The essays collected in this volume aspire to a delicate balancing of text and what Fletcher sometimes calls “culture” (p. 11) and at other times “society” (p. 4), an account of what two decades ago might have been called a circulation or negotiation of ideas and energies. Fletcher’s version of this interchange stops short of allowing the text any role in social change: “[T]his book will try to understand [End Page 395] how each text under review may have been felt to be present in the society in which it was originally conceived; and second, it will try to understand how that society was present in each text” (p. 4). Fletcher’s phrasing may suggest that he is interested in contemporaneous views of the texts he focuses on, but he is, in fact, more interested in what he later calls “literary archaeology” (p. 8), an attempt to reconnect texts to “certain lost presences” (p. 3). As it plays across the eclectic group of texts Fletcher takes up in successive chapters—The Owl and the Nightingale, Sir Orfeo, Pearl, Piers Plowman, The Canterbury Tales, and Malory’s Morte Darthur—this procedure could easily be described as source study. At other times, it does amount to the kind of cultural history that Fletcher’s framing formulations adumbrate, but his eye is also almost always drawn to those aspects of culture in which he has already demonstrated expertise in his other work, church practice and the sermon in particular.
The chapter on the Owl and the Nightingale does not, however, offer a new source for that poem but, rather, a passage in Robert Holcot’s Moralities for which this poem may have served as source. The discovery of these parallels helps to secure theories about the poem’s Dominican authorship and arguments for a late (rather than early) thirteenth-century date. They cannot in themselves license Fletcher’s discussion of the poem’s dialectical procedures or modes of ventriloquism, but the last of these does lead to an original and very valuable observation about the poem’s “genre ventriloquism” (p. 47) (the moments when the debate of the birds takes shape as inset beast fable, lyric, satire, or sermon).
The chapter on Sir Orfeo focuses on lines 387–404 of that poem where a “chamber of horrors” (p. 52) of the dead in the castle of the fairy king is described. For Fletcher, this frightening scene must be understood in terms of “three principal discourses” (p. 55), which he identifies as the “discourse of late medieval Christianity” (p. 57), the “discourse of late medieval astrology” (p. 66), and “the discourse of late medieval fairyland” (p. 69). Fletcher finally argues for the poem’s interest in the “socially recuperative power” (p. 84) of Sir Orfeo’s harping, but more illuminating here is the discovery of an analogue for the folk belief in an “elfland” in which “mighty champions” (p. 71) reside in a passage of the preacher’s handbook, the Fasciculus morum.
The chapter on Pearl is hostile to historicizations that connect the poem with specific aspects of late fourteenth-century court culture, but argues strongly for the poem’s dependence on “clerical culture” (p. 100). Its own historicizing discovery is an analogue, in a sermon by the Franciscan friar Nicholas de Aquevilla, on the theme “Hii sunt, qui cum mulieribus non sunt coinquinati,” which, like Pearl, describes a procession of virgins following the Lamb of God and then “embarks directly upon the issue of who it is that might expect salvation” (p. 99). Fletcher edits this passage for the first time from Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud lat. 94, as an appendix to this chapter.
It is perhaps no surprise—if potentially more controversial than Fletcher allows—that he sees Piers Plowman as a sermon (“‘Z-’, ‘A-’, ‘B-’, and ‘C-type’ sermons, so to speak”), which, even...