Occasions for Writing: Essays on Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Politics and Society.
Four Courts: Dublin, 2010. 272 pp. 14 black & white illustrations.
This volume gathers together twelve essays by John Scattergood, Professor Emeritus of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Trinity College, Dublin. Seven have already appeared in print, between 2001 and 2008; the remaining five are new. Those familiar with Professor Scattergood's work will not be surprised to find here immensely intricate treatments, studded with detail, of the social, political and literary environments of late medieval Europe, with an emphasis on England and Ireland.
Most of these essays are described by the author as "occasional" pieces, both in the sense that they are about texts written in response to external factors and that they are themselves prompted by such factors. He does not provide much specific information about what these latter might be, so the reader can enjoy speculating what it was that might have provided the stimulus for individual essays.
The collection is divided into two unequal sections. "Movements" treats broad themes across time and place in the Middle Ages, while "Incidents" focuses on the more local and specific from the fourteenth to the early sixteenth century. Part I opens with the most ambitious and wide-ranging chapter in the book, previously unpublished: "Redeeming English: Language and National Identity in the Later Middle Ages." This moves in masterly fashion from the erasure of English as an "official" language in post-Conquest England to its triumph by the mid-fourteenth century as the national language of England and also the dominant language of Ireland. "'The Unequal Scales of Love': Love and Social Class in Andreas Capellanus's De Amore and Some Later Texts" sets off unexpectedly from Ben Jonson but then travels from twelfth-century Champagne to Margery Paston, via Le Roman de la Rose, Medwall's Fulgens and Lucres, and Aucassin and Nicolette. "Writing the Clock: the Reconstruction of Time in the Late Middle Ages" examines references to clocks, and time, in Chaucer, Dante, Villon, and the Cely letters, before discussing the invention of the mechanical clock, probably in the late thirteenth century, and its influence on changing concepts of time.
Part II is arranged chronologically, opening with "Elegy for a Dangerous Man: Piers of Bermingham," a contribution to the controversy over this early fourteenth-century Anglo-Irish poem in BL Harley MS 913. The criminal theme continues in "On the Road: Langland and Some Medieval Outlaw Stories," which considers outlaws' equivocal position and their strategies, as evidenced in English and Anglo-Norman texts. "London and Money: Chaucer's Complaint to his Purse" considers another controversial poem, setting it beside other texts that attack London as an expensive city where public servants could not rely on being paid (sounds familiar? …