussed in Chapter 3, seeks not only to engage with issues of urban and rural poverty, social responsibility and nation building, but to engage its audiences intellectually and emotionally with those questions in the real time of performance, prompting them to consider their own roles and responsibilities towards their neighbours, their civic communities and their God realistically and self-critically in the course of the play. Similarly, the poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the subject of Chapter 4, cues his readers not simply to witness but to experience and share in the social and political embarrassment of King Arthur’s court at the challenge of their giant intruder, in order better to appreciate both the necessity and the decorousness of Gawain’s artful intervention in the proceedings, and to experience for themselves the importance of courtliness and courtesy as a set of social and cultural values. Authors always took risks in such conversations. All texts attempt as part of their very nature to engage their readers and spectators in conversation, and none more so than the always very audience-aware texts of the later-medieval and Renaissance periods. In doing so they enter

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 5

08/01/2013 08:23

6

Reading Literature Historically

into the risks that such a conversation entails, risks of misreading, of misunderstanding, of deliberate misprision or simple objection. Even the most apparently partisan, polemical or propagandistic texts thus leave room for their own subversion, rejection or re-appropriation through their very existence as texts. The more declarative and directive the text, the greater the risk of its failure to secure the readerly compliance that it requires. A revealing, if extreme example of this phenomenon is provided by Henry VIII’s Treason Act of 1534, a text that reveals Tudor authorship simultaneously at its most powerfully assertive and its most anxious and vulnerable. The Act states its intentions in the booming, declamatory tones appropriate to the genre of formal state utterance: the paternalistic state personified, speaking ex cathedra to its subjects: Forasmuch as it is most necessary both for the common policy and duty of subjects, above all things to prohibit, provide, restrain and extinct all manner of shameful slanders, perils or imminent danger or dangers which might grow, happen, or arise to their Sovereign Lord the King, the Queen or their heirs, which when they be heard, seen or [understood] cannot be but odible and also abhorred of all those sorts that be true and loving subjects, if in any point they may do or shall touch the King, his Queen, their heirs or successors, upon which dependeth the whole unity and universal weal of this Realm without providing wherefore too great a scope of unreasonable liberty should be given to all cankered and traitorous hearts, willers and workers of the same; And also the King’s loving subjects should not declare unto their Sovereign Lord now being, which unto them hath been and is most entirely both beloved and esteemed, their undoubted sincerity and truth; Be it therefore enacted, by the assent and consent of our Sovereign Lord the King and the Lords spiritual and temporal and Commons in this present parliament assembled and by the authority of the same, that if any person or persons after the first day of February next coming do maliciously wish, will or desire by words or writing, or by craft imagine, invent, practise or attempt any bodily harm to be done or committed to the King’s most royal person, the Queen’s, or their heirs apparent, or to deprive them or any of them of the dignity, title or name of their royal estates, or slanderously and maliciously publish and pronounce, by express writing or words, that the King our Sovereign Lord should be heretic, schismatic, tyrant, infidel or usurper of the crown . . . [they shall be guilty of treason].6

This is the Act which infamously extended the terms of the treason laws to include ‘words alone’, allowing the apparatus of the Tudor state to pry into Henry’s subjects’ very thoughts and imaginings, and to punish what they found there with death if it did not meet the king’s exacting definition of true loyalty and obedience to his rapidly evolving claims. As such it is legally – as it seeks to be practically – a performative text, a document that speaks into being the very cowed obedience that it

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 6

08/01/2013 08:23

Literature and History

7

demands of its readers and hearers. Yet at the same time its piling up of clauses and sub-clauses, terms and conditions, its very mode of operation as a rhetorical document, seeking to argue for the reasonableness, the practical necessity of its claims and provisions, opens up a space for doubt, objection and potential resistance in its readers. What emerges from a close reading of the Act is potentially the very opposite of a sense of assured, intrusive, tyrannical power in action. The very multiplicity of the threats it seeks to foresee and neutralise (the vaguely defined shameful slanders, perils, danger and dangers – apparently both singular and plural – seemingly circling the crown), the sheer variety of the kinds of treasonable activity it imagines (whereby a subject conceivably might, even perhaps unwittingly, deprive the king of his royal estate and imperil the entire succession, simply by wishing, willing or desiring it by words or writing, or might by craft imagine, invent, practise or attempt it), and the strenuous, almost frantic efforts required to ‘prohibit, provide, restrain and extinct it’ (only the last of which seeming to offer a permanent solution to what begins to sound a remarkably persistent and resistant treasonable undergrowth) all suggest vulnerability rather than strength, an Henrician state authority already slandered and shamefully compromised by the acknowledgement of its own weakness. Similarly, the litany of prohibited titles that one might maliciously call the king is itself potentially counterproductively performative, in that it raises the prospect that some subjects have already slandered him in these terms and others might wish to do so in future. Thus what might previously have been unthinkable, that our beloved and esteemed sovereign lord the king was actually a heretic, schismatic, tyrant, infidel or usurper of the crown, has now been thought into being for those readers or hearers who lacked the vocabulary, or the malicious imaginations, to ascribe such titles to him themselves. This does not read like those texts of power described by New Historicists which raise the spectre of subversion only in order to furnish the foundations of their own ideological supremacy.7 When Henry VIII demanded that his subjects refrain from calling him heretic or schismatic, that they subscribe to the succession as he defined it, and swear an oath of loyalty to him as Supreme Head of the church in England, it was not because he wished to generate symbolic opposition that he could then publicly, spectacularly crush. It was because he knew that he had embarked upon a novel, risky and unpopular path and could not rely on the majority of his subjects spontaneously to follow him. Thus he needed to urge, cajole and threaten them into doing so. Such power as the 1534 Act represented, then, may have been very real, and fatally dangerous to cross, but it was not invulnerable to a subversion that it

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 7

08/01/2013 08:23

8

Reading Literature Historically

only pretended to fear. It was genuinely anxious and potentially vulnerable to such threats, alert to the merest hint of defiance and always fearfully aware of its possibility. Hence Henry was willing to risk the dangerous, volatile conversation with his subjects that an Act such as this represents. In demanding loyalty he had to acknowledge the possibility, indeed the terrifying reality and force, of resistance, and at least hint at both the relative ease with which – and the baffling multiplicity of forms in which – such resistance might manifest itself. In insisting on compliance he exposed himself to the possibility of embarrassing, shameful failure in a game of his own devising in which anything short of full and eager obedience was redefined as treason. The very real risk was thus that such legislation might actually write into being the very new forms of disloyalty that it sought to identify, and provide its audience with tacit instructions on how to perform them. And what was true of Henry VIII speaking ex cathedra through an Act of Parliament was also true of other humbler authors, playwrights and actors who entered into risky conversations with audiences in this period. Whenever medieval or early modern writers and performers sought to speak truth to power, either in the form of abstractions or, as more often, of specific actual or imagined readers or audiences, or when they tried to mediate authority to wider audiences, they engaged in a fraught yet profoundly transformative dialogue with those readers and audiences which they could never fully control. And their awareness of the impossibility of such control over the reception of their work was often a defining condition of the texts and performances they created. The chapters that follow will look at the various, often multiple ways in which late medieval and early modern texts engaged in conversation with their social and cultural contexts and performed cultural, political or theological work. They will suggest the variety of means through which such texts sought to engage with contemporary issues and ideas, whether more or less directly or obliquely, consistently or imperfectly, with greater or lesser degrees of detail or hopes of success. They will attempt to chart these texts’ engagement with their readers and audiences, both real and imagined, whether that engagement involved the direct assertion of dangerous ideas, the exposure of contentious issues to discussion and dissection, or by setting out models of conduct for admiration or critique. And in at least one case they will chart the complex mouvance of a text through time, as it passed from scribal hand to scribal hand, losing lines and verses here, gaining others there, transforming its meaning and engagement with the world with each creative transcription. Chapter 1 examines the complicated conversations with power under-

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 8

08/01/2013 08:23

Literature and History

9

taken by early Tudor courtly drama generally, and explores the various ways in which we might attend to the nuances of those conversations. It uses the work of the social anthropologist James C. Scott as a means of rethinking the ways in which such plays were able to speak truth to power in the period before the onset of the Reformation. Chapter 2 offers a detailed example of that model of political theatre in action, suggesting how the anonymous Interlude of Godly Queen Hester deployed biblical example and contemporary satire to engage with the fraught religious and economic debates generated during the first months of the Reformation Parliament. Chapter 3 shifts the focus of attention to Scotland, and the variously complex, subtle and strident engagement with social and religious issues undertaken in Sir David Lindsay’s Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, suggesting how the playwright and his actors’ conversation with their audiences sought to engage them intellectually and affectively with the matter of religious and social reform. The second half of the book turns from drama to poetry, examining the political and cultural work performed by a number of late medieval texts in their engagements with both courtly and wider reading communities. Chapter 4 considers the celebrated opening fit of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, suggesting how its rich depiction of conduct at King Arthur’s court serves to exemplify contemporary courtly values and the value of courtesy in the face of apparently external threat. Chapter 5 offers an extended example of both the challenges and the pitfalls of reading literature historically. Examining the anonymous Plowman’s Tale in the context of its printed edition of 1532, suggests how that text might have been read as a contribution to the polemical religious debates of that year, especially in the light of another document produced at the same time, the contentious parliamentary diatribe, The Commons Supplication Against the Ordinaries. As a closer look at the text suggests, however, its appearance as an anti-clerical text in 1532 was only one instance of the political work the poem seems to have performed during the century or more since its creation, as it was drafted, redrafted and revised by numerous hands. Finally, Chapter 6 returns us to possibly more familiar territory with Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale. Focusing on the intriguing character of the effeminate parish clerk, Absolon, it suggests how the tale engages its readers in an often raucous, but nonetheless serious conversation about masculine and feminine identity, cultural values and literary genres.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 9

08/01/2013 08:23

10

Reading Literature Historically

Notes 1. Kevin Sharpe, Criticism and Compliment: The Politics of Literature in the England of Charles I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 1. 2. Hamlet, III, ii, 22–24, in Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, eds, The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). 3. Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1988), pp. 18–19. 4. Sarah Beckwith, Signifying God: Social Relation and Symbolic Act in the York Corpus Christi Plays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), p. xvii. 5. Jane Griffiths, John Skelton and Poetic Authority: Establishing the Liberty to Speak (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 12. 6. T. E. Tomlins et al. (eds), Statutes of the Realm (11 vols, London: Dawsons, 1810–28), III, pp. 508–9. 7. See, for example, Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations, p. 30.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 10

08/01/2013 08:23

Chapter 1

Early Tudor Drama and the Arts of Resistance

The study of early Tudor drama has been revolutionised in the last three decades, benefiting in equal measure from developments in historical and literary scholarship. The entrenchment of various forms of historicism at the heart of literary studies has identified fruitful synergies between dramatic texts and historical contexts, while among early-modern historians there has been a less obvious but nonetheless significant change in the ways that literary sources have been approached and understood. In particular, a greater appreciation of the role played by counsel (advice to the monarch and/or his ministers) as the organising principle of courtly culture has led to new ways of looking at political discourse, freer of the obvious dichotomies of ‘loyalty’ or ‘opposition’, power or resistance, subversion or containment, that constrained earlier debates.1 In studies of the reign of Henry VIII in particular, this ‘conciliar turn’ allowed historians who were then mired in a rather reductive debate over whether Henry was a ‘strong king’ independent of mind and action, or merely ‘the plaything of faction’,2 to think instead of individuals and groups as attempting to persuade a relatively strong king (whatever ‘strong’ means in this context) rather than simply to ‘bounce’ a weak one into decisions. And this permitted them to think of poems, plays and prose tracts aimed at the king or courtly audiences as political texts, worthy of attention alongside statutes, chronicles and correspondence as evidence of the political process. At the same time this appreciation of the importance of counsel has allowed literary scholars to take seriously the espousals of principle and morality in courtly verse, to see neglected literary forms such as panegyric, eulogy and mirrors for princes as something more than simply prince-pleasing or ideological windowdressing for a machiavellian monarchy. Consequently there is now a more general agreement among scholars that any text or performance that the king, his advisors or critics might witness, read, view or merely

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 13

08/01/2013 08:23

14

Reading Literature Historically

hear about, could have a bearing upon political conduct, and thus on the history of the reign. New interpretations of Henry VIII’s personality and governmental style have also been conducive to fresh understandings of the roles played by literature and drama in the period. Historians such as G. W. Bernard, John Guy and Peter Gwyn have argued that Henry VIII was primarily a pragmatic ruler for much of the first half of his reign. Before the break with Rome at least, he was open to debate, and encouraged contrary counsels as both a political virtue and a pragmatic resource, a means both of keeping options open and of deflecting criticism of policy towards bad advice – ‘evil counsellors’ – when the need arose. He was clear in his long term strategic aims, but temperamentally inclined to leave as many tactical options as open as possible for as long as possible. Hence negotiations with the Pope over the ‘Great Matter’ of annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragon were not broken off until well into the 1530s, some years after the concept of an independent ‘Imperial’ sovereignty had first been articulated. More recently Bernard has argued that Henry followed an essentially Erasmian path in religious reform, condemning the abuse of images, the monastic life and pilgrimage rather than the practices themselves, aspiring to create a church free from corruption and the ‘superstitious’ accretions of centuries of lax practice rather than aiming for a doctrinal revolution along Lutheran or Zwinglian lines.3 Taken together, these traits meant that, throughout the 1530s, advocates of orthodox religious positions or of reconciliation with Rome might continue to hope for policy to shift back in their favour, and work towards that end, trying to counsel and persuade the king towards moderation, even as evangelicals were seeking to urge him towards further reform. Both the conventions of late-medieval political theory and the particular personality of the king thus connived in these years to create a culture ripe for ‘counsel’ in all its forms to flourish. And research has begun to reflect upon the significance of this situation for our understanding of literary texts as well as of more straightforwardly historical sources. Appreciating how a broad range of literary and visual works and performances might contribute significantly to political debate and culture as examples of advice or lobbying has led to a rethinking of how those texts might be read, not as vehicles for propaganda or flattery, but as part of a more complex dialogue with power over policy and strategy, the very existence of which served the king as an advertisement of his willingness to listen to advice and so avoid the solipsism of the tyrant. The ideal of good counsel thus created a kind of benevolently despotic literary culture in which the vocations of the writer, the artist,

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 14

08/01/2013 08:23

Tudor Drama and the Arts of Resistance

15

the performer or the scholar might be both sanctioned by the monarch and valued as a significant contribution to national well-being. Such a culture gave poets, artists and playwrights a role in the state and created a culture in which subjects were empowered to speak, and monarchs enjoined to listen, without the former seeming presumptuous or the latter losing dignity.4 It was a subtle and flexible system, and when it worked, it worked well, offering something useful to each side in the conversation, allowing the discussion of otherwise dangerous topics to take place in a controlled environment, and subtly shaping the forms and protocols of literary and political discussion in its own image. It is on one level obvious that political contexts shape and inflect literary forms and fashions, but it is not always appreciated how subtly or deeply that shaping could be. In the most obvious cases, the age, gender, and sexuality of the monarch directly affected the literature created under their patronage or designed to catch their attention. Amorous poetry flourished in the court of Elizabeth I as a vehicle for addressing the monarch, for example, but was much less common in the reign of Edward VI (woe to the Petrarchanists where a child is king). When the state closes the theatres, playwrights of necessity turn their hands to verse, prose narrative or closet drama. But politics also affects literary and aesthetic choices in more covert, subtle, or insidious ways, often with longer-term consequences. The culture of counsel generated a literature of its own, not only in the more obvious forms of mirrors for princes, advice books, exemplary dialogues and compendia of maxims, proverbs and apophthegmata, but in less obvious forms such as moral plays, painted or woven narrative images or portraits, and chronicles (for contemporary thinking held all of history to be a storehouse of wisdom and example from which the wise reader might learn). John Heywood, the most prolific playwright of the Henrician court, chose the genre of Menippean dramatic satire and the proverb collection, for example, for the bulk of his public output. This was not simply because they suited his sententious mind and ‘merry’, comic sensibility, but because they allowed him to bring time-honoured traditions concerning the virtues of moderation and a Chaucerian ability to laugh at what was most threatening to him, to bear on a world that he saw as increasingly characterised by partisanship and extremism.5 Other literary forms similarly provided other Tudor writers with ways of thinking about – and vehicles for thinking through – social, cultural and political issues that other forms of writing or action could not offer. Sir Thomas Wyatt translated the satires of Luigi Alammani and Horace and the psalms in the 1530s, not because they provided a useful metaphor for a series of already formulated political points that

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 15

08/01/2013 08:23

16

Reading Literature Historically

he wanted to publicise, but because those texts were for him, at that time and in that place, the readiest and most appropriate means by which he could apply his mind to the issues that concerned him and voice his thoughts among a circle of like-minded readers: his enforced marginality from court, his distress at the direction of current policies, and his frustrations with his own dilemma over compliance or non-compliance, service or exile.6 These texts, and the range of subject-positions, stances and registers that they both sanctioned and structured, provided him with a means of struggling with the complexities and contradictions of his own position as well as a vehicle through which to articulate (in both strong senses of the word) his views for his intended community of readers. His poems were thus not vehicles for propaganda, but work in progress, conversations with himself and his readers, a record of a process of internal debate and potentially of a new kind of subjectivity in the making. And court drama, I would argue, could work in much the same way. Producing interludes at court which mocked partisan claims for supremacy and lauded the virtues of reconciliation and toleration of difference provided John Heywood, as I have suggested, with a means of articulating anxieties about the drift into tyranny he was witnessing in the early 1530s in a form that cued his audiences to reflect upon conventional pieties about good government and the just society in a new and urgent context.7 But they also allowed him to explore both the potential advantages and disadvantages of increasing royal power at a time of national crisis, and perform that exploration before the king himself. The particular ways in which literature and drama operated in the late-medieval and early-modern royal courts (providing an invaluable dialogue with power in a culture in which such opportunities were otherwise rare and always circumscribed) thus make these texts especially valuable for historians and amenable to interdisciplinary analysis. In the exploration of early Tudor literary texts as nuanced contributions to political discourse, scholars of the poetry and prose have so far rather led the field, with drama studies trailing in their wake. Prevailing historical accounts of the Henrician drama have still tended to try to fit it into an overly simplified model in which plays might function as either propaganda – a message from the king to the political nation justifying current policy – or protest – a message from ‘the people’ to the king or the political nation, offering an alternative view in a direct challenge to policies or the socio-political status quo. And there is contemporary evidence of drama performing each of those roles – or aspiring to – in the Henrician period. A number of the plays that were performed at court before foreign ambassadors and dignitaries, especially those produced during the negotiation of a treaty or the sealing of a marriage alliance,

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 16

08/01/2013 08:23

Tudor Drama and the Arts of Resistance

17

were indeed of a broadly propagandistic nature. But, as we shall see, this was at best only half of the story.

Drama as Propaganda or Protest As William Streitberger has suggested, the period from 1516 to the mid 1520s was a particularly busy one in terms of major conferences and treaty negotiations on English soil, and Henry VIII was adept at using the accompanying revels, tournaments, disguisings and plays, ‘not only as a tactic of prestige diplomacy but also to advance his political positions’.8 To this end, Streitberger suggests, ‘formal spectacles, which relied on visual allegory and which included sustained dramatic components were required’.9 A play such as that devised by William Cornish and performed before the Emperor Charles V at Windsor on 16 June 1522, for example, in which a group of allegorical personifications representing Amity, Prudence, Might and (perhaps) Policy strove to bridle a wild horse, representing Francis I of France, would clearly fit this description. Designed to endorse the Anglo-Imperial alliance and promote Henry and Charles’s claims to be allying against Francis only to curb his aggression and bring him to a peaceable amity, the play evidently made its points with bold, simple, visually arresting gestures.10 The Latin play dubbed by Streitberger, Cardinalis Pacificus, fulfilled a similar role. Performed at Greenwich before the French ambassadors on 10 November 1527, it was commissioned by Cardinal Wolsey to promote his mission to France to gain a mandate to represent papal authority during Clement VII’s incarceration by Imperial troops following the Sack of Rome (and, not incidentally, to use that mandate to settle Henry’s Great Matter in the king’s favour). It was evidently designed as a fairly straightforward articulation and celebration of Wolsey’s aspirations, as Edward Hall’s account of its contents suggests. When the King and Queen were set [in their seats], there was played before them by children in the Latin tongue in manner of a tragedy, the effect wherefore was that the Pope was in captivity and the church brought under the foot, wherefore St. Peter appeared and put the Cardinal in authority to bring the Pope to his liberty, and to set up the church again, and so the Cardinal made intercession to the King[s] of England and of France that they took part together, and by their means the Pope was delivered. Then in came the French King’s children and complained to the Cardinal how the Emperor kept them as hostages and would not come to no reasonable point with their father, wherefore they desired the Cardinal to help them for their deliverance, which wrought the Emperor to a peace and caused the two young princes to be delivered.11

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 17

08/01/2013 08:23

18

Reading Literature Historically

As Hall (admittedly, no friend to Wolsey and writing after his fall) suggests, however, the simplicity and audacity of such plays of ‘projection’ (to borrow Streitberger’s term) might not always have worked in their favour with more sophisticated audiences. ‘At this play’, Hall records, ‘wise men smiled and thought that it sounded more glorious to the Cardinal than true to the matter indeed’.12 It was a very similar ‘projectional’ use of drama that the reformer Richard Morrison recommended to Thomas Cromwell in the later 1530s, arguing that an effective way to promote religious reform in the wider nation would be to challenge the orthodox religious cycle plays of urban centres such as York, Chester and Coventry with reformist plays and pageants critical of Catholic dogma and practice.13 And some attempts do seem to have been made to produce such plays, whether under Cromwell’s direction, or independently by radical writers hoping for his patronage. We might include a number of John Bale’s plays in this category, as well as more obscure works such as Thomas Whylley, the vicar of Yoxford’s anti-Catholic plays (‘A Reverend Receiving of the Sacrament as a Lenten Matter’ and others, all now lost),14 although even here, as we shall see, things are not quite as simple as the ‘propaganda’ model might imply. Alternatively, there were instances of drama being used for oppositional, critical purposes – or at least of people in authority fearing that it was being so used – at various points in the reign. One might think of the well-known examples of John Roo’s play at Gray’s Inn in 1526–7, to which Cardinal Wolsey took such exception, or the ‘May game’ concerning ‘a king how he should rule his realm’, played in East Anglia on May Day 1537, during which the actor playing the part of Husbandry seems, Hamlet-like, to have added a speech or two of his own devising (‘many things more than was in the book of the play’) in criticism of gentlemen. These speeches were obviously sufficiently incendiary in their implications to prompt the Duke of Suffolk to scour the countryside searching for the actor, who had seemingly gone into hiding after the performance.15 (But one wonders what Suffolk would have made of the opening speeches of The Towneley Second Shepherd’s Play were he to have seen that pageant, as they seem equally critical of the aristocracy, albeit with both a script and official civic or aristocratic patronage for their licence. Was it only their auspices that made one play an act of incendiary provocation and the other an orthodox religious celebration?)16 The Gray’s Inn play offers a still more interesting example of the opportunities that drama offered for individuals and groups to contribute to political debates in and around the court, and of the problems that might arise in trying to interpret such interventions – for contemporaries

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 18

08/01/2013 08:23

Tudor Drama and the Arts of Resistance

19

and modern commentators alike. Performed by and before lawyers at one of the influential Inns of Court over Christmas 1526–7, the play, as Edward Hall (himself a Gray’s Inn man), describes it, seems to have been another relatively straightforward political allegory. The effect of the play was that Lord Governance was ruled by Dissipation and Negligence, by whose misgovernance and evil order Lady Public Weal was put from governance, which caused Inward Grudge and Disdain of Wanton Sovereignty to rise with a great multitude to expel Negligence and Dissipation and to restore Public Weal again to her estate, which was so done. This play was so set forth with rich and costly apparel, with strange devices of masks and morrishes that it was highly praised of all men, saving the Cardinal, which imagined the play had been devised of him.17

Indeed, so furious was Wolsey, that he summoned the producer, the sergeant-at-law, John Roo, ‘took from him his coif’ (i.e. deprived him of his office), and sent him to the Fleet prison, along with one of the actors, Thomas Moyle. Hall uses this story to illustrate what he claims was Wolsey’s paranoia: ‘This play sore displeased the Cardinal, and yet it was never meant to him . . . wherefore many wise men grudged, to see him take it so heartily.’18 Hall’s point is that the play could not have been intended as criticism of Wolsey because, as Roo claimed, he had ‘compiled’ it, ‘for the most part . . . twenty years past and long before the Cardinal had any authority’, so there was no cause to complain. But this is, of course, disingenuous. Revising an old play in new circumstances can have as powerful contemporary resonances as performing a new work commissioned for the purpose, as the Earl of Essex’s supporters understood when they prompted Shakespeare’s company to revive Richard II in 1601. Thus, even if Roo was speaking the truth when he said that his play had been originally devised two decades earlier, this would not rule out the possibility that it was performed in 1526–7 with mischievous political intentions. 19 Any play that dealt with the corruption of governance by characters named Dissipation and Negligence, and which raised the spectre of popular insurrection, would always have a powerful political charge in an early-modern monarchy. And this would have been still more the case in 1526–7, less than two years after the ignominious collapse of the Amicable Grant, a supposedly voluntary tax imposed on the nation to support a military assault against France, which the government had been forced hastily to withdraw after encountering widespread popular resistance. Indeed Hall’s own discussion of the Grant (whose burden ‘was so grievous that it was denied, and the commons in every place were so moved that it was like to have grown to a rebellion’20) echoes with the same terms that inform his account of

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 19

08/01/2013 08:23

20

Reading Literature Historically

Roo’s play. When Wolsey failed to persuade the civic leaders of London that they had committed themselves to pledging their support for the Grant, he suggests, the citizens ‘departed . . . sore grudging at the lying of the Cardinal and openly saying that he was the very cause and occasion of this demand, and would pluck the people’s hearts from the King’. Elsewhere, in Kent, the commons ‘in this grudge . . . evil entreated Sir Thomas Boleyn at Maidstone’, while in East Anglia, ‘men that had no work began to rage and assemble themselves into companies’, and confronted the Duke of Norfolk, claiming that Poverty was their captain, ‘for he and his cousin Necessity hath brought us to this doing’.21 To forestall the complaints and prevent further civil unrest, the king backed down, and in a carefully stage-managed performance before a Great Council held in Westminster, he, appearing ‘sore moved’, denied ever requesting so exacting a tax, and demanded which of his councillors had ordered it – saying that it touched his honour that they should have done so behind his back. When no one spoke, Wolsey stepped forward and conceded that, although the demand had been imposed with the consent of the whole council, yet ‘I am content to take it [the responsibility] on me; and to endure the fame and noise of the people for my good will toward the King and comfort of you, my lords, and other the King’s councillors’. With this, Henry pardoned the protestors and withdrew the tax. Albeit, Hall notes, this was ‘not an end of inward grudge and hatred that the commons bore to the Cardinal and to all gentlemen which vehemently set furth that commission and demand’. And such grudges were only exacerbated the following December, when the king, fleeing an outbreak of the plague, kept a frugal Christmas at his house in Eltham, while Wolsey celebrated in quasi-regal style with plays and disguisings in the former royal palace at Richmond, ‘which sore grieved the people, and in especial the King’s servants, to see him keep an open court and the King a secret one’.22 To perform a play such as Roo’s so soon after these events, in which notions of ‘inward grudge’, popular risings, governmental negligence and ministerial extravagance had been part of the political lexicon, and when the tax resisters themselves had employed the language and tropes of allegorical drama to justify their deeds, was clearly no innocent act, whatever Roo claimed to the contrary. Indeed, another surviving source for the story suggests that the actors knew very well that their production was likely to arouse official ire. John Foxe’s account in his Acts and Monuments, although unreliable in some of its details, suggests a plausible narrative, in which none of the actors, aware that the play contained ‘partly matter against Cardinal Wolsey’, ‘durst take upon them to play that part which touched the said Cardinal’, until the young evangelical

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 20

08/01/2013 08:23

Tudor Drama and the Arts of Resistance

21

Simon Fish ‘took upon him to do it’.23 Fish’s motives, Foxe implies, were precisely to embarrass Wolsey and so to advance the evangelical cause, the first of which at least he seems to have achieved. But, let us pursue the suggestion that the play was a revival of an earlier work a little further. Hall’s report of Roo’s claim that it was conceived ‘for the most part twenty years before’ is sufficiently vague to allow for a number of readings; but it would seem to place the play’s conception in the latter years of the reign of Henry VIII’s father, or at the very beginning of his own, another period when high taxes and governmental demands would have given it very clear and particular political resonances. In the context of Henry VII’s notorious bonds, recognisances and other fiscal measures, imposed upon his principal subjects through the agency of his ministers Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, the play’s use of two evil counsellor figures, Negligence and Dissipation, might have seemed particularly pointed. Had it been performed at Gray’s Inn (or conceived for performance there, Hall does not say that the play was actually staged in the earlier period) while Empson and Dudley were at the height of their influence, then the play would have been potentially radical indeed in its implied critique of the regime. Had it been conceived a year or two later, at the advent of Henry VIII’s reign, then it would have been equally timely, albeit with a rather different political impact. At this time it would have found a ready place among those works, such as More’s eulogy for Henry VIII or Skelton’s ‘Laud and Praise’ for the new king, that celebrated the virtues of the new monarch by contrasting them favourably with the rapacity and abuses of the old: abuses for which Empson and Dudley provided ready scapegoats.24 At such a moment the play would have been still more obviously topical, but much less implicitly critical of the current regime. But even here the implication that governmental maladministration might provoke inward grudge and disdain of wanton sovereignty (secret disaffection among the political elites?) and popular rising, and that these things might even be in the best interests of the commonweal in the long term, would have been difficult for any monarch to regard with complete equanimity. If, then, Roo was indeed reviving an old production – or an old idea for an as yet unrealised production – he was reviving one with a clear power to address contemporary political conditions and a pedigree as a vehicle for criticism of royal ministers. By reviving such a play, and inserting it into the sort of composite revels that Hall’s account suggests (consisting of masks and ‘morrishes’, disguisings and dances), he would surely have expected his audience to have drawn contemporary parallels from it of the kind which Wolsey himself saw in the event. One can, then, find evidence of Henrician plays that exemplify both

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 21

08/01/2013 08:23

22

Reading Literature Historically

the ‘propaganda’ and the ‘protest’ models of political engagement. But these instances, striking though they are, do not account for all of the drama that survives from the period. Indeed, the model that allows only for propaganda or protest is probably incapable of accounting for the majority of plays that survive from the reign. Alongside the kind of highly symbolic, spectacular allegorical dramas described by Hall, there was (as the surviving texts attest) also another tradition of less visually impressive, more argumentative, rhetorically sophisticated and playful comic interludes, played at court or in aristocratic households on less diplomatically pressured occasions. These plays took a far less reverent attitude to royal policies and aspirations, neither celebrating nor opposing them, but rather subjecting them to wry, often sceptical scrutiny and mockery. One thinks again, perhaps naturally, of the kind of playful, provocative interludes that John Heywood produced at court throughout the period of Henry’s Supremacy, from Witty and Witless of c.1527 to the now lost The Parts of Man, performed before Archbishop Cranmer in c.1545–9. These were hardly works of propaganda, they were too ironic, interrogative and inconclusive for that. But neither were they exactly protests, although they often treated royal policies with seemingly mocking amusement, and advanced positions on tolerance of religious difference and support for the established church which did not accord readily with current governmental positions.25 Similarly, plays such as the anonymous Godly Queen Hester (which we shall consider in the next chapter), Hick Scorner, or even Bale’s King Johan also sit rather awkwardly in the ‘propaganda or protest’ model, as we shall see. Any account of Henrician court drama thus needs to take account of this more playful, dialogic tradition too – a tradition that seems to reveal the court as, not so much ‘projecting’ a concerted image of itself and its sovereign to visitors and the wider political nation, as talking – and arguing – self-reflexively to itself. What such plays suggest is that court drama was not always a strictly controlled tool of royal image-making, but rather that it, like the court itself, might (at times at least) offer an arena for the discursive exercise of a range of ideas, not all of which were officially endorsed or approved of, but which might nonetheless be aired in the spirit of good counsel, with the licence that this concept allowed the loyal subject to air controversial issues before the king.

Theorising the Culture of Counsel How might we begin to theorise such a nuanced, flexible form of political engagement? One possible model is offered by the work of the

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 22

08/01/2013 08:23

Tudor Drama and the Arts of Resistance

23

political anthropologist James C. Scott, whose notions of ‘the hidden transcript’ and ‘everyday forms of resistance’, explored in two seminal studies written in the 1980s, Weapons of the Weak and Domination and the Arts of Resistance, provide a potentially helpful way into understanding the range of political roles performed by literary and dramatic production in the early Tudor period.26 In Weapons of the Weak, a close study of the behaviour of peasant rice-farmers in a modern Malaysian village, Scott suggests how evidence of class and community conflict and political resistance to the interests of the local landowners might be found, not in overt forms of protest or violent opposition (of which there seemed to be very few), but in what he called ‘everyday forms of resistance’. Here I have in mind the ordinary weapons of relatively powerless groups: foot dragging, dissimulation, desertion, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, and so on. These Brechtian – or Schweikian – forms of class struggle have certain features in common. They require little or no coordination or planning; they make use of implicit understandings and informal networks; they often represent a form of individual self-help; they typically avoid any direct, symbolic confrontation with authority.27

Now, there is obviously a good deal here that is specific to the kind of rural, agrarian, economic and class-based social situations peculiar to Scott’s chosen case study. But, as a number of early-modern historians have suggested,28 there is also much that is transferable about his general model of a form of resistance that avoids direct confrontation and so often fails even to register as resistance in the minds of those historians looking for more direct modes of political activity. And, for our purposes, it does seem to have a degree of applicability to the courtly cultures of the early sixteenth century, another period for which the relative lack of evidence of outright opposition to political pressure and change has troubled scholars. Among Tudor historians, there has been a tendency to assume that if the majority of English men and women, from counsellors, courtiers and ministers, poets and playwrights at court to rural landlords and their tenants in the provinces, failed to articulate their resistance to the demands of Tudor royal power in ways that modern scholars can recognise as oppositional, then this must be because they were effectively reduced to consenting (however unwillingly) to the crown’s hegemonic control of ideology. As Scott summarises this essentially Gramscian position: By creating and disseminating a universe of discourse and the concepts to go with it . . . [elites] build a symbolic climate that prevents subordinate classes from thinking their way free.29

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 23

08/01/2013 08:23

24

Reading Literature Historically

But Scott’s model of ‘everyday’ resistance neatly reverses the classic New Historicist reformulation of Gramsci – that apparent resistance is always already contained by the power it seems to resist – arguing instead that apparent consent need not always imply the absence of resistance. Indeed, apparent consent is often the mode by which real resistance registers itself and achieves its ends. What one needs to do, Scott argues, is thus to read beyond what he terms the ‘public transcript’ of compliance to uncover the ‘hidden transcript’ that is almost invariably kept offstage (his frequent use of theatrical metaphors is, for my purposes, interesting) by both sides in any negotiation. ‘The fact is’, he argues, that power-laden situations are nearly always inauthentic: the exercise of power nearly always drives a portion of the full transcript underground. Allowing always for the exceptional moments of uncontrolled anger or desperation, the normal tendency will be for the dependent individual to reveal only that part of his or her full transcript in encounters with the powerful that it is both sage and appropriate to reveal.30

Because open defiance would almost certainly provoke a violent response from those in power and minimise the chances of winning any ‘real’ gains, Scott argues, subordinate groups will frequently strive to exercise resistance in ways that mimic or imply conformity rather than seek ‘to contest the formal definitions of hierarchy and power’.31 Meanwhile, those in positions of authority also have a vested interest in minimising the acknowledgement of resistance, as to do otherwise would reveal their own unpopularity and potential weakness. Thus the public transcript of landlord-tenant relations (like that of sovereign-courtier relations, perhaps) tends to display ‘a kind of complicitous silence that all but expunges everyday forms of resistance from the historical record’.32 Behind and beneath this self-interested silence, however, conflicts of interest are negotiated as passionately as ever, not as struggles between rival symbolic orders and definitions of virtue and legitimacy, but over the ability to define aspects of a single, agreed definition of those things. Thus, as Scott observes, in Malaysian village life, one sees a struggle not about ‘work, property rights, grain and cash’ but over the appropriation of symbols, a struggle over how the past and present should be understood and labelled, a struggle to identify causes and assess blame, a contentious effort to give partisan meaning to local history.33

Thus, to take one of Scott’s best examples, no one openly contests the image of the good landowner as a figure of legitimate authority, a fount of liberality and employment; rather what is contested are the implica-

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 24

08/01/2013 08:23

Tudor Drama and the Arts of Resistance

25

tions of that ideal for the conduct of given individuals in particular circumstances: Because the poor tenant knows that the rich farmer considers offers of work and/or loans as aspects of his liberality – ‘gifts’, help, assistance, or charity [rather than obligations or the ‘rights’ of the poor] – the poor man uses this knowledge to pursue his concrete ends: he approaches [the landowner], using all the appropriate linguistic forms of deference and politeness, and requests his ‘help’ and ‘assistance’. In other words, he appeals to the self-interested description that . . . [the landowner] would give to his own acts to place them in the most advantageous light . . . If he wins, he achieves his desired objective (work or a loan) and in the process he contributes, willy-nilly, to the public legitimacy of the principles to which he strategically appealed. Just who is manipulating whom in this petty enterprise is no simple matter to decide. It is best seen, perhaps, as a reciprocal manipulation of the symbols of euphemization.34

To reduce the idea to its simplest form, then, when someone says ‘Yes sir’, for example, they need not mean either ‘yes’ or ‘sir’. We need to appreciate the tone, the timing, the context and the consequent events if we are to understand the cultural work that these words might be doing in that particular situation. Here the analogy with the early-modern poet or playwright addressing or performing before the sovereign seems most obvious and useful. The fact that much of the courtly writing – indeed much of the overtly politically engaged writing produced from within the political elite – in this period tended to fall into the modes of panegyric, speculum principis or loyal counsel has led many critics to condemn it as, at worst an exercise in sycophantic prince-pleasing, at best the result of ideological complicity or entrapment. But this is to ignore the degree to which its own symbolic economy might be read as a series of degrees of euphemisation. What Scott’s work suggests is how we might understand the literature and drama of good counsel as signalling not only compliance but also disagreement, criticism or resistance; and in ways that were tacitly understood by all parties, while any sense of open resistance was kept out of the public transcript of history, leaving the dominant ideological architecture and symbolic order apparently unscathed. The ‘crucial point’, as Scott discusses it, lies in the fact that the very process of attempting to legitimate a social order by idealising it always provides its subjects with the means, the symbolic tools, the very ideas for a critique that operates within the hegemony. For most purposes, then, it is not at all necessary for subordinate classes to set foot outside the confines of the ruling ideals in order to formulate a critique of power . . . The dominant ideology can be turned against its privileged beneficiaries not only because

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 25

08/01/2013 08:23

26

Reading Literature Historically

subordinate groups develop their own interpretations, understandings and readings of its ambiguous terms, but also because of the promises that the dominant classes must make in order to propagate it in the first place.35

So, in a Tudor context, the way was laid open by the very terms in which justifications of monarchy were couched for critics of any given monarch to insist that he or she live up to the high ideals to which those justifications appeal. And the more extravagant the claims that apologists of monarchy made, the greater were the opportunities for such appeals. Hence, as Erasmus noted, the peculiar applicability and power of the panegyric as a literary form in this period, as it laid before the sovereign precisely that challenge to live up to those ideals for which he was being praised. 36 In an early-modern version of Scott’s model, then, ‘Good counsel’ was the means by which the subject and sovereign might tacitly lay out their rival claims within a euphemistic discourse of collaborative hierarchy: it was the lubricant that allowed a potentially unstable and intractable political machine to run smoothly. It was, in Scott’s terms, the public transcript; the language in which each speaker could speak as near to honestly as the system allowed them, without either threatening the hegemonic position of the king or surrendering the capacity of the subject to register an alternative view. Thus a writer such as John Skelton, Heywood or the Hester playwright might offer his critique of current royal policy as entertainment for the king and his court, thereby implying that Henry was magnanimous enough to patronise such plays and to watch them with a tolerant, self-critical mind. In so doing he was contributing to the public transcript that celebrated royal maturity and affability even as he tacitly warned Henry against what he saw as the king’s increasing foolishness and partisanship.37

The Limits of the Public Transcript Scott offers, then, a useful way of thinking about – and thinking into – the often subtle ways in which plays and other literary texts might contribute to political debates at the Henrician court. One problem with his model of artful resistance, however, at least in so far as it might be applied in a Tudor context, lies, perhaps predictably, in its inability to address the fine detail of the courtly political situation. It relies, it must be said, upon a rather monolithic notion of the sources and operation of power, drawn as they are from behaviour in a fairly simple rural society dominated by a single landowning elite. Scott, and those historians who

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 26

08/01/2013 08:23

Tudor Drama and the Arts of Resistance

27

have adopted his model for work in the early-modern period – notably those published in Michael Braddick and John Walters’ collection, Negotiating Power in Early Modern Society38 – have thus tended to look at dialogues between the powerful and the powerless in very sharply defined, binary terms, rather than acknowledging the complexity of the negotiations between and among those with differing degrees of power and influence that characterised early-modern courtly culture.39 The very idea of ‘resistance’ indeed, while it helpfully complicates the simplifying implications of the blunter, less helpful word, ‘opposition’, still does not do full justice to the variety and shades of ‘powerful’ behaviour evident in Tudor political culture, or to the varying degrees of drag, slide, curve or spin that might be put on political force by those who are variously subjected to it. Indeed, the idea of ‘power’ itself, like the institutions with which it is usually associated: the state, crown, court or government, misleads if it suggests a simple, unified authority with a clear will and agenda of its own. The Henrician political ‘centre’ was in reality an amalgam of constituent institutions: the monarch himself, his council, his less formal circle(s) of counsellors and advisors, the various members of the royal household, the fluctuating body of courtiers, the secretariat, and the myriad other, often rival, administrative offices, which were themselves multiple and complex, each a distinct and to a degree internally conflicted entity. In the Tudor body politic the left hand very rarely knew exactly what the right was doing, and even when it did could not always be relied upon to approve of it or wholeheartedly promote its initiatives. Thus the idea of a completely loyal, obedient, political class, which either selflessly or through fear carried out the sovereign’s wishes without objection or qualification seems highly unlikely. And in the distinctions of principle and practice that distinguish and separate ‘power’ from ‘authority’, and the subtle distinctions of agenda between king, court, counsel, government, law, parliament, nobility and gentry, lie all-important distinctions of personnel, attitude, competency and ultimate aim. Thus ‘resistance’, in all its possible forms, from active sabotage to the indifferent, slipshod implementation of a policy or action, might occur at the source of an initiative as well as at the point of delivery. Even ‘propaganda’ of the sort advocated by Morrison and practised under the patronage of Wolsey or Cromwell was the product of a variety of different processes, institutions, agencies and individuals, each of which might have their own subtly different take on the ostensibly shared agenda. The ideological ball thus frequently left the monarch’s hand already spinning, and not always heading directly towards his intended target. Kevin Sharpe’s magisterial study, Selling the Tudor Monarchy – a

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 27

08/01/2013 08:23

28

Reading Literature Historically

dazzling examination of the performance and representation of royalty across a range of forms from portraits, frontispieces, coins, seals, and medals, to statutes, proclamations, speeches, and literary exercises – suggests that Henry VIII was a consummate publiciser of his own royal person, who ‘from the beginning of his reign . . . displayed a recognition of the power of the word and of print in a determination to deploy publication as a medium of sovereign utterance’.40 But, as Sharpe acknowledges, this claim risks affording the king too great a degree of control over the words spoken and written and the likenesses circulated in his name. It is always important to ask precisely who it is we are really hearing when Henry VIII speaks, whether ex cathedra or seemingly in his private person.41 The words of counsellors, advisors, secretaries, even printers and scribes have a role to play in accenting and articulating the royal voice – as testified by Thomas More’s input into ‘Henry’s’ Assertio septem sacramentorum, Edward Foxe and his team’s into A Glass of The Truth, or Thomas Cranmer’s into the Bishops’ Book and King’s Book.42 Thus it is perhaps safer to say, burlesquing the oft-cited verse of Ecclesiastes (8: 4) ‘Where the Word of the King is, there is . . .’ not ‘power’, but more frequently a committee, a dialogue, a process. As Louis Montrose has argued of Elizabeth,43 Henry was probably as much the creature of the Henrician image as he was its creator, as rival counsellors jockeyed to persuade him that their version, their vision of the monarch was the one that he should adopt as his public persona. And, to return to our own particular concerns, drama had a variety of roles to play in this complex, fragmented political ecosystem that was the Henrician court. A courtly interlude was in reality the work of many hands, and thus of many potentially distinct initiatives, needs and agendas. It was commissioned ultimately by the crown, but was actually initiated by one of the king’s officers or companions and overseen in practice by others. In the early part of the reign, for example, the role of the overall supervisor or master of the revels was frequently played by Henry Guildford, the Comptroller of the Royal Household, while the practical arrangements were overseen by Richard Gibson, the one time tailor of the Great Wardrobe, who was an officer in the Office of the Tents.44 Plays and interludes formed only one part of the complex, multiform events that constituted the royal revels, and might well be sub-contracted to writers and performers either within the household (members of the King’s Players or of the Chapel Royal) or beyond it (the children of St Pauls’ School or any number of visiting companies), and were funded and provisioned by departments as various as the Council, the Chamber, the Greater or Standing Wardrobe or the Office of the

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 28

08/01/2013 08:23

Tudor Drama and the Arts of Resistance

29

Tents, with possibly only limited scrutiny and supervision from the major court officers or the monarch himself.45 Thus a play like John Heywood’s Play of the Weather (c.1532) might represent – and need to reflect – a number of overlapping but distinct agendas in the way it addressed and represented royal policy and the attitudes and person of the king. By tacitly associating contemporary royal claims to be a neutral arbitrator of his subjects’ disputes with the divine figure of Jupiter,46 it contributed to a public transcript which identified Henry as a new Jove, a figure of judgemental wisdom and authority above the petty divisions and jealousies of his subjects, able to intervene decisively to end their disputes and restore the realm to harmonious and productive order.47 Thus far it reflected Henry’s own claims to be able to determine religious policy in his own realm. But by presenting its particular representation of the god-king as a distinctly pompous and morally ambivalent figure, and his crucial intervention into mortal disputes as a deliberate sleight of hand designed to leave matters exactly as they always have been (as the vice figure, Merry Report declares, ‘Sirs, now shall ye have the weather even as it was’ (Weather, line 1240)), the play also contrives both gently to mock Henry’s newfound claims to Imperial authority and to suggest that radical religious and social reform are not what was needed to end the disputes opened up by the Reformation Parliament and the advent of the Royal Supremacy.48 It thus uses the language of reform and supremacy to cast doubt on those same matters, in practice raising questions about the very things that it seemed to be asserting as truths. Indeed the play’s very form, as a comic interlude played at court, effectively challenged Henry’s claim to novel and elevated royal status. By tacitly asserting the right to laugh with Henry at the hollow boasts of a player god-king – who was probably played by a child actor and so provided a self-evidently risible example of quasi-divine authority alongside a comic adult servant – Heywood and his actors subtly suggested a playful temporary human affinity with the king that itself resisted royal claims to absolute exclusivity. As Scott, quoting Alexander Herzen, claims, ‘laughter contains something revolutionary’, something that denies the distinctions on which hierarchies are based, hence, The serfs are deprived of the right to smile in the presence of the landowners. Only equals may laugh. If inferiors are permitted to laugh in front of their superiors, and if they cannot suppress their hilarity, this would mean farewell to respect.49

By inviting the court and king to laugh at the preposterousness of Jupiter’s pretentions, and those of the actor attempting to represent

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 29

08/01/2013 08:23

30

Reading Literature Historically

them, Heywood, while remaining abundantly respectful, pushed the boundaries of political toleration to enter an objection to current policies into the public transcript of the reign. In a very different vein, John Bale’s King Johan, first performed in 1538, represents a similarly marked contribution to the public transcript of Henrician politics. As I have argued elsewhere,50 the play offered, in its narrative of papal usurpation of royal prerogatives and the triumphant appearance of the figure of Imperial Majesty, a supportive contribution to Henry’s self-promotion as a reforming monarch purging the realm of popish superstition, while in its representation of the papacy as Usurped Power and its vices as traditional Roman clerics it added its weight to the governmental campaign of anti-papal vilification that followed the Royal Supremacy and the break with Rome. By performing aspects of the Roman rite and Catholic practices on-stage in parodic fashion, it seemingly endorsed the warnings against idle superstition contained in official pronouncements such as the Ten Articles of 1536, the Bishops Book of 1537 and the Articles and Injunctions of 1538; while its repeated identification of monks, nuns and friars with financial and sexual abuses and sedition furthered the contemporary royal campaign to purge – and ultimately dissolve – the monasteries.51 Yet in doing so it also advanced an agenda of its own, associating Imperial Power with evangelical reforms (abolition of auricular confession, questioning the existence of Purgatory) in some cases distinctly more advanced than those the king himself had sanctioned, and suggesting that Roman religion and orthodox practices were so intertwined with theatricality, performance and deceit that they could never be successfully purged of their ‘idolatrous’ elements and hence needed to be extinguished entirely, along with the class of ‘juggling’ clergy who had made them their own.52 Thus, while contributing vocally to the public celebration of Henry as a reforming monarch, Bale’s drama was nonetheless attending to the hidden transcript of evangelical disappointment at the king’s failure to embrace a fully reformed liturgy on continental lines, and was seeking to push him further in that direction though its association of traditional beliefs and practices with the vice figures Dissimulation, Treason and Sedition – a symbolic vocabulary that played explicitly upon Henry’s own notorious demands for obedience and doubts about the loyalty of ‘his’ clergy.

Culture, Counsel and Crisis The early-modern culture of counsel thus licensed a forum in which playwrights like Heywood and Bale might use their work to lobby, at

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 30

08/01/2013 08:23

Tudor Drama and the Arts of Resistance

31

times quite forcefully, for changes of policy or political emphasis while remaining studiously deferential to royal authority and supportive of the careful balance of courtly decorum. It similarly allowed monarchs to listen to the suggestions and criticisms of their subjects within a framework that did not require them to respond to those criticisms either immediately or directly, and so neutralised the potential for confrontation that such implied criticisms might otherwise present. Like all finely calibrated systems based upon the delicate balance of interests, nuance, inference and indirection, however, the culture of counsel only worked well when the path ahead was smooth; when the monarch was alert to the signals – the twitching in the web of cultural allusion – and willing to respond to them in the same spirit in which they were offered. The difficulty arose, of course, when the king became so convinced of the rightness of what he was doing that he refused to listen to counsel, however subtly it was coded or however loyally it was intended, as Henry did once he became settled on the Great Matter of his divorce. What happened in those circumstances was a wholly different story. In a previous study, Writing Under Tyranny, I tried to chart the temporary collapse of the culture of counsel – and of the dispensation it supported, and the roles for writers it encouraged, justified and licensed. In a culture in which the conventional course for an author wishing to address the state of the realm was to contribute to the public transcript, offering a work of supplication or counsel to the monarch, how did they react to the realisation that the public transcript was no longer shared or negotiable, that the king was not just unsympathetic to their complaints but actually the source of the problem?53 In Heywood’s case the answer was that he kept writing, performing and counselling, well after the point when, in retrospect, the cause seemed clearly to have been lost. His commitment to his self-image as a court entertainer, part of the same community as the sovereign he criticised was perhaps too ingrained for him to do otherwise. His sense of his duty as a member of civil society to use humour to expose the hypocrisies of Henrician rule and the anxious divisions opened up by the king’s actions kept him within the bounds of civil discourse, writing and laughing with as well as at the immoderation of the reign, contributing conspicuously to the public transcript of monarchy while quietly pursuing the hidden script of criticism. Heywood’s story suggests, perhaps, both the flexibility and potency of the culture of good counsel and its limitations. It suggests the value of continuing to contribute to the public transcript of courtly good humour in the face of tyranny – its capacity to accommodate itself to power’s demands, yet always with an ironic acknowledgment of its own

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 31

08/01/2013 08:23

32

Reading Literature Historically

collaboration, which exposes those demands to mocking scrutiny.54 But it also conversely, suggests the limits of upholding the public transcript in the absence of royal reciprocity, the inability of the good counsellor to do more than beat a graceful retreat before the advancing tyrant, scorching the earth as he goes to highlight the nature and direction of the threat that he poses. In the end, of course, Heywood lost: the Royal Supremacy was not employed to restore traditional practices and civil order, and the reformation was not reversed. Toleration was not adopted as the way of diffusing political and religious tensions. But in his own way Heywood, while avoiding outright opposition, nonetheless exposed the brutalities, the hypocrisies and idiocies of Henrician tyranny to public scrutiny, and through his courageous refusal to join or sanction the growing intolerance of the reign, registered his resistance to it in ways which we should acknowledge and, while acknowledging their limitations, perhaps even celebrate.

Notes 1. See, John Guy, ‘The Rhetoric of Counsel in Early Modern England’, in Dale Hoak (ed.), Tudor Political Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 292–310; Guy, ‘Tudor Monarchy and its Critiques’, in John Guy (ed.), The Tudor Monarchy (London: Edward Arnold, 1997), pp. 78–109; Greg Walker, Plays of Persuasion: Drama and Politics in the Reign of Henry VIII (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). 2. See, for example, G. W. Bernard, The Power of the Early Tudor Nobility: A Study of the Fourth and Fifth Earls of Shrewsbury (Brighton: Harvester, 1989), Bernard, The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Making of the English Church (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005); Peter Gwyn, The King’s Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of Thomas Wolsey (London: Barrie and Jenkin, 1990); G. R. Elton, ‘King or Minister?: The Man Behind the Henrician Reformation’, History, xxxix (1954), pp. 216–34; Elton, Reform and Reformation (London: Arnold, 1977); David Starkey, The Reign of Henry VIII: Personalities and Politics (London: George Philip, 1985). 3. Bernard, The King’s Reformation, passim. 4. Walker, Plays of Persuasion, passim. 5. Greg Walker, ‘Folly’, in Brian Cummings and James Simpson (eds), Cultural Reformations: Medieval and Renaissance in Literary History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 321–41. 6. See my Writing Under Tyranny: English Literature and the Henrician Reformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 279–376. 7. Walker, Writing Under Tyranny, pp. 100–19. 8. W. R. Streitberger, Court Revels, 1485–1559 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), p. 94. 9. Ibid.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 32

08/01/2013 08:23

Tudor Drama and the Arts of Resistance

33

10. Calendar of State Papers, Spanish II, 437; Edward Halle, The Union of The Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and Yorke . . . (London, Richard Grafton, 1550: Scolar Press facsimile edition, Melton, 1970) [hereafter ‘Hall, Chronicle’], ff. lxxxxviii(v)–lxxxxix; Streitberger, Court Revels, pp. 114–5; Sidney Anglo, ‘William Cornish in a Play, Pageants, Prison, and Politics’, Review of English Studies 10 (1959), pp. 348–60. 11. Hall, Chronicle, f. clxvi. Even these seemingly straightforward plays might have addressed more than one overlapping agenda, however, as I have argued elsewhere. See Walker, Plays of Persuasion, pp. 17–19. 12. Hall, Chronicle, f. clxvi. 13. Streitberger, Court Revels, p. 146; Sidney Anglo, ‘An Early Tudor Programme for Plays and Other Demonstrations Against the Pope’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 20 (1957), pp. 176–9. 14. J. S. Brewer, et al. (eds) Calendar of Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII (21 vols in 33 parts, London: Longmans, HMSO, 1862–1920) [hereafter L.P.], XII (i) 529; Streitberger, Court Revels, p. 146. 15. L.P. XII (i) 1212. 16. See, for example the lines condemning purveyance and maintenance spoken by the First Shepherd (Primus Pastor), lines 10–45, in Greg Walker (ed.), Medieval Drama: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000). 17. Hall, Chronicle, cliii(v). I have tried to tease out through capitalisation which of the qualities Hall describes seem to have been characters in the play. See also Streitberger, Court Revels, p. 136. 18. Hall, Chronicle, cliii(v). 19. See Walker, Plays of Persuasion, pp. 33–5, for further discussion of the play along these lines. 20. Hall, Chronicle, cxxxix(v). 21. Ibid. cxl(v)–cxli. 22. Ibid. cxli(v)–cxlxx(v) and cxlvi. 23. John Foxe, The Acts and Monuments, ed. Reverend Josiah Pratt (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1870), IV, p. 657. 24. See More, Carmen gratulatorium, in Clarence H. Miller, et al. (eds), Thomas More’s Latin Poems, The Complete Works of Thomas More, Volume 3 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984), pp. 101–13; John Skelton, ‘A Laud and Praise Made for our Sovereign Lord the King’ in John Scattergood (ed.), John Skelton: The Complete English Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983), pp. 110–12. 25. See Walker, Plays of Persuasion, pp. 133–68, The Politics of Performance in Early Renaissance Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 76–116, and Writing Under Tyranny, pp. 100–19. The Parts of Man, as the description of it provided by Heywood’s protégée and amanuensis Thomas Whythorne suggests, argued, like Heywood’s other plays, for the interdependence of each aspect of society: ‘at the request of Dr Cranmer, late archbishop of Canterbury, he made a certain interlude or play, the which was devised upon the parts of man, at the end whereof he likeneth and applieth the circumstances thereof to the universal estate of Christ’s church’. The conclusion of the play, which involved a dispute between Reason and Will over which of them should dominate all the parts

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 33

08/01/2013 10:20

34

26.

