- Private Selves and the Intellectual Marketplace in Late Fourteenth-Century England: The Case of the Two Usks
This essay explores how the self-images of two late-medieval English intellectuals and writers, Thomas Usk and Adam Usk, emerged from and responded to their professional and social visions and circumstances. The grounds for and potential yield of such an undertaking are various. Readers of the two narratives would likely agree that any scrutiny of late-medieval English culture would be impoverished without the inclusion of the prose narratives of these two very different and, apparently, unrelated writers bearing the toponymic Usk, both of whose social and personal perspectives are by turns wry and naive, cynical and utopian. Yet with the important exception of Paul Strohm’s studies of Thomas Usk, they and their works have rarely been examined in the terms of narrative and ideological analysis often applied to their more famous contemporaries, Chaucer, Gower, Langland, and the other “Ricardian” poets. Adam and Thomas Usk have not been unduly ignored, but they deserve to be examined further, for their narratives constitute preeminent examples of late-medieval authorial self-presentation, while they have left in their own works and in other records significantly greater amounts of information about their lives and their social and political experiences and views than their more often studied contemporaries. 1
Articulating the connections between the focuses and properties of narrative texts and the pressures and opportunities of social and professional contexts is, one might readily grant, a desiderata of cultural history in any form in which this might be practiced, even if (as one would have to go on to say) for medieval texts this is an especially tentative venture, in which one seeks to explore the impress of uncertain contexts on narratives whose scope of authorial consciousness is itself notoriously elusive. Direct connections in this vein between social or professional contexts and the self-presentations of the great “Ricardian” poets are extraordinarily difficult or uncertain, either because so much is in doubt about their precise social occupation and career—as is especially true for Langland and Gower—or because their writings can [End Page 291] only obliquely be aligned with immediate contexts, ideologies, and polemical issues—as is usually the case for Chaucer. 2
In this sense the opportunities that the two Usks provide are rare and important, since their careers can now be substantially traced and cumulatively contemplated; indeed, some information on Adam Usk’s life is assembled here with the other known details of his life for the first time. As noted already, the writers do not share the relatively common Welsh toponymic “Usk” because of any ascertainable familial relation—Adam mentions Thomas once by name in describing the executions at the Merciless Parliament, but this was a notable enough event to justify in itself the mention; 3 yet placing their careers and narratives side by side allows insight into the broad features of late fourteenth-century authorial self-definition, and perhaps human self-image in general, in relation to the peculiar late-medieval pressures on intellectual and literary activity in both secular and clerical spheres. For in the tradition of prose medieval apologiae—one thinks of the twelfth-century works, Abelard’s Historia calamitatum and Guibert of Nogent’s De vita sua—Thomas and Adam both took care to define and portray themselves in terms consistent with their social and professional ideals. Thomas and Adam took greater pains than Abelard and Guibert, however, to fashion and elaborate fantastic, indeed, nearly allegorical social identities, suggesting complex, cryptic, but in some ways characteristic responses to the dangerous and rewarding marketplace of learning in late-medieval culture.
How does one define the properties and contexts of late-medieval literary self-definition, not simply as a prelude to the individualism of modernity but as a specific late-medieval phenomenon? 4 As George Kane has observed in a classic monograph on Piers Plowman, late-medieval authors’ self-presentations are not efforts to create the fully detached, fictional personae of later literature, entirely distinct from the author of a work, but rather invitations to identify the narrators with the poets themselves, along with persistent assertions of...