Virtues that Matter, or, What I’ve Been Doing in 2020


Hoo, it is already February. I am back to teaching one class this term, and despite the reduced number of students, I’m still having to work very hard to remember how to teach, read, and write all at once. So I haven’t been blogging. But I have been writing and reading and teaching all at once, and this post includes new work, and work that will give you a sense of my recent book, The Matter of Virtue: Women’s Ethical Action from Chaucer to Shakespeare(Penn, 2019):


After my book came out in the fall, the events director at the Athenaeum in Philadelphia wrote me to ask if I’d like to give a talk about my project. “Of course!” I replied, overjoyed that I might get to speak in such a historic, beautiful setting. That’s happening today:


In the lead up to that event, yesterday afternoon my friend Emily Steiner and her wonderful students—as well as other delightful medievalist colleagues in Philly—hosted me to talk about my developing work on feminist subjectivity. That talk derived from my recently published ChaucerReviewarticle onThe Knight’s Tale(, as well as my forthcoming article on Chaucer’s Melibee, which will appear in A Companion to New Critical Thinking on Chaucer, (ed. by the wonder-team, Lynn Shutters, Matthew Irvin, and Stephanie Batkie, forthcoming on ARC Humanities Press). The Penn group was generous, engaging, and exciting, and I’ll have more to say about how their questions are prompting me to reflect more on my ongoing work on Hoccleve, hopefully soon. For today, I thought I’d just include the text from my Athenaeum talk. Again, it is drawn from my book, which I encourage you to read if you are interested in the full citations (or in some of the images that will appear in the talk). I guess I’ll count this post as one of those, “showing the work” that goes into the long process of bringing an academic book into the world, posts. I’m deeply grateful to have the opportunity to talk about these ideas with a larger audience, and I’m eager to hear any feedback that readers might have to this argument. So please, comment or contact me if you’d like to talk more!!


‘Til soon, h




Holly A. Crocker

University of South Carolina

[Do not cite without permission]

“Virtues that Matter: from Shakespeare’s Hamletto Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women

When Hamlet advises his mother, “Assume a virtue if you have it not,” he presents virtue as a performance that involves the material body. Yet when he concludes his counsel with the remark, “For use almost can change the stamp of nature” (my emphasis), he suggests Gertrude’s ethical action is limited by the body’s materiality. He does not treat virtue as an embodied capacity, but instead imagines Gertrude’s virtue as a decorative covering, as “a frock or livery / That aptly is put on” (III.iv.151.4-5). Hamlet renders Gertrude’s virtue as superficial, and, by so doing, he forecloses her potential for ethical action. This devaluation of “virtues that matter”—as well as the association of material virtues with women—focuses the argument of my larger project. My current book, The Matter of Virtue: Women’s Ethical Action from Chaucer to Shakespeare,treats medieval and early modern literature, but Hamletprovides the opening case study because Shakespeare’s play dramatizes the vital importance of material virtues while it also reveals the demise of these collective capacities in favor of an ethics that empowers the individual moral agent. Today I’m going to give you a sketch of the larger intellectual argument, a reading of Shakespeare’s Hamletthat highlights its priorities, and a consideration of Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women that suggests why these issues matter.

Like Hamlet, we often think virtue arises from action, but during the late medieval and early modern periods, virtue also derives from material things. In premodern England, virtues are material powers, permeating and connecting physical bodies. This model of ethical excellence relies on a description of virtue familiar from the Nichomachean Ethics: “Moral virtue comes about as a result of habit…we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”[i]Virtues are unthinkable outside embodiment, since, without a body, ethical action is impossible. Premodern English writings evidence a rich, centuries-old tradition of material virtue. This tradition is also Aristotelian, insofar as it appears in The Physics: “the virtues are perfections of nature.”[ii]But these writings do not simply telegraph Aristotle’s notions of material virtue unchanged from ancient iterations. This is no “rebirth” of a classical ideal. Rather, material virtues gained authority from centuries of debate, amendment, adjustment, and review.

Representations of material virtues are rife in late medieval vernacular writing, but this figuration derives from an older Latin tradition. The “tree of virtues” is part of a larger mnemonic structure that system-building philosophers used to communicate the complexity of medieval virtue ethics. We often think of medieval virtues as elaborately hierarchized, and it is true that some medieval thinkers used the tree of virtues to differentiate moral properties root and branch. Nevertheless, such depictions also unify virtue as a flourishing and dynamic system of connected excellences. In a 13thc. copy of the Speculum Virginum, the interconnection of virtues—in accordance with a principle elaborated again from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics—visually insists that moral goods are generative, material, and living. And just incidentally, here is an English version of the same image: this is from Additonal MS 37049, a fifteenth-century Carthusian miscellany described as a “spiritual encyclopedia”—this derives from a poem called, “The Desert of Religion”—shows the longevity and flexibility of this motif]. Hildegard of Bingen’s 12thc. Ordo Virtutum, which features sixteen feminized virtues singing to a humanized Anima, imagines the virtues as the boughs of a tree rooted by the Patriarchs and Prophets (“Nos sumus radices et vos rami, / fructus viventis oculi”; 6-7). Hildegard uses gender allegory to connect female worthies in a moral ecology of excellence, but the naturalism of this motif suggests more than a symbolic association.

Poetic organicism also allows vernacular writers to investigate the material conditions of shared community. Near the end of William Langland’s fourteenth-century masterpiece, Piers Plowman, the cardinal virtues are represented as grains that Grace sows in the soul of mankind. These traditional excellences—justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence—are figured as crucial to a thriving polity across their long philosophical and representational history. Accordingly, the corruption Langland imagines in the poem’s grim post-apocalyptic conclusion is social. Pride preys on the “Cristen peple,” but in casting doubt on virtue’s veracity, “With swiche colours and queyntise cometh Pride y-armed” (XIX.355), Langland’s poem levies a broader critique against degraded cultural practices. The erosion of virtue arises from social habits that make moral excellence less substantial. Through abuse, virtue becomes flimsy, fragile, superficial. Ideally, though, Langland suggests virtue has a palpable impact on the world. As Will’s search for Dowel affirms, virtues are not intangible, ethereal principles, but lived practices that rely on material embodiment.