27. 28. 29. 30. 31. 32. 33. 34. 35. 36.

37. 38. 39. 40. 41.

42. 43. 44. 45.

Reading Literature Historically of the human body, was that ‘they both are driven to grant that man can do nothing without will and without reason man can do no good thing’. James M. Osborn (ed.), The Autobiography of Thomas Whythorne (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1961) pp. 14 and 74, spelling modernised. James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985) and Domination and the Arts of Resistance: The Hidden Transcript (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990). Scott, Weapons of the Weak, p. xvi. See Michael Braddick and John Walters (eds), Negotiating Power in Early Modern Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). Scott, Weapons of the Weak, p. 39. Ibid. p. 286. Ibid. p. 33. Ibid. p. 36. Ibid. p. xvii. Ibid. p. 309. Ibid. p. 338. Desiderus Erasmus, ‘Letter to John Desmarez’, in R. A. B. Mynors and D. F. S. Thomas and W. K. Ferguson (eds), The Correspondence of Erasmus – Letters 142–297 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1975), p. 81: ‘Those who believe panegyrics are nothing but flattery seem to be unaware of the purpose and aim of the extremely far-sighted men who invented this kind of composition, which consists in presenting princes with a pattern of goodness, in such a way as to reform bad rulers, improve the good, educate the boorish, reprove the erring, arouse the indolent, and cause even the hopelessly vicious to feel some inward stirrings of shame . . . [They] exhort rulers to honourable actions under cover of compliment.’ See Walker, Writing Under Tyranny, pp. 100–19. See Braddick and Walters, Negotiating Power in Early Modern Society, passim. For a critique of Scott’s ideas from a variety of ideological stances, see Samuel Farbe, Social Decay and Transformation: A View from the Left (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2000), pp. 97–111. Kevin Sharpe, Selling The Tudor Monarchy: Authority and Image in Sixteenth-Century England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), pp. 83–4. Selling the Tudor Monarchy, pp. 87 and 127; Walker, ‘Henry VIII and the Politics of the Royal Image’ in Walker, Persuasive Fictions: Faction, Faith and Political Culture in the Reign of Henry VIII (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1996), pp. 72–98. See Sharpe, Selling The Tudor Monarchy, pp. 103–7; Bernard, The King’s Reformation, pp. 476–88. Louis Montrose, The Subject of Elizabeth: Authority, Gender, and Representation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), passim. Streitberger, King’s Revels, pp. 69–73. Streitberger argues for relatively close scrutiny of the preparations for plays and revels, either by the king himself or those closest to him who knew his mind, but the available evidence suggests that it was almost exclusively the

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 34

08/01/2013 08:23

Tudor Drama and the Arts of Resistance

46. 47. 48. 49. 50. 51.

52. 53. 54.

35

masks and disguisings in which he himself might play a part that interested Henry in their preparation stages, rather than plays which were provided for his entertainment. See Streitberger, King’s Revels, pp. 7 and 47. See Walker, Plays of Persuasion, pp. 133–68. For the association of Henry himself with Jupiter, see John Skelton, Speke Parott, lines 399 and 405–10 in John Scattergood (ed.), John Skelton: The Complete English Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982). Walker, Writing Under Tyranny, pp. 100–119, Axton and Happé, Plays, 50–2. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, p. 172, source of quotation not given. Walker, Plays of Persuasion, pp. 169–221. See, for example, lines 186–8 (‘I am Sedition plain: / In every religious and monkish sect I reign, / Having you princes in scorn, hate and disdain.’) and 256–9 (King John: ‘Look where I find thee, that place will I put down.’ Sedition: ‘What if you do chance to find me in every town / Where as is founded any sect monastical?’ King John: ‘I pray God I sink if I destroy them not all!’) and also lines 334–7, 516–17. All quotations from the play are taken from Peter Happé (ed.), Four Morality Plays (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1979), with the spelling modernised. Walker, Plays of Persuasion, pp. 169–221. Walker, Writing Under Tyranny, pp. 2–3. See Walker, ‘Folly’, pp. 321–40.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 35

08/01/2013 08:23

Chapter 2

‘To Speak before the King, it is no Child’s Play’: Godly Queen Hester in 1529

The anonymous Tudor Interlude of Godly Queen Hester provides a good case study of the kind of independent-minded, covertly assertive form of dramatic counsel that we looked at in the previous chapter. It suggests how far an interlude might both reflect and contribute to political debates, presenting demonstrably ‘alternative’ views on royal policy to that pursued and promoted by the crown or its chief ministers. In this way it is a fine example of the extent to which drama might be put to distinctly political work in the midst of controversy, while retaining its claim to be simply loyal counsel, a recreation designed to both inform and entertain its audiences. And it is also, as we shall see, a fine example of the limits of that form of political engagement as a means of achieving concrete political ends. The play dramatises the events narrated in the Old Testament book of Esther from the moment when the Persian King Ahasuerus (‘Assuerus’ in the play) decides to seek a wife and chooses a Jewish woman, Hester (there is no reference here to his previous marriage to Queen Vashti), up to the execution of Haman, the thwarting of his plot to massacre the Persian Jews, and the latter’s pardon and the restoration of their fortunes. (Again there is no mention in the play of the Jews’ violent revenge upon their would-be persecutors described in the biblical source.) But it retells the story in a distinctly English vein, taking in a short humanist debate on the nature of kingship and references to local concepts such as the statute of apparel (l. 378), the equity courts (l. 601) and the prospect of war with Scotland or France (l. 479) as well as the signal intervention of a trio of morality play vices, Pride, Adulation and Ambition, and an idiosyncratic Vice named Hardydardy. As I argued in an earlier study, the play’s representation of the Vulgate narrative actually retells it as a reflection on contemporary events at the time of the calling of the Reformation Parliament.1 In this reworking, its Jews in part function as allegorical representations of the English clergy,

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 36

08/01/2013 08:23

Godly Queen Hester

37

especially the regular religious, monks, nuns and friars, but also the bishops and the officers of the ecclesiastical courts. The presentation of the evil counsellor Haman, here called Aman, reflects aspects of the role of Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor and chief minister, Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey, while Hester herself in some ways echoes the life and situation of Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon. This allegorical dimension unsurprisingly influences the terms in which each element of the story is discussed. Most obviously, perhaps, Haman’s biblical accusation that the Jews form an alien privileged community within the Persian Empire is given a particular inflection in a debate that revolves around the provision of charity and hospitality to the poor and of religious services for the good of the kingdom as a whole: issues that were central to the religious debates of late 1529. Similarly, Aman is criticised in the interlude, not only for his hostility to the Jewish ‘households’, but also for his domination of the law courts (specifically in the role of ‘Chancellor’), his interference in appointments to ecclesiastical benefices through ‘bulls’ and his capacity to benefit from the estates of those who die intestate – powers and prerogatives that closely resemble those obtained by Wolsey as papal legate, and which formed the substance of a number of the charges levelled against him at his fall in 1529.2 Finally, Hester is not the beautiful, young, sensual and partisan figure of the Book of Esther, but rather a more mature woman (if that is what the reference to her ‘ripe years’ (l. 231) is taken to imply) who is the king’s first wife, and chosen for her wisdom and reasoning powers rather than for her beauty.3 The last analogy is perhaps the most unexpected and contentious of the play’s contemporary resonances, for it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the interlude uses the representation of Hester for some, at times none-too-subtle, advocacy on behalf of the embattled Katherine of Aragon, who was at this time resisting, as far as she was able, the king’s attempt to annul their marriage. The playwright stresses that Hester comes to the king ‘a virgin pure, / A pearl undefiled, and of conscience clear’ (ll. 255–6), an observation that, while it points to a commonplace of wifely virtue in the period, gains a sharper edge in the light of Henry’s central claim in the divorce proceedings that Katherine did not come to him a virgin, having previously consummated a marriage to Henry’s deceased older brother, prince Arthur (a claim that Katherine in her turn strenuously denied). Moreover, the drama seems to allude favourably to a number of Katherine’s most conspicuous triumphs during the years of their marriage. Prime among these was the period in which she had acted as regent of England during Henry’s invasion of France in 1513, at which time she oversaw the successful defence of the realm against a Scottish attack and the crushing military victory at Flodden,

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 37

08/01/2013 08:23

38

Reading Literature Historically

in which James IV and the flower of the Scottish nobility were either slain or captured. In the light of these events it is striking to note the terms of Hester’s response when Assuerus asks her what virtues a queen should possess – an exchange that has no equivalent in the Vulgate text. Queens, she argues, should possess the self-same virtues as kings, as they are likely to meet many of the same challenges and responsibilities. Eftsoons it may chance at sundry season, The king with his council, most part of all, From this realm to be absent when war doth call. Then the queen’s wisdom sadly must deal By her great virtue to rule the common weal. Wherefore as many virtues be there must Even in the queen as the prince, For fear lest in war some treason unjust The realm should subdue and falsely convince [conquer], And so the queen must safeguard the whole province. (282–91)

Similarly, Katherine drew praise from chroniclers and other observers by formally intervening on a number of ceremonial occasions to seek pardons from Henry for individuals and groups facing the death penalty for various crimes. Such events add contemporary resonance to Mordechai’s instructions to Hester in the play that, if she is selected as the king’s spouse, she should, Break not the course that queens have had In this noble region most of all: They have aye been good and none of them bad, To their prince ever sure, just and substantial; And good to the commons when they did call By meekness for mercy to temper the fire Of rigorous justice, in fume or in ire. (177–83)

Again, symbolic intercession with kings in pursuit of mercy was a common role for queens in this period, but once more the terms of the allusion seem marked. And even if spectators did not detect a precise contemporary ad hominem allusion here, the broad defence of queens of ‘this noble region’ as good women, ever true to their princes, ‘and none of them bad’, would surely have raised eyebrows in the light of the arguments surrounding the present royal marriage. In such details the play reveals itself, as I have argued,4 as the product of a particular moment in Henrician history, the period in late 1529, immediately following Wolsey’s fall from power, during which the cardinal was still being pursued by his critics and rivals for power, and

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 38

08/01/2013 08:23

Godly Queen Hester

39

the issues of clerical privilege and power and the status of the religious houses were the subject of fevered debate. But in my earlier study of the play, I did not appreciate the full significance of its close dialogue with two other texts of that period, a dialogue that both allows us to date it with some confidence to the Christmas period of 1529–30, and to appreciate how quickly it must have been written (or, perhaps, as has recently been suggested by Janette Dillon, adapted)5 to respond to those texts and to the events they provoked and reflected. Nor did I appreciate the degree of subtlety with which the interlude engaged with contemporary debates, forming part of what seems to have been a concerted strategy adopted by defenders of the institutional church to take advantage of the fall of Cardinal Wolsey and to head off the fierce assault on clerical liberties and prerogatives that had been launched in the first session of the Reformation Parliament (which convened on Candlemas Day, 3 November 1529 and closed six weeks later on 17 December). If we read the play in the light of the events of this anxious, pivotal period in the early history of the English reformation, a new sense of both its intense topicality and its bold and detailed intervention in contemporary debates can be teased out and appreciated. To gain a sense of the specificity of the play, and of the audacious, opportunist chutzpah of the playwright, we need briefly to remind ourselves of the principal events of the long fraught summer of 1529 and their place in the history of the reign. By May 1529, Henry, his representatives and ministers had been striving for almost two years, at first confidently and covertly and then with increasing publicity and desperation, to secure a diplomatic and legal resolution to the ‘Great Matter’ which was exercising the royal conscience, the legality of his marriage to Queen Katherine. Finally, and after much lobbying, Wolsey had obtained what he had assured the king was the solution to his difficulties, a papal warrant to try the matter in England, and in May 1529 a court met at Blackfriars’ in London, presided over by Wolsey himself and Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio, despatched directly from Rome for the purpose. Things did not, of course, go to plan. Not only did Katherine appear personally at the trial to attest powerfully and memorably to the validity of her marriage and the invalidity of the court set up to try it, but Campeggio proved unwilling to follow Wolsey’s script, and, instead of finding in the king’s favour, prorogued the court on 23 July with the matter still undecided. The explosion of royal anger that this verdict prompted cost Wolsey his position, and ultimately his life. Its first manifestation was the intervention of Henry’s friend and companion, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who stormed into the courtroom and, slamming his fist down on the judges’ table with a mighty

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 39

08/01/2013 08:23

40

Reading Literature Historically

clap, declared to the assembly that the court had proved what everyone already knew, that no cardinal had ever done good in England.6 The implications of that declaration were obvious. Wolsey spent the summer in a prolonged and largely fruitless attempt at damage limitation, but by October he had conceded defeat, resigned his secular offices and left London, never to return.7 On 3 November, a new parliament convened, and Wolsey’s successor as Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, ‘standing on the right hand of the king, before the bar’, opened the session with ‘an excellent oration’ to the members of both houses, the terms of which, although well known to historians, are extraordinary enough to warrant rehearsal here. Having begun by drawing the conventional comparison of the king to a shepherd to his subjects, More put the analogy to a more specific and striking use. ‘As you see’, he observed, that amongst a great flock of sheep, some be rotten and faulty, which the good shepherd sendeth from the good sheep, so the great wether [castrated ram] which is of late fallen, as you all know, so craftily, so scabbedly, yea and so untruly juggled with the king that all men must needs guess and think that he thought in himself that the [king] had no wit to perceive his crafty doing, or else that he presumed that the king would not see nor know his fraudulent juggling and attempts. But he was deceived, for his grace’s sight was so quick and penetrable that he saw him, yea and saw through him, both within and without, so that all thing to him was open, and according to his desert he hath had a gentle correction, which small punishment the king will not to be an example to other offenders, but clearly declareth that whosoever hereafter shall make like attempt or commit like offence shall not escape like punishment.8

This speech marks a signal moment in the history of the reign. That the lord chancellor, flanked by the king himself and clearly speaking with his authority, should so publicly denounce the man who had held his own office only months earlier, and who had effectively dominated the administration of church and state for fifteen years (and was still, it must be remembered, both Archbishop of York and a cardinal of the church), and did so in such a lurid vocabulary, more redolent of literary polemic than of sober political discourse, was itself astonishing. That he went on implicitly to present the king as the long-term dupe of this crafty and scabbed juggler (for, no matter how much he praised the king’s acute insight, everyone knew that he had trusted Wolsey absolutely) must have seemed extraordinary, both to those who witnessed it and those who only read or heard about it later. The unforgettable nature of the speech, and of the turbulent parliamentary session which followed, can be judged in part from the ways in which it reverberated in the literature, and especially the drama, of the

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 40

08/01/2013 08:23

Godly Queen Hester

41

following months and years. In A Proper Dialogue Between a Gentleman and a Husbandman, printed in Antwerp in 1530, for example, the protagonists, lamenting their misfortunes at the hands of the clergy, determine ‘To get us to London incontinent’, to make their complaint there and seek remedy, ‘as it is here for a surety told / The king with his nobles doth hold / A general council or parliament’ that will resolve their worries.9 The fall of the ‘great wether’, and More’s declaration elsewhere in the same speech that the king had summoned the assembly to address ‘diverse great enormities’ sprung up in the realm for which as yet no legislative solution had been devised, resurfaces in the opening lines of John Heywood’s Play of the Weather, probably performed at court over Christmas 1532–3, in which the god-king Jupiter talks of replacing his old father Saturn and taking supreme power into his own hands, and of a fractious parliament of the gods called ‘for the redress of certain enormities / bred among them through extremities / Abused in each to other of them all’. (And did the title of that play itself, perhaps, also contain a punning echo, if perhaps only an unconscious one, of More’s depiction of Wolsey as a ‘great wether’?)10 And Wolsey’s fall appears again in the allusions to a judge ‘confessed’ and awaiting penance in Heywood’s Play of Love, perhaps performed over Christmas 1529,11 while a description of the debates in the opening parliamentary session is also provided, at greater length and in more passionate detail, in the pointedly named The Enormytees Usyd by the Clergy, printed by John Skot in 1531/2.12 For our purposes here, the parliamentary session, and More’s speech depicting Henry as the newly-enlightened victim of Wolsey’s deception resonates still more immediately and insistently in Hester. It underpins the final scene of the interlude, with its depiction of the sudden, calamitous fall of the Chancellor Aman, where another formal instrument of Henrician rule, a royal proclamation, stands in for the speech to Parliament as the method by which the nation is informed of the king’s change of heart and of chief minister. In Assuerus’ proclamation, designed to be read to the people in every province, the king acknowledges that he, like Henry, has been deceived by the wiles of a cunning adviser, and has come close to countenancing a monstrous crime. It acknowledges the sudden reversal in the king’s attitude, so much so that the current proclamation is so opposed to his last message that it is ‘clean repugnant’ to it (line 1111). But, it reassures his subjects, When ye know our mind ye shall be content To think it no lightness, nor wit inconsistent, But the necessity of times variant. And as cause requireth for the utility Of our whole realm, heads and commonalty. (1112–16)

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 41

08/01/2013 08:23

42

Reading Literature Historically

Hence, the text declares, Aman, who had so recently been the king’s most trusted lieutenant, has been dismissed and despatched to sudden death: The son of Amadathy, called Aman . . . Which by his subtlety, both now and then, Our gentleness so infecteth for certain That near we were like all Jews to have slain. We favoured him, that he was called Our father, and all men did to him honour, But his heart with pride so strongly was walled, That by his sleight and crafty demeanour, Had we not espied his subtle behaviour, He would have destroyed Queen Hester our wife, And from us at length have taken our life. (1118, 1121–34)

Twenty five lines later, in concluding the play, the actor playing Assuerus, now no longer necessarily in character, turns to address directly both the onstage court and the audience beyond, to point up the wider political moral of the interlude: My lords, by this figure ye may well see The multitude hurt by the head’s negligence, If to his pleasure so given is he That he will no pain take nor diligence. Who careth not for his cure oft loseth credence, A proverb of old sometime in usage. Few men that serve but for their own advantage. (1155–61)

The Hester actor then takes his turn in outlining and developing the theme, again addressing a ‘you’ that takes in both his fellow actors and the gathered spectators: And yet the servants that be untrue, A while in the world their life may they lead, Yes, their wealth and worship daily renew; But at the length, I assure you indeed, Their favel [fraud] and falsehood will come abroad, Which shall be to them more bitter than gall. The higher they climb, the deeper they fall. (1162–8)

Performed at court or anywhere in London or Westminster over the Christmas season of 1529–30, these speeches could not but have brought to mind More’s words to Parliament only weeks before, and Henry’s dismissal of Wolsey that prompted them. The description of a king ‘infected’

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 42

08/01/2013 08:23

Godly Queen Hester

43

by the subtlety, craft and sleights of a minister whose deceptions he (finally) sees through seems clearly designed to echo More’s account of the crafty and scabbed cardinal who had ‘so untruly juggled’ with Henry VIII until his ‘quick and penetrable sight’ saw through his tricks. Hester is, then, an interlude that seems determined to press upon some very sensitive political nerves. But, while at first sight it might seem politically suicidal to produce a play (whether at court or elsewhere) that implied that the reigning sovereign had been foolish enough to ignore conventional wisdom and become the dupe of a villainous minister, in the context of More’s speech to Parliament, which had said the same thing in even more lurid language, the idea becomes readily explicable. Indeed, it is clear that there was at the time of Wolsey’s dismissal a concerted effort on the part of Henry and his ministers to promulgate the story of the king suddenly having come to his senses and deciding to rule in his own person rather than through a chief minister. The Royal Secretary, Sir Brian Tuke, told the Spanish Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, that Henry had previously left matters of administration in Wolsey’s hands, but now intended to take control of them himself, and ‘manage his own affairs’.13 And in January 1530 the king himself repeated the same message, telling Chapuys that formerly ‘those who had the reins of government in their hands had deceived me, many things were done without my knowledge, but such proceedings will be stopped in future’.14 For a ruler to pose as newly enlightened and resolved to dispense with evil counsellors and to govern henceforth with virtue was, of course, a useful, if rather melodramatic political strategy. It enabled a king to wipe the slate clean of former mistakes and unpopular policies and dismiss them as the deceitful schemes of the disgraced minister. So one can see the advantages of the pose for Henry. Indeed, he had used it before, more than once, to escape the consequences of difficult situations. When in 1519 a group of his senior advisors came to him with complaints about the potentially dangerous behaviour of some of his young male companions, known informally as his ‘minions’, Henry claimed ignorance of their antics and told the advisors they had free licence to investigate the situation and inform him of the facts.15 Similarly, as we saw in the previous chapter, when in 1525 an ill-judged demand for the so-called Amicable Grant, deigned to raise money for an invasion of France, provoked widespread resistance and popular unrest, Henry again posed as the bemused innocent. The demand, he claimed, must have been hatched without royal assent, and the cardinal duly admitted as much, and publically sought royal forgiveness for a demand that had in truth been Henry’s own idea.16 Such a strategy was, however, double edged. It allowed the king to

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 43

08/01/2013 08:23

44

Reading Literature Historically

discipline or dismiss no-longer useful ministers and walk away (almost) unscathed from unwanted policies, but it also allowed others within the circle of courtly politics to play to the same agenda. They could appeal to the public transcript of the ‘newly enlightened’ monarch to seek to repeal or moderate other policies which he had previously promoted, but which might now be suggested were also the product of the previous, discredited regime, the brainchildren of the fallen favourite. Thus a brief period of flux opened up in the turbulent days or weeks following such an event, before the precise terms of the new dispensation had been clarified (in Scott’s terms, before the new public transcript had been agreed upon), in which it was possible for various interested parties to suggest which other parts of the existing political agenda might be consigned to oblivion with the crafty deceiver who could be ‘discovered’ to have devised them. It is this process of lobbying that, I will argue, we see happening in the winter of 1529, and to which the performance of Godly Queen Hester was a significant contribution. But, before we leave this subject, it is worth noting what appears to be a sly satirical swipe at Henry’s strategy in the interlude itself. Just as the king had brazenly denied all knowledge of Wolsey’s sleights at the time of the Amicable Grant, and was doing so again in late 1529 in relation to the undefined ‘enormities’ which parliament had been called to redress, so King Assuerus in the play seeks to dissociate himself from the suppression of the Jews when challenged by Hester. When she pleads with him to repeal the proclamation that condemned the Jews collectively to death, he implies that he knows nothing about the proposed genocide, asking her, ‘What is he, or what is his authority / That is so bold this act to attempt?’ (ll. 915–16). Hester takes the question at face value, or seems to, and carefully explains Aman’s role in the plot. But the audience would have been under no illusions about the king’s calculated hypocrisy here. For less than 200 lines earlier it had watched Aman explicitly request royal approval for the slaughter, and receive it. The chancellor identified his intended victims from the outset as ‘A great number of Jews within this realm . . . / A people not good for your common weal’ (ll. 726–7), and advised Assuerus that, Your Grace, by your power royal, Shall give sentence and plainly decree To slay these Jews in your realm over all, None to escape (let your sentence be general), Ye shall by that win, to say I dare be bold, To your treasure ten thousand pound(s) of gold. (750–5)

And the king equally explicitly consented to the request. ‘As touching the Jews’, he responds,

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 44

08/01/2013 08:23

Godly Queen Hester

45

. . . which be so valiant, Both of goods and great possession, We do agree unto their suppression. (760–2)

And, just in case any doubt remains about the nature of the suppression he is agreeing to, he subsequently agrees that the Jews should be ‘quench[ed]’ (i.e. extinguished) (l. 768). Thus, while Assuerus’ words to Hester in the play are a direct echo of his biblical namesake’s answer to Esther in scripture, their implication here is entirely different. For, where the biblical king can honestly respond that Haman did not name the Jews as the people whom he wished to suppress (he said only that there was a dangerous group in the realm living by separate laws), in the interlude both Aman and the king himself name the Jews specifically as the victims of the pogrom. Hence, when Assuerus responds to Hester’s account of Aman’s animus against her people, his admission only that the minister had mentioned a redistribution of Jewish wealth for the benefit of the people at large seems both economical with the truth and obviously self-serving: He signified unto me that the Jews did Not feed the poor by hospitality. Their possessions, he said, were all but hid, Among themselves living voluptuously; Thinking the same might be, verily, Much better employed for the commonweal Where now it little profiteth, or never a deal [not at all]. (936–47)

The playwright thus seems to be using the licence of the festive occasion gently to mock the conceit that he was himself allegorising, suggesting that, of course, everyone was aware of the disingenuous nature of Henry’s claim to ignorance of Wolsey’s schemes, but was happy to conform to Henry’s script if there were benefits in it for them. But this barbed moment is only a sideshow to the writer’s main campaign.

The Church Beleaguered Thomas More’s announcement to parliament that Wolsey had fallen and the king was ready to amend any enormities that had sprung up since its last meeting (in 1523) prompted an energetic discussion of allegations of clerical abuses and plans for closer regulation of the church in both houses. These ideas did not spring from nowhere. A number of members came to the session already prepared to try to force debate

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 45

08/01/2013 08:23

46

Reading Literature Historically

on clerical issues,17 while religious radicals in London chose the day of the opening of parliament for a public display of their strength and demands, scattering copies of Simon Fish’s virulently anticlerical tract, The Supplication of the Beggars along the route of the procession to Parliament and in the streets of the city. More formally, the London Mercers’ Company had drawn up a list of articles that they hoped to have discussed in the Commons, one of which requested the king to compensate those Londoners who ‘have been polled [close-shaven] and robbed without reason or conscience by the ordinaries [bishops] in probating of testaments, taking of mortuaries [death taxes] and also vexed and troubled by citations, with cursing one day and absolving the next day, et hec omnio pro pecuniis. [and all for money]’18 But More’s declaration gave a still wider constituency with grievances of their own formal approval to speak out. The debates began with discussion of probate fees, and critics of the church were further emboldened to contribute when Sir Henry Guildford, the Comptroller of the Royal Household, intervened to criticise the allegedly excessive fees charged for the probate of the will of another senior courtier, Henry’s Groom of the Stool, Sir William Compton, by Wolsey and Archbishop William Warham of Canterbury. For someone so close to the king to lead the criticism was a clear signal that Henry was willing to listen to suggestions for institutional reform of the church courts, and so others responded more confidently, ‘and after this declaration were showed so many extortions done by the ordinaries for probate of wills that it were too much to rehearse’.19 Debates about mortuary payments, clerical pluralism and non-residence followed,20 and the vociferousness of the criticisms of the clergy emerging from the Commons and the city prompted ambassador Chapuys to report on 13 December that ‘nearly all the people here hate the priests’.21 Meanwhile a meeting of the king’s counsellors, both lay and clerical, drew up a set of charges against Wolsey that might be used in the courts or as a parliamentary bill of attainder. This document, known to historians as the Lords’ Articles, was a comprehensive list of indictments against the cardinal’s character and his administration ranging from serious criticisms of his handling of foreign policy to claims that he knowingly breathed on the king when he was infectious.22 Among these were a series of accusations concerning the exercise of Wolsey’s legatine regime, under which, as legate a latere (literally sent as if ‘from the side’ of the Pope with delegated papal powers) he could override the jurisdictions of individual bishops and religious orders to instigate reforms, claim first right to taxes and duties and impose his own candidates to vacancies in parishes and other institutions. Such charges were clearly

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 46

08/01/2013 08:23

Godly Queen Hester

47

the work of the senior clergy on the king’s council and their allies, anxious to reclaim some of the prerogatives, jurisdictions and privileges that had been taken from them by Wolsey. But they were careful to present these claims in terms most likely to find favour with the king, that is as reassertions of the rights of the crown against foreign, Roman interference. Wolsey, the first article claimed,23 hath not only hurt your said prescription, but also . . . hath spoiled and taken away from many houses of religion in this your realm much substance of their goods. And also hath usurped upon all your ordinaries within this your realm much part of their jurisdiction, in derogation of your prerogative and the great hurt of the said ordinaries, prelates and religious.

That Wolsey should be criticised for hostility to the regular religious houses is unsurprising. During the 1520s he had used his legatine powers to visit and reform a number of religious orders, including, controversially, those such as the Observant Franciscans exempt from episcopal scrutiny, and between 1524 and 1529 had suppressed twentynine small religious houses, diverting their revenues to Cardinal College, Oxford (re-founded after his death as the modern Christ Church). The Lords’ Articles drew attention to these suppressions in Article XIX, which claimed that the said Cardinal hath not only, by his untrue suggestion to the Pope, shamefully slandered many good religious houses, and good religious men dwelling in them, but also suppressed by reason therefore about thirty houses of religion. 24

These suppressions, being piecemeal, provoked limited resistance at the time.25 What made them suddenly contentious in 1529 was the prospect that Wolsey was intending a more radical dissolution at the time of his fall. In the five months to April 1529 he had obtained bulls from Rome investing him, either alone or in conjunction with Cardinal Campeggio, with the power to dissolve a number of abbeys, including some large ones, as part of a scheme to create new English bishoprics, and to dissolve outright any house with fewer than twelve inmates which he judged was no longer functional.26 With Wolsey’s fall the process stalled, but the precedent set was a dangerous one, especially as the more radical evangelical reformers were arguing loudly at just this time for the wholesale abolition of monasticism on doctrinal grounds. Indeed, the case for abolition was a major theme of Fish’s Supplication of the Beggars, which had been so provocatively scattered in the streets on the day that parliament convened. The level of concern engendered

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 47

08/01/2013 08:23

48

Reading Literature Historically

among traditionalists can be judged from the terse note that the conservative peer, Thomas Lord Darcy wrote in the memoranda he drew up prior to the first session of parliament: ‘Item, that it be tried whether the putting down of all the abbeys be lawful and good, or no, for great things hang thereupon.’27 It is in the context of this debate that we need to read the discussion of the Jews in Hester. That their representation there is a coded defence of the regular religious and the clergy in general in the wake of these attacks in parliament and elsewhere is made clear by the otherwise curious terms in which they are discussed throughout the play, which at times echo the text of the book of Esther, but for the most part focus on the seemingly idiosyncratic issue of charity. Aman launches his attack upon the Jews by accusing them of both separatism and licentiousness, telling King Assuerus that The precepts of your law They refuse and have in great contempt; They will in no wise live under awe Of any prince, but they will be exempt. (737–411)

And Aman himself is accused (in what sounds like a direct allusion to Wolsey’s claim to suppress religious houses, rescinding the terms of their foundations if he found them wanting) of setting his own judgement above those of the founders of Jewish houses and the authors of their rules. For all rulers and laws were made by fools and daws [jackdaws: idiots], He sayeth nearly. Ordinances and foundations, without consultation, He sayeth, were devised; Therefore his imagination brings all out of fashion, And so all is disguised [disfigured]. (459–64)

Elsewhere, as we have seen, Assuerus tells Hester that Aman had convinced him to punish the Jews because they ‘did / Not feed the poor by hospitality’, but rather hoarded their wealth for their own use. ‘Their possessions, he said, were all but hid / Among themselves living voluptuously’ (ll. 943–6). What the vices Pride, Adulation and Ambition reveal, however, is that it is Aman’s rapacious taxation of the Jews that has reduced their capacity for alms-giving, not any lack of charity on their part (ll. 475–82). And, as Hester argues, well-established and regulated religious communities of the kind that the Jews provide are vital for the spiritual and the material well-being of the realm, as they provide both prayers and

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 48

08/01/2013 08:23

Godly Queen Hester

49

services for the community and material sustenance to travellers and the poor, keeping them in good health should the king ever need to call on them for military service (ll. 311–16). Thus, she argues, Let God always therefore have his part, And the poor fed by hospitality, Each man his measure, be it pint or quart, And no man too much. (318–21)

And later she specifically warns against the ‘dissolution’ of Jewish houses, Since God therefore hath begun their household, And aye hath preserved their hospitality, I advise no man to be so bold The same to dissolve, whosever he be, Let God alone, for he shall orderly A fine ad finem, both here and there, Omnia disponere suaviter.28 (964–70) The Jews be the people of God elected, And wear his badge of circumcision. The daily prayer of the whole sect, As the psalms of David by ghostly [spiritual] inspiration, Eke [also] holy ceremonies of God’s provision To God is vaileable [effectual], that nothing greater, And the whole realm for them fares the better. (1089–95)

Focusing in this way on the Jews’ – and so the religious houses’ – charitable functions and status as engines of prayer, played, as I argued in my earlier study of the interlude, to the monasteries’ strengths, stressing their social utility in ways to which few could object, while avoiding the more contentious questions raised by Lutheran reformers about monastic morality or the doctrinal basis of their functions as providers of prayers and services for the dead.29 Precisely the same defence was mounted in the Lords’ Articles, which condemned Wolsey’s dissolutions in very similar terms.30 Where good hospitality hath been used to be kept in houses and places of religion of this realm, and many poor people thereby relieved, the said hospitality and relief is now decayed and not used, and it is commonly reported that the occasion thereof is because the said Lord Cardinal hath taken such impositions of the rulers of the said houses . . . as they are not able to keep good hospitality as they were used to, which is a great cause that there is so many vagabonds, beggars and thieves.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 49

08/01/2013 08:23

50

Reading Literature Historically

So there was good strategic sense in defending the religious foundations in these terms. But there was also a more specific edge to the choice too, as it was precisely in terms of the clergy’s lack of charity and support for the poor that Simon Fish had chosen to couch his strident assault upon church wealth (and implicitly on the whole idea of purgatory) in The Supplication of the Beggars, a book that seemed so alarming to Sir Thomas More that he immediately wrote a strident (and far longer) response, The Supplication of Souls, to counter its claims. Printed anonymously, Fish’s short tract claimed to be a petition from the starving poor addressed ‘to the king, our sovereign lord.’ It asserted that deserving beggars were deprived of the alms that normally sustained them by the institutionalised begging and impositions and of that mass of ‘strong, puissant and counterfeit holy and idle beggars and vagabonds’, the clergy. The latter, it claimed, have increased in numbers to the point where they now constitute a separate ‘kingdom’ within the realm. As a result ‘the goodliest lordships, manors, lands and territories are theirs’, but they are still not satisfied, and so extract ever more wealth from the hard-pressed laity through ‘probate of testaments, privy tithes, and by men’s offerings to their pilgrimages and at their first masses’, through mortuary payments, funeral fees, and ‘by cursing [excommunicating] of men and absolving them again for money’.31 Working up to a rhetorical crescendo, Fish presented the wealth and privileges of the clergy as a direct challenge to the prerogatives of the crown and the military capability of the kingdom: What tyrant ever oppressed the people like this cruel and vengeable generation? What subjects be able to help their prince that be after this fashion yearly polled? . . . And what do all these greedy sort of sturdy, idle, holy thieves with these yearly exactions that they take of the people? Truly nothing, but exempt themselves from th’obedience of your grace. Nothing but translate the rule, power, lordship, authority, obedience and dignity from your grace unto them. Nothing but that all your subjects should fall into disobedience and rebellion against your grace and be under them. (3–4)

Therefore, Fish concludes, the king should rouse himself and punish the clergy by depriving them of their temporal wealth, property and privileges: Where is your sword, power, crown and dignity become that should punish (by punishment of death, even as other men are punished) the felonies, rapes, murders and treasons committed by this sinful generation? Where is their obedience become that should be under your high power in this matter? (7) Set these sturdy lobbies [idlers] abroad in the world to get them wives of their own, to get their living with their labour in the sweat of their faces according

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 50

08/01/2013 08:23

Godly Queen Hester

51

to the commandment of God (Gen[esis] III) to give other idle people by their example to go to labour. Tie these holy, idle thieves to the carts to be whipped naked about every market town till they will fall to labour. (14)

Much of the queen’s defence of the Jews in Hester reads like a direct response to charges such as these levelled in Fish’s Supplication and the debates in parliament, charges that themselves find direct expression in the interlude in Aman’s malicious criticisms of Esther’s people. Thus, while the deceitful minister accuses the Jews of multiplying exponentially,32 living in separate communities (‘dispersed over all your province, / Within themself [sic] dwelling de-severed from our nation’ (ll. 728–9)), ‘exempt’ (l. 738) from domestic laws, hiding their wealth and living ‘voluptuously’; so Hester defends them as socially beneficial communities that are integrated into – and indeed vital to – the kingdom at large, using their wealth to fund almsgiving and hospitality. More subtly, a number of the other allegations that Fish and the reformers in the Commons levelled at the church resurface in the play, not as allegations levelled by Aman at the Jews, but as Aman’s own crimes and vices, which are ‘revealed’ by Pride, Adulation and Ambition. So, where Fish protests that ‘the best lordships, manors and territories’ are in church hands, and rails against the practices of the church courts, probate fees, mortuaries and funeral duties, and ‘cursing of men and absolving them again for money’, so Adulation denounces Aman’s dominance of the law courts (ll. 411–12), his grasping of the best positions (‘For if it be a good fee, Aman sayeth “That longeth [belongs] to me!” / Be it benefice or park’ (ll. 439–41)), and profiting from the execution of wills and testaments (ll. 566–75).33 Indeed, the play may well acknowledge the link between its own allegations against Aman and the charges in the Supplication of the Beggars, in Ambition’s somewhat arch comment that Beggars now do ban [curse], and cry out of Aman, That ever he was born. They swear by the Rood [Holy Cross] he eateth all their food, So that they get no good, neither even or morn. And many that be poor, though not from door to door A-begging they did go; Yet had they relief, both of bread and beef, And drink also. And now the door stands shut, and no man can we get To work neither to fight. (469–78)

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 51

08/01/2013 08:23

52

Reading Literature Historically

For it was precisely the conceit of Fish’s tract, that it was voicing the cries of the indigent poor who had once enjoyed alms and relief from their neighbours, but were now denied it as the clergy were sucking up all the available charity and keeping the proceeds for themselves. As I have argued elsewhere,34 Hester, like Fish’s Supplication, seems carefully designed to encourage royal intervention, albeit to exactly the opposite effect. On one level it represents an appeal to Henry VIII, figured in King Assuerus, to assert himself and take policy firmly into his own hands. By the time the play was performed, of course, this was an appeal that the playwright knew was likely to be favourably received, as Henry had declared publicly that he intended to do exactly that after Wolsey’s fall. Thus the interlude was preaching to the converted in terms of its general thesis. But what the playwright also sought to do was to use that general plea to achieve something quite different to the ends pursued by Fish, at least where intervention in the governance of the church was concerned. The interlude begins with a short debate between Assuerus and a group of courtiers over the best way for a king to govern. Of all the things a king must possess, from riches and noble blood to wisdom, the best, it emerges, is virtue, and of all the virtues a king might possess, the most necessary is a love of justice. But how should justice be exercised? After briefly considering the merits of ruling through favourites, the debate is resolved in favour of personal rule, without intermediaries, as only monarchs themselves can be relied upon to govern impartially, free of greed or ambition. But, as soon as the discussion ends Assuerus reveals he has misunderstood its terms. For he immediately decides to appoint a chancellor to administer the realm in his name. He chooses Aman on rather suspect grounds (ll. 106, 109–10), and through that choice invites the near disaster that only his personal intervention at Hester’s insistence at the end of the play forestalls. In this way the play gives potent expression to the moral that kings need to avoid favourites. But beneath what presents itself as a parable of the virtues of personal rule, what the playwright actually offers is a plea for clerical self-regulation. Hence in the final scene, Assuerus, having asserted himself and dismissed Aman, does not keep power in his own hands, but appoints Mordechai, Hester’s uncle, as governor of the Jews in Aman’s place. The new minister, we can assume, will be a strong champion of the rights and privileges of the Jews, just as his near namesake, Lord Chancellor More would prove a champion of the church and clergy. Likewise, the proclamation prepared for the king by Hester, which pardons and sets out the future constitutional arrangements for the Jews, places their governance, not in royal hands, but with

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 52

08/01/2013 08:23

Godly Queen Hester

53

‘them that can do best’, the Jews themselves. The queen requests that Aman’s cruel plan Against me and all the Jewish nation May be revoked, and upon convocation, A new devised by them that can do best. (1078–80)

Here again the vocabulary seems rather pointed. ‘Convocation’ might mean simply a gathering, as it seems to elsewhere in the play (see line 1169). But it was also the name of the governing body of the church, the clerical assembly that sat in Westminster and York alongside parliament. Thus the play might be taken to imply that clerical regulation and reform should be taken out of the hands of the laymen in parliament and returned instead to the clergy’s own assemblies, a move that would effectively have secured the church from the assaults of its more radical critics.35 If my arguments are correct, Hester was thus playing politics in a very direct and immediate sense, literally so, in that it parodies and celebrates an analogue of the fall of Wolsey only weeks after his resignation of the Great Seal and the compilation and signature of the Lords’ Articles against him in December 1529. This was not a unique use of drama against the cardinal. John Roo’s play, performed at Grays Inn in 1526–7, was interpreted by Wolsey, as we have seen, as a coded attack on his governance. And he was to be the posthumous victim of an even more direct and insensitive dramatic representation of his fall a year later, in January 1531, when two of his principal critics, Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, entertained the French ambassador with a ‘farce’ depicting Wolsey ‘going down into Hell’.36 But, while that play seems, on the limited evidence available, to have been motivated by little more than triumphalism, Hester seems designed, as we have seen, to play a rather more subtle political game. As I have suggested, the ‘anticlerical’ furore of late 1529 actually contained two distinct and mutually hostile strands of public criticism of the church. On one side, evangelicals and common lawyers took the king’s signal that he would listen to the grievances of anyone damaged by Wolsey’s administration as an invitation to criticise not only the cardinal but other aspects of the church, its privileges, and even aspects of doctrine to which they were opposed. Hence the Commons introduced and debated a series of bills aimed at curtailing the interference of the clergy in lay affairs, especially the rota of levies and taxes imposed upon the laity, and the church courts that enforced them, backed by the threat of excommunication or accusations of heresy. In addition, reformers like Simon Fish used arguments against church wealth as a means of

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 53

08/01/2013 08:23

54

Reading Literature Historically

implying more radical criticisms of the doctrine of purgatory and the entire intercessory apparatus that the church had built upon it. Distinct from this reformist strand of criticism (which it is legitimate to think of as ‘anti-clerical’), and fundamentally opposed to it, was a second critique coming largely from within the church hierarchy itself and its lay allies, which was aimed much more specifically at the novel, ‘foreign’ jurisdiction imposed upon the church by Wolsey’s legatine authority. Advocates of this position were striving, not to abolish the legal and financial prerogatives of the bishops and the regular clergy, but to restore them, taking back those rights, exemptions and privileges that Wolsey had gathered into his own hands over the past fifteen years. Thus, while the two strands of thought were indeed united in criticising issues such as the handling of probate in the church courts, the potential for corruption in appointments to benefices and the decay of religious houses, and so seem at first glance to contribute to a single mass of anticlerical agitation, they were in fact based upon quite contrary assumptions about the source of the problem and the means of its solution. The strategy shared by the Hester playwright and the authors of those Lords’ Articles proposed by the clergy was to seize the initiative from the reformers and lead the criticism of the church in an ultimately conservative direction, away from legal reform, dissolutions and greater regulation of the church, and towards a much more limited and manageable dismantling of the apparatus of Wolsey’s legacy. From such a process, the bishops, the ecclesiastical courts and the religious houses would emerge stronger and more independent rather than diminished. Thus in Hester, the kind of spoliation of the church advocated by Fish and the more radical reformers is depicted, as it was in the Lords’ Articles, as an affront to the royal prerogative, and inspired by Aman/ Wolsey’s pride and acquisitiveness rather than by the patriotic reassertion of royal powers that Fish’s tract claimed. By associating Aman/ Wolsey with the closure of monasteries and assaults upon the wealth and prerogatives of the bishops, the regular clergy and the ecclesiastical courts, the Hester playwright sought to tar these reformist, protoprotestant positions with the unpopularity of the cardinal’s regime. The strategy was a bold and ingenious one. If there was one thing that the king had publicly declared his willingness to entertain, it was criticism of Wolsey’s influence, so for the playwright to be able to consign the spectres of monastic dissolution and spoliation of the church to the wilderness with the cardinal would be a deft strike. If successful it would deprive the church’s most radical critics of their strongest weapons and also, no doubt infuriatingly, associate them with the very man who was the epitome of everything they despised about the clergy.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 54

08/01/2013 08:23

Godly Queen Hester

55

Moreover, if, as some of Queen Katherine’s closest allies seemed to believe, the driving force behind the king’s Great Matter was Wolsey’s diplomatic aspiration to remarry Henry to a French princess, then it might also have seemed plausible that the cardinal’s fall could lead to a restoration of the queen’s fortunes too, especially as she remained a part of the royal household which celebrated Christmas 1529 at Greenwich with the king, as Edward Hall tells us, ‘with great plenty of viands and diverse disguisings and interludes, to the great rejoicing of his people’.37 Indeed Henry had very publicly praised Katherine in seemingly the most affectionate and respectful terms immediately after her appearance at the Blackfriars’ court in the preceding June, describing her as: A woman of most gentleness, of most humility and buxomness, yea and of all good qualities appertaining to nobility, she is without comparison, as I this twenty years almost have had the true experiment; so that if I were to marry again if the marriage might be good, I would surely choose her above all other women.38

Given the fulsomeness of such a declaration, it might well have seemed to someone unaware of the king’s determination to secure an annulment and marry Anne Boleyn, that a reconciliation between Henry and Katherine was at least a possibility worth arguing for at this time. The idea of presenting a drama that would condemn the fallen cardinal and his policies, outflank the church’s most strident critics and at the same time urge the virtues of the queen as a champion of traditional religious values, wifely probity and political intelligence might have seemed too good an opportunity to miss for a conservative playwright anxious to defend the causes closest to his heart. If this reasoning is correct, though, how might the interlude have worked in performance? How might it have played out its dextrous, risky conversation with Henrician power? In great part, of course, this would depend upon where it was performed, and before whom. The text itself provides some helpful evidence in the stage direction calling for ‘the chapel’ to enter and sing a hymn after line 854. This suggests a production in a household large enough to support a chapel choir, whose resources the playwright knew, which would narrow the possibilities to a small number of royal, aristocratic or clerical houses. Additionally, the play’s engagement with debates at court, in parliament and the city of London would imply both a playwright and an audience familiar with events and rumours in those places, and their significance. There is also evidence in the text of a concern for the practicalities and mechanics of government that might suggest it is the product of a circle familiar with the machinery of day-to-day politics and administration. When Aman

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 55

08/01/2013 08:23

56

Reading Literature Historically

issues the order for genocide, for example, the play specifies that it will be carried by pursuivants with clear instructions to deliver its contents ‘to the rulers of every town and city’ (l. 777) and to ensure that the massacre occurs only on the specified day across the realm. And when Assuerus later agrees to pardon the Jews, the earlier order is rescinded via the same channels, with similarly careful and detailed instructions. And the playwright is not content simply for the king to issue his order to ensure that all will be well. As we have seen, he is mindful of the likely impact of two such contrary proclamations arriving in the provinces in quick succession, and so writes a preamble to the second edict which (entirely unnecessarily in plot terms) acknowledges the awkwardness of the clash of instructions and seeks to disarm it, surely something that would seem necessary only to a writer familiar with the practicalities of royal or episcopal administration, and with the difficulties of ensuring that instructions issued at the political centre were both received and complied with in the localities. A performance within the royal court itself is thus a distinct possibility. Was Hester one of the ‘interludes’ that Henry witnessed with Katherine at Greenwich over Christmas 1529? The implicitly critical representation of Assuerus as somewhat hypocritical as well as a naïve monarch might seem to argue against a royal production, but it need not. As I have argued, it was possible for playwrights to present the king or his counsellors with quite sharp criticisms of their actions or policies, provided they were careful not to transgress the boundaries of acceptable courtly licence and stayed broadly within what Scott terms the public transcript. But if a royal performance is discounted, then a production in a conservative noble, bishop or abbot’s household in or around the capital would seem the most likely context for the play’s debut production. What the interlude’s close engagement with the debates in parliament, the Lord’s Articles and Fish’s Supplication suggests more certainly, however, is the speed with which the interlude must have been written, reacting to events as they happened, and turning them into persuasive drama for performance only weeks later. The engagement with Fish’s arguments might notionally have been scripted at any point in 1529, as his tract was printed early in that year, and its significance as a dangerous challenge to the prerogatives of the clergy had been signalled by More’s decision to write his own Supplication against it, and publish it in the following September. However, the scattering of copies of Fish’s book in the streets before the parliamentary procession on 3 November gave added urgency to the situation. Moreover, Hester’s reflection of the allegations, language and strategy of the Lords’ Articles, suggests a later

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 56

08/01/2013 08:23

Godly Queen Hester

57

date, as the Articles were formerly drawn up and subscribed to only on 1 December, and even then would have been known only to an inner circle of signatories, courtiers and counsellors for some time after that. Even if the playwright had informants from within that inner circle, then, which seems likely, he would have had a matter of only a few weeks to turn the sensitive material of the articles into the stuff of drama. In this context the suggestion recently advanced by Janette Dillon that the scene between the three vices, Pride, Adulation and Ambition, could be a later interpolation into the text, is of considerable interest.39 For it is in this scene that the most detailed and sustained discussion of Aman’s vices occurs, and there that the material reflects most closely the charges in the Articles and Fish’s text. Could this section have been added later, most plausibly in December 1529 to ‘update’ the play to reflect the latest news from parliament and the court, thereby both sharpening the contemporary edge of its satire and furthering the strategy to deflect Fish and the reformers’ attacks on the entire clergy towards the fallen cardinal alone? Certainly the scene is a curious one in dramatic terms, and sits awkwardly with the interlude that surrounds it. The convention in the allegorical and moral drama of this period, as Dillon notes, is for the vices to interact with the protagonist to tempt him or her towards sin, only to be rejected once he or she is finally redeemed. In Hester, however, the trio of vices never gets the chance to lure Aman into sin or to test Hester’s virtue. Indeed they do not interact with any of the other characters. They appear only in a single scene, in which they moan to each other about Aman’s vices and influence, draw up testaments in which they bequeath him their respective evil qualities (thus effectively defining themselves out of existence), and then cheerily exit for the tavern, singing as they go. The scene is thus a brief ‘turn’ of the sort that chapel children or other actors might readily perform at short notice, requiring no rehearsal with the other members of the cast. It adds a neat comic twist to the morality tradition, in that it demonstrates that Aman is so vicious that he is already worse than the vices who are supposedly the epitome of their sins, and who might have been expected to corrupt him. And their resigned departure from the stage, already defeated before they begin their machinations, is a neat metatheatrical moment. But the scene remains structurally and dramatically odd, not least as Hester has another vice figure, Hardydardy, who does many of the things that the vices of the interlude tradition might be expected to do. He interacts with Aman, seeking service in his household, criticises his character and crimes and speaks the harsh truth to him that others dare not speak. And, once Aman has fallen, he then engages in a brief comic dialogue with the king which draws upon the Solomon and

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 57

08/01/2013 08:23

58

Reading Literature Historically

Marcolphus tradition. With Hardydardy already there, it is hard to see why the play needed a further vice, let alone three of them, with whom he is not allowed to interact. All of this adds weight to the suggestion that the other vices were indeed added later, along with Hardydardy’s brief allusion to their testaments (ll. 800–806), in order to sharpen the play’s deft simultaneous attack on both Wolsey’s reputation and Fish and the reformers’ polemics, for performance at Christmas 1529. Christmas 1529 was one of those key periods of volatile political flux described earlier, when the precise direction and scope of royal policy were unclear and so open to negotiation and possible redefinition. With Wolsey newly fallen, and the crown having publically encouraged anyone to speak out who had legitimate grievances against him or who had suffered from the vaguely defined ‘enormities’ mentioned in More’s speech to parliament, even the most seemingly contentious of issues (the prerogatives of the clergy, the practices of the church courts, ministerial corruption, even the king’s own capacity for error) were suddenly, briefly, up for discussion. In Scott’s terms, the public and hidden transcripts had become temporarily blurred and indistinct, and the precise limits of what might legitimately be said or criticised were unclear. Spurred on by the apparent relaxation of the censorship and control, religious radicals such as Fish and his allies could test the water with provocative calls for ecclesiastical reform and doctrinal innovation, while conservatives such as the authors of the Lords’ Articles concerned with the church and the Hester playwright might conversely seek to write their own agendas into the public transcript. In the end neither was wholly successful, as we have seen. The king was not minded to support doctrinal reform, nor to sanction a wholesale assault upon monastic wealth, although the moment when he would do both was not far ahead. Nor was he willing to return to the ecclesiastical status quo of the period before Wolsey’s legatine regime. Radicals and conservatives alike were thus for a time to be equally disappointed. But the period of flux and uncertainty was not without its consequences. Once released from its bottle, the genii of religious debate would not readily be returned, and, having once admitted publicly that ‘enormities’ had been allowed to grow unchecked in church and state, Henry could not claim that all was perfectly ordered, or that he could be fully trusted to notice and address future abuses, ever again. The public transcript now had room within it for the public discussion of religious and secular policy, and for well-intentioned subjects to bring matters of importance in church and state to the notice of the crown. And as a consequence Henry was forced for the remainder of his reign to return repeatedly to the question of unchecked religious debate, first imploring and then condemning his subjects in increasingly shrill

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 58

08/01/2013 08:23

Godly Queen Hester

59

tones, for their capacity to cry foul against each other and argue for their own private interests rather than the good of the realm. As he would tell Parliament in 1547, his subjects would now habitually abuse each other publicly, inveighing ‘one against the other, without charity or discretion’, as, on the one side ‘papist’ and on the other ‘heretic’ – in short blaming each other for provoking the ‘enormities’ that More had written into the public transcript some eighteen years before.40

Notes 1. See Walker, Plays of Persuasion: Drama and Politics at the Court of Henry VIII (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) pp. 102–32. 2. For a fuller account of the associations between Aman and Wolsey, see Walker, Plays, pp. 104 and following. 3. For the representation of Queen Katherine in the play, see Janette Dillon, ‘Powerful Obedience: Godly Queen Hester and Katherine of Aragon’ in Peter Happé and Wim Hüsken (eds), Interludes and Early Modern Society: Studies in Gender, Power and Theatricality (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007), pp. 117–39. 4. Walker, Plays, pp. 102–32. 5. Dillon, ‘Powerful Obedience’, p. 118. 6. Edward Halle, The Union of the Two Noble Families of Lancaster and York (1550), Scolar Press facsimile (Menton: Scolar Press, 1970) [Hereafter, Hall, Chronicle] p. clxxxiii. 7. See Hall, pp. clxxxiii and verso and Cavendish, Life, p. 100. 8. Hall, Chronicle, clxxxiii(v). 9. A proper dyaloge between a Gentillman and a husbandman, eche complaynyng to other their miserable calamite through the ambicion of the clergye (attributed to ‘Hans Luft’ of Marborow, but actually printed by Johannes Hoochstraten, Antwerp, 1530), Aviii(v)–B. The text was reprinted again later in the same year, bound with A compendious olde treatyse shewynge howe that we ought to have ye scripture in Englysshe (originally also printed separately by Hoochstraten under the same pseudonym in 1530). 10. John Heywood, The Play of the Weather, ll. 25–7, printed in Greg Walker (ed.), Medieval Drama: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000). 11. Greg Walker, ‘Satire and Conscience in John Heywood’s Play of Love’, Yearbook of English Studies (forthcoming, 2013). 12. The Enormytees Usyd by the Clergy (John Skot: London, 1531/2), Ai(v) and following. 13. Calendar of State Papers, Spanish [C.S.P. Sp.] IV (i) 257. 14. C.S.P. Sp. V, 250; Walker, Plays, p. 164. 15. Greg Walker, Persuasive Fictions: Faction, Faith and Political Culture in the Reign of Henry VIII (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996) pp. 35–53. 16. G. W. Bernard, War, Taxation and Rebellion in Early Tudor England (Brighton: Harvester, 1986), passim. 17. As early as October the French Ambassador, Jean du Bellay, reported

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 59

08/01/2013 08:23

60

18. 19. 20. 21. 22.

