Guillemette Bolens and Lukas Erne (eds.). Medieval and Early Modern Authorship. SPELL 25, 2011

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(available online one year after publication)


Reports of his death having been greatly exaggerated, the author has made a spectacular return in English studies. This is the first book devoted to medieval and early modern authorship, exploring continuities, discontinuities, and innovations in the two periods which literary histories and institutional practices too often keep apart. Canonical authors receive sustained attention (notably Chaucer, Gower, Shakespeare, Jonson, Milton, and Marvell), and so do key issues in the current scholarly debate, such as authorial self-fashioning, the fictionalisation of authorship, the posthumous construction of authorship, and the nexus of authorship and authority. Other important topics whose relations to authorship are explored include adaptation, paratext, portraiture, historiography, hagiography, theology, and the sublime.

“This rich, challenging and exceptionally well conceived collection addresses the construction of authorship in medieval and early modern England, and revises received opinion in important ways. All the essays are worth attention; several should be considered essential reading.”

Stephen Orgel, J. E. Reynolds Professor in the Humanities,
Stanford University



Table of Contents


Lukas Erne (Geneva):
Introduction, 11

Helen Cooper (Cambridge):
Choosing Poetic Fathers: The English Problem,  29

Robert R. Edwards (Pennsylvania State):
Authorship, Imitation, and Refusal in Late-Medieval England, 51

 Lynn S. Meskill (Paris-Diderot):
The Tangled Thread of Authorship: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Jonson’s Sejanus, His Fall, 75

 Johann Gregory (Cardiff):
The “author’s drift” in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida: A Poetics of Reflection, 93

Neil Forsyth (Lausanne):
Authorship from Homer to Wordsworth via Milton, 107

Stephen Hequembourg (Harvard):
Marvell’s Pronouns and the Ethics of Representation, 125

Patrick Cheney (Pennsylvania State):
“The forms of things unknown”: English Authorship and the Early Modern Sublime”, 137

John Blakeley (Plymouth St Mark and John):
Exchanging “words for mony”: The Parnassus Plays and Literary Remuneration, 161

Colin Burrow (Oxford):
Fictions of Collaboration: Authors and Editors in the Sixteenth Century,  175

Emma Depledge (Geneva):
Authorship and Alteration: Shakespeare on the Exclusion Crisis Stage and Page, 1678-1682, 199

Julianna Bark (Geneva):
Portraiture, Authorship, and the Authentication of Shakespeare, 215

Rita Copeland (Pennsylvania):
Producing the Lector, 231

Stefania D’Agata D’Ottavi (Siena):
The Logic of Authorship in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, 251

Nicole Nyffenegger (Bern):
Gestures of Authorship in Medieval English Historiography: The case of Robert Mannyng of Brunne, 265

Alice Spencer (Turin): “By Auctorite of Experyence”: The Role of Topography in Osbern Bokenham’s Lives of Native Saints,  277

Alastair Minnis (Yale):
Ethical Poetry, Poetic Theology: A Crisis of Medieval Authority?,  293

Notes on Contributors 309

Index of Names 315

A Note from the General Editor



Choosing Poetic Fathers: The English Problem

Helen Cooper


Poetry is self-consciously created within existing traditions; and many poets choose to invoke a specific poetic forebear to create the kind of reader receptivity they want, whether or not the invocation is strictly accurate. In the English tradition, the choice of an authoritative father, whether God or the classical poets, could further find itself at odds with the use of the mother tongue; and the anonymity of much Middle English poetry also at first prevented the establishment of a poetic genealogy. Chaucer passed on to his successors the right to name themselves, and he is also the first poet in English to name his poetic forebears – though the ones he chooses are not his actual sources, but the giants of the Classics. Many later writers down to Dryden were happy to place themselves within this new genealogy that incorporated Chaucer himself, though the dominance of humanist education and the increasing inaccessibility of Chaucer’s vernacular rendered such a line of descent increasingly problematic. In the last century, only James Joyce, in Ulysses, seems to have carried through the idea of Chaucer’s parenthood with conviction, and that is done silently.



