3. Fear
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Chapter 3 • Fear The previous chapter showed that Usk did not seem to fear his thoughts’ being heard. Perhaps he was afraid to hear them himself. The office and perquisites that assure us that he probably would know and probably would not bungle the report of Clerk’s execution—his longstanding service to the Court of Chivalry and his more recent service to Henry’s regime—might seem to make him uncomfortably complicit with it; in just such a way, we are told, Thomas Hoccleve was sometimes so busy trying not to know what he knew that he induced in himself the thoughts he wanted most to avoid.1 On this guess, Usk’s stammers and stumbles could be discursive oddments, “incommensurates” that resist assimilation and mark the fascination of he wants to forget;2 and the reason his nervous disavowals can give no adequate reasons for themselves could be that their job is to distract him from the adequate ones. As the servant of a régime that (as we also have been told) substituted brutality for legitimacy , Usk might have compulsively enacted a secrecy meant to keep him from seeing blood on his hands. This guess would lead us to seek out a secret whose workings are subtler, less neatly defined, and more fully symptomatic; to look for unexplained ripples on the surface of discourse and trace them back to the impact that produced them. • 40 Chapter 3 The violence that befalls Clerk befalls others also in this book; and its insolence and caprice discompose the world, puncture it and drain its substance, just when that world seems fullest and most assured. Narrating Henry’s coronation, Usk gives us a unique moment of captivating serenity, all awash in colored fabric (“all the great men of the realm, trimly dressed in red, scarlet, and ermine”3 ), laid out in ceremonial symbolism (four swords are carried before the king representing his virtue, his “double mercy,” and his “justice executed without rancor”), and underlined by promises heard with his own ears (“I heard the king swear to my lord of Canterbury, before receiving the crown, that he would carefully rule his people wholly in mercy and truth”).4 In this flicker of beauty, Usk sets off the detail from the coronation oath with the rubric “In mercy, in truth,” In misericordia, ueritate. These two virtues, pulling together the joy of the great messianic Psalm 84 (85), whose verses—“Mercy and truth have met one another; justice and peace have embraced,” Misericordia et veritas obviaverunt sibi; iustitia et pax osculatae sunt—lovingly laid out in exegesis and homiletics and art, bespoke throughout the Middle Ages the reconciliation of justice and mercy in the Incarnation of Christ.5 Henry, chivalrous and unafraid, offers himself to perform the office of his ceremonial champion; Usk explains the five insignia conferred on Henry’s son Henry as prince of Wales (“the rod of gold, the kiss, the crown, the ring, and the letters conferring the office”); and he tells of other acts of beneficence and of justice. Then, with not even an adverb to mark the shift, Usk introduces the settling of scores: John Hall, of the Duke of Norfolk’s household, condemned by parliament because he was present at the duke of Gloucester’s death and gave his consent to it, is drawn, hanged, and—once his entrails have been removed and burned before him while he is still alive—is beheaded and quartered; and the quarter of his body containing his right hand is displayed on a pole, across London Bridge.6 Fear 41 Gloucester’s murder was among the most notorious of Richard II’s crimes, so there was no obvious injustice in what happened to Hall. But the passage gazes not on the justice of torture but on its experience. No division or rubric prepares for it, which only sharpens its intrusive edge; it matches agony with immediacy in a jarring recourse to the historical present. By two devices Usk evokes sensation that overwhelms and flattens the celebratory perspective of the paragraphs that precede. It is not merely the suddenness with which this violence enters the story, and not merely the clash of its tone against the coronation’s high cheerfulness, that causes the shock; it is not even just the details that spell out this gory procedure, though this last comes close to it. The words describing his execution are drawn almost verbatim from his sentence. Parliament had ordered that the...



Subject Headings

  • Adam, of Usk, active 1400. Chronicon Adae de Usk, A.D. 1377-1421.
  • Adam, of Usk, active 1400 -- Literary art.
  • Written communication -- England -- History -- To 1500.
  • Great Britain -- History -- Richard II, 1377-1399 -- Historiography.
  • Great Britain -- History -- House of Lancaster, 1399-1461 -- Historiography.
  • Wales -- History -- 1063-1536 -- Historiography.
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