23. 24.

25.

26.

27.

Reading Literature Historically that Wolsey’s aristocratic critics intended, after he was dead or ruined, to ‘impeach the state of the church, and take all their goods, which it is hardly needful for me to write, for they proclaim it openly’. Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic of the Reign of Henry VIII, IV (iii) 6011. See Walker, Plays, pp. 158–60. H. Miller, ‘London and Parliament in the Reign of Henry VIII’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research XXXV (1962), pp. 128–49, p. 144. Hall, Chronicle, p. 765. Stanford Lehmberg, The Reformation Parliament, 1529–1536 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 83. C.S.P. Sp. IV (i) 232. For a full transcription of the Articles, see Lord Herbert of Cherbury, The Life and Reigne of Henry the Eighth (London, 1649), pp. 266–71. Although the document bears the seals only of laymen, including Thomas More, prominent nobles, judges and officers of the court, it is evident that senior clergy were consulted during its compilation, both from the content of specific allegations about Wolsey’s handling of ecclesiastical cases and impositions on the prerogative of bishops and other clergy, and from the claim of the chronicler Edward Hall, who was present in parliament as member for Wenlock in Shropshire, that ‘when the nobles and prelates perceived that the King’s favour was from the Cardinal sore minished, every man of the King’s Council began to lay to him such offences as they knew by him, and all their accusations were written in a book, and all their hands set to it’. Edward Hall, Chronicle, p. clxxxiii. For the suggestion that at this stage the king was considering acting against Wolsey through a bill of attainder, see George Cavendish, The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey, ed. R. S. Sylvester, Early English Text Society 243 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959 for 1957), pp. 112–13. Herbert, Life, p. 266, Article I. Herbert, Life, p. 269. See also p. 270, Article XXV, which protested that ‘the same Lord Cardinal hath visited the most part of the religious houses and colleges of this your realm, [and] hath taken of them the twentyfifth part of their livelihood, to the great extortion of your subjects and derogation of your laws and prerogatives and no law to bear him so to do’. The townsfolk of Tonbridge in Kent had unsuccessfully petitioned Archbishop Warham to intervene to save their local house (L.P. IV (i) 1470–71, 4920), and there had been a short-lived popular rising in Baynham in Sussex in 1525, during which the brothers were briefly restored to the local abbey (J. J. Goring, ‘The Riot at Baynham Abbey, June 1525’, Sussex Archaeological Collections CXVI (1978), pp. 1–10), but the suppressions largely passed without difficulty. L.P. IV (iii) 5667–8; D. Knowles, The Religious Orders in England (3 vols, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955–71), III, p. 160; P. J. Gwyn, The King’s Cardinal (London: Barrie and Jenkin, 1990), pp. 331–7, 464–79. L.P. IV 5749. Among Darcy’s other aides memoire for the session included the notes that, prior to Wolsey’s ascendancy, ‘no abbeys ne houses of religion [were] by untrue surmises pulled ne suffered to be pulled down,

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 60

08/01/2013 08:23

Godly Queen Hester

28.

29. 30. 31. 32.

33.

34. 35.

61

ne noble founders’ wills broken, ne magna carta, but royally maintained, and divine services upholden’. His emotional investment in the issue can be judged from the following notes in the same document: ‘Item, the abomination, ruin and seditious and erroneous violations used at the pulling down of the abbeys by his [Wolsey’s] commissioners and servants at his commandments, and the great robberies and spoiling, may be weighed to the worst act or article of Martin Luther’s, as will be proved if good trials and examinations be had thereof.’ ‘Item, all the coins of gold, silver, bullion, plate, jewels, stores, implements, debts and dues, as well by specialties as otherwise, and bells, books, leads, and all other metals and [adornments], beddings, apparels . . . as well of them as of their houses and monasteries pulled down, all converted clearly to his use, which as before may be tried and proved by matter of records of every house particular, in great sums and substances.’ ‘Item, what mighty sums hath been levied of other houses of religion, some for respect, some for dread to be pulled down, and by others his feigned visitation, under colour of virtuous reformations . . .’ ‘Reaching from one end to the other . . . ordering all things mightily and sweetly’: quoting Isaiah 11: 2–3 and 28: 29, the antiphon for 17 December (‘O Wisdom, Who didst come out of the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: come and teach us the way of prudence.’) Walker, Plays, pp. 108–9. Herbert, Life, p. 268, Article XIII. Fish, A Supplication for the Beggars (printed anonymously, and with no place of publication, 1529), my pagination. There is perhaps a direct allusion to Fish’s assertion that the clergy were swelling in numbers to the point where they constituted their own separate kingdom in Aman’s claim that the Jews’ ‘possessions be of substance / So great and so large that I fear at the length / They will attempt to subdue you by strength’ (ll. 746–48). The equivalent claim in Fish’s tract warns that the clergy ‘have . . . gotten into their hands more lands . . . than any duke in England . . . yea, have they not . . . translated into their hands from your grace half your kingdom . . . and of one kingdom made twain . . .? And which of these two kingdoms suppose ye is like to overgrow the other, yea to put the other clear out of memory? Truly the kingdom of the bloodsuppers, for to them is given daily out of your kingdom’ (l. 9). Here again the interlude echoes the Lords’ Articles, turning an allegation against the clergy in general into one against Wolsey in particular, and citing it as a reason for the poverty rather than the wealth of the religious houses. Article XXIV alleged that ‘the said Lord Cardinal at many times when any houses of religion have been void, he hath sent his officers thither and with crafty persuasions hath induced them to compromit their election in him. And that before ere he named or confirmed any of them, he and his servants received so much great goods of them that in manner it hath been to the undoing of the house’ (Herbert, Life, p. 270). Walker, Plays, p. 123. The proclamation enshrines the right of the Jews to live by their own laws and regulations (‘The Jews to their laws themselves should prepare

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 61

08/01/2013 08:23

62

36. 37. 38. 39. 40.

Reading Literature Historically [dedicate] / Duly to keep them and not from them square [deviate]. / And no man to hurt them’ (ll. 1139–43)). C.S.P. Sp. IV (ii) 615. Hall, Chronicle, p. clxxxx. Hall, Chronicle, p. clxxx(v). See Dillon, ‘Powerful Obedience’, especially p. 118. Hall, Chronicle, p. cclx.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 62

08/01/2013 08:23

Chapter 3

Flytyng in the Face of Convention: Protest and Innovation in Lindsay’s Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis

On 6 January 1540, the Scottish court watched an embryonic version of Sir David Lindsay’s great drama, Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis.1 What they saw seems, from the only surviving account, to have been an innovative reworking of the conventions of the moral interlude for political ends. In the great hall of Linlithgow Palace, in the presence of James V, and in a court culture predicated upon the authorising presence of an adult male sovereign, Lindsay presented the king with a dramatic speculum principis in which he might see conventional good counsel impersonated for his benefit. Rather than follow morality convention, however, and represent the temptation, fall and restoration of a protagonist whose fortunes might serve as an example to his royal spectator, Lindsay seems to have built his play around a series of entrances into the hall. Adapting his drama to its location in the royal household, he brought in a series of visitors and suitors to the king, echoing both the protocols of the royal audience chamber and the parliament hall, and perhaps also the more spectacular entries characteristic of courtly masks.2 Having given room to the boastful antics of a trio of sycophantic courtiers (Placebo, Pickthank and Flattery), and the arrival of the three Estates of Parliament, the main business of the play involved the entry of the Poor Man, who presented a lengthy petition for redress of his destitute condition. He attacked high taxes, the excessive rent demands of lay landlords, and the corruption of royal household officials who prevent suitors gaining access to the king.3 But the bulk of his grievances were levelled against the clergy. He castigated clerical corruption in the handling of landed estates and the collection of death duties, tithes, and other demands, and ‘the great abominable vices that reign in cloisters’. And, in a striking gesture he turned away in the midst of his appeal from the actor playing the king, and looked instead toward James V in the audience, declaring that there was only one true king in Scotland, the

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 63

08/01/2013 08:23

64

Reading Literature Historically

man who had suppressed disorder, pacified the country and staunched theft: But he had left one thing undone which pertained as well to his charge as the [other]. And when he was asked what that was, he made a long narration . . . of [the] many . . . abusions of the spirituality and church, with many long stories and authorities.4

The clear implication was that James himself should right these wrongs too. Far from being outraged by this piece of forthright advice, however, the king was evidently expecting it; indeed he had probably arranged with Lindsay that the play should present precisely this petition to him. The surviving account of the performance goes on to note that, as soon as the interlude had ended, The King of Scots did call upon the Bishop of Glasgow, being Chancellor, and diverse other bishops, exhorting them to reform their factions and manners of living, saying that unless they so did, he would send six of the proudest of them unto his uncle of England, and, as those were ordered, so he would order all the rest that would not amend.

The play thus represents an ambitious use of drama to intervene in contemporary politics. It provided James with a direct cue to demand reform from his captive audience of bishops, and Lindsay with the opportunity to petition the king on behalf of the oppressed rural leaseholders, labourers, and tenant farmers whose fortunes seem to have been a particular concern to him throughout his career. When he came to write the much longer, and very different version of the Satyre performed in Cupar in Fife in 1552 and reprised in Edinburgh in 1554, however, Lindsay attempted a much more ambitious political drama. This work, as the surviving texts reveal, is very much a play of two halves: or, at least, of two imperfectly separated movements. The first runs more or less evenly to the entrance of Verity at line 1034, whereupon the second begins to intrude more and more obviously through to the end of the first half of the play proper at line 1933, and dominates entirely in the subsequent ‘Interlude’ and the second half of the play. In the first movement, set in the stylised court of Rex Humanitas, Lindsay offers a conventional morality play reconfigured to fit the circumstances of outdoor theatre. But in the second we see something new and striking – a continuation of the action in which the issues raised and seemingly resolved in the allegorical space of the first section are explored afresh in a verisimilitudinous play-world with a much greater geographic and cultural scope.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 64

08/01/2013 08:23

Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis

65

In the first movement, the characters represent embodied abstractions: virtues and vices, philosophical and moral principles, and aspects of the psyche of the princely protagonist which need either to be embraced or rejected. The temptation of Rex by Lady Sensuality through the offices of the courtly vices Placebo, Solace, and Wantonness; the arrival of Good Counsel and Flattery; the comic business between the latter and Deceit and Falset (Falsehood); their adoption of aliases and disguised entry into Rex’s household, and the eventual arrival of Divine Correction and the disciplining of the Vices: all of this follows the conventions of the morality tradition. In the second half, however, in which (as in the 1540 interlude) a parliament is held, petitions for redress are heard, and reforming legislation drafted, the dramatis personae are more properly characters in their own right. They represent social forces, classes and types, certainly,5 but each, as we shall see, is vividly individualised in ways that set him or her apart from mere abstractions. And, for the plot to resolve itself, what is needed here is not for these figures to be purged or symbolically absorbed within the personality of the protagonist, thereby creating an ideal prince, but for them to be exiled or reconciled with each other to create a just and stable polity. Thus John the Commonweal is invited to join the parliament, creating a nominal Fourth Estate, the clergy are disciplined or dispossessed, and a series of Vice figures are hanged. In this way, the Satyre represents a new form of political drama – a play that presents a mirror for the entire Scottish nation rather than for the prince alone, and its ‘message’ concerns a reformation enacted in the name of royal authority, but to which the prince himself is almost incidental. Consequently, we see in the Satyre, not simply a new form of drama emerging from the conventions of the medieval morality play and the princely interlude, but a new way of representing Scottish political life crafted from the building blocks of medieval didactic theatre.6 Hints of the novel complications that Lindsay was introducing into the morality form can be seen from the outset, most obviously in the representation of the notional protagonist, Rex Humanitas, himself. In 1540 Lindsay had presented the commonweal to the king, bringing in the Poor Man to speak on behalf of the people to James V in his courtly space. In 1552 he presents a king to the commonweal assembled in their space on the Castle Hill in Cupar, and what he depicts is a curiously ambivalent figure. As Lindsay presents him, Rex is both abstract and concrete: the paradigmatic hero of his own psychomachean drama, as well as a symbol of the historical failings of Scottish kingship. Diligence presents him as an impressive royal figure: ‘ane noble and right redouted roy [king]’ (ll. 15–16); but he almost immediately undercuts that

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 65

08/01/2013 08:23

66

Reading Literature Historically

impression with a request for the audience to show tolerance of his sovereign’s youth: Thocht he, ane quhyll into his flouris, Be governit be vylde trompouris, And sumtyme lufe his paramouris, Hauld ye him excusit. For, quhen he meittis with Correctioun, With Veritie and Discretioun, Thay will be banisched aff the toun, Quhilk hes him abusit. (38–45) [Although he, only recently entered into his maturity, will be governed by vile deceivers, and for a time [will] take lovers, please excuse him [consider him excused], for once he meets with Divine Correction, with Verity and Discretion, those who have abused him will be banished from the town.]

Rex is thus on one level the archetypal morality hero, a naïve innocent who must learn from experience – the ‘tabula rasa’ (a blank page, as he later styles himself) on which the other allegorical figures must write. Yet he is also, even at the start of the play, already culpable, responsible in great part for contemporary Scotland’s fallen political condition: an emblem of a royal authority that has lain dormant ‘lang tyme’ and allowed corruption and disorder to flourish unchecked:7 Howbeit that hee lang tyme hes bene sleipand, Quhairthrow misreull hes rung thir monie yeiris, That innocentis hes bene brocht on thair beirris, Be fals reporteris of this natioun. (24–7) [Although he has been sleeping for a long time, and consequently misrule has reigned these many years, and innocents have been condemned to their coffins by rumour mongers of this nation.]

Finally, he is also the king-in-waiting, the ruler who, by exercising his authority decisively, will right those wrongs that have prevailed while he slept: . . . he intendis amang yow to compeir, With ane triumphant, awfull ordinance, With crown and sword and scepter in his hand, Temperit with mercie quhen penitence appeiris . . . Thocht young oppressouris at the elder leiris, Be now assurit of reformatioun. (20–3, 28–9)

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 66

08/01/2013 08:23

Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis

67

[He intends [now] to appear among you with a triumphal, terrible governance/justice, crowned and with sword and sceptre in his hand, albeit [his rule will be] tempered with mercy if [the offender] show penitence . . . Although young oppressors currently learn from their elders, be now assured of reformation.]

Diligence’s opening speech thus describes a once-and-future king who is both the cause of, and potentially the solution to, Scotland’s social crisis – a figure who is both innocent and guilty, awesome and vulnerable, a moral blank and a political player, both outside history and a very obvious representation of the recent Scottish past. In attempting to use Rex – and the morality framework that initially sustains him – to do so much, Lindsay is in effect asking them to transcend their own generic boundaries. The result is a seemingly paradoxical endeavour: an attempt to reconfigure a dramatic form based upon abstraction and idealism to represent concrete and pragmatic ends. On his first entrance into the action, Rex expresses an orthodox spiritual viewpoint wholly characteristic of the morality tradition: I knaw my dayis induris bot as ane dreame; Thairfor, O Lord, I hairtlie The[e] exhort, To gif me grace to use my diademe To Thy pleasure and to my great comfort. (98–101) [I know that my days stretch out only as a dream [i.e. worldly life is illusory]; therefore, O Lord, I heartily exhort Thee to give me the grace to use my crown to Thy pleasure and to my great [spiritual] health.]

But any sense that this simple spiritual perspective is to be the play’s abiding principle is quickly overwhelmed by Lindsay’s fascination with the local and quotidian details of Scottish history, geography, and politics. Worldly life in this play is not a dream to be awoken from, nor just a thoroughfare of woe to be endured on the way to eventual salvation, but a rich and vital experience in its own right. A thoroughfare of woe it may be for many, but it is so, Lindsay suggests, as a result of much more immediate and obvious sources of corruption than original sin: the inequalities of the tax system, a lack of clear spiritual guidance from the clergy, the demands of oppressive landlords, and many other of the more mundane and relievable torments that unprotected human flesh is heir to. So Rex must learn, not simply to renounce the flesh (indeed he is granted a fair degree of laxity in this regard),8 but also to attend to the needs of his people. He must hear John the Commonweal complain about the exactions of the clergy and the lawlessness on the Borders, Pauper protest about the burdens of mortuary duties on poor

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 67

08/01/2013 08:23

68

Reading Literature Historically

leaseholders and the prolix procedures of the ecclesiastical courts, and Verity and Chastity itemise the failings of the religious houses and the lack of provision for preaching and religious instruction. And he must respond, not like the protagonists of the moralities, with repentance and a renewed dedication to living a good life, but with economic and legal reform, civil legislation, and what looks like an early attempt at social engineering. Such an agenda sets the priorities of the conventional morality on their head. As the rather perfunctory apology with which Diligence finishes his prologue suggests, the moral drama was based on allegorical abstraction, of telling a moral truth entertainingly on the level of the general principle rather than the particular case: Prudent peopill, I pray yow all, Tak na man greif in speciall, For wee sall speik in general, For pastyme and for play. (70–3) [Prudent people, I beg you all, that no man should take particular offence, for we shall speak only generally [rather than of specific individuals and cases], for entertainment and recreation.]

While shrewd playwrights had always been able to bend that rule and smuggle in local colour and ad hominem application in the course of a play (as in the allusions to local landowners in Mankind, for example, or the application of the allegorical narrative to events in Henry VIII’s court in Skelton’s Magnificence, Godly Queen Hester, or John Heywood’s Play of the Weather),9 Lindsay was here pushing that principle much further than anyone had previously attempted. He was using the morality form to represent both a version of recent Scottish history and a complex, sophisticated appraisal of the prospects for religious and social reform. In this respect his only real precursor was John Bale, who had sought in King Johan (1538) to combine an evangelical historiography with the poetics of the morality play.10 But the differences between the two plays illustrate the scale of Lindsay’s formal innovation and intellectual achievement. Like Bale, Lindsay adapts the morality to new, political use, and in so doing he unconsciously prepares the way for the emergence of the history play as a distinct, secularised genre. Unlike Bale, however, he does so in a much more thoroughgoing manner, rooting his work in the detailed representation of Scottish culture and society. Where Bale had allegorised history, reducing by abstraction the reign of King John to a lesson for the reign of Henry VIII: a simple story of clerical corruption, Roman tyranny and the need for royal reform,11

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 68

08/01/2013 08:23

Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis

69

Lindsay takes the same pattern and applies it to the much rougher contours of recent Scottish history and contemporary experience. Lindsay’s play is broad enough in scope and rich enough in its depth of focus to take in the copious details of Cupar life that clearly fascinated him. He represents both the parlous state of contemporary Scotland and the particular instances of which that general situation is compounded, both the will to reform and the numerous compromises that will be necessary if that reform is to be even partially successful in the real world. His use of the morality structure thus goes well beyond the demands of its relatively simple and predictable rise-and-fall pattern and its psychomachean mechanics. He adapts that form to his material rather than viceversa, and as a consequence the Satyre ends, not in redemption but in a tacit acknowledgement of complexity and diversity, an acceptance that there is still much work yet to be done: a truth symbolised by the fact that both Public Oppression and Flattery live to fight another day.12 If closure is achieved in the play it is not that of moral certainty. Rex is not ushered into Heaven after a life well spent and a job well done, but is left watching bemusedly as events onstage move irrevocably beyond his control, while even Divine Correction seems momentarily distracted from his purpose. The play ends not in a communal act of piety, but in laughter, in a joyful, frank admission that ‘infinite are the number of fools’, and that history is not reducible to abstract resolution but must be engaged with in all its contradictory detail, a ‘moral’ voiced in a riotously scatological sketch of the idiocies of the world ‘nowadays’ (which is at the same time a plangent lament for the death of merry foolishness and a national loss of innocence) delivered by Folly, a figure himself both abstract and concrete, idealistic and pragmatic, ‘comic and apocalyptic’.13 As the play moves from allegory and morality to politics and religion, we increasingly view it through the representation of Scotland the nation rather than the person of the prince. Correction announces his mission in uncompromising terms on his first entrance: Now am I cum into this regioun To teill the ground that hes bene lang unsawin, To punische tyrants for thair transggressioun, And to cause leill men live upon thair awin. (1601–4) [Now am I come into this region to till the ground that has been long unsown, to punish tyrants for their transgressions and allow true men [the freedom to] live from their own labours.]

And it is in ‘this regioun’ (ll. 2338, 2412, 3581) this ‘natioun’ (l. 2302), this realm (l. 2357), this land (l. 2557) – and still more locally, in the

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 69

08/01/2013 08:23

70

Reading Literature Historically

politics of Fife and ‘the burrows toun’ of Cupar itself (l. 127) – that the play is rooted. ‘Scotland’ in this play is, consequently, not a mere conceptualisation, an adjunct to the royal will, but a broad and diverse land made up of concrete locations and real families and individuals, with a history as diverse as its landscape. We hear distances being measured by the miles between Lothian and St Andrews (l. 1971), Cupar and Dunbarton (ll. 2198 and 3147), Carrick in Argyll and Crail in Fife (l. 3425). One character leaves to fetch a cowl of Tullilum (near Perth), which he has left on the road between St Johnston (Perth) and Kinneil Palace (l. 761). Elsewhere there are allusions to Renfrew, Rutherglen, and Corstorphine (ll. 909–11), to the monks of Balmerino in Fife (l. 261) and the friars of St. Andrews (ll. 4637–9), and to the numerous craftsmen, tradesmen and civic officers of Cupar and its environs. Characters discuss Scottish history and geography, debating the wisdom of the religious policies of David I (ll. 1124–3) and James I (ll. 1405–37) (ll. 2965– 74, 2989–94) and talk of the arable lands of the Strother (Struthers, south of Cupar, l. 3263) and the Merse, near Berwick (l. 3320), and of ships storm-driven beyond the Isle of May (l. 611). Throughout the play, the dialogue is punctuated by echoes of the quotidian business of living in Cupar, with its filthy pavements, breakable booths [shops] and roaming livestock. We hear the names of local landmarks, both real and imagined (‘Dame Flescher’s midding [midden]’ (l. 2192), the Fernie Mire (l. 1813), and the coal-mines of Tranent (l. 1817)), street names (the ‘schoegait’ [Shoe Street] (l. 4315), ‘Bon[n]y gait’, and Castle Hill (banns, 17)). And most insistently of all, the personal names of local denizens – ‘gude kynde, Christiane Andersone’ (l. 2212), ‘the sowtar [cobbler] Geordie Sillie’ (l. 4184), the tailor Andrew Fortoun (l. 4154), the deacon Jamie Ralfe (l. 4160), Tom Williamson (l. 4098), and ‘the greit Clan Jamesone, / The blude royal of Cuper toun’ (ll. 4094–5) – sound a litany of the real that runs through the drama, reminding us that it is set in the here and now of the audience’s own experience.14 This local detail is not incidental, it is tightly woven into the fabric of the play, providing its distinctive tone and driving its agenda towards an immediate engagement with lived social conditions and experience. By the end of the play, Lindsay has moved a long way from the abstracted universal certainties of the morality tradition. But even in Good Counsel’s opening speech in the first movement one can see traces of the drive to historicity that will come to dominate. He announces his importance to all princes, emperors and kings (l. 566), suggesting that his character has a universal purview. But it is his absence from recent Scottish history that is the cutting edge of his complaint:

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 70

08/01/2013 08:23

Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis

71

Bot out of Scotland, wa, alas, I haif bene fleimit lang tyme space, That garris our gyders all want grace, And die befoir thair day. (578–81) [But, woe and alas, I was driven from Scotland long ago, and that has caused all our rulers to lack grace and to die before they should.]

The striking allusion to the deaths of James III, James IV and James V, each killed before his time by violence or disease, brings the allegorical frame of reference jarringly into the present tense. The entry of Verity tilts the play further and decisively towards the local and historical. Although she too initially presents herself as a lesson for princes (‘gif ye wald your subjectis war weill gevin / Then vertuouslie begin the dance yow sell’ [If you wish your subjects to be devoted to virtue, then virtuously begin the dance yourself] (ll. 1060–61)) her true opponents are not the personified vices who have corrupted Rex but the clergy: Spirituality, Abbot, Parson, and the Prioress. And the battle between them is over not the soul of Rex Humanitas but the future of the Scottish church. Rex has changed, that is, from being the emblematic battlefield over which an allegorical struggle is fought to being just one of the players in an historical struggle over political and economic power. The new priorities are evident in the Abbot’s aggressive response to Verity’s arrival: I hauld it best that wee incontinent Gar hauld hir [Veritie] fast into captivitie, Unto the thrid day of the Parliament, And then accuse hir of hir herisie: Or than banische hir out of this cuntrie. For, with the king gif Veritie be knawin, Of our greit gloir wee will degradit be, And all our secreits to the commouns schawn. (1113–20) [I believe it is best that we immediately lock her in prison, until the third day of the Parliament, and then prosecute her for heresy, or banish her from the realm; for if the king should learn about Verity, we’ll lose all our authority, and all our secrets will be revealed to the common people.]

The king is here no longer the protagonist around whom everything revolves, nor even the central political authority whose intervention is to be feared; he is simply the medium by which the guilty secrets of the clergy might be transmitted to the vengeful common people. The Abbot has identified an ‘enemy’ and a source of reformation well outside the boundaries of the conventional morality play.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 71

08/01/2013 08:23

72

Reading Literature Historically

Having first appeared to be a character in Rex’s psychodrama, then, Verity emerges here as a player in an historical struggle over the fate of Scottish society. And it is in this role that she operates thereafter, most obviously in her collaboration with her sister character, Chastity. The fact that the latter’s role has more to do with the failings of the supposedly celibate clergy than with Rex’s fall under the influence of Sensuality again indicates the shift in priorities and focus in this section of the play. Significantly, it is the Prioress, not Rex, who tells Chastity that ‘Dame Sensuall hes gevin directioun / Yow till exclude out of my cumpany’ [Dame Sensuality has demanded you be banished from my company] (ll. 1240–41). If there is still an allegorical battle being fought here, it is clearly not taking place solely in Rex’s psyche. By the time we reach the dispute between the Tailor, the Sowtar [cobbler] and their wives over the men’s friendship with Chastity, the focus of attention has shifted from Rex altogether. And from this point on his role is marginal to the progress even of the political action he nominally instigates. In these misogynistic comic scenes the raucous tones of conventional marital satire briefly take over the play, injecting a new energy drawn from the French traditions of the fabliau and sotie: Sowtar’s Wife:

God, nor my trewker mence ane tedder, For it is mair nor fourtie dayis Sen ever he cleiked up my clayis, And last quhen I gat chalmer glew, That fowl Sowtar began till spew. And now thay will sit doun and drink In company with ane kow-clink! Gif thay haif done us this dispyte, Let us go ding them till thay dryte. (1333–41)

[O God, may my trickster [of a husband] grace the gallows, for its more than forty days since he ever lifted up my clothes; and the last time I got any sexual attention [literally ‘bedroom joy’], that foul shoemaker [of mine] began to vomit. And now they’ll sit and drink in the company of a whore! If they’re going to insult us like this, let’s go and beat them until they shit themselves.]

The important point here is not so much that the lesson of these vigorous comic scenes is not applied to Rex’s case, but rather that no lesson is extracted from them at all. When the wives ‘ding’ their husbands from the field, it might be read as either an example of dramatic justice to be applauded (one aspect of Divine Correction’s purgation of the realm), or an instance of the kind of misrule that has drawn Correction to Scotland in the first place. But the play emphasises neither interpretation. Rather the incident, and others like it, are left to tell their own tale, suggesting

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 72

08/01/2013 08:23

Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis

73

only that this is how things are, for better or worse, here and now in Scotland. The body politic in the play is thus not coterminous or reducible to the body natural (or allegorical) of the prince. Its inequalities and diversities, its irreducible hostilities, are not amenable to redemption solely at the will of a single royal protagonist. The play thus marks a profound break with the kind of reciprocal metaphoricity that Louise Fradenburg has identified as characteristic of the political interlude, in which the body of the king and the body politic might each be mapped upon the other, and might each reform the other by a kind of mythical symbolism (or authorial sleight of hand).15 In its place Lindsay offers a stubbornly untransubstantiatable dramaturgy – an empirical theatre in which John the Commonweal, Pauper or Deceit must be dealt with on their own terms rather than simply as aspects of Rex’s personality. In the Satyre the ‘making new’ of Scotland can be achieved on no other plane but the social. No longer can the playwright vicariously visit the sins of the nation upon the prince or vice-versa. If morality is to triumph it must be through parliamentary legislation and reform, and the re-integration of excluded underclasses into the political community (a dream symbolised by the granting of the ‘gay garmoun [garment]’ (l. 3794) to John the Commonweal and his incorporation in the body of the Estates). But Lindsay is too much of a pragmatist to suggest that such an outcome is readily achievable, even in the medium of political theatre. As Correction had announced at the start of the second movement, Rex, like all kings, is merely an instrument in his own wider mission to reform: Quhat is ane king? Nocht bot ane officiar To cause his lieges [to] live in equitie: And under God to be ane punischer Of trespassours against His majestie. (1613–16) [What is a king? Nothing but an officer whose role is to keep his subjects living in equity; and beneath God to be a punisher of transgressors of His authority.]

Hence his acceptance of Correction, Good Counsel, Verity and Chastity into his household (ll. 1777–84) marks the end, not of the play as whole (as it surely would in a conventional morality), but of only one movement within it: the courtly phase of the action. Similarly, John the Commonweal’s absorption into the estates towards the end of the second movement is not symbolic of any change in the psyche of the king, it is the result of hard-won economic reforms, political pressure,

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 73

08/01/2013 08:23

74

Reading Literature Historically

and horse-trading among the existing Estates. It is symbolic of social and institutional change in the nation not moral reform in an individual. Pauper’s partial pacification is similarly a pragmatic social achievement won on the level – and in the language – of government and politics. It signals no change in the outlook of Rex, and requires none. Indeed, Pauper remains at a partial remove from the manoeuvres of the king, vigilant for any sign of backsliding and ready to break out with further loud protest and direct action at any loss of the will to reform. As he boldly tells Rex, he welcomes the legislation announced by the Estates (‘I wald nocht for ane pair of plackis / Ye had nocht maid thir nobill Actis’ [I wouldn’t wish that you hadn’t passed these noble Acts, even if you offered me two four-penny coins] (ll. 3984–5)), yet the will to reform is nothing if it is not carried through: Wer thay weill keipit, I understand, It war great honour to Scotland. [But] [i]t had bene als gude ye had sleipit, As to mak Acts and be nocht keipit. (3988–91) [If they are to be obeyed and enforced, I believe they’ll be a great benefit to Scotland. But it’ll be no better than if you slept, if you pass Acts and then don’t enforce them.]

Pauper himself is probably the most striking innovation in the play’s complex dramaturgy, and the most obvious evidence of Lindsay’s radical agenda. His entrance, begging for alms while the other characters are ‘out of their seats’ (stage direction following line 1933), introduces a startling new level of realism into the drama. His behaviour, echoing what may well have been a common occurrence at outdoor performances and other gatherings, when itinerant beggars or local people with points to make might address the crowd for their own ends, blurs the distinction between play space and audience space in a powerfully unsettling way.16 By introducing Pauper in this way Lindsay signals effectively that the play is no longer operating on the allegorical plane. The real problems of contemporary Scotland are now to be his subject. Pauper is, to all intents and purposes, a contemporary individual rather than a personification or a type. He has a family: a newly deceased wife and ‘bairns, either sax or seivin’ [six or seven children] (l. 1935), he lives in East Lothian, ‘ane myle fra Tranent’ (l. 1969), has a desperate personal history to relate, and a journey to ‘seek law’ in nearby St. Andrews which he is on his way to complete. All of this sets him apart from the characters who have thus far engaged our attention. Unlike them he embodies no single principle of conduct or outlook, and

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 74

08/01/2013 08:23

Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis

75

does not fit readily into the dichotomy of virtues and vices. He has been unjustly treated, but he is not meekly seeking sympathy; his conduct is abrasive and confrontational, and he seems both drunk and potentially violent. His outraged refusal to accept that ‘consuetude’ – the force of tradition – has any legitimacy (‘Ane consuetude against the common weill / Sould be na law, I think, by sweit Sanct Geill’ [a tradition which goes against the common benefit should be no law, in my view, by Saint Giles!] (ll. 2022–3)) would, in an elite culture characterised by deference for due process, have had a powerful alienating potential. He is a representative figure only in so far as his particular story of excessive taxation and poverty is an extreme version of the circumstances facing a whole class of disadvantaged tenant farmers. And this shift from the personification to the individual is evident in many of the characters who subsequently enter the action.17

The Motives for Reform It would not be stretching things too far, I think, to suggest that it was the urgency with which Lindsay seems to have felt the need for social and religious reform, coupled with the special circumstances that pertained during the Governorship of the Earl of Arran (1542–4), that prompted him to dispense with the conventions and forge this new drama of verisimilitude in these scenes. His anger at clerics who neither preach nor teach and his sympathy for the plight of the deserving poor – particularly the rural poor – had already prompted him to innovate in dramatic terms in the 1540 interlude, in which, as we have seen, the play provided a vehicle for the Poor Man’s petition for redress. But the appeals for justice in the Satyre go beyond the conventions of courtly drama – and beyond the protocols of deferential political discourse – in their attempt to represent the plight of the over-taxed, the underinformed, and the dispossessed. While they are ostensibly framed as petitions, the speeches of John and Pauper amount to strident demands for action, spoken in the compelling terms of economic necessity and moral righteousness. They each carry something of Verity’s audacious biblical injunction (echoing Psalms 43: 22–3), ‘Get up, thou sleipis all too lang, O Lord’ (l. 1168). For a playwright to dispense with the protocols of the speculum principis and address a political play at a public beyond the immediate courtly elite is in itself a remarkable undertaking. Even during a minority, with no adult male sovereign to receive the good counsel that drama might offer, the illusion of deference to royal authority

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 75

08/01/2013 08:23

76

Reading Literature Historically

was conventionally retained. The prince was at least imagined as the object of the nation’s aspirations and the agent of its redemption. But in Lindsay’s play the prince is reduced to an instrument, a cipher, and ultimately to a spectator of a political drama initiated and performed by others. This is a striking gesture. But then, as I have suggested elsewhere, kingship in Lindsay’s work is frequently represented ambivalently: as the focus of excessive hopes and expectations, but ultimately the source only of disappointment and frustration.18 Hence his kings, like buses, are never there when you need them, and when they do come, they do so at the wrong times and are often heading in the wrong direction. This is, in one sense, unsurprising. Scottish kingship in the sixteenth century was itself a profoundly ambivalent phenomenon, characterised as frequently by the absence of a male sovereign as by his presence. James IV had ruled as an adult effectively for only nineteen years, James V for only fourteen, and as Lindsay was writing another infant ruler, Mary Queen of Scots, was living in France. Child princes, an absentee queen, government by compromised regents and divided councils, and disputed lines of succession were the common experience for Scotland of much of the middle third of the century. For Lindsay to put his faith in kings, then, would be an exercise in both nostalgia and pious aspiration rather than a practical political strategy.19 It was after ten years of unstable minority government under the Earl of Arran that Lindsay offered the people of Cupar a play that became stridently less courtly as it progressed, defying the normal protocols of royal address and rewriting the rules of moral drama. It is not a sense of his own responsibilities that prompts Rex to act, nor any crisis of conscience on the part of the Estates. The play makes it clear that what motivates the governors are the forceful demands of the common people. The reforms represented in Lindsay’s play are self-evidently a revolution ‘from below’. John sets out for Correction’s benefit, not only what is wrong, but also who is responsible and how he should act to punish them: My sovereign Lord Correctioun, I mak yow supplicatioun: Put thir tryit truikers from Christis congregatioun. (2472–3) [My sovereign Lord Correction, I beg you, expel these proven villains from Christ’s congregation.] Quhat mervell thocht the Thrie Estaits backwart gang Quhen sic ane vyle cumpanie dwells them amang, Quhilk hes reulit this rout monie deir dayis Quhilk gars John the Common-weill want his warme clais. (2460–3)

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 76

08/01/2013 08:23

Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis

77

[Is it any wonder that the Three Estates walk backwards when such a vile gang lives among them, and has governed the whole crowd of them for many a long day? This is why John the Commonweal lacks warm clothes.]

Similarly, Merchant’s acceptance of the need for reform makes clear that it is the weight of popular protest (the angry reaction of the people feared earlier by the Abbot) that has motivated him. As he tells Good Counsel: Sit doun and gif us your counsell How we sall slaik the greet murmell Of pure peopill that is weill knawn, And as the common-weill hes schawn, And als wee knaw it is the kings will, That gude remeid be put thairtill. (2542–7) [Sit down and advise us how we shall end the complaints of the poor people, that are known to us all, and have been represented here by Commonweal, and since we know it is the king’s will to find good remedy for them.]

Hence, while he attempts to present the reforms as a royal initiative (albeit the placing of the concession ‘and als we knaw it is the kings will’ implies it is only a secondary consideration), what the dialogue suggests is that the characters are responding to a pressing popular protest rather than a benevolent royal command. The play thus goes beyond the decorous protocols of petition and response to suggest something that looks like a genuinely popular politics, and Lindsay, with a kind of anxious fascination, gives that politics its due voice and weight. The ambivalence evident in his treatment of Pauper – compounded of a seemingly genuine compassion for the lot of the dispossessed farmer and an equally evident fear for the consequences of his dangerous and unwanted intrusion into the elite sphere of the playing space – has a wider currency, suggesting both a willingness to use drama to engage with the needs of the nation and a nervous excitement about the kinds of forces that such an engagement might release, both inside and outside the play. On one level the drama is characterised by a sense that the state of the commons is self-evidently crying out for reform. As Good Counsel, the embodiment of deferential political conduct, himself observes, The pure commouns daylie, as ye may se, Declynis doun till [to] extreme povertie. (2573–4)

But there is a danger inherent in the very nature of this crying out, a disruptive, clamorous intrusion into the political process by individuals and

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 77

08/01/2013 08:23

78

Reading Literature Historically

classes normally denied their own voice. Hence perhaps the somewhat awkward attempts to contain Pauper and John within the parameters of conventional political discourse. Good Counsel presents the alleviation of rural poverty as in the best interests of the social elite, citing that archetypally ‘royal’ sphere of action, warfare, as his test case. It would be better, he argues, to maintain a prosperous rural population as they will form the basis of any future royal army: The husband men and commons thay war want Go in the battell formest [foremost] in the front. (2566–7)

But the argument for the commons as commodity, a resource to be husbanded by a prudent monarch so they may later be expended as cannon fodder, has little purchase on the debate that follows. It is John’s agenda, not the king’s, that drives events, and at times it threatens to carry everything before it through the sheer power of his urgent rhetoric. And, just as the courtly figures: Counsel, Correction and the increasingly ineffectual Rex, struggle to contain the demands of the people within the protocols of royal politics, so the play itself struggles to contain its non-courtly characters, and the dramatic energies they generate, within the paradigms of conventional moral drama. On an allegorical level all that needs to happen for the play to reach a satisfactory conclusion is for the Vices governing each Estate to be banished from the stage and for the Estates themselves to resolve to live a better life. But so simple a formal resolution becomes increasingly difficult as the grounds of the debate shift and a succession of new abuses, new Vices and their victims comes into view. The particularity of the crimes and offences itemised by John and Pauper render any merely symbolic settlement of their demands increasingly unsatisfactory. In the course of the play they condemn not simply high rents and taxes in general, but tithes, mortuary duties, and the ‘new plague’ of feuing (ll. 2578ff: a form of inheritable lease often requiring a large initial payment that many tenants could not pay). John attacks not simply ‘misrule’, but a whole catalogue of specifically Scottish vagabonds and ‘idle men’, most notably those living on the Borders, whose crimes are set in the context of Scotland’s endemic struggles with England; For how can we fend us aganis Ingland Quhen we can nocht within our native land Destroy our awin Scots common traitor theifis, Quha to leill laborers daylie dois mischeifis. (2587–91)

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 78

08/01/2013 08:23

Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis

79

[For how can we defend ourselves against the English when we cannot within our own native country eradicate our own treacherous Scottish common thieves, who daily torment true labourers?]

Rather than complaining merely of injustice in the abstract, he singles out a series of abuses that are recognisably the product of contemporary Scottish legal institutions and practices, both ecclesiastical and civil: For the pure peopill cryis with The infetching of Justice airis, Exercit mair for covetice Then for the punishing of vyce. (2654–7) [For the poor people cry out at the exactions of the courts of assize, which are extorted more for greed than for the punishment of crime.]

And, whereas small-time thieves are regularly hanged for minor crimes, greater offenders escape justice altogether: . . . he that all the warld hes wrangit, Ane cruell tyrane, ane strang transgressour, Ane common publick plaine oppressour, By buds may he obteine favours Of treasurers and compositours. Thocht he [de]serve greit punitioun, Gets easie compositioun settlement. And, throch laws consitoriall, Prolixt, corrupt and pertiall, The common peopill ar put sa under, Thocht thay be puir it is na wonder. (2663–73) [He that all the world has wronged: a cruel tyrant, a stark criminal, a wellknown oppressor of the people, may through bribes obtain favours from treasurers and account-keepers, and, though he deserves heavy punishment, get a gentle financial settlement [a small fine]. Yet, through the consistory court law, labyrinthine, corrupt and biased, the common people are so oppressed that it is no wonder that they are poor.]

Further criticism of the consistory courts comes in Pauper’s testimony, in which the very Latin terminology of the procedures is held up as evidence of their opacity to the uneducated poor: I ran to the consistorie for to pleinye, And thair I happinit amang ane greide meinye. That gave me first ane thing thay call citandum, Within aucht dayis I gat bot lybellandum, Within ane moneth I gat ad opponendum,

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 79

08/01/2013 08:23

80

Reading Literature Historically

In half ane yeir I gat interloquendum, But I could never ane word yit understand him. And than thay gart me cast out many plackis, And gart me pay for four and twentie actis. (3074–83) [I ran to the consistory court to complain, and there fell among a greedy gang, who first offered me a thing they call a citation, then in the next eight days all I got was libellandum [the opening word of a plea document], and in the next month ad oppendum [the opening of the formal response to the plea], then six months later an ‘interim judgement’, and not a word of this could I understand. And then they made me cough up many coins, and to pay for twenty-four Acts.]

Such specific complaints demand a corresponding degree of specificity in response, and this takes Lindsay still further into verisimilitude. The Estates enact a whole series of legal and economic reforms, amounting to an imagined programme of legislation that might be taken wholesale and introduced into parliament. The temporal lords must expel all oppressive tenants from their estates, and, if they do not, must offer financial restitution to their victims. Clerical landlords must set their temporal estates in feu (presumably at manageable rates) for ‘men that labours with thair hands’ (l. 2691). Mortuary duties paid to the clergy and secular landlords (the ‘corspresent and kow’ (l. 2822) that had reduced Pauper to misery) will be abolished, and all clerical fees due to Rome cease, except (and here Lindsay’s sense of political reality outweighs any desire for artistic neatness or moral clarity) in the case of the greater bishoprics. A similar pragmatism colours the injunction that all clerical pluralism and absenteeism will end, except for those clerics of ‘the blude royall’ (l. 2875), who can keep the multiple benefices that provide a significant portion of their income.20 Both parish priests and bishops will be investigated, and if found incapable of preaching the sermons that their office requires of them, will be dismissed in favour of ‘mair prudent pastours’ (ll. 2904–9 and 3739). The consistory courts are to be reformed and, following precedents set in France, the jurisdictions of the spiritual and the secular courts are to be strictly differentiated. Let sprituall maters pas to spritualitie, And temporal maters to temporalitie. Quha failyeis of this sall cost them of thair gude. (3098–100) [. . . Who fails in this shall have to forfeit some of their property.]

A second College of Justice will be established in the highlands (‘into Elgin or Innerness’ (l. 3857)), to allow readier access for those living in

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 80

08/01/2013 08:23

Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis

81

the north. The sixteen senators of the colleges (one already sitting in Edinburgh and the new one in the Highlands) will be paid 500 marks a year, and the chancellors 1,000 marks, funded from the revenues of dissolved nunneries. Finally, and most remarkably, in order to address the problems of clerical unchastity, adultery and bastardy, the clergy will be permitted to marry, following Continental protestant practice. But, crucially, in order to maintain the bloodlines and estates of the secular nobility, a kind of clerical apartheid is to operate: priests’ children will be able to marry only within clerical families, leaving aristocrats to marry among themselves: Bischops with biscops sall mak affinitie, Abbots and priors with the priores, As Bischop Annas in Scripture we may se Maryit his dochter on Bischop Caiphas (3970–3) [Bishops shall make marriage alliances with other bishops’ families, abbots and priors with prioresses, just as we may see in the Bible that Bishop Annas married his daughter to Bishop Caiaphas.]

The precedent cited might be slyly provocative (these were Christ’s tormentors, after all), but the principle of segregation is to be rigorously policed, and any secular lord who breaks its terms will be ‘degraithit [deprived] of thair nobilite’ (l. 3965). The care with which Lindsay drafted these reforms, offering specific practical remedies for specific problems, citing precedents from France and elsewhere where he could to reinforce particular proposals, and itemising appropriate punishments for infringement of his imagined statutes (‘Quha failyeis of this sall cost them of thair gude’) indicates the seriousness with which he intended them to be received. The reading of the Acts is thus not simply a striking conclusion to a piece of entertainment, the playful pastiching of parliamentary process for its own sake, but an earnest intervention in contemporary politics at the highest level. By including these scenes, Lindsay is not merely expanding the definition of what was acceptable in a courtly play; he was redefining the genre of political drama as a whole to address a new audience and a new agenda. In the absence of a sovereign spectator towards whom the ‘message’ of the play might be aimed, the dramatic mirror for the prince could not perform its conventional role as a vehicle for counsel. In its place Lindsay presents a vision of contemporary Scotland not as the fief and responsibility of a paternal princely spectator but as a complex and diverse society. Where in the 1540 interlude his agenda had been single-minded, here it becomes multiple, fragmented, and at times confused or mutually

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 81

08/01/2013 08:23

82

Reading Literature Historically

contradictory. Where the issues had been personal and moral they become social, economic, and political, and where in 1540 the demand for reform had a single voice in the Poor Man, in 1552 it had many. The Scotland of the second half of the Satyre is not centred upon the privy chamber of the prince, with news from ‘abroad’ being brought by servants and travellers, it is a broad social space, a mansion of many rooms within which diverse characters interact, often with little or no concern for the goings on in the royal court. The Virtues suffer persecution, the tradesmen and their wives fight out their stereotypical battles for domestic mastery, churchmen defend their liberties, and the poor seek redress in different parts of the playfield to a great extent oblivious of each other, until chance or dramatic design bring them into collision. The move from the royal great hall of 1540 to the public field of 1552 is thus symbolic of a far wider epistemological shift from court to country, from unity to diversity, reflective of a new kind of political theatre: a theatre, as Robert Weimann described the Shakespearean stage, ‘of the nation’,21 in which Lindsay allowed Scotland as a whole to see represented the form and pressure of the time. In the course of the iconoclastic second half of the Satyre, first Pauper and John, and then Theft, Deceit and Falset, each engage in what amounts to a public flytyng against social injustice, not in the abstract but in the persons of named individuals. Their speeches are a raucous, vulgar ‘calling out’ of alleged wrongdoers in the audience and beyond on behalf of their victims. This ‘naming and shaming’ of real individuals in the Vices’ scaffold speeches is often seen as a comic device, an exercise in audience participation that would have prompted communal laughter rather than social embarrassment.22 But it is surely more ambivalent than that, compounding a rich black comedy of ridicule with a serious injunction to reform. Lindsay’s Vices go much further than their counterparts in Mankind, for example, who generate a frisson of excitement through the naming of local landowners and officers as among their potential victims. In the Satyre the local individuals and families named, many of whom would have been present at the Cupar performance, are subjected to a carefully modulated exercise in comic humiliation and admonition. When the humblest of the vices, Common Theft, prepares to be hanged, he bids farewell to his brethren, naming a host of families with lands in Liddesdale and the Borders who may have been well-known for ‘reaving’ and other crimes: Adew, my brethren, common theifis, That helpit me in my mischeffis.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 82

08/01/2013 08:23

Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis

83

Adew Grosars, Nicksons, and Bellis, Oft have we run out-thoart the fellis. Adew Robsonis, Ha[wi]s and Phyils, That in our craft bes mony wylis. Lytils, Trumbels, and Armestrangs, Adew all theffis that me belongs; Tailyeours, [Erewinis,] and Elwands, Speidie of fut and wicht of hands. The Scottis Ewisdaill and the Graimis, I have na tyme to tell your namis; With King correctioun and ye be fangit, Belief richt weill ye wilbe hangit. (4028–41) [Adieu, my brothers, [you] common thieves who aided me in my crimes; adieu you Grocers, Nixons and Bells [notorious Border families]; oft we have ridden together across the fells. Adieu, you Robsons, Hawes and Piles, who know many tricks of our trade. Littles, Trimbles and Armstrongs, adieu, all thieves loyal to me; the Taylors, Irwins and Elwoods, quick of foot and nimble of hand. The Scotts of Ewesdale and the Grahams, I’ve not the time to list all your names. If you’re caught by King Correction, you’d better believe you’ll all be hanged!]

This litany of names from the notoriously lawless marches may well have excited laughter in performance, allowing audiences in the civil burgh town to unite in their hostility to – and obvious difference from – these uncouth scapegoats. But the second of the Vices to die, Deceit, strikes nearer to home. His ‘brethren’ are not outlaws but members of the Cupar community, local merchants and traders whose victims number both distant highlanders and the local townsfolk themselves: Adew, my maisters, merchant men . . . I leirit yow merchants mony ane wyle Upaland wyfis for to begyle Upon ane markit day, And gar them trow your stuffe was gude, Quhen it was rottin, be the Rude! (4064, 4070–4) [. . . I taught you merchants many a trick with which to beguile country wives on market day, and make them think your wares were good, when it was all rotten, by the Holy Cross!] Adew the greit clan Jamesone, The blude royal of Cupar toun, I was ay to yow trew; Baith Andersone and Patersone, Above them all Thome Williamsone, My absence ye will rew. (4094–9)

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 83

08/01/2013 08:23

84

Reading Literature Historically

[Adieu, the great clan Jamieson, the royal family of Cupar town; I was always true to you; both Anderson and Patterson, above them all Tom Williamson, you’ll all miss me when I’m gone.] Thome Williamsone, it is your pairt To pray for me with all your hairt, And think upon my warks: How I leirit yow ane gude lessoun, For to begyle in Edinburgh toun, The Bischop and his clarks. (4100–5) Ye young merchants may cry allace, [Lucklaw, Welandis, Carruders, Dowglace,] Yon curst king ye may ban. Had I leifit bot halfe ane yeir, I sould have leirit yow crafts perqueir, To begyle wife and man. (4106–11) [Tom Williamson, your job is to pray for me with all your heart, and remember my deeds; how I taught you a good lesson with which to beguile the bishop and his clerks in Edinburgh. You young merchants may all cry ‘alas!’, [you] Lucklaws, Wellands, Carruthers and Douglases, you can blame that cursed king [for this]. If I’d lived just half a year longer, I should have taught you sleights to beguile both women and men.]

Falset, the last of the Vices to die, also claims affinity with civic groups, this time those at the heart of the burgh community, the craftsmen who dominated the guilds and drove the local economy: Find me ane wobster that is leill, Or ane walker that will nocht steill; Thair craftines I ken; Or ane millair that hes na falt, That will nather steill meall na malt, Hauld them for halie men. (4136–41) I lairit tallyeours in everie town To schaip five quarters in ane goun, In Angus and in Fyfe. (4147–50) [Name me one weaver who is honest, or a fuller who won’t steal (I know their tricks); or a faultless miller who’ll steal neither grain nor malt: set them up as saints! I taught tailors in every town to cut five quarters in a gown [i.e. keep the fifth part of the cloth for themselves] in Angus and in Fife.]

Given the notorious sensitivities of the trade guilds to perceived slights on their honour or probity, this general catalogue would have been

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 84

08/01/2013 08:23

Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis

85

striking in itself, but Falset, like his predecessors, goes further and names names, and local ones at that: My gude maister, Andro Fortoun, Of tailyours that may weir the croun, For me he will be mangit. Tailyour Baberage, my sone and air, I wait for me will rudlie rair, Fra tyme he se me hangit. The barfit deacon, Jamie Ralfe, Quha never yit bocht kow nor calfe, Becaus he can nocht steall. Willie Cadyeoch will make na pleid, Howbeit his wife want beife and bread, Get he gude barmie aill. To the brousters of Cowpar toun, I leiffe my braid black malesoun, Als hartilie as I may: To make thinne aill thay think na fault, Agane the market day. (4166–71) [My good master, Andrew Fortune, who is a king among tailors, you’ll be lost without me. Tailor Babbage, my son and heir, I know he’ll bellow angrily for the loss of me, from the time he sees me hanged. The barefoot deacon, Jamie Ralph, who never yet paid for cow nor calf, because he cannot steal. Willie Caddoch will not say a word, even if his wife lacks beef and bread, until he gets some good frothy ale. To the brewers of Cupar town, I leave my broad, black curse as heartily as I can; they think it no crime to prepare watered-down beer ready for market day.]

As he continues to run through this long list of allegedly corrupt local tradesmen: wrights and masons, blacksmiths, lorrimers, cordwainers, goldsmiths and upland shepherds, it might still be possible to imagine an audience ready to laugh at his allegations, whether through amusement at the discomfiture of their neighbours or a determination to show that they too could take a joke. The very comprehensiveness of the denunciation, seemingly drawing in every tradesman who ever found work in Cupar or its environs, might even draw the audience together in a collective appreciation of both the exuberance of Lindsay’s conceit and their own less than perfect human natures. But Falset’s final lines seem designed to undermine any developing sense of communal feeling among the spectators. As the noose is finally pulled around his neck his tone, along with the verse-form, suddenly shifts to something wholly less

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 85

08/01/2013 08:23

86

Reading Literature Historically

jocular.23 Brotherhood with Falset is now presented, not as a laddish fellowship with merely local consequences, but part of a universal conspiracy, for which small-time Scottish cheats and tyrannical kings alike will face the same hellish punishment: Gif any man list for to be my mait, Cum follow me, for I am at the gait. Cum follow me all catyfe, covetous kings, Reavers but richt of uthers realmis and rings, Togidder with all wrangous conquerours, And bring with yow all publick oppressours. With Pharao, king of Egiptians, With him in Hell salbe your recompence. All cruell shedders of blude innocent, Cum follow me, or ellis rin and repent. (4232–41) [If any man wants to be my companion, come follow me, for I’m on the very threshold [of departure]. Come follow me all wretched, covetous kings, unjust despoilers of others countries and realms, together with all villainous conquerors; and bring with you all common oppressors with Pharaoh, king of the Egyptians, with him you’ll get your reward in Hell. All cruel shedders of innocent blood, come follow me or else hurry and repent.]

