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  • Author, Scribe, and Book in Late Medieval English Literature by Rory G. Critten
  • Jonathan Stavsky
Author, Scribe, and Book in Late Medieval English Literature. By Rory G. Critten. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2018. Pp. xii + 226; 3 illustrations. $99.

This study joins a substantial body of scholarship that considers writings of different periods and genres in the context of the material witnesses that preserve them and the networks of production, transmission, and reception that have influenced their makeup and contents. At its best, the integration of close reading, book history, and other forms of historical inquiry permits a fuller understanding of individual works and broader trends in literary history than any of these approaches might yield on its own. Nevertheless, maintaining the right balance between them is a precarious business. Not only does each have a different purview and follow different protocols, but also in cases where the evidence specific to one kind of method is sparse or inconclusive, the lure of extrapolating from another set of data becomes hard to resist.

Through a series of case studies devoted to works by Thomas Hoccleve, Margery Kempe, John Audelay, and Charles d’Orléans, Rory Critten explores the diverse manifestations of a model of authorship that he argues emerged in England during the fifteenth century: one that favors sustained personal engagement in the production of a single-author manuscript (or several) whose function is to rehabilitate or manipulate the author’s reputation, if only by proving that she is capable of leaving a written record of her experiences despite past hardships. Of the four, Hoccleve alone was the self-publishing scribe of his own poetry; the rest collaborated closely with scribes but did not put pen to paper or parchment for various reasons—gender, disability, social rank. While Critten finds it unlikely [End Page 131] that any of them influenced the other, the similarities he detects between their individual projects testify, he suggests, to a historically specific literary culture, however fragmented and short-lived.

The Introduction defines the scope of this culture and distinguishes it from Chaucer’s and Gower’s attitudes to medieval technologies of book production. For the former, they were a necessary evil rather than an integral and meaningful component of his work: scribes were forever to be kept under check, as he—or someone else with a similar frame of mind—complains in “Adam Scriveyn.” The notorious “diversite” of Middle English further threatened his “Italian humanist understanding of the poetic vocation” (p. 9). Even when Chaucer “present[s] himself as the ‘lewd compilator’ both of his Treatise on the Astrolabe . . . and, by inference, of the Canterbury Tales,” the “language of bookmaking” serves “not to emphasize his proximity to his work but to distance himself from it” (p. 15). To be sure, Gower took a more active part in copying his oeuvre, albeit to a lesser extent than has previously been assumed (pp. 17–18). Yet his successive revisions of the Latin poem “Quicquid homo scribat” gradually come to represent prayer as superior to manual writing, thereby allowing him to “achiev[e] his apotheosis” through “blindness and old age” (p. 15). At the same time, both authors handed down a set of metaliterary commonplaces, such as the envoy to Troilus and Criseyde, that helped their heirs formulate new relations to bookmaking (pp. 21–25).

Whereas the influence of these Ricardian luminaries on Hoccleve and Charles d’Orléans is unmistakable, their relevance to Kempe and Audelay is less certain. A broader treatment of the history of self-publication on both sides of the Channel would have provided better context for understanding the developments he identifies in fifteenth-century England, though Critten does mention the “distant predecessors Layamon and Orm” (p. 30, to which list one might add Matthew Paris) as well as the more recent examples of Thomas Usk, William Langland (pp. 25–26), Julian of Norwich (p. 19), Guillaume de Machaut, Jean Froissart (pp. 16, 54, 156–58), and Christine de Pizan (p. 158). The discussion of Chaucer could have also benefited from attention to passages that complicate his stance of uninvolvement and nonaccountability, for instance the prologue...