- Remembering Boethius: Writing Aristocratic Identity in Late Medieval French and English Literatures by Elizabeth Elliot
Recent scholarly directions in Boethian studies have raised important questions about the influence of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy on late medieval writing. Eleanor Johnson’s Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages: Ethics and the Mixed Form in Chaucer, Gower, Usk, and Hoccleve explores how Middle English texts received and manipulated inherited Boethian formal structures, such as the prosimetrum, to ethical ends. The Erotics of Consolation: Desire and Distance in the Late Middle Ages, edited by Catherine E. Léglu and Stephen J. Miller, reveals the use of Boethian models in discourses of desire, loss, and consolation in a variety of medieval European literatures, from Boccaccio’s Decameron to Johannes von Tepl’s Ackermann.
Remembering Boethius: Writing Aristocratic Identity in Late Medieval French and English Literatures represents a significant contribution to discussions of the legacy of Boethius in the late Middle Ages. In this critical study, Elizabeth Elliot examines the medieval literary reception of the Consolation of Philosophy through an original selection of texts that range from Jean Froissart’s French Confort d’ami to Thomas Usk’s English Testament of Love to King James I of Scotland’s Kingis Quair. Remembering Boethius focuses on Boethius’s role in the social import of vernacular poetry and prose, the construction of aristocratic identity in literature, and the erotic subjectivities represented in the chosen texts. The works of Guillaume de Machaut, Froissart, Usk, and James I bear a likeness to the Consolation in the conditions of exile or [End Page 241] imprisonment in which the authors depict themselves or others within the text. Without attempting to identify positivistic connections between the historical experiences and life histories of Boethius and those of late medieval authors or literary subjects, Elliot explores how the Boethian model of suffering becomes a springboard for treatments of political issues and how the Consolation serves as “a valuable resource for the aristocratic reader who seeks to apply Boethian philosophy to political practice” (13). The social and political plight of the late antique philosophizing prisoner resonated symbolically for late medieval authors, who assimilated the Consolation to aristocratic tastes and found in Boethius’s work a storehouse of moral counsel and an inspiration for medieval life writing.
Chapters 1, 2, and 3 construct a textual tradition that grounds Guillaume de Machaut’s Confort d’ami, Remède de Fortune, and Fonteinne amoureuse in the thematics of the Consolation. Through her focus on the self-conscious politicization of Boethius’s text in Machaut’s writing, Elliot indicates how the philosophical, political, and exilic aspects of the Boethian model become an advisory cornerstone in the mirror-for-princes narrative that Machaut intended for his patron Charles II of Navarre, as the Confort d’Ami adapts from the Consolation the notion that the faculty of memory serves as an ethical compass and a tool for avoiding the vicissitudes of Fortune. Machaut’s Remède de Fortune similarly draws on memory as a tool for control in the face of Fortune and even for transcendence. This chapter represents a broader discussion in Elliot’s work of the association between wisdom and the cultivation of memory that appears in the Consolation and that becomes explored within late medieval texts that draw on the Boethian process of self-education. The third chapter looks at the use of Boethian allegory in the Fonteinne amoureuse to reimagine the situation of Jean de Berry, imprisoned and yet in a situation of inevitable moral edification because of his isolation and opportunity for self-reflection.
Chapter 4, “Memory, Desire and Writing in Jean Froissart’s Prison amoureuse,” analyzes Froissart’s treatment of the Boethian themes of constraint, enclosure, and self-discipline and reads his text as “a meditation on the issue of controlling the appetitive will, in which the ability to construct an image of the desired object is imagined as a solution to the problem of frustrated desire” (15). Chapters 5 and 6 examine the Testament of Love and the Kingis Quair...