That initial prophylactic conditional (much virtue in ‘gif’) allows a hint of conventional didacticism to play over the speech (the audience may yet choose another path . . .). But Falset’s repeated injunction to ‘cum follow me’, directed, inter alia, at pluralist clerics (‘in hideous Hell I sall prepair thair place’ (l. 4245)); corrupt judges and lawyers (‘Ye sall with me be bund in Baliel’s bands’ (l. 4255)); shrewish wives and scolds (ll. 4256ff), gives the speech an almost liturgical, apocalyptic resonance. And this newfound earnestness is reflected in the character’s death itself, which the stage directions state should involve the actor himself being born up into the air (whereas effigies might be substituted for the other two actors), allowing for more realistic death-throws, and for a black crow or jackdaw to be released at the point of death, ‘as it war his saull [soul]’. This stark, verisimilitudinous death resists any sense of theatre as mere ‘gamesome’ entertainment.24 It is insistently earnest, and seems designed to shock spectators out of any vestige of complacency generated during the Vices’ ad hominem excoriation of the sins of the ‘burrows toun’. But Lindsay has not finished. Having used Theft, Deceit, and Falset to chastise the audience as thieves, oppressors, and shrews, he then sends in Folly to abuse them as fools (‘Howbeit ane hundreth stande heir by, / Perventure also greit fuillis as I’ [perhaps as great fools

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 86

08/01/2013 08:23

Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis

87

as I am] (ll. 4509–10)). It is manifestly the audience as a whole who are now the objects of the playwright’s gaze, not a single, princely spectator, and the responsibility to see through the reforms that the play has mooted is implicitly passed to them. The play thus ends, not, as in 1540, with a petition to a royal spectator, but with a direct injunction to the audience as a whole – a license to laugh (at themselves as well as their neighbours), and to drink and dance in renewed communal fellowship – but also a warning to reform themselves and their nation, as it lay in their hands to do. Conventional moralities and interludes begin and end in unity: an acting troupe conveys a playwright’s mediation of conventional wisdom through the allegorical actions of a protagonist to an imagined sovereign spectator (whether a patron or a diverse audience conceived collectively as ‘man’). Mankind, for example, famously divides its audience along social grounds, between ‘sovereigns that sit’ and ‘brethren that stand right up’ (l. 29), making its diversity of interests and experience explicit at the outset. Yet by the end they are all referred to as a homogenous collective ‘ye’, a single ‘wretched’ ‘mankind’ (l. 912) receptive to the same salvific message. Lindsay’s audience, like his characters, steadfastly refuses unification or homogeneity. Husbands and wives, landlords and tenants, remain, even at the end, distinct groups, represented as at odds with each other, not to illustrate some inner conflict in the mind of the sovereign or an unresolved flaw in the outlook of humanum genus, but because in an unequal, competitive, troubled society such conflicts were endemic and obvious. Consequently, the play reconfigures not only the form and mechanisms of the conventional morality drama and princely interlude but also its object. Lindsay’s imagined sovereign spectator for whom he works his persuasive art is now not the prince but the people of Cupar collectively. It is they whom he portrays as responsible for Scotland’s ills; and his aim is not only to teach them a moral lesson but also to offer them a programme of reform of church and state that will address contemporary problems on a practical level. He invites them to drink and dance at the play’s end, but leaves them in no doubt that there will be hard work to be done in the morning.

Notes 1. I should like to thank John J. McGavin, David Salter, and Joanne Spencer Kantrowitz for their help in the writing of this chapter. Each kindly read the essay in draft and offered valuable suggestions for its improvement. I am especially grateful to Joanne Kantrowitz for the chance to discuss the

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 87

08/01/2013 08:23

88

2.

3.

4. 5.

6.

7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12.

Reading Literature Historically play with her, and for her good humoured patience in bringing me to a better understanding of the importance of Cupar to the text as we have it, and of the role of Folly’s final ‘sermon’. British Library MS Reg 7.C.XVI, ff. 136–9 records that the three courtiers, appeared with ‘such a like guard’, suggesting the entry of a group of similar, flamboyantly dressed figures. Similarly, the three Estates of Parliament may well have made an impressive entry, accompanied by music and attendants. Claud Graf, ‘Theatre and Politics: Lindsay’s Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis’ in M. Aitken, M. McDiarmaid, and D. Thompson (eds), Bards and Makars: Scottish Language and Literature, Medieval and Renaissance (Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press, 1977), pp. 143–55. Greg Walker (ed.), Medieval Drama: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), pp. 538–40. All references to the Satyre and other works are to this edition. Joanne Spencer Kantrowitz, Dramatic Allegory: Lindsay’s ‘Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis’ (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1975), pp. 80–84; Sir David Lindsay, The Thrie Estaitis, ed. Roderick Lyall (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1989), ‘Introduction’, pp. xxv–xxvi. Many of Lindsay’s scenes and techniques can be traced back to earlier native or adopted traditions. He builds a number of his specific allegations around proverbial truths and maxims (see, for example, ll. 2663–73); he may well have found inspiration for his use of fools and folly in the French sotie (see Lyall, Thrie Estaitis, p. xxiii) as well as in Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly; and the Vice’s confessions share something of their dark, carnivalesque power of the Chester Alewife. Similarly the play’s striking scurrility owes much to Scottish comic traditions evident in the work of Dunbar and others, where comic tailors and sowtars can also be found. But combined together in Lindsay’s hands these elements create something startlingly potent and, I would argue, profoundly new. It is a moot point whether Lindsay was thinking of the period since the death of James V or of a longer historical span. See lines 1753–57. See Walker, Medieval Drama, pp. 348–407 and 455–78. Lyall suggests R. Wever’s Lusty Juventus as another possible analogue. Lyall, Thrie Estaitis, p. xxv. Greg Walker, Plays of Persuasion: Drama and Politics at the Court of Henry VIII (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 169–221. The aristocratic Oppression’s flight from justice, leaving Common Theft in his place, is an instance of the unresolved problem lamented by John the Commonweal earlier, in which small-time criminals are hanged, but a man of power, ‘Ane common publick plaine oppressour’ (l. 2663) can escape through bribery and influence. That Flattery is able to cheat the gallows by offering to hang his fellow vices is another sign that the social reformation imposed in the course of the play is only partially successful. Having gleefully announced that he was more culpable than all his hanged ‘mates’ (as ‘I begylde all the Thrie Estaits / With my hypocrisie’ (ll. 4279–80)), he leaves the playfield boasting that he will continue his ingratiating career elsewhere. He promises ‘with ane humbill spreit [to] / Gang serve the Hermeit

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 88

08/01/2013 08:23

Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis

13.

14.

15.

16.

17.

89

of Lareit’ (the hermit of a shrine near Musselburgh in East Lothian), ‘And leir him for till flatter’ [teach him to flatter] (ll. 4299, 4300–301). John J. McGavin, ‘The Dramatic Prosody of Sir David Lindsay’, in R. D. S. Jack and Kevin McGinley (eds), Of Lion and Unicorn: Essays on AngloScottish Literary Relations in Honour of John MacQueen (Edinburgh: Quadriga, 1993), pp. 39–66, p. 54. As Anna J. Mill’s seminal work revealed, members of the Jameson and Anderson families filled several important offices in Cupar in the early 1550s; Tom Fletcher (the Bannatyne manuscript has ‘Thome’ rather than ‘Dame Fleshour’ as the owner of the midden or dunghill) was notary public of the town from 1550; while Andrew Fortune and Tom Williamson (Cupar’s positor in 1550) also appear in local records. Anna J. Mill, ‘Representations of Lindsay’s “Satyre”’, Proceedings of the Modern Language Association, 47 (1932), pp. 636–81, pp. 638–9. Louise Olga Fradenburg, City, Marriage, Tournament: Arts of Rule in Late Medieval Scotland (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), p. 120. For the contrary reading of the play, see Lyall, Thrie Estaitis, p. xxvii. Lindsay tried just such a metaphorical solution to Scotland’s problems in earlier poems, most obviously in The Complaynt (c.1530), where many of the allegorical figures represented in the Satyre also appear, there the poet moves from discussing the moral virtues of the prince to the economic health of the nation and back apparently seamlessly (see, for example, ll. 373–414). The principle underlying this alchemical conflation of the personal with the political is the popular Boethian axiom that he who wished to govern a realm should first learn to govern himself (Boethius, The Theological Tracts and The Consolation of Philosophy, ed. and trans. H. F. Stewart, E. K. Rand, and S. J. Tester (London: Heinemann, 1978), Book 3). Lindsay himself stated the corollary in The Testament of the Papyngo (c.1530): ‘. . . quhou suld prencis govern gret regionis, / That can nocht dewlie gyde thare owin personis?’ [How can princes who cannot properly control their own behaviour govern great regions?] (ll. 295–6). By the time he revisited these ideas in 1552, however, they were clearly no longer adequate to address the problems in hand. As Lyall notes, the 1552 Parliament lamented the fact that ‘beggars daily and continually multiply and resort in all places where my Lord Governor and other Nobles convene [i.e. gather] so that none of them may pass through the streets for raming [shouting out] and crying upon them’. Lyall, Thrie Estaitis, p. ix. For an excellent account of one occasion when a local man used a royal gathering for his own ends, see John J. McGavin, ‘“That Thin Skin”: Skipper Lindsay and the Language of Record’, Medieval English Theatre 24 (2002), pp. 15–31. See also Greg Walker, ‘“Spoiling the Play”: The Motif of Dramatic Intrusion in Medwall and Lindsay’, Theta VII (2005), pp. 179–96. Common Theft is another character drawn to a level of specificity far exceeding the requirements of his allegorical function. He has both a past (having left home in Ewedale in Dumfries in search of bounty) and what he believes will be a successful future. He is looking for ‘[t]he . . . best hackney’, belonging to the local sheriff, George Leslie, Earl of Rothes (1495–1558), which he intends to steal to ride back to ‘Ewis-durnis’, a pass linking

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 89

08/01/2013 08:23

90

18. 19.

20. 21.

22. 23. 24.

Reading Literature Historically Teviotdale with his native Ewedale. The projected journey he describes, through Dysart Moor in Fife, past Struthers castle near Cupar, the home of Lord Lindsay (where he hopes to steal another horse, his ‘brown jennet,’ to ride on to the borders), maps a clear route which would have been well known to the Cupar audience. Theft’s nemesis, Oppression, similarly seems to exist in real time and space. He offers Theft ‘ane cuppill of kye [a couple of cows] / In Liddisdaill’ (ll. 3292–3) if he will take his place in the stocks, and, once released, leaves his hapless victim with the boast that he will soon be in Balquhidder (Perth) (l. 3307), dreaming of how he might live on the spoils of Merse, a rich arable region around Berwick upon Tweed. Greg Walker, The Politics of Performance in Early Renaissance Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 141–54. The perils of a royal minority are a constant theme in Lindsay’s poetry, from the early Dreme (see ll. 1003–8, 1010–11) through The Testament of the Papyngo (ll. 526–41) to his last work, Ane Dialog Betwix Expewrience and Ane Courteour (ll. 10–13ff). See Janet Hadley Williams (ed.), Sir David Lyndsay: Selected Poems (Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2000). Graf, ‘Theatre and Politics’, p. 153. Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theatre, edited by Robert Schwartz (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987). See also Walter Cohen, Drama of a Nation: Public Theater in Renaissance England and Spain (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988). See, for example, Mill, ‘Representations’, p. 639. McGavin, ‘Prosody’, pp. 60–6. The releasing of the black bird may seem to modern eyes a very ‘theatrical’ and stylised, symbolic gesture. But, in a society in which the demonic and the uncanny were perceived to be close to the surface of daily life, it may well have heightened the verisimilitudinous intensity of the moment for viewers rather than lessening it.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 90

08/01/2013 08:23

Chapter 4

Courtesy and Chivalry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Among late-medieval texts, the anonymous late fourteenth-century verse romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is perhaps uniquely deeply rooted in the protocols and textures of the elite societies that it describes, both in the rich evocation of King Arthur’s court at Christmas in fitt (section) one, and the subsequent, even longer description of the life of the northern aristocratic household of Bertilak de Hautdesert in which Sir Gawain finds himself over the Christmas and New Year festivities twelve months later. As such it offers a detailed and informed examination of late-medieval conventions of courtliness and chivalric culture seemingly described from the inside, by a writer with a deep investment in the cultures he is describing and who understood the stresses and pressures which threatened them, both from within and without. In the magnificent first fitt the poet revels in, and imaginatively inhabits each phase of the courtly entertainment that he describes. This is not mere background for the story to follow. The poet lingers lovingly over the different stages of the feast, taking a leisurely stanza to describe the Yuletide games, carols, dances and tourneys at Camelot (ll. 37–59),1 another to tell his readers about the courtiers’ entry into the great hall and their exchanging of gifts (ll. 60–84), a third to describe Arthur’s youthful tastes for adventures (‘He watz so joly of his joyfnes, and sumquat childgered’ [he was so lively in his vitality, and somewhat boyish/youthful] (l. 86, but see ll. 85–106)), and a fourth to record the seating arrangements, the entry of the various courses of the banquet, and the accompanying music. In this way we get a strong sense of sharing the mood of decorous self-indulgence, of partaking in the delights on offer at Camelot at Christmas (just as we will again at Hautdesert in fitt two) before the disruptive entry of the Green Knight and the opening of the quest-narrative itself. This is indeed the kind of ‘thick description’ that gives insight into the culture it describes. As many readers have suggested, the Knight’s challenge initiates a

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 93

08/01/2013 08:23

94

Reading Literature Historically

fundamental test of the nature of this richly described Arthurian court.2 As we shall see, his very appearance asks implicit questions of the courtiers’ capacity to interpret what they see, and of the courtly narrator’s capacity fully to describe it. But I want take this observation a stage further, and suggest that the Knight’s enigmatic appearance also serves to alert readers to the subtle nature of the test which he poses to the court. Just as his very being disrupts accepted notions of knightliness, so his explicit challenge to Arthur and the language he employs to issue it also pose a very specific challenge to Camelot’s courtly identity. And this is a challenge which Gawain alone among Arthur’s knights seems capable of comprehending, and to which he responds, not simply with exemplary courtesy, but with a studied and effective defence of Camelot, its king, and the shared values of the court. This is a text in which all the key terms it discusses (courtliness, civility, knightliness, manhood, decorum) are presented in an ongoing process of negotiation and revision, a process in which readers are invited to share both intellectually and emotionally. So much is signalled by the Knight himself, whose nature and status are constantly revised and renegotiated by both the narrator and the knights of Camelot in an engagement which the reader must experience in real time along with the knights, having been granted no ironic superiority of knowledge over them. And this negotiative element is taken further in the exchanges between Arthur, Gawain and the Knight, in which the nature of a crucial nexus of elite values: kingship, heroism, chivalric honour and courtliness, are subjected to a subtle but determined scrutiny and re-evaluation. The Green Knight in himself represents an unsettling mixture of the monstrous and the decorous, the chivalrous and civilised and their barbarous, incomprehensible, opposites.3 We encounter him first as a terrifying physical presence, ‘aghlich’ (M.E.D. sv: a´elich: awesome or dreadful, with overtones of O.E. aglæca: monster or demon) in his sheer size, as the narrative takes in the dimensions and the raw physicality of his body. It is perhaps no wonder that, once they recover from the initial shock of his entrance, the assembled knights judge this stranger to be an intrusion from realms beyond their immediate experience, terming him an ‘aluisch mon’ [elvish man] (l. 681), a creature of ‘fantoum and fayryye’ (illusion or enchantment/faery) (l. 240). Critics too have offered interpretations of the Knight which see him as representative of such forces.4 Yet the idea that he represents an entirely alien code of values is misleading.5 For what we see here is not a confrontation of irreconcilable opposites but a far more complex encounter. The Knight might well strike the narrator as ‘half-etayn’, half-monster, but that qualification

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 94

08/01/2013 08:23

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

95

‘half’ is a vital one. He seems not fully monstrous. And even this judgement is quickly retracted: Half-etayn in erde I hope þat he were, Bot mon most I algate mynn hym to bene. And þat þe myriest in his muckel þat myyt ride. (140–2) [I think him a half-monster/giant on earth, but I must declare him nonetheless a man, and the finest for his size who ever rode horse.]

The Knight’s disturbing, monstrous aspects are qualified and finally superseded by the perception of a humanity which has to be acknowledged. And more than simply a humanity, for the narrator almost immediately begins to notice and appreciate a superlative quality to the Knight’s manliness, and to afford him the admiring gaze of one knightly male to another. Readers are thus led to acknowledge the Knight’s manly physical perfection before being brought up short by the coyly delayed description of his most striking abnormality, his colour: For of bak and of brest al were his bodi sturne, Both of his wombe and his wast were worthily smale, And alle his fetures folyande in forme þat he hade Ful clene. For wonder of his hwe men hade, Set in his semblaunt sene; He ferde as freke were fade, And overall enker grene. (143–50) [For he was strong in back and chest, and his stomach and waist were fittingly narrow, and all his parts were appropriately proportioned, matching his appearance. But men were astonished at the colour of his face; he was a bold man, and all-over a vivid green.]

The same pointedly anti-naturalistic technique is reprised in the following stanza where we learn not only that the Knight whom we thought we were observing in real time and space alongside the knights of Camelot is actually riding a hitherto unmentioned horse (l. 160), and that it too is bright green (l. 175): observations that might have been made rather earlier had the rules of naturalistic description been followed more closely. The technique does more than simply confound readers’ expectations playfully, however. In the earlier passage the narrator’s delay in introducing the most immediately striking feature of the Knight’s appearance until the end of the stanza has the effect not only of increasing the dramatic impact of the revelation of his greenness, but also of compromising the reader’s response to it. We are forced to share

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 95

08/01/2013 08:23

96

Reading Literature Historically

something of the text’s own equivocation, mingling horror and curiosity at his otherness with a disabling fascination with the manliness recognisable beneath. The Gawain-poet clearly enjoys playing games with his readers as well as writing about game-players and their games. And many of these games involve leading us along the fine line between danger and absurdity, the macabre and the comic. There is just a hint of the preposterous, for example, in the way in which he describes the perfections of the intruder and his steed, just a suggestion, at least for modern readers, of the show-dog and its proud owner, in the observation that Knight and stallion seem to have visited the same barber (‘wel gay watz þis gome gered in grene, / And þe here of his hed of his hors swete: / Fayre fannand fax umbefoldes his schulderes.’ [Splendid was this fellow geared all in green, with the hair on his head matching that of his horse, shining locks spread fanlike over his shoulders.] (ll. 179–80)). But, having been briefly offered the prospect of a comic reading of the intrusion, we are quickly denied its consolations, as it becomes clear that the poet is a step ahead of us, heading off the laughter before it has the chance to take hold, and turning the narrative in more menacing directions. The implausibility of the horse and rider’s physical perfection is just another aspect of the unnerving, dream-like quality to the scene as a whole, a fact that the narrator readily acknowledges on behalf of the assembled knights: Such a fole upon folde, ne freke þat hym rydes, Watz never sene in þat sale with syyt er þat tyme With yye. (196–8) [Such a steed on earth, nor the man who rides him, was never before witnessed by human eye in that hall.]

Inherent in that initial description of ‘an aghlich mayster’ – indeed in the modern title of ‘the Green Knight’ itself – is, then, a powerful and unsettling contradiction between that which is horrifyingly monstrous, and that which is admirably civilised. He is both ‘aghlich’: fearful, irredeemably other, and yet a mayster: a man, or more properly a lord or master, something and someone knowable within a system of elite, civilised discourse.6 He is green, a quality which makes his manhood, and especially his knighthood, his membership of a human fraternity with common, civilised, values problematic. Yet he is nonetheless a knight: possessor of a status which ties him to the narrator and to the community of the court. And, as the description of the Knight begins to take in more detail, that equivocation increases. There is an appropriateness to his attire and demeanour, an elegance and material richness to him,

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 96

08/01/2013 08:23

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

97

which the courtly narrator can appreciate with something approaching relish. What the reader is offered is not in fact an account of the Knight at all, but an inventory of his garments and equipment, and an appreciation of the fine workmanship which has produced them and the elegant manner in which they are disposed about his frame. Even his axe, the symbol of that disruptive, destructive potential which the text keeps always a part of our awareness of the Knight, is simultaneously both horrifically, barbarously, other, and yet obviously a product of advanced civilisation, of ‘gracios werkes’.7 The initial description of the weapon bristles with cruelty and savagery. It is ‘hoge and unmete’, both unmatched in its size and monstrously disproportionate. It is thus precisely ‘unmeet’: unsuited to this courtly setting and the celebration of Christmas. Its viciousness also exceeds the capacity of language fully to describe it: it is ‘A spetos sparþe to expoun in spelle quoso myyt’ [a vicious axe to describe in words, whoever could] (l. 209). Yet, as we look more closely, it, like its bearer, becomes less repellently other and more amenable to courteous description – to description per se. Its dimensions can be quantified, its materials enumerated and its workmanship admired: Þe hede of an elnyerde þe large lenkþe hade, Þe grayn al of grene stele and of golde hewen, Þe bit burnyst bryyt, with a brod egge As well schapen to schere as scharp rasores. Þe stele of a stif staf þe sturne hit bi grypte, Þat watz wounden wyth yrn to þe wandez ende And al bigraven with grene in gracios werkes. (210–16) [The long axe-head was an ell (45 inches) in length, the spike forged all of green and gold steel, the blade brightly burnished with a broad edge, as well shaped to cut as a sharp razor’s edge. The grim [knight] gripped it by its stout shaft, bound with iron to the end of the staff, and all [was] engraved in green with elegant designs.]

After the initial, horrified, incomprehension at its size and savagery, the chivalric gaze of the narrator begins to come to terms with the axe, to see in it only an exaggerated version of the destructive beauty of chivalry’s own physical apparatus. Again, that which had been recoiled from as threateningly alien is now recognised and accommodated as a superior version of the known. The vicious perfection of the blade’s edge and the fineness of its engravings and tassels become curiously appropriate to the Arthurian setting and are assimilated into the general excellence of the gathering that the text had earlier lauded: a fact which the narrator’s vocabulary tacitly acknowledges as he describes the cord around the axe-head, which, he tells us, is,

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 97

08/01/2013 08:23

98

Reading Literature Historically

A lace lapped aboute [and] louked at þe hede And so after þe halme halched ful ofte, Wyth tryed tasselez þerto tacched innoghe On botounz of þe bryyt grene brayden ful ryche.8 (217–20) [A chord wrapped around and tied at the head, and then looped many times around the handle, with excellent tassels tied appropriately to buttons of bright green, very richly embroidered.]

That which had been perceived as inordinate and discordant (‘hoge and unmete’), is now recognised as sufficient and suitable (‘bryyt’, ‘ful ryche’, ‘innoghe’). Before the Knight has even opened his mouth to challenge the court, then, readers have already had time to evaluate him in considerable depth, and, although our responses to him may be equivocal, we cannot but notice that his is a commanding presence, and commanding in chivalric terms. While we have heard something, in general, about the knightly excellence of Arthur’s court, that is as nothing set against the concreteness of the presentation of the Knight. Not surprisingly it is his otherness which excites most critical attention and initial reader response, but it is crucially his knightliness which permits him to pose so powerful a challenge to Camelot; allowing him not simply to threaten its values from without, but rather to redefine and renegotiate them from within the charmed circle of chivalry itself, as we shall see, provocatively setting one aspect of Camelot’s self-definition against another with potentially destructive results. His first words are, if not exactly hostile, certainly lacking the deference appropriate to a royal court at Christmas. When Gawain himself speaks for the first time, we shall hear a true demonstration of the courtly mode of discourse. The Knight’s studied abruptness, by contrast, savours of both discourteous challengers such as the churlish dwarves of Chretien de Troyes’ or Malory’s conception, and the man born to command:9 . . . ‘wher is’, he sayd, ‘Þe governour of þis gyng? Gladly I wolde Se þat segg in syyt and with hymself speke Rayson’. (224–7) [‘Where is,’ said he, ‘the commander of this band? I would gladly set eyes upon that man and exchange words with him.’]

His speech and manner issue a deliberate challenge to the court. As with all the Knight’s actions, they are carefully designed to provoke his hearers to an angry response. Already he is testing the collective resolve of Camelot.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 98

08/01/2013 08:23

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

99

Arthur’s reaction to this abrupt demand is courteous and hospitable. Some critics have seen in it a coldness, even a rudeness, in contrast to the warmth of the welcome afforded Gawain at Castle Hautdesert in fitt two.10 But, given that the Knight has ridden into his hall on horseback, unannounced and uninvited, and carrying a naked battle-axe, Arthur’s ‘reverent’ suggestion that the intruder sit down and join the feast seems remarkably civil: Þenn Arþour, bifore þe hiy dece, þat aventure byholdez And rekenly hym reverenced, for rad was he never, And sayde, ‘Wyye, welcum iwys to þis place. Þe hede of þis ostel, Arthour I hat. Liyt luflych adoun and lenge, I þe praye, And quatso þy wylle is we schal wyt after’. (250–5) [Then Arthur watches the challenge(r) before his high dais and greets him respectfully, for never was he afeared, and said, ‘Sir, welcome indeed to this place. I am the head of this household; Arthur is my name. Climb down swiftly and join us, I pray you, and we shall find out what you want (here) after that.’]

What remains at issue is not so much who is being rude to whom, but what exactly is being said, and the precise significance of the terms in which their exchanges are couched. The Knight’s errand, he claims, leaves no room for sociability. Drawn by the reputation of Arthur’s knights as ‘Þe wyytest and þe worþyest of þe worldes kynde’ [the strongest and worthiest of worldly folk] (l. 261), he has come to test their courage with a Christmas game. Yet, here again the court, and perhaps the reader too, is in some difficulty as to how to read the symbols which he presents. As he explains, patiently glossing his attire for their benefit, he has deliberately chosen to ride without armour or weapons. He has both ‘at home’ in abundance, but has no need of them here. Thus ‘for I wolde no were, my wedez ar softer’ [as I am seeking no battle my clothes are softer] (l. 271). But Arthur is initially unwilling, or unable, to accept such a reading of the Knight’s appearance. His immediate reaction to the latter’s pacific declaration is to assure him that ‘If þou crave batayl bare, / Here fayley þou not to fyyt’ [If you crave a fight without armour, you’ll not be disappointed] (ll. 277–8). The Knight’s response is as contentious in its tone as it is sociable in its refusal to take up the offer: ‘Nay, frayst I no fyyt, in fayth I þe telle: Hit arn aboute on þis bench bot berdlez chylder. If I were hasped in armes on a heye stede,

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 99

08/01/2013 08:23

100

Reading Literature Historically

Here is no mon me to mach, for myytez so wayke. Forþy I crave in þis court a Crystemas gomen, For it is yol and Nwe yer, and here ar yep mony.’ (279–84) [Nay, I seek no combat, I tell you truly, there are only beardless boys on these benches. If I were clad in armour on a high horse there is no one here who could match me, their might is so weak. So I am seeking in this court a Christmas game, as it is Yule and New Year, and there are many youthful folk here.]

The Knight challenges Arthur and his court to live up to their chivalric reputation – a reputation which he carefully defines in his own terms: ‘What, is þis Arþures hous,’ quoþ þe haþel þenne, ‘Þat al þe rous rennes of þury ryalmes so mony? Wher is now your sourquydrye and your conquestes, Your gryndallayk and your greme and your grete wordes? Now is þe revel and þe renoun of þe Rounde Table Overwalt with a worde of on wyyes speche, For al dares for drede withoute dynt schewed!’ (309–15) [‘What, is this Arthur’s house,’ asked the Knight then, ‘whose reputation runs through so many realms? Where is now your pride and your victories, your fierceness and your rage and your great boasts? Now the revelry and renown of the Round Table is overthrown with one word of a man’s speech. For all of you cower in fear without a blow being offered!’]

This is, quite literally, a challenge to their own knightly identity, moreover, tacitly it is a claim to the right to define that identity itself: as a matter of pride, grimness, and martial fortitude. If, the Knight asserts, the Round Table knights do not behave in the way he defines as characteristic of them, then they cannot be who they claim to be, they cannot be themselves. It is a strategy that the Lady will also adopt, with subtle variations, as we shall see, in the third fitt of the poem, teasing Gawain that, if he does not take up her implied invitation to take her into his bed, then he cannot be the Gawain whose reputation for ‘luf talkyng’ (l. 927) precedes him to Hautdesert: he cannot, that is, be Gawain at all. In an honour culture, in which public ‘worship’ is the prime index of heroic masculine worth, such a challenge is fundamental, going to the heart of a knight’s self-image. But it is more than this. Implicit in the struggle to define a knight’s behaviour, his ‘character’, from without is also a sense of a distinction between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ person, private and public identity, that is central to modern conceptions of individuality and selfhood: that focus on human subjectivity that was once seen as the invention of the Renaissance, and has more recently been claimed as the invention of Shakespeare alone.11

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 100

08/01/2013 08:23

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

101

But still the stunned silence of the courtiers continues. It is thus to Arthur’s credit (in terms of pure courage at least) that it is he who finally takes up the challenge. Yet it is clear almost immediately that he should not be permitted to do so. As Jonathan Nichols has suggested, ‘Camelot loses its focal point of order when the King steps off the dais’.12 A challenge rashly accepted could have the direst consequences, and it could well appear to be a sign of his ‘childgered’, impetuous nature that Arthur forgets his responsibilities as king and governor in the heat of the moment and places the kingdom in jeopardy for the sake of his sense of personal and collective shame. It is a mark of the diminution of Arthur within the economy of the text that the figure we see before us now has little to associate him with the ‘hendest’ [noblest] (l. 26) of British kings introduced in the second stanza of the fitt. Since the entry of the Knight to his hall his offer of hospitality has been rejected, his honourable reputation questioned, his youth derided and his court ridiculed. With almost every observation the Knight makes the king’s authority has dwindled until we see him now, having risen to the intruder’s taunts, frantically swinging a borrowed axe around his head, while the Green Knight himself quietly strokes his beard, No more mate ne dismayd for hys mayn dyntez Þen any burne upon bench had broyt hym to drynk Of wyne. (336–8) [No more cowed or dismayed by his strong swings than if someone had brought him wine to drink from the benches.]

Against the still, impassive, figure of the huge intruder (‘Herne þen ani [taller than anyone] in þe hous by þe hede and more’ (l. 333)), the king’s actions, as he ‘sturnely’ wields the axe with all his might, seem almost inconsequential, an irrelevant distraction. Consequently there is a very real danger that the Knight may prove his point, having tested the best of the court and found them wanting, without his having to do any more than stand and watch. Significantly it is at this point that Gawain (re)enters the narrative from the ranks of the assembled courtiers in an attempt to rescue his king and the court from the potentially disastrous situation that Arthur’s actions have created. Subsequently the narrator will invite us to reconsider the wisdom of Gawain’s decision, attributing them to either pride or drunken bravado (ll. 487–90; 495–9). But at this stage, with the Knight’s challenge having been entertained thus far, it is hard to see what else he might have done to rescue the situation. In many cyclical romances, such as the stanzaic Morte D’Arthur or a number of

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 101

08/01/2013 08:23

102

Reading Literature Historically

Chretien’s narratives, and the later Gawain romances, it is Gawain who plays the role of the Round Table’s wise counsellor, the knight who will offer the well-considered, pragmatic advice which would enable Arthur to avoid a threatening situation or solve a problem.13 Thus it is perhaps natural, when the narrator declares that it is he who speaks up to interrupt Arthur’s preparation for the potentially fatal blow, to expect him to offer wise words. He does not disappoint. For what Gawain says proves him to be the consummate courtier and diplomat.14 What has perhaps not been so fully appreciated, however, is just how skilful is Gawain’s response, and how well designed to counter the specific challenge to Arthur and his knights which the Green Knight has posed. It is important to note how the text forces us to appreciate both the full decorousness of Gawain’s performance and the deliberate political strategy that it enacts. For the manner in which he employs his renowned courtesy here demonstrates how accurately he reads the threat posed to the Court by the intruder’s challenge. Crucially we are given the burden of Gawain’s speech twice, once in summary, then in more expansive form. Initially we are told simply that, Gawan, þat sate bi þe quene, To þe kyng he can enclyne, ‘I beseche now with sayez sene Þis melly mot be myne’. (339–42) [Gawain, who sat by the queen, bowed his head to the king. ‘I beseech you now publically, this challenge must be mine’.]

Then, once relieved of the need to read the passage for meaning alone, the reader is taken through the intervention a second time, and is consequently able to pay far greater attention to the way in which Gawain presents his bold request.15 First Gawain asks the king for leave to rise from his bench and approach him. But he does so, not in the form of a direct request, but obliquely, asking instead if Arthur would order him to leave the dais and come to his side. This particular form of interjection has the effect of both re-focusing the attention of the gathering – and the reader – upon Arthur, and of reminding everyone that this is indeed his court, his feast, his domestic space. Thus Gawain implicitly re-invests the king with a presence in the text, a presence that has hitherto been all but effaced by the studied indifference shown him by the Green Knight. He also seeks to restore the king’s capacity to command rather than simply respond to events, offering him, without seeming to presume, the opportunity to exercise authority once more – and to do so, as we shall see, on some-

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 102

08/01/2013 08:23

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

103

thing approaching his own terms. Thus, without appearing to have offered any counsel as yet, Gawain has already begun to restore something of Arthur’s lost dignity and authority, and has tactfully reminded him of his role and responsibilities as king. Gawain’s intervention and the studied protocol of its enunciation also have the effect of drastically slowing down the pace of the narrative, which to this point, with Arthur’s wild, inconsequential swings of the axe, was threatening to accelerate into comic hyperactivity. Gawain’s careful description of the movements which he will make if only the king would command him to do so, reduces the scene to a dignified slow-motion. He can thus reclaim something of the strategic advantage which had been lost to the Knight, whose stillness in the midst of Arthur’s frenetic exercises had given him a near-monopoly of moral and narrative authority. Not only does Gawain seek to reinvest Arthur with royal authority, though, he also attempts to redefine the nature of that authority in distinct and important ways. To this point it has been the Knight who has decided the terms in which the king’s sovereignty and the nature of his court have been defined and in which they will be tested. With Gawain’s response this situation changes. To see exactly how this happens, it is important to look again at the way the Knight’s challenge is first issued and then responded to. In its initial description of Camelot, the text had presented a society in which the martial values of chivalry and the studied civility of the court were apparently seamlessly combined in gentle recreation: Þer tournayed tulkes by tymez ful mony Justed ful jolile þise gentyle knyytes, Syþen kayred to þe court, caroles to make; For þer þe fest watz ilyche ful fiften dayes, With alle þe mete and þe mirþe þat men couþe avyse. (41–5) [There folk tourneyed many times, these noble knights jousting joyfully, then rode to the court to dance and sing; for there the feast lasted fully fifteen days, with all the feasting and pastimes that could be devised.]

In Arthur’s court, in the youthful exuberance of ‘þis fayre folk in her first age’ (l. 54), dancing and gift-giving can co-exist with the hazarding of life and limb in tournaments without apparent contradiction. Even the chaplains join in the festivities, crying ‘Nowel’ as the courtiers rush to exchange presents and kisses.16 What the Knight offers, despite his claim to seek only a Christmas game, is a direct challenge to this accommodating chivalric courtliness: a challenge which aims to provoke Camelot and its king out of their playful civility by reminding them of

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 103

08/01/2013 08:23

104

Reading Literature Historically

their violent, martial origins and ethos: exposing the war-band lying barely submerged beneath the elegant surface of the court. We should attend carefully to the vocabulary employed by the protagonists during their exchanges, something often undervalued in the study of alliterative verse. There is a largely unspoken, but nonetheless powerful critical assumption that in alliterative texts, and especially alliterative romances, precise nuances of vocabulary are of only secondary importance in the construction of meanings, and are largely driven by the demands of alliteration itself. Thus while the supposedly more subtle and sophisticated syllabic metre of Chaucer is scrutinised for every possible implication of word-choice, the alliterative poets are assumed to be first and foremost prisoners of their chosen form, and such questions are overlooked. What a study of Sir Gawain suggests is that such assumptions need revising. For the selection of the terms in which the exchanges between Arthur, the Green Knight and Gawain are couched is fundamental to the nature and outcome of the encounter, just as it will be again in the decorous, dangerous word-duels between Gawain and the Lady at Hautdesert in the third fitt of the poem. Initially, as we have seen, the Knight hails Arthur brusquely as ‘þe governour of þis gyng’ (l. 225), hardly an over-deferential description, certainly, but more importantly one which focuses attention upon the king’s role as a leader of a group of fighting men rather than as the legally sanctioned ruler of a realm (M.E.D. sv governour: 1b: a military leader, commander; ging(e): 1b: a band of warriors, a troop, an army, or host). In response, the king, whom we had earlier seen exemplifying the courtly graces, elegantly ‘Talkkande bifore þe hyye table of trifles ful hende’ (l. 108), refuses to be unsettled (‘rekenly hym reverenced, for rad was he never’ (l. 251)). He describes himself in terms which instinctively focus upon his social rather than military functions, as ‘þe hede of þis ostel [household]’ (l. 253), seeking thereby to initiate a discourse of hospitality and good lordship in which he can invite the Knight to join his feast. But the latter rejects this counterclaim and returns immediately to martial terminology and frames of reference. It is the military and chivalric reputation of Arthur, his castle, and his knights (‘stifest under stelgere on stedes to ryde’ [strongest in armour on horses to ride] (l. 260)), which has drawn him to Camelot, he claims. And, although he quickly denies that he comes to fight, it is explicitly a test of martial courage which he offers them, as the terms he employs to describe it imply: . . . I crave in þis court a crystmas gomen . . . If any so hardy in þis house holdez hymselven, Be so bolde in his blod, brayn in hys hede, Þat dar stifly strike a strok for anoþer. (283, 285–7, my italics)

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 104

08/01/2013 08:23

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

105

[If anyone in this house believes himself so hardy, so brave of blood, so wild in thought, to dare to strongly exchange one blow for another.]

As Arthur and the Knight negotiate, a definitional struggle is being fought out over the nature of Camelot’s reputation and the terms in which it defines itself. Perhaps already sensing this, the king again attempts to shift the exchange to a less confrontational mode of discourse, addressing the stranger as ‘sir cortays knyyt’ (l. 276). But again the latter rejects the attempt to incorporate him into the sociable culture of the court, dismissing the other knights present as ‘bot berdlez chylder’ (l. 280) and defiantly claiming that ‘Here is no mon me to mach, for myytez so wayke’ (l. 282): a claim backed up by taunts at the court’s lack of true pride in its ‘conquests’ when no one will take up his offer (ll. 309–15). The Knight sticks to his own definition of Camelot’s honour (despite his brief, artfully dismissive reference to Camelot’s reputation for courtesy (l. 263), presented almost as an afterthought), a definition based upon the battlefield virtues of ‘gryndellayk’ [ferocity] and ‘greme’ [anger/fury] (l. 312), and he is clear how he thinks this should commit its knights – and its king – to behave. Thus challenged as leader of a war-band, the greatest of a company of martial heroes, Arthur is left little option but to take up the challenge and jeopardise his own life. What Gawain does is to restore the element of choice by offering the king an equally honourable alternative to the apparent fait accomplis the Green Knight has presented. In an insightful reading of the encounter, David Aers has suggested that the confrontation between Camelot and the Knight is one between protagonists who share a set of heroic values: ‘both challenger and challenged understand that fame, pride, ferocity, wrath, renown, and heroic language are essential virtues in this community’s project and selfimage’.17 Thus, for Aers, the challenge is, at heart, simply a facing-out of the court, a belligerent confrontation in which the only issue at stake is which of the protagonists will prove the most proud, wrathful, etc, and so gain honour from the encounter, a challenge which would not have been out of place in the heroic world of Beowulf. What I would argue is rather that, although the Knight seems deliberately to have set up his challenge in this way, Gawain steps in precisely to forestall such a confrontation, by offering an alternative reading of Camelot’s ‘project and self-image’ in which such qualities play only an incidental part. Citing the work of the historian Mervyn James, Aers draws attention to the system of ‘competitive assertiveness’ at the heart of chivalric honour culture: The Green Knight’s challenge with Arthur’s response are part of this system, one in which, according to James, courtesy played an important but limited

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 105

08/01/2013 08:23

106

Reading Literature Historically

containing role: ‘The competitiveness of honour was veiled by the routines of good manners and courtesy, which helped to contain the latent violence within acceptable limits’. Yet ‘even courtesy could no more than demarcate the battlefield’.18

For Aers, the exchanges in Arthur’s hall are characterised by this loosely regulated assertiveness and remain merely, ruthless aggression fused with the restraints imposed by the very code that demands the aggressive assertiveness: complex and gamesome courtly mediations of a reckless violence in which killing is a matter of little consequence providing correct forms are honoured.

Yet, while James’ general conception may offer a plausible account of the operation of the honour code in late-medieval and early-modern culture,19 it does not necessarily provide so helpful a guide to the precise and particular expression (and negotiation) of that code in the context of Gawain or romance literature more generally. Social conditions and their literary mediations are, of course, not always equivalent. In the fictional Gawain’s response to the Green Knight, courtesy does not simply demarcate the battlefield, it explicitly offers an alternative to it – a means, as we shall see, of re-negotiating honour and courtliness in terms of his own choosing, in order that the direct, warrior-code challenge of the Knight might be deflected and neutralised. Consequently, Aers’ claims for the role of courtesy in Gawain’s response markedly underestimate its importance to his performance as a whole: It is most appropriate that the pious paragon of courtesy, the ‘fyn fader of nurture’ [Gawain], should move through the most intricate courtly rhetoric and rituals, through an appeal to the heroic collective, through assertion of his own magisterial pre-eminence in courtly language, including its forms of modesty, through invocation of blood and lineage (so important in the class’s self-identity) to a most violent and death dealing act.20

This misses the crucial point that, in Gawain’s performance, courtesy is not simply a means of claiming the right to perform the ‘death dealing act’, but a means of simultaneously redefining that act as, not part of Camelot’s own code at all, but an intrusion from outside chivalry’s normal practice, a challenge of so little consequence that it is best dealt with by the court’s least worthy and least able member. Gawain’s ‘gamesomeness’ is central to his attempt to mock and so diminish the threat which the Knight poses, to present him – against the evidence – as not ‘one of us’, but an ignorant outsider, unaware of the nature and protocol of Arthur’s courtly world.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 106

08/01/2013 08:23

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

107

Gawain sets out to define an alternative aspect of the king’s household or domus, and consequently an alternative image of kingship, in opposition to the Knight’s apparently purely military conception. The sort of kingship, and the sort of courtly culture which Gawain tacitly asserts is based less upon manly courage and puissant prowess (which he treats as almost irrelevant) and more upon correct behaviour and attitudes. In essence he focuses upon the one element conspicuously absent from the Green Knight’s description of Arthur’s court: courtliness itself. He begins by addressing Arthur as ‘worþilych lorde’ (l. 343), a title which suggests a feudal authority, a legitimate cultural supremacy rather than the merely pragmatic ascendancy of the Knight’s ‘governour of þis gyng’. He assumes a culture in which ‘worthiness’ lies in due title, correct behaviour, and blood links to the royal line, rather than in purely physical prowess. Conversely he re-defines ‘vylanye’, the opposite of worth and honour, as lying, not in cowardice in the face of a martial challenge, but in ignorance or rejection of protocol, and in a failure to show due respect to established authority, in short, in failing to behave in a suitably courtly manner: ‘Wolde ye, worþilych lorde’, quoþ Wawan to þe kyng, ‘Bid me boye fro þis benche and stonde by yow þere, Þat I wythoute vylanye myyt voyde þis table[?]’. (343–5) [‘Would you, worthy lord,’ said Gawain to the king, ‘call me from this bench to come and stand by you there, so that I may without discourtesy leave my place at table?’]

The tacit reproach to the Knight, who has, with deliberate discourtesy, failed to recognise either Arthur’s sovereignty as king or his authority as host, is clear. Revealingly, Gawain’s conception of royal authority is neither exclusively martial, nor even exclusively male. Thus he pointedly includes the queen in his request also, deferring to her authority, and thus drawing her back at least one step from the political margins to which the Knight’s indifference had banished her, adding, And þat my legge lady lyked not ille, I wolde com to your counsel bifore your cort ryche. (346–7) [And if my liege lady does not object, I would come to counsel you before your splendid court.]

This presents a strikingly different Gawain from that of Malory’s later redaction. As Beverley Kennedy has argued, the Gawain of the

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 107

08/01/2013 08:23

108

Reading Literature Historically

Morte D’Arthur is very much the ‘heroic knight’, motivated primarily by martial values and a product of the familial culture of clan and blood feud.21 Here we see him consciously and deliberately standing for a profoundly different code of behaviour. The pride in his family ties, which Malory was to build upon, is clearly recognisable in his claim that his only honour lies in his blood link to the throne as Arthur’s nephew. Yet it is employed to a very different effect. Here it is not the destabilising factor that it was to become in Malory, but part of the courtly discourse that Gawain sets in opposition to the Knight’s ‘heroic’ conception. Gawain puts himself forward, not as a representative of his uncle’s clan, but as a subject of his lord and king: For me þink hit not semly - as hit is soþ knawen Þer such an askyng is hevened so hyye in your sale, Þay ye yourself be talentyf, to take hit to yourselven, Whil mony so bolde yow aboute upon bench sytten . . . I am þe wakkest, I wot, and of wyt feblest, And lest lur of my lyf, quo laytes þe soþe. Bot for as much as ye ar myn em I am only to prayse; No bounte but your blod I in my bode knowe. (348–51, 354–7) [For it seems to me to be inappropriate – as is known to be true – when such a challenge is issued so proudly in your hall, for you to take it up yourself, even though you are well capable, while so many bold men sit around you on benches. / I am the weakest, I know, and feeblest of mind, and loss of my life would be the least, if you seek to know the truth; my only praiseworthiness lies in that you are my uncle; and I know no merit in my body but your blood.]

This is, of course, a self-consciously courtly performance, a bravura display of the sort of modesty, grace and affability which would later be characterised by Castiglione’s notion of sprezzatura, and it is articulated in a vocabulary equally worthy of the assemblies at Urbino. This is perhaps most evident as he appeals to the king, queen and assembled courtiers to judge with him the ‘seemliness’ of the Knight’s challenge, setting them up as the arbiters of good manners and appropriate behaviour, and tacitly dismissing the Knight as an uncouth intruder ignorant of otherwise commonplace values (‘For me þink hit not semly – as hit is soþ knawen’).22 Gawain’s case for seeing himself as the lowest knight present is, of course, wholly unconvincing – the very terms in which he puts it, and the presence of mind which prompts him to do so, reveal its speciousness. But, as with all courtly display, it is nonetheless impressive in its obvious artifice – indeed impressive

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 108

08/01/2013 08:23

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

109

because of its manifest untruth. His modest disclaimer serves to illustrate his worthiness, just as the consummate urbanity of its expression serves to undercut the threat of the Knight’s belligerent stance. The very indirection of his performance acts as a refutation of the suggestion that he and the Knight share identical values. We have come a long way from the values of Beowulf in the space of twenty-five lines. But, more pragmatically what Gawain offers is an alternative interpretation of what the Green Knight’s challenge requires, neutralising it of the inherent threat to Arthur’s authority which it had hitherto seemed to contain. To this point the ‘gomen’ had called for the highest of those present to take up the challenge to prove the worth and honour of Camelot. Under those circumstances to nominate anyone other than Arthur to respond would have been a slight on the king. Gawain now re-interprets the question to ask not, ‘who is the best man here?’, a test of individual honour which Arthur, in order not to lose face among his knights, must rise to, but ‘who can we best spare for this game?’, a more pragmatic and less pressured question for the collective consideration of the court. Significantly Gawain, even as he attempts to belittle the challenge, offers a sober acknowledgement of the very real threat to life which it poses (‘I am þe wakest . . . and lest lur of my lyf’ (l. 355, my italics)). But he does so in such a way that the question becomes one not of courage but of political decorum (Camelot’s martial courage and the heroism of its king are presented as a given factor – ‘þay ye yourself be talentyf, to take hit to yourselven, / Whil mony so bolde yow aboute upon bench sytten’ (ll. 350–1); ‘Ne better bodyes on bent þer baret is rered’ [no better men in the field when battle is raised] (l. 353), but as an irrelevance here). And in this context it is clear that Arthur need not, indeed should not, take up the axe. By so redefining the object of the ‘gomen’ Gawain has, temporarily at least, seized the initiative from the mysterious intruder. It is a small step from here to his request that he should be allowed to take up the challenge himself, leaving the court in a far stronger position, pitting seemingly its worst member rather than its best against the Knight’s challenge. Far from misunderstanding the nature of that challenge,23 then, Gawain’s studied response demonstrates that he has fully perceived its implications, and rises to them consummately. He enters consciously from his first recorded statement into a contest with the Knight over the real nature and defining characteristics of Camelot’s courtly honour: the very soul of the Arthurian court. Aers has suggested that,

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 109

08/01/2013 08:23

110

Reading Literature Historically

Gawain . . . imagines no alternative form of life to the culture figured by Camelot. Nor does the poem. It is not concerned either with a ‘new’ individual and collective identity, let alone with the struggles in which they might be fashioned.24

But this underplays the central dynamic of the exchanges in the poem’s first fitt. In refusing to idealise the Knight, and in refusing to set him up as a privileged creature apart from the court (a strategy which, as Bella Millett has recently demonstrated,25 has allowed many critics uneasy with the martial emphases of chivalric culture to use him as a device with which they can attack both the court and its values), Aers offers a valuable corrective to the excesses of much liberal humanist and Christian exegetical criticism of the poem. But in the attempt to read the Knight as thus fully integrated within the chivalric culture of the court, he misses the more subtle – and more deliberate – ways in which the Knight attempts, provocatively, to (re)define Arthur’s court from within the knightly ethos, the ways in which the poem imagines and counterpoises different kinds of knighthood, chivalry and honour. If the Knight’s entrance into Arthur’s hall represents the return of chivalry’s repressed, then, as Aers claims,26 it is not because the encounter seeks, unsuccessfully, to exclude the social and economic realities against which chivalry was allegedly struggling, but for far more pointed and particular reasons. It does so because the Knight, and the poet, deliberately engineer the encounter with Arthur to confront Camelot with an older, more brutally heroic form of honour culture, and challenge the court to measure – and define – itself against that form. Both readings of Camelot’s communal identity may, then, have been drawn from within an elite honour culture, broadly defined, but, as the exchanges between the three protagonists in the fitt reveal, they embody profoundly different conceptions of the nature and role of that identity: the one based upon the purely martial and heroic values which hold together a military entourage, the other, assumed by Arthur and more fully articulated by Gawain, based upon a more totalising notion of courtly civilisation. In the latter, the Arthurian court represents, not simply a gathering of the king’s warriors, but a model for the realisation of a whole gamut of elite civilised and civilising cultural values and ideals incorporating good manners, grace, deference, playfulness, humility, lineage and royal legitimacy: the very values of courtliness itself. It is these values which will be re-examined at Hautdesert, when Bertilak and his wife resume the testing begun by his ‘aluish’ alter-ego. Indeed, Gawain has to draw upon the same skills of courteous, rhetorical displacement of intention he displays in fitt one in his more

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 110

08/01/2013 08:23

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

111

decorous, but no less urgent, encounters with Lady Bertilak in the third fitt. When the Lady steals quietly into his bedchamber and sits on his bedside, the knight is presented with another test of both his courtesy and his political shrewdness. Her suggestion that she intends to hold him captive beneath his coverlet (‘I schall bynde yow in your bedde’ (l. 1211)) establishes an implicit power relationship and sense of obligation between them couched in terms of knightly hostage taking and ransom (‘Bot true uus may schape’ (l. 1210), which W. S. Merwin translates as ‘But we can come to terms’).27 Gawain accepts the gambit and responds in like terms, setting himself in the role of the chivalric prisoner seeking redemption from a pleasurable captivity: ‘Me schal worþe at your wille and þat me wel lykez, For I yelde me yelderly and yeye after grace; And þat is þe best, be my dome, for me bihovez need!’ (1214–16) 28 [I shall be at your command, and that pleases me well; so I yield at once and beg for your grace; and that is the best thing, in my judgement, since I have no choice.]

But, having accepted the Lady’s playful gambit, Gawain finds that it allows him, literally very little room for manoeuvre: ‘Bot wolde ye, lady lovely, þen, leve me grante And deprece your prysoun and pray hym to ryse, I wolde boye of þis bed and busk me better; I schulde kever þe more comfort to karp yow with.’ (1218–21) [But if you, lovely lady, would grant me my freedom, release your prisoner, and ask him to rise, I would leave this bed and apparel me more fittingly, and be better able to entertain you with conversation.]

It is not that, as some critics have suggested, Gawain is kept beneath the bedclothes for fear that the Lady should see him naked – a scenario that would place him in an infantilised comic role worthy of Chaucer’s Sir Thopas. As these lines suggest, he is quite prepared to get out of bed, seemingly in full sight of his hostess – an action likely to offer still greater opportunity for seductive badinage and more direct sexual advances on the Lady’s part. Significantly, it is the Lady (in keeping with what we later discover to have been her ultimately non-amorous mission to test his ‘trouth’) who determines that the knight should stay safely confined under the covers in the role of suppliant captive: ‘Nay forsoþe, beau sir,’ sayd þat swete, ‘3e schal not rise of your bedde. I rych yow better:

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 111

08/01/2013 08:23

112

Reading Literature Historically

I schal happe yow here þat oþer half als And syþen karp with my knyyt þat I kayt have . . .’ (1222–5) [‘No, truly, good sir,’ said that sweet one, ‘you shall not rise from your bed, I shall make better arrangements for you: I shall trap you here, and on this other side too, and then talk freely with the knight I have ensnared.’]

Hence her teasing comments are offered in the safe knowledge that he cannot act upon them without her allowing him to, if he is not to break the terms of the playful ‘pretence’ that she has induced him to agree to, and hence the rules of courtesy itself: ‘And now ye ar here, iwysse, and we bot oure one, My lorde and his ledez are on lenþe faren, Oþer burnez in her bedde, and my burdez als, Þe dor drawen and dit with a derf haspe; And syþen I have in þis hous hym þat al lykez, I schal ware my whyle wel, quyl hit lastez, With tale. 3e ar welcum to my cors, Yowre awen won to wale, Me behovez of fine force Your servaunt be, and schale.’ (1230–40) [And now you are here, indeed, and we are all alone, my lord and his men are riding far away, all the other lords are still abed, and my handmaids too, the door closed and secured with a strong latch; and since I have in my house he who all admire, I shall use the time well, while it lasts, in conversation. You are welcome to me, to take pleasure how you choose, I needs must be at your command, and will be.]

The flirtatious nature of the speech is obvious, but it offers a clear moral challenge as well as an implicit sexual invitation. Seemingly faced with a choice between adultery and discourtesy if he is to live up to his own reputation, Gawain’s only recourse is to deny her principal, suggesting that she has mistaken him for a grander, finer man than he really is: ‘. . . I be not now he þat ye of speken – To reche to such reverence as ye reherce here I am wyye unworþy, I wot wel myselven . . .’ (1242–4) [I am not now that man you speak of; I am unworthy to aspire to such reverence as you describe, I know well myself.]

In their exchanges both Gawain and the Lady fall back upon the same kind of decorous displacement of intention and agency that had charac-

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 112

08/01/2013 08:23

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

113

terised the young knight’s performance in fitt one (‘if you would order me to come to counsel you, and if my lady think it not ill, then I will . . .’). Here each of them deploys this courteous passivity to neutralise the potentially assertive implications of a discussion of desire. Gawain continually reasserts that the initiative in the encounter lies not with him but with his captor, the Lady: ‘Bi God, I were glad and yow god þoyt At saye oþer at servyce þat I sette myyt To þe pleasaunce of your prys; hit were a pure joye.’ (1245–7) [By God, I would be glad, if you approved, if I could, either through words or deeds, provide you with pleasure: it would be a pure joy . . .]

