Hoccleve, Gender, and “Leaning In” to Critical Misgivings about “My Compleinte”

IMG_1304I hate Sheryl Sandberg’s liberal-feminist manifesto, which urges women just to “lean in” to dominant structures in order to advance in traditionally masculine spaces.[1]Even so, it seems that early critiques of Hoccleve feature a similar exhortation: if he would just try harder, he could succeed in a Lancastrian arena of patronage that rewarded strong, well-defined representations of individual, elite, mostly male power. F.J. Furnivall is hilariously frank about his disappointment with Hoccleve in terms that are also conspicuously gendered; for him, Hoccleve is “[a] weak, sensitive, look-on-the-worst side kind of man.”[2]Hoccleve does not feature crisply composed, properly delineated subjects, which, for Furnivall, leads to the conclusion, “we wish he’d been a better poet and a manlier fellow” (xxxviii). Now, while it is easy to dismiss these remarks as old-fashioned, as invested in a version of gendered subjectivity that gratifies the critic’s own ideals of masculinity and selfhood, I also want to suggest that this move is still very much a part of what we do in medieval literary studies. Because we’ve never made gender into a critical consideration in our analyses of subjectivity, it is frequently a blind spot in criticism that seeks to understand Hoccleve’s fraught relationship to power, selfhood, and writing.

Again, and as I suggested in my last post, the historicist treatment of gender as a social construction has left us with no way to make sense of the details of any selfhood that might cut against or depart from the conventional gender expectations of a given society. This goes for the best critics, even those who have a clearly elaborated notion of subjectivity and/or identity. Case in point: Lee Patterson, one of the best interpreters of late Middle English literature, amasses a stunning array of historical details to explore what he argues is a subjectivity that is riven, fragmented, and ever partial.[3]His analysis of Hoccleve remains one of the very best explorations of the Serieswithin this historicist frame, because he very convincingly shows how Hoccleve struggles to elaborate a coherent subjectivity, even for himself, within the swirling yet numbing networks of daily work and poetic patronage.[4]When Hoccleve discloses his bout with madness, and complains of the social isolation that follows in the wake of his extended illness, Patterson takes these representations, I think rightly, to be a larger meditation on selfhood, informed by Hoccleve’s (and then Patterson’s) guiding question, “What is me?” The struggle that “My Compleinte” represents, and on this point my analysis is directly influenced by Patterson, concerns the difficulties of constructing a legible subjectivity from the alienating scraps of a particularly situated life.

In “My Compleinte” Thomas speaks of his bout with mental illness, “But althouȝ the substaunce of my memorie / Wente to pleie as for a certain space” (1.50-51). He also very famously checks his face for sanity in the poem’s mirror scene:

And in my chaumbre at home whanne þat I was

Mysilfe alone I inþis wise wrouȝt.

I streite vnto my mirrour and my glas,

To loke howe þat me of my chere þouȝt,

If any other were it than it ouȝt,

For fain wolde I, if it not had bene riȝt,

Amendid it to my kunnynge and myȝt. (1.155-61)

Yet, as much as this passage suggests a kinship with our own modernity, particularly with Jacques Lacan’s “mirror stage,” here Thomas does not confront the illusory fantasy of wholeness that characterizes post-structuralist models of selfhood.[5]He is working at control, perhaps, but, and more saliently, I think, the reason his scene of selfhood underwhelms, or fails to cohere, is notbecause he can never achieve a subjectivity that holds together (because the very foundations of such ideals of selfhood are contingent, illusory, and therefore elusive). He believes very firmly that he has a coherent selfhood, as he avers: “My wit and I haue bene of suche accord / As we were or the alteracioun” (1.59-60). His problem, as he explains, is that other people won’t see his subjectivity as coherent. He has a selfhood, according to Thomas, but it is one that won’t do. In voicing his frustrations, and in his attempts to be patient in the face of others’ misapprehensions and misunderstandings, Hoccleve articulates a theory of selfhood that is radically subject to others within a social domain. This model of subjectivity may seem familiar, because we all have dutifully internalized Louis Althusser’s thinking on interpellation, as well as ideology, in understanding our own expectations for selfhood.[6]We are all “hailed” as subjects, and in ways that are sometimes hardly recognizable to us, because they derive from sources—private and governmental–outside the self. Notwithstanding this commonality, I think Hoccleve’s subjectivity is quite different, and for reasons that are deeply, normatively, and historically, gendered.

