- The Making of Thomas Hoccleve’s “Series” by David Watt
By David Watt. Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press, 2013.
In The Making of Thomas Hoccleve’s “Series,” David Watt takes on one of Middle English literary scholarship’s persistent interpretive challenges: to characterize the thematic and formal unity in the sequence of disparate poems and other texts by the early fifteenth-century London poet Thomas Hoccleve that modern scholars simply dub the Series. Characterizing this compilation has been complicated by Hoccleve’s bibliographic record, which includes four surviving holograph manuscripts, one of which preserves a copy of the whole Series in Hoccleve’s own hand. Scholars have long been interested in the Series because of its pseudo-autobiographical narrative frame, in which a first person narrator named Thomas discusses the process of composing and assembling the book as it is being written—transforming it into something quite different from what he originally intended. This narrator also describes the process of recovering from a mental illness and reforming his moral reputation in his community, prompting numerous critics to analyze the Series in terms of Hoccleve’s psychology and rhetorical strategies. Watt, however, encourages us to view the narrative of Thomas’s ad hoc process of composition and compilation as a crucial part of the narrative of his illness and recovery. Watt argues that Thomas’s story about how his book changes over time as he imagines the needs of his readers serves as Hoccleve’s model for spiritual reform.
Part of Watt’s argument is traditionally historicist, in which he reads the narratives of personal reform and textual assembly in the Series against the backdrop of the ecumenical Council of Konstanz (1414–1418) and its goal to reform the Church in the wake of the Great Schism. Hoccleve would have had this Council on his mind while writing parts of the Series due to his clerical work in England’s Office of the Privy Seal—through which the English government communicated with its ambassadors at the Council. While the conciliar context alone is an innovation in Hoccleve criticism, Watt grounds this reading in a detailed study of manuscript evidence to illustrate how Hoccleve conceptualized [End Page 134] the purpose of his texts and their functions for his readers. As such, Watt provides the most convincing account yet published on the formal and thematic unity of the Series. Watt finds this unity in the way the text dramatizes its “making”—its piecemeal assembly as both a composition and material book over time—as a model for personal moral reform. This model shows reform to be fraught with the same challenges as textual production: an individual’s own problems, external interventions by other people, and problems with unforeseen worldly circumstances. The strength of Watt’s argument is in how it rests on the premise that “the Series’ coherence as a unit of analysis depends on both literary and bibliographic principles” (14).
With this multi-modal approach, Watt organizes his book into chapters that focus on each of the four surviving manuscripts that Hoccleve made himself, with a fifth chapter on one of the most significant scribal copies of the Series. In his first chapter, Watt considers how the various dedicatees of short occasional verses in Huntington Library MS HM 111 (which does not contain any part of the Series) compare with the audiences Hoccleve seems to envision for different parts of the Series. Watt’s comparisons reveal what he calls a “stratified” audience that includes members of the reading public, Hoccleve’s bureaucratic colleagues, and his noble patrons—each of whom were invited “to judge his texts by imagining how well they would have served the needs of other readers” (40). Although Watt does not consider this a call for empathy, he does suggest that an audience’s perception of other readers might lay the foundations for personal moral reform by considering other individuals as models.
In the second chapter, Watt explains how fifteenth-century English readers voraciously sought redemption from sin in vernacular religious texts. As a representative example, Watt...