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c h a p t e r t h r e e Court Poetry and the Invention of Literature The Example of Sir John Clanvowe “The language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power. . . . The principle of poetry is a very anti-leveling principle. . . . Poetry is right royal. It puts the individual before the species, the one above the infinite many, might before right.”1 Hazlitt’s disillusioned comments on the politics of poetry—comments prompted by what he feared were the antidemocratic attitudes of his beloved Shakespeare—express a common embarrassment . So many poets are so politically incorrect that to admit one’s interest virtually amounts to self-conviction as a reactionary—unless, of course, one chooses to convict the poet instead. For medievalists the situation is if anything worse. Having chosen to immure ourselves in the distant past, does not our willful irrelevance make us automatically guilty? Indeed, the resurfacing of political concerns in medieval studies since the 1980s seems to represent an attempt at political rehabilitation in two senses: not only do we wish to show that the issues that animate other 56 Patterson-03 9/17/09 4:05 PM Page 56 members of the professorate concern us as well, but in finding even medieval literature political we show that we must be hyper-political ourselves.2 The irony in all this is that the Middle Ages has been, ever since its invention as an object of scholarly study in the seventeenth century, one of the most highly politicized sites of historical knowledge. This was especially the case during the formative period of medieval studies in the nineteenth century: since the Middle Ages was understood to be the time when European civilization most became itself, medievalists were responsible for discovering the true political and cultural character of their various national states. Hence their work was invested with a weighty political value. A vivid example is Fustel de Coulanges’s claim that the Prussians defeated the French in 1871 because they understood the Middle Ages better.3 Not, of course, that there was a Middle Ages. Always at issue was what Gaston Paris called the “double manner of understanding the Middle Ages.” Was it the golden age of the monarchy, the nobility, and the Church (as the Ultramontane Léon Gautier asserted), or the source of “modern freedoms, municipal independence, and the control of government by the people” (as the liberal Paris himself preferred to think)?4 And in literary terms, the argument was whether the essence of the national literature was martial and pious (i.e., aristocratic) or realistic and satiric (i.e., bourgeois). Were its origins to be found among the nobility or lower down the social scale? The political temperature of English studies has generally been lower than across the channel, but these debates have nonetheless left their mark on our scholarly enterprise. If we look at the first stage of the repoliticization of medieval studies, in the 1980s, we can find two Chaucers that roughly correspond to Gaston Paris’s two Middle Ages. In a book published in 1986, Paul Olson presented Chaucer as a courtier-poet serving “a royal government in quest of social order,” and the Canterbury Tales as a “poetic commentary on the state of the commonwealth” that expresses the views of that government.5 Not surprisingly, Olson’s Chaucer is a didactic allegorist whose poems speak a message of moral and social governance. On the other hand, Paul Strohm’s Social Chaucer, published in 1989, presents a poet socially “at large within the turbulent and ill-defined middle ranks of society,” the “middle strata” that bespeak the new social possibilities available in late fourteenth-century England. And this location enables what Strohm calls the “tonal variation” of Chaucer’s poetry, his Court Poetry and the Invention of Literature 57 Patterson-03 9/17/09 4:05 PM Page 57 “mixture of styles and tones of voice,” his ability to “entertain different perspectives and tolerate a high degree of contradiction between them,” and his exploitation of “mixed perspectives and open forms,” “abrupt shifts in direction and tone,” and “an urbanely impartial attitude.”6 My purpose in this essay is not to adjudicate between these two accounts but instead to challenge their shared, unspoken assumption. For Olson Chaucer’s ideological commitment to the court entails a poetry of didactic straightforwardness; for Strohm, since Chaucer’s poetry is complex and subtle he must be located within the “middle strata...


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