Andrew Galloway, Cornell University
This essay explores how the self-images of two late-medieval English intellectuals and writers, Thomas Usk and Adam Usk, emerged from and responded to their professional and social circumstances. The focus is perhaps easy to justify. Most readers of their narratives would agree that our view of late-medieval English culture would be impoverished without the self-portraits and social visions of the two Usks, although their narratives are rarely examined in terms of ideological constructions as is more often the case for their famous poetic contemporaries, Chaucer, Gower, and Langland. Direct alignments between social or professional contexts and the self-portraits of the great fourteenth-century poets, however, are notoriously difficult, either because of doubt about the poets' precise social occupations and locations, or because their writings are only obliquely engaged with contemporary social ideologies, contexts and issues.
In these terms, the opportunities that both Usks' narratives provide are important, since their volatile careers can now be substantially traced: Thomas, as the London scrivener whose betrayal of the populist mayor John Northampton led him to sudden favor from Richard II and, when Richard's favorites were attacked in the Merciless Parliament, to hanging by the Lords Appellant; Adam, as the civil lawyer who rose to national prominence and whose legal skills helped depose Richard II, but who suffered a mysterious exile and loss of properties before he could return to rebuild his career and incomes in England. In broadest terms, the complexity of self-representations in their narratives is at once a consequence of and a commentary on the variety and power of social and political opportunities and pressures with which they engaged.
Historicizing self-representations is a large and vexed endeavor. Theorists from Baudrillard to Goux to Zizek have argued for the historically specific development of an `interiorized,' objectified, and alienated mode of personhood--by which, as Zizek says, a subject relates to and conceives of itself as an empty cypher, and "perceive[s] his empirical features which constitute the positive content of his particular `person' as a contingent variable." Yet such theorists often have difficulty precisely locating or richly documenting the historical nature of that creation. Zizek argues in The Sublime Object of Ideology that commodification produced this state of hollowed or "barred" selfhood, and in Tarrying with the Negative he suggests that a shift to "imaginary money"--debit notes--in the Middle Ages initiated the creation of an objectified self as the "link to the concrete individual was cut loose." Goux more sweepingly distinguishes between "feudalism" with its "anal stage" of identity development, and "emerging capitalism" with its shift to "the phallic phase" exemplified by an "`overvaluation' of the ego."
While linking psychoanalytic theory to economic modes and practices offers a promising approach to cultural history, in practice the resulting historical accounts are often as crude and conglomerating as the Burckhardtian description of the Renaissance as the founding moment of "modern individualism," a view that still obtains among many scholars of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature and culture. Indeed, as some historians of medieval culture have emphasized, the intellectual marketplace from at least the twelfth century on was as much a centrally driving force of social and cultural change as was nascent rural or civic capitalism. Late-fourteenth century England has a particularly powerful claim for this as an engine of cultural innovation, since its `intellectual economy' is one involving multiple and vigorously interacting linguistic and interpretive communities, from peasants to aristocrats to monks to administrators and beneficed and unbeneficed clerics of all kinds. Not only commodification but also participation and exclusion, and increasingly severe scape-goating, in this highly politicized intellectual marketplace are relevant to our understanding of self-image, indeed self-making, in the period.
The Usks' creation of coherent, unified, and "present" selves in their works, I argue, was generated in response to the fragmenting functions and identities that the late-medieval intellectual economy offered and demanded. Thomas' quasi-Boethian dialogue with Love in the Testament of Love is heavy with topical allusion, especially in reaffirming Thomas's denunciation of his former employer, Northampton. Yet plotting all the names onto the Testament does not exhaust its social and political valences. The Testament, for instance, develops an ideology of "service" in broad social terms: Thomas defines himself as a servant in the retinue of Love, beseeching a mysterious "Margarite" as the object of his perfect loyalty--an object that becomes an increasingly elusive and allegorical focus for his commitment and literary labors. As Thomas states at the end of his Testament, "Margarite, a woman, betokeneth grace, lerning, or wisdom of god, or els holy church. If breed, thorow vertue, is mad holy flessh, what is that our god sayth? `It is the spirit that yeveth lyf; the flesshe of nothing it profiteth.' Flesshe is flesshly understandinge; flessh without grace and love naught is worth" (145).
