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Reform and Cultural Revolution.

James Simpson. Reform and Cultural Revolution.

The Oxford English Literary History, Vol. 2, 1350-1547. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. xviii + 661 pp. index. illus. bibl. $45. ISBN: 0-19-818261-9.

In TLS, 4 October 2002, appears a programmatic preface to the Oxford Literary History of England (OLHE), by its general editor, Jonathan Bate, entitled, "A Monumental Task: Why the New Oxford English Literary History Will Differ from Its Predecessor." Emphasis in the mid-century Oxford History of English Literature (OHEL), he says, was on "close reading," to the "neglect of the social circumstances of literary production." OLHE, by contrast, avoids its predecessor's implication that literature is simply "a body of novels, poems and plays" and seeks to "explore the diverse purposes of literary activity and the varied mental worlds of writers and readers in the past." This admirable opening up of literary history does not come without a price tag. In the period under survey here, 1350-1550, memorable poets are few--Chaucer, the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and at the very end Wyatt and Surrey among them. The last two were deeply involved in the life of their period and Simpson writes on them as well as anyone ever has. (And his long later essay on Langland is superb.) The Chaucer of Troilus receives his due, and the Chaucer of The Legend of Good Women perhaps more than that. The treatment of the Canterbury Tales is by comparison perfunctory. Gawain is viewed instrumentally, for its implications regarding wider issues that do not come within the intense drama of the poem itself. The irrepressible lyricists whose songs grace the anthologies are almost silent here.

In the very first sentence of this book Simpson speaks of his sustained preparatory labors and the actual writing as "exhilarating." In the book's very last sentence, surely by design, writing the book has been "exhilarating." What calls forth that adjective is not only what Simpson has found in his period but, perhaps even more, what he has made of it. A reader might do well to begin with his three-page envoi, a lucid summary of the vision that drives the book and gives perspective on the otherwise seemingly willful handling of some writers. Too briefly put, Simpson's thesis is this: the late-medieval cultural scene in England offered a patchwork of overlapping, often competing but long-established jurisdictions, clerical and lay, none able to impose itself and all therefore historically tolerant of, or at least resigned to, diversity. The obligatory formal acknowledgment of the one state and the one church left plenty of room for moral maneuver in most of the realms that matter humanly. By contrast, the sharpened cultural divisions that opened up in the early modern period, further intensified by unbridgeable religious divisions, created the need for a strong central authority in Henrician England that steadily enlarged the sphere of the non-negotiable by enforcing orthodoxy in matters formerly indifferent. Thus Simpson sees in the early Tudor era a contraction of sympathies and a certain new rigidity of thought.

Seen in the light of this shaping vision, writers like John Lydgate, whose purely literary importance may be slight, acquire a new importance. They are vitally and variously engaged in their world and add to its charm and vitality--indeed Simpson rightly emphasizes the evidence for wide diffusion of their manuscript writings--but present-day readers look elsewhere. Lydgate's output is estimated at 145,000 lines (perhaps 3000 pages) and will always be unknown to non-specialists. This gulf between his own intensive preoccupation with often little-known authors and the sketchy knowledge others may have of them has placed Simpson in a certain quandary that is really no one's fault. His detailed knowledge so overwhelms the hazy impressions of the Lydgate-challenged that he is almost forced to acknowledge and even emphasize the divide--in effect, to take charge. This he does with the utmost courtesy. Nevertheless the first person singular pronoun appears hundreds of times--an unusual occurrence in a book that aspires to the status of a standard work.

Simpson's period ends circa 1540. The Henrician Reformation was beginning to empty the universities of students as the era began in which, as Brooks Adams memorably put it, "Within a single generation, the relation Christ's flesh and blood bore to the bread and wine was changed five times by royal proclamation or act of Parliament." As Simpson rightly observes, the times were dark as the Henrician Revolution took hold. Nevertheless, just off stage stood Eliza and her James.


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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Gleason, John B.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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