Authorship, Imitation, and Refusal in Late-Medieval England

Robert R. Edwards


Modern scholarship has focused on the historical foundations of medieval authorship in exegesis and pedagogy. These two sources show how texts and authors were framed externally within a dynamic literary culture in the high and late Middle Ages. Authorship functioned internally as well, as a condition of literary meaning that complements the conditions of intelligibility within Latin and vernacular literary systems. To understand the internal dynamic of authorship, we need to supplement exegesis and pedagogy with an understanding of imitation and resistance. Imitation traditionally forms character and style from canonical models, and it provides a means to compose equivalents to canonical models by reproducing, rewriting, and reimagining them. At the same time, it generates an impossible demand for authorship – an original copy that remains subordinate to its source. For this reason, resistance emerges as the necessary correlate of imitation. In late-medieval England, John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer, poets recognized as authors by their contemporaries and by each other, demonstrate the productive reciprocity of imitation and resistance. Gower builds an edifice of authorship around his works and poetic career yet writes himself out of his most ambitious literary project at the end of the Confessio Amantis and then refuses his own dismissal in a sequence of minor works. Chaucer punctuates his repeated gestures toward authorship with equally insistent denials and omissions. These occasions for refusing authorship are by no means identical, but they point toward an alternative history of authorship that recognizes its contingency and continual renegotiation.



The Tangled Thread of Authorship: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Jonson’s Sejanus, His Fall

Lynn S. Meskill


Studies of authorial indebtedness to source texts can shed light on the nature of original authorship. The 1605 Quarto of Jonson’s Sejanus, which makes visible in marginal glosses its debt to its Roman sources, provides an ideal control for Shakespeare’s use of Plutarch in Julius Caesar. The striking difference between Jonson’s typographic monument to authorship and the invisibility of Shakespeare’s debt to Plutarch (effectively occluded in modern editions) seems at the outset to prevent any fruitful comparisons between the two texts. Yet both texts imitate and transform their chosen Greek and Roman sources from the first act to the last. What we find is that Shakespeare’s method approaches that of Jonson much more closely than we would expect, given the traditional oppositions between the two authors. Shakespeare diligently patches together scenes, sections and phrases using an astonishing variety of references from the three major Lives regarding Julius Caesar. Jonson’s play, built out of a tissue of references and citations from Tacitus and other Roman writers, is the visible image of the same silent and invisible practice in which Shakespeare himself was engaged in creating his play.


The “author’s drift” in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida: A Poetics of Reflection

Johann Gregory


This essay focuses on the role of the author in Troilus and Cressida as a stage-play that is highly sensitive to the role of the book in shaping expectations of its theatre audience. The argument takes from Lukas Erne the notion that when Shakespeare wrote many of his plays, he was aware that they were making their way into print, but aims to qualify the idea of Shakespeare as a literary dramatist who arranges his work for publication by considering the ways in which Troilus and Cressida as a stage-play is already literary to begin with. Focusing on the scene in which Achilles and Ulysses discuss an author and his book, it explores the poetics of reflection that seems to be at work between characters, authors, and audiences, the page and the stage. Emphasising ways in which Shakespeare responds to Jonson’s construction of an author, the essay questions the distinction between Shakespeare as the author of strictly theatrical or literary texts by considering how the book can be performative and the theatre literary.



Authorship from Homer to Wordsworth via Milton

Neil Forsyth


Somewhere on a spectrum of possible kinds of authorship between Homer and Wordsworth lies Milton. In Paradise Lost he stages himself as blind narrator, like Homer, but he also tells us, unlike Homer, how the poem gets written: the Muse “dictates to me slumbring or inspires / Easie my unpremeditated Verse” (9.23-24). In this respect, Milton is closer to Wordsworth, even his model. Yet there are important differences. Milton is not the main subject of his own poem. In the two allusions to Milton with which Wordsworth opens The Prelude, he collapses the distinction that Milton deliberately builds between the figure of himself as author/narrator and the various characters he creates and who, like Satan, are consciously made close to, but still separate from, himself.



