7. Theory of History
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Chapter 7 • Theory of History At the end of the previous chapter I quoted Usk’s account of Arundel’s death. This painful passage follows it: His death I saw, while in London that very night, in a vision: leaving his whole household behind and wearing short garments, as if to travel far, he was running very quickly, and alone. As I labored with all my might to follow him, he handed me a wax candle and said, “Break this in the middle between the two of us,” and, so saying, disappeared from my sight. As I woke from that, I realized that we had been separated from each other, and, very sadly indeed, I offered Mass for his soul. Later I was apprised of his death.1 Usk is of course one of the retainers “left behind,” and the breaking of the candle signals the rupture. But the focus is on the vain effort to go with him, who, “alone” (solus), leaves Usk alone. The dream-paralysis (“I labored with all my might to follow him”) evokes the push to do something useful where there is nothing useful to be done. But it is literally a failure to follow (insequi), which amounts almost to a bad joke. For to this crucial and affecting episode there succeeds another, gossipy and trivial—the story of the greedy Bishop Burghill—which seems, in fact, not to follow. Theory of History 97 • “Friar John Burghill, a most greedy Dominican and the bishop of Lichfield ,” it begins after Arundel’s death, without transition, “hid a great sum of gold in a certain niche opened in his chamber.” Unknown to him, the niche also opened to the outdoors, and two jackdaws, cleaning it for a nest, dumped the gold outside where lucky passersby carried it off. This brought him “a scandalous reputation throughout the realm.”2 The vice that brings him scandal is not desiring wealth—Usk admires the sumptuousness of Arundel’s furnishings3 —but neglecting the duty of magnificence exacted by wealth and rank: the vice of “tenacity,” he calls it elsewhere.4 The story gets the laugh it is told for: among the magnates at Arundel’s table, Usk relates, it provided “great entertainment.”5 But what makes Burghill scandalous is not what makes him funny. He becomes a joke because tries to thwart the normal course of things—bishops with money should spend it—and is himself thwarted in the attempt: his secret becomes a byword, and his hoarded wealth is lost by the effort he makes to keep it. This irony is by now familiar to us: had Burghill read Usk’s chronicle, he would have seen disaster coming. That is how the world goes: the man who thinks he can be confident in his wealth loses it pointlessly. But then Burghill did see disaster coming to his wealth: that is why he hid it, and what makes him comic is not the disaster but the crude irony by which his evasive maneuvers bring it about, the perennial irony of the distraits whose foolish optimism makes them trip on their own plans.6 Ruin so ubiquitous and uselessness so inescapable should not surprise ; the shame is that they do, that people ignore evidence that does not even try to conceal itself. Burghill becomes a dinner-table joke not because his undignified device backfires, but because he plows ahead with the indignity against the vulgar fact that devices like it backfire. I could turn to any of this chronicle’s defeated hopes to illustrate this pattern, for it informs them all—especially, of course, Richard II, who grieves and is mocked as if he did nothing to save his realm, and then grieves and is 98 Chapter 7 mocked when it proves he did. I turned to this one because it shows how confidence in one’s disillusioned savvy leads straight to exposure of one’s naive illusion. Usk finds this pattern in Richard’s story, and Bishop Despenser’s, and his own, in the stories of all those who despite their experience of the world try to work on the world. In his baselessly cheerful thought that prudence could defeat the ironic accidents of history, Burghill is shamed because he is caught hoping . Shame in this sense makes you want to cover not your deed, but yourself,7 and the comedy of Burghill’s exposure is coextensive not with his loss, but with the humiliation of naivety exposed. The same pattern...


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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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