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).

Friday, 13 June 2008

Jed Rubenfeld, The Interpretation of Murder (Headline, 2006)

Jed Rubenfeld's The Interpretation of Murder made a bit of a splash here by getting itself chosen by Richard and Judy as the best read of the year, and last year it was read as the book of the week on BBC Radio4. I took the long road to Cambridge and back yesterday and spent the eight hours on the bus reading this.

The story runs two parallel storylines, one centring on Freud's 1909 visit to the USA, and the other, the murder of a young woman in a bizarre S&M scenario in an expensive block of apartments in a posh part of New York City. When a second girl is attacked and survives, Freud and the circle of psychoanalysts around him become involved to help the girl recover her memory and identify the killer.

There is a good deal of atmospheric description of the social scene in New York City, and the first half of the book sets up the mystery rather well, I think. The problem is that as the novel draws to a close there is considerable difficulty in wrapping things up. I think that what has happened is that one layer of story has been laid upon another, all individually good ideas, but it ends up too layered and tying it all together becomes unwieldy. I see what Rubenfeld was trying to do and it is ambitious. The way that so much turns on the very simple detail of the monogram impression on the dead girl's neck, left there by the murderer, might have worked had it not gone through so many unnecessary twists, and when that details is 'explained' at the end, I'm afraid that it leaves you a little at a loss. Again, the idea that the killer is someone you never expected is certainly a satisfying part of a good crime novel. However, the way that this killer's motives are set within the context of psychoanalysis leaves one a little cold, almost unconvinced.

All the Freud and Jung stuff is quite interesting, the tension and rivalry between them. There's also the very enjoyable hint that Jung might be the murderer, not one you're supposed to take very seriously, but it's a bit of a giggle. And Freud and Jung occupy a position that is slightly off centre in the book. So the analysis, the investigating, the direct contact with the murder and the amnesiac witness, are all done by Dr Younger and Det. Littlemore. I think this might have rendered the presence of Freud greater had it been handled better, but as it is, they remained characters badly in need of more fleshing out.

Having said all of this, I did keep reading, and the weaknesses of the book only become apparent in the final 40 or 50 pages. Bring it on holidays. You'll enjoy it.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

MS Chig. L. V. 176

Book buying has been proceeding apace over the last month or so. Was very lucky to pick up Dobson's Origins of the Ancrene Wisse and his edition of MS Cotton Cleopatra C. vi; paid too much for a pb of Spearing's Medieval Dream-Poetry (CUP, 1976), but it is very hard to find. And I keep finding nice things in Oxfam these days on Chaucer, such as Fisher's The Importance of Chaucer, Rowe's Through Nature to Eternity, and also a lovely little paperback of Ruggiers' translation of Barbi's Life of Dante.

What I am particularly pleased with, however, is the last two acquisitions. The first is Oskar Hecker's Boccaccio-Funde, and important early (1902) treatment of Boccaccio's manuscripts and the so-called parva libreria. It was a great price too, obviously someone did not love it. Much work has been done since, of course, and there are many points at which this study has been superseded. But it is surprising how often it is necessary to return to it. The second purchase was the surprise find: Il codice Chigiano L. V. 176 autografo di Giovanni Boccaccio, intro. Domenico de Robertis, Codices e Vaticanis Selecti, 37 (Rome; Florence: Alinari, 1975). Now I have seen this around, but usually for a large number of Euros. This required only forty-five of them, and it is in super condition.

This manuscript is very important. It contains: Boccaccio's Vita di Dante;* Dante's Vita nova; Cavalcanti's Donna me prega with Dino del Garbo's commentary; Boccaccio's Ytalie iam certus honos; fifteen of Dante's lyric poems; Petrarch's Canzoniere (the so-called 'forma Chigi'). De Robertis explains rather lucidly, in his introduction, that this manuscript is almost certainly to be linked with another in the Chigiano library, MS L. VI. 213. This manuscript contains Boccaccio's Breve raccoglimento of the Commedia and a copy of the Commedia itself. As de Robertis says of all of this: 'L'integrazione di Dante con Petrarca è dunque la vera novità della silloge boccaccesca' (p. 28). Much is not known about how or indeed why the manuscript was taken apart and rebound, but it might well have been Boccaccio himself. The Cavalcanti with del Garbo commentary looks like it belongs, chronologically, to a slightly different period in the history of the manuscript, and it has been suggested that it was a late addition by Boccaccio (this part is, too, in Boccaccio's hand). The Cavalcanti section occupies a part of the manuscript that has been thought to have originally comprised the Commedia. A recent and very interesting treatment of this manuscript is to be found in Martin George Eisner, 'Boccaccio Between Dante and Petrarch: The Chigiano Codex, Terza Rima Trilogy, and the Shaping of Italian Literary History' (unpublished PhD thesis, Columbia University, 2005), esp. chapter two. I very much hope this study is published since it deserves a wider audience.

*The image is a manuscript now in the Biblioteca Provinciale di Foggia, with the following online catalogue entry:


Cart.; mm. sec. XV (1475); mm. 145 x 220; ce. 29, ciascuna di 26 linee; numer. originale; scrittura umanistica; iniziali in rosso ed azzurro; ril. recente; dorso in pelle, con lettere e fregi in oro e n. di collocazione 139.

Prov.: Nicola Zingarelli, 1936.

A c. 29: «Qui finisce della origine vita et costumi et studii di dante aldighieri poeta clarissimo et delle opere composte dallui fatta da giovanni bocchacci addi XXIII di luglio ore XV MCCCCLXXV» sul verso del foglio di guardia anteriore note autografe a matita di Nicola Zingarelli: «Ms with text different from the first printed edition» e «Da questo ms. deve provenire direttamente il Laurenziano PI. LXV, n. 41, che ha lo stesso n. d'ordine che qui si vede da c. 16; invece il Magl. II, IV, 20, che è strettamente affine ad essi, non può derivare dal Laurenziano, come si afferma da Macrì Leone e da Rostagno, nè dal presente; questo ms. è il più antico della famiglia, come dimostra la grafia. N. Z.»


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