Marvell’s Pronouns and the Ethics of Representation

Stephen Hequembourg


This article looks at the formulation in Andrew Marvell’s prose of a complex theory of authorship in the field of political and religious polemic. It sees in his pamphlets a profound meditation on the ethics of representation (specifically, who has the right to speak for others, against others, or in the place of others) that did much to shape the notions of authorship and polemical style at the birth of early modern liberalism. As a guiding thread to his conception of authorship, the article takes Marvell’s often comic obsession with pronouns, and looks at the troublesome group of rivals – we, thou, you, it – that clusters around the authorial “I.” His pronominal playfulness actually reveals a two-part inquiry, firstly into the relation between the author and the social group he claims to represent, and secondly into the relation of author and text. What the essay calls Marvell’s ideal “I-thou” form of polemic address is shown to be undermined first by Parker’s arrogant “we” and plural “you,” and then by Marvell’s comic fictional third person “he.” Finally the essay explores the mysterious “It” of the late Remarks and Marvell’s conception of an authorless text.



“The forms of things unknown”: English Authorship and the Early Modern Sublime

Patrick Cheney


During the late sixteenth century, a new form of authorship emerges. This authorship eschews the ethical paradigm of patriotic nationalism leading to eternity on which recent criticism depends. Instead, the new form of authorship fictionalizes literary greatness. The premier theorist is Longinus, whose On Sublimity is printed in 1554. The sublime is Longinus’ counter-national principle that replaces goodness with greatness, equilibrium with ecstasy, and self-regulated passion with heightened emotion. For Longinus, the sublime is an emotional principle of authorship, written in the grand style, in imitation of great works, and aiming for fame. Under the spell of sublimity, the author tells a story about the making of a great literary work. By centering the story on the “interval between earth and heaven” (9.5: 150), a sublime work produces either terror or rapture, leaving the human in the exalted condition of the gods. Poems and plays by Shakespeare and colleagues help build a bridge from Chaucer to Milton to form an early modern sublime. The key bridging figure is Spenser, whose canon betrays an entry into Longinian ekstasis. Playing a centralizing role in the advent of modern English authorship, the early modern sublime becomes a catalyst in the formation of an English canon.


Exchanging “words for mony”: The Parnassus Plays and Literary Remuneration

John Blakeley


Enquiries into the emergence of literary authorship in the sixteenth century often suggest that most contemporaries regarded reading and writing as ethically dubious activities, and that consequently literary endeavour was accompanied by uncertainty and anxiety. However, in a number of ways, the trilogy of university plays known as the Parnassus plays (1598-1601), which are the focus of this essay, provide striking contrary evidence. In order to pursue the argument, the argument is divided into two parts: in the first part some of the critical assumptions that have underpinned enquiries into authorship are considered, and in the second part the evidence the plays provide for the views of university graduates with literary aspirations is discussed. The article argues that as the trilogy progresses the plays’ initial valorisation of a literary vocation extends to a wider exploration of the writer’s place in society, in which ethical questions surrounding literary creation are increasingly superseded by material consideration.  



Fictions of Collaboration: Authors and Editors in the Sixteenth Century

Colin Burrow


This essay tracks the changing relationship between authors and editors (or print-shop “overseers” of literary texts), in the second half of the sixteenth century. Beginning with the publication of works by Thomas More, Thomas Wyatt, and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, it shows how editorial activity helped to fashion the ways in which authors were represented. A narrative is traced through successive editions of A Mirror for Magistrates to explain how the names of Thomas Sackville and Thomas Churchyard came to the fore of this collaborative volume, and why poets in the 1560s and ’70s sometimes artificially foregrounded the role of the “editor” to create fictions of collaboration. It is then argued that a sequence of publications in the very early 1590s altered the customary relationship between authors and “editor” figures, with the result that Samuel Daniel and Ben Jonson felt able to absorb what I term “the editor function” into their own activities. The overall aim of the paper is to revise the traditional view that in the later sixteenth century “middleclass” laureate poets shook off the “stigma of print.” Rather, it is suggested, by the 1590s a degree of stigma had come to be attached to the figure of the press “overseer,” while poets tended silently to absorb the editor function into themselves.