She in turn refers not to her own desires but to what other, unnamed, and by implication less inhibited, ladies would do if they were in her place: ‘Bot hir ar ladyes innoye þat lever wer nowþe Haf þe, hende, in hor holde, as I þe habbe here, To daly with derely your daynte wordez Kever hem comfort and colen her carez, Þen much of þe garysoun oþer golde þat þay haven. Bot I lovve þat ilk Lorde þat þe lyfte haldez I haf hit holly in my honed þat al desires, Þurye grace.’ (1251–8) [But there are many other ladies who would be more eager, if they had you, noble man, in their hands, as I do here, to take pleasure in your fine words, comfort themselves, and ease their longings.]

While Gawain in turn deflects the implication of honour that she bestows upon him, with its implied obligation to take responsibility for the situation, back upon her: . . . þe daynte þat þay delen for my disert nys ever – Hit is þe worchyp of yourself, þat noyt bot wel connez.’ (1266–7) [. . . the honour that they do me is not of my deserving, it is to your honour, who thinks nothing but good (of everyone).]

In response she again deploys the coy displacement of the conditional (still much virtue in ‘if’). Even if she were infinitely more worthy than she knows herself to be, and was able to ‘chese me a lorde’ (l. 1271) perfectly to her own liking, ‘Þer schulde no freke upon folde before

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 113

08/01/2013 08:23

114

Reading Literature Historically

yow be chosen’ [there’s no man on earth I’d choose over you] (l. 1275). Gawain’s reply (‘3e have waled wel better; / Bot I am proude of þe prys þat ye put on me’ [you have already chosen much better, but I am honoured by the reputation you ascribe to me] (ll. 1276–7)) manages to combine a courteous compliment to both host and hostess with a tactful reminder of the Lady’s marital status. In eventually negotiating the terms of his release from his eiderdown prison, Gawain politely declines the role of lover in favour of that of servitor, replacing, that is, the reality of dalliance with its chivalrous public simulacrum: And, soberly your servaunt, my soverayn I holde yow And yowre knyyt I becom, and Kryst yow foryelde.’ (1278–9) [And in all seriousness I am your servant, and take you as my liege lady, and I shall be your knight, may Christ reward you.]

As he brings the scene to a close, the poet carefully contrives to suggest what has been at stake throughout the decorous flirtation: Þus þay meled of muchquat til mydmorn paste And ay þe lady let lyk a hym loved mych. Þe freke ferde with defence and feted ful fayre. (1280–2) [Thus they chatted of many things till midmorning was passed, and always the lady behaved as if she loved him very much. The knight proceeded cautiously, and acted courteously.]

Both here in Hautdesert, then, and in Camelot, Gawain is called upon to use the skills of gracious, courteous displacement to tackle serious moral and diplomatic challenges, and in each case he rises to those challenges elegantly, but in each case the reader is also allowed to glimpse the degree of effort that such grace under pressure actually entails.

Conclusion Identifying the presence of the brief but anxious debate in fitt one about the nature of Camelot’s chivalric identity beneath the exchanges between the Knight and Gawain is one thing: reading it in the context of the culture which produced it and consumed it is another. In general terms, the poem clearly provides striking evidence of the process described by Norbert Elias as ‘the courtization of the warriors’ (verhöflichung der krieger), the move from a warrior culture to a courtly one.29 It shows

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 114

08/01/2013 08:23

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

115

that, rather than a product of the seventeenth century, as was suggested in Elias’s classic study, or of the mid-fifteenth as David Morgan has argued,30 the concept of a truly courtly society was well understood by the end of the fourteenth century at the latest, and was familiar enough to the Gawain-Poet for him to be able to subject it to a subtle and prolonged poetic examination. But what of the more immediate context of the debate and the nature of its articulation? What should we make of the Knight’s studied hostility and concentration upon the martial aspects of the court’s self-image? It might, of course, be objected that this is an entirely predictable line for an intruder-knight to take if he is aiming to provoke Arthur’s knights to take up his challenge. But it is surely more than that. Fundamentally, what the Knight offers is not a martial challenge at all, but a test of nerve and will-power. His belligerence is not commensurate with the nature of the test which he offers, nor with what we discover later about his own knightly character; for, as the subsequent fitts reveal, the Knight’s alter-ego, Bertilak, is fully versed in the courtly dimensions to chivalric identity.31 He does not in reality lack manners or knowledge of chivalric protocol. His brusqueness is a pose consciously adopted for the purpose of challenging Arthur’s court. Similarly, while Bertilak’s own later explanation of his intentions in entering Arthur’s hall – that he intended to frighten Guinevere to death – might explain the air of hostility that he adopts, it fails to account for the precise nature and careful articulation of his challenge to the court. The latter suggests a far wider and more fundamental examination of the basis of Camelot’s authority and identity than mere hostility to Guinevere would imply. Rather it suggests a poet anxious to use his exemplary text to explore the nature of courtliness itself and to discuss and attempt to reconcile the potential contradictions which the notion of a chivalric court contains. If, as Michael Bennett has argued, the otherwise anonymous GawainPoet was one of the circle of Cheshire men drawn to London and Westminster in the entourage of Richard II, then the discussion of courtliness and its proper focus discussed above would have had an immediacy and power which his initial audiences would have fully recognised.32 Gawain’s studied deference to the king, his careful adherence to protocol in addressing his sovereign and his courteous salute to the queen; his assertion of the hereditary, lineal, basis of royal power and authority, all would have spoken volubly to a courtly audience shaken by the challenges to royal authority and to the integrity and influence of the court posed by successive parliaments in the 1370s and 1380s, and by the criticisms of the Lords Appellant, and an audience equally exercised by Richard’s own attempts in the 1390s to reinvent his own

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 115

08/01/2013 08:23

116

Reading Literature Historically

kingship and reinvigorate a chivalric courtly culture in the wake of his earlier humiliations.33 In the context of the youthful Ricardian court, in which the king, unlike his predecessor, was renowned for neither knightly heroism not leadership in battle, the assertion of the centrality of courtliness to even the most renowned of honour cultures might well have appeared to explore and articulate profound truths about the nature of its audience’s collective project and self-image.34 In this sense the poem might plausibly be located at any point in the turbulent Ricardian period. If, however, Bennett is correct in dating it specifically to the last years of the reign, it gains an even greater resonance in the context of Richard’s conscious re-evocation and reformulation of courtly values to serve his own political ends. At that time the king was energetically developing a royal affinity among the landed gentry, visibly extending direct allegiance to the crown into the provinces through membership of his extended familia and the distribution of livery badges bearing his white hart emblem, purging the political community of his critics, and packing the highest ranks of the nobility with his own courtier-favourites (the so-called duketti). In such an environment, courtliness was itself a highly charged political term.35 The court and its values were the subject of increasingly harsh criticism from those nobles excluded from counsel and influence and the authors of a burgeoning literature of political and social complaint, criticism which would eventually find expression in the articles of deposition presented to parliament after Bolinbroke’s coup and Richard’s enforced removal from the throne.36 In the context of such criticism, the Gawain-Poet’s carefully articulated exposition of courtly values, would have provided an effective response on behalf of the Ricardian position, a powerful restatement of its courtly audience’s own raison d’etre, which cued them not only to understand the value of courtliness and courtesy as fundamentally civilising values, but also to experience it aesthetically and emotionally. In responding to the first of the tests set him by the enigmatic Green Knight, then, Gawain may have been addressing a rather wider and more contemporary agenda than just another adventurous challenge posed to Arthur’s mythical court, and inviting his readers to engage in a rather more fundamental conversation about their own cultural and political values.

Notes 1. All quotations from the text are from Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron (eds), The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1987). The modernisations are mine.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 116

08/01/2013 08:23

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

117

2. See, for example, Larry D. Benson, Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1965), p. 81 and following; John Spiers, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, Scrutiny, 16 (1949), pp. 274–300; J. A. Burrow, A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965); A. C. Spearing, The Gawain Poet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970). 3. Benson, Art and Tradition, pp. 211 and following; R. A. Shoaf, The Poem as Green Girdle: Commercium in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Gainsville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1984); H. Bergner, ‘The Two Courts: Two Modes of Existence in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”’, English Studies, 67 (1986), pp. 401–16; D. Aers, Community, Gender, and Individual Identity: English Writing, 1360–1430 (London: Routledge, 1988), pp. 158–9. For Aers (p. 158), the Green Knight ‘in challenging the rules of courtesy . . . challenges the very identity of the courtly community, its virtues, and goals, all of which could be reaffirmed through the encounter’. I will develop this suggestion in what follows, albeit to somewhat different conclusions. 4. See, for example, J. A. Burrow, Reading, pp. 4 and 13–14; Wendy Clein, Concepts of Chivalry in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight (Norman, OK: Pilgrim Books, 1987), pp. 78–9; Bella Millet, ‘How Green is the Green Knight?’, Nottingham Medieval Studies, XXXVIII (1994), pp. 138–51, especially pp. 138–9; and R. G. Arthur, Medieval Sign Theory and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987). See A. C. Spearing, ‘Purity and Danger’, in Spearing, Readings in Medieval Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 173–194, for a compelling account of the Gawain-Poet’s preoccupation with the disruption of established order and categories of reference more generally. 5. For a convincing refutation of accounts which place the Knight firmly outside Camelot’s chivalric value-system, see Millett, ‘How Green . . .?’, passim. 6. Indeed the etymology of the term ‘mayster’ itself hints at the Green Knight’s role in the poem, combining implications of a civil or military official, governor, ruler, or leader (M.E.D. (maister), 1), with ‘one who directs the formal education or training of children or youths’ (3a), a spiritual director or religious instructor (4a), and ‘a magician’ (3b). 7. See Millett, ‘How Green . . .?’, p. 143. Interestingly the word ‘clene’, frequently employed by the poet in Patience, Pearl and Cleanness with reference to God and his chosen instruments, is employed no fewer than five times of the Knight (at ll. 146, 154, 158, 161, and 163), and a further three times of Bertilak’s castle and its hospitality (at ll. 792, 854, and 885). It is never used of Arthur or Camelot. It is used on seven occasions of Gawain, his armour, and his confessions, albeit on three of these occasions it is spoken by the Green Knight/Bertilak, or by his wife (ll. 576, 1013, 1298, 1883, 2017, 2391, and 2393). See B. Kottler and A. M. Martin, A Concordance to Five Middle English Poems (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1966), s.v. ‘clean’. 8. The description of the axe and the green ‘lace lapped aboute’ it (l. 216) suggests another wry game on the poet’s part. Are we expected to see it as

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 117

08/01/2013 08:23

118

9. 10.

11. 12. 13.

14.

15.

16. 17.

Reading Literature Historically a pre-echo of the green girdle, a clue to the latter’s provenance planted in the reader’s mind early enough in the narrative to be forgotten by all but the most attentive of readers? The descriptions of the two ‘laces’ suggest enough points of comparison for the connection to be intended (see ll. 1832–3, 1874, 2358, and 2429–32). For the discourteous challenge, see A. C. Spearing, From Medieval to Renaissance in English Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 125 and Aers, Community, Gender, p. 158. See, for example, Lynn S. Johnson, The Voice of the Gawain Poet (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984), p. 46; J. S. Neaman, ‘Sir Gawain’s Covenant: Troth and Timor Mortis’, Philological Quarterly, 55 (1976), pp. 30–42; Clein, Concepts of Chivalry, pp. 76–8. For a defence of Arthur’s ‘surely impeccable’ behaviour, see A.C. Spearing, The Gawain Poet, pp. 182–3. Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998). J. Nichols, The Matter of Courtesy: Medieval Courtesy Books and the Gawain-Poet (Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 1985), pp. 120–1. In both the Stanzaic Morte and Malory’s prose text it is Gawain who speaks against the plot, proposed by Mordred and Agravain, to expose the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere. ‘Yit were it better’, he counsels prophetically in the stanzaic text, ‘to hele [hide] and layne/ Than werre and wrake to begynne’ (ll. 1694–5). This kind of pragmatic counsel is also evident in Chretien’s Erec et Enide, where it is Gauvain who advises Arthur not to propose the hunt for the White Stag on the grounds that it will inevitably lead to dissention at court. Similarly in Chretien’s Lancelot, it is Gauvain who suggests to Arthur that he pursue Kay and Guinevere, who have gone unaccompanied into the forest in response to Meleagant’s challenge. On Gawain’s courtesy, see, A. C. Spearing, Criticism and Medieval Poetry, second edition (London: Arnold, 1972), pp. 43–7; Spearing, The Gawain Poet, p. 183; Lee C. Ramsey, Chivalric Romance: Popular Literature in Medieval England (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983), pp. 200–1; W. Clein, Concepts of Chivalry, pp. 82–4; J. Nicholls, The Matter of Courtesy, pp. 123–4. Arguably this narrative strategy would have been still more necessary, and effective, in oral delivery. The need to follow the details of the plot is, of course, all the greater where there is no opportunity to re-read or take more slowly a particularly dense or nuanced passage. Thus the effect of having the information given in this way would be all the more necessary and liberating for audiences. See Aers, Community, Gender, p. 157 on the ‘unproblematic . . . assimilat[ion]’ of Christianity into the court’s celebrations. Aers, Community, Gender, p. 158. The point is reiterated at p. 162 where, talking of Hautdesert, Aers suggests that ‘the fusion of courtly and heroic traditions found at Camelot is reaffirmed’, and at p. 168, where he notes that ‘challenger and challenged [are] bound together in a common culture the poet shares’. While this may be true of the final encounter between Gawain and the Knight at the Green Chapel, it is manifestly not the case

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 118

08/01/2013 08:23

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

18.

19.

20. 21. 22. 23.

24. 25. 26. 27.

28.

29.

119

for their earlier meeting, at which the courtly and heroic traditions are distinctly in opposition. Aers, Community, Gender, p. 159, quoting Mervyn James, English Politics and the Concept of Honour, (Cambridge: Past and Present Society, 1978), pp. 1, 5–6 (reprinted in James, Society, Politics and Culture: Studies in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 308–415). But, see the subsequent criticism of James’s work in, for example, G. W. Bernard, ‘Introduction’, in Bernard (ed.), The Tudor Nobility (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), pp. 1–48. especially pp. 2–6. James’s model of noble honour culture is based largely on the northern nobility in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, not the period of Sir Gawain, which may limit the direct value of its insights for readings of the poem. Aers, Community, Gender, p. 160. B. Kennedy, Knighthood in the Morte D’Arthur (Second Edition, Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer, 1992), pp. 1–6, 8–9, 60–97, 304–53. The powerful alliterative collocation of ‘semly’ and ‘soþe’ here emphasises the crucial role played by ‘seemliness’ in Gawain’s conception of courtly integrity. For the suggestion that ‘Although Gawain finally accepts the challenge, he fails to perceive the nature of the test: a failure that reflects Camelot’s own heedless delight in appearance’, see Johnson, Voice, p. 50. I would suggest that the text does not invite us to find subtle hints of character flaws in Gawain here, flaws that will in some way explain his ‘failure’ in the final fitt. In this sense the tale is not comic in the way that Patience another work of the Gawain-Poet is. There we are given a portrait of a clearly flawed protagonist, the prophet Jonah, who must, despite himself, be taught by a long-suffering deity the virtues of patience and humility that will make him an effective prophet. In Sir Gawain we are presented with a protagonist who is indeed, as the Green Knight finally judges him, about as perfect a knight as it is possible for a human being to be, albeit one who, like all of us, loves life a little too much to turn down an apparent chance to prolong it. Aers, Community, Gender, p. 176. Millett, ‘How Green . . .?’, especially pp. 144–6. Aers, Community, Gender, p. 178. W. S. Merwin, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation (Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2002), p. 83. Andrew and Waldron offer ‘Unless a truce should come about for us’: Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron (eds), The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript (Exeter: University of Exeter Press Reprint, 1997), p. 252. Merwin (New Verse Translation, p. 85) translates the opening line here as ‘You will have your way with me, and I like the thought of that’, which, if rather loose, does anticipate something of the erotic overtone to the exchange. Andrew and Waldron have the rather dryer ‘My fate shall be as you determine’, Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, p. 252. N. Elias, The Civilizing Process, trans. E. Jephcott (2 vols in 1, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), especially pp. 229–319. For a sustained critique of Elias’s model, see Jeroen Duindam, Myths of Power: Norbert

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 119

08/01/2013 08:23

120

30.

31. 32.

33. 34.

35.

36.

Reading Literature Historically Elias and the Early Modern Court (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1995). D. Morgan, ‘The House of Policy: The Political Role of the Late Plantagenet Household, 1422–1485’, in D. Starkey et al. (eds), The English Court: From the Wars of the Roses to the Civil War (London: Longman, 1987), pp. 25–70. For a perceptive analysis of Morgan’s case, see Lee Patterson, ‘Court Politics and the Invention of Literature: The Case of Sir John Clanvowe’, in D. Aers (ed.), Culture and History, 1350–1600: Essays on English Communities, Identities, and Writing (Detroit: Prentice-Hall, 1993), pp. 7–41. As Aers notes (Community, Gender, p. 168), ‘the lord of Hautdesert . . . is as immanent to the ethos of the heroic virtues and honour community as Arthur or Gawain’. See also Patterson, ‘Court Politics’, p. 20. Michael J. Bennett, Community, Class and Careerism: Cheshire and Lancashire Society in the Age of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), passim, and ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Literary Achievement of the North-West Midlands: the Historical Background’, Journal of Medieval History, 5 (1979), pp. 63–88. See also John M. Bowers, ‘Pearl in its Royal Setting: Ricardian Poetry Revisited’, in Studies in the Age of Chaucer 17 (1995), pp. 111–55. Lee Patterson, Chaucer and the Subject of History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), especially pp. 156–64, 165–95. For Richard’s conscious cultivation of pacifism, see Nigel Saul, ‘Richard II and Westminster Abbey’, in John Blair and Brian Golding (eds), The Cloister and the World: Essays in Medieval History in Honour of Barbara Harvey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 196–218, especially pp. 198–9. C. Given-Wilson (ed.), Chronicles of the Revolution, 1397–1400 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), pp. 74–75; GivenWilson, ‘The King and the Gentry in Fourteenth-century England’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th Series, 37 (1987); GivenWilson, The Royal Household and the King’s Affinity: Service, Politics, and Finance in England, 1360–1413 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988), pp. 160–202, 203–57; A. Tuck, Richard II and The English Nobility (London: Edward Arnold, 1973); R. H. Jones, The Royal Policy of Richard II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968). See, for example, Janet Coleman, English Literature in History, 1350–1400: Medieval Readers and Writers (London: Hutchinson, 1981), pp. 58–156; Patricia Eberle, ‘The Politics of Courtly Style at the Court of Richard II’, in G. S. Burgess and R. A. Taylor (eds), The Spirit of The Court (Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer, 1985), pp. 168–78. For the deposition, see Given-Wilson, Chronicles, p. 177 and following.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 120

08/01/2013 08:23

Chapter 5

The Plowman’s Tale and the Politics of 1532: A Cautionary Tale?

On 18 March 1532 a radically anti-clerical document, the House of Commons’ ‘Supplication Against the Ordinaries’ was formally presented to Henry VIII.1 It outlined a series of complaints about the behaviour and jurisdiction of the English bishops, particularly concerning the administration of the ecclesiastical courts, and called upon the king to remedy what it identified as serious abuses against the ‘poor commons’ of England. The presentation of the Supplication was the culmination of the intense debate between supporters and critics of the privileges of the clergy that was raging both within the Reformation Parliament and in the country beyond, which was touched upon in Chapter two in the context of The Interlude of Godly Queen Hester: a debate that became so intense that contemporaries spoke of it as a new and unprecedented break, a furious schism, between the clergy and the laity in England.2 While this debate was raging, a second text fiercely critical of the clergy was published from the press of the London printer Thomas Godfray.3 From its opening lines it seemed to address directly the contemporary situation: A sterne stryfe is stered [stirred] newe In many stedes in a stound [places at once]; Of sondre sydes [seeds] that be sewe It semeth that some be unsounde. (53–6)

A clear sense of what Christopher St. German described in 1532 as the contemporary Division Between the Spirituality and the Temporality seems epitomised in this text’s identification of the two sides in this ‘sterne stryfe’: That one side is, that I of tell, Popes, cardinals, and prelates, Parsons, monkes, and freres fell [evil],

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 121

08/01/2013 08:23

122

Reading Literature Historically

Priours, abbottes of great estates: Of hevyn and helle they kepe the yates [gates], And Peters successours they ben all. (61–6)

‘The other side’, the narrator observes, ‘ben poor and pale, / And people put out of prease’ whom the clergy stigmatise as ‘lollers and londles[s]’ (ll. 69–70 and 73): the poor laity and itinerant evangelical preachers. But this second text, for all its apparent aptness, was actually not a Henrician political tract. It claimed to be a work of quite another type and era: the previously ‘lost’ contribution of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Ploughman to the story cycle of The Canterbury Tales. In a brief Prologue, the narrator of the poem is identified as a ploughman who leaves his labours to join a group of pilgrims, whose leader invites him to tell them ‘some holy thyng’ (l. 46). In response, the narrator promises to repeat a sermon he once heard from ‘a preest in pulpyt’ (l. 48). The ‘good prechyng’ that he goes on to deliver, and which forms the ‘Narratio’ of the poem, seems, however, to echo uncannily a number of the central preoccupations of the disputants of the early 1530s. The Ploughman narrator’s account quickly gives way to a debate that he (or, notionally, the priest whose sermon it was, although nothing further is said of this character or the ostensible ‘source’ of the Narratio) claims to have overheard between two beasts, whose positions and opinions would have seemed wholly familiar to readers in 1532 or 1533: . . . one dyde plede on the Pope’s side: A gryffon of a grymme stature. [The other] A Pellycane withouten pryde, To these lollers layde his lure [took the side of the poor true believers]. (85–8)4

A number of critics have consequently seen the publication of the poem as the work of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell’s propaganda machine.5 And there is a good deal of evidence in the Tale that would support such a claim. The arguments over jurisdiction between the king and the papal courts that were ultimately to lead to the break with Rome and the Henrician Royal Supremacy seem, for example, to inform a number of the themes and attitudes voiced in the poem. The king and his ministers’ oft-repeated assertion that papal power – both as it was exercised in Rome and as it was devolved upon the episcopacy in England – was a usurpation of royal authority seems reflected in several of the claims advanced in the Tale. The same kind of righteous outrage that was expressed in Henry’s own pronouncements finds echoes in the evangelical Pelican’s protests that the Pope’s power has grown so great

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 122

08/01/2013 08:23

The Plowman’s Tale

123

that, ‘A kyng shall knele and kysse his showe’ [shoe] (l. 461). Similarly the Pelican describes episcopal power as a further usurpation of royal authority: Kynges mote to hem [bishops] knele and cowe. (461) They take on hem royall powere And say they have swerdes two; One curse[s] to hell, one slee[s] men here . . . (565–7)

Indeed, the clergy as a whole have replaced the secular powers with their own throughout the realm: These [clerics] han more might in Englande here Than hathe the kynge and all hys power . . . It was nat so by elder dawe [in former times] God for his mercy it amende. (637–9, 643–4)

Like the authors of the Lords’ Articles against Wolsey and Godly Queen Hester, the poet is anxious throughout to couch his criticisms of the pope and the clergy in the context of the loss of royal authority and the consequent damage caused to the realm and commonweal. The final section of the text begins with a dramatic warning that the king might even be excommunicated and deprived of his kingdom by papal interdiction. The Bishop of Rome, who had supposedly been established in his high seat by the Donation of the Emperor Constantine, had finally turned to bite the hand that had fed him power: The Emperour yafe [gave] the Pope sometyme So hyghe lordshyppe hym aboute That at laste the sely kyme [simple soul], That proude Pope putt hym out. So of thys realme is in dowte But lordes beware, and them defende; For nowe these folk be wonder stoute [powerful], The Kynge and Lords nowe thys amende. (603–10)

The solution to the allegedly overweening power of the clergy proposed by the Pelican: that parliament, and in particular the Lords, should intervene to enforce reform, appears to set the poem directly in the context of the Commons’ Supplication and the fierce debate that it prompted. ‘Wonder it is’, the Pelican laments, . . . that the Parlyament And all the lordes of this londe

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 123

08/01/2013 08:23

124

Reading Literature Historically

Her[e]to taken to[o] lytell entent To helpe the people out of her honde, For they ben harder in their bonde, Worse beate, and bytter brende [burned (as heretics)], Than to the Kynge is understonde. God hem help this to amende. (685–92)6

Indeed, the allegations contained in the second section of the poem: that the church courts could arbitrarily summon poor laymen to answer allegations of heresy and other matters, often to courts outside their parishes (ll. 342ff), that the charges laid against them were often malicious and often not revealed to the person accused; that the courts charged excessive fees for the proving of a testament or punishment for minor infringements of the law; that churchmen took lay offices and lands to the detriment of poor dispossessed laymen, reflect so closely the main accusations levelled against the bishops and the ecclesiastical courts in the Commons’ Supplication that it seems at first glance hard to avoid the suggestion that this section of the Tale at least was devised precisely to echo and reinforce the Commons’ campaign. The poem contrasts the supposedly proportionate taxes granted with the consent of parliament with the arbitrary and exorbitant demands of the clerical courts, complaining that, The Kyng taxeth nat his men But by assente of the com[m]ynalte; But these [the clergy] eche yere woll raunsom hem Maisterfully, more than doth he. Her seales by yere better be Than is the Kynges in extende, Her officers han gretter fee; But thus myschefe God amende. For who so woll prove a testament That is not all worthe tenne pounde, He shall paye for the parchement The thirde parte of the money all rounde. Thus the people is raunsounde. They saye suche parte to hem shulde append, There as they grypen it gothe to grounde.* God for his mercy it amende. (653–68) [*Whatever they grasp falls into ruin.]

The Commons’ protest took similar exception to ‘the great and excessive fees taken in the . . . spiritual court, and in especial in the said

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 124

08/01/2013 08:23

The Plowman’s Tale

125

courts of the Arches and Audience [i.e. the prerogative courts of the Archbishop of Canterbury], where they take for every citation 2/6d, for every inhibition 6/8d, for every proxy 16d, for every certificate 16d, for every libel 3/4d . . .etc’.7 The anticlerical agitation in the Reformation Parliament had indeed been sparked off by just such protests over probate charges, as we have seen. Prior to the first session in October 1529, the London Mercers’ Company had drawn up a series of articles for discussion in the Commons. Among them was the complaint that the citizens of the capital ‘have been polled [shaved] and robbed without reason or conscience by th’ordinaries in probating of testaments and taking of mortuaries’.8 And, following Sir Henry Guildford’s intervention described in Chapter two, there ‘were showed so many extortions done by ordinaries for probates of wills that it were too much to rehearse’.9 As a result legislation was passed limiting the fees chargeable in the church courts. However, the grievance did not disappear, and Article five of the Supplication resurrected the demand for further reform: Also in probate of testaments, notwithstanding the last statute made, there is invented new fashions to charge your subjects for probate of testaments, that is to say, long delays and tracts ere the proof thereon can be admitted: and also sometime the executers be put to travel to far places out of the shires they dwell in, although the probate thereof belong not to the prerogative.10

Article twelve protested against the clergy’s habit of taking secular offices and lands that otherwise would have been available to laymen and enriching themselves in the process: Also divers and many spiritual persons, not contented with the convenient living and promotion of the church, daily intromit and exercise themselves in secular offices and rooms, as stewards, receivers, auditors, bailiffs and other temporal offices, withdrawing themselves from the good contemplative life that they have professed in the service of God, not only to the great damage of all your said subjects, but also to the perilous example of your loving and obedient subjects.11

The same complaint was voiced in The Plowman’s Tale by the Pelican, and in very similar terms, stressing both the adverse consequences for the laity and the dangers for the clerics’ spiritual vocation inherent in this adoption of secular appointments: What byshoppes, what religious Han [have] in thys lande as moche laye fee, Lordshippes, and possessions,

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 125

08/01/2013 08:23

126

Reading Literature Historically

More than the lordes, it semeth me [it seems to me]. That maketh hem lese [them lose] charitye. They mowe [may] nat to God attende; In erthe they have so highe degree. God for his mercy it amende. (685–92)

But, strong as the echoes of the debates of the 1530s and the Commons’ Supplication are in the poem, the text is also out of step with government policy in some of its more strident assertions. The Pelican is, for example, far readier to side with those ‘poor men’ convicted of heresy and against the church courts that had condemned them than any royal minister was prepared to be in 1532–3, and there is a strong sense in the poem of a more radical doctrinal agenda underlying the poet’s apparent willingness to make common cause with the king and the parliamentary critics of the church courts. Where, for example, the Supplication had protested about the citing of poor laymen to church courts outside their parishes, where they might face interrogation over charges that were often not revealed to them, and in the context of laws of which they were ignorant, the Tale adds considerable emotional resonance to the contrast between the practices of the royal courts and those of their ecclesiastical equivalents: The kynges lawe woll no man deme [judge] Angerlyche without answere,* But yf any man these [clerics] mysqueme [displease] He shalbe beted as a bere [beaten like a bear], And yet wel worse they woll hym tere [tear], And in prysone woll hem pende [confine] In gives [shackles], and in other gere. (645–52) [*Angrily, without right of reply.]

The Pelican takes up the cause of evangelical preachers condemned by the church courts: a matter of acute anxiety in 1532–3, when, as a result of a new harder line policy a number of high-profile trials and public burnings had taken place in London and Norwich. The pope, the Pelican claims, has been persecuting ‘poor preachers’, the very class of men whom Christ had enjoined to spread his Gospel: Christ sent the poor for to preche; The royal riche he dyd nat so. Nowe dare no poore [men] the people teche, For Antichrist is over all her foe . . . Some hath he hente [seized], and thynketh yet mo; But all this God may well amend. (549–52, 555–6)

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 126

08/01/2013 08:23

The Plowman’s Tale

127

In addition, the Pelican alleges, charges of heresy are used to attack all those who seek to live a humble, truly Christian life: All tho that han the worlde forsake, And lyven loly [simply], as God bade, In to her prison shullen be take Betyn and bounden, and forthe ladde [taken out (to be executed)]. (557–60)

Even Christ himself, had he been living in England, would not have escaped the attentions of the zealous clerical persecutors: Were Christ on erthe here efte sone [nowadays], These wolde dampen [damn] hym to dye. All his hestes [commandments] they han fordone [ignored] And sayne his sawes [wise words] ben heresy; And ayenst his commaundement they crye; And dampen all his [followers] to be brende, For it lyketh nat hem. Suche losengery [deceit] God almighty hem amend! (629–36)

Such persecution is, however, precisely the lot of the true Christian when surrounded by the enemies of the faith: Herof I rede [advise] no man be dradde. Christ sayd his [followers] shulde be shende [punished]. Eche man ought herof be gladde, For God full well it woll amende. (561–4)

This overt alignment of the poem’s sympathies with the suffering of those convicted of heresy, still more the Pelican’s consistent identification of the pope and Rome with the Antichrist, clearly mark out The Plowman’s Tale as a text distinctly more radical than the official publications issued by the government and its supporters in the early 1530s.12 While the assertion that the pope was the Antichrist was a feature of some of the more radical evangelical publications of the early 1530s, it had no place in Henry VIII’s campaigns at this stage. While the king and his ministers were increasingly willing to assert that the pope was a usurper and a tyrant, and royal policy denied him the title of Pope in 1533, insisting that he be referred to only as the ‘Bishop of Rome’ and be afforded no greater respect or authority than the incumbent of any other continental see, it was not until 6 February 1536 that Archbishop Cranmer first formally referred to him as the Antichrist in a Paul’s Cross sermon.13 The suggestion that the Tale was in some way part of an officially inspired propaganda campaign in 1532–3 does not, then, seem persuasive.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 127

08/01/2013 08:23

128

Reading Literature Historically

What seems prima facie to be far more plausible is that the authors, or editors, of the Tale used it in a more politically nuanced manner to urge the government and parliament on to greater religious reform. Absorbing the major planks of the king’s jurisdictional campaign and the chief grievances of the Commons’ Supplication into their text, they published a poem that pushed those issues further, giving them a sharper doctrinal edge and linking them as firmly as they could to the evangelical agenda advanced by reformers such as William Tyndale, whose views currently placed them beyond the pale of official policy. And they did so, shrewdly, in the form of a poem that claimed to be one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a strategy that gave their work the added authority and immunity from censorship that could only be provided by an authentically ‘antique’ work of the most revered of English poets. Hence the poem would be one of those persuasive political texts that seemed on the surface to be part of an official campaign, and was broadly supportive of the government’s position, the public transcript of Henrician reform, but was nonetheless constructed to play a rather more subtle and independent role in the forming of official and popular opinion than the notion of ‘government propaganda’ would suggest. Here was an example of a private transcript being written covertly into the public text. Such an account of The Plowman’s Tale offers a plausible description of its nature and origins, and of its role in the complex political situation of the early 1530s. It provides an initially satisfying view of how literature might be deployed in the interests of those who were encouraged by, but not completely happy with the direction and pace of the Henrician reforms, and of how poets might skilfully use their work to seek to influence contemporary debates, crafting texts that perfectly captured the mood and rhetorical fashions of a given moment, and then gave them a further push or tweak to direct them towards subtly different political or doctrinal ends. But this description of the tale is limited in one small but vital respect: it does not actually appear to be correct. For the origins of The Plowman’s Tale seem, on closer inspection, to have very little to do with the 1530s, and indeed very little to do with any single political moment or debate. The text as we have it proves, as we will see, to be the product, not of a single moment, but of a number of different ones, and not of a single, politically astute poet, but of many poets, some of whom were more astute, politically and otherwise, than others. To say as much is to echo to some degree the findings of a number of scholars who have worked on the text. In particular, as we shall see, the work of Andrew N. Wawn has illuminated the early history and provenance of the text in

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 128

08/01/2013 08:23

The Plowman’s Tale

129

ways that have enriched future scholarship immeasurably, and informed my own analysis at almost every point. But I think it is possible to go even further than he has suggested, and to say more about the poem and its origins than has hitherto been said. In so doing it may well prove possible to say rather less about the politics of the Henrician Reformation on the strength of the text than was suggested above (although a number of the main points will stand, and some nuances will be added to them), but considerably more about the nature of what is perhaps a uniquely fascinating and complex bricolage of a text. For this is a poem that intervened in contemporary politics not just once, but on a number of separate occasions, and each time to subtly different effect. In order to chart its history, however, we will have to look first in far more detail at the text of The Plowman’s Tale, its structure and versification.

The ‘Real’ Plowman’s Tale?: The Text and its Problems The textual problems posed by the poem are many and complex. The earliest extant version would seem to be that printed by Thomas Godfray in 1532–3. There is also a second printed text with some claim to authority, that printed by John Raynes and W. Bonham as part of William Thynne’s second edition of The Works of Geffray Chaucer, in 1542.14 Finally, the earliest extant manuscript, currently held in the library of the University of Texas at Austin, would seem to postdate both of the earliest printed versions, and may have been copied from an unknown exemplar specifically for inclusion in a copy of the first edition of Thynne’s Works.15 In narrative terms the text, as we have seen, tells a relatively simple, if inconsistently sustained story. The Prologue follows an impoverished Ploughman who leaves his farm to go on pilgrimage. By an undisclosed process he falls in with a group that turns out to be Chaucer’s ‘nyne and twenty in a compaignye’ on their way to Canterbury,16 for a character identified as ‘our Hoste’ steps forward to ask him to identify himself and to tell a tale. The Ploughman agrees to relate a sermon he has heard, and the Prologue ends. In the main text (identified in Godfray’s edition only as the Narratio, the title-page being missing) the narrator tells of his coming across the two beasts discussed earlier, in heated disputation: a Griffin, described as taking the pope’s side, and a Pelican who speaks for the oppressed tellers of truth. The bulk of the text relates the long diatribe of the Pelican against the sins and corruption of the clergy, interrupted by brief interjections by the Griffin. Finally the latter is allowed a short speech in favour of the pope and the worldly wealth of

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 129

08/01/2013 08:23

130

Reading Literature Historically

the institutional church before, infuriated by a number of further claims from the Pelican, he flies off threatening violent vengeance. When the Pelican bemoans the fact that his ‘sermon’ will have been for nothing if no one will record it for posterity, the narrator steps forward and volunteers to act as his scribe. The Griffin then returns with a gang of hawks and other raptors and attacks the Pelican, but in the nick of time the latter’s ally, the Phoenix, intervenes, scattering and massacring his oppressors. After a brief word from the Pelican, the narrator then asks for the reader’s indulgence: if anything about the text offends, do not blame him, attribute it to the Pelican whose words they were, and the poem ends. Structurally the text is rather more complex and tantalising, suggesting, perhaps, less a jigsaw puzzle with crucial pieces missing than a number of pieces from several different puzzles which, having been placed in the same box, have been assembled in a hurry in an attempt to form a roughly coherent image. The Prologue contains six complete eight-line stanzas, and four lines of a seventh. The rhyme scheme of these stanzas is abababab, a form that I shall for convenience refer to in what follows as the prologue-stanza.17 The Narratio that follows is divided into three parts, made up of different numbers of eight-line stanzas in what can at times become a bewildering variety of rhymeschemes. The majority of these stanzas are in the form known commonly as the Monk’s Tale stanza (owing to Chaucer’s use of it in that tale), which rhymes ababbcbc. And the bulk of these stanzas employ a regular refrain in the final line. In Part I, all the stanzas are in the Monk’s Tale form, and all but three end with the word ‘fall’ (with a single variation in which the word ‘befall’ deputises). In Part II, all of the stanzas are again in the Monk’s Tale form and all use phrases ending with the word ‘amend’. In Part III, the first two and the final fourteen stanzas are in the Monk’s Tale form and employ the final refrain word ‘grace’, but the stanzas in between have no refrain and are in a variety of rhyme schemes. Within the basic pattern of an eight-line verse form, then, there are a number of irregularities and anomalous stanzas that suggest either textual corruption or deliberate interpolation, or both. In Part I there are three stanzas (ll. 205–28) that share the predominant rhyme scheme of the rest of the Narratio, but which lack the refrain, and a single stanza immediately following these (ll. 229–36) in which the first quatrain seems corrupt, rhyming aabb. Part II displays no obvious textual anomalies, but in Part III there is a lengthy section following line 717 in which the refrain lapses and a variety of rhyme schemes operate. The bulk of this section, which scholars for obvious reasons have called the ‘long

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 130

08/01/2013 08:23

The Plowman’s Tale

131

interpolation’, follows the ababbcbc form of the remainder of the text,18 but within it are a number of single stanzas and clusters of stanzas that follow neither the dominant rhyme scheme nor the refrain of the rest of the poem. It is tempting to describe these doubly anomalous stanzas as further, later interpolations within the long interpolation, for, as what follows will argue, each seems to carry its own distinct poetic, doctrinal, or political agenda, suggesting the poetic signatures of distinct authorial hands. Lines 853–60 and 1021–8 rhyme abababab (the Prologue stanza); lines 1005–12, 1037–76, 1133–40, 1149–80, 1189–220, and 1229–68 rhyme ababcdcd, and lines 1013–20, 1181–8, and 1221–8 rhyme ababacac.19 When it is described in this way the text begins to sound like a complex molecular formula, and critics interested primarily in the social or political implications of literature might be tempted to throw up their arms and walk away. But the problem is worth persevering with for just a little longer. Is it possible to suggest a rationale behind all this apparently chaotic diversity? A number of critics have tried, offering putative histories of the poem’s genesis and development. In 1902 Henry Bradley suggested that the Tale as we now have it was actually a Tudor tract, based very loosely on an original fourteenth century poem of which only a few fragments survive embedded in the printed text. In his view only lines 53–60, 69–132, 181–264, and 301–8 were ‘authentically’ medieval in origin.20 Subsequently Andrew Wawn suggested a rather different pattern. In his view, the Tale as we have it was written almost exclusively in the early fifteenth century, with only a very small number of lines being added in the early 1530s to prepare it for publication. Specifically, only the Prologue and lines 205–28 were in his view Tudor additions. The former was devised to turn the poem into a putative addition to The Canterbury Tales, thereby bestowing upon it a degree of literary credibility that it otherwise lacked, while the latter were added to direct the poetic debate more obviously at the arguments over royal and papal sovereignty that were currently preoccupying king and parliament. The remainder of the poem was, in Wawn’s view (based upon a detailed analysis of the latest recorded uses of words in rhyming positions), an authentic early fifteenth-century lollard tract, albeit one produced by two separate hands, the first providing Parts I and II and the beginning and end of Part III (which I shall hereafter refer to, for convenience, as the ‘original poem’), the second penning the long interpolation in Part III.21 As I will argue, the text is actually more complex than either of these accounts suggests. It shows signs of extensive revision and interpolation by apparently as many as five distinct hands, as a number of unidentified

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 131

08/01/2013 08:23

132

Reading Literature Historically

scribes, owners and editors (and perhaps printers) sought at various times to alter the doctrinal, political and literary emphases of the text that had come into their possession, and amended it to reflect their own subtly different views and aims. Specifically, I will draw attention both to a number of previously unnoticed interpolations within the long interpolation itself, and to further interpolations of highly significant stanzas within those interpolations, each of which subtly (or at times not so subtly) altered the implications and emphases of the work. Given that my argument makes a good deal of the evidence of versification, particularly of rhyme scheme, it is perhaps wise to say something about this approach at the outset. It rests upon a number of basic assumptions. It assumes that an author who had carefully constructed a poem using a single metrical form, and consistently deployed a refrain to which he drew attention,22 is unlikely to have subsequently added material to that poem that conforms to very different formal protocols. Thus it seems justified to suspect that stanzas that do not conform to the original pattern are additions by other, and by definition, subsequent, hands. Given that the Tale contains a remarkable number of such anomalous stanzas, and that these follow a variety of rhyme schemes, it suggests that these later interpolators were much less attentive to the structural features of the poem to which they added material than the original author had been. Focusing primarily on the narrative or political impact of the material they wished to add, and possibly under pressure to make their changes quickly, these interpolators may not have had the time to ensure that their additions met all the formal demands of the poem. Hence they made some effort to match their contributions to the existing text, but with varying degrees of success. So, while all of the interpolators could appreciate the obvious fact that the poem was written in eight-line stanzas, and could tailor their work accordingly, none of them seems to have noticed (or felt that it was significant) that it employed a running refrain through each section of the Narratio.23 Only the author of the long interpolation seems to have respected the rhyme scheme of the original. Subsequent interpolators (who were mainly interpolating work into that first long interpolation), even if they had noticed the use of a refrain and a different rhyme scheme elsewhere in the text, may not have seen the need to repeat those features in material that was to be added to the interpolation. Their need was, after all, primarily to conform their material to local circumstances in what was already a refrain-less and formally distinct section of text. What happened elsewhere in the text may not have struck them as relevant. Similarly, once one new hand had added material to the long interpolation, the rhyme scheme of that section would have been compromised,

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 132

08/01/2013 08:23

The Plowman’s Tale

133

and successive interpolators would have been presented with a section of text that was already formally very diverse. The more material that was added, the less apparent consistency there would have been, and consequently the less encouragement for later interpolators to attend to formal matters at all. Hence one is left with a poem in which at least five distinct rhyme schemes and formal variations vie for the reader’s attention.

The Prologue Virtually all the scholars who have worked on the text have, following Bradley’s initial suggestion, concluded that the Prologue is a later, probably Tudor addition to the text, designed to turn what was originally a lengthy anticlerical tract perfunctorily presented in the form of a debate between two beasts into a contribution to The Canterbury Tales, a tale that would give the otherwise silent Ploughman a voice.24 Without the brief Prologue there would be nothing in the Narratio to link it to Chaucer’s pilgrim, or indeed to any human speaker other than the anonymous observer/narrator who (in the manner of the witnesses to such allegorical disputations as The Owl and the Nightingale or William Dunbar’s Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo) steps forward in propre persona to address the reader directly and, in taking responsibility for the creation of the poem, brings it to a close. With the Prologue in place, however, and with the addition of the three marginal headings in the final stanzas that identify the narrator’s voice as that of ‘Plowma[n]’, the text becomes a notional, if unconvincing addition to the canon of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. As a number of critics have pointed out, however, the Prologue’s attempt to integrate the poem into the meta-narrative of The Canterbury Tales is, if not entirely perfunctory,25 at best inconsistent.26 The Plowman narrator is, for example, shown first at home, and setting off for the pilgrimage, leaving his team of skeletally thin horses behind, the kind of ‘back-story’ denied to Chaucer’s genuine pilgrims in their individual prologues. And the date of his intervention in the pilgrimage is firmly established at the outset as ‘whan mydsommer mone was comen in’ (l. 2), a detail inconsistent with the April departure of Chaucer’s party. Nor do the details of the Plowman’s appearance readily accord with those of the figure described in The General Prologue. While the latter rides on a ‘mare’, the former travels on foot (for ‘he was a man wont to walk about’ (l. 21)); and while both are described as wearing tabards, the additional details that the narrator of the Tale’s ‘clothes

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 133

08/01/2013 08:23

134

Reading Literature Historically

were . . . to-rent’, and that he himself was ‘sun ibrent’ with a ‘senged snout’ (ll. 18–19), and so thin that one could see through his cheeks the outline of ‘every wang-toth and where it sat’ (ll. 15–16) suggest a decidedly more ragged and derelict figure than that which Chaucer seems to have imagined. More significantly, and more deliberately, given the anticlerical agenda of the Tale, the Prologue describes a man with a very different attitude towards the established church to the Ploughman described in Chaucer’s text. There is, for example, no reference in the Tale to the familial relationship between the Plowman and his brother the Parson, and where the General Prologue was at pains to stress the Plowman’s generally amiable disposition (‘A trewe swynkere and a good was he, / Lyvyng in pees and parfit charitee’ (ll. 531–2)), and his good relations with the institutional church (‘His tithes payde he ful faire and wel, / Bothe of his propre swynk and his catel’ (ll. 539–40)), the Tale’s narrator is rather less charitable in outlook, having been ‘fully shent’ because ‘he coulde not religiously lout [be subservient]’ (ll. 23–4), and ready to launch into a tirade against the clergy as soon as the Host asks him ‘what man art thou?’ (l. 25). That the Prologue is somewhat crudely executed seems clear, and critics have, as we have seen, generally assumed that it was a Tudor addition to the original text executed by a less able writer. But, although the conclusion that it was a later addition seems a sound one, the further suggestion that it was Tudor seems less certain. Given that the Tale was published in 1532–3 under Chaucer’s name, and that it was subsequently absorbed into the formal canon in the 1542 edition of Thynne’s Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, the critical assumption has always been that the Prologue was devised at roughly the time of its first printing precisely in order to present the poem as Chaucerian.27 Such a ‘re-branding’ of the text as one of Chaucer’s Tales would, as we have seen, both give it a patina of respectability and authenticity that it otherwise lacked as the work of an unnamed lollard sympathiser, and would also further the ongoing attempt to radicalise Chaucer’s reputation by attributing a number of evangelical religious works to his pen. But there is little in the Prologue itself to justify that claim. There is nothing particularly Tudor about the Plowman’s words, whether in terms of his vocabulary or of the views he expresses. There are no references to the Royal Supremacy, to Henry VIII’s struggles with the pope, or to any of the specific grievances aired in the Reformation Parliament.28 All in all the tone and content of the Prologue are very similar to the attitudes adopted and the allegations made by the Pelican in the Narratio, suggesting that the former could have been written at any time between the completion of the original poem and the first printing of the full text in 1532–3.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 134

08/01/2013 08:23

The Plowman’s Tale

135

If we look for assistance in dating the Prologue to those two further stanzas in the Narratio that are written in the Prologue-stanza form, assuming for the moment that they might have been written by the same hand and at the same time, there is little there to help either. Each stanza adds a significant element to the argument, and each stands out sufficiently from the surrounding stanzas to suggest that it is an interpolation, but neither contains any specifically datable material. The first adds criticism of hypocritical parish priests who, while they are ‘appayrelled poorely’ are nonetheless ‘proude of port’ and fleece their parishioners for their own gain (ll. 853–60). The second criticises those clerics who act as clerks in the ecclesiastical courts and gleefully record the fines imposed upon the poor layfolk who come under their jurisdiction (ll. 1021–8). I shall return to each of these stanzas briefly in what follows, but suffice it to say here that either or both could have been written either during the lollard agitation of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries or during the period of the Reformation Parliament – or at any point in between. The case that they, and the Prologue whose form they resemble, are specifically Tudor additions to the Narratio must, then, remain not proven.

The Narratio: Part I The next section of the text to reveal formal anomalies, the three stanzas between lines 205 and 228 in Part I of the Narratio, stands out because, while following the predominant rhyme scheme of the surrounding text, these stanzas lack the refrain which is otherwise ubiquitous in Part I. Wawn has identified the stanzas as a Tudor interpolation, and they do seem at first glance to be plausibly Henrician in origin.29 They pick up an allusion to the pride and arrogance of the pope and his usurpation of supreme earthly power, and add material linking that usurpation specifically to the humbling of kings and to the loss of royal authority and dignity effected by the papal supremacy: issues which were, of course, directly relevant to government policy in 1529–33. If we look at the stanzas immediately before and after the interpolation it is possible to see both that these would originally have formed a single sense unit – and so were almost certainly originally contiguous prior to the interpolation – and that the point that they made concerned the way that successive popes had usurped the authority and reverence due to Christ as head of the church universal rather than that due to secular princes in individual realms:

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 135

08/01/2013 08:23

136

Reading Literature Historically

. . . All holyest they clepen [call] her heed [their head: the pope] That of her rule is regall. Alas that ever they eten breed; For all suche falshed woll foule fall. (201–4) They ne clepen Christ, but s[an]ctus de[us] [call . . . holy God], And clepen her heed, Sanctissimus [the holiest of holies]. They that suche a sect sewys, I trowe they taken hem amysse. In erthe here they have her blysse, Her hye mayster is Bellyall . . . (229–35)30

With the addition of the interpolation, this contrast between true celestial authority and false worldly glory is lost, diluted by an argument about rival claims to precisely that worldly authority that the text was hitherto eager to belittle. The new stanzas take up the allusion to the papal ‘heed’ and descant on his failings: Her heed loveth all honour, And to be worshypped in worde and dede. Kynges mote [must] to hem knele and coure [cower]; To the Apostels that Christ forbede.* To Popes hestes [commands] suche taketh more hede Than to kepe Christes comaundement. Of golde and sylver mote ben her wede [must be their clothes]. They holdeth hym hole omnypotent. (205–12)31 [*Christ forbad his apostles to do that.]

But, as the last lines of this stanza suggest, the interpolated material is not dominated by the idea of the damage to royal authority caused by the papal supremacy. It, like the stanzas surrounding it, makes a series of wider points about the perils of papal omnipotence, and even returns to the contrast between it and Christ’s own authority that marked the original passage: He [the pope] ordayneth by his ordynaunce To parysshe preestes a powere, To another a greatter avaunce, A greatter poynt to his mystere; But for he is hyghest in erthe here, To hym reserveth he many a poynt But to Christ that hath no pere Reserveth he neyther opyn ne joynt.32 So semeth he aboven all And Christ aboven hym nothyng,

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 136

08/01/2013 08:23

The Plowman’s Tale

137

Whan he sytteth in his stall, Dampneth and saveth as hym thynke. Suche pride tofore God dothe stynke. An Angell bad John to hym nat knele, But only to God do his bowyng. Such wyllers of worship must nede yvel fele. (213–28)

Again, while such points could not but have chimed with royal arguments against papal authority advanced in 1531–33, there is nothing uniquely or specifically Tudor about them. Similar claims about the dangers of papal worldliness and the unchristian nature of the papal supremacy were made during the lollard debates of the 1390s and 1400s. Even the allusion to the subservience of kings to the popes need not indicate a Tudor provenance, for, as Wawn suggests, it pre-empts points made later in a section that seems to have formed part of the original early-fifteenth-century poem (most notably in the long section from lines 646–92 which contrasts the respective demands of the ecclesiastical and lay courts, and specifically in the stanza relating the pope’s ‘putting out’ of the Emperor Constantine (ll. 693–700)). Such allegations were as important to Wycliff’s arguments as they were to the royal propagandists of the 1530s.

The Narratio: Part II The bulk of the specifically political and most contentious material in the poem occurs in Part II of the Narratio, as the Pelican turns from general criticisms of the clergy to describing the features of the papal Antichrist and attacking the abuses of the ecclesiastical courts. So much more vehement in its tone and detailed in its allegations is this section that it is tempting to follow Mary McCarl and suggest that the whole section might once have been a separate poem.33 But the evidence of versification and style, and the consistent use of a refrain all seem to tie this section firmly to the previous material. It is just possible that all of Part II was a skilful interpolation by a poet alert to the demands of the rhyme scheme and refrain of the original poem and able to replicate them in the way that subsequent interpolators were not, but this seems an unnecessary complication, as we shall see. Part II begins with the arch statement that the poet has exhausted his ability to think of new variations of phrases containing the word ‘fall’ to act as a refrain, and so will switch to a new word, ‘amend’, and begin again. Such a statement explicitly marks a new beginning in poetic terms and raises expectations of a different approach to the material. And the

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 137

08/01/2013 08:23

138

Reading Literature Historically

themes of the section – identifying the marks of the Antichrist in contemporary society and calling for their amendment by God or the secular powers – would seem naturally to call for greater specificity of approach and sharpness than the more general complaints of Part I. Hence, while the whole of Part II might strike us as distinct in tone from the preceding material, this ought not to surprise us, and need not suggest the work of a different poet.

