Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Being Boethius: Vitae, Politics, and Treason in Thomas Usk's Testament of Love

Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Being Boethius: Vitae, Politics, and Treason in Thomas Usk's Testament of Love

Article excerpt

Thomas Usk's Boethian imitation, the Testament of Love, draws much-needed attention to how manuscript paratextual material influenced medieval readings of authoritative texts such as de Consolatione philosophiae (hereafter, Consolatio). Although manuscript survival rates place the Consolatio as the second most popular medieval book after the scriptures, modern commentators have reduced the Boethian structure to a gradual process of education and abstraction from temporal concerns. On the contrary, Boethius's own self-representation, as well as Latin vitae and gloss, paint a portrait of Boethius as an active politician, who chose to appear treasonous to his ruler and uphold civic and religious liberty rather than disobey the dictates of philosophy. As such, Boethius became particularly accessible to medieval authors with political ambitions--and missteps--of their own. By examining the Boethian tradition, which spans Latin commentary as well as vernacular sources like Geoffrey Chaucer's translation of the Consolatio and Troilus and Criseyde, one may understand more fully aspects of Boethian texts that do not appear to fit with the detached and contemplative paradigm ascribed to Boethian literature. Usk's comfort in aligning himself with Boethius--not despite, but because of his multiple political reversals--reveals how the darker side of Boethius influenced the reading and rewriting of English Boethian literature in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

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THOMAS Usk seems a poor candidate to impersonate Boethius, a Roman consul, classical philosopher, and Catholic saint. Usk, a scrivener and legal clerk who intrigued on behalf of London magnate John Northampton, not only schemed amid the city's violent factions but, to save himself, turned king's evidence against his failed associates. Back in power in the Merciless Parliament, they would get their revenge in 1388 and send him to the scaffold, purportedly, for treason to the king. Yet treason, both the reality and the charge, enabled Usk to cast himself as Boethius in his prison consolatio, the Testament of Love (ca. 1386). For side by side with Boethius's upstanding qualities, the shadow of treason persists explicitly in a paratextual tradition of de Consolatione philosophiae (524), although little noted by literary scholars. The biographical vitae that often prefaced the Consolatio recounted the details--sometimes contradictory--of Boethius's ambivalent relationship with his ruler, Theodoric. Hence, the first purpose of this essay is to draw attention to this significant but neglected tradition, a rich source of information and interpretation for the Consolatio tradition. The second purpose is to show how it may illuminate the frequent conflict of loyalties in medieval Boethian literature as well as the possibility for Boethian figures to remain active in worldly matters.

Accordingly I take an extreme case study, Usk's Testament of Love, in which Usk aligns his own self-representations with those of the unjustly persecuted Boethius. Weighed down by despair at the charges against him, Boethius developed in the de Consolatione philosophiae a persona that overlaps with and textually transforms his historical person, creating a model for subsequent authors' and characters' recuperations. By impersonating Boethius, Usk seeks simultaneously to acknowledge and overcome the less satisfactory aspects of his own biography. The Testament of Love marshals aspects of the medieval Boethian tradition, also present in more canonical Boethian texts like John Gower's Confessio Amantis and Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, that have too often been ignored by critics: chiefly, that necessity may constrain prudent persons, spurred on by Philosophy, to involve themselves in worldly concerns and to take sides amid grey and conflicting loyalties in which there may be no ideal solution. Thus not only does Boethius serve Usk and others as a powerful apologia for political action, but his example draws its power from his very failure as a politician. …

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