- Remembering Boethius: Writing Aristocratic Identity in Late Medieval French and English Literature by Elizabeth Elliott
Boethius's De Consolatione Philosophiae was highly influential in medieval France and England, primarily through the many translations of the work into the vernacular. These translations offered models to a wide variety of writers seeking to interpret experiences of exile and imprisonment, and, ultimately, to help readers '[alter] personal character to achieve a moral standard' (p. 16). Elizabeth Elliott's reading of six texts that draw upon the Consolation (she refers to the medieval translations collectively as the Consolation to distinguish these translations from Boethius's De Consolatione) carefully traces how the authors transformed Boethian material into images appropriate for new collective memories, encoding the political in the erotic in their own works. Far from 'parodies or subversions' of Boethius's work (p. 1), these texts privilege amorous activity for the purpose of instructing readers in the self-mastery necessary to effective political action.
A political actor wrongly accused, Boethius served as a particularly relevant counterpart for noblemen disgraced after finding themselves on the losing side of a conflict, Elliott explains in the Introduction. More broadly, the Consolation was regarded as a repository of moral wisdom, of exempla, that could be assimilated in different ways by aristocratic audiences for their moral edification: it could help them to amend 'natural deficiencies through the construction of a disposition or habitus towards ethical behaviour, which is mediated by the contents of memory' (p. 10). The memory, thus, was key to ethical training, providing images to be reflected upon and finally embodied in personal behaviour. Moreover, the reworkings of the Consolation examined by Elliott 'insist upon their own origins in the personal experience of the vernacular writer' as they 'contribute to the emergence of vernacular authorship and establish a space for the practice of life writing' (p. 16).
The first three chapters focus on Guillaume de Machaut's poetic reworkings of the Consolation into programmes appropriate to the politics of the day. In Chapter 1, Elliott reads Machaut's Confort d'ami, addressed to the imprisoned Charles II of Navarre, as a guide to cultivating the faculty of memory, an activity that helped readers better endure the slings and arrows of Fortune (Charles had been incarcerated, wrongly as far as Machaut was concerned) and behave ethically. The art of creating images with which to populate one's memory is delicate work: images can be deceptive. But the poet, uniquely suited to distinguish good from dangerous images, leads the secular prince to consolation and moral living.
In Chapter 2, Elliott shows that in Machaut's Remède de Fortune too, memory is the foundation for virtuous living. Through his teachers, Love, a Lady, and, later, Esperance or Hope, the narrator learns to overcome Fortune [End Page 188] through memory. He channels his love for his lady into a politically useful emotion, deploying her image to transcend earthly desire.
In the third chapter, Elliott traces how Machaut, with his Fonteinne amoureuse, redeems imprisonment as a place of moral learning. Taking the imprisonment of young Jean of Berry by the English following the Treaty of Brétigny as its founding theme, the work participates in a 'burgeoning literary tradition which expounds Boethian philosophy in amatory terms' (p. 62). The complaint of the prince, filtered through the narrating poet, comes to represent a 'disciplined mode of loving' (p. 73), which itself represents the positive social influence wrought by the prince capable of reconciling desire and reason.
In Chapter 4, Elliott considers Jean Froissart's Prison amoureuse and argues that Froissart reworks the Boethian model in his depiction of the incarceration of his patron, Wenceslas of Brabant, by transposing this literal situation into an allegory of imprisonment by love. Amours is not unbridled in this work, but, like Boethian divine love, the figure takes on the role of charioteer, aligning the appetitive will with reason.
Elliott crosses the channel in the last two chapters, examining Thomas Usk's Testament of Love and the...