The Narratio: Part III With Part III of the Narratio we move to the most vexed and complicated of the textual issues raised by the poem: the nature of the long interpolation and its possible origins. What must be said at this stage is that, while the attenuated debate conducted during the last century over this section has been complex, frustrating, and ultimately unresolved, my own contribution will, unfortunately, be to argue that the text is actually more frustratingly complex and the issues it raises less resolvable than has been thought hitherto. The long interpolation in Part III of the poem (ll. 717–1268) demonstrably begins another new movement in the narrative, and in the absence of any consistent refrain and variety of rhyme schemes shows all the hallmarks of a section that has been slotted into the original Narratio. The Pelican begins a complaint about the moral dangers of a wealthy clergy, but the Griffin suddenly intervenes to ask what he can say about secular canons (ll. 717–18). This highly artificial device for moving the attack on to a new subject prompts another lengthy ‘sermon’ from the Pelican on the sins of the secular clergy, until his notional adversary is allowed a second couplet inviting an attack upon monks (ll. 989–90). The Pelican duly provides such an attack, and there is a brief exchange of views between the two protagonists before the regular rhyme scheme and refrain resumes with a stanza in which ‘The Gryffon grynned as he were wode [mad]’ (l. 1269) and flies off to summon his avian army and launch the physical attack on the Pelican that begins the final movement of the poem. Assuming that this lengthy section of anomalous material is indeed an interpolation, what might we have gained (and lost) through its introduction? A number of possibilities suggest themselves. Although it is just possible that the original poem simply ran on from the stanza prior to the interpolation to that which follows it (with the Pelican’s declaration at lines 715–16 that true priests should follow God’s command and ‘norisshe her shepe, and hem nat byte’ leading directly

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 138

08/01/2013 08:23

The Plowman’s Tale

139

to the Griffin’s mad grinning and threats of vengeance), it seems more likely that at least some material has been removed to make way for the long interpolation. Perhaps the original poem contained a lengthier and more sustained putting of the counter-arguments in favour of the church by the Griffin, thus paralleling the speeches of the Pelican in Parts I and II with speeches by his adversary, and so giving the poem a more satisfactory dialogic structure. If so, it may well have been that the author of the long interpolation found this too even-handed and insufficiently weighted towards the lollard case, and so removed this material and replaced it with further complaints from the Pelican. Alternatively, as Wawn suggests, the interpolator may simply have reworked material that already dealt with many of the themes touched on in the surviving text, presenting them in a more pointed form.34 Either way, the effect of the long interpolation seems to have been to turn what was a complaint against the pope and the higher clergy, focused primarily on the lifestyle of the prelates and the procedures of the church courts, into a more general anticlerical satire which drew into its purview the secular canons and monks as well as gesturing towards a supplementary assault upon the friars conducted in a separate text, almost certainly the near-contemporary work Piers the Ploughman’s Crede. The fact that the attacks upon the ultra-modish attire of the clergy describe a collection of fashion accessories that were in vogue primarily in the late fourteenth century (‘cutted’ short jackets, ‘longe pykes’ (pointed toes) on shoes (ll. 929–30), ‘pokes’ (pockets/sleeves?) so wide that vestments had to be enlarged to accommodate them (ll. 983–4), ‘proude pendauntes at her ars ypent’ (flamboyant tails on garments) (l. 939), and ‘crockettes’ (curled hair) styled with crystal combs (l. 306)) suggests strongly that, as Wawn argues, the long interpolation was a later-medieval work rather than a Tudor addition.35 But it seems possible to go beyond the idea of the single lengthy addition to the poem produced by an early-fifteenth-century lollard author that Wawn proposes. For there is, as I have suggested, evidence in the existence of a number of anomalous stanzas that suggests considerable revision and interpolation have taken place within the long interpolation itself, changes which, when considered closely, point toward the application of several distinct poetic and political agenda to the task of revising the already revised poem. The first anomalous stanza within the long interpolation comes at lines 853–60, where a lengthy run of stanzas rhyming ababbcbc is interrupted by a single stanza with the signature abababab. In this stanza, what had hitherto been a sustained assault on the wealth and luxury

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 139

08/01/2013 08:23

140

Reading Literature Historically

of the clergy and their secular power is provided with a coda stressing that it is not merely the well-dressed absentee clergy who are covetous and grasping. Those priests who are poorly dressed and resident in their parishes, it suggests, can also be corrupt, and sometimes such men are the most covetous of all: Some on her churches dwell, Appayrelled poorely, proude of porte. The seven sacramentes they done sell; In cattell catchyng [acquiring property] is her comforte. Of eche matter they wollen mell [will meddle], And done hem wronge is her disporte. To affray the people they ben fel And holde hem lower than dothe the lorde. (853–60)

What may well have happened here is that, at some stage after the long interpolation had been added, another hand, dissatisfied with the poem’s concentration on the higher clergy and the conventional target of the well-dressed, pluralist absentee, decided to add a stanza (or, as I shall suggest in a moment, two stanzas) to widen the attack and sharpen the anticlerical point. They added this coda (perhaps drawing upon personal experience?) to make the point that merely forcing the clergy to live in their parishes was not the solution to parishioner poverty, as resident priests are often more rapacious than absentees. Whether through carelessness, or a lack of attention to the versification of the surrounding stanzas, this interpolator added his or her lines in a distinct stanza form of their own devising. In doing so they may have removed or revised a stanza of the earlier (long) interpolation in which attention was shifted from the general practice of the ecclesiastical administration to life in the parishes, for the text resumes following this stanza with a complaint about the excessive tithe demands of those clergy who otherwise seem to be active members of the parish community, even down to joining in the village wrestling competitions, leading the singing in the tavern, and sharing the sexual favours of their neighbour’s wives (ll. 861–92). The next textual crux occurs once the Pelican has been redirected by the Griffin (ll. 989–90) to turn his critical attention to the regular religious, and to the monks in particular. Between lines 1004 and 1028 of the printed text there are three anomalous stanzas, each with its own distinct rhyme signature (the first ababcdcd, the second ababacac, and the third abababab (the Prologue-stanza form)). That these are further interpolations within the long interpolation is clear from the continuations of sense and versification that carry through from the preceding to the succeeding stanzas. The stanza prior to the interpolated trio pursues

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 140

08/01/2013 08:23

The Plowman’s Tale

141

an attack upon the regular religious – specifically the Benedictine monks – for their gluttony and finery, and their adoption of secular authority and manners, especially their tendency to ride fine horses: . . . some wearyn myter and rynge, With double worsted well ydight [fashioned], With royall mete and riche drinke, And rideth on a courser as a knyght. (1001–4)

The stanza following the trio takes up this image of the horse-riding monk as a means of castigating the low social origins of many of these ‘upstart’ Benedictines: And com[m]enly suche ben comen Of poore people, and of hem begete, That this perfection han ynomen. Her fathers ryden nat but on her fete, And travaylen sore [laboured hard] for that they ete, In povert[y] lyveth yonge and olde. Her fathers suffreth drought and wete [flood], Many hungry meles, thurst, and colde. And all this the monkes han forsake For Christes love and saynt Benette. To pride and ease have them take; This relygion is yvell be-sette. (1029–40)36

The implicit continuity between the criticism of the proud monks riding their coursers and the image of their poor, low-born fathers who rode ‘nat but on her fete’ reveals the relationship of the later stanza to the former, a relationship that has been concealed by the interjection of the intervening material. The three stanzas that currently divide these passages are each selfcontained and may (given their distinct rhyme signatures) have been added at different times and/or by different hands. The first picks up the allusion to the courser-riding monk and adds further details which seem designed consciously to echo the description of Chaucer’s hunting Monk with his taste for roast swan and gold jewellery, disdain for the Benedictine Rule, and his ‘ful many a deyntee hors . . . in stable’ (General Prologue, ll. 165–207):37 With hauke and with houndes eke [also], With broches or ouches on his hode. Some saye no masse in all a weke. Of deynties is her most fode,

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 141

08/01/2013 08:23

142

Reading Literature Historically

With lordshippes and with bondmen: This is a royall relygyoun! Saynt Benet made [n]ever none of hem To have lordshippe of man ne towne. (1005–12)

The second anomalous stanza returns to the issue of finery, adding a new edge of hostility to the segment in alleging that malice underlies the fine living in the monasteries:38 Nowe they ben q[u]eynte and curious [dainty and sophisticated], With fyne clothe cladde and served clene, Proude, angry, and envyous; Malyce is mouche that they meane. In catchyng crafty and covetous, Lordly lyven in great lykyng, This ly[v]yng is nat relygyous, Accordyng to Benette in his lyvyng. (1013–20)

The third stanza in the sequence turns to a new subject: the ecclesiastical courts, and denounces the role of the clergy in acting as clerks there. The chief allegation is that these clerical recorders like nothing more than writing down the heavy fines or ammercements handed down to the poor laymen by the judges: They ben clerkes, her courtes they over se[e], Her poore tenaunce fully they flyte [fleece], The hyre [higher] that a man amerced [fined] be, The gladlyer they woll it write: This is ferre from Christes poverte. For all with covetyse they endyte; On the poore they have no pyte, Ne never hem cherysshe, but ever hem byte. (1021–8)

It is tempting to see this last stanza, with its isolated reference to the courts amidst a plethora of material on lordly living and finery, as somehow having become misplaced in a section to which it seems not to belong. A far more plausible location for the stanza would appear to be earlier in Part III, after line 860, immediately following the only other stanza in the Narratio in the abababab Prologue-stanza form. That other stanza, as we have already seen, appears to have been itself an interpolation which introduced into a discussion of the luxurious absentee clergy an attack upon those priests who dressed modestly and stayed in their parishes but nonetheless fleeced their parishioners more viciously than did their secular landlords:

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 142

08/01/2013 08:23

The Plowman’s Tale

143

Some on her churches dwell, Appayrelled poorely, proude of porte, The sevyn sacramentes they done sell. In cattell catchyng is her comforte. Of eche matter they wollen mell, And done hem wronge in her disporte, To affray the people they ben fel, And holde hem lower than dothe the lorde. (853–60)

Had it followed this stanza, the later verse’s reference to ‘her courtes’ would have greater coherence, seeming to arise naturally from the allusion to ‘the lorde’ at line 860, creating a contrast between the practice in lords’ manorial courts and that in the clergy’s own courts. Such contrasts between the supposedly fair dealing of the secular courts and the injustices in the ecclesiastical courts had structured a good deal of Parts I and (especially) II of the Narratio (see, for instance, ll. 629–92), so the same motif’s reintroduction here would have come as no surprise. If the two stanzas had indeed been written and initially placed together, the sense of the initial lines of the second stanza would thus have made considerably more sense than they do where they currently stand, and the emphasis on their courts and their tenants would have been readily explicable: if you want to see how much more oppressive the clergy are than the secular lords, the lines imply, you need only look to their courts. In their courts they are their own judges, juries and recording angels, and their tenants (unlike those of a noble landlord) suffer all the more as a consequence. The higher the fines imposed, the happier the clergy are. If this stanza was initially designed to follow lines 853–60, there would also have been continuity with the stanza which would have followed it (lines 861ff). The concluding lines of the former, ‘On the poor they have no pyte, / Ne never hem cherysshe but ever hem byte’ (ll. 1027–8) (which where they stand are left hanging, as the text moves on to discuss the low origins of the lordly monks), would lead logically into a description of precisely how the secular clergy ‘bite’ their parishioners in the church courts: For the tithynge of a duke [duck], Or of an apple, or an aye [egg], They make men swere upon a boke: Thus they foulyn Christes say. (861–4)

Both the biting and gluttony would thus be exemplified as the ravening clergy are described seizing upon the foodstuffs upon which they will dine at their parishioners’ expense.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 143

08/01/2013 08:23

144

Reading Literature Historically

The stanza describing the ecclesiastical courts, with the two stanzas which precede it in the printed text, thus form an interpolation within an interpolation (or rather a series of interpolations within an interpolation) that does not lend itself to simple explanation. The material contained in the three stanzas is all, in its own terms, highly conventional anti-clerical fare. There is nothing distinctively Tudor about it that would mark it out as definitely an interpolation of the 1530s rather than of the 1400s. Indeed, the agenda behind the material seems divided, with the three stanzas seeming to pull in different directions, as indeed we might expect if they were by different hands. The first seems designed to set the poem more squarely in the tradition of orthodox anti-monastic satire generally, and Chaucer’s distinctive take on that material in particular, pastiching the tone and details of The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales in its vignette of the hunting monk in his jewels and lordly finery. It might therefore be tempting to read it as part of that attempt to present the text as a putative Canterbury Tale, represented most obviously in the Prologue, adding a touch of Chaucerian wit and gloss to an otherwise rather matt-finish tirade. But the remaining stanzas of this interpolation show little sign of such Chaucerian touches. Indeed, the one stanza written in the Prologuestanza, which might have been expected to pursue the Chaucerian agenda, is far from Chaucerian in tone and seems actually to be misplaced, having been designed to criticise, not the lifestyle of the monks, but the behaviour of the secular clergy. Returned to what I have suggested was its intended location, its effect would have been to reduce the conventional nature of the assault at that point in the text and add a critique of the resident and modestly dressed priests to counter the familiar complaints about finery and absenteeism. Finally the last stanza in the interpolation (ll. 1013–20) seems actively to work against the lighter, Chaucerian tone of lines 1005–12, bringing a distinctly bitter and confrontational tone to its castigation of the ‘malicious’ monks that it describes. The temptation is thus to suggest that, here at least, all sense of coherent design in the text has broken down, and a variety of overlapping literary and political agenda have conspired to produce the text as we have it. This is, seemingly, the part of the textual jigsaw where a number of the pieces that had been misplaced or did not seem to fit anywhere else were placed for the want of anywhere more obvious to put them. From this point in the text until the end of the long interpolation two distinct stanzaic forms dominate: the ababbcbc form characteristic of the original poem (albeit deployed here without a refrain), and ababcdcd: a form that appeared once in the text before this point, but which

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 144

08/01/2013 08:23

The Plowman’s Tale

145

from here on takes on a new prominence. Given that it is in this section that the Griffin finally gets to have his say, and that there are some short interchanges between the two antagonists towards the end of the section, it becomes more difficult to tease out the kind of continuous trains of thought that made the identification of continuities between non-contiguous stanzas possible earlier in the text. But it is nonetheless tempting to suggest in general terms what might have happened to create the text. Given that the material in the initial long interpolation stanza form ends after the lines reminding lordly monks of their low origins, resuming later with what appears to be a speech by the Griffin in full flow (line 1077ff), it seems likely that some intervening material from that earlier long interpolation has been removed to make room for stanzas in the new form. This new material provides three stanzas of further criticism of monks, before the Pelican widens his scope to launch a general denunciation of the regular clergy, offering in the process one of the Tale’s few specific allusions to something outside the text: And all suche other counterfeytours, Chanons, canons, and suche disgysed, Ben Goddes enemyes and traytours, His trewe relygioun han foule dispysed. Of Freres I have told before In makynge of a Crede, And yet I coude tell worse and more, But men wolde weryen it to rede. (1061–8)

It seems very likely that the author is here claiming authorship of another surviving anticlerical poem, Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede, a satire of the later fourteenth century. Given that previous critics have assumed the long interpolation to be the work of a single hand, the assumption has always been that the author of the Crede was also claiming to be responsible for the majority of Part III of the Tale, a claim that some have found difficult to accept on stylistic grounds.39 If I am right, however, and the claim to authorship of the Crede is made in an interpolation within that interpolation, the implications for the authorship of each text are less substantial. And the idea that the author of the Crede was also responsible for one of the revisions of the Tale is not an implausible one, as we shall see. Thus I shall refer in what follows to the writer of the stanzas written in this rhyme signature as the Crede-interpolator. The material in this signature ends with the direct interruption of the Pelican’s ‘sermon’ by the Griffin: The Gryffon sayd: thou canst no good, Thou came never of no gentyll kynde,

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 145

08/01/2013 08:23

146

Reading Literature Historically

Outher I trowe thou wexest wood [grow mad/furious], Or els thou hast loste thy mynde. (1073–6)

There then follow seven stanzas in the original ababbcbc signature in which the Griffin, in distinctly more measured tones, sets out a case for papal authority and ecclesiastical wealth. When the Pelican responds, the Griffin launches into a series of rhetorical questions and assertions designed to prove his case, S[h]ulde holy churches have no heed [head]? Who shulde be her governayle [governor]? (1077–8)

If men should live by their own travail, then he who does best should have the greatest rewards (ll. 1081–2). If men attack the church with force, then churchmen need to defend themselves in like fashion (ll. 1083–4). If the pope ‘were purely poore, / Nedy, and nothyng ne hadde’ (ll. 1085–6), then no one would respect him, the sinful and the wicked would prosper, and nobody would worship in churches any more: Therefore men of holy churche Shulde ben honest in all thyng, Worshypfully Goddes workes werche [perform]. So semeth it to serve Christ her kyng In honest and in clene clothyng, With vessels of golde and clothes ryche, To God honestly to make offryng. To his lordshyppe none is lyche. (1101–8)

The Pelican responds with ‘on houge crye’ (l. 1110), arguing that Christ is the only head that the Church needs, and that he instructed his disciples to take no worldly ‘maistry’ upon themselves (ll. 1111–24). The clergy’s wealth should consist in their virtues not in worldly goods and power (ll. 1125–32). The Griffin offers in return a stanza in the ababcdcd, Credeinterpolator signature, accusing the Pelican of sour grapes and envy, of spreading anticlerical hostility because he himself has been unable to make a successful clerical career, and of scraping the only living he can by sowing heresies: What, sayd the Gryffon, may the[e] greve That other folkes faren wele? What hast thou to done with her lyve? Thy falshed eche man may fele, For thou canst no catell get,

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 146

08/01/2013 08:23

The Plowman’s Tale

147

But lyvest in londe as a lorell. With glosyng gettest tho[u] thy mete; So farest the devyll that wonneth in hell. (1133–40)

There then follows a single stanza in the ‘original’ ababbcbc signature, seemingly part of the earlier long interpolation that has been integrated into the Crede-author’s material, that takes up the allusion to ‘the devyll that wonneth in hell’, and identifies envy as his chief sin. The Griffin again charges the Pelican with seeking to destroy the people ‘with your glose, and your heresy, / For ye can lyve no better lyfe’ (ll. 1145–6), before in the next stanza resorting to a jurisdictional argument that the Pelican has no right to preach as he does, as he has ‘no cure’ except a mandate from the devil.40 At this point the Crede-interpolator begins to move the text toward closure, introducing the idea of Christian unity and the possibility of a decisive conclusion to the dispute. The Griffin, picking up the ideas of the ‘sterne stryfe stered newe’ and of the ‘lollers’ (‘tares’) of dissension sewn among the Christian corn that had begun the poem, accuses the Pelican of seeking to divide Christians among themselves. This was, for obvious reasons, a favourite allegation of the defenders of the established church, whether levelled against the lollards in the 1400s or the evangelicals in the 1530s. The Griffin asserts that the Pelican has spoken against the very fundamentals of the orthodox faith, the sacraments: . . . all the sevyn sacramentes Ye speke ayenst, as ye were slye, Ayesnst tithi[n]ges, offerynges, with your ente[n]tes, And on our lordes body falsely lye. And all this ye don[n]e to lyve in ease, As who sayth, ther ben none suche, And sayne the pope is nat worth a pease, To make the people ayen hym gruche [grumble against him]. (1156–64) And this com[m]eth in by fendes [is initiated by devils], To bryng the chrysten in distaunce [into division], For they wolde that no man were frendes. (1166–8)

In response to these charges of heresy and subversion the Pelican begins to offer a more moderate statement of his position. And, significantly, it is at this point that the final interpolations within the long interpolation occur. Fortunately it is possible on this occasion to say something rather more definite about the nature of these revisions and additions and the apparent agenda behind them; for they seem consciously designed to counteract this more consensual and accommodating tone that has been

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 147

08/01/2013 08:23

148

Reading Literature Historically

introduced into the Pelican’s speech by the Crede-interpolator and to steer the text back towards a more hostile and uncompromising stance towards the clergy. First, let me present the evidence that a further interpolation has taken place to create what would be, by my calculation, a fourth stage of revision to the poem, in which a distinct hand that we have encountered only once before in the text introduced an interpolation into the material added by the Crede-interpolator to the existing long interpolation in the original poem. Anxious to counteract the Griffin’s allegations that he despises the pope, attacks the sacraments, and interferes without authority into other men’s lives through his sermons, the Pelican adopts a new and apparently more respectful tone. If we read only those stanzas bearing the signature of the Crede-interpolator, his speech would proceed like this. The Griffin speaks first: Ye han no cure to answere fore; What meddell ye, that han nat to done? Lette men lyve as they han done yore, For thou shalte answer for no man. The Pelycan sayd, Syr, nay, I dispysed nat the Pope, Ne no sacramente, sothe to say, But speke in charite and good hope (1177–80) To lette [prevent] men to lyve so [i.e. ‘as they done yore’: sinfully] With all my connyng and all my myght, And to warne men of her wo, And to tell hem trouthe and ryght. The sacramentes be soule hele [medicine for the soul], If they ben used in good use; Ayenst that speke I never a dele, For then were I nothynge wyse. (1189–96)

Had these two stanzas been contiguous, then, there would have been no difficulty in following the argument from one to the other. The Pelican offers in the first stanza a plain denial that he despises either the pope or the sacraments – a denial that he goes on to elaborate upon and substantiate in the following stanza. And in response to the Griffin’s assertion that he speaks in order to divide the Christian community (‘To bryng the chrysten in distaunce’ (l. 1166)) and should rather ‘lette men lyve as they han done yore’, as their sins are not his responsibility, he argues that he speaks not from malice but from charity and good hope. Taking up the Griffin’s use of the word ‘lette’ in its sense of ‘permit’, he uses its alternative meaning of ‘prevent’ or ‘forbid’, punning that he does

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 148

08/01/2013 08:23

The Plowman’s Tale

149

indeed hope to ‘lette’ men to continue to live sinfully, by telling them of the spiritual nourishment to be gained from the traditional sacraments. But this moderate, accommodating argument is not advanced in this way in the printed text, for between the two stanzas quoted is another which offers a very different tone and message. The stanza signature (ababacac), as I have said, is one that we have encountered before, but only once, at lines 1013–20, in the interpolated stanza that accused monks of being ‘proude, angry’ and ‘envyous’ in their acquisitiveness. And again the effect of its interpolation is to sharpen and intensify the hostility towards the clergy at a significant moment in the narrative. With the stanza in its current location the Pelican goes on, not to say that he speaks in good hope and charity to prevent men living the sinful lives that they have before, but to interrupt himself with a further tirade against clerical pride and possessions. The passage reads, The Pellycan sayd, Syr, nay, I dispysed nat the pope, Ne no sacramente, sothe to say, But speke in charite and good hope. But I dispyse her hye pride, Her richesse, that shulde be poore in spirite; Her wickednesse is know[n]e so wyde. They serve God in false habyte, And turnyn mekenesse in to pride, And lowelynesse in to hye degre, And Goddis wordes turne and hyde: And that am I moved by charite To lette men to lyve so With all my connyng and all my might. (1177–90)

The slight awkwardness evident in the transition from ‘But speke’ to ‘But I dispyse’ and the turn from the singular address to the pope to the plural ‘they’, draws attention to the mechanics of the interpolation here, just as the more dramatic shift from ‘charity and good hope’ to ‘despite’ on the part of the speaker reveals the purpose of the change. The author of this interpolation clearly did not wish the idea of the despicability of the clergy to be lost so quickly, and so, by interjecting this stanza, effectively reversed the more moderate trend in the Pelican’s speech. The third and final stanza in this ababacac signature makes a similar intervention later in the text, and to still more striking effect. It comes at a point, one stanza further on, where the Pelican is still discussing the sacraments, and drawing out what is for him the crucial distinction

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 149

08/01/2013 08:23

150

Reading Literature Historically

between the free access to all the sacraments that ought to be the right of every Christian soul, and the covetous restriction of access for financial gain that marks the greatest abuse of the sinful clergy. It is a theme that the Tale has touched on at a number of points already, but here it is offered in a more conciliatory tone, in an attempt by the Pelican at least partially to meet the Griffin’s criticisms of his beliefs and motivations: The sacraments be soule hele, If they ben used in good use, Ayenst that speke I never a dele, For than were I nothing wyse. But they that usen hem in mysse [wrong] maner, Or sette hem up to any sale, I trowe they shall abye hem dere. This is my reson, this is my tale. Who so taketh hem unrightfullyche, Ayenst the tenne comaundyments, Or by glose wreched lyche, Sellyth any of the sacraments, I trowe they do the devyll homage, In that they wetyn [think] they do wronge. And therto I dare well wage [claim] They servyn Sathan for all her songe. To tithen and offren is holsome lyfe, So it be done in dewe manere. A man to houselyn and to shryve, Weddyng, and all the other in fere, So it be nother solde ne bought, Ne take ne gyve for covetyse. And it be so taken, it is nought. Who selleth hem so, may sore agryse [should be sorely afraid], On our lordes body I do nat lye; I say soothe thorowe trewe rede; His fleshe and blode through his mastry, Is there, in the forme of brede. (1193–220)

Had the Pelican’s statement ended there, we would have been left with a clear statement of orthodox belief: a reassurance that, while he was fiercely critical of the abuses of the clergy, he was in no way criticising official doctrine on any of the sacraments. Like Chaucer’s Ploughman, who paid his tithes ‘ful fare and wel’ (General Prologue, l. 539), the Pelican seems to be speaking up for the need to pay one’s dues to the priest readily and gladly, provided they are reasonably assessed, and to

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 150

08/01/2013 08:23

The Plowman’s Tale

151

make offerings in the church, to confess regularly, attend the mass, and fulfil all the obligations upon a good Catholic. There is little here that suggests a lollard agenda. And crucially, on the central Wycliffite issue of the Eucharist, he offers a straightforwardly orthodox, if abrupt and un-nuanced response: Christ’s flesh and blood, ‘through his maistry, / Is there, in the forme of brede’. It is tempting, though, to see the Pelican’s remarks here as more politically astute, pointed and specific in intent than a blanket reassurance of orthodoxy. For the issues on which he is so eager to state his views here are precisely those which the Synod of London had declared heretical in 1382. The first three of the twelve ‘Conclusions’ which the synod had condemned were, as we shall see in a moment, heterodox interpretations of the Eucharist. The fourth and fifth concerned confession (the belief that a priest in mortal sin could not ordain, confess or baptise); the sixth declared that if the pope was wicked, ‘and hence a member of the devil’, he had no power over the church. The seventh stated that it was contrary to the scriptures for the church to hold temporal possessions. Among those opinions condemned as merely erroneous (rather than actively heretical) were that tithes were ‘pure alms’ and ought to be withheld if one thought the curate was living in sin, and that friars are bound to gain their bread by manual labour and not by begging.41 Hence the Pelican’s declaration here looks like a very studied and careful negotiation around the principal assertions of Wycliff and his successors (assertions that he had echoed himself elsewhere in the text) and the strictures established in Parliament and by the London Synod.42 His claims that tithing and offering (to Christ and the saints at roods and images?) are ‘holsome lyfe / So it be done in dewe manere’ sounds like a carefully worded attempt to stay on the windy side of the law, as do the similar assurances on the value of housling (taking communion) and shriving (either formal confession or the sacrament of penance itself), and marriage. Finally the stanza ends with the carefully orthodox (because only partial) statement on the most contentious issue of all, the nature of the Eucharist itself. But the text as it was printed in 1532–3 does not allow the Pelican’s statement to end there. Before he moves on to make a series of similar points on the other issue over which the Griffin had charged him with malice and heresy, the authority and sanctity of the pope, there is another stanza in the ababacac signature that exposes the limitations of, and so effectively reverses the implications of, what the Pelican has just said about the Eucharist.43 Following directly the statement that Christ’s body and blood ‘Is there, in the forme of brede’, it adds a crucial qualification:

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 151

08/01/2013 08:23

152

Reading Literature Historically

Howe it is there, it nedeth nat stryve, Whether it be subgette or accident; But as Christ was, when he was on lyve, So is he there verament. (1221–4)

Despite the ostensibly conciliatory tone of the intervention (‘it nedeth nat stryve’: it’s no matter for debate) and the apparently reassuring firmness of the final ‘So is he there verament’, this qualification completely unsettles the certainty of the previous stanza. For the question of precisely ‘how’ Christ was present in the sacrament of the altar was, of course, at the heart of the disputes between Wyclif, his followers and the established church, and the successors to those disputes in the 1520s and 1530s.44 Was he present in substance (‘subject’)45 and accident, replacing entirely all the elements of bread and wine through the miraculous process of transubstantiaton, as the church claimed, or present only in substance ‘beneath’ the elements of bread and wine which themselves also remained present, through ‘consubstantiation’ as Wyclif and prominent lollards such as William Thorpe and Sir John Oldcastle asserted?46 Alternatively, was he merely present in spirit, leaving the substance and accidents of the host and wine unchanged, as some later lollards claimed? Upon such apparent niceties rested the entire controversy, so the apparently amicable refusal to argue over the fine details of the Real Presence introduced in this stanza actually reintroduces the radical agenda to the Pelican’s speech of self-justification with renewed vigour, adding a doctrinal edge to what had hitherto been a discussion of abuses of the system rather than of the ideas at the core of belief.47 Where the first stanza had concealed as much as it had exposed, hiding potentially heterodox opinions under bland statements about the need for ‘dewe manere’ in the administration of the sacraments, and the apparently clear but crucially limited statement that in the Eucharist Christ ‘Is there, in forme of breade’, the second effectively invalidated the obfuscation by making its evasions manifest. The radical purpose of this interpolation is, then, clear, and very much of a piece with the other instances in which this particular stanzaic signature intervenes in the text. Textually, however, it is rather more difficult to determine the precise extent of the changes which the interpolation brought about. Unlike in the previous instance, it does not seem to have been a simple case of the insertion of a stanza between two existing ones, because the continuities between the preceding and succeeding verses are not as strong. It is just conceivable that the original text ran directly from the statement that Christ ‘Is there, in the forme of brede’ (l. 1220) to the declaration ‘For, if the Pope lyved as God bede /

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 152

08/01/2013 08:23

The Plowman’s Tale

153

Pride and hyghnesse he shulde dispyse’ (ll. 1229–30) which begins the next stanza in the ababcdcd, Crede-interpolator’s signature. But it seems unlikely. These lines and what follows them seem much more plausibly to be a continuation of the second quatrain of the interpolated stanza: If Pope or cardynall lyve good lyve, As Christ commaunded in his gospell, Ayenst that woll I nat stryve. But me thynketh they lyve nat well. (1225–8)48 For, if the Pope lyved as God bede, Pride and hyghnesse he shulde dispyse, Rychesse, covetyse, and crown on hede. Mekenesse and poverte he should use. (1229–32)

So what appears to have happened is that, either the interpolator added a new first quatrain to an existing stanza, replacing the existing lines and in the process converting the rhyme scheme to his favoured ababacac form, or some more substantial alteration has taken place. Whatever the case, the effect was again to intensify the anticlerical (and here the doctrinal) agenda of the text: a trait consistently associated with a signature that one might think of as that of the ‘radical interpolator’. Here the intervention did not merely add additional bite to an issue already under discussion (as the signature had at its previous appearances), it actively reversed the implications of the text at a point where the Crede-interpolator had seemingly been at pains to deny any doctrinal radicalism behind the Pelican’s sermon. One can perhaps sense something of the two interpolators’ conflicting strategies from the surviving text. Had the Crede-interpolator’s text been left as it was, the poem would have played up the innocence of the Pelican in relation to the Griffin’s allegations of malice and heresy. Hence the latter’s angry response and threats of violent retribution (‘Thou shalbe brent in balefull fyre! / All they secte I shall distrye . . .’, etc (ll. 1234ff)) would have seemed all the more unjust and tyrannous. With the addition of the radical interpolator’s text, the Pelican seems more confrontational in his attitude, more actively heroic. Some of the potency of his assertion that the Griffin is ‘out of charite’ (l. 1249), and behaving ‘as dyd Nero’ (l. 1250), is thus lost. Hence, when he finally declares his willingness to die for his faith under the Griffin’s oppression, it sounds more like a challenge to combat than the courageous resolve of the martyr: I drede nothing your hye estate, Ne I drede nat your disease [anger].

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 153

08/01/2013 08:23

154

Reading Literature Historically

. . . I drede nat your tyran[n]y, For nothing that ye canne done. To suffer I am all redy; Syker I recke never [Truly, I don’t care] howe soon. (1265–8)

If the radical interpolator is seeking here to play up the Christ-like aspects of his avian protagonist, then it is the martial tones of Christ militant, the conqueror of Satan and harrower of hell that he is striving for, rather than those of the suffering lamb of God that the Credeinterpolator seems to have had in mind.

Conclusion A close study of the text of The Plowman’s Tale has, then, a good deal to say about the religious debates of the period during which it was produced. But it also stands as a salutary warning of the perils of too rigid or simplistic an application of historicist methodology to a late-medieval text – especially to one with a very uncertain manuscript history. My initial response to the Tale, as the beginning of this chapter suggested, was to see it as a direct response to the Commons’ Supplication of 1532 and the debates in the early sessions of the Reformation Parliament. And to some degree it does represent such a response. The Tale’s publication in 1532–3 cannot have been undertaken in ignorance of the strong and specific resonances between many of the charges advanced against the church by the Pelican and those contained in the Supplication. But what I hope has become clearer in the course of this chapter is that to say that the text was a response to the Henrician debates in no way accounts for all the complexities and anomalies of the poem as we now have it. This is not a case simply of a lollard poem being rediscovered and published with an additional prologue and some new verses added to modernise it and to direct it more forcibly at the current political situation. The Plowman’s Tale rather seems to be a text that was subject to a whole series of significant revisions and interpolations at different times, some of which betray a discernable political or doctrinal agenda, and some of which do not. In his description of the genesis of the text, Andrew Wawn described a lively cast of pseudonymous characters consisting of ‘the original poet, the lollard interpolator, and (perhaps) the Cromwellian official [elsewhere referred to as ‘a member of the official propagandist organisation’] and printer through whose successive hands this curious and fascinating poem passed’. As a result of this chapter I would suggest a

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 154

08/01/2013 08:23

The Plowman’s Tale

155

still more eclectic cast in which we might retain the original poet and the lollard long interpolator, but interpose between them and the Tudor printer (Thomas Godfray), not simply a Cromwellian official, but the Crede-interpolator, a radical interpolator, the Prologue-poet and possibly other hands. These conclusions would seem to have important, if perhaps not decisive, implications for the dating of the text as a whole. Interestingly, Wawn’s work on the last recorded use of words found in the text would suggest that only those passages in the rhyme signatures of the original poem, the long interpolation, and the hand that I have referred to as the Crede-interpolator would have to have been of pre–1500 provenance. This would leave open the possibility that the work of the Prologuepoet and the radical interpolator were later, possibly Tudor, additions, although there is nothing in the content of their contributions to insist that they were. Indeed the careful negotiation around the neo-Donatist position on the capacity of sinful clergy to administer the sacraments, the consubstantive interpretation of the Real Presence, the consistent identification of the pope with Antichrist, and even the focus on the king and the secular lords as the protectors of the poor abused Christian laity, are all Wycliffite in nature and, when taken together, would sit more readily in the context of the debates of the later 1300s than with those of the 1530s.49 We are thus in a position to offer somewhat more complete answers to what Wawn identified as the ‘two complex and crucial questions’ concerning the genesis of the text: ‘is the poem as we now have it . . . the same in form and content as it was when originally written?’, and ‘how long before the poem was first printed was it composed?’. To the first we can echo Wawn’s own conclusions with a still more emphatic ‘no’. To the second we can offer a more nuanced answer, in that the poem’s ‘composition’ seems to have been a far lengthier and more complex process than either Wawn or Bradley proposed: a process that may well have been over a century in the making.50 In this respect the text serves as a warning against the kind of potentially reductive approach in which close reference to the historical context – and more particularly to a given political debate – might ‘explain’ the poem satisfactorily. Locating a text in its historical context is, of course, often a fruitful enterprise, but a text like The Plowman’s Tale raises the obvious question: which context? In a sense, the 1390s, the 1410s and the early 1530s are all contexts for this poem, as are a number of indeterminable points in between. As the poem was drafted, redrafted, copied, adapted and revised over the roughly 130 years prior to its formalisation as a relatively stable text in print in 1532–3 it accrued new meanings (and

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 155

08/01/2013 08:23

156

Reading Literature Historically

sloughed off ‘old’ ones) as various hands shaped it for new readerships and towards new ends. Reading the poem ‘against’ and ‘in the light of’ the Commons’ Supplication of 1532 does illuminate important aspects of its history, and adds sharpness to the politics of its publication history. But, just as surely, reading it only in the light of the Supplication would blind us to important aspects of its evolution, as, of course, would reading it only in the light of the lollard debates of the 1400s. The Plowman’s Tale, it is clear, was and is neither a lollard construction amended in minor ways to provide it with a Chaucerian façade and some mildly ‘reformed’ extentions for publication in the 1530s, nor a substantially Tudor text that was built upon some now barely visible lollard foundations. Like many a surviving medieval structure, its very nature betrays a long history of continual ‘modernisation’, as successive owners applied their own sometimes conflicting ideas about the meaning and value of what was clearly a highly ‘useful’ anticlerical text in successive acts of extension and revision, demolition and interpolation.

Notes 1. I am grateful to Dr Anne Marie D’Arcy, whose advice and suggestions for further reading added greatly to this chapter, and to the staff of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California, where I was able to examine early printed copies of the Tale, and to Cathy Henderson and her colleagues at the Harry Ransom Humanities Centre Library, at the University of Texas, Austin, who went well beyond the call of duty to enable me to consult the surviving manuscript copy of the Tale, and to the Leverhulme Trust, whose award of a Major Research Fellowship provided the time and financial support for this research. 2. Greg Walker, Writing Under Tyranny: English Literature and the Henrician Reformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). 3. The Short Title Catalogue [hereafter STC] listed the publication date for the Godfray edition (STC 5099.5) as ‘*1536’, but, as Mary Rhinelander McCarl has shown, it was on sale in London in 1533, as, at some point between 27 June and 3 July 1533, Sir Adrian Fortescue purchased it, along with Skelton’s Colyn Cloute, noting among his expenses, ‘Item, pd for two English boks, viz the plowman’s tale and colin cloute. 10d’. (Mary Rhinelander McCarl, The Plowman’s Tale: The c.1532 and 1606 Editions of a Spurious Canterbury Tale (New York: Garland, 1997), p. 50). For Fortescue, see Thorlac Turville Petre, ‘Sir Adrian Fortescue and his copy of Piers Plowman’, Yearbook of Langland Studies 14 (2000), pp. 29–48, and Richard Rex, ‘Blessed Adrian Fortescue: A Martyr Without a Cause?’, Analecta Bollandiana: Critique D’Hagiographie 115 (1997), pp. 307–53. I am grateful to Professor G. W. Bernard for this last reference. 4. The symbolism of the two beasts draws upon extensive iconological and

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 156

08/01/2013 08:23

The Plowman’s Tale

157

allegorical traditions. The pelican, which was believed to feed its young with blood from its own breast, was traditionally associated with Christ, an association to which the Pelican in the Tale draws attention at lines 1293–6 (‘For Christ hym selfe is lykened to me / That for his people dyed on rode. / As fare I, right so fareth he; / He fedeth his byrdes with his blode’). But the text’s primary symbolic association of the Pelican draws upon a discrete but related tradition, harking back to the ‘pelicano solitudinis’ of Vulgate Psalm 101: 7 (‘I am like to a pelican of the wilderness’), and expressed most forcefully by Eucherius of Lyons (Formulae spiritalis intelligentiae, Corpus scriptorum eccleiasticorum latinorum (Vienna, 1894, 31, 23). Here the bird is symbolic of the true believer or vera ecclesia, a lone voice of truth crying in the wilderness, beset by enemies – an association that explains both the Pelican of the Tale’s righteous declamatory strategy and his moments of dejection (as at ll. 1278–9). The truly Christ-like bird in the Tale is the ‘phenixe stoute’ (l. 1343), symbolic of the resurrected Christ Triumphant, who routs the raptors oppressing the Pelican at the close of the narrative (On the phoenix, see J. S. Kantrowitz, ‘The Anglo-Saxon Phoenix and Tradition’, Philological Quarterly 43 (1964), pp. 1–13; J. Bugge, ‘The Virgin Phoenix’, Medieval Studies 38 (1976), pp. 332–50; Anne Marie D’Arcy, The Wisdom and the Grail: The Image of the Vessel in The Queste del Saint Graal and Malory’s Tale of the Sankgreal (Dublin: Four Courts, 2000), pp. 133–5 and notes). The griffin was listed among those unclean avian raptors that it was forbidden to eat in Leviticus 11: 13 and Deuteronomy 14: 11–12, hence medieval commentators tended to treat it as a bird rather than a beast. In the classical tradition it was associated with the wonders (and dangers) of the Orient, leading to its allegorisation in the medieval period as symbolic of either savage greed or its punishment, hence its use to represent the tyrannical aspects of an allegedly covetous clergy in The Tale is readily explicable. 5. See, for example, Andrew Nicholas Wawn (ed.), ‘The Plowman’s Tale’, University of Birmingham Ph.D. thesis, 1969, pp. 110–11 and 388ff; Wawn, ‘Chaucer, The Plowman’s Tale and Reformation Propaganda: The Testament of Thomas Godfray and I Playne Piers’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 56 (1973), pp. 174–92, pp. 176–7; T. J. Heffernon, ‘Aspects of Chaucerian Apocrypha: Animadversions on William Thynne’s Edition of the Plowman’s Tale’ in Ruth Morse and Barry Windeatt (eds.), Chaucer Traditions: Studies in Honour of Derek Brewer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 155–67, especially p. 160; and Robert Costomiris, ‘The Yoke of Canon: Chaucerian Aspects of The Plowman’s Tale’, Philological Quarterly 71 (1992), pp. 185–98, p. 185. See also Alastair Fox’s claim that ‘The Plowman’s Tale, purportedly written by Geoffrey Chaucer, [was] in fact written by Thomas Godfray in 1535’; Alistair Fox, Politics and Literature in the Reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), p. 222. John N. King, English Reformation Literature: The Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), p. 51, is more circumspect, declaring only that ‘Under the Cromwellian administration, reformers . . . eluded censorship by disguising the virulently anticlerical Plowman’s Tale . . . as a gathering out of a legitimate Chaucer edition.’ 6. McCarl, Plowman’s Tale, pp. 21–2, suggests this may be an allusion to the

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 157

08/01/2013 08:23

158

7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12.

13.

14. 15.

16. 17.

Reading Literature Historically lollard petitions posted on the doors of the Parliament House at St Paul’s in 1395. This may be true, but, as we shall see, in the context of the printed text of 1532–3 the echoes of the Commons’ Supplication would have been the more striking. C. H. Williams (ed.), English Historical Documents, V: 1485–1558, (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1967) [hereafter, EHD], p. 734. Helen Miller, ‘London and Parliament in the Reign of Henry VIII’, BIHR xxxv (1962), pp. 128–49, p. 144. Hall, Chronicle, p. 765, see above, pp. 46–7. EHD V, p. 734. EHD V, p. 736. Similarly, on the questions of the images, pilgrimage, and the worship of saints, the poem is more radical than the official position of 1532–3. The Pelican rails briefly against priests’ deployment of ‘some stocke or stone / Gayly paynted, and proudly dight’ (ll. 893–4), which poor men are encouraged to make offerings to, and to hang ‘broches, ouches, and rynges’ before, when they could be offering alms to the real images of Christ, the humble poor (ll. 895–917). The ‘abuse’ of images was not formally condemned until the later 1530s, and their use not entirely outlawed until the Edwardian period, when the Act for the Abolishing and Putting Away of Divers Books and Images (3/4 Edward VI, c. 10; EHD V, p. 853) ordered their destruction. Statutes of the Realm, I, pp. 454ff; EHD V, pp. 737ff. The Act in Restraint of Annates (st. 25 Henry VIII c. 20, 1534), for example, spoke of ‘the . . . Bishop of Rome, otherwise called the Pope’ (Statutes of the Realm III, p. 462). For Cranmer’s sermon, see Charles Wriothesley, A Chronicle of England during the Reigns of the Tudors, 1485–1559, ed. W. D. Hamilton, Camden Society, new series xi and xx (2 vols, London, 1875–7), I, pp. 33–4; J. S. Brewer, J. Gairdner, and R. S. Brodie (eds), Calendar of Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic of the Reign of Henry VIII (21 vols, London, 1862–1932), X 283. For the significance of the sermon, see Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996), p. 150. The Reynes and Bonham imprints of the 1542 Workes are STC 5070 and 5096 respectively. See Annie Irvine, ‘A Manuscript Copy of “The Plowman’s Tale”’ University of Texas Bulletin: Studies in English 12 (1932), pp. 27–56, which convincingly argues the manuscript was created specifically for insertion into the copy of Thynne’s 1532 edition of Chaucer’s Works into which it is now bound, ‘updating’ that copy to match the second edition of 1542, which included the Tale. The scribal hand in the manuscript certainly looks midcentury rather than earlier, and the layout of the text appears compatible with the idea of it being designed for inclusion in the Works. The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, l. 24. All references to Chaucer’s works are to Larry Benson et al. (eds), The Riverside Chaucer (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1987). There is an anomalous stanza here too, which Skeat was first to note and correct. The penultimate stanza rhymes ababcdcd rather than abababab. It is clear, however, that the second quatrain of this stanza (which rhymes

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 158

08/01/2013 08:23

The Plowman’s Tale

18. 19. 20.

21.

159

‘preache / thynge / teache / preachynge’) should actually be grouped with the freestanding quatrain which follows (which rhymes ‘beseche / byddyng / reproche / tellynge’) to form a complete stanza rhyming abababab, leaving the first quatrain of the penultimate stanza (which rhymes ‘lust / saved / dust / raved’) freestanding and requiring a lost quatrain to complete it. W. Skeat, The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer: Volume VII: Chaucerian and Other Pieces (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897), p. 485; Irvine, ‘A Manuscript Copy’, pp. 54–5. That both the scribe of the Texas manuscript and editors and publishers of the Tale from Godfray and Thynne onwards all copied the Prologue in this obviously corrupt state adds some weight to my suggestion that scribes and interpolators were quite capable of following the exemplum to hand without paying great regard to even quite fundamental questions of versification. Within the long interpolation lines 717–852, 861–1004, 1029–36, 1077– 132, and 1141–8 all follow this basic pattern. Andrew N. Wawn, ‘The Genesis of The Plowman’s Tale’, Yearbook of English Studies 2 (1972), pp. 21–40, p. 23, noted these anomalies, but he assumed them to be the work of a single interpolator. Henry Bradley, ‘The Plowman’s Tale’, The Athenaeum, 12 July 1902, p. 62. Bradley argued that the removal of all the stanzas without a refrain would cause little or no loss to the sense of the poem, and, furthermore, a large percentage of stanzas, which did conform to the demands of refrain and rhyme scheme established by parts I and II of the Narratio, were also probably interpolations. In his view there were two stages of substantial revision – both in the sixteenth century – the first of which carefully followed the form of the original, the second increasingly careless, as the poet ‘had ceased to be solicitous about the exact conformity of his additions to the original pattern’. As Wawn notes (‘Genesis’, p. 23), Bradley’s opinions quickly became accepted wisdom, and were reflected in authoritative works such as J. E. Wells, A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050–1400 (New York, Connecticut, 1916), p. 268, in which the text is described as ‘practically wholly of the sixteenth [century]’. Skeat (Chaucerian and Other Pieces, p. xxxiv) similarly followed Bradley’s line, attributing the loss of the refrain and consistency of the rhyme scheme to the actions of a single scribe, but assuming conscious aesthetic choice rather than carelessness as the motive (‘in Part III he [the interpolator] begins to rime upon grace in the first two stanzas, but soon abandons it for the sake of freedom’). More recently Anne Hudson, The Premature Reformation: Wycliffite Texts and Lollard History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), p. 28n, has suggested that ‘the first 52 lines and lines 206–8 seem to be . . . additions; it is less clear that there is any need to distinguish in the remainder of the poem between original writer and near-contemporary interpolator’. I follow Wawn (‘Genesis, p. 39) in finding it ‘impossible to believe that the original poet would suddenly have stopped using refrains after line 716 only to recommence their use after line 1268’. Wawn ultimately opted for ‘the very beginning of the fifteenth century’ for the original poem and ‘before about 1425’ for the long interpolation (‘Plowman’s Tale’, passim, Wawn, ‘Genesis’, pp. 21–30 and 39, and Wawn, ‘Chaucer, The Plowman’s Tale, and Reformation Propaganda’, pp. 174–92).

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 159

08/01/2013 08:23

160

Reading Literature Historically As he notes, the difficulties of dating on internal evidence alone – chiefly the apparent references to contemporary events – are many and complex. There may be allusions to the papal schism of 1378–1415 (‘Betwene hem now is great stryfe. / Many a man is kylled with a knyfe / To wete which of hem have lordship shall’, ll. 240–2) and the Dispenser Crusade of 1383 (‘Preestes . . . / . . . to no bateyle shulde men lede / For inhaunsyng of her owne degree’ (ll. 109–12)). But neither event offers precise guidance on dating. Indeed, the latter would be distinctly ‘old news’ by the early fifteenth century, when Wawn suggests the poem was written. The references to the public burning of heretics suggests greater opportunities for dating, as this punishment was not established in law until the statute De Heretico Comburendo, of 1401. But, as Wawn observes (‘Plowman’s Tale’, pp. 98ff, and ‘Genesis’, pp. 28–9), although the first recorded burning in England was that of William Sawtre in 1401 (and the first layman did not die until 1410, after the issue of Archbishop Arundel’s ‘Constitutions’, when John Bradby of Worcestershire was burned), there are allusions to the burning of heretics in earlier texts (see Hudson, Premature Reformation, pp. 15–16; and A. K. McHardy, ‘De Heretico Comburendo, 1401’, in Margaret Aston and Colin Richmond (eds), Lollardy and the Gentry in the Later Middle Ages (Thrupp: Sutton Publishing, 1997), pp. 112–26). For the text of De Heretico Comburendo, see A. R. Myers (ed.), English Historical Documents, IV: 1327–1485 (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1969) [hereafter EHD IV], pp. 850–1, and Statutes of the Realm, II, p. 125. For analysis of some of the issues concerned, see John M. Bowers, ‘Piers Plowman and the Police: Notes Toward a History of the Wycliffite Langland’, Yearbook of Langland Studies 6 (1992), pp. 1–50. The distribution of the references to burning within the poem might, however, provide some suggestions about priorities among the interpolations that will be suggested below. In Part I there is no direct reference, although there is mention of those who criticise the clergy being ‘done to deed [death]’ (l. 198). Perhaps significantly, when the Pelican is searching for something of sufficient cruelty to justify the claim that the clergy have less mercy than either ‘Maximian’ or Nero (ll. 292–3), the worst that he can allege is that they curse and condemn folk to hell unless they ‘shrive’ themselves after sin (ll. 287–92). In Part II, however, the references to burning are more abundant, if only gradually introduced. At lines 557–64 the punishment of ‘lollers’ is said to be imprisonment, after which the victim will be ‘Betyn and bounden, and forthe ladde’ (l. 560), where the ‘leading forth’ would seem to be to death, evoking Christ’s ‘buffeting’ before the Passion. At lines 565–7 death is more explicitly explored in relation to the clergy’s claim to wield the ‘two swords’ symbolic of spiritual and temporal power, here identified as ‘one [to] curse [to] hell, one [to] slee men here’. Thereafter the first explicit reference to burning occurs at lines 629–36. Were Christ alive now, the Pelican asserts, ‘These [clerics] wolde dampne hym to dye’ (l. 630). Claiming that ‘his sawes ben heresy’ (l. 632), they would cry out against him ‘And dampne all his [followers] to be brende’ (l. 634). Citing the clergy’s power to punish heresy ‘in Englande here’ (l. 637) as an excessive, and by implication recent, innovation, (l. 643)), the Pelican goes on to claim that those accused of the crime are ‘Worse beate, and bytter brende / Than to the Kyng is understonde’ (ll. 682–3). In Part III the Griffin threatens the

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 160

08/01/2013 08:23

The Plowman’s Tale

22.

23.

24.

25. 26.

27.

161

Pelican: ‘Thou shalbe brent in balefull fyre; / All they secte I shall distrye’ (ll. 1234–5). The references to burning which might (although need not) indicate a date of composition after 1401 are thus distributed among those parts of the text that I shall identify in what follows as the work of the original poet, the long interpolator, and the Crede-interpolator, suggesting that, as Wawn argues, the whole poem was probably composed in the fifteenth century. The absence of such references in Part I of the Narratio, although not necessarily significant, might, however, give us pause to wonder whether, perhaps, the original Narratio itself was composed in two stages (probably by the same hand, although conceivably by an original poet and a skilled continuator), Part I prior to 1401, Parts II and III thereafter. At the start of Part II the narrator announces that he can think of no further variations of phrases ending with the word ‘fall’ (‘To accorde with this worde fall / No more Englysshe can I fynde’ (ll. 477–8)) and so will start again with a new refrain based on the word ‘amend’. The possibility that there might be further interpolations that conform to all the formal demands of the original versification and so are not obvious is one that I do not have space to pursue here, but should be born in mind in what follows. See, for example, Heffernon, ‘Aspects’, p. 162; and McCarl, Plowman’s Tale, pp. 19 and 33, for the view that the Prologue ‘is manifestly of the early sixteenth century’, and written ‘as late as the late 1520s or early 1530s’ in order ‘to get this long heretical work into print in the safe confines of the works of Chaucer’. Hudson, Premature Reformation, p. 392 describes the ‘adaptation’ of the poem ‘to fit the [Canterbury Tales] frame and its assignation to the Parson’s brother’ as ‘almost certainly done not long before its appearance in Thynne’s 1542 edition’. There is, for example, a passable pastiche of Harry Baily’s characteristically bluff tones in ‘our hoste’s’ demand: ‘What man . . . Canst thou preche? / Come nere, and tell us some holy thynge.’ (ll. 45–6). See, McCarl, Plowman’s Tale, pp. 33–4; Wawn, ‘Genesis’, pp. 34–5; Robert Costomiris, ‘Yoke of Canon’, pp. 186 and 193. Skeat (Chaucerian and Other Pieces, p. xxxiii) thought the impersonation of the poet’s style was so poor that ‘it is obvious . . . that the author never intended his work to be taken for Chaucer’s’. Wawn concluded (‘Genesis’, pp. 26, 35–6, and 39) that ‘in its original form written at the very beginning of the fifteenth century, the poem now known as The Plowman’s Tale was an anonymous lollard verse tract of lines 53–205; 229–716; a contracted and different version of 717–1268; and 1269–80’. This original poem was subsequently discovered by a second person, ‘probably . . . another lollard writer who . . . wished both to extend the range of the poem’s assault upon the clergy and also perhaps to modify and clarify such ambiguities and infelicities of expression as may have existed in the original form of the debate’. This intervention, Wawn suggests, occurred ‘not long after the preparation of the original poem, and ‘probably ‘before about 1425’. This revised text was subsequently discovered by – or brought to the attention of – ‘government officials’ in the 1530s who, seeing its value for their campaign against Rome and the English church, arranged for the Prologue to be added and for the text to be

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 161

08/01/2013 08:23

162

Reading Literature Historically

printed as a Canterbury Tale (Wawn, ‘Plowman’s Tale’, pp. 109–110). But the linguistic grounds cited for believing in a Tudor origin seem too contradictory to carry the case alone. In ‘Chaucer, The Plowman’s Tale, and Reformation Propaganda’, pp. 186–7, Wawn offers further evidence, based upon the extensive borrowings from the Tale in a prose work datable on internal grounds to the middle 1540s, I Playne Piers. Given that the author of this later text nowhere attributes the lines he assimilates into his own text to Chaucer (something he would have been keen to do, Wawn suggests, given the kudos attached to the poet’s name), it would seem that he must have had access only to a text that did not identify it as a Canterbury Tale – that is, to a text without the Prologue. Hence, Wawn argues, ‘the strong possibility is that during the 1530s one such text was either discovered by an Henrician interpolator or was drawn to his attention, and was subsequently, immediately prior to its being printed, furnished with a link Prologue. Perhaps indeed the idea of printing it was generated by its metamorphosis into a Canterbury Tale’. But, again, this argument indicates only priority of authorship, not proximity. The author of I Playne Piers, had he managed to remain ignorant of both the Godfray edition of the Tale, and the version in the 1542 edition of Thynne’s Works, might as easily have found an exemplar of the Prologue-free text produced in the 1410s as one produced in the 1520s. That there was such a version in existence for him to find in the 1540s does not mean that there were only such versions of the poem in existence. Moreover, it is not necessarily the case that failure to cite Chaucer as his source is an indication that the author did not know of their attribution. He cites no source for his borrowings here, because he does not acknowledge them as borrowings, but merely silently assimilates them into his own text. As Bowers (‘Piers Plowman and the Police’, pp. 40–45) suggests, the evidence of other concealed rhymes within his prose text, would indicate that the author had borrowed equally silently from other texts too. There is also the more fundamental question of the form of the work: I Playne Piers does not acknowledge the existence of the Pelican as the speaker of his borrowings either; should we therefore assume that he had access to a version of the text that lacked its beastly antagonists too? Such a conclusion would seem unlikely. The idea of a specially created Tudor Prologue would also (as Wawn acknowledges, ibid. p. 338) seem difficult to square with the fact that the earliest printed copy (for which it was assumed to have been written) mangles the Prologue so badly. To have treated so carelessly the one piece of the text that had been created especially for the presses would suggest a degree of carelessness on the part of the printers and editors that would belie the notion of a carefully constructed piece of Henrician official propaganda. 28. Nor is there any reference to the burning of heretics. Wawn’s observation (‘Genesis’, p. 29) that there are no allusions to that distinctively ‘Reformation’ doctrine, justification by faith alone anywhere in the poem, is also relevant here. 29. Wawn, ‘Plowman’s Tale’, pp. 115–16, and ‘Genesis’, pp. 35–7. See also Wawn, ‘Chaucer, The Plowman’s Tale and Reformation Propaganda’, pp. 188–90. 30. A similar contrast between Christ and the pope as rival heads of the church

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 162

08/01/2013 08:23

The Plowman’s Tale

31.