The invocation of virtue’s embodiment in an everyday devotional context was not unique to Langland, either. As medievalists are keenly aware, 1215 saw the greatest pedagogical program ever instituted with the Church’s Fourth Lateran Council. Lateran IV’s canon Omnis utriusque sexus, which required yearly confession for all Christians, meant that a basic set of spiritual information had to be taught. Answering this need, in 1281 Pecham’s syllabus mandated certain rudiments of religious literacy, including instruction in the virtues, for every layperson. Men as well as women were taught the virtues as part of a quotidian system of ethical information. Literatures on the vices and virtues seek to make these qualities more present and memorable for their audiences. As a consequence, late medieval pastoral literatures often use organic figures of spiritual cultivation to guide general audiences. The Book of Vices and Virtues,a fourteenth-century translation of the popular Somme le Roi, returns man and woman to a pre-lapsarian garden of spiritual growth where God grafts virtues into the individual soul. The virtues that God-as-gardener fosters, importantly, are imagined as making a substantial difference in the shared lives of fellow Christians.

Similarly, TheDigby Mary Magdalene, a 15thc. saints’ drama, cannily renders virtues as organic properties, which grow from the seeds Christ implants in the human soul. Mary is embarrassed when she realizes her error, “I wentt ye had byn Symov[n]d þe gardener,” but Christ reassures her:

So I am, forsothe, Mary!

Mannys hartt is my gardyn here.

þerin I sow sedys of vertu all þe 3ere.

þe fowle wedys and wycys I reynd vp be þe rote!

Whan þat gardyn is watteryd wyth terys clere,

Than spryng vertuus, and smelle full sote.

Though we have a hard time talking about them otherwise, renderings of material virtues are not just metaphorical in late medieval vernacular writings. They represent the intersection of matter and discourse, since they were supposed to reflect the direct power that the divine exercises over human excellence.

This is because material virtues were not just religious, nor were they simply literary, or even figurative. I have described a tradition of material virtue as it derives from textual sources. A Latin topos gives rise to a vernacular representation, which takes on its own life across all kinds of visual and poetic representations in later centuries. Good literary critical stuff. But it is more likely that these motifs were recognizable because they were familiar from common suppositions about the natural world. Plants as well as rocks, body parts and corporeal systems: they all had “vertues.” In premodern English, “vertu” was not an abstract, ethereal principle. What Jeffrey Jerome Cohen theorizes as, “life force: reproduction and vitality, affect and intellect and health, that which moves the flesh” (Cohen 2011: 292), the Middle English Dictionarydefines as “An inherent quality of a substance which gives it power.”[iii]The Peterborough Lapidarycharacterizes vertu as follows: “…no man schall be in / dowte Þat god haþe set & put gret vertu in worde, stone, and erbe, by the wyche…many [wonder]full mervailes my3t be wrow3t þorow her vertues” (Evans and Serjeantson 1933: 64).

As Mary Carruthers explains, “vertu” was a “principle of biological energy.” Elsewhere, she notes, vertusignified “that innate ‘power,’ ‘energy,’ or ‘desire’ of the soul animating the body, which (as with babies, puppies and plants) requires channeling, habituation, and training” (86-7). Whether human or nonhuman, insentient or lively, all bodies have virtues. To say that virtues come from sources outside the self, then, does not vitiate the idea that every body is naturally endowed with animating powers. As the 14th c. Dives and Pauperputs it, “God 3af gres, trees and herbis diuerse vertuys.” We might call each of these virtues an affordance, or the ability to flourish in a particular environment. Knowledge of such powers was central to many practices that relied on the explicit interaction of substance and utterance. Premodern medicine relied on the knowledge of material virtues, for, as John Trevisa’s English translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s de proprietatibus rerum explains, “A good physicien…nedip to knowe complexions, vertues, and worchings of medicynable pingis.” A command of material virtue requires intimate local knowledge, including the season for the optimal cultivation of healing plants: “Pese herbys…mustyn be gaderyd abowtyn mydsomer, for panne pei ben of moste vertu.” Chaucer’s famous opening to the General Prologue, then, draws on the substantive, vibrant, connective power of material virtues: “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote, / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, / And bathed every veyne in swich licóur / Of which vertú engendred is the flour”.

This sense of virtue’s material vitality did not disappear in the early modern period. Herbals as well as medicinal tracts attend to the “vertues” of different plants and potions. The brief broadsheet, The admirable vertue, property and operation of the quintessence of rosemary flowersand the meanes to vse it for the sickesses and diseases herein mentioned(1615), equates “vertue” with a potency that is physical: “Moreover, the force and vertue thereof extendeth it selfe euen to the sinewes shrunke and weakned.” (n.p.) In the more comprehensive A boke of the propreties of herbes called an herball  (1552), the “vertues” of different plants are associated with distillation, which means that this type of power is thought of as the defining essence of each example included therein. Similarly, A right profitable booke for all diseases. Called The path-way to healthdescribes its contents by referencing virtue as type of potency, “Wherein are to be found most excellent and approoued medicines, of great vertue.” The oft-printed An hospitall for the diseased,by Thomas Cartwright, also proclaims the powers of its practical wisdom by advertising the “most excellent approoued medicines, as well emplaisters of speciall vertue…for the restitution and preseruation of bodily health.” Thinking of vertue as potency is central to medicine’s public standing, or so the English translation of the Latin Prepositasclaims: “when men or women shall, having read this booke, see and understand how that there are in hearbes, plants, gummes &c. such severall vertues…they will be the better perswaded to like and esteeme of phisicke then heretofore they have done” (A1v).

Treating virtue as an embodied capacity was not confined to a specialized vocabulary of science and medicine. To return to Hamlet,when Laertes observes Ophelia’s madness, he curses his eye’s natural powers, “Tears seven times salt / Burn out the sense and virtue of mine eye!” (4.5.154). Later, when Laertes conspires to poison Hamlet he tells Claudius the potion is beyond the powers of any medicine:

And for that purpose I’ll anoint my sword.

