Hoccleve at Kalamazoo 2017: Highlights

The Hoccleve society sponsored two sessions this year, which dovetailed quite well towards an investigation of the work Hoccleve does on the page and the work we do in the classroom. Thank you to Danielle Bradley for writing this excellent recap.

Hoccleve at Play (Session 473)

A panel titled “Hoccleve at Play” might seem to have little to do with work—and panelists reminded that Hoccleve himself often counters work and play in his texts—Travis Neel pointed out that poetry represents a labor output and can be considered part of a bureaucratic job that requires securing patronage, job security, and promotion. In David Watt’s words, “the work of bureaucracy never ends,” and uncertainty over pay risks leaving one’s work seeming purposeless.

Watt’s “Does this Stress Make Me Look Fat? Awkwardness in Thomas Hoccleve’s Verse” explored the awkward situations Hoccleve finds himself in due to the government’s inability to pay its employees. It is a tricky task to ask one’s employer for money, and Hoccleve’s major mode of play is that of awkwardness, belaboring the point of his own dilemmatic consternation. He creates this mood of cringe-worthy humor through rather literal play on the meaning of the word “awkward” as facing or turning in the wrong direction. In terms of form, word order causes the reader to turn forward and backward, mirroring how Hoccleve himself does not know where to turn. Awkward can also refer to misalignment between expectation and actual behavior. In “Male regle” Hoccleve understands “play” to mean drinking, merriment and verbal sparring, but not sex or manly combativeness; this reticence from a tavern-goer appears awkwardly uncomfortable to a reader. Associates in “My Complaint” turn away on the streets or contort their faces in grimace at him. Onlookers feel awkward either because Hoccleve has, in his madness, done something unexpected, or because they themselves did not meet expectations as friends; readers feel awkward because we are unsure whether this character is truly Hoccleve or a persona (and whether we should be privy to his personal revelations). Yet Watt argued that awkwardness is, ultimately, not isolating but uniting, because the mood spreads and captures others who join Hoccleve in a community with shared problems.

Travis Neel presented another way Hoccleve sustains bureaucratic community in “Convolutions H: Play, Time, Work in Hoccleve’s Ballades to Henri Somer.” Channeling Walter Benjamin, Neel commented on how work risked feeling mirthless to Hoccleve because insufficient funds for play created an unbroken labor. In his poem addressed to his feasting group the Court of Good Company Hoccleve longs for the traditional progression of the seasons—including pay days and the feast days which pay arrears threaten. Given the probably high cost of membership, Hoccleve seems willing to spend much of his wages on these opportunities for collegial revelry, and therefore this loss is significant to him. The poet contrasts the “unnatural” timescale with his own formal mastery, and Neel suggested that reading these more lighthearted and pleasurable poems alongside the more serious Series which likely dates to around the same time will move scholars to revaluate their view of Hoccleve as a “bungling bureaucrat and old misfit.” Searching for a distinct “Hocclevean Irony” leads Neel to claim that greater attention to formal elements, including Hoccleve’s playfulness and control, will show that Hoccleve deserves the same assumption of distance between author and persona that Chaucer receives in ironic readings.

Taylor Cowdery’s “Funny Money in Hoccleve’s Begging Poems” similarly found Hoccleve bemoaning unnatural materials—in this case clipped coins—and how they represent a failed covenant between government and civil servant. The poet and his Friend in the “Dialogue with a Friend” search for something for the poet to write, and the Friend determines that if he is to write for Prince Henry it must “be good mateer and vertuous” (637). Cowdery traced the meaning of “virtuous” in Middle English usage, finding that it could mean both ethically upstanding or physically strong. Words that are virtuous have both material and formal force. Hoccleve’s discourse on clipped coins in his begging poems become significant in this light, especially given the metaphorical nature of literature as a currency which spreads and forges connections. And like words, coins’ value rests in both their material and form. Hoccleve’s anger at unnatural money represents resentment towards unnatural words, whose form and meaning are out of sync. Money ought not be malleable, but slippage of meaning and puns, for instance in the ballads to Henri Somer, suggest this malleability and thus the mismatch between the wage owed and the empty pocket; and the need for Somer’s own words ordering the wages at the exchequer to be real not counterfeit. Cowdery stressed an interpretation of this poem that sees Hoccleve turning to play as a strategy for working the mechanisms of government in his favor—though he reminded that play is not always or necessarily pleasurable.

In her paper “Hoccleve Ludens: Playing With De Ludo Scaccorum in the Regiment of Princes” Amanda Walling further refined what we mean by “play” in Hoccleve’s poems, also finding an anger and a “slipperiness” rather than outright comedy. One type of slipperiness involves gameplay and the association between pieces and their rules for movement, and the categories of persons those pieces represent. Hoccleve’s Regiment draws on Jacobus de Cessolis’s De Ludo Scaccorum, a chess manual and “work of social theory” comprising regulatory play—rules to establish order—and word play useful to its narrator to discuss kings and other figures analogically as chess pieces. Hoccleve’s adaptation downplays regulation of kings but punningly criticizes the exchequer and its late payment of his wages. The wordplay might lessen the critique, but Walling argues that Hoccleve undertook this strategy out of desperation—it underscores how unfunny he thinks his financial quandary is. His treatment of one story from Jacobus comes across as awkward or perhaps unintentionally funny because “tonally inappropriate.” This tale, about a king triumphing over corrupt ministers, appears within the context of the “bureaucratic anxieties” which Hoccleve expresses in the Regiment to be more an indictment of leadership as tyrannical. Overall, Walling views Hoccleve’s manipulation of his sources as representative of his feelings of civil servants being treated as king’s playthings or pawns, and his recognition that the game of power he is implicated in lacks the clear rules of engagement that Jacobus’s does.