Fleshly understanding or no, Thomas' work focuses on modes of social commitment, not--as some have argued--renunciation of worldly attachments in favor of Augustinian caritas. But that the Testament is essentially a partisan work governed by the very adherence to "certain conjuracions" (26) that the narrator laments, as Paul Strohm suggests, does not necessarily follow, since the objects and properties of Thomas' ideals of commitment are calculatedly elusive. He invokes the language of narrow or partisan commitment but consistently broadens it, even, as his comment on "breed . . . mad holy flessh" suggests, transforms it eucharistically into something with inclusive social application. The Testament asserts that its highest ideal, replacing Boethius' summum bonum, is "the knotte in the herte," a metaphor based on Chaucer's description of Criseyde's betrayal of Troilus as the moment when "Bothe Troilus and Troie town / Shal knotteles thorughout hire herte slide" (V. 768-69), but granted by Thomas a more general range of social contract and commitment: "for-as-moche as every herte that hath caught ful love, is tyed with queynt knittinges, thou shalt understande that love and thilke foresayd blisse toforn declared in thise provinges, shal hote the knot in the hert," as Love states (61). Such a tie is figured as erotic but, like the identity of Margarite herself, continually shifts to refer to broader social intimacies and affiliations, and is defined against narrow or factional configurations.
Commitments of intellectual service to secular lords in city and court in the later Middle Ages followed the contractual patterns of other kinds of service in a period sometimes characterized as that of "bastard feudalism," although intellectual labor in these contexts, especially legal service, often displays a greater independence. What lies behind and around Love's description of Thomas in one passage as "a scoler lerninge of my lore" is therefore the possibility for a wide range of socially and politically applied learned professions and identities, based on secularly oriented administrative expertise and professional training not necessarily committed to a single patron, institution, or even profession. The professional names given to Thomas epitomize this elusive range of possibilities. He is called a "clerk" in one document, but only one, and he never insisted on this status in its professional sense, as he surely would have since a clerical status might have saved him from execution by the Lords Appellant. Records show Thomas serving as attorney, mainperneur, and witness in various legal actions. Yet he never attained a secure role as "attorney," since this title too appears just once. His title of "scryveyn" in the warrant for his arrest of 1384 suggests that while he worked for Northampton, he may have been a member of the London fraternity of Common Writers of the Court Letter. Yet he avoided or failed to attain any stable professional identity while he avoided simple and continuous political loyalty to a single patron.
Love's service explicitly does not mean remaining constant to an actual patron. As Love states in one of the passages that make the Testament a mirror for courtiers rather than a Boethian treatise:
my maner here-toforn hath ben [to] worship[pe] with my blisse lyons in the felde and lambes in chambre; egles at assaute and maydens in halle; foxes in counsayle, stil[le] in their dedes; and their proteccioun is graunted, redy to ben a bridge; and their baner is arered, like wolves in the felde. Thus, by these wayes, shul men ben avaunced; ensample of David, that from keping of shepe was drawen up in-to the order of kingly governaunce; and Jupiter, from a bole, to ben Europes fere; and Julius Cesar, from the lowest degre in Rome, to be mayster of al erthly princes; and Eneas from hel, to be king of the countre there Rome is now stonding. (24-25)The forceful merging of the scriptural, mythological, historical, and literary examples at the end of the passage into one story of `avauncement' contrasts the treatment of identity in the preceding sentences, where the means to advancement is shown to be a fragmenting of identity into the functions necessary in late-medieval civic and courtly service. Such fragmentation is figured as a sequence of animal types, roughly in the pattern of the gospel injunction to be sly as serpents and simple as doves. Love's retinue must achieve a myriad of social identities in adapting to courtly and civic circumstance and opportunity; only then can they hope to achieve the one stable identity Love offers, of one who has "ben avaunced" "from the lowest degre," perhaps even "worthy to entre into Jupiters joye" (40), as Love elsewhere states Thomas himself is.
