The New Fifteenth Century: Humanism, Heresy, and Laureation

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This essay examines three recent books focused on the fifteenth century--Robert Meyer-Lee's Poets and Power from Chaucer to Wyatt (Cambridge U. Press, 2007), Daniel Wakelin's Humanism, Reading, and English Literature: 1430-1530 (Oxford U. Press, 2007), and Andrew Cole's Literature and Heresy in the Age of Chaucer (Cambridge U. Press, 2008)--and argues that a new picture of the transitional period between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in England has begun to emerge over the past ten years. It also discusses the groundbreaking work of James Simpson (The Oxford English Literary History, Volume 2, 1350-1547: Reform and Cultural Revolution [Oxford U. Press, 2002]), and Paul Strohm (Politique: Languages of Statecraft between Chaucer and Shakespeare [Notre Dame, IN: U. of Notre Dame Press, 2005]).

Critical interest in reclaiming the fifteenth century has come about, I think, as both an extension of and a response to the historicism that dominated medieval and early modern literary study in the nineties. On the one hand, because the first efforts of historicists focused on Chaucer and on the Ricardian period, younger critics began to feel that the late fourteenth century had been exhausted as an area of investigation. It was hard to think of new things to say in the historicist vein about Chaucer and things Chaucerian in the wake of Strohm, Patterson, Middleton, Wallace, and others. The fifteenth century seemed like a logical place to go to extend the reach of historicism, not quite a new world to conquer, but instead an imitation of the old world that had yet to be assimilated. The parallel between Lydgate and Hoccleve as imitators of Chaucer and their critics as imitators of the early historicists was not lost on anyone. At the same time, however, these fifteenth-century critics had not failed to notice that their century forms a bridge between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in England. Renaissance New Historicism did not account for the fifteenth century; it seemed as if the sixteenth century emerged fully formed from the surrogacy of the Middle Ages, unaffected by centuries of writing and thinking, and harking back only to the classical past. Nor did other modes of Renaissance criticism spend much time thinking about the contiguity of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; most literary critics were eager to investigate what C. S. Lewis called the "golden age" of Elizabethan verse and drama. Once the doors to the fifteenth century's library of written work had been opened, however, it was easy to see how early sixteenth-century poets were stylistically and thematically akin to their Lancastrian and Yorkist predecessors. Indeed, when the poetry of Wyatt (for example) was copied from its manuscript sources, it looked very much like the work of fifteenth-century lyricists--though that resemblance had been hidden by modern editing practices. Work on the fifteenth century thus presented an implicit reproach to early modernists for their tendency to forget or misrepresent the Middle Ages.

This "forgetting" was produced by a complex set of assumptions about the origins of the Renaissance and the revival of classical learning associated with it, a set of assumptions partly promulgated by early modern writers and partly promoted by Renaissance scholars in the interest of maintaining the boundary between the two periods. The scholarly turn to the fifteenth century on the part of medievalists proved to be a serious threat to the stability of that boundary. So if one simplistic description of the efflorescence of scholarship on the fifteenth century focuses on the dominance of Ricardian historicism and the appeal of Chaucer's imitators to young scholars in search of research topics, a more nuanced account looks to the beginnings and ends of the long fifteenth century for its larger significance. Both Ricardian historicism and Renaissance New Historicism are implicated here, as powerful structures of thought against which fifteenth-century scholarship presses and from which it derives various concepts and tools of analysis. …


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