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  • Late-Medieval Prison Writing and the Politics of Autobiography
  • Elizabeth Schirmer
Joanna Summers . Late-Medieval Prison Writing and the Politics of Autobiography. Oxford: Clarendon, 2004. 229 pp. ISBN 0-199-27129-1, $110.

In this clear-sighted contribution to our understanding of late-medieval literary subjectivity, Johanna Summers identifies and analyzes an "interpretant genre" (Umberto Eco's term) of English prison writing from the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Summers sets out to debunk the notion that the late-medieval literary "I" was deployed primarily for pedagogical exemplification. Autobiographical prison writing, she argues, is instead personal and political: it is motivated by, and seeks to impact, specific extra-textual circumstances. Summers uses these texts to argue that literary identity, and indeed subjectivity generally, were in fact grounded in a complex dialectic between universal and particular, inner and outer selfhood, Christian (or social) subjection and individual identity. Central to the project is a revisionary account of "intertextuality" in medieval textual culture. Far from subordinating the individual author and his goals to a universalized conventional authority, each of these texts (Summers demonstrates) deploys intertextuality in the service [End Page 742] of an individualized authorial identity, each invoking (say) Boethius to its own idiosyncratic ends. Intertextuality as a practice is thereby revealed to be multiple and contingent, rather than uniform and universalizing.

To make this argument, Summers brings an impressive array of critical and theoretical frameworks to bear on several key texts: Thomas Usk's Ricardian Testament of Love; James I of Scotland's Kingis Quair, written during his imprisonment in England; Charles d'Orléans's English Book of Love (a fictionalized courtly work, the exception proving the rule of Summers's larger argument); two first-person accounts of ecclesiastical persecution, by the Lollards Richard Wyche and William Thorpe; and finally, the Lancastrian George Ashby's Prisoner's Reflections. (Malory puts in a tantalizing appearance in an Epilogue.) Each chapter is divided into three sections: the first establishes the autobiographical nature of the text in question, relying heavily on Kathryn Kerby-Fulton's standards (notably the lack of ironic distance between narrator and author, and the presence of authorial self-naming and biographical details); the second its deployment of intertextuality to construct a specific literary identity (Boethius and Gower loom large); and the third its political motivations.

By "political motivations" Summers seems primarily to mean the imprisoned author's attempt, through literary self-representation, to recuperate and liberate his own subjected identity. The personal and the political are all but conflated (sans the traditional feminist framework) and opposed to the "exemplary, representative, and pedagogic." Her commitment to this categorical configuration (like her commitment to a uniform chapter structure throughout) occasionally blunts the force of her more insightful readings. Most notably, Chapter One's analysis of the intertwined rhetorics of courtly, spiritual, and political love in Usk's Testament is not done justice by Summers's final claim (however true) that Usk writes "not to save his soul, but to save his career and win release." The best readings here are of texts, notably Wyche and Thorpe's Lollard narratives, which deliberately blur the boundaries between the exemplary or universal and the personal or individual, in order to work towards larger political goals.

The confusion (if confusion it is) as to what exactly constitutes the "political" proves productive, insofar as it gives Summers the flexibility to engage with a range of overlapping rhetorical and political strategies. The book falls, implicitly, into two sections. Each deals loosely with one model of political self-representation. The first three chapters, on Usk, James I, and Charles d'Orléans, explore political uses of amatory discourse. Usk conflates spiritual and courtly love with political devotion, representing himself as the devoted lover-servant of the king and the common weal; James I, writing from the [End Page 743] other side of the king-subject relationship but himself subjected to imprisonment, uses marriage as a trope for kingly self-governance. Charles's fictional and ironic self-presentation as a prisoner of love makes him, for Summers, the antithesis of the other two and a foil for them. Indebted to Gower's narrative strategies rather than to his...


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