I bought an unction of a mountebank

So mortal that, but dip a knife in it,

Where it draws blood no cataplasm so rare,

Collected from all simples that have virtue

Under the moon, can save the thing from death

That is but scratched withal.  (4.7.112-118)

As the herbals’ and medicinals’ practical appeals to readers indicate, thinking of virtue as the vital force of a material body was commonplace in early modern England. Moreover, writings from the sixteenth and early seventeenth century also render virtue using vibrant, organic topoi. John Larke’s extended title, The flower of vertue following the authority of auncient doctoures and philosophers deuyding and speaking of vices and vertue, is in keeping with the treatise’s treatment of virtues as “flowers” or “fruits” of prudence. Similarly, Two guides to a good life uses the tree of virtue to distinguish different qualities and to show their relation to one another. The arbor of virtue, like the vineyard of virtue, conceptualizes virtues as both natural and intertwined.

As these examples are meant to show, what I’m calling “material virtues” arise from embodiment, and they allow their practitioners to maintain dignity even in circumstances that are beyond their control. When these virtues arise as a consequence of harms, they are not simply an expression of mourning or lamentation. Rather, material virtues also entail a critique of the conditions that produce them.As I maintain, material virtues body forth the prevailing modes of governance in a way that exposes them to critique. Their persistent vitality is a disruptive counter to the forms of public action approved by dominant social powers. Nowhere is the unsettling vibrancy of material virtue more evident than in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Across the play, material virtues become visible as the rationalist and theatrical model of virtue recommended to Gertrude disintegrates.

This is due in part to Hamlet’s performance of madness; when he kills Polonius, Hamlet’s claim to cloak calculated action under the cover of madness breaks down. Hamlet still purports to maintain his wits. Yet Hamlet’s continued disrespect for Polonius drives Laertes into a moral cycle of vengeance that is not too far removed from that of the play’s titular protagonist. More disturbing, however, is Ophelia’s reaction to Hamlet’s murder and mistreatment of her father. Ophelia is moved to madness by her former suitor’s violence and disregard. But her break with reason, critics have observed, is not without rhyme.

Ophelia’s songs are popular street ballads. Putting such songs in the mouth of a madwoman, Mary Ellen Lamb points out, means that Shakespeare has erected a binary of elite/popular, male/female to establish theatre’s cultural superiority. The content of the ballads Ophelia performs, however, gives her grief a kind of virtue. A betrayed lover’s song, a dirge for a dead beloved, and a ballad of a maiden’s downfall: through these songs, Ophelia delineates a visceral awareness of the harms she has suffered, so that her performance gives her dignity even as she becomes a spectacle of tragedy. Caralyn Bialo observes that Ophelia’s songs allow her to inhabit female subject positions usually placed off limits for elite women, such as herself. Ophelia bodies forth the voices of sexually aware, socially expendable women. Ophelia does not go quietly. Rather, her shocking vitality condemns the conditions that have led to her madness. Hamlet’s vengeance, though he might choreograph it to catch the conscience of Claudius, also entails Ophelia’s reckless and heedless destruction.

Hamlet treats virtue as a superficial guise that might be donned, but Ophelia’s demise once again attests to the complex intersection of matter and discourse in the making of premodern virtue. With his observation, “This nothing’s more than matter,” Laertes acknowledges that Ophelia achieves more than madness with her carefully gathered nonsense. Besides the songs she sings, Ophelia presents a catalogue of plants that give material substance to her virtue. These plants, scholars have noted, provide a rich commentary on her suffering:

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray, love, remember. And there is pansies; that’s for thoughts…There’s fennel for you, and columbines. There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me. We may call it herb-grace o’ Sundays. O, you must wear your rue with a difference. There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died.” (4.5.173-4; 178-81)

Rosemary and pansies focus the mind on remembrance of loss. Fennel and columbines signal flattery and infidelity. Rue symbolizes regret, sometimes repentance. The daisy was long associated with self-sacrifice in love on account of Alcestis; her belief in an unfaithful lover, however, also linked the plant to dissembling. Violets are signs of faithfulness, and their death is a totalizing rebuke to the Danish court and its prince. Taken together, the emblematic resonance of Ophelia’s botanical offerings critiques Hamlet’s betrayal and laments Polonius’s murder. But these plants were also believed to have virtues that were not simply derived from their symbolic associations. Most of Ophelia’s plants are herbs, and all were thought to have medicinal power during the early modern period. The “vertues” of each, as my earlier examples attest, exerted physical power over material bodies.

Rosemary was widely used to promote a clear head, and to ward off plague.Pansies were described as an anti-inflammatory, and were credited with curing the falling sickness as well as convulsions. Fennel and columbines were both healing and poisonous. Like many of Ophelia’s herbs, rue is connected to sexuality and reproduction: according to John Gerard’s Herball, it not only “expels the dead child and after|birth,” it also “opens the matrix, and brings it into the right place.” And too, it serves as a “re|medie against the inflammation and swelling of the stones, proceeding of long abstinence from ve|nerie.” Its capacity to protect and renew bodies is more extensive, however, since rue was believed to be a powerful antidote against a variety of poisons: “[Rue] is a counterpoyson a|gainst deadly medicines or the poyson of Wolfs-bane, Ixia,Mushroms, or Tode-stooles, the biting of Serpents, stinging of Scorpions, spiders, bees, hornets, and wasps.”When she at last points to the daisy, Ophelia rounds out a bouquet with the power to harm as well as heal, protect as well as poison.

