Monday, 16 June 2008

Stephen Medcalf (ed), The Later Middle Ages (London, 1981)

When I was in Cambridge last week I picked up a couple of rather things, all for under five of these English pounds. The first was David Bevington's 1975 Houghton Mifflin anthology Medieval Drama; the second, wonderfully, was the 1983 third edition of Beryl Smalley's The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages. These are both marvellous and I'm heartily happy to have them. The third was something I'd been keeping a casual eye out for lately and was surprised and happy to see it: Stephen Medcalf (ed), The Later Middle Ages (London: Methuen, 1981). I am now happy to read it. I saw a good many references to it in the Hoccleve criticism, but this is not a book that gets cited much outside this criticism and I am very puzzled as to why. Then I got curious about him and did a bit of online snooping, only to discover that he died last September. And his obituaries have all been extraordinary: in the Guardian, by Josipovici, his colleague at Sussex; in the Independant, the Telegraph, the Times, and the Church Times. The descriptions of the chaos in which he lived are memorable and I particularly enjoyed his response to the question, could he find any volume in his library, "Within a foot or two". Gabriel Josipovici writes:
He would not have lasted long in the present academic climate, which is the poorer for turning its back on people like Medcalf and Dyson and a whole host of Oxbridge teachers of an earlier generation, who felt that what they were there for was to teach, to impart to their students the values they themselves had learned from their teachers and from the authors they admired.

There is far too much truth in these words, and the things that are being allowed to happen in the academy make me sad, sad for all that is being lost. I am, then, coming to the book with a slightly different dispositio, reading it as a memorial and knowing, in a small way, some of the things that made Medcalf tick. The volume makes sense in a slightly different way now, I think, than it did to its reviewers (Lois Ebin in Spec 58 [1983], 509-511; M.G.A. Vale, English Historical Review 99 [1984], 418-419).

The volume is collaborative, comprising five individually-authored chapters. The first, by Medcalf, is entitled 'On reading books from a half-alien culture', pp. 1-55; the second, by Marjorie Reeves and Stephen Medcalf, 'The ideal, the real and the quest for perfection', pp. 56-107; the third, by Medcalf, 'Inner and outer', pp. 108-171; the fourth, by Nicola Coldstream, 'Art and architecture in the late Middle Ages', pp. 172-224; and finally, the fifth, by David Starkey, 'The age of the household: politics, society and the arts c. 1350-c. 1550', pp. 225-290. An epilogue, by Mecalf, entitled 'From Troilus to Troilus' (pp. 291-305) closes the book. The final two chapters are very interesting, and extremely good introductions to the architectural history of the period, and the chapter on the household is fascinating - my reading nicely segueing with publication of Elliot Kendall's new study, Lordship and Literature: John Gower and the Politics of the Great Household. Medcalf's contributions are extremely good, I think. There is something of a mind wrestling about them, of a tough thinking through big big ideas. It's a broad-brush stroke study, so I can see how critics might want more micro detail. But I think that the zoomed out view is very compelling, and there are many points where it is clear that the water is running very deep. And then there are the startling little details, which I hope will give you a sense of the way that tiny details can get picked up across a wide wide range of reading and be brought together. Medcalf is comparing Hoccleve's Prologue to the Regiment of Princes and Wordsworth's 'Resolution and Independence' and 'The Leechgatherer':
"The poems have the same seven-line stanza, rhyming ababbcc (rhyme royal), except that Wordsworth lengthens the last line each stanza by two syllables. So, although Hoccleve's poem was not printed till after Wordsworth's death, the coincidences seem great enough to suggest that Wordsworth had seen one of the manuscripts, possibly that in his own college of St John's, Cambridge, attracted perhaps by reading in Warton's History of English Poetry about the portrait of Chaucer, and moved by the theme he puts in his poem of 'Mighty poets in their misery dead'. If so, Hoccleve's poem would have given form to an incident that certainly happened to Wordsworth" (p. 136).

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