Of course, Judith Butler referenced Althusser to set up her performative theory of gender in her still-groundbreaking Gender Trouble.[7]But, and in ways that she has emphasized more strongly since, gender remains “a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint.”[8] To perform a gender, (as I argued long ago with reference to the “Son of the Invisible Man” skit within the classic b-movie, Amazon Women on the Moon), an audience has to be willing to see a performance as successful for a gender to become socially functional.[9]But what happens if your performance of gender just won’t do? What happens if you are doing a gender that is just not done? Or what if you are doing a gender that is a bit undone? This break, between social expectation and individual performance, I think, is the source of madness and continued frustration that Thomas catalogues in “My Compleinte.” And while, once again, I think Isabel Davis is brilliant in her thinking about Hoccleve’s attempts to write himself into a clerical masculinity, even that performance, she concludes, is frustrating for Thomas (see, https://hollyacrocker.com/2019/10/22/hoccleve-the-series-and-sad-bastard-masculinity/). The reason, I think, becomes clearer in “A Dialoge,” particularly in light of Patterson’s historicist reading of a particular exchange within that poem.

In the second poem of the Series, the aptly-named “A Dialoge [with a Friend],” Thomas casts about for new writing material after his friend advises him not to publish “My Compleinte.” Now, I will have much more to say about why “My Compleinte” won’t do in the larger chapter I’m currently framing, but the course Thomas takes—his decision to write a long-promised book for Duke Humphrey (brother to King Henry V)—reveals why Thomas struggles to convince others that his selfhood is viable within the gendered social networks in which he finds himself. Duke Humphrey is referenced as the paragon of masculinity in theSeries, and, in a comical and/or pitiful affirmation of difference, Thomas very quickly agrees that he could not present the powerful Duke with a translation of Vegetius’s “art of chiualrie” (2.561), since “his knyghthode so encrece / þat nothing my labour sholde edifie” (2. 563-64). It just won’t do. The friend urges a different text, a translation of a narrative from the Gesta romanorum, “Jeraslaus’s Wife.” Again, I have much to say about this story on its own (and I’ve recently written about this narrative structure—the Empress of Rome story—as it relates to women’s ability to catalyze ethical change in my new book, The Matter of Virtue: Women’s Ethical Action from Chaucer to Shakespeare: https://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/16018.html(20% discount code: PP20), but the friend urges Thomas to take up this story for Duke Humphrey because “For his desport and mirthe, in honestee / With ladyes to haue daliance” (2.705-6). Chivalric masculinity’s dedication to feminine virtue is represented as absolute. Yet, in his characteristically dazzling historicist way, Patterson finds a rift between the ideal articulated here and the real-world politics that it might evoke:

“For at just this time Humphrey was involved in prenuptial negotiations with Jacqueline of Hainault, the mistreated wife of the duke of Brabant…there still remain awkward disjunctions between Hoccleve’s account of Humphrey as an elegant courtier devoted to the service of ladies, his concurrent actions as a hardheaded politician using marriage to advance his own and national interests, and the tale that Hoccleve now produces for Humphrey’s delectation—a story about how a woman is abused by men for both material and sexual purposes…As an offering to Duke Humphrey, who was at this very time functioning as custosor lieutenant of England while his brother the king pursued his French ambitions, and who was currently engaged in marriage negotiations, the Taleis thus a spectacularly tactless choice.”  (“’What is Me?’” 447-448).