As Rebecca Laroche notes, the critical history of Hamlet has foreclosed the idea that Ophelia distributes actual plants during this distressing scene. Doing so, I suggest, sidelines the material virtue that Ophelia enacts. If Ophelia shares these plants with Gertrude, Claudius, and Laertes, as Laroche argues, it is neither a neutral nor a symbolic act. Laroche details the ways in which gentlewomen used a detailed knowledge of plants to gain autonomy and authority over household relations. I suggest it is a material ethics, which, for Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman:

entails…that we can compare the very real material consequences of ethical positions and draw conclusions from those comparisons. We can, for example, argue that the material consequences of one ethics is more conducive to human and nonhuman flourishing than that of another.[iv]

This form of material virtue, furthermore, enables Ophelia to warn those who have perpetrated the injuries she endures. In other words, the medicinal plants she offers provide a last chance for a reparative reconfiguration of the Danish court. Without change, the poison of so many unremedied wrongs will fester and spread. By noting the absence of violets in her gathering of plants, “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died,” Ophelia denounces the loss of faithfulness that Polonius represented. She also affirms the difficulty of moral change, given that the beauty of violets were meant to instill ethical virtues in their beholders. As Gerard’s Herballexplains:

and the re|creation of the minde which is taken hereby, cannot be but very good and honest: for they admo|nish and stir vp a man to that which is comely and honest; for floures through their beautie, variety of colour, and exquisite forme, do bring to a liberall and gentle manly minde, the remembrance of honestie, comelinesse, and all kindes of vertues.

Though beauty might exert as much force over bodies as violence, classifying Ophelia’s performance as “a document in madness”—a scripted, disembodied record of her individual suffering—prevents her virtues from reaching those who witness her enacted woe.

Ophelia’s death confirms what Polonius’s murder previously suggested: certain bodies are socially and ethically dispensable. Laertes then Hamlet may jump into Ophelia’s grave, but their theatrical mourning is simply part of the public masculine contest they wage against one another. When Ophelia makes herself visible—as broken, disheveled, and discarded—she uncovers a material virtue that stands in direct opposition to the public posturing of Hamlet then Laertes. Unlike Hamlet’s madness, which is donned for social advantage, Ophelia’s madness is a scandal that subjects the court’s values to critical scrutiny. When Gertrude reports Ophelia’s death, she paints a picture of a faithful maiden whose drowning was precipitated by her lover’s desertion: while attempting to hang garlands of flowers on a willow, as abandoned lovers were proverbially said to do during this period, a branch breaks and Ophelia is drowned in the tangled weight of her garments. If her madness prevents her from preserving herself, her death also indicts Hamlet’s use of Ophelia as an expendable prop in the revenge tragedy he plots against Claudius.

Some might object that material virtue is unsurvivable, that Ophelia’s excellence is predicated on her endurance of harm. In fact, because it arises from the materiality of the body, her virtue is in keeping with what political theorist Bonnie Honig has recently termed “mortalist humanism,” a species of posthumanism that derives ethics from vulnerability, not rationality. Honig does not identify this trend to complement it; indeed, for her, it is a departure from politics that she sees as problematic. Yet Honig’s critique, as well as the objection that material virtue is predicated, like so many stories of old, on the suffering of an abandoned woman, is directed at the wrong type of virtue. Ophelia is not dragged under by virtues that matter, those embodied, immediate excellences which allow Ophelia to mine a discourse of femininity that includes experiences of the physical body–a tradition, which, Pamela Allen Brown and Rebecca Laroche convincingly argue, allows women to find solidarity through the language of ballads and a knowledge of plants . Rather, the model of virtue that Hamlet extols, which he recommends to his mother when he advises her not to sleep with Claudius, is the prescriptive, theatrical, and superficial form of virtue that causes Ophelia’s destruction.

This play’s relentless focus on the individual prison of harms—the mental isolation that comes from suffering wrongs–means that Ophelia’s virtues cannot circulate. She is cut off, stranded in a domain where virtue is viewed as a theatrical display of the discrete subject. To confine virtue within the definite bounds of the individual self makes that isolated subject the only outlet for ethical action, the play affirms. And, as Ophelia (then Hamlet) demonstrates, cabining virtue in this fashion is (self)destructive. To think about why, this talk ends where it might have begun, with a consideration of Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women. In his final dream vision Chaucer struggles to write within the limited discursive space allowed by an empowered masculinity: to do so, he represents good women according to traditional criteria for feminine virtue—principally fidelity, suffering, and self-sacrifice. Feminist critics have rightly identified the problematic gender politics of The Seintes Legende of Cupide; yet I suggest the problem they pinpoint has more far-reaching consequences for reappraising the human subjectivity that comes to such cultural prominence in Hamlet.[v]It is not just gender trouble, but virtue trouble, that is at issue from Chaucer’s Legend to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Indeed, as the Legendaffirms, there is an ethical problem at the heart of our conceptions of what constitutes a viable, modern selfhood.

That’s because Chaucer’s Legend of Good Womenraises the important question: why do material virtues fail to invest good women with cultural power, especially when men’s predatory abuses of their cultural privilege are simultaneously laid bare?[vi]Chaucer initially confronts this question by showing how a model of ethics derived from and based upon elite masculine excellence—on virtus—diminishes women, along with most men. By representing Chaucer’s own precarity under the God of Love’s gaze—“For sternely on me he gan byholde” (F.239)—the Legend of Good Womenchallenges the artistic tradition that makes women’s ethical action a support for men’s cultural authority. It does so by demonstrating the need for material virtue as a counter-tradition of ethics that can be inhabited by the dispossessed—canonically women, but just as often men. Chaucer puts himself in the place of a vulnerable woman under a domineering masculine gaze as a way to acknowledge the restricted cultural frame within which the goodness of his abandoned heroines might be perceived.[vii]As the tales in this collection go on to show, the virtues of vulnerable women open a different vista on the ethical lives we share with others. They show that moral good does not simply amount to cultural power. By investing his heroines with bodily resources of excellence—endurance, fidelity, and pity, for example—Chaucer imagines the ways that vulnerability might recalibrate what qualifies as a virtuous response to unjust treatment.[viii]

