restricted access The Neighboring Text: Chaucer, Boccaccio, Henryson (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
George Edmondson, The Neighboring Text: Chaucer, Boccaccio, Henryson (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press 2011) 296 pp.

Medieval textual relations are often articulated in terms of linearity and descent. In manuscript studies, stemmatics classify texts as the “progenitor” or “descendant” within a particular recension. Conceptions of medieval literary history have been built on the model of translatio imperii and are invested in teleological narratives that demonstrate the logical continuity from one point of origin to another, successive foundation. Nevertheless, recent analyses, such as the work of Patricia Clare Ingham, undermine this way of reading medieval literary culture, finding that narratives imagining a natural line of inheritance often represent a fantasy of wholeness and obscure the reality of fragmentation, contradiction, and difference that characterizes medieval genealogical discourse. George Edmondson’s The Neighboring Text: Chaucer, Boccaccio, Henryson is an important contribution to this effort to reconfigure medieval literary studies. Edmondson presents a relatively new framework, grounded in psychoanalysis, which emphasizes the value of exploring narratives of the Middle Ages through a mode of relationality quite familiar to medieval culture. [End Page 184] “We are not accustomed to thinking of the text as a neighbor,” Edmondson admits in his introduction. Indeed, Chaucer, Boccaccio, and Henryson have traditionally been connected through a chronological configuration of literary history and in the context of literary genealogy; Chaucer knew the Italian Il Filostrato before writing his Troilus and Criseyde, and Henryson could not have written his Testament of Cresseid without first reading Chaucer’s narrative. And yet Edmonson quickly dismisses this model for understanding these three canonical texts. Instead, he effectively argues for the value of envisioning texts that write and rewrite shared narratives as positioned within a literary “neighborhood” of sorts.

By mapping out neighbor theory, as propounded by Freud and elaborated by Lacan, Derrida, and Žižek, Edmonson indicates the relevance of psychoanalysis as a heuristic tool to the study of the authors at hand. The neighbor, according to psychoanalysis, has a twofold effect on the community; it is both the “building block,” enabling relations in the community, and the “stumbling block,” threatening the coherence and unity which these relations ostensibly form (14). But how can the psychoanalytic concept of the neighbor, the embodiment of both the intimate and the strange, help us understand the connections between Chaucer, Boccaccio, and Henryson? In three comprehensive chapters, Edmondson answers this question by showing these authors and their texts in relations of sympathy and understanding, as well as mutual aggression and antagonism. Chaucer, Boccaccio, and Henryson, all from different national communities, are made neighbors, in Edmondson’s view, by their shared concern for Troy. But their texts form a virtual neighborhood also because they all express an ambivalence about a model of historiography in which individuals and civilizations are trapped in the natural-historical cycle of rise and decay. Competing claims to Troy, as well as the worry that the internal problems of Old Troy could potentially reappear in a “New Troy,” produced an anxiety that ultimately fueled textual production in various communities. “Neighboring,” then, rather than inheritance or genealogy, becomes “the very precondition of textual production” (3).

In chapter 1, Edmondson begins by dismantling the long-held view of Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid as an imitation of or a successor to Chaucer’s Troilus. His analysis, which takes up Freud’s figure of the Nebenmensch, imagines these two texts as related instead through “contiguity, contingency, [and] chance proximity,” and examines the way in which different treatments of Troilus and Cresseid in the Testament perpetuate what were hostile Anglo-Scottish relations in the fifteenth century (38). Edmonson’s reading of the Testament in the context of Lacanian neighbor theory shows the text’s attempt “to confront the jouissance at work in the paradoxes of neighbor love” as well as “the aggression inherent in the imperative to neighbor love” (38). Edmondson points out the most troubling aspects of neighboring relations specifically through an examination of the historical context in which Henryson wrote. The Testament, “a profoundly late medieval Scottish text,” obsesses over the neighbor of England in a period when the possibility for independence was threatened by the potential for intrusions across borders...