Lisa H. Cooper, “Agronomy and Affect in Duke Humphrey’s On Husbondrie”

I am really excited about this article, because it brings together several things I want to write about more: labor, ecological/material viewpoints on literature, and affect. This essay’s project is to examine the poetics of this commissioned manual, “On Husbondrie”, and how its translation into Middle English from Latin affected its affect (ha). Cooper argues that this translation is rooted in affects that are material, visual, and often non-human, and that its “affective ecology” makes it an ideal place to explore the interconnectedness of humans and plants in medieval literature. Moving from Latin to English has increased the affective force of this poem, and allows the translator to do different things than the original poem: center the experience of Duke Humphrey, but also aiming to turn practicality into “fruyt” as a poem.

She begins by identifying a central issue in affect studies, the tendency to not specifically define what “affect” is when you refer to it. She argues that agronomy manuals (and this one in particular) contain what Sianne Ngai identifies as “tone”, the tenor or orientation of a work that slips between the reader’s feelings and the text’s feeling and ends up constituting a “web” (or, for Connor, an ecology) of affect between different people or things. In going through the poem, she identifies moments when this web is most present, for instance the recurring theme of poetry’s meter that is pulled from the “prosis black” or the arrangement of colored text on the last page that looks like a prepared garden. (She also cites Sarah Kay on animal skin as part of her argument about the text being intrinsically connected with agriculture in a material way). The text ascribes feelings to plants, refers to them as children, and generally makes humans and plants interconnected.

She also says something that reminds me a lot of Carol Rawcliffe’s note about astrology requiring extremely specific information in order to be successful: agronomy is “taking the right action with the right tools at the right time” (79). While it is obvious from Connor’s argument that literature and agriculture are both “affective labor”, that they are being compared in the text, I see a way that medicine can be included here too, or at least personal well-being. If plants and people are inextricably tied up with each other, then their well-being is dependent on each other (and the well-being of the person is dependent on ensuring the well-being of the plant, in that it needs particular conditions to be “happy” and thus produce food for people).

I appreciated her nod to the difficulty of determining what affect is, but I was still shaky on what she meant by affect even after her lengthy explanation. I guess my best summary of her stance is that affect is an “ecology” that is between the reader and the text and occasionally in both, and it generates feeling (something which she does ascribe to the medieval period, unlike others like Boquet who do emotions history, because of its potential to communicate materiality as well as medieval definitions of fele (many, or inquire into). Using Ngai’s concept of tone, “an artifact’s disposition”, between the reader and the text, she argues that the text’s affect represents the ecology between humans, plants, and animals, and that the Middle English text (in the language and linguistic choices, and its centering of Humphrey’s role as a figure shaping the text) increases this affective force. I am more and more interested in Humphrey as someone who Hoccleve, Lydgate and this anonymous translator were all working for, and I wonder if there is a collection of the things he commissioned over his lifetime or if anything has been written about his collection as a whole.