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  • The Boethian Testament of Love
  • Jennifer Arch

Though there is substantial scholarly disagreement on the literary merits of Thomas Usk's Testament of Love and on the motives and character of its author, all acknowledge that the Testament is, or aspires to be, "Boethian." This adjective appears frequently in summaries of the Testament as shorthand to characterize the treatise's form or ideas. It is clear that Usk intended to draw a parallel between his situation and that of Boethius and that he saw the Consolation of Philosophy as in some sense authorizing his own literary efforts ("Yet also have I leve of the noble husbande Boece . . . to come after his doctryne").1 His lexical debts to the Consolation, especially to Chaucer's translation of it, have now been fully documented. But the word "Boethian" remains extremely imprecise, referring, as it does, mainly to the Consolation to the exclusion of Boethius's other works. It can allude to form, as in dialogue, or more particularly a dialogue between a wise "physician" and suffering yet educable "patient"; or to allegory; or to specific features of Neo-platonic philosophy; or to a generalized concept of universal love; or to Boethius's description of Fortune, a commonplace by Usk's time; or to a particular system of epistemology; or, most commonly for scholars of later medieval England, to the general sense that Boethius encourages a principled withdrawal from the concerns of earthly life, whether that withdrawal is physical or intellectual. One part of my argument in this article is that this latter reading of the Consolation distorts the arguments Boethius actually puts forward, and that at least one medieval reader—Thomas Usk—interpreted Boethius's reasoning quite differently.

It may seem that I am omitting reference to the more important reader of Boethius in the later medieval period: Chaucer. Usk incorporated vocabulary from the Boece and from Troilus in the Testament, and his interest [End Page 448] in Boethius may have come from a desire to imitate Chaucer's literary works, as he supposedly desired to imitate Chaucer professionally.2 But, as I hope to show, Usk had his own reading of the Consolation, one that moves beyond mere borrowings and translations into attempts to absorb and retransmit Boethius's ideas as fully as he can. Similar claims have been made for Chaucer. But the nature of Chaucer's uses of the Consolation are so very different, and the evidence that he at any point actively promoted Boethian philosophy, so ambiguous, that it cannot be claimed that Usk was promoting an identifiably Chaucerian view of the Consolation.3 Usk's Testament, in fact, offers a unique opportunity to examine a medieval reader's interpretation of an ancient text and, more specifically, to judge whether our use of the word "Boethian" would match his.

In what follows I identify four areas—process of education, politics, heroism, and life and death—in which I take Usk to be "reading" the Consolation of Philosophy and incorporating it into his own world view. In some of these areas it could be shown, I believe, that Chaucer interpreted Boethius quite differently than Usk did, though I do not deal with Chaucer's Boethianism here. I argue, rather, that Usk's Testament presents a reading of the Consolation somewhat different from that often considered to be the late-medieval view of that text. Usk's interpretations could match those of other contemporary readers or could be his [End Page 449] own idiosyncratic readings: either way the matter is of some interest for those who study the impact of the Consolation on English writing in the Ricardian period.

The facts of Usk's dealings in politics have been explained in detail elsewhere. In this article I will refer to Usk's political situation only insofar as it relates to his uses of Boethius in the Testament4.

Process of Education

In the Consolation, the process by which the prisoner Boethius achieves understanding of the truths Philosophy sets forward is as important as the truths themselves. Boethius the author shows the reader not just what to think but how to think.5 The method is a dialogue in which a person...


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