The Legend of Lucrecechallenges the idea that rape is a political weapon, or that rape is somehow generative for and even foundational to great western cultures.[ix]Unlike other versions of the story, Chaucer uncovers the social utility of women’s violation in patriarchal culture.[x]Chaucer initially distances his rendering from this story’s traditional function as a Republican fable, in which the “kynges of Rome”—the Tarquini—are overthrown for their tyranny. Instead, the narrator claims, “[F]or that cause tell I nat this storye, / But for to preyse and drawe to memorye / The verray wif, the verray trewe Lucresse” (F.1684-86). To celebrate Lucrece’s “wifhod and hire steadfastness” (F.1687), however, is to recount a masculine contest that establishes the worth of husbands based on the quality of wives. Nevertheless, Lucrece’s virtue also critiques the ethical system that establishes masculine dominance: the rape that prompts her self-destruction is explicitly linked to Tarquin’s presumption of cultural privilege.[xi]In describing him as “a wolf that fynt a lomb alone” (F.1798), Chaucer confronts the violence entailed by a virtusbased on the exercise of agency over subordinates. Lucrece’s care for her own name, which provoked dismissive disdain from Augustine, despite the Legend’s insistence that “The grete Austyn hath gret compassioun” (F.1690), achieves a dignity that equally extends to her body.[xii]Her performance of modesty, more than rote adherence to an externally imposed code of conduct, affirms Lucrece’s active investment in her own embodied excellence.[xiii]

To view this story as silly, or to regard heroines including Cleopatra or Thisbe as beset by “sheer stupidity and blindness,” in Elaine Tuttle Hansen’s words, is to express a wish that the virtue of these women could be accommodated by the tradition of virtusthat defines heroism according to exercises of individual agency and personal control.[xiv]Hansen is correct to observe the critical treatment of classical heroes in Chaucer’s Legend, but her indictment of “the pervasive and sometimes comic passivity, irrationality, and stupidity of the composite good woman depicted in the Legends [, which] tempts the reader to agree with the critic who thinks that these ladies only get what they ask for…” is sustainable if we believe that only one model of virtue is conceivable, so that women’s equality results from their inclusion within an ethical and social system that has traditionally depended upon their exploitation and degradation for its very ability to function.[xv]Chaucer shows the impossibility, as well as the undesirability, of this egalitarian fantasy. Chaucer is not interested in valorizing a classical model of virtue, but shows, rather, that this traditional model of ethics produces bad men, who in turn organize social structures in way that are harmful to nearly everyone.

In their dynasty-making sojourns, heroes including Jason, Theseus, and Demophon reveal that men’s world-making power is staked on exploiting the bodies, brains, and virtues of those (women) who are more vulnerable than they are. Chaucer does not just respond to misogyny in an effort to gain women greater recognition as ethical subjects; instead, he challenges the ethical organization of his culture, placing women at the center of human experience in an effort to rethink the ethical criteria of the human itself. By so doing, he suggests women and men should be governed by a morality that includes pity for others. That women already evince this characteristic provides incontrovertible evidence that something is amiss in the value structure that awards men—especially predatory men—cultural dominance in premodern England. An important reason to end this talk with a consideration of Chaucer’sLegend, then, is because it lays bare the logic of gender that traditional virtue ethics supports: men are predatory, but they suffer no consequences for their exploitation of the vulnerable; women are virtuous, but they gain no social power from their embodied excellence.

Chaucer’s Legend of Good Womenasks what happens if virtue is recognized only in those with cultural power. His heroines bear up against oppression; they uncover the circuits of bodily desire, affect, and emotion that predicate effective action against tyrannical cultural powers. Yet, women such as Philomela and Medea, unlike their classical namesakes, are afforded no powers of vengeance in Chaucer’s collection. By suggesting that the narrator might be in the same position as his vulnerable heroines, I propose that Chaucer rejects a model of virtue that ensconces elite individualist power. The narrator emphasizes Philomela’s innocence, “For this is al and som: thus was she served, / That nevere harm agilte ne deserved / Unto this crewel man, that she of wiste” (F. 2384-86). Similarly, Medea’s story ends with a lament wherein she questions her prior judgments:

Whi lykede me thy yelwe her to se

More than the boundes of myn honeste?

Why lykede me thy youthe and thy fayrnesse,

And of thy tonge, the infynyt graciousnesse? (F.1672-75)

Medea’s self-awareness does not lead to a frenzy of violence, but, rather, substantiates the tale’s denunciation of Jason’s faithless exploitation. When she wishes him dead, “O, haddest thow in they conquest ded ybe, / Ful mikel untroughte hadde ther deyd with the!” (F.1676-77), Medea preserves her dignity in the face of Jason’s mistreatment. And, while these women show the potential of material virtue—a model of ethics that connects bodies in nourishing alliance—their stories uncase the masculinist model of power that destroys such reparative vertues. In sum, as the Legends indicate, material virtue cannot be treated as an additive element, or a feminine complement, to a classical model of virtus.

Rather, and as my book argues, poets from Chaucer to Shakespeare construct an alternative foundation for ethics based on vulnerability. This occurs largely for formal reasons: as different poets represent characters whose actions reflect upon an ideal of human goodness, a practical ethics based on embodied vulnerability emerges. Indeed, a different ethical world appears when the fact of our common vulnerability grounds understanding of the human and its excellences. Shifting the grounds of the human upends gender difference, and suggests we need new modes of social organization. Through their female characters, poets from Chaucer to Shakespeare imagine new modes of ethical action based on intimacy and protection, not domination and governance. In arguing for The Matter of Virtue, then, I suggest that imagining women’s ethical excellences as embodied, living, and connective remains a world-remaking project.


[i]Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926).

[ii]Aristotle, Physics, Books 5-8, trans. P.H. Wicksteed and F.M. Cornford, Loeb Classical Library, 255 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934), VII.iii (247a).

[iii]Middle English Dictionary, s.v. “vertu” (8a).

[iv]Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman, “Introduction: Emerging Models of Materiality in Feminist Theory,” Material Feminisms, ed. Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 7.

[v]Key treatments include, Delany; Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics(Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 65-87; Elaine Tuttle Hansen, “Irony and the Antifeminist Narrator in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women,” JEGP82 (1983): 11-31; Jill Mann, Geoffrey Chaucer(London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), 26-38; Priscilla Martin, Chaucer’s Women: Nuns, Wives, and Amazons(London: Macmillan, 1990), 196-210; recently, the special issue of The Chaucer Review, 52.1 (2017), ed. Betsy McCormick, Leah Schwebel, and Lynn Shutters,  has returned critical attention to the Legend of Good Women. While this book was drafted before this issue appeared, I have sought to acknowledge the brilliant interventions of this collection and its contributors.