Serving Love embodies Thomas' pattern of being changeable in alliance while defining himself as resolutely "true." As the narrator tells Love, "Ye wete wel, lady, eke . . . that I have not played raket, `nettil in, docke out,' and with the wethercocke waved; and truewly, there ye me sette, by acorde of my conscience I wolde not flye, til ye and reson, by apert strength, maden myn herte to tourne'" (13; emphasis added). Even here he grants himself a liberal licence to vacillate in the realization of social commitments. "Reson," Love states elsewhere, is what makes human beings "liche unto goddes, and children of moost heyght" (39); these principles of the divinity of "reson" and of the social independence of intellectual labor structure Thomas' formation of identity throughout: "I shulde not hyde the sothe of no maner person, mayster ne other," he states; "For trewly, lady, me semeth that I ought to bere the name of trouthe, that for the love of rightwysnesse have thus me submitted" (30).
In his self-portrait Thomas thus provided a complex lesson or gesture broadly applicable to his London and courtly readers, for how to imagine oneself in terms of a unified and transcendent social identity, to "bere the name of trouthe," even while in the maelstrom of careers of applied and politicized knowledge that necessitated personal fragmentation and frequent redefinition in every other sense. Such a personal "renaming" constitutes Thomas' self-baptism, enacted before our eyes, into an objectified, transcendent self, a process that stands at the very center of the increasingly politicized and applied knowledge of the later Middle Ages. Curiously and fatally, Thomas' denunciation of Northampton, not some positive social or professional affiliation, became the banner defining the coherence of his "trouthe." Never do we know whose side Thomas is on; but we always know whom he is against. Even the chronicler describing Thomas' death records only that "to the very end he refused to admit having wronged John Northampton, of whom he maintained that every word was true that he had spoken before the king."
Adam Usk's Latin chronicle displays an equally remarkable self-portrait generated from equally powerful pressures, in this case a national and international marketplace of learning. Adam's occupation as civil lawyer put him in that profession allegorically portrayed in Piers Plowman as one of the closest companions of Lady Meed; civil lawyers, in fact, were often singled out for their mercantile interests and the sin of selling `God's gift,' knowledge. Adam accordingly rose to considerable wealth and authority by means of his legal services in high political places, as he proudly recorded in his chronicle. Even after a mysterious and, he claims, utterly unfair exile from the Roman pope's court in 1406, he still found success and wealth travelling as an itinerant civil lawyer through Italy, France, Flanders, Normandy, and Brittany, "serving as counsel to many bishops and abbots and princes; and I got me some gain thereby" (104).
By turns, Adam's chronicle reeks of pride, rebellious criticism, guilt, and, especially, penance. Yet the social bases of his penitential moments are typically blurred in favor of delineating the writer's penitential posture abstracted from political choices and experiences, distantly back-lit by his glorious professional triumphs that he continuously rehearses. Just after describing his crucial role in drawing up legal bases for deposing Richard II, for instance, he describes being brought before Richard in prison merely to observe the king's "mood and bearing." After finding Richard lamenting England's history of destroying great men, Adam "departed thence much moved at heart" (30). It is a curiously effete yet utterly characteristic staging of penance, in no way acknowledging Adam's role in putting Richard in this position.
The penitential tradition is often seen as helping generate a sense of `inner self' in the later Middle Ages. What is distinctive about Adam's chronicle is that it continually obtrudes penance as the means of portraying an Adam separated from those actual political and social experiences and roles which helped produce the scenes about which he is penitential. Like Thomas' Testament, Adam's chronicle displays less the true thoughts of an inner self than the ideological production of a divided self, opportunistically involved in social and political demands on his professional labors but simultaneously defined as detached from any such commitments or ambitions. In Adam's case this paradox is sustained, or managed, by a voice of penance, just as Thomas cultivates an elusive posture of "trouthe." For both, such concepts generate selves possessing unity, coherence and presence, indeed oral presence, since both "trouthe" and penance depend on the authentic "word" of a coherent self. Derrida's critique of the mystifications and paradoxes of "logocentrism" as a generative principle of identity formation could not be more apposite: the Usks' assertions of authentic, coherent, present and transcendent social selves depend on quasi-oral "presence" yet programmatically efface even as they emerge from participation in the period's most politicized uses of knowledge.