32.

33. 34. 35. 36.

37. 38. 39.

163

was advanced in Wyclif’s ‘De Papa’, where the assertion that the latter represented the Antichrist was also made. F. D. Matthew (ed.), The English Works of John Wyclif hitherto unpublished, EETS (London: Early English Texts Society, 1880), p. 467. As Wawn notes (‘Plowman’s Tale’, p. 467), the interpolation also shifts the focus of criticism from the priests, who falsely venerate the pope, to the pope himself. Again, the likely source for these ideas would be Wyclif, who declared in ‘De Papa’ that ‘men say the Pope is the most proud man on earth, and makes lords kiss his feet, whereas Christ washed his Apostles’ feet’. Matthew, English Works, p. 467. This might be read as either ‘Neither a pin nor a joint’: i.e. not even the smallest of trifles (Wawn, ‘Plowman’s Tale’, p. 398). Alternatively it might, as printed here, imply ‘neither open [free-standing] nor joined [connected]’ – that is, not of any kind whatever. McCarl, The Plowman’s Tale, p. 20. Wawn, ‘Plowman’s Tale’, pp. 126–37. Wawn, ‘Genesis’, p. 27. That the sense of the argument here clearly carries over these two stanzas, while the versification shifts from ababbcbc (the ‘original’ form) to ababcdcd (the second most frequent signature in the long interpolation, and one that I shall be referring to in what follows as the hand of the Credeinterpolator, for reasons that will become clear later) suggests that we are looking at the result of an earlier stage of revision here too, in which the Crede-interpolator stitched together a lengthy section of his or her own work and a length of the material that was already in place in the long interpolation. He or she evidently took considerable care to integrate the sense and syntax of the two passages, but paid rather less attention to the rhyme scheme. Costomiris, ‘Yoke of the Canon’, p. 190. Significantly, the two other stanzas in the poem with this distinctive ababacac signature bring a similar tone and vehemence to parts of the text where it was otherwise absent, as will be explored in more detail below. See Anne Hudson, ‘Epilogue: The Legacy of Piers Plowman’, in John Alford (ed.), A Companion to Piers Plowman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 251–66, p. 257, and James Dean (ed.), Six Ecclesiastical Satires (Kalamazoo, MI:, Medieval Institute Publications, 1991), p. 52. Conversely, Skeat (Chaucerian and Other Pieces, pp. xxxiii–xxxv) argued that there was ‘ample confirmation’ of the claim to authorship of both poems in the echoes of one text in the other. Wawn (‘Genesis’, pp. 28ff), while noting that the claim could be an attempt by a Tudor propagandist to give added ‘medieval’ authenticity to his interpolation, thought that the common authorship idea was ‘a clear possibility’, although, he observes dryly, this would indicate a ‘deterioration in the poet’s creative sensibility in the period between the composition of the two works’. Attempts to use this reference to date the Tale itself have not been overly convincing. Given that the Crede contains a reference to the proceedings against Walter Brut, which took place between 15 October 1391 and 6 October 1393, Skeat seems to have been on safe ground in dating that poem to ‘about 1394’ (Chaucerian and Other Pieces, p. xxxiv). But his further conclusion that

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 163

08/01/2013 08:23

164

Reading Literature Historically

the Tale must follow closely upon that date, and so was probably written ‘about 1395’ does not seem necessary. The cross-reference demonstrates that the Tale was written after the Crede, but how long after remains a moot point. The alternative suggestion (considered briefly by Wawn, ‘Plowman’s Tale’, p. 110) that the claim is to a more general identification of the Plowman of the Tale with the Ploughman narrator of the Crede, aimed at setting the work in the tradition of ploughman complaint, is also possible. 40. The Griffin returns to the point at lines 1168–76, telling the Pelican that, provided he himself lives virtuously, he should allow others to live as they choose rather than interfering in their affairs without licence: ‘Other mennes conscience never thou nyst, / Ye han no cure to aunswere fore. / What meddell ye that han nat to done? / Lette men lyve as they han done yore; / For thou shalte answere for no man.’ (ll. 1172–6). 41. EHD IV, pp. 844–5. The ‘Twelve Conclusions’, a radical document posted anonymously to the doors of St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey in 1395 while Parliament and Convocation were in session, by contrast, asserted precisely the opposite interpretation of the Eucharist, condemned pilgrimage, prayers and offerings made to ‘blind roods and to deaf images of wood and stone’, and declared that confession, allied to the ‘feigned power of absolution’ was a doctrine devised solely to enhance priestly pride. (EHD IV, p. 503, Hudson, Premature Reformation, p. 200). Interestingly, in the light of the Pelican’s attack on bellicose priests earlier in the Narratio, the Conclusions also condemned manslaughter by ‘battle or pretended law of justice’ as contrary to the Scriptures (ibid, p. 503). In ‘Of Confession’, Wyclif argued that ‘privy confession made to priests . . . is not necessary [for the absolution of sin], but brought in recently by the fiend, for Christ allwise used it not, nor did any of his Apostles after him . . . And thus it seems to many men that Antichrist has contrived this device to make all men subject to the Pope.’ (Ibid, p. 840). In ‘The Church and Her Members’ (Thomas Arnold (ed.), Select English Works of John Wyclif: III: Miscellaneous Works (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1871), pp. 338–65, p. 345), he asserted that the papal supremacy was an error from which ‘comen many heresies, as of assoilingis and indulgencis, and cursingis, wiþ feyned pardons, þat make many men have conscience and trowe more to the Pope in sich a cause þan trowe to the Gospel’. See also p. 342: ‘And 3if þou seie þat Cristis Chirche mut have an heed on erþe, soiþe it is, for Crist is heed.’ 42. In particular the anonymous tract to which Arnold gave the title ‘On the Twenty Five Articles’: a point by point response to a conservative petition from parliament to Richard II, seems to resonate closely with many of the more radical sections of the Tale. Indeed the very strategy of dividing the world into two warring camps, the princes of the church and poor landless ‘lollers’, seems remarkably similar to that of the tract, which is structured by an itemisation of the allegations made against ‘pore men’ by the ‘bischopis, prestis and freris’, and then their rebuttal in a series of statements of what ‘Cristen men’ really believe. Thomas Arnold, Select English Works, III, pp. 454–96. The manuscript itself carries the title ‘þese bene þo poyntus þat worldely prelatis at þo suggestione of freres putten on

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 164

08/01/2013 08:23

The Plowman’s Tale

165

pore cristen men, and what þai graunten and what þai denyen’ (Arnold, Select English Works, III, p. 455). The allegations listed: that poor men deny that Urban VI is the true successor of St Peter; that ecclesiastical laws and institutions were established for the enrichment and aggrandisement of the clergy; that formal confession is not necessary for the remission of sin; worship of images is idolatrous; priests who fail to preach should be dismissed; the clergy sell the sacraments for profit; they should live without temporal possessions; sinful priests should not be permitted to administer the sacraments, and the clerical courts oppress the poor more viciously than lay lords, read very like a prospectus for the Pelican’s speeches in the Tale. 43. See Wawn, ‘Genesis’, p. 32. Given that the first of the two stanzas dealing with the Eucharist here bears the signature of the Crede-interpolator, it is interesting to note that the issue is treated in the Crede in a very similar way, thus supporting the idea that the same author may have been responsible for both this passage and the Crede. In the latter, Piers the Ploughman offers an analogous statement of orthodox, if only partial, belief in the Real Presence, declaring that he accepts that, ‘in the sacrement also sothfast God on is, / Fulliche His flecche and His Blod, so bad he us beleven’ (Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede, ll. 822–3 and 830, I cite the lightly modernised text in Dean (ed.), Six Ecclesiastical Satires). Still more intriguingly, in at least one of the surviving manuscripts he makes a very similar point to that made in the second stanza cited from the Tale regarding the need not to make an issue of precisely how Christ is present in the sacrament, which suggests that this was a common means of evading the need for a clear statement on transubstantiation on the part of Wyclif’s followers (for counsel to lollards on the ways to evade questioning on the doctrine of the Eucharist, see Hudson, Premature Reformation, pp. 159 and 287). One text suggested that the persecuted true believer, should he or she be asked how the sacramental bread might also be Christ’s body, might reply that it was done in a way that Christ understood, and go no further in the matter than Scripture would allow. This in turn raises the question of whether the stanzas cited from the Tale were actually advancing two arguments, as I have suggested, or just one. The Ploughman continues at line 824: ‘And though this flatterynge freryes wyln, for her pride, / Disputen of this Deyte, as dotardes schulden, / The more the matere is moved, the masedere hy worthen. / Let the losels alone, and leve thou the trewthe, / For Cryst seyde it is so, so mot it nede worthe; / Therefore studye thou nought theron, ne stere thi wittes; / It is His blissed body, so bad He us beleven. / Thise Maystres of Dyvinitie, many, als I trowe, / Folwen nought fully the feith, as fele of the lewede. / Whough may mannes wijt, thorugh werke of himselve, / Knowen Cristes pryvitie, that all kynde passeth?’ (ll. 824–34). The similarities of argument here would suggest that, if the author of the Crede-interpolation did not himself write the Crede, he was at least familiar with the arguments that it advanced on the Eucharist, and shared its agenda. They would also suggest that the author of the radical interpolation had a similar knowledge, and was intervening in the text in order to make the Tale conform more readily and fully to the Wycliffite strategy set out in the Crede, rather than allow it to elide the doctrinal implications of the question as would have been the case if the first stanza had been allowed to stand alone. There are,

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 165

08/01/2013 08:23

166

Reading Literature Historically

however, textual difficulties with the earliest versions of the Crede at this point in the text, which make definitive statements about its relationship to the Tale difficult. The earliest surviving text of the Crede may well be that printed in London in 1553 by Reyner Wolfe (STC 19904), in which the lines directly asserting the Real Presence (ll. 822–3 and 830) do not appear. Those manuscripts texts in which the lines are present (British Library MS Bibl. Reg. 18 B XVII and Trinity College Cambridge MS R 3.15) probably both postdate the printed text, the latter by as much as fifty years (Dean, Six Ecclesiastical Satires, pp. 1–5). Thus while it is tempting to imagine a Tudor printer editing out unacceptable allusions to the Wyclifite consubstantive view of the Real Presence in order to make his text conform to contemporary Calvinist beliefs, it is not possible to state the case with final certainty. It remains a possibility, of course, that the text of the Crede has been amended to echo the Tale here rather than vice-versa. For analysis of the Crede, see John Scattergood, ‘Pierce The Ploughman’s Crede: Lollardy and Texts’ in Aston and Richmond, Lollardy and the Gentry, pp. 77–94, reprinted in Scattergood, The Lost Tradition: Essays on Middle English Alliterative Poetry (Dublin: Four Courts, 2000). 44. Wawn, ‘Genesis’, p. 32. 45. The words ‘subject’ and ‘substance’ were each used, at times seemingly interchangeably, by Wyclif and his followers. See, for example, ‘Fifty Errors and Heresies of the Friars’, in Arnold, Select English Works, pp. 378 and 443. 46. At his trial in 1413, Oldcastle was presented by his judges with a statement of the orthodox position on the Eucharist (first established at the fourth Lateran Council of 1215). ‘The faith and determination of Holy Church touching the blissful sacrament of the altar is this, that after the sacramental words are said by the priest in his mass, the material bread that was before is turned into Christ’s body, and the natural wine that was before is turned into Christ’s very blood, and so there remain on the altar no material bread or material wine which were there before the saying of the sacramental words.’ Against this, Oldcastle asserted a belief in consubstantiation of the sort advanced by Wyclif. ‘In the sacrament of the altar there is true body and true bread, namely the bread we see and the body of Christ veiled under the same which we do not see’ (EHD IV, p. 861). Oldcastle’s words here also echo those of William Thorpe, who is said to have told Archbishop Arundel during his interrogation in 1407 that the idea that the sacramental bread ‘is an accident without substance’ was a heresy introduced by St Thomas Aquinas (EHD IV, p. 852). Wyclif had argued in ‘De Blasphemia, Contra Fratres’ that Antichrist ‘feynes [that] when þat God’s body begynnes to be þere [i.e. in the sacramental bread], þen bred turns to no3t, and accident leeves . . . Bot feythe of þo gospel techis us to trowe þat þis is verey bred after the saceringe, for Crist hymself, seis, þis bred is my body; bot what foole can not se þat it is bred?’ (Arnold, Select English Works, III, p. 404). Just as Christ is and was both truly God and truly man, Wyclif argued, ‘right so holy Kirke, mony hundred winters haves trowed þo same sacrament is verrey Gods body and verrey bred, as hit is fourme of Gods body and fourme of bred . . . And right as hit is heresye to trowe þat Christ is a spiryt and no body, so hit is heresye to trowe þat

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 166

08/01/2013 08:23

The Plowman’s Tale

167

þis sacrament is Gods body and no bred; for hit is bothe togedir’. (Arnold, Select English Works, p. 502). The argument had been advanced by John of Paris, building on Peter Lombard. See Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine: IV: Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300–1700) (5 vols, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 57. The lollard Twelve Conclusions seemed to take a still more radical line: ‘the feigned miracle of the sacrament of bread induces all men but a few to idolatry, for they fancy that God’s body, which shall never leave heaven by virtue of the priest’s words, is enclosed essentially in a little bread’. (EHD IV, p.849). The English church had formally condemned these views at the synod of London, where it listed among the heretical opinions to be abrogated by all good Christians the beliefs that the substance of bread and wine remain after consecration, that their accidents do not remain after consecration, and that Christ was not ‘in his own corporeal presence in the sacrament of the altar, identically, truly, and really’ (EHD IV, pp. 844–5). 47. Interestingly, the editor of the 1606 edition of the Tale (STC 5101) (Wawn suggests that it was Antony Wotton (Wawn, ‘Plowman’s Tale’, p. 37)) felt the need for two judgemental footnotes at this point. Good protestant that he was, at the point at which the first stanza seemingly declared wholeheartedly for the Real Presence, he observed that ‘Chawcer saw somewhat, though not all; it is no easie matter to leave errors that we have bin nousled in.’ Against the assertion that Christ is there ‘verament’ in the succeeding, more radical stanza he noted more approvingly, ‘certainly, and so he is indeed, but not bodily: sacramentally in a mysterie, spiritually’. McCarl, Plowman’s Tale, pp. 205–6. 48. In ‘De Papa’, Wyclif had claimed that ‘if popes would have cardinals, they should choose good men and poor . . . But now men say that cardinals are brought in by Antichrist to bargain by simony, and beguile men by other deceits, and so as the Pope is amazing, so cardinals are a hinge to the devil’s house’ (EHD IV, p. 838). 49. The lengthy discussion of the sacraments here at times suggests the neoDonatist position that a priest in mortal sin cannot administer the sacraments (see, for example, ll. 973ff: ‘Though a prest lye w[ith] his lem[m]an all night / And tellen his felowe, and he hym / He goth to masse anone right / And sayth he singeth out of synne . . . / And so he weneth God begyle’ (ll. 973–6, 980) ‘Of the bysshoppe he hath powere / To soyle men, or els they ben lore / His absolutyon may make them skere / And wo is the soule that he syngeth fore’ (ll. 958–8) and ‘The sacramentes be soule heale / If they ben used in good use’ (ll. 1193–4). But the emphasis is finally upon the punishment and damage due to the erring priest himself, rather than the suggestion that the recipient of the sacrament might not be in a state of grace. ‘But they that usen hem [i.e. the sacraments] in mysse manere / Or sette hem up to any sale / I trowe they shall abye hem dere’ (ll. 1197–9, my italics). Similarly, Wyclif was careful to distance himself from the charge of Donatism in a number of his early utterances on the sacraments (see Arnold, Select English Works, III, pp. 227–8: ‘þes anticritis sophistris schulden knowe wel þat a cursed man doþ fully þe sacramentis, þouy it be to his dampnynge, for þe[y] ben not autouris of þes sacramentis, but God

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 167

08/01/2013 08:23

168

Reading Literature Historically

kepiþ þat dygnyte to hymself.’ See also Hudson, Premature Reformation, pp. 27 and 316; Pelikan, Reformation of Church and Dogma, pp. 92–8. For Wyclif’s appeal to the king and secular lords to reform the clergy, see, for example, Arnold, Select English Works, III, pp. 145–84, 272–80. 50. Wawn’s suggestion (‘Genesis’, p. 29) that there is no evidence to suggest substantially different dates of composition for the original poem and the long interpolation is thus vindicated in general terms, although the existence of isolated stanzas of possibly considerably later provenance needs to be added to the equation.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 168

08/01/2013 08:23

Chapter 6

Rough Girls and Squeamish Boys: The Trouble with Absolon in The Miller’s Tale

Absolon, the squeamish parish clerk in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale is perhaps a predictable focus for an investigation of the games medieval authors can play with their readers’ cultural assumptions and prejudices. He has been the subject of considerable scholarly interest in the past three decades, and a variety of conflicting accounts have been offered of his sexuality, his attitudes towards women, and his literary origins. In part he remains a fruitful source of inspiration precisely because he is so difficult to pin down, both sexually and generically. But, as what follows will suggest, the attempt is worthwhile, both for what it implies about the gendered dynamics of humour in the Miller’s Tale, and for its wider implications for attitudes towards male and female identity in the late fourteenth century. One of the purposes of this chapter is, as its subtitle suggests, to examine just what is troubling for and about Chaucer’s squeamish parish clerk. The trouble for Absolon, the apparently disproportionate horror he experiences when he kisses Alisoun’s ‘nether ye’ (or perhaps, more accurately, when he reflects on the implications of that kiss immediately afterwards) is one part of the problem; and takes us into the world of psychoanalysis and gender theory. But we need to ponder also the trouble with Absolon, why it is that he troubles us; why he continues to provoke interest and discussion among scholars and readers of the Tale. Part of his troublesomeness, as I have suggested, lies in the way in which he defies categorisation, how he troubles the boundaries between male and female, masculine and feminine, adult and child, and resists the easy binary oppositions so important to conventional ideas of identity. But he is also troublesome in generic terms, he crosses the boundaries and muddies the waters between fabliau, romance, moral exhortation and biblical narrative. He is, to borrow Mary Douglas’s well known formulation, ‘matter out of place’ and so an aberration, a problematic, liminal thing, as much between genres as he is between

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 169

08/01/2013 08:23

170

Reading Literature Historically

genders.1 Hence it is fitting that his defining moment should involve a dangerous meeting of ‘high’ and ‘low’ body parts in an archetypally liminal space, the bringing together of his ‘pure’ lips (wiped dry for the task) and a decidedly impure arse projected disruptively through the frame of a ‘shot’ window.2

Sexuality and the Somewhat Squeamish Male Most accounts of Absolon have assumed that he is funny – and in one way or another inadequate – because of his inappropriate femininity.3 This seems to me to be a problematic – or at least only partially satisfactory – claim. In what follows I will re-examine Absolon’s character, and his role in The Miller’s Tale, concluding rather that it is his adoption and internalisation of a fundamentally patriarchal (in a number of senses of the word) ideological stance regarding womanhood that makes him such a laughably inadequate figure in the world of the tale. His relationship – such as it is – with Alisoun, the carpenter’s wife whom he pursues with gifts and love songs, is not informed by any common ‘feminine’ traits or shared understanding. Nor is it directed by the conventional bodily urges of the fabliau male. As a result he quite literally does not know how to take her, with, as they say, hilarious consequences (for everyone but him). Yet, nor does the reader know how to take Absolon, hence the laughter that he evokes is at best awkward and at times frankly embarrassed. Is the humour of the kiss implicitly homophobic, or misogynist, or both? Do we laugh because we know that, in the same situation, we would behave in exactly the same way as Absolon does, or because we hope that we would not? The text does not try to lead its readers in their responses to such questions, but rather, having cued them to laugh at the episode, leaves them to decide for themselves why they did so. And in doing so, Chaucer is characteristically teasing them, exploring the conventions and implications of his chosen genre, and also tilting, if only obliquely, at a wider and more influential target. Part of what makes Absolon memorable is, as many critics have pointed out, that he, like his kiss, is so obviously misplaced, grotesquely out of keeping with the prevailing tone and ethos of the tale that he inhabits. It is as if he had wandered into the fabliau from somewhere else, bringing the assumptions and behaviour patterns of that other world with him. I will explore this idea further in a moment, suggesting that this ‘somewhere else’ is not, as is sometimes argued, the world of romance, the most likely home for young men who court their beloveds with poetry and song, but the realm of popular religion, and in particu-

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 170

08/01/2013 10:20

The Miller’s Tale

171

lar of the kind of religiosity that characterises aspects of the medieval drama.4 But, let us stay for a moment longer with that kiss, and the sexual context(s) that seemingly make it so laughable. In The Miller’s Tale, as in fabliaux generally, sexuality is frankly acknowledged. Desire, satisfaction, and the pleasure to be gained from sexual activity, are all taken as given facts of life. Hence the reader is assumed to be – indeed is constructed as – mature enough to understand and accept the nature of the pleasures that sex offers. Chaucer’s description of the adulterous ‘melodie’ (MT, 3652)5 that Nicholas the scholar and Alisoun, John’s wife, enjoy together in John the carpenter’s bed is thus not euphemistic but analytical, a reference to the delightful nature of their ‘bisynesse of myrthe and solas’, rather than a coy refusal to name the deed.6 It is only with the arrival of Absolon that the notion of taboo is introduced – manifestly belatedly and inappropriately – into the narrative. And with him comes a bowdlerisation of human experience and all its attendant baggage (chiefly the infantilisation of male sexuality and the neutralisation of female desire that it necessitates) which is drawn from a very different discourse and realm of experience. Significantly, of course, Absolon arrives in the tale after the crucial, self-sufficient narrative of the Alisoun-Nicholas-John plot has been established and sent on its way to a denouement. And it is distinctive of Absolon’s role to bring too little, too late to any situation to have any positive effect on events. If the classic relationship in both chivalric and fabliau competition is the erotic triangle, two men in pursuit of a single woman,7 then Absolon is already geometrically excessive and surplus to requirements at his first arrival. It is John the carpenter whom Nicholas must defeat in order to enjoy Alisoun, not Absolon. And Alisoun has already responded affirmatively to Nicholas’s proposition, signalling the first part of his victory over her husband prior to Absolon’s appearance. Moreover, the lodger’s shameless groping of Alisoun ‘by the queynt’ in the orchard (ll. 3275–6) has set the tale’s linguistic and behavioural parameters at a level of frankness far beyond Absolon’s coy, formal brand of courtship, long before the latter enters the scene with his desire for ‘a kiss at least’ (see ll. 3680 and 3683). Consequently, Absolon’s arrival does not for a moment threaten Nicholas’s victory, albeit he does rather take the gloss off it (along with the skin from his arse) when he enacts his final, misdirected, revenge. Rather he presents a comic counter-case, reworking in a parodic key the courtship that Nicholas has already completed successfully in the authentic tones of fabliau comedy. The iconography of Absolon’s portrait has been sensitively analysed by Paul Beichner. Based upon the biblical Absolom, the son of King David (in 2 Kings 14: 25–6), he alludes to a number of exegetical

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 171

08/01/2013 08:23

172

Reading Literature Historically

themes. He is effete and luxuriant. His ‘crull’ golden hair, according to exegetical commentators, connoted excess,8 and it, along with his skin, eyes, and fastidiously arranged clothes are described in great detail in the manner of the effectio. The vocabulary deployed here, it is claimed, serves to feminise Absolon; but it also, more radically, infantilises him in images of smallness, prettiness, and inconsequentiality. Absolon’s body is that of a child, and it is this that creates the main strand of humour in his portrait. His clothes are those of an infant dressed smartly for school, neat, prim, and in soft, unthreatening pastel colours. He is ‘jolyf . . . and gay’ (l. 3339), with ‘joly shode’ (l. 3316), is clad ‘ful smal and proprely’ (l. 3320), his kyrtel is of ‘lyght waget’, his surplice as white as blossom (ll. 3321 and 24). His movements are either small and precise or extravagant and ungainly (like his awkward, leggy dancing after the ‘Oxford School’ (ll. 3328–30)). His singing voice is a high soprano (‘a loud quynyble’ (l. 3332)), later referred to as ‘gentil and smal’ like a warbling nightingale (l. 3360), and it is no accident that his chosen musical instrument is a small rubible (l. 3331) – a little fiddle – the very word for which sounds ungainly and silly. Taken together, these features serve to deny not simply his masculinity but his adulthood per se.9 The final, seemingly gratuitous detail in his portrait, that ‘he was somdeel squaymous / Of fartyng’ (ll. 3337–8) – a generally admirable feature in a man, especially a parish clerk, one might think, but a grave handicap in the fundamentally visceral world of the fabliaux – ‘and of speche dangerous’, provides the last and broadest hint of his effete, bowdlerised nature. That Absolon is feminine in appearance and manners is not necessarily a problem, despite claims to the contrary.10 Femininity in a young man is a conventional feature of the successful heterosexual lovers of medieval literature. One need think only of Chaucer’s Squire (‘A lovyere and a lusty bacheler’ (GP, 80), who nonetheless had ‘lokkes crulle as they were leyd in presse’ and wore clothes ‘Embrouded . . . as it were a meede / Al ful of fresshe floures, whyte and reede’ (ll. 81, 89–90)), or of Aurelius in The Franklin’s Tale (‘That fressher was and jollyer of array, / . . . than is the month of May’ (FT, ll. 927–8)) to substantiate the claim.11 Even in fabliaux, the femininity of the hero is part of his lustiness, what marks him out as attractive to the women he pursues. Nicholas himself is ‘lyk a mayden for to see’ (l. 3202), yet evidently has no difficulties in the role of heterosexual predator. What is problematic, as we shall see, is not Absolon’s femininity, but precisely his lack of access to female experience and his inability to empathise with the woman he pursues. He is entirely narcissistic and incapable of entering even imaginatively into the thoughts, desires, or

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 172

08/01/2013 08:23

The Miller’s Tale

173

physical realities of anyone not conceived in his own image.12 He insists upon abstracting Alisoun imaginatively from her bodily reality, displacing it where necessary into sanitised images of cats and mice, honeycomb, sweet cinnamon, small birds, and suckling lambs (ll. 3346–7; 3698–9, 3704). Whereas she is presented to us as a woman firmly grounded in the corporeal (her introduction tells us that she scrubs her face hard to make it shine (l. 3704), and plucks her eyebrows (ll. 3310– 11) – discreet signs of the intransigent bodily growth that will become more obviously important later), he insists on denying that corporeality. Hence, when the physical proof of the inadequacy of his conception of femininity is brought home to him in a face full of her ‘rough’ pubic hair, he is entirely incapable of adjusting, and short-circuits into violence. If Alisoun will not be as he imagined her, then she must be entirely erased; only that will rectify the anomaly that she presents and return his mental world to order.13 Absolon’s pleasures, real and imagined, are, as a number of critics have observed, entirely oral and visual.14 His mouth itches in anticipation of kissing (l. 3682), he dreams that he is at a feast (l. 3684), describes Alisoun, as we have seen, in terms of sweetmeats: honeycomb and sweet cinnamon (ll. 3698–9), and longs for her like the lamb after the teat (l. 3704). He is indeed ‘a myrie chylde’, a toddler, whose pursuit of women in general and Alisoun in particular is restricted to the voyeuristic pleasures of observation from afar (‘Sensyng the wyves of the parisshe faste; /And many a lovely look on hem he caste, / And namely on this carpenteris wyf. / To looke on hire hym thoughte a myrie lyf’ (ll. 3341–4)) and the kind of indiscriminate gift-giving characteristic of the child in Freud’s anal stage, prior to entry into genital sexuality: He sente hire pyment, meeth, and spiced ale, And wafres, pipyng hoot out of the gleede; And, for she was of town, he profred meede; For som folk wol ben wonnen for richesse, And somme for strokes, and somme for gentilesse (3378–80).15

The narrator, entering into Absolon’s thought processes might speculate that, I dar wel seyn, if she hadde been a mous, And he a cat, he wolde hire hente anon. (3346–7)

But, as Helen Phillips notes, it is only through such displacement that a satisfying consummation can even be imagined.16 It is not merely ‘if’ but ‘only if’ the sexual act could be replaced by the more acceptably

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 173

08/01/2013 08:23

174

Reading Literature Historically

infantile satisfaction of eating that it would become thinkable for him. Given that she is not a mouse, nor he a cat, the relationship is doomed to go no further. The building blocks of a potentially complex, even tragic, dysfunctional figure are all there, but the text keeps its exploration of Absolon resolutely within the comic register. The repeated use of ‘joly’ to describe his demeanour belies the potential seriousness of his ‘woe’, even before the text gets down to describing what ‘courtship’ really involves for Absolon (which, as V. A Kolve suggests, seems to be merely frequent visits to the mirror and the dressing-up box).17 From day to day this joly Absolon So woweth hire that hym is wo bigon, He waketh al the nyght and al the day; He kembeth his lokkes brode, and made hym gay; He woweth hire by meenes and brocage, And swoor he wolde been hir owene page; He syngeth, brokkyng as a nyghtyngale . . . Sometyme to shewe his lightnesse and maistyre, He pleyeth Herodes upon a scaffold hye. (3371–7, 3383–4)

But none of this succeeds since Alisoun’s desires are already directed elsewhere. So the parish clerk is reduced to practising, metaphorically at least, another orally focused form of solitary pleasure, But what availeth hym as in this cas? She loveth so this hende Nicholas That Absolon may blowe the bukkes horn. (3386–7)

Some Boys Do: Nicholas and Absolon As I have suggested, there are similarities between Nicholas and Absolon. Both are effeminate in manner, play musical instruments, and pursue Alisoun, each in his own way. But attempts to find equivalence between the two characters miss the point. They do similar things, certainly, and share a number of traits associated with the conventional roles and attitudes of the lover-seducer, but the similarities, such as they are, are merely superficial. Lomperis has, for example, noted the associations of each young man with fragrant herbs: Absolon is not so effeminate as to be unable to wield a phallic coulter, as he does at the tale’s end, and Nicholas is not so masculine as to refrain from perfuming his room ‘with herbes swoote’ (3205), in the same manner as

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 174

08/01/2013 08:23

The Miller’s Tale

175

Absolon, who perfumes himself by chewing cardamom and licorice (3690). Early on in the narration, Nicholas himself is compared to licorice (3207). Both he and Absolon, it appears, are equally sweet-smelling.18

But the crucial distinction is, of course, that of authenticity. While Nicholas possesses a real penis and seems to employ it effectively, Absolon can only wield the artificial simulacrum of the phallus, the coulter, in a grotesque travesty of the procreative act. Here as elsewhere, Absolon’s actions, while similar to those of Nicholas, are not performed ‘in the same manner’; they are actions in bad faith. Nicholas smells as sweet as liquorice, whereas Absolon has to chew literal liquorice in a deliberate attempt (we are not told how successful) to achieve the same effect (ll. 3690–3). The same is true of their deployment of music and song. Nicholas strums his psaltery ‘privelee’ in his room, singing the Angelus in an attempt to lure Alisoun within, and plays an exuberant riff of triumph once she has agreed to his proposition. There is a direct and spontaneous relationship between music and desire. Absolon, conversely, plays his small rubible in the pubs and singles bars of Oxfordshire in an unfocused exhibition of public courtship: presenting himself to the ladies of the town, en masse, as a would-be amorous troubadour. In each case, the chewing of liquorice, the playing and singing, the dressing up as a gallant, these are actions that a man might play, part of a conscious performance, every bit as rehearsed and inauthentic as his (surely absurdly miscast) role as the raging tyrant, Herod on the scaffold high. Absolon’s vital role in the denouement of the tale is, like his introduction, carefully set up by the narrator as an exercise in both misjudgement of character and bathetic mistiming. He re-enters the narrative in search of his kiss only after Nicholas and Alisoun have enjoyed their melodious night of sexual revelry, and his anticipation of the pleasures he might enjoy – again they are wholly oral in nature (‘My mouth hath icched al this longe day; / That is a signe of kyssyng atte leeste. / Al nyght me mette eek I was at a feeste’ (ll. 3682–4)) seems again woefully adolescent when set against what has preceded them. There is thus a pleasing appropriateness to the form his humiliation is to take in the moment when the ‘misdirected kiss’ brings his lips into contact with Alisoun’s arse and the world of the Bakhtinian ‘lower bodily stratum’. This Absolon down sette hym on his knees And seyde, ‘I am lord at alle degrees; For after this I hope ther cometh moore. Lemman [lover], thy grace, and sweete bryd, thyn oore’ (3723–6) This Absolon gan wype his mouth ful drie. Derk was the nyght as pich, or as the cole,

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 175

08/01/2013 08:23

176

Reading Literature Historically

And at the wyndow out she putte hir hole, And Absolon, hym fil ne bet ne wers But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers Ful savourly, er he were war [before he was aware] of this. Abak he stirte, and thoughte it was amys, For wel he wiste [knew] a womman hath no berd. He felte a thyng al rough and long yherd, And seyde, ‘Fy! Alas! What have I do?’ ‘Tehee!’, quod she, and clapte the wyndow to, And Absolon gooth forth a sory pas. (3730–41)

That the clerk who had focused his expectations upon a sweet kiss should be paid for his trouble with one less saccharin is surely apt. And the irony is not lost on the recipient. Nicholas’s mocking ‘A berd! A berd!’ (l. 3742) echoes Absolon’s cry that the narrative does not provide at first hand: This sely Absolon herde every deel, And on his lippe he gan for anger byte, And to himself he seyde, ‘I shal thee quyte’. (3744–6)

But just why – and indeed how – is Absolon so effectively humiliated? As Linda Lomperis has observed, despite the text’s apparent openness and abundance of anatomical detail (‘hir hole’ (l. 3732), ‘hir naked ers’ (l. 3734), ‘a thyng al rough and long yherd’ (l. 3731)), there remains considerable scholarly disagreement about exactly where and upon what Absolon plants his lips. To Valerie Allen and Paul Strohm the description suggests Alisoun’s anus, to Wolfgang Rudat her vagina. H. Marshall Leicester is engagingly disingenuous in weighing up the possibilities; ‘it does not in fact sound like he has kissed an ass, but a cunt’.19 The consensus seems to be that it must be either one thing or the other (only Lomperis bucks the trend and goes for the long-odds possibility that it is Alisoun’s penis).20 But, given that the night is as black as coal, and Absolon has sunk to his knees and is thrusting himself upwards with his eyes shut towards a body that is being squeezed out of a cramped shot-window, it is surely likely that he gets a face full of both at once. Thus the ritual indignity of the osculum fundamentum or baisse-cul is combined with the parodic meeting of upper and nether lips in a carnivalesque act of uncrowning.21 Additionally, given the (at best basic) lavatorial hygiene of the period, there may also be in play here at least a hint of that fascination with kissing or eating shit evident in both the colloquial insult ‘a turd in your teeth’ and fabliaux such as La Coille Noire and Le Débat du Con et du Cul.22 Whether it is single, double, or triple, however, the insult to Absolon

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 176

08/01/2013 08:23

The Miller’s Tale

177

and the humiliation that it imparts are apparently devastating. His complete horror at the physicality of the encounter is reflected in the frenzied lengths to which he goes to remove any trace of Alisoun’s savour from his all too sullied flesh: Who rubbeth now, who froteth now his lippes, With dust, with sond, with straw, with clooth, with chippes, But Absolon, that seith ful ofte, ‘Alas!’ (3747–9)

This is no temporary embarrassment, but the end of his sexual ambitions for life: ‘Allas’, quod he, ‘allas, I ne hadde ybleynt!’ His hoote love was coold and al yqueynt; For fro that tyme that he dadde kist hir ers, Of paramours he sette nat a kers, For he was heeled of his maladie. Ful ofte paramours he gan deffie, And weep as dooth a child that is ybete. (3753–9)

Despite the text’s having set us up – though reference to Absolon’s particular brand of squeamishness – to expect his final quietus to be flatulent, his real humiliation is thus delivered here in the kiss. The fart that Nicholas ultimately bestows upon him is, however impressive in its dimensions and results (‘As greet as it had been a thonder-dent, / That with the strook he was almoost yblent’ – although it is not finally clear whether it is Nicholas that is nearly blinded by the effort, or Absolon by the blast), no more than an afterthought. Absolon has already discovered in the kiss a fundamental truth far more unsettling than the bodily function of which he had hitherto been so ‘squaymous’. What, then, are we to make of Absolon’s frenzied reaction to what Rudat has memorably described as his ‘involuntary act of (almost) cunnilingus’?23 As Leicester has suggested, there seems to be clear echoes here of the primal scene imagined in Freud’s late essay ‘The Medusa’s Head’: The terror of the Medusa is . . . a terror of castration that is linked to the sight of something. Numerous analyses have made us familiar with the occasion for this; it occurs when a boy, who has hitherto been unwilling to believe in the threat of castration, catches sight of the female genitals, probably those of an adult, surrounded by hair, and essentially those of his mother.24

So it is tempting to see Absolon’s kiss as re-enacting the moment when all toddlers discover ‘the truth’ about sexual difference at first hand,

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 177

08/01/2013 08:23

178

Reading Literature Historically

and hence to see Alisoun’s thrusting of her arse out of the window as a defiant rejection of both Absolon’s inept courtship and his sexual naivety. For, as Freud goes on to say, the exposure of one’s own genitals (especially if one is female) is an archetypal act of defiance: displaying the genitals is familiar in other connections as an apotropaic act. What arouses horror in oneself will produce the same effect upon the enemy . . . We read in Rabelais of how the Devil took to flight when the woman showed him her vulva.25

Still more powerfully, the kiss evokes Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject, with Absolon’s horror echoing the reaction against the fluid signs of sexual difference, the ‘substances that cross bodily boundaries, that traverse physical thresholds’ central to notions of abjection.26 But, if in psychoanalytic terms the kiss re-enacts yet another version of the primal encounter with female sexuality and its attendant castration anxieties (and in this respect it is interesting that at the moment that he initiates his revenge, his thoughts turn to his mother and her generosity: ‘Of gold’, quod he, ‘I have thee broght a ryng. / My mooder yaf it me, so God me save.’ (ll. 3794–5)), in the public sphere it seems also to evoke the Bakhtinian notion of the clash between the grotesque and classical bodies. Again, to point this out is to say nothing new; but it is important to remember that these two readings are not alternatives – still less are they mutually exclusive. Freud and Bakhtin are telling essentially the same story, and Absolon’s response to his encounter with Alisoun’s arse neatly embodies the fact. It has been objected against Bakhtin that his account of the classical and grotesque bodies neglects the crucial issue of gender;27 but on closer inspection gender proves to be central (albeit tacit) to the opposition between the two bodies he describes (representing respectively the values of the clerical elite and the popular marketplace). The grotesque body, it will be remembered, is characteristically ‘unfinished, [it] outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits’, revealing ‘an openness to the world’.28 This seems a particularly apt delineation of Alisoun’s ‘rough and long yherd’ ‘hole’, which is presumably also distended and fluid (both ‘open’ and ‘transgressive’) after her long night of merriment. It may be that Absolon’s hair suggested excess to exegetically-inclined readers, but his hair is carefully combed and crimped. It is rather Alisoun’s unkempt pubic hair that represents the uninhibited indulgence in the bodily life of the world. Such features as Bakhtin describes were, in terms of the classical medical theory that lies at the heart of medieval notions of physiognomy, characteristic of the female body. As Mary Harlow has recently

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 178

08/01/2013 08:23

The Miller’s Tale

179

demonstrated, the Hippocratic texts of the fifth and fourth centuries bc drew crucial distinctions between the male and female bodies in terms of their porousness and ‘openness to the world’. According to this model, male bodies are dry and closed, while female bodies are spongier and more open, because of the nature of female flesh and the functions of the female body . . . indeed the open body, opened by menstruation, sexual penetration, and childbirth, is an inherently healthy female body, according to the Hippocratic corpus.29

Hence, as Harlow points out, the process by which women might find approval within the ascetic religious ideology of the clerical elite, involved explicitly ‘becoming male’ in both intellectual and bodily terms: The physical hardships and strict fasting that were practised by certain female ascetics might even produce a body that approached near to the masculine model of dry and closed. Lack of food could dry out the porous flesh of the female: it could even result in the suppression of menstruation, a defining female trait.30

It goes without saying that such a process also marked a movement in Bakhtinian terms from the grotesque body of the marketplace to the classical body of the church. What it might involve is graphically described in a letter of Basil of Caesarea (although here, as the final sentence quoted makes clear, the recipient is male): Piercing your body with rough sackcloth, and binding your loins with a stiff belt, you resolutely put pressure on your bones. Through your abstinence, your sides become hollow . . . You collapsed your flanks from within like a gourd, forcing them to adhere to the area of your kidneys. Then, emptying your flesh of fat, you nobly dried out the channels of the hypogastric region, and by fasting compressed your stomach itself, so that you made your ribs, like the eaves of a house, cast a shadow over the place of your navel. So with your whole body shrunken, you confessed God’s glory in the night hours, and with streams of your tears you soaked and smoothed your beard.31

The grotesque body, as described by Bakhtin, is, then, also the female body as imagined by medieval medical theory – and more generally the body that medieval thinking posited as ‘feminine’. For it is only at those moments of openness, the ‘shameful’ moments of overindulgent eating, defecating, pissing, ejaculating, or being penetrated sexually, that the male body abandons its classical integrity and enters into the carnivalesque sphere of the grotesque.32 In celebrating the openness, fluidity, and incompleteness of the grotesque body, as against the closed, dry body of the classical ideal, Bakhtin is reversing the traditional hierarchy

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 179

08/01/2013 08:23

180

Reading Literature Historically

of gender under patriarchy every bit as much as he is reversing the traditional social and cultural hierarchies of elite and plebeian, church and marketplace.33 To return to the primal scene of The Miller’s Tale, what are we to make, then, of poor Absolon and his horror? The almost universal critical assumption has been, curiously, that the text aligns itself with Absolon’s repulsion at the corporeal, ‘rough yherd’ materiality of Alisoun’s body. His realisation that such things are not really what he was looking for in life is taken to provide the moral of the tale – or at least of his part in it. It is the salutary experience that restores him to a more ‘normal’ perspective on life. As Anne Laskaya put it, ‘Absolon’s kiss forces his recognition of truth, his recognition of his own ridiculous delusions’.34 But this seems an overly generous interpretation of Absolon’s response. It is hard to see any evidence in his subsequent nearhysterical behaviour of a recognition of any new truth about himself, or of an abandonment of his delusions. It is his view of Alisoun that changes as a result of the kiss, not his degree of self-awareness, and he simply shifts from one inherently misogynistic delusion (woman as incorporeal ideal) to another more overtly misogynistic one (woman as grotesque carnal monster).35 Even those consciously perverse readings that have tried to reverse the dynamic and celebrate, as it were, the cunt and not the kisser have seen themselves as reading against the grain to reveal a carnivalesque unconscious at work in the text that the narrator does not openly acknowledge. The assumption seems always to be that the tale, being a work of elite culture, could not really be so openly subversive as to side with the grotesque body against its clerical critic and ‘gloser’. But this implies too rigid a distinction between the elite and the carnivalesque. The kind of culture that Chaucer inhabited, poised between the city of London and the court, was itself porous and accommodating enough to embrace the grotesque body and all its implications. What we know of the royal court, its texts and ceremonies suggests very clearly that it too was not squeamish, but was happy to include the grotesque among its holiday entertainments (the most obvious example of which being the game of ‘fart-prick-in-cul’ included in Henry Medwall’s Fulgens and Lucrece for the entertainment of Archbishop Morton’s household in the 1490s). In such an environment Absolon’s fastidiousness would appear as ridiculous as it would in any other forum.36 That the reader’s response to Absolon’s ‘cure’ is supposed to be as derisory as that toward his original malady is implied in the narrative itself, for in neither state is he aligned to the world-view of the tale. His self-mortification and abjuration of all ‘paramours’ are as absurd as was

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 180

08/01/2013 08:23

The Miller’s Tale

181

his earlier inept pursuit of the Oxford women collectively with small rubible in hand. Significantly Absolon, like Malvolio in the finale of Twelfth Night, is entirely excluded from the cruel, cleansing communal laughter at John’s expense that closes the tale, and which the narrator invites his audience to share. Unlike Malvolio, however, Absolon does not threaten through his exclusion to upstage the other characters and disrupt the sense of closure that the scene achieves. The world of the Miller’s Tale closes ranks to mark his alienation as mockable, and consequently, as he frets at his lips and threatens vengeance, his case has none of the moral power that Malvolio achieves as he staggers from the dark house to declare that he has been done ‘notorious wrong’.37 Were the reader being encouraged to see Absolon’s new-found asceticism as an admirable recovery of a true spiritual perspective after a period of worldly blindness (as some readings have suggested), his resolution would surely have been cast in a more plausibly moral or spiritual framework. As it is, it appears to be manifested simply in gratuitous self-mutilation and murderous, misogynist violence. All in all the idea that Absolon is converted to a clearer sense of his spiritual duties by his experience seems unlikely. God might speak directly to sinners in a voice of thunder from the pages of the Bible, from clouds, even (we might note) on one occasion from within a bush, but there is no tradition of his doing so from an arse and in the form of a blinding fart.

Boys’ Own Stories?: Absolon, Squeamishness, and Romance But, if Absolon is – and remains – laughable, what is it exactly that we are being invited to laugh at? Does the comedy have a wider reference than merely evoking a comic stereotype of certain kinds of male behaviour? One conventional answer to this question points towards the rival literary genre of romance, claiming that the characterisation of Absolon is a deliberate mocking of the chivalric hero, part of the Miller’s attempt to ‘quit’ the Knight’s Tale and parody its values.38 In this respect Absolon is read as a parodic version of Palamon and Arcite, and of the heroes of romance in general, and his inclusion in the Miller’s Tale seen as a further gambit in Chaucer’s ongoing fascination with the blurring and reworking of conventional literary genres. Yet, is it true to say that Absolon brings the mood and ethos of courtly romance with him into the fabliau? He reproduces a number of the tropes of romance courtship, certainly, but he does so in a manner that falsifies the integrity of the genuine romance every bit as much as it

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 181

08/01/2013 08:23

182

Reading Literature Historically

fails to find the authentic note of the fabliau. His courtship of Alisoun has about as much in common with authentic courtly behaviour as the lies about a second flood spun by Nicholas to deceive John have with the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament. Absolon is a creature of nurture rather than nature, self-fashioned (and that badly) in the image of the courtly lover; but crucially he is a failure, an amatory equivalent of the miles gloriosus. His behaviour would be as out of place and risible in a romance as it is in a fabliau. The true romance sensibility is not infantilised or childish – inhibited from growth and development as Absolon is – but more properly childlike in its approach to sexuality and sexual relations. Its innocence is not enforced but organic, a stage through which the central hero will pass in the quest for experience and self-knowledge. The chivalric hero is thus frequently a ‘childe’ only in the sense that he is a young man, inexperienced and questing, he is neither too young nor too ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of adulthood when they arise. As Derek Brewer shrewdly observes, the typical romance ‘is a story about being young, and growing up’.39 The sexual experiences of heroes such as Palamon and Arcite in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, or Gawain in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight are presented as awkward and fraught with difficulty, but they are not ridiculous, whereas Absolon’s behaviour is ridiculous in its own terms, regardless of the fabliau setting that renders it doubly risible. The world of romance, while it celebrates the courtliness and finer sensibilities of its ideal protagonists, is not squeamish about the body or its functions. As Patricia Ingham notes, the reader is not shielded from the gruesome physicality of Arcite’s death in The Knight’s Tale.40 The knights of romance are not distanced or alienated from their own bodies, or from those of their allies and adversaries. They bleed copiously, slice off giants’ testicles and clutch at their own intestines as they threaten to spill upon the ground. The romance world is thus a fundamentally visceral one, posited upon the fact of the common corporeality of humanity, even as it seeks to find distinctions among its inhabitants between the refined and the coarse, the noble and the base.41 If we look at some specific examples, beginning with Chaucer’s own Knight’s Tale, the point becomes clearer. In Chaucer’s tale Palamon and Arcite’s desire for Emily is childlike, even childish in its competitive aspect, and immature in every sense, but it is manifestly genuine, prompted by and expressed through powerful and compelling emotional energies. The knights’ desire for Emelye at first sight is represented as comic (hence the images used to describe it – buckets in a well, two dogs fighting over a bone – and the generally petulant tone in which the two

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 182

08/01/2013 08:23

The Miller’s Tale

183

knights discuss it) but it is desire nonetheless. Both the powerful, urgent nature of Palamon’s attraction to her and the possibility of its reciprocation (despite Emily’s long ignorance of his feelings and her initial unwillingness to wed) are hinted at in the mirrored responses of the two young aristocrats to the procreative stimulus of that first May morning. Both Emelye and Palamon occupy symbolic spaces suggestive of detachment from the natural and the bodily spheres. She, protected from the wilds beyond the city in her walled sanctuary of tamed vegetation (itself a tiny sanctuary within the walls of the wider city), and he, elevated above the base multitude in the lofty tower with its panoramic view of ‘al the nobel citee’, ought to be well placed, symbolically as well as geographically, to withstand the lures of base nature. But, as the text reveals, each is responding instinctively to the calls of May, the conventional metaphor for the urges of burgeoning sexual desire. V. A. Kolve has drawn attention to the way in which these passages are structured around variations on the word ‘roam’, drawing tacit analogies between the two characters whose experience seems on the surface so different.42 Palamon, Was risen and romed in a chambre an heigh, In which he al the noble citee seigh, And eek the gardyn, ful of braunches grene, There as this fresshe Emelye the shene Was in hire walk, and romed up and doun. (1065–9)

And it is important to appreciate the sexual charge that this ‘roaming’ has here, and its implications for the narrative. On a conscious level Emelye may be ignorant of Palamon and his feelings, but subconsciously she is responding to the same drives and urges, sublimating them into the private rituals of ‘Maying’ which also serve to display her availability as a sexual partner – a possibility reinforced by reference to the physical proximity of their respective enclosures: The grete tour, that was so thikke and strong Which of the castel was the chief dongeoun, (Ther as the knyghtes weren in prisoun Of which I tolde yow and tellen shal) Was evene joynant to the gardyn wal Ther as this Emelye hadde hir pleyynge (1056–61)

Each of them paces frustratedly back and forth within the confines of their own enclosed spaces in a movement that tacitly bespeaks powerful unrequited and unacknowledged desires. The walled garden might be a conventional symbol of all kinds of abstractions and retreats from

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 183

08/01/2013 08:23

184

Reading Literature Historically

bodily nature (of prelapserian perfection, the enclosed purity of female virginity, of private reflection, and the wildness of nature tamed to civility and order), but Emily’s actions within this particular garden suggest that the unruly impulses of human sexuality reach even there. Palamon paces impatiently in his high cell, placed in the head of the hard, phallic tower, while Emily traces a similar course, roaming up and down in the fertile glade of the moist vegetative garden that adjoins it: Er it were day, as was hir wone to do, She was arisen and al redy dight; For May wole have no slogardlie a-nyght. The sesoun priketh every gentil herte, And maketh hym out of his slep to sterte. (1040–4) . . . in the gardyn, at the sonne upriste, She walketh up and doun, and as hire liste She gadereth floures . . . (1051–3)

Nor does the poem disguise the painful realities of mature sexuality. Diana (the goddess of child-birth as well as chastity, whose unwillingness to aid the woman at her feet crying out in the travails of labour provides one of the most unsettling images of the highly disturbing third part of the poem (ll. 2083–6)) offers Emily a brutally honest appraisal of her future prospects. The delayed extinguishing of one of the fires on the altar and the subsequent oozing of blood from the rushes symbolise both the death of Arcite that will be one result of his contested passion, and her own eventual loss of virginity and labour as a trophy wife for Palamon. Even chastity itself is a visceral, painful, fluid-soaked affair in this world, as many of the images in the Temple of Diana suggest. Despite the conventionality of the narrative and its ordered, balanced, representation of events, the poem thus takes an ultimately serious, unsentimental view of the role of sexual desire in human affairs, and the painful consequences of its pursuit in a rebarbative universe. Chaucer mocks the absurdities of Palamon and Arcite’s behaviour; but his is a tolerant mockery. Like Theseus, coming across the two fighting furiously in the grove, the narrator is able to combine a sense of detached amusement at the young men’s antics (‘now looketh, is nat that an heigh folye? / Who may been a fool, but if he love’ (l. 1789)) with a sense of compassion at the depths of abjection to which love can bring its victims.43 Although the accidents of their behaviour are mocked, the substance at its core is recognised and endorsed by an authoritative voice who has himself known what it is like to be young and in love (‘I woot it myself ful yore agon’ (l. 1813)). Again, the contrast with

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 184

08/01/2013 08:23

The Miller’s Tale

185

Absolon (whose foolishness lies in the adoption of the accidents of love while remaining entirely ignorant of its substance) is telling. A second, apparently even closer case, will further clarify the crucial differences between the ‘romantic’ notions of Absolon and those of the true romance hero. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the attitude to sexuality is also ultimately mature and serious. On one level Gawain’s trajectory through the poem mirrors that of Absolon in the Miller’s Tale. As we saw in Chapter four, he is a supremely courteous young man, well-versed in the protocols of refined, ‘courtly’ speech, who encounters a woman seemingly more sexually experienced and uninhibited than himself who outwits him, prompting in him a sudden and violent loathing of the flesh and of his own previously acknowledged sexual identity. But the resemblance is, again, only superficial. While Gawain may be placed in the role of the innocent abroad at Hautdesert, is the butt of some delicate (and some fairly broad) sexual comedy in the bedroom scenes of fitt three, and is frequently feminised in his relationship with his active, indeed predatory adversary, he is nonetheless authentic in his emotional responses, a figure of ‘earnest’ beneath the obvious game-play. As was noted earlier, it has been suggested that part at least of Gawain’s difficulty on the first day of trial may be created by the fact that he is naked beneath the bedcovers and so prevented by modesty from getting up and must endure the symbolic emasculation of being pinned down and trapped by a woman.44 Yet it is not the embarrassment of being seen naked by a woman per se that Gawain fears. His discomfort is social rather than personal, as the repeated references (in a poem playfully willing to acknowledge the knight’s pre-existence in other texts) to his sexual experience elsewhere suggest. Rather, the awkwardness here is entirely constructed by the obligations inherent upon Gawain’s status as a guest, and his need to conform to the protocols of loyalty to his host. The revulsion that Gawain expresses in the fourth fitt at the promptings of the ‘flesh crabbed’ are thus directed against his own cowardice and covetousness, the urges that ostensibly prompted him to seek the comfort of the green girdle and the promise of protection that it offered (as he tells Bercilak, ‘For care of þy knokke, cowardyse me tayt / To acorde me with covetyse, my kynde to forsake’ (ll. 2378–9)) rather than at the stirrings of lust that he felt (see ll. 945ff) for the woman who is fairer than Guinevere. Similarly the misogynistic outburst against the whole female sex is prompted not by the lady’s capacity for sexual betrayal but by her subtlety in tricking him into the ill-advised promise to secrete the girdle. Indeed the former possibility, that Gawain, like Absolon has resolved hereafter to wash his hands of ‘paramours’ on

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 185

08/01/2013 08:23

186

Reading Literature Historically

account of their treachery, is denied by his wry declaration that the best way with women is ‘to luf hom wel and [be]leve hem not’ (l. 2421). Romance, then, retains in both its child-like quality and its capacity for growth, characteristics that distinguish it from Absolon’s infantile, essentially inflexible sexual identity. Gawain or Palamon, transposed into the Miller’s Tale would not behave in the way that Absolon does. The ability of a romance hero to negotiate the unexpected situations that adventure throws up, his capacity for expressing his sexual desires explicitly, and not least his potential for the kind of devastating physical violence that lies at the heart of chivalric adventuring (the kind of deathdealing that sees Gawain dispose of giants, bandits and wild animals in a single stanza (ll. 720–5), and Palamon froth at the mouth like a wild boar while wading ankle-deep in his own blood (KT, ll. 1635ff)). All of these qualities would make him even more mad, bad, and dangerous to know in the unprepared world of bourgeois comedy than he is in his natural romance habitat (where at least everyone is used to sudden death as a regular fact of life). Absolon’s own inept attempt to deploy violence in his own cause through the use of the coulter, unchivalrously aimed at a ‘defenceless’ woman, and even then mistaking the target, only serves to highlight the contrast. The only ‘romance’ equivalent to Absolon is Chaucer’s other parodic creation, Sir Thopas, another travesty of real romance encoding, who shares the same levels of inadequacy and squeamishness we see in Absolon.45 Nor is it the case that Absolon’s sexual drives are euphemised or displaced into other symbolic acts or into the imagery that the text deploys around him. Such is the case, for example, in The Knight’s Tale, where, as we have seen, the phallic tower and luxuriant May garden speak eloquently of the protagonists’ desires, the extinguished flame and trickle of blood in Diane’s temple suggests Emilye’s visceral fears concerning the demands of sexual maturity, and the sheer profusion of images of bodily disfigurement in all three temples seems, like Dorian Gray’s portrait, to absorb the protagonists’ painful knowledge of the likely consequences of being a mortal body in the grip of powerful desire, leaving them to pursue their quests freed of anxiety. Rather Absolon is, as I have suggested, bowdlerised, his squeamishness a sign that his sexuality has been entirely written out of the picture. Kolve usefully draws attention to the passage in Chaucer’s translation of the Romance of the Rose, in which the God of Love provides a detailed description of the lot of those who have fallen into his snare. Every true lover, he declares, suffers willingly a solitary confinement of both heart and body in hope of the release that only his beloved can offer. Each is:

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 186

08/01/2013 08:23

The Miller’s Tale

187

. . . as man in prisoun sett, And may not geten for to et But barly breed, and watir pure, And lyeth in vermyn and ordure: With all this yitt can he lyve, Good hope such comfort hath hym yive, Which maketh wene that he shall be Delyvered, and come to liberte. In fortune is [his] fulle trust; Though he lye in strawe or dust, In hoope is all his susteynyng. And so for lovers, in her wenyng, Which Love hath shit [shut] in his prisoun.