[vi]Lynn Shutters, “The Thought and Feel of Virtuous Wifehood, 85-105, and Irina Dumitrescu, “Beautiful Suffering and the Culpable Narrator in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women,” 106-23, suggest that this poem is part of a tradition that idealizes the suffering of women. I depart from these readings because I see the narrator as vulnerable in the same fashion as the heroines featured in Chaucer’s collection.

[vii]As John Ganim, “Chaucerian Ritual and Patriarchal Romance” Chaucer Yearbook1 (1992): 65-86, remarks, “the poet [is] in the position of the good women themselves, bereft of any choice but one so severely limited as to verge on self-destruction” (81).

[viii]Steele Nowlin, “The Legend of Good Womenand the Affect of Invention,” Exemplaria25 (2013): 16-35, argues that the poem represents invention as an affective force, one that is linked in his analysis to the heroines’ intensities of feeling.

[ix]Unlike Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the complaints of abandoned women featured in Chaucer’s sources, principally the Heroides, at least recognize another perspective on the sexual predations of powerful men. As Marilynn R. Desmond suggests, “The Translatioof Memory and Desire in The Legend of Good Women: Chaucer and the Vernacular Heroides,”Studies in the Age of Chaucer35 (2013): 179-207, Chaucer’s poem “records Chaucer’s recognition of the auctoritasof the Heroides” (186). Suzanne Hagedorn, Abandoned Women: Rewriting the Classics in Dante, Boccaccio, and Chaucer (Ann Arbor, 2004), 21–46, provides a helpful survey of medieval receptions of the Heroides.

[x]See Corinne Saunders, Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2001), 265-74; and Andrew Galloway, “Chaucer’s Legend of Lucreceand the Critique of Ideology in Fourteenth-Century England,” ELH 60 (1993): 813-32.

[xi]See Leah Schwebel, “Livy and Augustine as Negative Models in the Legend of Lucrece,” 29-45, which helpfully shows how Chaucer rejects earlier renderings of Lucrece.

[xii]See Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: Random House, 1950), 1.18-19, claims that Lucrece committed a crime with her self-slaughter (and speculates she might have done so because she felt guilt—guilt induced by pleasure at her own sexual violation). See Delany, 203-206, who gives the full passage from Augustine, and discusses its problematic implications in the context of Chaucer’s poem.

[xiii]Julia Annas, Intelligent Virtue(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), insists that Aristotelian virtue ethics is not about the rote repetition of externally imposed moral norms. McCormick, 128-29, argues that the uncertainty of the poem, and The Legend of Lucrece, in particular, asks readers to decide upon the grounds of the ethical itself. My thinking about ethical and erotic normativity across this book—particularly in Chaucer—is indebted to Mark Miller, Philosophical Chaucer(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[xiv]Elaine Tuttle Hansen, “Irony and the Antifeminist Narrator in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women,” JEGP82 (1983): 11-31 [24].

[xv]Ibid., 25. Hansen, “The Feminization of Men in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women,Seeking the Woman in Late Medieval and Renaissance Writings: Essays in Feminist Contextual Criticism, ed. Sheila Fisher and Janet E. Halley (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1989), 51-70, takes up the poem’s critical treatment of men.

A return to standpoint feminism, or thinking through a new method for feminist medieval literary studies…

emelye garden


As I said somewhere at the end of the summer, I’m currently on sabbatical (and then I have a reduced teaching load for the next year), so I’ve been reading and writing toward my new book project, Feminism Without Gender in Late Medieval Literature. In developing my arguments, I’ve also published a couple of articles in Exemplaria( and The Chaucer Review( There, and in my recent reading, I’ve been exploring and thinking about an older school of feminist theory and its potential for medieval literary studies. This strain of feminism is not the only sort I’m pursuing (other key insights derive from Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theorizations of intersectionality and their development, Saba Mahmood’s reconsideration of piety and politics, and María Puig de la Bellacasa’s rethinking of care within a posthumanist ecological milieu—perhaps I’ll write more on these different frameworks in future posts). But I want to take a brief moment here to acknowledge this type of feminism and articulate my own interests in using it to analyze literary works that in themselves are definitely not feminist.

As its name indicates, this kind of feminism is rather basic: it is concerned with the standpoint from which inquiry begins. In general, it derives from the social sciences and hard sciences. Its first full expression can probably be marked as Dorothy E. Smith’s essay, “Women’s Perspective as a Radical Critique of Sociology” (1972). There Smith argues “the subjects of sociological sentences (if they have a subject) are male” (27), and makes the simple yet radical claim, “Women’s direct experience places her a step back where we can recognize the uneasiness that comes in sociology from its claim to be about the world we live in and its failure to account for or even describe its actual features as we find them in living them” (32). Other early articulations by Nancy C.M. Hartsock (1983) and Alison M. Jagger (1983) develop standpoint theory’s political and philosophical importance.[1] For me, at least, these preliminary arguments are exciting for their ability to show women’s alienation from key forms of cultural communication, and the potential to revise those areas of social understanding by thinking harder about the difference that women’s standpoint might make. These arguments also hit at one of my deepest-held intellectual affections: as Frederic Jameson explains, in an essay that works to uncover the Marxist foundations of standpoint feminism, “The presupposition is that, owing to its structural situation in the social order and to the specific forms of oppression and exploitation unique to that situation, each group lives the world in a phenomenologically specific way that allows it to see, or better still, that makes it unavoidable for that group to see and to know, features of the world that remain obscure, invisible, or merely occasional and secondary for other groups” (144).[2] Yet as other theorists including Patricia Hill Collins, Donna Haraway, bell hooks, and Sandra Harding make clear, standpoint feminism is not just another way of doing Marxist theory, and you can’t just substitute women for the industrial working class—or, rather, if you do, you spin Marxism into feminism, and not the reverse. For over two decades, theorists including Kathi Weeks, Chela Sandoval, and Uma Naryan debated how best, in the words of fellow standpoint theorist Kristen Intemann, “to challenge systems of oppression and improve the conditions and life prospects of marginalized groups” (279).[3]

