Occasions for Writing: Essays on Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Politics and Society

By Gasse, Rosanne | Fifteenth Century Studies, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Occasions for Writing: Essays on Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Politics and Society


Gasse, Rosanne, Fifteenth Century Studies


Scattergood, V.J. Occasions for Writing: Essays on Metheval and Renaissance Literature, Politics and Society. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2010. Pp. 272.

Occasions for Writing is a collection of twelve articles on various aspects of metheval and Renaissance (mosdy English) literature. All of the essays are written by John Scattergood, Emeritus Professor of Metheval and Renaissance Literature at Trinity College, Dublin.

The work begins by claiming as its unifying factor that all the texts concerned are examples of "occasional" writing. But beyond Scattergood's providing a very brief overview in the Preface of what "occasional writing" means to him - which is that the selected texts respond to specific external factors, whether political, social, or religious in nature, in a manner which promulgates each author's point of view on a subject - there is no attempt to present a larger argument arising from the disparate articles. Instead, the collection represents Scattergood's own wide-ranging interests over a span of nearly ten years. Seven of the chapters have been formerly published in other venues, while chapters one, four, five, seven, and nine are new.

The book falls into two main sections: "Movements" and "Incidents." The three articles in Part One look at broad issues which have developed over time and to which several authors have chosen to respond. The first essay, "Redeeming English: Language and National Identity in the Later Middle Ages," reviews the status of the English language from the time of the Conquest through its resurgence in the fourteenth and fifteendi centuries, in terms of land, race, and the creation of an English national identity. The story is not entirely what one might expect. While the Conquest certainly fractured English society along lines of race, class, and language (p. 24), Scattergood points out that the perception that English held a lowly status was true enough for English as a written language but not true at all about English as an oral medium. "Norman" officials had to be able to function orally in English in order to govern the English-speaking population. There is thus a split between the status of English as an oral medium (average) and the status of English as a written medium (low). Bringing the discussion forward to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Scattergood also briefly considers the situation in Ireland and the efforts of the Engfish-speaking colonizers there to maintain a culture and identity distinct from that of the native Gaelic population.

The two other articles in this section of the book, both previously published, look respectively at (1) issues of love and social class in Andreas Capellanus's De Amore as well as in multiple other texts that fit loosely within the courtly tradition, ranging from Le Roman de la Rose, to Medwall's Fulgens and Lucrece, to romances like The Squire of Low Degree, Dunbar's In Secreit Place, to the Paston Letters, and even to Donne's aubade Break of Day; and (2) at changing views of time due to technological advancements in timekeeping in the late Middle Ages, again as evident through a survey of an impressive array of multiple textual sources.

Part Two, "Incidents," focuses more narrowly upon specific personalities or events that inspired literary reactions. Reprinted are articles on Geoffrey Chaucer's Complaint to his Purse, the anonymous Libelle ofEnglyshe Polycye, John Skelton's Magnyfycence, Thomas Wyatt's Epistolary Satires, and John Leland's Itinerary. Of the four new articles in this part of the collection, the first, "Elegy for a Dangerous Man: Piers ofBermingham? looks at the rarelystudied 132-line elegy for the Anglo-Irish local leader Sir Piers de Bermingham (died 1308?), which survives in a unique copy in British Library MS Harley 913. This man's claim to fame comes down to his unrelenting oppression of the Irish, especially the 1305 massacre of the O'Conors.

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