5. Utility
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Chapter 5 • Utility For knowing the future does not require prophecy; it requires at most history. What has happened already in Usk’s world—the rhythm of actions and of their worldly consequences—tells all anyone needs to know about what will happen henceforth. A disillusioned gnomic wisdom widely diffused during the Middle Ages claimed that the possible patterns of habitual action and habitual consequence in the world were finite in number and stylized in form. Another person’s story is a “life tried out.”1 What has happened to others warns what may happen to us: “another ’s life is our teacher.”2 A “life” is a bundle of normative commitments ,3 and to enjoin readers to observe what has befallen others reminds them that their lives are bound to pattern as others’ are bound. Similarly but on its larger scale, universal history promoted historical knowledge as an expertise in possibility: the conception of history as the “keye of remembraunce” opening the history “Of holiness, of regnes, of victories,” celebrated by Chaucer’s narrator, is a conventional idea. Chroniclers said so habitually. History is the “witness of ages, the memory of life,” laying out for observation all that the acts of the past offer to knowledge: these words Usk saw before him when he opened his copy of the Polychronicon .4 History showed how things would likely go, where choices would likely lead, and “utility” had for centuries been, and for centuries would remain, its purpose.5 Those who have it know the future better than those Utility 67 who do not. Before such claims, an appetite for prophecy seems to seek ignoble shortcuts through the hard work of just knowing the past. Chronicles know that worldly acts are worldly acts, and that there are not many of them. The disenchanted recognition that history is secular process open to observation and inference offers the only promise of mature and reliable prognostication; ostentatious portent can offer no more than rhymes and feelings. Usk’s prophecies, leading nowhere, humiliate the desire to bypass historiography’s work of compilation and comparison. Historiography, though, will suffer a different humiliation. In a central scene, he presents an exemplary instance of historical education successfully completed and knowledge of the future thereby achieved. The successful student is Richard II. On 21 September 1399 Usk was sent to join the imprisoned king for dinner. Elsewhere in the chronicle Richard is a creature of mere impulse and mere sensation, innocent of discourse: we hear his wails across the Thames, and at the end of his story we witness him “grieving himself to death,” but we do not hear what he says while doing either.6 This dinner-time interview is the only speech Usk assigns him,7 and it is a historiographical miniature: This king during his dinner related stories with pain, speaking thus: “Oh God, this is a wondrously faithless land: so many kings, so many prelates, so many magnates it has exiled, killed, destroyed, and plundered, always corrupted and oppressed by dissension and mutual hatred.” And he told the names and the histories of those thus tormented, from the realm’s first age.8 Richard infers from what has happened to his forebears what will happen to him. The cry he begins with and his speaking painfully (dolenter) show what conclusion he draws. The temporary dispassion of Usk’s account underlines the pathos. Because Richard knows what England has done to its kings, he knows what it will do to him. Usk himself does the same thing: he routinely infers the future from the past and experiences it as fear: 68 Chapter 5 the followers of Master John [Wyclif], like those of Mohammed . . . have most treacherously sown slaughters, traps, contentions, and dissensions and seditions lasting even until now, and, as I fear [timeo], will last long enough to cause the fall of the realm.9 I fear [timeo] that in the end it will happen as it did before, when many of those loyal to London rose up against the Duke of Lancaster.10 I fear [timeo] that since possession of the sword is permitted them this time, against the prescriptions of order, they will in future be caused to use it against the lords.11 I fear [timeo] that, just as when venality corrupted the priesthood in the Old Covenant, the three miracles ceased . . . , so it will happen in the new.12 At the same time, fear was a part of the political vocabulary of...



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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