Home >> Volume 8 (Spring 2008) >> The Shape of Resistance Literature >> Brooke Hunter on "Late-Medieval Prison Writing and the Politics of Autobiography"

Brooke Hunter on "Late-Medieval Prison Writing and the Politics of Autobiography"

Cover of "Late-Medieval Prison Writing and the Politics of Autobiography": Blue with archaic illustration of prison design

Joanna Summers

Late-Medieval Prison Writing and the Politics of Autobiography

Clarendon Press, 2004
237 pages

Reviewed by Brooke Hunter

In her examination of English prison writings between 1385 and 1463, Joanna Summers brings to bear an eye for detail and a methodical approach. Summers’s contribution is to situate late-medieval prison writings as a rhetorical genre, not one that is merely didactic or confessional. She argues that in the six texts under consideration (Thomas Usk’s Testament of Love; the King’s Quair of James I, Charles d’Orleans’s English Book of Love, the works of two Lollard writers William Thorpe and Richard Wyche, and George Ashby’s A Prisoner’s Reflection) we can witness the beginnings of self-fashioning. The authors construct their performances through the autobiographical presentation of the self-consciously subjected narrator hoping to persuade his audience for political ends. For this purpose, as Summers sets out to prove, the authors deploy intertextual references, most importantly to Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, though Chaucer and Gower also make appearances in the first few chapters, sculpting the source materials for their own rhetorical purposes, usually to curry favor or gain release. The intertextual references Summers illuminates expose resistant readings of the source texts and reveal much about the textual reception and contemporary understandings of important medieval works. These readings form the backbone of Summers’s book. 

Most current Boethian scholarship stresses the separation of the narrator of the Consolation and the historical Boethius, so Summers’s discussion of the Consolation as an unproblematically biographical text may seem odd at first. She clarifies this disjunction with recourse to the medieval reception of the Consolation, which not only Christianized the text but turned the Prisoner/Boethius into a veritable martyr. She shows that the Consolation was part of an “evolving tradition rather than a fixed text, largely precipitated by the intensely personal, moral response that the text evoked in its readers; it was the focus of continual revision, translation and explication throughout the medieval period.” In the introduction she lays the building blocks for resistant readings of canonical texts by situating them in fluctuating reading traditions and establishing the possibility of idiosyncratic private reading responses. It is unfortunate that Summers need spend anytime defending the Middle Ages against the old bugaboo of the monolithic mind and singular Church approved readings, but once this preemptory argument is dispensed with it makes way for many enlightening and unexpected readings of intertextuality. 

The conflation of textual voice and author is established in the first part of each chapter, Charles d’Orleans excepted, and it is from this basic assumption that each chapter progresses into two further sections. Section two examines the political self-fashioning of the prisoner and his intertextual exemplars, whereas section three constructs the audience for this self-presentation and the political motivation behind such a representation. Some chapters use this rubric to better effect than others, notably the chapter on James I and the Lollard writers Thorpe and Wyche, but by the end of the book the three-section plan seems stiff and overly prescriptive, at times obscuring the wider argument. 

Summers’s chapter on the Wycliffte writings of William Thorpe and Richard Wyche offers the best use of her method and showcases her masterful combination of close reading and historicization. This chapter in particular enlightens the Lollard textual community and the place of the individual’s authority to determine textual meaning in relation to the established Church and its propagandic system. With a painstaking examination of the historical record, Summers shows that the verisimilitude of Thorpe and Wyche’s accounts of their theological examinations at the hands of church authorities is more literary device than reference to fact. Thorpe’s Testimony relates, in the generic stylings of an ecclesiastical tyrant drama, his interrogation at the hands of Archbishop Arundel, who would write his Constitutions outlawing vernacular translations of scripture in 1407, the alleged year of Thorpe’s examination. No evidence exists outside of Thorpe’s text that Arundel ever examined him, evidence we might expect given the high profile status of the Archbishop. What are we to make of the extreme detail provided by these texts (copious specific names of those present, locations, and intimate details)? Summers shows that these verisimilitudinous specifics, unique to the usually anonymous Lollard writing, work to generically connect the Trial and Testimony, “the only two surviving documents in which a Lollard describes his own persecution” with the similarly detailed Cavity Epistles of St. Paul and the hagiographical tradition we might expect a Lollard to reject. The saintly narratives provided by the authors themselves and the theological acrobatics they display to the numerous church authorities they debate are counterbalanced by the modesty topos and the ultimate end goal of the text: reappropriation of the textual exemplars and the individuals’ ability to read and interpret them in their own way (an important Lollard theological tenet), and the creation of counterpropaganda to the anti-Lollard rhetoric of the Church. Further elaboration of the value of the texts to the vast illiterate population “not solely as propaganda, but as authoritative documents that belonged to them, as important simply as documents per se” illuminates the texts as material objects symbolically valued regardless of their rhetorical performance. Simply to write at all was resistance even if no one ever read what was written. 

Anglophone medieval studies remain historically focused and wary of theoretical application, but it is a shame that Summers offers no theoretical framework to define or inflect her use of the term “political.” Given the now aging theoretical commonplace “the personal is the political,” Summers’s argument that these autobiographical prison documents accomplish political work might seem obvious to someone outside of medieval studies. What propels Summers’s argument over these theoretical valleys is her superior historicizing of textual reception, an important critical facet sometimes ignored in other historicist readings.