To be sure, though, the theorist most responsible for developing and sustaining standpoint feminism is Sandra Harding. In her groundbreaking Sciences from Below: Feminisms, Postcolonialities, and Modernities (2008), she offers a definition that captures what all the fuss is about: “First and most obviously, these feminist accounts center women as agents, as subjects, of science and of history. They are interested in what the sciences do and could look like if one starts off thinking about them from women’s lives” (122). As she argues, a revised standing point can be transformative for knowledge making: “It possesses this organic character in the sense that when marginalized groups step on the stage of history, one of the things they tend to say is that ‘things look different if one starts off thinking about them from our lives’” (115). Perhaps it is just easier for me to see in the field of science studies that is the focus of Harding’s work, but she is the first theorist to really get me thinking about how the standpoint of science, objectivity, and rationality—because each is socially inflected—is masculinist in its structure and working. Now, I had of course heard lots about “the patriarchy,” but I had not thought much about how hallowed canons of knowledge are produced from an implicit standpoint—that of men. If we hide that standpoint, or fail to acknowledge it, it does not mean it does not exist, as Harding argues. For this reason, Harding claims, “projects to change gender relations must focus on changing men too, not just changing women” (111). And because genders are historically contingent because they are socially constructed, social structures have to be overhauled to change these naturalized, hierarchized relations between men and women.[4] Harding presents her argument in light of intersectional and postcolonial feminisms, and as a consequence, she does not argue for unity among women, or for conformity across women’s lives. Rather, in a practice that requires constant reassessment, she asks us to think through the difference it might make to start from the standpoint of women’s lives in all their particularity and variation.

Given that Harding’s aim is to formulate a different way to do science, you might rightly wonder what her argument has to offer a medievalist working on mostly male writers who represent women’s lives in poetic narratives. This is especially true since many other standpoint feminists work in the social sciences, and most if not all refer to women’s lives. By that, I mean women’s actual lives. Not the lives that some late 14thc. male poet invented for his own creative purposes (ahem, looking at you, father Chaucer, with your tidy release from raptus). But after reading Harding’s (and others’—including Haraway and Lorraine Daston) analyses of the standpoint that much science assumes, I am convinced that reorienting our assumptions about feminist literary inquiry can change how we think about many of these texts. This is because, as Judith M. Bennett has so cogently and persuasively demonstrated, a historicist focus on gender is insufficient for working on texts produced by male-dominated cultures (and I will definitely need to write more—a post I’m sure—on why gender is not enough and why Bennett is so right on this point for medieval literary studies).[5] Unless we acknowledge the masculinist social structure in which these works were produced, we will simply reinforce the hierarchies of gender that they assume.

We need a new standpoint, or so I’m contending. What happens, I began to ask in a series of papers, talks, and articles, if we start with women, and if we stay with women, in the texts we study? To begin my project, I began with super-hard cases: Piers Plowman and The Knight’s Tale. These are not feminist texts by almost any account. They are not concerned with women, and the women they feature are clearly literary creations designed to further each poem’s particular purpose.[6] Perfect, I thought. But why? Because what you see when you focus on women characters is that different issues emerge as important for literary analysis. Working on Emily (or Hippolyta) from Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale demonstrates how little say women have over war, because, domesticated as she is for a heroic romance, Emily affirms how little say women are allowed over war. And, as a number of earlier feminist arguments have pointed out, this is patently ridiculous: Amazons are treated as if they have no investment in men’s martial contests beyond being prizes for the male victors. As Theseus’s encounter with the Theban widows should demonstrate right off the bat, women are directly involved in the world-destroying violence that men’s martial contests produce. And as Hippolyta’s and Emily’s captive status should illustrate throughout the poem, women’s entailment in this world-destroying violence extends well after the immediate conflict concludes.

What I saw, and what I’ve argued, is that a new set of values emerges from focusing on representations of women, even those representations by men seeking to consolidate and/or gratify masculine power. Rather than focusing on power, and women’s exclusion, as generations of feminists have done, my project explores the vulnerability that emerges when we begin with and stick with women’s lives as they are rendered by literary narratives.[7] As such, my project does not treat vulnerability as something to be overcome (there is no triumphant subversion or deflationary containment here), nor does it track all the ways that vulnerability is pressed upon women by men (I super don’t care about men—authors included). Instead, I treat vulnerability as productive, and I seek to find out what happens if we treat vulnerability not as a denial or lack of power, but as a constitutive, shaping force in its own right. Now of course, canny readers will notice that my emphasis on vulnerability is a debt to the work of Judith Butler, Athena Athanasiou, and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. That’s right, and depending on how blogging goes, perhaps I’ll expand upon this debt.

Today, though, I want to stick with standpoint theory, because my interest in what it can do for feminist medieval literary studies extends an argument I made in my recent book, The Matter of Virtue: Women’s Ethical Action from Chaucer to Shakespeare(—email me for a flyer with a 20% discount). There I argued that poets from the late fourteenth through the early seventeenth century invented new forms of ethical action for their women characters: taking advantage of the powers, or vertues, that material bodies could exert during this period, writers from Chaucer to Shakespeare feature women whose endurance precipitates ethical transformation. Frequently such world-remaking arises from women’s suffering, but, and unlike earlier studies that focus on women’s dispossession or violation, I maintain that women’s material virtues, or the powers that arise from their precarious embodiment, create new forms of ethical life. So, in this book I focus on how women’s vulnerability might precipitate ethical reform in ways that our active/passive binaries of moral thought do not frequently accommodate. But there I also try my hardest to focus on the ethical difference that women characters make in these contexts—so even there I am practicing a kind of standpoint theory, even though not as forthrightly as I hope to do in my developing project. Writing my recent book is what led me to think about how standpoint theory might change how we do medieval literary feminism. As I came to understand, focusing on women’s lives changes how we might see ethical life, since women bring to the fore other kinds of moral concerns. And as I hope to make clear in Feminism Without Gender, a feminist account that centers the lives of women as they are represented in a host of Middle English texts promises to challenge the ways that we’ve traditionally thought about subjectivity and experience. More on that soon…

[1]See Sandra Harding, ed., The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual & Political Controversies(New York: Routledge, 2004), for all of these essays and more—page references are to this volume.

