Thomas Hoccleve: New Approaches
Edited by JENNIFER NUTTALL & DAVID WATT
Please briefly explain what Thomas Hoccleve: New Approaches aims to do.
Thomas Hoccleve: New Approaches aims to enhance our understanding of the life and work of Thomas Hoccleve through a variety of innovative critical approaches. The book also provides an excellent introduction to the study of Thomas Hoccleve because it both includes a range of contemporary scholarly approaches to Hoccleve and provides an overview of the criticism that has led to this point. The chapters in this book each complement each other while also reflecting and engaging with recent developments in literary criticism more generally.
Who was Thomas Hoccleve?
We know a fair bit about Thomas Hoccleve thanks to the various documents that bear witness to his life in London and Westminster. Some of these documents are bureaucratic, since Hoccleve served as a Clerk of the Privy Seal from Easter 1387 (when he was likely in his late teens) until just before his death in 1426. Some of these documents are literary, since several of his poems seem to provide details about his life as a Clerk as well as someone who was involved in the making of books. His writing touches on information he would have known intimately thanks to his central role in the royal bureaucracy, but that role also prepared him to engage with a wider literary culture. He names Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower as his influences, but his training in French and Latin enabled him to translate texts that range from a poem by Christine de Pizan to two moral tales taken from a story collection known as the Gesta Romanorum. Several of the chapters in Thomas Hoccleve: New Approaches consider these connections while also making new ones, linking him to authors as different as Ovid and John Walton.
Why is Hoccleve important?
One reason that Thomas Hoccleve is important is that his work as a scribe provides us with access to a great deal of his writing. He compiled at least five books of his own verse (three of which survive) in addition to a Formulary that preserves model documents that would have been used to conduct the business of the Privy Seal. He can therefore provide insight into worlds created by writing in late medieval London, whether that writing be bureaucratic or literary. Some of the chapters in our collection demonstrate that Hoccleve is also important because of his innovative incorporation of forms that were central to the bureaucracy (e.g., complaints) to create literary effects. Other chapters demonstrate the way that Hoccleve engaged innovatively with literary forms and genres, sometimes to critique them and other times to reinforce them. Ultimately, we think the book shows that Hoccleve is important because he himself was acutely aware of the new approaches that were available to him and that others would continue to approach him in new ways.
How does his work differ from Chaucer’s? How is it similar?
Hoccleve seems to suggest that his writing differs from Chaucer’s mainly by not matching the heights reached by his predecessor. Before we accept this view, though, we need to remember that he does this when he is working to remind readers of Chaucer’s greatness. Hoccleve adopts several forms and structures that would have been familiar to readers of Chaucer’s verse, but the rhyme-royal and ballad stanzas that Hoccleve uses regularly would also have been familiar to readers of French verse. Moreover, as one of our chapters shows, Hoccleve’s approach to rhythm may look like Chaucer’s, but it often differs in consistent and interesting ways. There is no question that Hoccleve was profoundly influenced by Chaucer and often anticipating readers who could call his predecessor and his work to mind, but the chapters in our volume also make it clear that Hoccleve’s decisions about form and content often resist or offer alternatives to Chaucer’s approach on matters as basic as the structure of a line of verse or as complex as women’s reading practices.
What aspect of Hoccleve or his work resonates with you personally?
Hoccleve’s use of dialogue is particularly compelling because he uses it to acknowledge the need for social connection while exploring how hard relationships can be. The conversations between his characters often generates laughter, sometimes because they are heartening but at others because they are so awkward. What we find particularly moving about Hoccleve’s use of dialogue is that he seems to insist that communication with others – whether through conversations with friends or written exchanges – can profoundly enrich our lives. This is why Hoccleve insists on the need to seek connection even when we feel we do not understand others or that we are not understood. And it is also why he seems to keep inviting us to approach him and his work in new ways.
We love your cover! What’s the inspiration behind it?
We love it, too! The inspiration for the cover really comes from the design folks at Boydell & Brewer. We wanted to use an image of Hoccleve on the cover, so we sent the three images of him that appear in decorated initials in the Bedford Psalter and Hours (London, British Library, Add. MS 42131). Hoccleve is one of several authors that appear in that particular book, and the three images of him appear to show him at different ages. We were thrilled when we saw the design because it is so vibrant and seems to integrate the title right into the manuscript’s text.
JENNIFER NUTTALL is Lecturer in English at Exeter College, University of Oxford. She has written books on Lancastrian literature and Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, as well as articles on Middle English literary language and poetic forms.
DAVID WATT is Associate Professor in the Department of English, Theatre, Film & Media at the University of Manitoba and a fellow of St. John’s College. He has written extensively on Hoccleve’s Series as well as articles on late medieval literature and book history.