The Bureaucratic Muse, Thomas Hoccleve and the Literature of Late Medieval England
Ethan Knapp
University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.
$40.00, 215 Pages, ISBN 0271021357.

Blaise Douglas
Université de Rouen

Ethan Knapp’s Bureaucratic Muse both stands as an introduction to and a detailed study of Thomas Hoccleve’s works. Hoccleve (c.1368-c.1426) happens to be one of those poets of the early fifteenth century who suffered from writing after the great Chaucer. The book explores this post-Chaucerian poetical crisis, the search, for the poets of the period, of an authority grounded either on the heritage left by the author of the Canterbury Tales or on the patronage offered by the great men of the realm.

Ethan Knapp’s ambition is also to rehabilitate Thomas Hoccleve and his work. The poetry of the latter has indeed been mainly used and read by historians studying the fifteenth century. The fact that Hoccleve was a civil servant and wrote much about both his private and his public life makes his poetry a very useful testimony. In the first chapter Knapp considers Hoccleve’s Formulary, which is usually held as a prime source for diplomatic and administrative history, and tries to appreciate its literary dimension. He argues that it stands as a great example of ‘a form of literary practice that developed side by side with what we now see as the “literature” proper of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.’ (p. 31) Thomas Hoccleve thus appears as a prominent figure of what Knapp calls ‘bureaucratic culture’.

The Letter of Cupid
, The Regement of Princes and The Series are also given close attention, with a mind to this very particular status of the poet. There often seems to be something of a vindication of Hoccleve, as Knapp points at what is particularly original in his works. While this is successfully done, one cannot keep from feeling Hoccleve is always considered through references to Chaucer, even if the aim is to assert his importance as a poet, representative of a particular period. By constantly coming back to the literary context of the early fifteenth century, Knapp succeeds in approaching the subject from a literary point of view but, perhaps unwillingly, remains within the two possible alternatives of either studying Hoccleve’s poetry as a historic source or as a production that found much of its inspiration in Chaucer’s.

The second chapter of Knapp’s study focuses on The Letter of Cupid, which is actually a translation of Christine de Pizan’s L’Epistre au dieu d’amours. While the choice of a translation may indicate Hoccleve took refuge behind an authority superior to his own, Knapp argues it is rather a way for him to assert a form of poetic independence. Indeed, Christine de Pizan wrote her poem in order to stand against Jean de Meun’s misogyny in his continuation of the Roman de la rose. The latter work had itself been translated by Chaucer and Hoccleve’s Letter of Cupid might then be considered as a subversive step. Hoccleve’s translation would be a way to assert his own authority, with respect to Chaucer, without losing any of it through the use of a French model: Knapp well shows that Hoccleve’s treatment of Cupid is very different from Christine’s, her god of love appearing as a moral figure, which is not the case in the English poem.

In chapter three, Knapp tackles the Regement of Princes (1411), a ‘Mirror for Princes’ with plenty of moral and political advice, which may have been a piece of propaganda designed for Henry V, who was then still a prince. The poem also assumes a philosophical dimension with Boethian accents. It is deeply concerned with political realities, while retaining lots of autobiographical material, as it represents Thomas Hoccleve at his work and has much to do with the poet’s personal interests.

Knapp first looks at the Regement of Princes from a historian’s point of view (chapter three), then tries to appreciate it as a piece of literature proper (chapter four). The latter chapter studies Hoccleve’s vision of Chaucer as a literary father through three eulogistic passages in the Regement of Princes. For Knapp, the fact that Hoccleves acknowledges his debt and the way he does so (thanks to a genealogic relationship, which is not a strictly conventional stance) show the distance and independence the younger poet is able to achieve, especially when a relation is established with the opposition that existed between Henry IV and his son, an opposition which is at the core of the Regement of Princes.

Chapter five deals with Hoccleve’s interests in theological and religious traditions. The poet’s position sometimes appears difficult to assess. Knapp remarks how Hoccleve’s fierce condemnation of Lollardy comes with self accusations because of his being, on a number of points, religiously close to the Lollards themselves. The poet’s attitude towards religious images is specifically studied with examples taken from various poems, which appear more subtle and achieved than usually deemed. Knapp convincingly stresses the great irony that is to be found in Hoccleve’s poetry.

The last chapter offers a new vision of the Series. According to Knapp, Hoccleve’s last major work is not just the tale of the poet’s recovery from madness and poetic silence, but an autobiographical ‘meditation upon the irresolvable fragmentation of the self and the intricate connections between his poetic project and the specific cultural milieu of the Privy Seal’. (p. 163) Apart from new interpretations of the poem, Knapp offers a good insight into the relation between the ‘bureaucratic’ and the poetic muse.

Most of Hoccleve’s works are thus considered with much detail, making Knapp’s book an indispensable read for anyone interested in the subject. In addition to the fact that this study is very well presented, written and structured, it includes a comprehensive index and boasts an excellent bibliography of eighteen pages. We are thus offered a first-rate tool for late medieval studies.