A final example demonstrates Adam's characteristic repression of social and political experience in creating a penitential self. In a passage dated to 1400 but probably written or rewritten later (as he says some of his passages were), Adam obscurely laments his sins and those of the modern, mercantile clergy:
One thing in these days I grieve to tell, to wit, that two popes, like to a monster in nature, now for two and twenty years, most wickedly rending the seamless coat of Christ, contrary to the words of the Song of Solomon: "My dove is but one," have too sorely vexed the world by leading astray men's souls, and racking their bodies with divers terrors. And woeful it is, if it be true what I call to mind in the text of Scripture: "You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men." Whence, seeing that the priesthood was become venal, etc., did not Christ, making for himself a scourge of small cords, drive out those who bought and sold in the temple? And hence I fear lest we, with many stripes and spurnings, be cast out from the glory of the priesthood. For I take heed that in the Old Testament, after venality had corrupted the priesthood, the cloud of smoke, the unquenchable fire, and the sweet smell which hurteth not ceased in the temple. Why linger on this? The virgin mother, according to the word of Revelation, has fled with the manchild into the wilderness from the face of the beast that sits upon the throne. But here Plato bids me hold my peace; for there is nothing more certain than death, nothing more uncertain than the hour of death. And so, blessed be God, I, already making my preparation for death, leave in my native church, that is, of Usk, my memorial in a suitable missal, and a grail, and a tropar, and a sequence-book, and an antiphonal, newly written and drawn up with new additions and notes, and a full suit of vestments, with three copes, broidered with my bearings, that is: on a field sable, a naked man delving; and I commend myself to the suffrages of prayers offered up therein. Further, I have in view, if God grant it, to adorn the same church with more worthy repair, to the glory of the Blessed Virgin, in honor of whose Nativity it is dedicated; yet I do not reckon this to my own praise, for God forbid that this record of my present foolishness [presentis fatuitatis mee scripturam] should be seen in my lifetime. [55-56]Shifting between criticism and penance, and funnelling toward death only to allow a half-covered boastful promise and a biblical pun on his name "Adam" as the first `delver,' this vaguely apocalyptic passage hints at pressing political contexts but issues in a private, present, penitential self. The passage constitutes a proleptic self-commemoration, visibly sealing over indistinct social realia; at the end, the writer's self stands coterminous with the voice of penance inscribed into and over this "record of his present foolishness."
Some light on the political and social context of this passage is cast by a document of 1406, not noticed by any previous biographer of Adam Usk. The document states that Adam secretly left the Roman curia and joined the anti-pope, Benedict XIII, "to whom he adhered and clung," and who had transfered to him "the bishopric of Llandaff, and had consecrated him in the said church as bishop." When Adam's use of the anti-pope's patronage was discovered, the document concludes, Adam was stripped of his benefices and excommunicated.
Although nowhere mentioned in Adam's chronicle, the charge is confirmed by independent records. Adam himself states that he twice sought bishoprics unsuccessfully from the English-supported Roman pope in 1404; the claim that he then turned to the French-sponsored anti-pope seeking appointment to a Welsh bishopric accounts for why he then fled the Roman pope, why he wandered Europe as a legal odd-jobber, and why he lost the favor of the English king. Few English writers were in a position to feel the Schism's large pressures of intellectual patronage; yet this document explains why Adam dwells on the Schism so plaintively and frequently, and why he elsewhere so sharply criticizes the Roman pope, Boniface. The involuted process of late-medieval self-making can be charted both narratologically and contextually in this passage.
The modern hermeneutic venture of describing a relationship between self-definition and social context should acknowledge its late-medieval origins--I would say more true origins and more clear articulation than the Renaissance texts which since the mid-nineteenth century have been used as the paradigms of `modern' individualism. For in late-medieval texts, Latin and vernacular, identity and a uniquely conflicted marketplace of knowledge are explicitly but enigmatically interlocked. We may speculate that to contemporaries, the Usks' works served to demonstrate how postures of a private, coherent self might be generated and maintained within such a conflicted and politicized intellectual marketplace and culture. To us, they not only show clearer social trajectories behind such self-making than their more famous poetic contemporaries, but also display how claims to private integrity and coherent identity need to be understood in terms of the specific economies and politics of knowledge that bring them forth. Perhaps they also help justify a claim that late-medieval authors in general stage that production of identity more vividly than writers of any period before or since.