It is precisely the vermin and ordure, the genuine physical suffering, the sheer, corporeal discomfort of being a human being, subject to all the embarrassing functions that flesh is heir to, that Absolon is unwilling to subscribe to – indeed is incapable of recognising. And it is this that marks out his ‘luf-longyng’ as inauthentic. Hence it is telling that it is this very corporeality that rears up to refute his pretensions, even as the straw and the dust that are the true lover’s metaphorical lot return in material form as the means whereby he seeks to mortify and purify his lips of all trace of Alisoun’s likerous ‘nether ye’.

Like a Virgin: The Squeamish Body Personified If Absolon fails in his attempts to play the amatory role that he chooses for himself, however, what about the role that society has chosen for him, that of parish clerk? The general critical consensus has been, unsurprisingly, that he is singularly unsuited for this vocation too. But, in one respect at least, he may not be. His fantasy of Alisoun that is so rudely shattered by the encounter with her nether eye, while sadly out of sync with the reality of fabliau womanhood, does reflect very closely contemporary devotion to another female role model, the Virgin Mary. And, given that one of Absolon’s favoured pastimes is playing Herod on a scaffold high (presumably in pageants of the Magi and the Slaughter of the Innocents) it is intriguing to note that he would have seen played out around him in the Nativity sequence of whatever putative ‘Oxford cycle’ he took part in, the story of something very like the woman of his dreams. In surviving dramatic presentations of the Nativity (based upon apocryphal sources such as the Protoevangelium of St. James, and texts such as the Revelations of St. Bridget of Sweden), Mary’s body and its functions

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 187

08/01/2013 08:23

188

Reading Literature Historically

are represented in terms unlikely to offend even the most squeamish of men. The plays present a Virgin who both miraculously defies the normal rules of conception and childbirth and delights the senses in so doing. In the York Nativity pageant, for example, the emphasis is on the ‘sweetness’ and ‘comfort’ of Christ’s birth amid the discomforts of the Bethlehem stable. In its counterpart from the Chester cycle (the second half of Play 6) the birth is described as not merely painless (‘withouten teen or travailing’ (l. 506)), but acutely pleasurable (‘clean maiden this woman is, / for she hath born a child with bliss’ (ll. 509–10)). And in the York Purification pageant St. Symeon declares that a degree of that sensual delight extended to all those who either witnessed the event or encountered the Virgin afterwards. Mary’s womb, he confirms, ‘yieldyd fresh and fayr / And she a clean vyrgen and unfyld’ (ll. 356–7), and he praises her, in terms reminiscent of some of Absolon’s pastoral flights of fancy, as a virginal meadow flower the odour of whose ‘goodness reflars [rises up] to us all’ (ll. 366–7).46 The N-Town Nativity pageant provides the most anatomically detailed version of this phenomenon, when it brings midwives on-stage to testify to the purity and cleanness of Mary’s post-partem integrity: Come nere, gode systyr Salomé. Beholde þe brestys of þis clene mayd. Ful of fayr mylke how þat þei be; And hyre chylde clene, as I fyrst sayd. As other ben nowth fowle arayd, But clene and pure bothe modyr and chylde (234–41)

The world in which children are born from pure, sweet-smelling women by painless process of osmosis,47 without blood, sweat, or amniotic fluids – without, that is, any of the gore, smell and mess that real physical childbirth entails – and in which young tender virgins dispense wholesome, sweet-tasting milk from their full, rounded breasts as they smile serenely at the viewer, is very much Absolon’s fantasy world of amorous lambs at the teat made flesh. As Salome, the first of the N-Town midwives attests, Mary remains, even after childbirth, every inch the perfect woman that she always was, and every bit the sweet-tasting treat that Absolon hoped Alisoun would be, a mayde as sche was beforn Natt fowle polutyd as other women be, But fayr and fresch as rose on thorn, Lely-whyte, clene with pure virginyte. (302–5)

Sadly for Absolon, however, Alisoun proves merely ‘fowle polutyd, as other women be’.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 188

08/01/2013 08:23

The Miller’s Tale

189

That Absolon is not just a jobbing barber and legal scrivener but a parish clerk, is, then, far from incidental to his portrait. Amorous clerks litter the fabliaux, and frequently their failure to achieve their sexual ambitions forms the climax of the comic narrative. Chaucer’s neat twist on the tradition is to make his parish clerk not the conventional lecherous hypocrite, using his status as ‘gloser’ of Holy Writ to seduce his victims, but someone who actually believes what he reads about the ideal woman in the books of the Fathers and what he sees of her in the religious drama. Absolon is not only an inadequate lover whose sexual identity seems to have been constructed from a grotesque misreading of the drama and the spiritual and courtly love lyrics, but a man who expects the woman he pursues to be the same. Having internalised the image of the blessed Virgin as his model of womanhood, he has fashioned his identity in the form best suited to court her. Kara Virginia Donaldson usefully observes that ‘Alisoun is both the product and object of a male discourse that has maintained power over women by separating women from both their bodies and language’. But it is important to note that, in Absolon, Chaucer offers a male character created in the same way. As Donaldson further suggests, one of the most effective rhetorical strategies of medieval courtly love poetry lies in the way it addresses the female object of desire as though she were the Virgin. The only difference here is that with Absolon there is no pretence, no cynical seductive agenda behind the surface courtesies.48 In this respect, Absolon’s portrayal fits the wider agenda of the narrative he inhabits. The Miller’s Tale itself, as a number of critics have pointed out, plays irreverently with the Virgin’s vita, offering in the triangle of Alisoun, John the carpenter, and Nicholas a comic variant of the trio of Mary, Joseph, and the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation.49 The echoes are, of course, pointed up by the fact that it is the Angelus ad virginem that Nicholas sings lustily in his room at nights. In treating the Virgin’s story comically in this way, Chaucer was, it seems, following the lead of the dramatists (although the precise chronology of composition is not clear), who had in the pageant of Joseph’s Trouble about Mary already imagined a grotesque realist reading of the Annunciation in Joseph’s suspicion that ‘som man in aungellis liknesse / With somkyn gawde has hir begiled’ (Joseph’s Troubles, York, ll. 136–7), leaving her pregnant and her impotent husband facing humiliation. Rather than dissolve such doubts with the arrival of a manifestly authentic angel as the pageant-makers did, however, Chaucer allows the counter-narrative to play itself out, with Nicholas in the role of the beguiling young man. What the Miller’s Tale adds to the scenario is the figure of Absolon, who provides the fulcrum around which the Annunciation story is swung

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 189

08/01/2013 08:23

190

Reading Literature Historically

into parody. While Joseph is transformed into an avaricious cuckold, Gabriel into a lecherous student, and Mary herself into a wild and ‘likerous’ young wife, the parish clerk remains the repository of the values of the ‘orthodox’ story, maladroitly retaining its sense of the numinous potential within the mundane, begging for a kiss ‘For Jhesus love, and for the love of me’ (l. 3717), and voicing his courtship in terminology borrowed from the Song of Songs and contemporary lyrics. While both Nicholas and Alisoun have adopted the carapace of cynicism necessary for survival in the fabliau world, only Absolon (and to a degree John, the other dupe of the story) continues to see the world with a child’s eyes, as do the characters in the Nativity sequence of the cycle plays. What the Miller’s Tale seems to be mocking is thus not the use of inappropriate language to couch sexual ambition, as is assumed by those readings that place Absolon’s humiliation in the context of the Miller’s ‘quitting’ of the Knight’s Tale, but the inappropriate erasing of sexuality – and corporeality per se – that is an explicit part of the religious drama, and of Mariolatry generally. In this respect Absolon is the fabliau world’s response to the suggestion that the only possible reaction to the Mother of God was a reversion to childhood, and a denial of sexuality (if God Himself could become a child for this woman, the argument seems to run, how much more compelling is the need for her mortal admirers to infantilise themselves before her?). The issue clearly interested Chaucer, as his other problematic excursion into Mariolatry, the Prioress’s Prologue and Tale, involves a similar process of infantilisation, this time of both the protagonist, the little ‘clergeon’, and the narrator herself, reduced to the status of ‘a child of twelf month oold, or lesse’ (l. 484) in the face of the Virgin’s majestic ‘worthynesse’. What lay behind this interest in the powerful nexus of ideas of adoration, infantilisation, squeamishness and denied sexuality is, of course, another question entirely. That Chaucer should fashion so contemptible a vehicle as Absolon for such notions raises more problems than it solves. One could, of course, attribute that contempt to Chaucer himself. It would not be unreasonable to posit a poet who reacted violently against the kind of mawkish sentimentality that often characterised popular Mariolatry and frequently tumbled over into a kind of pious pornography obsessed with the details of the Virgin’s intact hymen, her fragrant womb, or the sweet perfection of her breasts.50 Alternatively, one could follow Beryl Rowland and see this as just another aspect of Chaucerian ventriloquism, the crafting of a suitably churlish persona to characterise the Miller, the teller of the first of his churlish tales.51 Or is it, perhaps, best to see the portrayal of Absolon as one more product of the poet’s interest in genres? One might profitably site the contempt

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 190

08/01/2013 08:23

The Miller’s Tale

191

for Mariolatry and the squeamish, infantilised males who practice it, squarely within the fabliau spirit itself. For fabliau is a genre in which all relations can be ultimately traced back to sexuality and bodily desire, and from its perspective such attitudes as the Nativity plays express were an explicit denial of reality that needed ridiculing out of court. Either way, Absolon, far from being an afterthought, a comic digression in the narrative of the Miller’s Tale, represents a fundamental element in both the tale and Chaucer’s conception of the fabliau world, and asking why we laugh at him in the way(s) that we do, presents a provocative challenge to our understanding of both gender and genre in medieval culture and of our own gendered identities. In a sense, then, asking questions about Absolon’s own gender position or sexuality is to miss the point. He is not constructed in the way that he is in order to mock a particular kind of man, whether gay or straight, sexually inexperienced or lecherous, but as a repository for certain ideas about women and sexuality drawn from a particular genre of literature. If the text deploys homophobic or misogynist motifs, if it seems to laugh laddishly at small instruments and squeamish aversions to farting (and it clearly does all of these things) it does not do so primarily to mock effeminacy, sexual naivety, or squeamishness per se. Rather it constructs Absolon from a mass of assumptions about sexuality and gender, masculinity and bodily functions, gleaned from popular religious culture, in a way that invites reflection on the demands of that genre itself. Just as the varieties of masculinity displayed by Nicholas and John the carpenter, Palamon and Arcite, and the other heroes and protagonists discussed here are the product of the needs of fabliau and romance respectively, so Absolon is constructed to display the kind of masculinity called forth by Mariolatry and popular dramatic representations of the Annunciation and the Nativity. He is placed in the jarringly inappropriate genre of the fabliau in order to show up his idiosyncrasies all the more clearly. In doing so Chaucer deploys the fabliau form for a purpose well beyond the normal range of its resonances and implications. If, the Miller’s Tale seems to argue, one accepts that all women can, and indeed should be like the Virgin, then one must also accept that all men could, indeed should be like Absolon: a prospect the tale treats as so absurd as to demand our laughter.

Notes 1. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (revised edition, London: Routledge, 2000). 2. I am grateful to Emma Parker for suggesting to me the significance of the

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 191

08/01/2013 08:23

192

Reading Literature Historically

window as a frame for the famously ‘misdirected’ kiss. 3. Anne Laskaya, Chaucer’s Approach to Gender in the Canterbury Tales (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 87 (‘Absolon is the only man in the tale who is described as feminine, and he is the man most maligned by the crude events of the tale’); Paul E. Beichner, ‘Characterisation in The Miller’s Tale’ in Richard Shoek and Jerome Taylor (eds), Chaucer Criticism, Volume One: The Canterbury Tales (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1960), pp. 117–29, p. 119 (‘Absolon . . . is too ladylike, and therein lies much of the humour when his fall occurs’); H. Marshal Leicester Jnr., ‘Newer Currents in Psychoanalytical Criticism and the Difference “IT” Makes: Gender and Desire in The Miller’s Tale’, English Literary History 61 (1994), pp. 473–99, p. 488 (‘It has long been recognised that much of the satire in the portrayal of Absolon is constructed by feminizing him; here the man who acts too much like a woman is punished for both his gender and class treachery by having his feminization shoved in his face by a woman who acts like a man.’). 4. In finding Absolon’s natural habitat in the religious cycle drama I am following an essay by Linda Lomperis that provided an important stimulus to my own thinking on the Tale, but I shall take the argument to rather different conclusions. Lomperis, ‘Bodies that Matter in the Court of Late Medieval England and in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale’, Romanic Review 86 (1995), pp. 243–64. 5. All references to Chaucer’s writings refer to L. D. Benson (ed.), The Riverside Chaucer (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987). 6. See the comments in Angela Carter, ‘Alison’s Giggle’, originally published in Eileen Philips (ed.), The Left and the Erotic (London: Lawrence & Wishart Ltd, 1983), reprinted in Carter, Shaking a Leg: Journalism and Writings (London: Vintage, 1997), pp. 542–53. I am grateful to Emma Parker for bringing this essay to my attention, and to Nick Everitt for tracking down a copy for me. 7. This is the scenario that drives the tales of the Knight, the Franklin, the Merchant, the Shipman, and the Squire, as well the Miller’s offering, and it lies behind that of the Reeve. It is also the ostensible motor for the second half of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight and provides the core of the tragic movement in the Arthurian cycle in the relationship between Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. For the notion of the erotic triangle, see René Girard, Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, trans., Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), expanded and modified by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, second ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993); and Martin Blum, ‘Negotiating Masculinities: Erotic Triangles in the Miller’s Tale’, in Peter G. Beidler (ed.), Masculinities in Chaucer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 37–52. 8. For Hugo of St. Victor and Adam Scotus, Absalom’s hair signified the excessive tendencies of human flesh and desire. See Paul E. Beichner CSC, ‘Absolon’s Hair’, Mediaeval Studies 12 (1950), pp. 222–33. 9. Blum, ‘Negotiating Masculinities’, pp. 45–61. 10. See footnote 3, above.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 192

08/01/2013 08:23

The Miller’s Tale

193

11. John Gower, in the Vox Clemantis (5, 225–40), complains that knights in love adopt womanish ways (‘femineos mores’), but, again, this is presented as a heterosexual seduction device rather than a retreat from heterosexuality. 12. See Laskaya, Chaucer’s Approach to Gender, p. 86 (‘His subjectivity blinds him to the possibility that Alisoun could have her own desires and wishes beyond, or in contradiction to, his own. He absolutely refuses to grant her autonomy; she is merely an extension of his own fantasy.’). Kara Virginia Donaldson (‘Alisoun’s Language: Body, Text, and Glossing in Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale”’, Philological Quarterly 71 (1992), pp. 139–53), helpfully cites Hélène Cixous’s essay ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (in E. Marks and I. de Courtivron (eds), New French Feminisms (Brighton: Schocken Books, 1985), pp. 245–64, p. 251) to explain Absolon’s deafness to Alisoun’s voice. Cixous observes that, when a woman speaks, ‘her words fall almost always upon the deaf male ear, which hears in language only that which speaks in the masculine’. But it is important to note that Absolon’s ‘deafness’ goes beyond questions of gender. He is oblivious to debate – to speech of any kind – that is peripheral to his own immediate desires, hence his obliviousness to the jests of Gervays the smith as he awaits the coulter that will provide the instrument of his revenge. (‘This Absolon ne roghte nat a bene / Of al his pley; no word agayn he yaf; / He hadde moore tow on his distaf’ (ll. 3772–4)). 13. Donaldson, ‘Alisoun’s Language’, pp. 149–50. 14. Laskaya, Chaucer’s Approach to Gender, pp. 87–8; Peter Brown, Chaucer at Work: The Making of the Canterbury Tales (London: Longman, 1994), p. 95. See also Paul Strohm, Social Chaucer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 135. 15. Leicester, ‘Newer Currents’, p. 489, squares the circle between infantilisation and feminisation, suggesting that this kind of infantilism is itself encoded as feminine (‘This disgusting, unmanly, and unrealistic condition is ordinarily described as infantile, immature, pre-oedipal, and pre-genital, narcissistic, masturbatory. Feminist psychoanalytic theory, however, has noted that this kind of pleasure, after it grows up and goes through the Oedipus complex, is also designated feminine, insofar as it is the pleasure of the castrated, what women are stuck with.’) 16. Helen Phillips, An Introduction to the Canterbury Tales: Reading, Fiction, Context (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), p. 57. 17. V. A. Kolve, Telling Images: Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative: The First Five Canterbury Tales (Stanford and London: Stanford University Press, 1984), p. 187 (‘For Absolon the process is its own reward, an excuse for dressing up, combing out his beautiful long hair, and waking while others sleep.’), and p. 188 (‘Whatever he may be up to, sexual desire seems at most tangential to it.’). For similar views on Absolon’s ‘real’ motivation, see Blum, ‘Negotiating Masculinities’, p. 44 (‘Absolon makes his means his end . . . Instead of being a lover, he derives his satisfaction from impersonating one. There is even some doubt whether it is really a sexual union he is after, since it seems that a kiss is enough for him.’), and pp. 45–6; Leicester, ‘Newer Currents’, p. 489 (‘his pleasure . . . is derived from the skipping, “wynsing” activity of “paramours” itself; the acting and

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 193

08/01/2013 08:23

194

18. 19.

20. 21.

22.

23. 24. 25. 26.

Reading Literature Historically strutting and singing, and role-playing for their own self-consuming sakes, concealed and protected by the pretence of working to get the girl’). For the contrary view that Absolon is genuinely lecherous, see Laskaya, Chaucer’s Approach to Gender, p. 91; D. Brewer, A New Introduction to Chaucer, second ed., (London: Longman, 1988), p. 283; Wolfgang E. H. Rudat, ‘The Misdirected Kisses in the Miller’s Tale’, Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 3 (1982), pp. 103–8, p. 105; Peggy Knapp, Chaucer and the Social Contest (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 38. Lomperis, ‘Bodies that Matter’, p. 246. Kolve makes a similar comparison, Kolve, Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative, pp. 165–6. Valerie Allen, ‘Blaunche on Top and Alisoun on Bottom’, in Juliette Dor (ed.), A Wyf Ther Was: Essays in Honour of Paule Mertens-Foncke (Liege: L3, 1992), pp. 23–9, p. 28; Strohm, Social Chaucer, p. 136; Rudat, ‘Misdirected Kisses’, pp. 103–8; Leicester, ‘Newer Currents’, p. 487. See Lomperis, ‘Bodies that Matter’, pp. 250–2 for the reasoning behind the striking claim. For the baisse cul, see M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1984), pp. 373–7. It is interesting to note the terms employed in Bakhtin’s description of ‘uncrowning comedy’ in The Dialogic Imagination. ‘Laughter has the remarkable power of making an object come up close, of drawing it into a zone of crude contact where one can finger it familiarly on all sides . . . lay it bare and expose it freely and experiment with it. Laughter demolishes fear and piety before an object . . . This is the zone of maximally familiar and crude contact . . . Basically this is uncrowning, that is, the removal of an object from the distanced plane . . . In this plane (the plane of laughter) . . . the back and rear portion of an object (and also its innards not normally accessible for viewing) assume a special importance.’ (M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans., Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), pp. 23–4). In his encounter with Alisoun’s arse Absolon is granted the opportunity to enter this world of uncrowning laughter, to replace his sterile, squeamish idealisation of both ‘woman’ as object and himself as subject with a liberating exposure to the realities of ‘the lower bodily stratum’. However, rather than embracing the ‘crude contact’ and joining in the laughter, he recoils from it back to the safety of the ‘distanced plane’ from which he came – leaving himself the butt (so to speak) of Alisoun and Nicholas’s laughter. For an excellent account of such tales, see Miranda Griffin, ‘Dirty Stories: Abjection in the Fabliaux’, in David Lawton, Wendy Scase, and Rita Copeland (eds), New Medieval Literatures III (1999), pp. 229–60. See also Laura Kendrick, Chaucerian Play: Comedy and Control in the Canterbury Tales (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 81; and Sarah M. White, ‘Sexual Language and Human Conflict in the Old French Fabliaux’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 24 (1982), pp. 185–210. Rudat, ‘Misdirected Kisses’, p. 105. Sigmund Freud, ‘The Medusa’s Head’ (1922), cited in Leicester, ‘Newer Currents’, pp. 473–4. Leicester, ‘Newer Currents’, p. 474. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans., Leon S.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 194

08/01/2013 08:23

The Miller’s Tale

27. 28. 29.

30. 31. 32. 33.

34.

195

Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), especially pp. 4 and 93–100. Kristeva’s suggestion that a subject’s existence in the symbolic order depends on ‘a clean and proper body’, that is one that rejects any of the ‘improper, unclean and disorderly elements of corporeality’ would seem very pertinent to Absolon’s reaction to his kiss. The aptness of Kristeva’s work for an understanding of Absolon’s role in the Tale was brought to my attention by Emma Parker. I am very grateful for the chance to discuss the idea of abjection with her, and to benefit from the succinct account of Kristeva’s ideas in her essay, ‘From House to Home: A Kristevan reading of Michèle Roberts’s Daughters of the House’, Critique 41 (2000), pp. 153–73, from which I quote in the summary, above. See, for example, Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 16. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, pp. 19, 25, 26. Mary Harlow, ‘In the Name of the Father: Procreation, Paternity, and Patriarchy’, in Lyn Foxhall and John Salmon (eds), Thinking Men: Masculinity and Self-Representation in the Classical Tradition (London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 155–69. I am greatly indebted in what follows in this section to Harlow’s essay, and the essay by Gillian Clark, ‘The Old Adam: The Father and the Unmaking of Masculinity’, pp. 170–82 in the same collection. I am grateful to Felicity Rosslyn for bringing this volume to my attention. See also Joyce E. Salisbury, ‘Gendered Sexuality’ in Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage (eds), Handbook of Medieval Sexuality (New York: Routledge, 1996), pp. 81–102. Harlow, ‘Name of the Father’, p. 167. Basil of Caesarea, Letter 45, ed. Y. Courtonne, cited in Clark, ‘Old Adam’, p. 178. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, p. 26. See, for example, Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, pp. 240–4 (‘In this tradition woman is essentially related to the material bodily lower stratum; she is the incarnation of this stratum that degrades and regenerates simultaneously.’). Laskaya, Chaucer’s Approach to Gender, p. 87, see also p. 87 (‘He is rudely awakened to the “naked” truth about Alisoun, for no lady would bare her bottom to her lover in such a manner.’), and p. 88 (‘To be healed of his effeminacy, Absolon must be aggressive. If he was love-sick before, he is “cured” at the end.’). For similar approaches to the issue, see Kolve, Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative, p. 193 (the kiss is ‘the lesson this young parish clerk most needs to learn’), and p. 197 (‘The hairy kiss restores him to his proper person, ending the make-believe and roleplaying, breaking the game.’); Allen, ‘Blaunche on Top’, p. 28 (‘when she exposes her naked bottom she reveals the ugly essential nature beneath her skirt and completes the descriptio with its absent notatio’); Strohm, Social Chaucer, p. 136 (‘The idealistic Absolon learns fast after his confrontation with Alisoun’s hairy ass.’). The most overtly ‘normative’ reading is probably Alan Renoir’s, ‘Absolon’s reaction . . . is a piece of superb psychological realism, and any man who thinks he would react differently ought to make an emergency appointment with his analyst.’ Alain

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 195

08/01/2013 08:23

196

35. 36.

37. 38.

39.

40. 41.

Reading Literature Historically Renoir, ‘The Inept Lover and the Reluctant Mistress: Remarks on Sexual Inefficiency in Medieval Literature’, in Edward Vasta and Zacharias P. Thundy (eds), Chaucerian Problems and Perspectives: Essays Presented to Paul E. Beichner (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979), pp. 180–206, p. 201. See Donaldson, ‘Alisoun’s Language’, p. 149. For the heterogeneity of late-medieval court culture, see Greg Walker, ‘John Skelton and the Royal Court’, in Jennifer and Richard Britnell (eds), Vernacular Literature and Current Affairs in the Early Sixteenth century: France, England, and Scotland (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), pp. 1–16. For Fulgens and Lucres, Walker (ed.), Medieval Drama: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000). Twelfth Night, V, i, 324–75, in Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (eds), The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). See, for example, Lomperis, ‘Bodies that Matter’, p. 249; Leicester, ‘Newer Currents’, p. 482; Elizabeth Brewer, Geoffrey Chaucer: The Miller’s Tale (London: Prentice Hall, 1982), p. 38 (‘Absolon is . . . a parody of the noble lover of romance’); Lee Patterson, ‘“No Man His Reson Herde”: Peasant Consciousness, Chaucer’s Miller, and the Structure of the Canterbury Tales’, in L. Patterson (ed.), Literary Practice and Social Change in Britain, 1380–1530 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), pp. 113–55, pp. 131–2. But, as Derek Pearsall has argued, Absolon’s ‘love-talkyng’ is so ‘intrinsically ridiculous’ ‘that the joke is surely on him and, not on the courtly idealism of love that [he] get[s] so idiotically wrong’. Derek Pearsall, The Canterbury Tales (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1985), p. 176. Derek Brewer, Symbolic Stories: Traditional Narrative and the Family Drama in English Literature (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1980), p. 74, my italics. See also Susan Crane, Gender in Middle English Romance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), especially p. 186. Northrop Frye also talked of ‘the perennially child-like quality of romance’ (Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), p. 186ff. Patricia Clare Ingham, ‘Homosociality and Creative Masculinity in the Knight’s Tale’, in P. G. Beidler (ed.), Masculinities in Chaucer (Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer, 1998), pp. 23–35, pp. 26–7. There are, of course, sub-genres of romance that do not focus openly on the visceral nature of human existence, and the corporeal consequences of martial endeavour. Such texts focus on the courtly and emotional aspects of the knightly experience, on deeds of love rather than of arms. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight dispenses with the whole business of combat in a single stanza (albeit the impending violence at the heart of Gawain’s quest is displaced throughout the narrative in a powerful undercurrent of violence, most obvious in the hunting segments of fitt three), while the Breton Lay is generically inclined to focus away from the field of combat, as Chaucer’s forays into the genre suggest. What Arveragus does to win honour in England in The Franklin’s Tale is not investigated, and the only act of violence of the knight in the Wife of Bath’s Tale is his violation of the young

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 196

08/01/2013 08:23

The Miller’s Tale

42. 43. 44. 45.

46. 47.

48. 49.

50.

197

maiden at the start of the tale. But such tales are simply not interested in the visceral nature of bodily desire and its satisfaction. The Miller’s Tale is different. It is very interested in that visceral quality, but has a central figure, in Absolon, who is incapable of recognising and responding to it. A helpful contrast is provided by Aurelius in The Franklin’s Tale. Like Absolon, he expresses his courtly identity through singing and dancing in the company of women and a good deal of his description is taken up with accounts of his music-making. His sphere of operation is the private, household realm of love and dalliance rather than the public world of chivalric competition and deeds of arms. But, like Chaucer’s Squire in the General Prologue, and unlike Absolon, his character is founded upon a secure knowledge of the bodily realities of the world he inhabits. Kolve, Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative, pp. 86–9. Kolve, Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative, pp. 91–3. M. Andrew and R. Waldron (eds), The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1987), pp. 249–79; see also pp. 38–42 for what follows. For an excellent reading of Sir Thopas in these terms, see Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, ‘Diminishing Manhood in Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopas’, in Beidler (ed.), Masculinities in Chaucer, pp. 143–55, and C. David Benson, Chaucer’s Drama of Style: Poetic Variety and Contrast in the Canterbury Tales (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), pp. 32–7. Beadle (ed.), The York Plays, pp. 125–8 and 151; David Mills (ed.), The Chester Mystery Cycle (East Lansing: Colleagues Press, 1992), p. 122. In Bridget of Sweden’s account of the Virgin birth, the process was so perfectly arranged that she professed herself unable to determine even from which orifice the baby emerged. (‘And that maner off the byrth was so sothenly and so wysely doone that I myght not dyscerne nor perceyve how or what membyr off her body she had borne her chylde withall.’), Bridget of Sweden, The Revelations, Chapter XII, excerpted in Alexandra Barratt (ed.), Women’s Writing in Middle English (London: Longman, 1992), p. 87. Squeamish male theologians had, of course, already hit upon the ideal means of bowdlerising Mary’s sexuality in the notion of the conceptio per aurem: the idea that Christ was conceived by the Virgin through reception of the Holy Spirit through her ear. Thereby the Marian genitals could be absolved of all sense of through traffic in either direction, and the question of just how, precisely, the Word was made flesh could be tactfully avoided. Donaldson, ‘Alisoun’s Language’, pp. 141 and 145. Beryl Rowland, ‘Chaucer’s Blasphemous Churl: A New Interpretation of the Miller’s Tale’, in B. Rowland (ed.), Chaucer and Middle English Studies in Honour of Rossell Hope Robbin (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1974), pp. 43–55. See, for example, a number of the lyrics examined in Douglas Gray, Themes and Images in the Medieval English Religious Lyric (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), especially pp. 84–106. Quite how securely the Prioress’s Prologue and Tale fit with this idea is, however, difficult to gauge. The Tale, with its attendant prayer to the Virgin seems on one level to be an authentic exercise in Marian devotion, yet it deploys a similarly

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 197

08/01/2013 08:23

198

Reading Literature Historically

eroticised vocabulary to describe how the Virgin, at the Conception, ‘ravyshedst doun from the Deitee . . . / . . . the goost that in th[ee] alight’ (ll. 1659–60). I am very grateful to David Salter for sharing with me his astute comments about the Prioress’s Tale in this context. 51. Rowland, ‘Chaucer’s Blasphemous Churl’, p. 44.

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 198

08/01/2013 08:23

Index

abjection, 178 Acts and Monuments (Foxe, J.), 20–1 Aers, David, 105–6, 109–10 Ahasuerus, King, 36 Alammani, Luigi, 15–16 allegory, 17, 19, 22, 36–7, 68 Allen, Valerie, 176 alliterative texts, 104 Amicable Grant (1525), 19–20, 43–4 anal stage, Freud, 173 Anglo-Imperial alliance, 17 Annunciation story, parodied, 189–90, 191 anticlericalism, 9, 46, 53, 54, 121–2, 125 apparel, statutes of, 36 Aquinas, Thomas, 166–7n46 Arnold, Thomas, 164–5n42 Arran, Earl of, 75, 76 Arthur, King, 99–101, 102–3 Arthurian court chivalric culture, 9, 97–8, 117n5 Christmas festivities, 93, 103 Green Knight’s challenge, 94, 98–9, 101 honour culture, 110 kingship, 107 reputation, 105 self-image, 115, 116 Articles and Injunctions (1538), 30 Assertio septem sacramentorum, 28 authority celestial, 136 deference, 75–6 pope, 135, 136–7 power, 27 royal, 103, 107 worldly, 136

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 199

baisse cul, 176, 194n21 Bakhtin, Mikhail, 175, 178, 179–80, 194n21, 195n33 Bale, John, 18 King Johan, 22, 30, 68 Basil of Caesarea, 179 Beckwith, Sarah, 4–5 Signifying God, 4 Beichner, Paul, 171–2 Benedictine monks, 141 benefices, 37, 54, 80 Bennett, Michael, 115, 116 Beowulf, 105, 109 Bernard, G. W., 14 Bishops’ Book (1537), 28, 30 body Bakhtinian, 178, 179 corporeality, 173, 180 grotesque/classical, 178, 179 infantilised, 172, 190, 193n15 male/female, 178–9 Mary, mother of God, 187–8 in romance, 182 and sexuality, 171 Boleyn, Anne, 55 Boleyn, Thomas, 20, 53 Bonham, W., 129 boundary-crossing, 169 Braddick, Michael: Negotiating Power in Early Modern Society, 27 Bradley, Henry, 131, 133, 155, 159n20 Brandon, Charles (Duke of Suffolk), 18, 39–40 Brewer, Derek, 182, 196n39 Bridget, St: Revelations, 187, 197n47 Camelot see Arthurian court Campeggio, Lorenzo, 39, 47

08/01/2013 08:23

200

Reading Literature Historically

The Canterbury Tales (Chaucer) The Franklin’s Tale, 172, 196–7n41 General Prologue, 134, 141–2, 144, 150 The Knight’s Tale, 181, 182–5 The Monk’s Tale, 130 Ploughman, 133–4 The Prioress’s Tale, 190, 197–8n50 Squire, 172 The Wife of Bath’s Tale, 196–7n41 see also The Miller’s Tale Cardinalis Pacificus, 17 carnivalesque, 176, 179, 180 Castiglione, Baldassare, 108 Castle Hautdesert, 99 castration anxiety, 177, 178 Catholic practices, 30 censorship relaxation of, 58 Chapuys, Eustace, 43, 46 charity, 49, 52 Charles V, Emperor, 17 chastity, 72, 184 Chaucer, Geoffrey, 1 genres, 190–1 parody, 181 and the Ploughman, 122, 128, 129, 133–4 Sir Thopas, 111, 186 translation of Romance of the Rose, 186–7 see also The Canterbury Tales Chester cycle, 188 chivalric culture Arthurian court, 9, 97–8, 117n5 competitiveness, 105–6 Green Knight’s challenge, 93–4, 114–15 and heroism, 172, 181, 182 martial emphasis in, 110 and romance, 181 Chretien de Troyes, 102 church reform, 51 church wealth, 53–4 civic responsibility, 5 Cixous, Hélène, 193n12 Clement VII, 17 clergy, 46, 52, 53; see also corruption clerical courts, 124–5 Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, 197n45 commonplace books, 2–3 The Commons Supplication Against the Ordinaries (1532) and church reform, 51 on clergy, 46, 53

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 200

and Henry VIII, 121 and Plowman’s Tale, 9, 121, 123, 124–5, 126, 128, 154, 156 competitiveness, 87, 105–6, 171, 182, 197n41 compliance, 24–5 Compton, William, 46 consistory courts, 79–80 Constantine, Emperor, 123, 137 conversation, risks of, 4, 5, 6, 8–9 Cornish, William, 17 corruption and benefices, 54 clerical, 14, 63, 68, 129 in governance, 19 ministerial, 58 and the royal household, 63 and Scottish politics, 63–4, 66, 67 counsel, 14–15, 22–6, 30–2 courtesy, and Gawain, 9, 106, 108–9, 117n3, 118n14, 185 courtly culture, 5, 15, 25, 26, 27, 30–1, 93 courtship, 171, 174–6, 181–2 Cranmer, Thomas, 22, 28, 33–4n25, 127 crime and punishment, 78–9 Cromwell, Thomas, 18, 27, 122 Cupar (Fife) Castle Hill, 65 daily life in, 69, 70 geographical/political environment, 70, 87–8n1 performance of Thrie Estaitis, 63–4, 76, 82–5 trade guilds of, 84–5 Darcy, Thomas, 48, 60–1n27 David I, 70 De Blasphemia, Contra Fratres (Wyclif), 166–7n46 De Papa (Wyclif), 163n30, 163n31, 167n48 decorum, 94–8, 102, 110–14 deference, 75–6 desire, sexual, 171, 183 Diana, 184, 186 Dillon, Janette, 39, 57 Division Between the Spirituality and the Temporality (St German), 121 divorce, 31, 37, 39–40 Domination and the Arts of Resistance (Scott), 23 Donatism, 167–8n49

08/01/2013 08:23

Index Douglas, Mary, 169 drama and the Henrician court, 16–17, 21–2, 28–30 historical context, viii, 1–2, 4–5, 13 and politics, 64 projectional use of, 18 propaganda/protest, 16, 17–22 as public activity, 3 see also morality plays; religious cycle plays Dudley, Edmund, 21 Dunbar, William, 88n6 Tretis of Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo, 133

201

The Franklin’s Tale (Chaucer), 172, 196–7n41 Freud, Sigmund, 173, 177, 178 Fulgens and Lucrece (Medwall), 180

early-Tudor literature, 13, 15–17 Ecclesiastes, 28 ecclesiastical courts, 135, 137, 142–3, 144 Edward VI, 15 effeminacy, 172, 192n3; see also feminisation Elias, Norbert, 114–15 elite values, 94, 180 Elizabeth I, 15, 28 Empson, Richard, 21 The Enormytees Usyd by the Clergy (Skot, printer), 41 equity courts, 36 Erasmus, Desiderius, 26, 34n36 In Praise of Folly, 88n6 erotic triangle, 171, 192n7 Essex, Earl of, 19 Esther, book of, 36, 45, 48 Eucharist, 151–2, 164n41, 165n43, 166–7n46; see also Real Presence evangelical preachers, 126–7, 128, 147 excommunication, 53

Gawain and Arthur, 102–3 and courtesy, 9, 106, 108–9, 118n14, 185 and decorum, 102, 110–14 and Green Knight’s challenge, 101–2, 105–7, 109, 119n23 and Lady Bertilak, 111–14, 119n28 Gawain-Poet, 115–16 gender boundaries, 169–70, 177–8, 180 genitals, exposure of, 178 genre, 190–1 Gibson, Richard, 28 A Glass of The Truth (Foxe, E.), 28 Godfray, Thomas, 121–2, 129, 155 Gower, John, 193n11 Gramsci, Antonio, 23, 24 Gray, Douglas, 197–8n47 Gray’s Inn, John Roo’s play, 18–19, 19–21, 53 Green Knight, 93–4 accoutrements, 97–8, 117–18n8 and Arthur, 99–101 challenge of, 93–4, 98–9, 101–2, 103–7, 109, 114–15, 117n3, 119n23 and decorum/monstrosity, 94–8 Greenblatt, Stephen, 3 Griffiths, Jane, 4 grotesque, 178, 179, 180 Guildford, Henry, 28, 46, 125 Guinevere, 115, 118n13 Guy, John, 14 Gwyn, Peter, 14

fabliau tradition, 72, 169, 170, 171, 176, 181–2, 190, 191 femininity/masculinity, 172–3 feminisation, 192n3, 193n15 Fish, Simon, 21, 53–4, 61n32 The Supplication of the Beggars, 46, 47, 50–2, 56 Flodden, battle of (1513), 37–8 flytyng, 82 Foxe, Edward: A Glass of The Truth, 28 Foxe, John: Acts and Monuments, 20–1 Fradenburg, Louise, 73, 89n15 Francis I, of France, 17

Hall, Edward, 17–18, 19–20, 21, 22, 55 Hamlet (Shakespeare), 2 Harlow, Mary, 178–9, 195n29 Henry VII, 21–2 Henry VIII Amicable Grant, 43–4 and Assuerus, 36, 41, 44–5, 48, 52 court of, 27, 28–30, 31, 32 and Cromwell, Thomas, 122 ‘divorce’ of, 31, 39–40 and drama, 16–17, 21–2, 28–30 entertainment for, 26 Great Council, 20 and Katherine, 55, 56

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 201

08/01/2013 08:23

202

Reading Literature Historically

Henry VIII (cont.) literary studies of, 13–14 marriage annulment of, 14, 37, 55 as new Jove, 29–30 and papal courts, 122–3 performance of monarchy, 28 and the Pope, 14 religious reform proposals, 58 Supplication Against the Ordinaries, 121 Treason Act, 6–8 treaty negotiations of, 17 Herbert, Lord of Cherbury, 60n22 heresy charges, 127, 146–7, 151 heroism, 172, 181, 182, 185, 186 Herzen, Alexander, 29 Heywood, John and counsel, 31–2 interludes of, 16, 22 and Menippean satire, 15 The Parts of Man, 22, 33–4n25 Play of Love, 41 Play of the Weather, 29–30, 41, 68 on royal policy, 26 Witty and Witless, 22 Hick Scorner, 22 historical contextualisation, viii, 1–2, 4–5, 13 honour culture, 106, 110, 119n19 Horace, translated, 15–16 Howard, Thomas (Duke of Norfolk), 20, 53 humanism, 2, 36 humiliation, 176–7, 180–1, 190 identity communal, 110 masculine/feminine, 9, 169, 191 public/private, 100 imagery religious uses, 158n12 sexuality, 183, 186 In Praise of Folly (Erasmus), 88n6 infantalisation (of the body), 172, 190, 193n15 Ingham, Patricia, 182 Interlude of Godly Queen Hester (Anon), 1, 36–45 allegory in, 36–7 and clerical privilege, 121, 123 Henry/Assuerus parallels, 36, 41, 44–5, 48, 52

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 202

historical context, 39–40 Jewish people allegory, 36–7, 44–5, 48–9, 50–1, 56 Katherine/Hester parallels, 37, 38–9, 55, 56, 59n3 local English colour, 68 as performance, 55–6 political context, 38–9, 43–5, 53 religious context, 45–59 revision of, 57–8 on royal policy, 26 satire, 9, 22 speed of writing, 56–7 Vices, 48–9, 51–2, 57 Wolsey/Aman parallels, 37, 41–2, 44, 45, 48, 51–3, 54, 55, 57, 59n2 interludes, 22, 28–9 James, Mervyn, 105, 119n19 James I (of Scotland), 70 James III, 71 James IV, 38, 71, 76 James V, 63, 71, 76 Jesus Christ, 135, 136–7, 162–3n30 Jewish people as allegory, 36–7, 44–5, 48–9, 50–1, 56 proclamations concerning, 61–2n35 John of Paris, 167n46 judiciary reform, 80–1 Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, 55, 56 marriage annulment, 14 parallels with Hester, 37, 38–9, 55, 56, 59n3 and Wolsey, 55 Kennedy, Beverley, 107–8 King Johan (Bale), 22, 30, 68 2 Kings, 171 King’s Book (1543), 28 kingship Arthurian, 107 and criticism/counsel, 31 Henry VIII, 28 humanist approach, 36 Knight’s Tale, 181, 182–5 Lindsay and, 76 and performance, 28 and the papacy, 135 and power, 103, 107 Richard II, 115–16 Scottish, 65–7, 76 Tudor, 26

08/01/2013 08:23

Index knighthood, 95, 96, 193n11 Kolve, V. A., 174, 183, 186, 193–4n17 Kristeva, Julia, 178, 195n26 Lancelot, 118n13 Laskaya, Anne, 180, 192n3, 193n12, 195–6n34 laughter, 29–30, 194n21 Leicester, H. Marshall, 176, 177, 193n15 Lindsay, David judicial reform, 80–1 and kingship, 76 from morality to history, 70–1 and political reform, 77 and religious reform, 75 and social reform, 75 see also Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis lollardy and established church, 147 and papal supremacy, 137 The Plowman’s Tale, 131, 134, 135, 139, 151, 154–6 Thorpe and Oldcastle, 152 Twelve Conclusions, 164n41, 167n46 Lombard, Peter, 167n46 Lomperis, Linda, 174–5, 176, 192n4, 196n38 London Mercers’ Company, 46, 125 Lords’ Articles (1529), 46–7, 49, 53, 56, 60n22, 61n33, 123 McCarl, Mary, 137, 161n26 Magnificence (Skelton), 68 Malaysia, 23, 24–5 Malory, Thomas: Morte D’Arthur, 101–2, 107–8, 118n13 Mankind, 68, 82, 87 Mariolatry, 190–1 marriage annulment, 14, 37, 55 Mary, mother of God, 187–8, 190, 197n47 Mary Queen of Scots, 76 masculinity, 95, 96 ‘May game’ play, 18 The Medusa’s Head (Freud), 177 Medwall, Henry: Fulgens and Lucrece, 180 Menippean satire, 15 Merwin, W. S., 111, 119n28 The Miller’ s Tale (Chaucer), 1, 9, 169–91 courtship in, 171, 174–6, 181–2

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 203

203

and effeminacy, 169, 170–2, 174–5, 192n3 humiliation in, 176–7, 180–1, 190 the misdirected kiss, 170, 171, 175–8, 180, 191–2n2, 194n21, 195–6n34 parish clerks, 189 and pollution, 188–9 and sexuality, 170, 171, 186–7, 189, 190, 191 and squeamishness, 190, 191 Millett, Bella, 110 misogyny, 72, 180, 181, 185–6, 191 monarchy see kingship; queenship monasteries, 30, 49, 54, 142 The Monk’s Tale (Chaucer), 130 monstrosity, 94–8; see also grotesque Montrose, Louis, 28 morality plays, 2, 15, 36, 65, 68–9 More, Thomas, 21, 28 Assertio septem sacramentorum, 28 The Supplication of Souls, 50, 56 and Wolsey, 40–1, 41–3, 45–6, 58, 59 Morgan, David, 115 Morrison, Richard, 18, 27 Morte D’Arthur (Malory), 101–2, 107–8, 118n13 Moyle, Thomas, 19 narcissism, 172–3 Nativity pageants, 187–8, 190, 191 Negotiating Power in Early Modern Society (Braddick and Walters), 27 neo-Donatism, 155, 167–8n49 New Historicism, 7–8, 24 Nichols, Jonathan, 101 Norfolk, Thomas Howard, duke of, 20, 53 Observant Franciscans, 47 Oldcastle, John, 152, 166–7n46 The Owl and the Nightingale, 133 pageants, 4, 18, 187–8, 190, 191 Palamon and Arcite, 181, 182–5 papal courts, 122–3 parish clerks, 189 Parker, Emma, 191–2n2, 195n26 parody, 181, 189–90, 191 The Parts of Man (Heywood), 22, 33–4n25 patriarchy, 170, 180 Pearsall, Derek, 196n38 performance, 3–4, 28 Phillips, Helen, 173–4

08/01/2013 08:23

204

Reading Literature Historically

Piers the Ploughman’s Crede, 139, 145, 165n43 Play of Love (Heywood), 41 Play of the Weather (Heywood), 29–30, 41, 68 The Plowman’s Tale (Anon), 1, 9, 122 as anticlerical satire, 134, 139–41 authority of, 128, 131 authorship of, 122, 128–9 and the clergy, 125–6, 139–40 and The Commons Supplication, 9, 121, 123, 124–5, 126, 128, 154, 156 Crede-interpolator, 145, 147, 148, 152–3, 154, 155, 161n21, 163n36, 165n43 dating of, 155, 159–61n21 and the ecclesiastical courts, 142–3, 144 Griffin, 129–30, 138–9, 145–8, 150, 153, 156–7n4 and heresy charges, 151 lollardy, 131, 134, 135, 139, 151, 154–6 on monks, 140–1, 142 Narratio, 122, 129–30, 132, 134–5: Part I, 135–7; Part II, 137–8; Part III, 138–54 order of stanzas, 142–4 orthodox beliefs in, 150–1 Pelican, 122–4, 125–7, 129–30, 134, 137, 138, 145–50, 153, 156–7n4 printed versions, 129 Prologue, 129–30, 133–5, 155 as propaganda, 127 publication of, 154 Radical interpolator, 153–4, 155 and the Real Presence, 152, 155, 165–6n43, 167n47 rhyme schemes, 130–1, 132, 137–8, 139–41, 142, 144–5, 146–7, 149–50 1606 edition, 167n47 structure and composition, 155 textual problems, 129–33 see also Wawn, Andrew N. politics and culture, 2 drama and, 64 early-Tudor literature, 16–17 literature, 2, 14, 15 reform, 77 Scottish court, 65, 66

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 204

pope as Antichrist, 127, 137, 138, 155 authority of, 135, 136–7 and Christ, 135, 136–7 and evangelical preachers, 126–7 and Henry VIII, 14 and Jesus Christ, 162–3n30 and king, 135 poverty, alleviation of, 78 prerogative courts, 125 The Prioress’s Tale (Chaucer), 190, 197–8n50 probate fees, 46, 54, 125 propaganda, 16, 17–22, 27, 127 A Proper Dialogue Between a Gentleman and a Husbandman, 41 protest, 16, 17–22 Protoevangelium of St. James, 187 proverbs, collected, 15 psalms, 15–16 public transcript, 26–30, 31, 32, 44, 56, 58–9 purgatory, doctrine of, 54 queenship, 38, 107 Raynes, John, 129 Real Presence, 152, 155, 165–6n43, 167n47 Reformation Parliament, 9, 36, 39, 125, 135, 154 religion and the female body, 179 popular, 170–1 reform of, 14, 18, 30, 75 social reform, 9 religious cycle plays, 18, 192n4 religious houses, 47, 48–9, 50, 54; see also monasteries Renoir, Alain, 195–6n34 resistance, 8, 23–5, 26–7, 29–30 Revelations (St Bridget), 187 revels, 34–5n45 ‘A Reverend Receiving of the Sacrament as a Lenten Matter’ (Yoxford), 18 Richard II, 115–16 Richard II (Shakespeare), 19 romance and the body, 182 and chivalric culture, 181 and courtship, 181–2 heroism in, 185, 186 and sexuality, 182 subgenres of, 196–7n41

08/01/2013 08:23

Index Romance of the Rose translation (Chaucer), 186–7 Rome, Sack of (1527), 17 Roo, John, 18–19, 20, 53 Rowland, Beryl, 190 Rudat, Wolfgang, 176, 177 St German, Christopher, 121 Division Between the Spirituality and the Temporality, 121 St Paul’s School, 28 Salter, David, 198n50 satire, 15–16, 72–3 Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis (Lindsay), 1, 5, 9, 63–87 allegory, 68 Chastity, 72 Common Theft, 82–3, 88–9n12, 89n15 flytyng, 82 Good Counsel, 77–8 John the Commonweal, 65, 67, 73–4, 75, 76–7, 78–9 longer version, 64–71 morality plays tradition, 65 Pauper, 67, 73, 74–5, 78–9, 82 performances, 63–4, 76, 82–5 prologue, 67–8 release of black bird, 86, 90n24 Rex Humanitas, 64, 65–6, 69, 71 Verity, 64, 66, 68, 71–2, 75 Vices, 65, 82–6 see also Cupar (Fife) Scotland church of, 71 and corruption, 63–4, 66, 67 and judicial reform, 80–1 and kingship, 65–7, 76 nationhood, 69–70 and politics, 65, 66 Scott, James C., 9 Domination and the Arts of Resistance, 23 and good counsel, 26 Gramscian approach, 23–4 and laughter/subversion, 29–30 Malaysian village life, 23, 24–5 public transcript, 26–30, 44, 56, 58–9 social order, 25–6 Weapons of the Weak, 23 Selling the Tudor Monarchy (Sharpe), 27–8 sexuality anal stage, 173

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 205

205

and the body, 171 bowdlerised, 197n47 and desire, 171, 183 erasure of, 190 gender differences, 177–8 imagery of, 183, 186 and maturity, 184 The Miller’s Tale, 170, 171, 186, 189, 190, 191 romance, 182 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 182, 185 squeamishness, 186, 190, 191 Shakespeare, William, 2, 19, 181 Sharpe, Kevin, viii, 1, 2, 3 Selling the Tudor Monarchy, 27–8 Signifying God (Beckwith), 4 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 1, 5, 93–116 alliteration, 104 authorship of, 115–16 Bertilak de Hautdesert, 93, 110, 115, 185 courtesy in, 9 courtly love/combat, 196n41 Guinevere, 115 Lady Bertilak, 111–14, 119n28 sexuality of hero, 182, 185 see also Gawain; Green Knight Skeat, W., 158–9n17, 163–4n39 Skelton, John, 4, 21, 26 Magnificence, 68 Skot, John (printer): The Enormytees Usyd by the Clergy, 41 social reform, 9, 75 Solomon and Marcolphus tradition, 57–8 sotie tradition, 72, 88n6 squeamishness, 190, 191 Streitberger, William, 17, 18 Strohm, Paul, 176 subjects, 8, 15, 25–6 Suffolk, Charles Brandon, duke of, 18, 39–40 The Supplication of Souls (More), 50, 56 The Supplication of the Beggars (Fish), 46, 47, 50–2, 56 Symeon, St, 188 Synod of London, 151 taxation, 46, 48, 53, 63, 67, 75, 78–9, 124–5 Ten Articles (1536), 30

08/01/2013 08:23

206

Reading Literature Historically

Thopas, Sir, 111, 186, 197n45 Thorpe, William, 152, 166–7n46 Thynne, William: The Works of Geffray Chaucer, 129, 134 The Towneley Second Shepherd’s Play, 18 trade guilds, 84–5 transubstantiation, 152, 165n43; see also Eucharist Treason Act (1534), 6–8 Tretis of Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo (Dunbar), 133 Tuke, Brian, 43 Twelfth Night (Shakespeare), 181 Twelve Conclusions (1395), 164n41, 167n46 Tyndale, William, 128 Urban VI, pope, 165n42 Virgin birth, 188, 190, 197n47 virginity, 187–8 Walker, Greg: Writing Under Tyranny, 31 Walters, John: Negotiating Power in Early Modern Society, 27 Warham, William, 46, 60n25 Wawn, Andrew N. (on Plowman’s Tale) composition of, 131, 155, 168n50 dating of, 159–61n21 interpolations, 135, 137, 139 origins of, 128–9, 154, 161–2n27, 163–4n39 Weapons of the Weak (Scott), 23

WALKER 9780748681013 PRINT.indd 206

Weimann, Robert, 82 Whylley, Thomas, 18 Whythorne, Thomas, 33–4n25 The Wife of Bath’s Tale (Chaucer), 196–7n41 Wiltshire, Thomas Boleyn, earl of, 53 Witty and Witless (Heywood), 22 Wolsey, Cardinal Aman parallels, 37, 41–2, 44, 45, 48, 51–3, 54, 55, 57, 59n2 and the Amicable Grant, 20 commissioning play, 17, 18, 19 fall from power, 38–40, 53 and Fish, Simon, 21 Hall on, 18 and Katherine of Aragon, 55 legatine regime of, 46–7, 54 Lords’ Articles against, 46–7, 123 patronage of, 27 and probate fees, 46 and religious reform, 47 and John Roo’s play, 18, 19 The Works of Geffray Chaucer (Thynne), 129, 134 Writing Under Tyranny (Walker), 31 Wyatt, Thomas, 15–16 Wyclif, John, 137 De Blasphemia, Contra Fratres, 166–7n46 De Papa, 163n30, 163n31, 167n48 Eucharist, 151, 152, 155, 164n41, 165n43 York pageants, 4, 188 Yoxford, vicar of, 18

08/01/2013 08:23