Authorship and Alteration: Shakespeare on the Exclusion Crisis Stage and Page, 1678-1682

Emma Depledge


Ten radically altered versions of Shakespeare’s plays appeared on stage between 1678 and 1682, partly in response to what is known as the Exclusion Crisis. The plays differ from earlier Shakespeare alterations in a number of important ways and mark the most intense period of Shakespeare rewriting since the playwright’s death. By separately considering the two media for which the plays were designed, the stage and the page, and by exploring the way Shakespeare as author-source was presented in the paratextual material accompanying the plays onto the stage and the page respectively, this essay suggests that reverence for Shakespeare and claims of textual ownership varied according to medium, thus offering conflicting views of Shakespeare to late seventeenthcentury audiences and readers of playbooks. These conflicting views, I contend, are intimately linked to unequal levels of stage and page censorship during, and as a direct result of, the Exclusion Crisis. The essay offers a case for seeing the Exclusion Crisis as one of the most significant points in Shakespeare’s authorial afterlife.



Portraiture, Authorship, and the Authentication of Shakespeare

Julianna Bark


This essay analyses some of the numerous controversies over the authenticity of visual representations of William Shakespeare, in particular the Droeshout engraving, the Stratford Bust, and the Chandos and the Cobbe portraits. It argues that what has been at stake in the many controversies over alleged Shakespeare likenesses is less the question of whether a particular image is authentic than whether that image corresponds to the needs and expectations of its proponents. For instance, during the Caroline era, Martin Droeshout’s engraved portrait of Shakespeare was adapted by William Marshall’s image of the author as a laureate poet. Similarly, during the eighteenth century, Louis-François Roubiliac’s statue of Shakespeare seemed to provide an altogether more suitable embodiment than did the swarthy and less elegant Chandos portrait. As for the newly-emerged Cobbe portrait, it reflects the image of Shakespeare as a polished gentleman, in conformity with ideas recently put forward by literary critics such as Stanley Wells. By exploring controversies over the authenticity of Shakespeare portraits, this paper demonstrates that the alleged authenticity of these likenesses is a product of fabrication, and that this fabrication contributes to enlarging the mystique that surrounds the playwright.



Producing the Lector

Rita Copeland


Medieval grammatical curricula did not treat all authors alike: the prestige conferred on the auctor was determined by the functions that various texts served in the curriculum. This paper attempts a fine-tuned account of the progression to those classical and medieval works that represented the transition to the “literary” in its own right. What features of critical analysis characterized the approaches to those works considered advanced literary fare, such as certain kinds of stylistic analysis, attention to historical or generic concerns, or theoretical approaches to language? Ultimately what defines that highest level of auctor is the production of the skills of the lector. This essay considers four canonical surveys from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries: works by Conrad of Hirsau, Alexander Neckam, and Hugh of Trimberg, and an early humanist guide to the auctores. As these treatises suggest, the most advanced authors demand, not imitators, but readers. This is the key critical lesson exported beyond the classroom to define authorial prestige – and authorial selfconsciousness – in medieval literary culture.



