Review of Week 7: Feb 22, 24 (by Meaghan Kelly)
This week we studied social change in women, as seen in Riddy’s essay “Mother Knows Best: Reading Social Change in a Courtesy Text” and social change in gentry society which included the essay “Gentility” by Maddern and “Chivalry” by Keen. On Thursday, we discussed the rewards of virtuous behavior as read in “The Erle of Tolous” in Ashmole 61 and used Diamond’s scholarly article, “The Erle of Tolous: The Price of Virtue.”
Tuesday we began class with a short recap of the exemplum “The Knight Who Forgave His Father’s Slayer,” paying special attention to the fact that this text has only appeared in Ashmole 61, which suggests that our scribe, Rate, found this text especially significant in some way. What is more clear to us is that the text continues to feed the thread of forgiveness through the anthology and it places a heavy emphasis on the importance of community. The best example of community can be seen when the knights take communion with one another on Good Friday, the day of cleansing. Not only does the act of communion show the unification between all Christians but a unification with Christ himself, an idea at the foundation of the Catholic mass. After kissing the crucifix, the symbol of his sacrifice and grace, which embraces in return, the knights have forgiven one another and community restored.
From there we looked over the “Carpenter’s Tools” with Kruger’s essay on debate poems in mind. We learned that the more traditional subjects of debate poems were love and religion (in the form of a debate between the body and soul). The subject of the “Carpenter’s Tools” is prosperity and labor and what can happen if someone were to lose control of their habits. The debate is between two sets of tools, one optimistic and one cynical, over the carpenter’s alcoholism and loss of money. Josh saw this strange dialogue as a dualistic interpretation on the self, kind of a visual representation of the inner self as played out by the tools, a reading that is very much in line with the usual body/soul debates, where the argument takes place between the body and the soul of the same individual, at death. In this argument over the carpenter’s character we see a lack of understanding about how the world works and the tendencies to act with a kind of blind faith. We focused on the wife’s peculiar role in the text, one that put her in a subservient position resembling that of the tools. Despite the wife’s lesser position, her character exudes thrift, a trait her husband is without and allows her to thrive in a way that he cannot. This text shows what not to do, unlike the behaviors promoted in conduct texts.
We ended the class with a discussion on Riddy’s essay “Mother Knows Best: Reading Social Change in a Courtesy Text” lead by Jade. The article used “How the Goodwife Taught Her Daughter” as its main example to show the place of women within society, specifically within bourgeois society. Riddy also considered the many ways this courtesy text could be utilized within the household which includes mothers teaching not just their own daughters, but the daughters of other families who have come to work within their household. The text can also be viewed as a means of social reform by correcting behavior, and its first appearance in a friar’s handbook suggests the patriarchal control over women. Jade asked what the class thought the main objective of the text was, and after Leslie’s argument that the text’s best use was in the hands of mothers teaching their young servant girls, we all seemed to be in agreement. Jade’s questions on women’s oppression and the possible presence of a subculture in need of reform brought to our attention the preventative nature of the text and the idea that women were unable to conceptualize oppression the way we do, from our perspective, or posses the ability to speak against it.
On Thursday we discussed the evolution of the gentility in Maddern’s essay “Gentility” which argued against the ideas presented in Keen’s essay “Chivalry.” Maddern’s essay asked how the rise of gentility happened and how this affected social mobility. Her argument focused on the ambiguous middle ground which allowed for urban merchants to acquire the status of a gentleman/gentlewoman by merely “performing.” In other words, Maddern believes the display of material wealth allowed one to appear “gentle” without having to legally prove it. This was made possible because the system of economy was transitioning from one based in landownership to being centered on monetary wealth. In Keen’s essay “Chivalry” we are shown another perspective on the development of this newly formed class. Keen believes that the upper nobility’s perspective had to have changed along with the change in economy to allow a rise in gentry society which could possibly result in more authority and wealth than the existing nobility. To understand this, Keen makes us aware that the recognition of the gentry had to have come from above, yet they are still seen as a lesser extension of the nobility even though there is a share in power. As the nobility recognize the shift in economy, they also recognize the advantage of making connections with those who now own a large share of monetary power, thus stabilizing their position. Keen and Maddern thus interpret the evidence quite differently.
Returning to texts in Ashmole 61, we read “The Erle of Tolous” and its structure as a traditional romance featuring the character of a calumniated queen. This common narrative sets the queen at risk under accusations of being guilty, adultery in this case, and needing a knight to come and vouch for her innocence and save her reputation and title as queen, on the battlefield. Betrayal is a common trope throughout the text allowing for truth and honor to be noted as virtues. We followed our reading of this text with “The Erle of Tolous: The Price of Virtue” by Diamond and presented by Naomi. Naomi discussed the notion of prudence and the competing system of values for women between prudence and virtue as to which is better. The article included a passage from Christine de Pizan promoting prudence as a key virtue for women, and based on that Diamond argued that the real conflict is between romance and reality, emphasizing the anxiety society had over the power of a female because in reality it would be inappropriate of a woman in her position to display will in the manner of the queen in “The Erle of Tolous.” The Erle himself seems to be the most prudent of characters in this romance because he acts skeptically rather than on what he hopes to be true, on what is considered ideal.
Preview for next week:
Midterm essay exams are due Monday night at midnight, submitted through the dropbox in OAKS.
Naomi will be class secretary. Lindsay will present on Thursday. Then we will all thoroughly enjoy Spring Break.
Tuesday’s reading has been significantly reduced, because of the work you’re doing on the midterm between Thursday and Tuesday. On Tuesday we will discuss the chapter on “Romance” in the Cambridge Companion. Pay special attention to the author, Christine Chism’s, introductory material on pp. 57-8, where she has much of interest and, I think, merit to say about the experiences, pleasures, and surprises of reading conventional modes such as romance. Consider what kinds of genres (not only of literature but also in other media such as film and television) we might similarly experience this way. As you read the chapter, consider what seems to characterize the later English tradition of romance from its French and Anglo-Norman predecessors. Consider this in terms of Sir Isumbras and Earl of Tolous, the romances we’ve encountered in Ashmole 61. You likely are familiar with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which you should bear in mind as well while reading and reflecting on the chapter. Please bring your Codex Ashmole 61 text to class, too, as we will be further discussing Earl of Tolous on Tuesday.
Thursday’s reading includes a romance, Lybeaus Desconus, which you will recall is twice the length of Earl of Tolous. As you read, be sure to note in the margins, or at the top of the page, what is happening at that given point, to help you locate yourself more quickly in the text when you return to it for discussion or later work. Also consider how it seems like, and unlike, Sir Isumbras and Earl of Tolous. Along with Lybeaus Desconus you will read an essay by Lynne Blanchfield, who perhaps knows Ashmole 61 better than anyone other than George Shuffelton, our text’s editor. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on the anthology back in 1991, at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth [which happens to be where the Hengwrt MS of the Canterbury Tales is housed, at the National Library of Wales]. This particular article is oriented toward the romances in the manuscript, which is why we’re reading it at this point in the semester, when we’re piecing together a sense of that capacious medieval genre. Lindsay will direct us through it in class Thursday, so be sure to check the blog for her notes and questions beforehand.