[2]Jameson traces feminist standpoint theory’s use of Georg Lukács’s “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” and “Class Consciousness.”

[3]Kristen Intemann, “Feminist Standpoint,” Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theory, ed. Lisa Disch and Mary Hawkesworth. Oxford: OUP, 2016. 261-82.

[4]In this project, of course, the work of Angela Davis and Nancy Fraser is key.

[5]See her History Mattersright this very instant.

[6]Langland, I argue, questions what it means to be a woman.

[7]My project seeks to build on those arguments made by previous generations of feminist medievalist literary scholars. See my ChauR article for my discussion of those analyses and their influence on my understanding of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale.

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, 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: 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:

[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:


Hoccleve, the Series, and Sad-Bastard Masculinity

This past spring I published an article on Hoccleve and affect in an essay collection, Medieval Affect, Feeling, and Emotion, which I co-edited with Glenn Burger ( I did much of the research and writing for the essay about four or five years ago—academic editing and publishing are slow, no joke. So, as I’m revving up for a new book project, Feminism Without Gender in Late Medieval Literature, I’m working with that article, and I’m reviewing much of the criticism I read and catching up on work that has recently appeared.

Why return to Hoccleve for a book that will be about feminist subjectivity in late Middle English Literature? Two reasons: gender and affect, the first of which I will say a little bit about today. Hoccleve’s poetry (and I’ve been rereading all of it) holds interest for scholars because it marks the emergence of a new form of writing, and a new form of subjectivity: with his autobiographical intensity, Hoccleve expresses the challenges of living in a world that is urban, contingent, and organized by patronage. He’s a bureaucrat, a clerk, and a nobody. And yet he airs wrenching, sometimes awkward reflections on what it feels like to be in his position. Hoccleve frequently overshares, and he often expresses the emotional difficulties of being overlooked and underappreciated in his modernity. In an argument that I continue to learn from, Isabel Davis traces the connection between labor and masculinity in the Series, focusing on how Hoccleve’s clerical identity inflects his attitudes toward writing as well as women.[1]Equally groundbreaking, Ethan Knapp argues that Hoccleve’s selfhood emerges from his bureaucratic position in early fifteenth-century London, and, most important for me at least, he traces the vulnerability of Hoccleve’s subjectivity as it emerges from the poet’s daily work at the Privy Seal.[2]As crucial and lasting as these arguments are—and I hope to build upon their enduring insights—both also show very clearly what I’ll be arguing is the poverty of gender, at least as we’ve come to use that category in historicist practice. Taken together, Davis and Knapp affirm that Hoccleve’s subject position as a man in his society amounts to (because it emerges from) the social particularities of his daily labors.

Hoccleve’s daily labors produce what I can only call a “sad bastard masculinity.” Even those scholars who focus on recovering Hoccleve as a poet—most helpfully David Lawton and Bobby Meyer-Lee—end up showing that Hoccleve takes on modesty (or “dullness,” in Lawton’s invaluable characterization) as a topos, and that his status as a beggar (in Meyer-Lee’s helpful analysis) is deployed in a move to gain patronage within the very unstable power-networks organizing Lancastrian England.[3]Once again, and as I hope to show in my book, I am deeply indebted to these arguments for their willingness to take Hoccleve’s lack of power seriously as a creative engine in its own right. Nevertheless, because these arguments explain the constitutive force of Hoccleve’s lack of power within a historicist framework that privileges power and its agents, it is hard to see Hoccleve’s identity as poet (or a man) as anything but a notable failure. I think Sarah Tolmie is right when she complains that Hoccleve “has become a prisoner of context,” though again, her commitment to tracing Hoccleve’s poetic identity through the lens of his specific historical situation does not yield anything close to the subjectivity that Hoccleve manages to construct on his own.[4]In rereading Hoccleve for the past couple of months, I am struck by how un-dull Hoccleve is. He combines genres, he breaks frames, and, most of all, he talks about topics that are simply off-limits for most prince pleasers of his day.

To be sure, scholars have traced Hoccleve’s literary debts to Boethian stoicism, to penitential literatures, to representations of mental illness, and to specific authors (Isidore of Seville and Henry Suso).[5]What emerges from most if not all of these analyses, for me, is how inapposite most of these models are if we think of them in terms of influence. Hoccleve knew his sources, I’m convinced, but I’m also increasingly of the mind that he tweaks these sources to create a new poetic subjectivity, one that supersedes the model of gendered selfhood that he’s been assigned. Rather than the sad-bastard masculinity that historicist analysis yields, Hoccleve’s representation of himself as vulnerable, as powerless in a world of the powerful, is a reorganization of selfhood that produces a different model of poetic identity. I will have more to say about this reorganization and this identity in coming days, but in closing I want to suggest that it is our reliance on gender as an underlying social construct—as, in Joan W. Scott’s influential articulation, “[a category that] does not have the analytic power to address (and change) existing historical paradigms” (1057)—that causes readings that lock Hoccleve into a static subjectivity, even among non-gender critics.[6]If gender is just another way of describing social conditions, then we are left with no way of analyzing how different people, much less different poets, use the specificity of their daily labors to create something unexpected. More soon on the something unexpected in Hoccleve’s Series





[1]Isabel Davis, Writing Masculinity in the Later Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[2]Ethan Knapp, The Bureaucratic Muse: Thomas Hoccleve and the Literature of Late Medieval England. College Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2001.

[3]David Lawton, “Dullness and the Fifteenth Century,” ELH 54 (1987): 761-99; Robert Meyer-Lee, Poets and Power from Chaucer to Wyatt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[4]Sarah Tolmie, “The Professional: Thomas Hoccleve,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer29 (2007): 341-73.

[5]This is a long catalogue. I will do right by these scholars by and by.

[6]Joan W. Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.” The American

Historical Review91 (1986): 1053–1075.