Teaching Hoccleve, A Roundtable (Session 401)

If our above panelists stressed Hoccleve’s deservedness of a paycheck, our pedagogy roundtable participants established Hoccleve’s place in Middle English canon and his utility for instructing college students in vernacular poetics and medieval literary culture.

Elon Lang made this point most assertively, detailing his deployment of the Regiment of Princes in an undergraduate Great Books curriculum. A Great Books course introduces students to foundational Western literature furnishing ideas vital to modern informed inquiry, and Lang claims a place for Hoccleve among them because of its theme of leadership and the relationship between civil service and government power. Hoccleve was at the heart of contemporary discourses on educated citizenship and political theory, and has important lessons to offer students regarding these issues in the present day. Lang justifies teaching the entirely of the Regiment and not just the excerpts that often appear in syllabi, because sustained contact with the text causes students to develop language and content analysis skills—the unfamiliar language forces them to slow down and read closely and collaboratively. This strategy avoids pairing the text with its long history of negative academic criticism, and Lang noted that students have no problem accepting the Regiment alongside other pillars of liberal arts education like Aquinas or Shakespeare. To better tackle a difficult text, Lang asks students to collectively create their own rewritings of the material in modern language, then assigns them a “creative reinterpretation” of the poem, a fiction cast within Hoccleve’s fiction of writing for Prince Henry.

Bill Quinn also finds Middle English poetry useful in a history of reading course for leading students toward close reading and attention to the details that would have shaped the medieval reading experience. He overcomes harsh academic judgements on Hoccleve’s metrical skills by finding in the Regiment markers of difference—Hoccleve might not be representative of the era’s most skilled poets, but this is because he had different intentions which are themselves worthy of study and provide a challenge for students of verse form. Quinn finds evidence of the Regiment as a text meant to be delivered orally, but also that Hoccleve foresaw the text being copied and moved around by various hands. For example the rhyme scheme of the envoy scene requires careful attention to the textual artifact as the rhymes would work less well orally, and there are many references throughout the poem to hands and writing but none related to mouths or speaking. Hoccleve’s lines are meant to be “heard” with the fingers, and learning this not only allows students to accept this poet as a legitimate and skilled contributor to Middle English canon, it also offers important evidence on the transition from orality to textuality and what readers wished to get out of the activity.

Nick Myklebust engages with Hoccleve’s canonicity in the literature classroom by teaching a course that pits him against Chaucer. Myklebust noted that transitional texts fit awkwardly into traditional surveys of British literature, and he wishes to capitalize on this difficulty by drawing student attention to questions of periodization and other categorization structures that give meaning to literature. His students use Hoccleve to probe what it means to be medieval or early modern, and what decisions scholars make when they place writers into relative frameworks—such as judging Hoccleve’s merits based on Chaucer’s. While Chaucer’s themes are often “ephemeral” and “slippery,” Hoccleve’s characters and purposes can be easier for students to grasp. So-called marginal literary figures can also help students see why Chaucer himself was important and transformative, as they offer more concrete samples of how literature appeared before and after.

Siobhan Calkin uses Hoccleve in undergraduate courses to illustrate issues of patronage, Lancastrian governance, and Lollardy, but also utilizes Hoccleve’s texts for teaching documentary skills. In a graduate course on medieval authorship and authority she assigns students to work with the Hoccleve Archive, a collection of manuscript images, concordances, collation tables, and other resources. She asks students to produce an edition of a stanza of the Regiment by moving through the various stages a professional editor would. Students transcribe a portion of a manuscript and check their work against crowdsourced transcriptions on the website. They research the assigned manuscript and describe key paleographic features of the scribal hand, contending with issues editors would discuss in text notes.

David Watt put the audience to work by leading them through a manuscript-centered activity he uses in the undergraduate classroom, which he has previously published about in the journal Pedagogy. The activity asks students to think about the medieval reading process by encountering a poem (a roundel from a ballad to Henri Somer) in its varying layers by means of a handout with stages: edited text, appearance in manuscript form in Hoccleve’s own handwriting, and finally context within a whole manuscript page. In this way Watt shows the importance of confronting students with actual manuscript artifacts, and the possibility of doing so when digital or archival resources are not available. Hoccleve’s marginality prevents students from approaching the text through the preconceived notions they might have of a figure like Chaucer, yet unlike anonymous texts students can actually pinpoint the poems’ historical environment.

Far from a dispassionate manuscript study, Stephanie Trigg teaches Hoccleve in a course on medieval passions and presents scenes of intense emotions—the mirror scene of the Series’ “Complaint,” for instance. Students contend with poems that do not use emotion words and whose descriptions of emotional moments are circumscribed, but in which characters are clearly experiencing and performing emotions. Trigg compares Hoccleve with Troilus and Criseyde to draw attention to scenes when a character practices emotionality—Hoccleve his facial expressions in front of a mirror, Troilus the words he wishes to say to Criseyde. Such scenes allow students to address questions of normality and exceptionality in late medieval England, and conceptions of selfhood.


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