- Acts of Recognition: Essays on Medieval Culture
Lee Patterson’s Acts of Recognition is a collection of ten essays, nine of which have appeared previously in journals and harder-to-access miscellanies published between 1981 and 2001. ‘Lightly revised throughout’ (p. ix), the essays reflect Patterson’s diverse scholarly concerns and eclectic literary critical interests. Discussions range across historical debates between Exegeticism and New Criticism, pedagogy, and more traditional modes of literary and historical criticism, while subjects under consideration extend from Virgil and Boethius, to Beowulf, the works of Chaucer and his near-contemporaries, and beyond to Milton and A. E. W. Mason’s The Four Feathers (1902).
Despite their eclecticism, the essays more or less consistently treat at least one of two of Patterson’s ongoing literary–historical interests: the dialectics between ‘the past and the present, and between the individual and the social’, issues which he notes are ‘familiar’ to all medievalists (and perhaps to all scholars engaged with the past) (p. vii). Of interest to this reviewer, the relationship between the individual and the social comes to the fore in two essays that are each concerned with the creation of identity. Chapter 5 explores frictions between self and otherness in the context of the Hundred Years War, when English projections of the national ‘self’ privileged qualities of truth, unity, and honour in contrast to French duplicity, division, and dishonour. Patterson examines Henry V’s self-construction as a leader whose desire to unify the realms of England and France existed in marked tension with the anxiety of his English subjects to preserve their own identity as an entity distinct from that of a fragmented France. Chapter 10 examines tensions between the individual and the social further in a fascinating investigation of Francis of Assisi’s identification with the natural world, and reveals how Francis was embedded in a paradoxical nexus in which the desire [End Page 266] to live a simple, pious life conflicted with the need to be seen to be living a simple, pious existence in an otherwise fraught spiritual environment.
Along with Chapters 7 and 9, Patterson’s hitherto unpublished essay examining Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde in Chapter 8 is described as one of the volume’s most ‘purely literary’ chapters. The aims of the essay are twofold: to uncover why Chaucer described Troilus as a ‘tragedye’, and to reflect on why Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato was Chaucer’s choice of source for the tale (p. 198). Patterson convincingly traces medieval uses of the generic marker tragedy to classical sources, such as Statius, Virgil, and Lucan, for whom tragedy referred to tales of the noble deeds of kings and great matters, that is, what became the stuff of history for medieval audiences. However, while drawing attention to narrative and stylistic differences between Troilus and its Italian source, ultimately Patterson is unable to propose any hypotheses concerning Chaucer’s adoption and adaptation of Boccaccio’s text.
Despite this, Patterson’s Acts of Recognition is a welcome collection showcasing the breadth of this important critic’s work over the last three decades. The volume provides easy access to ten stimulating essays, the diversity of which ensures that most readers will find something of value within its covers.
Australian National University