8. Adam Usk’s Secret
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Chapter 8 • Adam Usk’s Secret At this point, the attempt to track down what thoughts or expectations or knowledge are hidden in Usk’s secret reaches a dead end of sorts: its trail leads to no more than unverifiable guesses about what might have been in his mind. But then this is what a secret by definition is. More to the point, this failure points to its own solution: track the secret all the way to its end, to the intellectual structure that is built around it, reduce it to the trivial alternatives we reached at the end of the last chapter, choose to believe one and then the other, and you realize that Usk’s secret has not been disposed of, but still remains. Say (as we said) that the bogus theory of history devised for the purposes of this chronicle either is his self-destructive view of the world or is a mere game assembled in language ; then commit yourself to believing one of those. Whichever you choose, you realize that what the book has been hiding is not that: whatever was unexplained is unexplained still. But this tells us something. Pulling the net of investigation tighter and tighter, we have found that no matter how intimately we enter into what lies outside the work’s own expression—its political and legal contexts, the intellectual structure it embodies, the feelings it seems to charge by seeming to hide—none answers the question. Which suggests that it is in its expression that the secret is held. The secret is something built into the structure of the writing itself, as the rhetorical tradition had advised that no art is as artful as 112 Chapter 8 the one that dissembles itself: “the device [ars] is successful if it is invisible ; if it is noticed, it provokes shame and ruins your credibility for good.”1 As it happens, there is an art that Usk acknowledges; that was curled together with his professional ambitions and his academic training; that (we will see) he made use of; that thought programmatically about its own hiddenness; and that has everything to do with the sense that his work keeps a secret and with the secret that it keeps. And it is the commonest and most obvious of arts: the dictamen, the vocational training in the rhetoric of the letter that was second nature to lawyers, diplomats, and bureaucrats. The dictamen brought the sources and thought of classical rhetoric into the mainstream of medieval writing.2 Usk’s inflated vision of his career—the one that made him seek commission as a notary while he was an Oxford student, that made him dream of the curia and the bishop’s pallium—steered him toward both the pragmatic use and the self-idealizations of this ubiquitous and overweening art. It was an art associated with the culture of notaries, of the Roman law, of international relations.3 Above all, it was an art associated, indeed nearly identified, with the Roman curia, which teachers of the art called both the origin and destination of all eloquence; and it was a means by which the ambitious hunted papal favor.4 The most widely read author of the dictamen, Thomas of Capua, was an auditor of the papal palace, as Usk himself would be.5 One good measure of an art’s clientele is the drift of its most routine jokes, and Guido Faba gives, as an example of the bathetic incongruity of banal matter with high style, an eloquent celebration of “safe return from the Roman curia.”6 The relevant skills were taught both formally and informally at Oxford,7 and the materials of them remained in the possession of just the circles Usk rejoiced at moving in.8 • On the other hand, one thing I have just roundly asserted is roundly and routinely denied. One of the few confident judgments about Usk has Adam Usk’s Secret 113 been that he does not use or know the most distinctive and most evidentially salient aspect of the dictamen: the repertory of rhythmical periods for concluding clauses, systematized and taught as the cursus. The tradition that periods formally composed should come to a recognizably patterned conclusion lay deep in the muscle-memory of Latin prose.9 Among the cadences the language most commonly sorts itself into, the cursus names some, in specific relation to word-boundaries, appropriate for enacting the conclusion of a sentence.10 The conventional patterns are so...



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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