Ethan Knapp, The Bureaucratic Muse

Knapp argues that bureaucratic identity and scribal labor in the fifteenth century contributed to the literature and overall vernacular landscape. He uses Thomas Hoccleve’s writing, particularly the Series and the Regiment of Princes, to make this argument. Hoccleve is not merely a “genetic” descendent of Chaucer, as he has been treated in the past, but a separate author working to investigate writing’s impact on the body and the relationship of bureaucracy to meaning. When he does revise Chaucer, Knapp argues, that revision is often aggressive– working to change or even subvert the original text.

I focused on Chapter 3, which is framed by Knapp’s contention in the first two chapters that “the contemporary financial anxieties in those offices were a shaping influence on his experiment in autobiography and, on the other hand, [the] growing laicization of clerkly bureaucrats led him into an interest in the more liminal definitions of gendered identity and an attempt to find a source of authority independent of masculine positions within the court and ecclesiastical structure” (77). Knapp is focusing on finding traces of the Privy Seal in the prologue to the Regiment of Princes, and thereby noticing Hoccleve making claims about how the body is impacted by the labor of writing. Referencing the work of John Carpenter, a clerk in London in 1419, Knapp notes “The emphasis here is, however, not on the power of any aesthetically charged virtue but rather on writing as a bureaucratic technology used to battle the passage of time and memory” (85). Writing is important because bureaucracy is important in order to preserve knowledge throughout time. The material substance on which and with which you write also determines how long the writing will last and what it will look like, tying materiality back into time (and in my mind, tying medieval writing practices into, for example, WJT Mitchell’s comments on image and text being indistinct).

Hoccleve’s writing similarly positions writing as a technical and not an aesthetic art, especially in the Regiment. His own writing in this poem and the Series is advised as a way to make up for his financial and mental difficulty, but it comes at a cost in both cases to his body and mind. Knapp here interestingly claims that Hoccleve’s description of wandering outside the city and wading in his own woe is an example of “the allegorical sense of the descriptions (always a sign in Hoccleve of the hyper-activity of thought)” (88). He is walking through space but also wading in his wo, physicalizing thought. I think Knapp’s main service for me in this section is to explicitly encourage looking not only at the very commonly quoted section where Hoccleve describes the pain of writing, but sections earlier in the poem, including his rising from bed and his description of the Privy Seal as the place he “dwells”.

That section on writing reminds me very much of the conclusions Conner draws in her analysis of On Husbondrie. Writing and earthly labor are connected, but not in terms of their service, aims, or aesthetics; instead, their process and end result of pain are what are connected. Knapp describes the disintegration of the narrator’s body here as “the anatomical fragmentation of the self”, which is foreshadowed by the old man’s frail body several hundred lines previous (91). Age and labor mean fragmentation. Writing itself also causes social fragmentation, as the writer is described as a communal “we” (“We stowpe and stare upon the sheepes skyn” (qtd. 92)) but can’t speak or sing while they write.

One thing I was very surprised Knapp doesn’t discuss in this section is emotion and melancholy. He briefly touches on Hoccleve’s anxiety over finances. To be fair, I’m not sure if I can categorize Hoccleve’s feeling at the beginning of this poem as melancholy, either. While it results in sleeplessness and a sense of malaise, it also has a clear reason. Nevertheless, I think that it is inextricable from the laboring and disintegrating self, and I’d like to draw connections between the disintegration of the body in this poem, and the disintegration of the mental self in the Series (which I would argue is happening here too). I would love to have a chapter on writing, labor and connections to earthiness/farming/writing materials, and I think this chapter (along with Sarah Kay and Conner’s work) will be central in forming that. Furthermore, is bureaucracy (what Knapp calls “bureaucratic culture”) an affect? Does it contain one or several (boredom, repetition, etc)?

I also read the final chapter of the book, which focuses on the Series. Knapp argues that “rather than chronicling the recovery of a personal voice, the Series depicts a paradoxical triumph in the dispersal of that voice into the textual world of the Privy Seal” (160). The Series is in parallel with the Regiment in that it treats writing as an affecting force, but writing here is not a solution; it’s a likely problem. Interestingly, he quotes JA Burrow on the Series as self-referential: “the reader must now understand the double nature of the book he is reading. It not only describes the making of a book,but also is that book.’’ (162). The Series is about the process of writing and it is the writing process at the same time.

Here, Knapp makes what I think is one of the most important points made about this poem: that “in this poem madness is never truly surmounted“; a claim which is tied to the secondary point that “the plangent isolation forming the backdrop for consolation in this text is moderated from beginning to end by a series of connections to the social world of the Privy Seal” (163). This is in stark contrast to the many commentaries on medieval sources that place melancholy within a teleological framework (curative time, c.f. Kafer) where it is either happening or it has been overcome. While Knapp is specifically talking about Hoccleve’s madness, the same argument can be made for his melancholy; it is not resolved by the end of the poem and it is not teleological. His arguments about his madness being past are the same as other people’s arguments about it being potentially recurring: it could come back at any moment. Since Hoccleve never refutes this point, Knapp asks, “If the true self is to be represented as that which proceeds andreturns, and both ‘‘memorie’’ and ‘‘seeknesse’’ obey this pattern, how is oneto know which self is in fact authentic?” (167).

I think this uncertainty of the nature of the true self and whether it can be obliterated by madness (or whether it even exists in the first place) is extremely helpful in examining medieval perspectives on chronic conditions, melancholy included. Chronicity is a central concern of this project and so both of these texts– the repetitive and painful/melancholy-inducing writing of the PS, and the potential recurrence of madness possibly caused by writing– are central as well. I also think there is something to the urban street/suburbs of both poems as sites of the public, and the physicalization of melancholy into a natural landscape, that can be useful to me.

The last thing I’d like to note here is Knapp’s insistence that not only is Hoccleve’s madness not teleological, his melancholy does not proceed from his madness. Rather, “These two infirmities should be distin-guished not as cause and effect but as two parallel sicknesses with divergentliterary genealogies and respectively different characteristics” (172). The thogtful maladie, which has characteristics of humoral theory and fin amor romance tropes, is an intrinsic part of Hoccleve that extends to his temperament. I am not sure to what extent I agree that melancholy is Hoccleve’s temperament stretched to an extreme and not a sickness extrinsic to his temperament– it is impossible to know which of these it would be from the text. I do, however, agree that his melancholy extends beyond the boundaries of his madness in a more complex way than cause and effect.