- Court Poetry in Late Medieval England and Scotland: Allegories of Authority
This is a careful study that attempts to set the literary construction of late medieval Scottish and English court poetry in the context of European humanism. It is concerned with the poems as written and circulated, that is, with the text and not the possible performance. However, the issue of performance raises a number of questions: What made a poet a court poet? What was their intended role at court or in society in domestic or international relationships? Did they have patrons and what form did that patronage take? When were the poems performed and with what accompaniment? Was there, perhaps, music associated with them? How were they presented to the monarch? Antony Hasler is not directly concerned with these questions, but with the way in which poets (whom literary scholars have long identified as court poets) struggled with their own positions and ideas of authority. The subject’s position – the common body in the ordinary landscape – relates with difficulty to the symbolic royal body that yet reflects the many bodies of his subjects.
Hasler wishes to discover, in the allegories the poets employ, something more than the results of the political moment. We therefore get only the indirect reflection of the hypocrisy and cynicism, intrigue and instability of the court rather than the specific ironic context that might take on a deeper and more precise meaning for students of the Court.
He is primarily concerned with vernacular poetry although he touches on the neo-Latin poetry that was produced by the official court poets Henry VII introduced to his court as he reshaped it to be that of a Renaissance prince. This ceremonial verse, which was regularly produced down to the end of the eighteenth century, deserves a more careful consideration if he is successfully to argue that it influenced the form and style of the vernacular [End Page 212] and the vernacular poets’ perception and problems with the issue of their own position and role.
Without refuting it, Hasler notes D. R. Carlson’s suggestion that, while vernacular poetry was circulated and published, ceremonial Latin poetry was possibly not even read by its single audience, the king. Politically this is unlikely. Neo-Latin poetry was part of the interchange between princes and prelates. The itinerant poet Johannes Michael Nagonius made his living producing panegyric poems – with implicit promises – that were carried as diplomatic gifts from one patron to another. Bernard André and Giovanni Gigli’s formal Latin works, epithalamium, genaethlicon, political paeans, and historical encomia which Hasler briefly discusses were commanded for a similar market. This was not the immediate market for writers like Dunbar or Skelton. But, by the time George Buchanan was writing in the 1530s and after, Renaissance Latin poetry was flourishing at all the courts of Europe.
In his conclusion, Hasler suggests that the vernacular poets were ‘motivated by a bid to counterpoint the neo-Latin writing … with an erotic language of secrecy that imports significant revisions in its imaginings of the authority to which it subscribes’ (p.168). Was this how they hoped to outflank the Latin professionals? Was their audience sufficiently educated to identify and appreciate these hidden meanings?
The poets Hasler studies differed from one another in various ways. Although they were not court poets ‘en titre’, they had other court appointments or, in Scotland, a prominent position at court resulting from their birth. Gavin Douglas, a bishop and a politician, as third son of the earl of Angus was perhaps the best born; Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount for decades a courtier to James IV and V became Lyon King of Arms. William Dunbar, Franciscan and royal pensioner, probably related to the great family of Dunbar, was the nearest to an official as he writes both semi-official panegyrics and petitions. In England, John Skelton had been tutor to the young Henry VIII, and Stephen Hawes, a groom...