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REVIEWS from a family of lawyers. But this knowledge fades before the desire to make more of these texts than they can provide. Unable to offer new insights into the chivalric way of thinking, the depositions serve instead as the kind of complacent self-advertisements that have always appealed to the military mind. Margaret Paston’s letters are subjected to a detailed external analysis. The use of scribes, the structure of the letter, the form of salutation and farewell, the address, even the messengers who transported them are all queried—but to little effect. The following is an all-too-typical sentence : ‘‘The unknown hands pose a number of questions, none of which we can answer.’’ Thematically, Rosenthal provides a sensible if familiar account of the strong-willed and often unpleasant Margaret, and of the intensely competitive world in which she lived. Much of this chapter is paraphrase, but it avoids any hint of either bathos or exaggeration. In that sense it is the best chapter in the book. This review has turned out to be less generous than it was meant to be. Rosenthal has attempted a difficult task, and if he has succeeded less well than one might have wished he should nonetheless be applauded for the effort. Perhaps the effort will inspire others, who will follow his path and find richer rewards. Or perhaps the pot of interpretive gold is just not there at all. In either case, the book should not be damned with faint praise, or given false praise, but admired for its ambition, its seriousness, and its intellectual honesty. Lee Patterson Yale University D. Vance Smith. Arts of Possession: The Middle English Household Imaginary . Medieval Cultures 33. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. Pp. xviii, 318. $22.95 paper. Vance Smith offers a dense and complex study of the medieval household , understood as central to both economic life and cultural practice in late fourteenth-century England. Drawing on a wide range of theorists from fields as diverse as economic anthropology, philosophy, and psychoanalysis, and incorporating extensive archival and historical research , Smith reads a handful of Middle English texts ranging from well PAGE 355 355 ................. 11491$ CH13 11-01-10 14:02:53 PS STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER to lesser known—Winner and Waster, Piers Plowman, Sir Orfeo, Sir Launfal , and the Alliterative Morte Arthure—in an attempt to trace the ‘‘household imaginary’’ that shapes them. Although the book moves well beyond its stated scope, particularly in its choice of literary texts to examine, its aim is to examine the household ‘‘as the trope that organizes the writing of romances in Middle English’’ (p. xiv). The title of the book, which derives from Aristotle’s description of the household as the location of the ‘‘possessive arts,’’ signals Smith’s particular interest in the economic significance of the household. Following the lead of social historians such as D. A. Starkey, Smith views the years after 1350 as the ‘‘age of the household,’’ during which the household functioned as the most important institution in society. As historians have shown, the household had many guises: it was simultaneously a location, a social collectivity, and, most important for Smith’s arguments, an ‘‘ideational place’’ in which ‘‘the commodities that allowed the very work of thinking to take place were kept’’ (p. 2). For Smith, the household is a crucial site that involves the self, the family, the realm, indeed, all life, and given this importance, it is no surprise that, as Smith notes, techniques for managing the household developed ‘‘in richly metaphorical and philosophical ways’’ (p. xiv). The book’s claim that Middle English romances take as their chief subject the exploration of an ethics of possession shaped by the household is boldly original. As Smith notes, the later fourteenth century was a period when ownership and dominion were matters of fascination and anxiety, and it thus makes sense that literary texts would frequently explore these subjects. Smith argues that the technical language of household management invades romances, perhaps because in his view their most likely authors were clerks responsible for household recordkeeping . In English romances, we can see the working out of ‘‘a particular set of...


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