Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Thomas Hoccleve's Mother of God and Balade to the Virgin and Christ: Latin and Anglo-Norman Sources

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Thomas Hoccleve's Mother of God and Balade to the Virgin and Christ: Latin and Anglo-Norman Sources

Article excerpt

The tide of critical appreciation has been turning in favour of Thomas Hoccleve's poetry in recent decades. One of the first scholars to write more positively of Hoccleve's work than had been customary was Jerome Mitchell, whose major re-evaluation was published in 1968.' Two selections of Hoccleve's verse are now available in paperback editions.2 Acknowledgement of his achievements is extending beyond the areas of interest conceded even by disparaging critics: beyond the successful expression of his indebtedness to his master, Chaucer; beyond the vivid detailing of the malady that afflicted him in 1416 when the substance of his memory 'went to pleie as for a certein space';3 beyond his skilful use of apostrophe and dialogue. Hoccleve was a Privy Seal clerk, so that much of his time was spent writing official letters and documents, which may have given rise in the past to a feeling that his writing is likely to be dreary, but attention has now been drawn to the interesting professional 'bookishness' or 'bookness' of Hoccleve's texts, as well as to the sophisticated creation of the 'book-making' persona in his final sequence of poems.4 The holograph manuscripts are carefully and clearly written.5 The introduction to a recent edition of his Letter of Cupid, which is an abridged translation, or adaptation, of Christine de Pizan's Epistre, comments on the 'lively, oddly whimsical, accomplished' aspects of Hoccleve's writing, and to the 'slipperiness' of his apparent anxious sympathy towards women, which has perhaps mistakenly been interpreted as naive and lacking in complexity.6 Even his metres and versification are receiving neutral, if not positive, appraisal.7

The case for a positive re-assessment of the poems is put by M. C. Seymour in the introduction to his Selections from Hoccleve, where it is affirmed that future individual studies will make possible a fuller understanding and a more exact recognition of the poet's value: 'Further work of this kind, especially a detailed examination of his sources and analogues, will undoubtedly enhance this understanding.'8 In the present article, previously unrecognized or incompletely identified source materials for two of Hoccleve's poems are presented. The first of these is the composite Latin prayer O intemerata et in aeternum benedicta, specialis et incomparabilis virgo, Dei genitrix Maria, the latter part of which yielded some of the material for the Mother of God attributed for several centuries to Chaucer, but recognized for the last hundred years as Hoccleve's work. The second is the concluding section of the AngloNorman text on which his Balade to the Vtrgin and Christ was based.9

Most of Hoccleve's religious poetry was probably written during his youth, and much of it is devotional poetry in honour of the Virgin Mary. It follows orthodox patterns of belief and expression, but conveys at the same time a strong sense of personal conviction and faith. The focus is often on suffering: on the suffering and Passion of Christ; on the sorrows of the Virgin; on the suffering and penitence of mankind. The flesh is a recurring theme, and the Devil often features more prominently and more grimly in Hoccleve's texts than in his source materials. Yet the poems are trusting and hopeful. The poems to the Virgin are often based on texts which originated as prayers of private devotion, of the type commonly found in a psalter or Book of Hours. Although liturgical and biblical motifs abound, the emphasis is devotional and contemplative.

There is a marked difference between Hoccleve's religious style and the style of his fifteenth-century contemporaries. As Mitchell observes:

Because some poets reveled in aureate diction, rhetoric, and bombastic repetition, many of the Marian lyrics, especially those of Lydgate, are highly affected in style and completely devoid of any genuine, personal religious feeling ... Hoccleve's religious verse, however, is quite different ... Hoccleve did not adopt the new religious style of the fifteenth century. …

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