The Logic of Authorship in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde

Stefania D’Agata D’Ottavi


The paper analyses the function of the speaking voice in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde from the point of view of medieval sign theory. The idea of change is argued to be one of the most relevant in the poem and the paper shows that it can be extended to include the first-person pronoun in the text. At times the pronoun stands for the narrating voice, but can also refer to an apocryphal author who pretends to translate from a fictitious Latin source. By analysing the lines of the poem as propositions, it is possible to highlight the points where the first-person pronoun supponit pro, stands for the narrator, who is not part of the story, and those where the speaking voice becomes that of an author who uses his feigned source in an autonomous and critical way. The paper argues that the transformation occurs whenever the emphasis concerns the nature and the uses of language and whenever they become the object of a metalinguistic analysis. By pretending that the poem is the translation of an authoritative text, and by interpreting the idea of translation in terms of linguistic change, the apocryphal author emphasises the fact that authorship is a matter of re-elaboration rather than of mere imitation.



Gestures of Authorship in Medieval English Historiography: The case of Robert Mannyng of Brunne

Nicole Nyffenegger


The textual presence of the authorial persona in medieval historiography is circumscribed by intra- and intertextual issues of authority and power. The importance attributed to the auctores, on the one hand, necessitates constant negotiations of authority. This is done, among other strategies, by a strong emphasis on the physicality of the source as a book, as an object to be handled and controlled by the author. This move is further extended by the inscription into the work of the processes involved in its creation, such as the search for, evaluation of and selection from the source text, thus simultaneously establishing and undermining the source’s authority. On the other hand, authors, in a sort of “mise-enabyme,” empower themselves when they write about writing (for example the exchange of letters between potentates) as a powerful and empowering element within their histories. Working with different episodes from chronicles of the Brut tradition, especially Robert Mannyng’s chronicle, I will focus on these two divergent yet related gestures of authorship as they appear in medieval English historiography.



“By Auctorite of Experyence”: the Role of Topography in Osbern Bokenham’s Lives of Native Saints

Alice Spencer


This paper offers a detailed analysis of the lives of native saints contained in the Abbotsford Legenda Aurea. I will focus on the relationship between the legends in question and the geographical treatise known as the Mappula Angliae, which Bokenham translated from a section of Higden’s Polychronicon. I will argue that topography serves to locate, both diachronically and synchronically, not only the saintly corpse, but also the literary authority of the hagiographical corpus. In choosing to focus to such an extent on native saints and their geographical origins, Bokenham was endeavouring to establish a specifically “English” identity for himself as poet. Bokenham’s stress on national topography serves to sustain the auctoritas of his own literary output on three counts. Firstly, as Lavezzo has demonstrated, England’s status as a “global borderland” or “angle” enabled national authors to claim an elite or “angelic” status. This elevation of geographical margins enables Bokenham to legitimise his own marginal position in the literary canon. Secondly, Higden’s condemnation of the contamination of English by French enables Bokenham to claim a greater authenticity for his own plain “Suthfolke speche” when compared to the classicising, Francophile style he associates with Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate. Finally, as Galloway has suggested, emphasis on physical geography can serve to elevate an empirical, experiential perspective over the precepts of literary auctoritas.



Ethical Poetry, Poetic Theology: A Crisis of Medieval Authority?

Alastair Minnis


A comprehensive history of medieval concepts of “the author” and textual authority must resist the urge to segregate “secular” and “sacred” literary theory. For their relationship was enduring and reciprocal. Crucial theoretical issues were developed within Biblical exegesis before passing into secular poetics. Conversely, discourses characteristic of secular poetics (frequently classified under ethics) often had a considerable impact on Biblical exegesis. Within a system of textual classification formalized in the thirteenth century, the poetic, affective and imaginative nature of certain forms of Biblical writing were recognized and justified. But this raised a troubling question: was theology moving too close to poetics, the “queen of the sciences” being reduced to the level of an unreliable servant? Furthermore, despite affirmation of the solidity of the “literal sense” of Scripture, from which logical argument could safely be drawn, theology could hardly derive support from the certainties of syllogistic demonstration – particularly since the Bible’s rich array of literary devices threatened to ally it with rhetoric and poetics, the lowest forms of logic. Theology’s difficulty was poetry’s gain, however, as when innovative trecento writers like Petrarch and Boccaccio exploited the connections between Biblical style and poetic fiction to claim greater prestige for secular literature.

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