James Simpson. 2002. Reform and Cultural Revolution. The Oxford English Literary History. Vol. 2: 1350-1547. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 680 pp. ISBN 0-19-818261-9. £30.
- When beginning a review of any 'literary history' of a defined period, it has to be acknowledged that the writer is attempting the impossible – or at least, the only partially possible. In this particular project, James Simpson has very bravely attempted to 'do something different', with a redefinition and a rearrangement of his subject matter. He departs from the usual generically or chronologically-based surveys, and rearranges his matter according to an overarching ideological/interpretative principle, which he states in his introduction: 'in the first half of the sixteenth century, a culture that simplified and centralized jurisdiction aggressively displaced a culture of jurisdictional heterogeneity' (1).
- Each subsequent chapter of the book is based upon the idea of early Tudor centralization, be it in administration, law, political ideology, the institution of the Church or religious belief, taking the place of a 'reformist' culture in which various groups and interests were able to compete and co-exist within a largely hegemonic society. Simpson locates this cultural revolution beginning in the reign of Henry VIII, and running from the 1520s to the 1550s (hence the abandonment of 1485 and 1500 as cultural parameters), and uses an initial comparison of the career and work of John Leland ('revolutionary') with that of John Lydgate ('reformist') as an illustration of the difference between the two cultures.
- Each of the ensuing chapters begins with a work illustrative of the cultural revolution, followed by a sampling of works illustrative of the 'reformist' (i.e. medieval) culture which preceded it. Thus, 'The Tragic' begins with an assessment of Polydore Vergil's Anglica Historia, working chronologically backwards to the works of Gavin Douglas, John Lydgate and Geoffrey Chaucer on 'the matter of Troy', leading to the fall of Camelot and the Works of Thomas Malory. The chapter on 'The Political' begins with Thomas More's Utopia and works backwards to Thomas Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes, and the work of John Gower, George Ashby, Stephen Hawes and John Skelton. Anonymous texts and lesser-known works are also included, according to their suitability for the theme. The chapters are arranged thematically, under headings such as 'Moving Images' (based on the idea that saints' lives and devotional literature are based upon the ability of images to 'move' the viewer or reader), 'The Comic' (based upon the classical definition of comedy as having a happy ending) and 'The Elegaic' (based upon the Ovidian model of the unfulfilled lover rejecting the pursuit of a public life as a consequence of the pain of love). Scripturally-based literature is divided into 'The Biblical' (literature which is based upon and expounds scripture), and 'Edifying the Church' (the literature of ecclesiology).
- Of course, such a premise and such an arrangement will raise questions, but it is Simpson's stated intention to do this; he is aware of the contentious nature of his assumptions – and, indeed, of the contentious nature of such questions as 'what is medieval?', 'is it possible to write a literary history at all?', and 'what is the boundary between the medieval and the early modern?'. Having noted this at the beginning of the book, he then gives potential answers of his own in order to move the debate further. The book's greatest strength is its excellent potential as a stimulation for discussion and debate about these questions, and about the nature and relationships (contextual, literary and cultural) of the material it surveys. Certainly, the arrangement and the placing of material are open to question. The Alliterative Morte may have the tragic fall of Arthur's kingdom at its end, but it is also highly political (as is Malory); Pearl may be based on the story of the Book of Revelation, but is it not also a devotional work, and therefore a 'moving image'? Of course, there are no entirely satisfactory answers to questions such as these, and Simpson's arrangement serves to highlight this fact. Unfortunately, one of the chief casualties of this arrangement is Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the separate stories of which appear in different chapters, because of the varied nature of their content. It is, therefore, almost impossible to discuss this as a single work, which Chaucer obviously intended it to be. Piers Plowman also appears in more than one chapter, according to its diverse subject matter, although it is less diverse and therefore less fragmented than the treatment of the Canterbury Tales. The idea of a known writer's body of work (apart, perhaps, from that of Lydgate) is also difficult to represent.
- Each chapter is self-contained, so that it may be read and used independently of the rest of the book. This is a very good idea, although it raises difficulties, particularly for the inexperienced student. It is not made clear precisely which works will be discussed in each chapter from the outset. As the arrangement is a new, and to some extent an idiosyncratic one, it would have been very helpful for the works discussed to have been listed at the opening of each chapter. Otherwise, unlike the 'standard' generic or chronological survey, the reader has only a vague idea of what will be discussed under each heading, restricting their capacity to use the chapters independently without recourse to the general index. Alternatively, chapter and/or page references could have been given in the 'Works Cited' section.
- Some of the chapters have very strong interpretative arguments, which are worth reading and discussing in their own right. The best of these are the chapter on Lydgate, which offers an interesting interpretation of the author's career (we still have not even begun to address the true importance of John Lydgate for fifteenth-century English culture), the importance and (potentially heretical) function of the image and devotional material, the meaning of 'translation' of Scripture in pre-Reformation orthodoxy, and the (essentially subversive) nature of power relations inherent in pre-Reformation drama, especially of the religious kind. Arguments on political material and 'romance' are less sound, but still very interesting. The constraints of publication obviously prevent the inclusion of much chronicle and other historiographical material, as well as political poetry and prophecies – this would take a book in itself. Romance is difficult to classify, making this perhaps the least successful section of the book. At this point the arrangement of tragedy, elegy and comedy becomes somewhat confusing. There is very little, or no discussion of lyrics, of prose 'romance' texts, of romance epics, of 'crusade romances', of didactic works (other than biblical and ecclesiological), or of vernacular sermons. The format does not allow for discussion of manuscript contexts, nor of textual or readership communities. This, again, may be another book.
- As an overall summary, this book has its shortcomings. Taken as a whole, or in part, however, it is greatly to be recommended. James Simpson presents some extremely interesting ideas, based on sound scholarship, which make his book tremendously valuable as a research and teaching tool. It has the capacity both to stimulate the formation of research questions, and to ignite group discussions. For this reason, its great potential outweighs its shortcomings.
UNIVERSITY OF HULL
© Copyright Lesley Coote 2004.
Renaissance Forum 2004. ISSN 1362-1149. Volume 7, Winter 2004.
Technical Editor: Andrew Butler. Updated
13 December 2004.