Making Identities in Fifteenth-Century England: Henry V and John Lydgate
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c h a p t e r f i v e Making Identities in Fifteenth-Century England Henry V and John Lydgate Courting the Significant Other The courtship to which the title of this section alludes was recently entered , not for the first time, as a metaphor for academic collaboration by Brian Stock, who rather lamented its pertinence. “There are,” he said, “fewer areas of agreement than there might be between empirical historians and students of literature. [We have achieved] neither marriage nor divorce but rather, after the fashion of medieval romance, endless extensions of an increasingly frustrating courtship.”1 Over a hundred years ago Gaston Paris, one of the founders of medieval literary criticism, confidently announced that “we regard the poetic works of the Middle Ages as above all documents of history.”2 Yet after all this time we have apparently made little progress in brokering a permanent and emotionally satisfying relationship, or even a working partnership, between literature 120 Patterson-05 9/17/09 4:11 PM Page 120 and history. Moreover, this extended courtship has recently been made more difficult by the arrival of a mysterious suitor, also from France, who has whispered a seductive message to literary critics quite different from that of Gaston Paris, a suitor who has promised an erotic isolation filled only with words, eliminating the need for contractual relations with the world outside. Historians, for their part, while observing this development with polite curiosity, have continued to believe that Isidore of Seville’s definition of history as narratio rei gestae is more helpful than Derrida’s dictum that “il n’y a pas de hors-texte.”3 While acknowledging that history is constructed rather than found, they have largely set aside metaphysical doubt in favor of practical tasks. Contemporary historiography, and especially that of the Middle Ages, operates for the most part within what Dominick LaCapra has called “a ‘documentary’ or ‘objectivist’ model of knowledge”: it relies upon an archive of “informational documents” whose value is taken to be primarily factual or referential, it practices an objectivist method that sees subjectivity not as the necessary condition of understanding but as a dangerous contaminant, and it operates within a system of periodization that seems often to predetermine what a text can and cannot mean.4 Since the texts of interest to literary critics are typically constructed within an intricate rhetorical system that makes them unproductive of hard data, and since their interpretation manifestly precludes verifiability, they rarely figure in historical accounts of the period. Indeed, historians of late medieval England seem rarely even to read the work of literary critics.5 On their side, literary critics have done little to persuade their historian colleagues that their analyses can provide fresh access to the realities of the medieval past. Not that there are not many literary critics who are concerned with historical contextualization.6 But for the most part this kind of work proceeds with little attention to recent poststructuralist thought, as if the linguistic turn taken by cultural studies had obviously led up a blind alley. On the other hand, critics who do apply contemporary theory to medieval texts tend to operate under the sign of Ezra Pound’s modernist dictum to “make it new.” Concerned to claim for medieval literary studies a currency usually denied it, they deploy the often esoteric— and often counterintuitive—discourse of the literary criticism du jour. Moreover, and more important, the programs that drive these studies tend to preclude specifically historical insights. For the very medievalness of the text under scrutiny—in effect, its historicity—is the embarrassment Making Identities in Fifteenth-Century England 121 Patterson-05 9/17/09 4:11 PM Page 121 these theoretically au courant readings seek to redeem. And since this historicity is a function of the social realities of the medieval world, they tend to disappear as well.7 Hence what we almost entirely lack is work that can show that historical understanding can actually be enabled rather than avoided by poststructuralist thought, that the enterprise of poststructuralism, and particularly the deconstruction that is its fundamental element, can be more than a local fashion, more than a seductive exaggeration of the procedural caveats and natural skepticism we have always already employed. In sum, I will argue that this exotic French import can reveal for us not just what makes the medieval past like the modern present but what makes it different as well; that it can elucidate social practice as well...


Subject Headings

  • Literature and society -- England -- History -- To 1500.
  • England -- Civilization -- 1066-1485.
  • Historical criticism (Literature).
  • English literature -- Middle English, 1100-1500 -- History and criticism.
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