The Bureaucratic Muse

The Bureaucratic Muse: Thomas Hoccleve and the Literature of Late Medieval England

Ethan Knapp
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 220
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  • Book Info
    The Bureaucratic Muse
    Book Description:

    Long neglected as a marginal and eccentric figure, Thomas Hoccleve (1367–1426) wrote some of the most sophisticated and challenging poetry of the late Middle Ages. Full of gossip and autobiographical detail, his work has made him immensely useful to modern scholars, yet Hoccleve the poet has remained decidedly in the shadow of Geoffrey Chaucer. In The Bureaucratic Muse, Ethan Knapp investigates the connections between Hoccleve's poetic corpus and his life as a clerk of the Privy Seal. The early fifteenth century was a watershed moment in the histories of both centralized bureaucracy and English vernacular literature. These were the decades in which Chaucer's experiments in a courtly English poetry were rendered into a stable tradition and in which the central writing offices at Westminster emerged from personal government into the full-blown modernity of independent civil service. Knapp shows the importance of Hoccleve's poetry as a site where these two histories come together. By following the shifting relationship between the texts of vernacular poetry and those of bureaucratic documents, Knapp argues that the roots of vernacular fiction reach back into the impersonal documentary habits of a bureaucratic class. The Bureaucratic Muse, the first full-length study of Hoccleve since 1968, provides an authoritative historical and textual treatment of this important but underappreciated writer. Chapters focus on Hoccleve's importance in consolidating key concepts of the literary field such as autobiography, religious heterodoxy, gendered identity, and post-Chaucer textuality. This book will be of interest to scholars of Middle English literature, autobiography, gender studies, and the history of literary institutions.

    eISBN: 978-0-271-05430-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    This book explores the writing of the poet Thomas Hoccleve and the early fifteenth-century bureaucratic culture that shaped that writing. The past decade has produced a stunning shift in the relative importance granted to the political and religious developments of the early fifteenth century. Once generally dismissed as an age of plodding didacticism and Chaucerian mimicry, the fifteenth century now appears as a period of momentous cultural development. In a critical climate suspicious of any hint of a teleological historicism, it may seem foolhardy to suggest a privileged relation between this moment and our own modernity. Nevertheless, much current scholarship...

  5. ONE Bureaucratic Identity and the Construction of the Self in Hoccleve’s Formulary and “La Male Regle”
    (pp. 17-44)

    In 1915, in a talk entitled “The English Civil Service in the Fourteenth Century,” T. F. Tout drew the following contrast between Geoffrey Chaucer and his poetic disciple, Hoccleve:

    Thomas Hoccleve was a friend and in a humble fashion a poetic follower of Chaucer, but while the broad sweep of the great poet’s vision disregarded personal reminiscence andanecdotic trivialitythe lowly muse of Hoccleve found its most congenial inspiration in the details of his private and official life. In all the great gallery of the Canterbury Pilgrims there was no public servant whose adventures and personality Chaucer deigned to...

  6. TWO The Letter of Cupid: Gender and the Foundations of Poetic Authority
    (pp. 45-76)

    The parameters, both material and textual, within which the autobiographical component so central to Hoccleve’s work was constructed, also frame one of his early compositions, theLetter of Cupid(1402).¹ The literary culture of fifteenth-century England suffered a protracted crisis in authority, a recurrent doubt about the grounding and merit of vernacular poetic composition. As Seth Lerer has argued, Chaucer’s overpowering precedent led many fifteenth-century poets into incessant admissions of in-adequacy and attempts to reground their authority by crafting authorial personae in the footsteps of Chaucer or even of Chaucer’s fictional characters.² Others attempted to create a place of authority...

  7. THREE “Wrytynge no travaille is”: Scribal Labor in the Regement of Princes
    (pp. 77-106)

    It has been the aim of the first two chapters of this study to trace out the implications of an early bureaucratic culture as an important source of Hoccleve’s poetic persona, to argue on the one hand that the contemporary financial anxieties in those offices were a shaping influence on his experiment in autobiography and, on the other hand, to argue that the growing laicization of clerkly bureaucrats led him into an interest in the more liminal definitions of gendered identity and an attempt to find a source of authority independent of masculine positions within the court and ecclesiastical structures....

  8. FOUR Eulogies and Usurpations: Father Chaucer in the Regement of Princes
    (pp. 107-128)

    Perhaps no ideology is so central to the institution of literary history as that of filial piety. Despite recent debate over the content and function of literary canons, and despite theoretical critiques of organic, continuous historical models, the implicit frame within which we read and teach is still grounded, in the last resort, on notions of sources and influence thoroughly genealogical at their core.¹ It is, indeed, hard to imagine a form of literary history that would not be genealogical. Could we imagine the field of literature other than as a succession of texts arrayed in time, locked together as...

  9. FIVE Hoccleve and Heresy: Image, Memory, and the Vanishing Mediator
    (pp. 129-158)

    Modern critics usually characterize the religious Hoccleve as a harshly orthodox writer, the author of the “Address to Sir John Oldcastle,” and an enthusiastic cultural worker in the Lancastrian campaign against Lollardy. There is certainly much to support such an identification in Hoccleve’s poetry. He expresses his vehement opposition to Lollardy in three separate works. In the very public and well-distributedRegement of PrincesHoccleve describes the burning of John Badby with absolutely no sympathy, referring to him only as “a wrecche /Nat fern ago, which that of heresie /Convict and brent was unto asshen drie” (lines 285–87). In...

  10. SIX “Ful bukkissh is his brayn”: Writing, Madness, and Bureaucratic Culture in the Series
    (pp. 159-184)

    There is something uncanny about autobiography. As Sartre put it, the writing of autobiography is essentially a posthumous enterprise, one in which the production of meaning requires the ghostly premonition of an ending, some conclusion to draw the narrative of a life to a close and endow it with meaning. Hoccleve’sSeriestempts us to read it as just such a conclusion. His verse is marked throughout his career by a struggle between speech and silence, a persistent conflict between assertion and reticence, and within the context of these thematics the timing of theSeriesitself carries a measure of...

  11. Afterword
    (pp. 185-186)

    So appeared the bureaucratic offices, and their inhabitants, to Balzac’s penetrating eye in 1838.¹ Balzac describes bureaucracy here as a close cousin to the theater. It is a space entered for trifles, a space opposed to the well-lit realm of nature and the external world. It, like Hoccleve’s chamber, is a permeable interior, entered here through the dark corridor and through the refractions of self-conscious artifice—doors pierced by oval panes that appear as unpromising doubles to the supplicant’s eyes. And if one were to peer through these ovals, the images within have nothing to do with the clarity and...

  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 187-204)
  13. Index
    (pp. 205-210)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 211-211)