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
This volume consists of six substantial essays bookended with an introduction and conclusion, which explain the overarching idea that is pursued within each: an exploration of “the presence of the text’s original [End Page 311] age within it in tandem with its presence to its age” (259). With the exception of the sixth essay, on Malory, all of these pieces have been published before, some relatively recently; in the preface Alan Fletcher states that all have been revised, updated, and rewritten for the present purpose, and collectively they reflect a career’s worth of engagement with the subject in terms of both research and teaching. The texts discussed (The Owl and the Nightingale; Sir Orfeo; Pearl; Piers Plowman; the Canterbury Tales; Malory’s Morte Darthur) earn their place in the book by dint of their present-day value in the canon of medieval English literature. As a criterion, this in itself reveals much about Fletcher’s own sense of the canon and about the particular late twentieth-century environment in which he taught. Whilst Sir Orfeo remains a staple of introductory Middle English courses, and the canonical position of the Canterbury Tales is unassailable, fewer undergraduate courses now routinely include the more challenging Pearl and Piers Plowman, Malory’s Morte Darthur is now more frequently encountered through extracts rather than in its entirety, and how many places now teach The Owl and the Nightingale? If the poles of the teaching canon are less firmly fixed than Fletcher’s collection of essays suggests, and there is also little reference here to those newer staples of Middle English courses such as women’s prose writing, there is, however, a great deal of sustained engagement in these pages with current research and with modern critical developments.
Those who do not know all of these texts will find Fletcher’s discussions helpful in providing an overview in each case of the key points of intellectual inquiry that goes far beyond the usual parameters of the introductory survey; those whose acquaintance with the texts is deeper will find much to engage with in these essays. Thus, for example, his account of The Owl and the Nightingale reviews the evidence for the poem’s date in support of a later dating to the 1270s, and explores the work’s early readership (really just one identifiable reader) and the likelihood that its author may have been a Dominican. In the case of the better-known Sir Orfeo, Fletcher focuses on the troubling episode at the heart of the poem: the chamber of horrors peopled by the undead in the Fairy King’s castle, and seeks to explain how medieval audiences might have made sense of this chaos. The poem itself offers no guidance in this regard, but Fletcher identifies three late medieval discourses that might have helped: Christianity (particularly Christian teaching on death), astrology (particularly the Ptolemaic theory of malign planetary influence), and notions of fairyland. He then offers a fourth possible [End Page 312] discourse, that of performance, noting that harpers were the most socially well-positioned of the minstrel class in the reign of Edward I, and connects this to a discussion of the poem’s origins, favouring either London or a center in touch with London culture.
A brief comment on the lack of agreement as to the origins of Pearl (provincial or metropolitan product?) is offered at the start of Fletcher’s analysis of this landmark text, which he rightly describes as “complex beyond any one single category” (89). He fully endorses the view that the poem’s author was some kind of cleric, and whilst acknowledging the various biographical contexts that have been put forward to reveal the identity of the Pearl-Maiden (the death of Anne of Bohemia; the enclosure of Isabella of Woodstock), he argues that the poem’s resonances with the concept of the Holy Innocents would have been far more powerful to a contemporary audience. Much recent research has focused on the poem’s liturgical echoes of the feast of the Holy Innocents, but here Fletcher puts forward evidence drawn from the preaching prepared for this day, specifically citing an early fourteenth-century sermon by Nicholas de Aquevilla; this is translated into English, with an edition of the Latin also offered in an appendix. In the fourth chapter, on Piers Plowman, Fletcher revisits the question of Langland’s relation to preaching, beginning with Passus V and the sermon on contrition. Novice readers will find Fletcher’s deft summary of the poem’s complex transmission history very useful, whilst more experienced medievalists will enjoy the links that he draws between the poem’s textual history and the ever-receding goal of a definitive critical edition. Fletcher also draws parallels between those “participatory” scribes who made revisions to the poem and the situation that obtains in the sermon tradition where a preacher may have returned again and again to his material, rearranging and reshaping it over time, resulting in a similarly convoluted textual history in which the search for authentic readings is doomed to be a vain one.
By far the longest chapter (almost seventy pages) is that devoted to Chaucer, covering some parts of the Canterbury Tales (treating especially the Pardoner, Friar, Summoner, Monk, and Parson), and also An ABC and the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women. Here Fletcher’s topic is Chaucer’s relation to contemporary religious radicalism, first exploring the principal ways that Chaucer responded to and enlisted the culture of heresy in his writings, pointing to notions of errour and “glose,” and then speculating about Chaucer’s personal investment in this culture. [End Page 313] This chapter was first published a decade ago in SAC (25 ); it is here revised with one very significant addition: a new section, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Pynkhurst,” inserted to respond to Linne Mooney’s identification of Chaucer’s scribe as Adam Pinkhurst, and to draw in Fletcher’s own contention that another manuscript attributable to Pinkhurst may be Trinity College Dublin, MS 244: a volume of Lollard tracts. A final substantive chapter treats Malory’s Morte Darthur and argues that this is a text preoccupied with authority. Fletcher explores this preoccupation in terms of tropes and formulas, paying particular attention to Malory’s use of various tomb epitaphs.
Perhaps the most striking feature of this collection is its chronological range. Although the meatiest part of the volume is undoubtedly its analysis of the “big three” authors of late fourteenth-century England, Fletcher eschews the safer option of narrowly inhabiting the Ricardian period and is equally comfortable discussing texts from both the late thirteenth and the late fifteenth centuries. This generous chronological span ensures that all the major literary bases (debate, romance, dream-vision; Chaucerian and non-Chaucerian poetry; prose; secular and religious writing) find themselves covered in the collection. A strong linking thread is provided by Fletcher’s natural application of his considerable knowledge of sermons and medieval preaching, and it is this above all that unifies these interpretations of the major extant vernacular literary texts from late medieval England.