Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Occasion, Author, and Readers of Knyghthode and Bataile

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Occasion, Author, and Readers of Knyghthode and Bataile

Article excerpt

In England early in 1460, a poet who supported the imperilled government of Henry VI wrote a brilliant verse translation of Vegetius' Epitoma rei militons, a fourth-century military treatise. Yet unlike previous, more circumspect translations of Vegetius into French or English prose, this poem intersperses Vegetius' dry technical advice with bombastic eulogies of political obedience, and paraphrases much military instruction into mischievous allegories of the possible fate of the king's enemies, the supporters of the Duke of York. For example, when Vegetius relates the dangers for naval warfare of storms caused by wind, the Rnglish poet personifies the winds as twelve trouble-making lords:

If .III. or oon or tweyne of these vp blowe,

Tethis, of hir nater that is tranquylle,

Thei lene vppon, oppresse and ouerthrowe,

And causeth al crye out that wold be stille ...

The roaring sea threatens Calais, and it looks:

As all the firmament shuld falle adoun

And Occian lepe ouer Caleys Toun ... (lines 2686-9, 2696f.)

Vegetius' meteorological 'storms' ('turbinum') become a metaphor for England's 'discorde': the villainous winds 'oppresse and ouerthrowe' the nymph Tethys and Calais, just as the Yorkists threatened England and engaged in piracy from the garrison of Calais. The metaphor is more gratuitous and graphic than Vegetius' plain prose, and is even more self-consciously classical than it too: Vegetius' account of the sea does not mention the mythical Tethys.' Yet, throughout the poem, the translator shows undeniable ingenuity in voicing his opinion through a translation of Vegetius that is rhetorically imaginative, suffused with unusual or Latinate vocabulary and pseudo-classical imagery, and imparted in a vigorous iambic pentameter.

The first prompt for such a rich and strange sea-change of Vegetius' prosaic manual is clear from a glance at the mise-en-page of the three extant manuscripts. The poem is disposed neatly and regularly, four stanzas to a page, and then each leaf carries at its head the number of the 'book' of Vegetius' work and a neat foliation, with the stanzas marked a to h down the margins. These divisions facilitate an alphabetical index at the end.2 This format clearly imitates the identical page layout of manuscripts of On Husbondrie, another English verse translation of a late classical, technical prose work, namely of Palladius' third-century treatise De re rustica. It was completed for Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, probably sometime between 1439 3^ February 1444. On Husbondrie's poet claims that he translates his Roman source under the inspiration of Humphrey and his well-known circle of Italian scholars, and hopes that Humphrey will find his poem metrically proper and rhetorically lush.3 It is all of these things, and from this humanist model Knyghthode and Bataile develops its overall plan, its relish for elaborate Latinate diction, and its brilliant versification.

Because of this obvious influence, an earlier study of vernacular versions of Vegetius' Epitoma proposed that On Husbondrie and Knyghthode and Bataile shared a single author, one Robert Parker.4 Many standard literary histories now repeat this hypothetical attribution.5 However, before examining Parker's particular case, it must first be noted that although the two anonymous poems are similar, we need not assume shared authorship. The format, and the conversion of prose into a rhyme royal that both poems call 'balade' (lines 53, 630-4), are attested more widely, in Gilbert Banester's translation of part of Boccaccio's Decameron and Walton's version of books iv and v of Boethius' De consolatione Philosophiae. Like The Libelle of Englyshe Polycye, a rhyme-royal economic treatise of the 14305, both classical translations use eight-line stanzas for prologues and epilogues in which they praise their respective patrons for perusing the work in hand and offering judgement.6 Alongside Walton's and Banester's translations and The Libelle, On Husbondrie and Knyghthode and Bataile are linked not necessarily by authorship, but by a wider, if seldom observed, tradition of politically aware or learned verse read by the ruling classes of Lancastrian England. …

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