Hoccleve goes wrong here, according to Patterson, because he fails to read the details of Duke Humphrey’s marriage negotiations as he decides to translate a story about a faithful woman wronged by a king’s vicious brother.

And yet, as interesting as these details seem, they reinforce a gender binary that aligns masculinity with empowerment, and, by so doing, they institute more than analyze the alienation that frustrates Hoccleve in the Series. What remains intact in Patterson’s analysis, despite his critical disinterest in gender, is the alignment of subjectivity with elite masculine power. What Hoccleve struggles to do, on account of his poetic interest in gender, is to center a model of subjectivity that exists despite, or maybe because of, its separation from conventional sources of men’s power. As I will go on to suggest—a bit in future posts, but more in the book itself—Hoccleve uses intimacy, vulnerability, and affect to elaborate and endorse a model of subjectivity that has little to do with traditional associations of masculinity and empowerment.

Elsewhere in my developing book project, I demonstrate this model’s alignment with experiences more commonly associated with women in late medieval society. I am thinking harder about Hoccleve’s artistic investment in women’s experiences, especially given the anti-feminism that has been attributed to his work (in the Seriesitself by the friend, and by powerful arguments by feminist scholars whose work I deeply respect). For now, this post has gotten long, and I have more reading and thinking to do! I welcome your comments and suggestions, and next week I’ll say more about my own conviction, implicit here, that gender remains important, but only if it is guided by a transparent, interventionist, feminist standpoint.

**Thanks to Robyn Malo, who has listened to my yap about Hoccleve, and who has def improved my thinking and writing in this post!!



[1]I mean, if Katie Couric can ask Sheryl Sandberg the tough questions, such questions are pretty available: https://jezebel.com/katie-couric-leans-into-sheryl-sandberg-1839292648?utm_medium=socialflow&utm_campaign=socialflow_jezebel_facebook&utm_source=jezebel_facebook&fbclid=IwAR3Ob6MwWbRgCyDerNAwNglZUTJDyh4KRRcFJ5cRiBpURtrzgHFVsqUgH-k.

[2]F.J. Furnivall, ed., Hoccleve’s Works: The Minor Poems in the Phillips MS. 8151, the Durham MS. III.9, and Ashburnham MS. Additional 133. EETS, ES 61 (London: Oxford University Press, 1892. Rev. A.I. Doyle and J. Mitchell, 1970), xxxviii.

[3]Everything EXCEPT“Chaucer’s Pardoner on the Couch: Psyche and Clio in Medieval Literary Studies,” Speculum 76 (2001): 638-80, which sets up a gendered binary between historicism and psychoanalysis, and which relies on a bad reading of Ludwig Wittgenstein to do so. For analysis of this problematic binary across the field, see Liz Scala, “The Gender of Historicism,”The Post-Historical Middle Ages(New York: Palgrave, 2009), 191-214; and Sylvia Federico, “Chaucer and the Masculinity of Historicism,” Medieval Feminist Forum43 (2007): 72-76.

[4]Lee Patterson, “’What is me?’: Self and Society in the Poetry of Thomas Hoccleve,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 23 (2001): 437-70.

[5]Oh sorry, not doing full citations for classic theory texts—this one is in Écrits, though, if you are looking to go retro.

[6]These concepts appear in the essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” which is widely anthologized—including in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism.

[7]I will cite Butler, though, because I have it memorized. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1989).

[8]Judith Butler, Undoing Gender(New York: Routledge, 2004), 1.

[9]Holly A. Crocker, Chaucer’s Visions of Manhood(New York, Palgrave, 2007), 1-2. See John Landis, Joe Dante, dirs. Amazon Women on the Moon (Universal Studios, 1987). As I noted (p. 156, n. 11), “this skit is a spoof of Claude Raines’s performance in James Whale’s The Invisible Man (Universal Studios, 1933), itself a filmic representation of H. G. Wells’s book.” If you haven’t seen this skit, click this right here right now, because pretty much everything I think about gender, performativity, and our reliance upon community is right here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2D-T6O7myQ.


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