Surviving Trauma in the Middle Ages: Teaching Materials for Hoccleve’s “Complaint”

By Dr. Brendan O’Connell (oconneb2@tcd.ie) 

Editions

When teaching this text in class, I have usually used Roger Ellis’s edition ‘My Compleinte’ and Other Poems (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2001), which is available in the library, but not accessible online. For this online class, I provided a link on Blackboard to Jenni Nuttall’s translation, which is available here through the Hoccleve Society website. The original text is also available online through the Hoccleve Archive.

Preparation

Students were asked to read the text carefully, either in translation or the original (my students have mixed levels of prior experience with Middle English). I provided a detailed Study Guide on Blackboard, asking students to use it as a prompt as they read through the text. I also provided the PowerPoint presentation, annotated with lecture notes to help guide the students through what I considered to be important to the text (this was done rather hastily in the days immediately after college closure, and was certainly a little rough and ready).

Analysis

To encourage students to start thinking critically about the poem, and to think help them think through themes of mental health, I provided a link on Blackboard to a YouTube clip of Stephanie Trigg’s TED Talk, What Does Normal Look Like. Students had already been provided with a fairly detailed bibliography for the text, but I selected a few articles that I thought might be particularly useful and added PDFs to the Blackboard page:

Atkinson, Laurie. ‘“Why þat yee meeued been / can I nat knowe”: Autobiography, Convention, and Discerning Doublenesse in Thomas Hoccleve’s The Series’. Neophilologus 101 (2017): 479-94.

Bradley, Danielle. ‘“By communynge is the beste assay”: Gossip and the Speech of Reason in Hoccleve’s Series’. Mediaevalia 40 (2019): 187-217.

Smyth, Karen. ‘Reading Misreadings in Thomas Hoccleve’s Series’. English Studies 87.1 (2006): 3-22.

Turner, Marion. ‘Illness Narratives in the Later Middle Ages: Arderne, Chaucer, and Hoccleve’. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 46.1(2016): 61-87.

Discussion

I set up a very simple Discussion Board on Blackboard, asking everyone to post one substantial comment (300-500 words), highlighting their own thoughts on the text, and making reference to as many of the resources as possible; I committed to replying to each comment individually. While this is a fairly basic way to run a discussion group, I think it actually worked well in this case, and a number of the comments were very thoughtful, and reflected on the student’s individual experiences as well as on the text and the resources supplied. I am providing here the response of one student, who has kindly given permission to include her response here, as well as my response to her comment. Her comment captures much that worked well with this approach to teaching the text online: she responds very directly to the text, while also engaging thoughtfully with the secondary criticism.

Student reply to ‘Hoccleve’s Complaint’:

‘It’s difficult to say I enjoyed reading this as honestly, it hit quite close to home for me, but I am incredibly thankful that this piece of writing has been brought to my attention. Initially, I was struck by how poignant and relevant his words still are today and although the terminology and language used to describe mental illnesses has drastically changed, Hoccleve, very honestly and aptly I believe, expresses his relationship with his mental health, the frustrations that accompany it and the heart-breaking realities of it. I personally felt as though Hoccleve was writing in an attempt to almost convince himself, let alone others, of his ‘wellness’. His assertion that he ‘recovered’ on a specific date is intriguing as it seemed to me to be a form of coping mechanism; applying order, upon reflection, to an extremely distressing, disordered period of his life may well have enable a process of healing. Much like Stephanie Trigg’s observation in the TedTalk, mental illness and the experiences of those familiar with it, transcends time, culture and gender and her comment at the end of the video, of this being a person “trying to make sense of themselves” very much so resonated with me as I believe this is often the mentality possessed after a diagnosis and realisation of the life-long management of conditions.

I, probably quite obviously, have found it difficult to maintain an objective standpoint, however, concerning the conventionality of his writing (Atkinson article), I personally believe, whether an account of mental illness or trauma is autobiographical or complete fiction, readers will always find connections between themselves and the written word. Hoccleve’s complaint is a fragmentary insight but a powerful one at that. The Marion Turner article Illness Narratives brings up the interaction Hoccleve had with a friend after showing him his writings and I found this very interesting; “According to the Friend, everyone has completely forgotten about Hoccleve’s illness; not one person is speaking of it, and Hoccleve’s reputation is as good as it has ever been”…(p.11-12). However truthful this friend’s assessment of Hoccleve’s relationship with others is, I believe this and Hoccleve’s ‘practising normal’ with the mirror, truly highlights this obsessive thinking many possess with regards to how others will perceive us and the negative beliefs that our illnesses or traumas are written across our faces.’

Brendan O’Connell, reply to student:

Thanks for this insightful and open response. I suspect you are completely right – it often strikes me that Hoccleve is trying to convince himself that he is fully better, that he was cured on a specific day, and that the only difficulties he faces now are because of the ill-informed reactions of those around him, though in reality, the picture is more complicated. I sometimes feel that he is brilliant at exposing all the cruelties (intended or unintended) inflicted by social stigma and ignorance, and yet his work also reveals how easy it is for sufferers to internalise negative societal attitudes to mental ill-health. No need to worry about being ‘objective’ when looking at the critical material – we all bring our own perspectives and experiences to these things, and I think your comments on these critics are very insightful. And yes, I think that one of the central insights of this text is that everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, is anxious about putting themselves out into the world. And yet, one of the most important lines in the original text is when he says ‘communing is the best assay’, by which he means essentially that if people want to know how things are with someone else, they should talk to them, not about them. The text really highlights that pull between wanting to hide away and know the importance of getting back out into the world – the friend in the ‘Dialogue’ tries to convince Hoccleve not to talk about it, as you say, but while Hoccleve values his opinion, he has to do what he himself thinks is best. Thanks for your response, I’m glad you got so much out of it.

Reflections

No doubt there are ways of refining this exercise in the future, to facilitate small group work and research exercises through discussion boards and wikis, etc.  On reflection, though, it went surprisingly well, and there are many aspects I will keep even after in-class teaching returns as normal. The translation by Jenni Nuttall was a great success: students responded very directly to it, and it helped them engage well with the difficult themes of the poem. I also found the Discussion Board an excellent addition to teaching this text: it required students to reflect on a wide range of material, and provided a forum for discussing issues related to mental health that many students appeared to have found very beneficial. The main thing I took away from the experience was that several students expressed that though they found the text difficult to read because of the focus on mental health and stigma, they were grateful that the text had been brought to their attention, and thought it should be taught more widely; I am looking to expand on this by incorporating the text into our compulsory medieval survey module in the coming year.