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Preaching, Politics, and Poetry in Late Medieval England.

Preaching, Politics, and Poetry in Late Medieval England. By A. J. Fletcher. Medieval Studies. Dublin: Four Courts, 1998. 320 pp. $55.00 cloth.

A. J. Fletcher is one of the most assiduous of the literary historians now focusing on the later English Middle Ages. Those who have followed his numerous and often meticulously researched articles on late-fourteenth- and fifteenth-century texts and their culture will affirm that for sheer energy in research and shrewdness of insight he has not many peers. That he has focused so much on religious texts of the Lollard and counter-Lollard period makes his work an important resource for church historians as well as literary scholars.

The standard for scholarship connecting catechetical materials, sermon literature, preaching manuals, and what we think of now as secular literature was set in the 1930s by G. R. Owst. His Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England (1926; 2nd rev. ed., Oxford: Blackwell, 1961) has been foundational to the type of work in which Fletcher engages, and Owst's shadow hovers over this book as a benign shade, not a source of anxiety. Fletcher's unpublished B.Litt thesis ("A Critical Edition of Selected Sermons, from an Unpublished Fifteenth-Century de Tempore Sermon Cycle" [Oxford, 1978]) set him on a path largely marked out by Owst's expansive erudition and keen survoler over tough, even intractable manuscript territory. Patient and determined on luminescent detail, Fletcher's subsequent track has more deepened than broadened the road. He has been able to refine, clarify, and sustain, as well as to correct and extend, the work of his predecessors. Not only Owst but others such as Wenzel, Graden, Hudson, Minnis, and Aston are honored by his collegial corrections and extensions of insight.

In one sense this book is not a book; rather, it is a collection of articles that have already appeared in leading journals such as Medium Aevum, Mediaeval Studies, Review of English Studies, and Chaucer Review, as well as in a 1994 volume edited by A. J. Minnis, Late-Medieval Religious Texts and their Transmission: Essays in Honour of A. I. Doyle, York Manuscripts Conferences 3 (Woodbridge, U.K.: D. S. Brewer, 1994). Only chapters 1 and 7 of the twelve chapters here are not available in article form. Nevertheless, given the quality and essential focus of Fletcher's work, and given also the fact that he edits and often translates key sermon texts for several articles/chapters, bringing the work together in this way seems more than justified.

Wyclif, the Wycliffites, and the later Lollards are the primary markers (however subsequent historians have dealt with them) of the religious tradition with which Fletcher has to deal. It used to be de rigeur among literary and religious historians to regard this group with the horror media elites reserve for Bible-belt fundamentalists in contemporary America and for many of the same reasons: "Nothing feeds the Church more nutritiously than the preaching of God's word," said John Wyclif in 1380 (Speculum secularium dominorum). Wyclif did not exclude tradition, and he was not in the modernist sense entirely opposed to what Cardinal Newman called "the development of doctrine." But he was about as close to sola Scriptura as the fourteenth century got, and it was inconsistency with Scripture, or contradiction of it in life and practice, that aroused the religious and political criticism in his own and his followers' preaching.

This fact and, one supposes, the inevitable association with contemporary fundamentalism, has caused two generations of English medievalists to work hard to distance their favorite authors, notably Langland and Chaucer, from any suggestion that they might have been partisan to Wycliffite/Lollard sentiment. Since Arnold William's article "Chaucer and the Friars" (Speculum 28 [1953]: 499-513), this prophylactic aversion has dominated, often blindly. It is a merit of scholarship such as Fletcher's, as well as of some of the later work of Anne Hudson and others, that it is becoming possible to admit that great and intelligent poets of the fourteenth century might well have found radical Christian principles--particularly ethical principles--and even creedal propositions concerning ultimate verities to be attractive. There is still resistance (it is marked even in Fletcher's chapter 12, in which he updates John Fleming's treatment of the Summoner's Prologue and Tale ("The Antifraternalism of the Sommoner's Tale," Journal of English and Germanic Philology 65 [1966]:688-700) to show that its antifraternalism has a specifically Wycliffite and not merely conventional continental register), but Fletcher's research still goes to show that the line between "orthodoxy" and what Wycliffites championed in the fourteenth century is far less clear than Williams, D. W. Robertson Jr., and others thought to be the case. It is well within the pale of the evidence to allow, as Fletcher does, that "what does seem irreducibly true is that [Chaucer] was better acquainted with Lollard thought than has been suspected" (299) and that, as David Lawton, A. Blamires, and others have suggested, the Lollards and Langland clearly had a wide range of fellow-sympathies. In one of his most effective chapters Fletcher shows how the celebrated sermon of Wyclif's colleague Nicholas Hereford, preached on Ascension Day 1382 in Oxford, dovetails almost perfectly with the sermon preached by Reason in the C-text of Piers Plowman.

Fletcher is cautious to a fault perhaps or perhaps grudging in his affirmation of scholars who say much the same thing as himself on these and other issues. That is to be regretted. And for all of his wonderfully thorough scholarship there are lapses; use of the term status conjugiatorum ("the order of wedlock") to describe the married laity (the term does not mean "the working class") long predates the fifteenth century; the rank biblical illiteracy of the old carpenter in the Miller's Tale is transparent satire on the church's promotion of mindless obeisance in its resistance to scriptural knowledge in Chaucer's time; the index is certainly incomplete. But these are minor blemishes on what is after all a splendid collection of essays and a work of fundamental interest both to the literary historian and the historian of homiletics.

David Lyle Jeffrey Baylor University
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Author:Jeffrey, David Lyle
Publication:Church History
Date:Sep 1, 2000
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