- The Presence of Medieval English Literature: Studies at the Interface of History, Author, and Text in a Selection of Middle English Literary Landmarks by Alan J. Fletcher
While each chapter of this, on the whole, insightful book could easily stand alone, Alan J. Fletcher supplies a unifying theme in his introduction: each text examined in The Presence of Medieval English Literature has made it into the modern literary canon but, through this process, has been studied and marketed, whether consciously or not, according to the values of our own time; the remedy, as proffered, is to assess how each text was “present” to its own society (that is, how it was received) and how that society is “present” within each text (that is, how historical events shaped the production of the text). However, while Fletcher’s overall aim is to historicize the following texts, he persists in this vague notion of “presence” rather than explain his project in terms common to such literary criticism.
The initial work discussed in Fletcher’s second chapter is The Owl and the Nightingale. For what follows, the reader must accept a composition date between 1272 and 1284, not itself problematic but lacking overwhelming evidence in the argument as it is presented. The historical and textual evidence [End Page 267] marshaled in support of a Dominican context, though, and placing the text within the diocese of Winchester in Guildford is, however, fairly persuasive. Furthermore, the only known echoes of the work may be found in the Moralitates of the Dominican Robert Holcot (d. 1349). Fletcher believes the reader-ship to have been largely, if not entirely, clerical and offers different scenarios by which Holcot may have come into contact with the text. He closes this chapter by surmising that the poem comes close to demonstrating truth to be a construct, given its emphasis on dialectic, and that such a potentially dangerous conclusion may have been the text’s “presence” to its time.
The third chapter addresses Sir Orfeo for which a date of ca. 1300 is proposed. Fletcher unfortunately reiterates the now largely outdated theory—first espoused by Laura Hibbard Loomis (1942)—that the Auchinleck Manuscript, which contains the text’s oldest version, was created in a London bookshop. The brunt of this chapter, though, argues that three available discourses for rationalizing chaotic experience are challenged in Sir Orfeo: that of late medieval Christianity, astrology, and what Fletcher refers to as fairyland (perhaps better termed the Otherworld). While Fletcher’s exploration of the unraveling of each discourse is intriguing, there is often a high degree of speculation (especially regarding Celtic influences), which he acknowledges to a certain extent. The ostensible result is that the systems are shown to be human constructs. This destabilizing of authoritative meaning is this text’s “presence” to its age. Fletcher offers a fourth possible hermeneutic: the power of performative culture represented in the text through moments of harp-playing, connecting this with the social aspirations of minstrels and placing the author within London court circles.
Chapter 4 turns to the text of Pearl. Fletcher suggests that the author was clerical, as many of the sources are religious, even liturgical. He offers an analogue from a sermon collection by one Franciscan Nicholas de Aquevilla whose sermon for the Feast of the Holy Innocents raises the same questions concerning how two groups, the innocent and the righteous, are to be rewarded with salvation. Fletcher is convinced that the Pearl-poet is performing pastoral theology in the text, but contra Nicholas Watson (1997), he does not find anything that goes against a doctrinal grain. Fletcher then seeks to find cultural influences for other aspects of the work, namely the accoutrements of the Pearl-maiden: her pearls (for which any specifically Ricardian connotation would run parallel to long-accepted theological symbolism) and her crown (for which Fletcher sees any connection with Queen Anne as minimal and looks rather to a tradition that associates Christian baptism...