- Invention and Authorship in Medieval England by Robert R. Edwards
In this elegantly written and attractive study, Robert Edwards explores the different ways in which late medieval English writers positioned themselves in the ‘discursive field’ of authorship (p. xii). The book considers authors from the late twelfth century and the late fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, though the bulk of its pages are devoted to writers active between c. 1380 and 1450. Gower, Chaucer, Hoccleve, and Lydgate are each the subject of a chapter, with an additional short chapter transitioning from Chaucer to the early Chaucerians. Two earlier chapters consider Walter Map and Marie de France. In each case, Edwards aims to recover the author’s attempts to position themselves in the conceptual field of medieval authorial theory and literary tradition by considering their extant corpus as a whole and the larger trajectories of their careers, alternately summarizing their works and offering his readings of passages that are especially relevant to issues of authority, authorial self-presentation, and the placement of the writer in relation to his sources or antecedents. For Chaucer, for example, we are told that this ‘negotiation proceeds reciprocally through imitation and refusal’ (p. 106), while Gower’s ‘poems actively negotiate the position not just of a poet creating his works but also of a writer located within literary traditions [End Page 92] and discursive communities’ (p. 64). Like the passages on which Edwards focuses his readings, the general claims made about these authors will be largely familiar from recent criticism, cited amply throughout the volume.
Quite clearly, the topic that Edwards proposes to address is vast, and some decisions had to be made to limit the scope to something manageable—hence the general restriction of his treatment, described in the Introduction (pp. xii–xiii), to secular narrative verse. This focus is surely defensible and potentially useful, but the claim that these works in particular (as opposed to, say, religious lyric, Piers Plowman and related texts, or anything in prose) are distinguished by ‘a primary rather than instrumental commitment to imagination, expression, and the allusive resources of language’ is dubious at best, while the suggestion that these works should be considered apart from others under the specific heading ‘literary authorship’ is neither necessary nor helpful (pp. xii–xiii). Likewise, the volume makes few if any new claims about medieval theories of authorship and authority. Foundational studies by Alastair Minnis and Rita Copeland are summarized in the Introduction (pp. xviii–xxiv), and much of the scholastic interpretive vocabulary recovered in their work is deployed in Edwards’ readings (e.g., forma or modus tractandi consistently used as a loose synonym for ‘style,’ sometimes problematically, as on p. 64). Rather than bringing to bear new sources to deepen our understanding of these historically specific ideas, medieval authorial theories are generalized to provide a context for interpreting the poetic texts. Similarly, considering more recent attempts to extend or complicate these theories—e.g., Matthew Fisher’s work on ‘scribal authorship,’ or Robert Meyer-Lee’s on Lydgate and ‘the emergence of the literary’—could have helped to develop the readings offered here in new and more fruitful ways.
The main achievement of this book therefore lies in its offering of fresh and compelling insights into specific texts, as in the case of Edwards’ reading of Marie de France and the Ovidian ‘erotic interim’ (p. 53), or when he reveals that Walter Map’s cagey approach to literary authority in De nugis anticipates Chaucer’s own reticence. Such insights would play out very well in a class on authority and late medieval English poetry—indeed, the volume as a whole suggests the contours of such a seminar. Edwards has thus produced a study of considerable pedagogic usefulness, for which he is to be congratulated.