“Make thereof a game”: The Interplay of Texts
in the Findern Manuscript and its Late Medieval Textual Community
Although our literary histories have sometimes emphasized great literature as the product of individual authors, my dissertation examines a unique literary artifact that reveals the extent to which literary production could also be the work of communities. Not entirely unlike some modern digital platforms (such as Wikipedia and Facebook), the medieval manuscript could function as a form of social media: a site in which communities gathered through writing to play, educate one another, and perform a range of virtual identities. Focusing on a single fifteenth-century manuscript, Cambridge University Library MS Ff.1.6, commonly called the “Findern Manuscript,” I examine how and why a set of gentry families in Derbyshire compiled a “greatest hits” anthology of fourteenth-century poetry, edited that poetry for their own purposes, and added their own poetic responses. By considering the manuscript's interconnected texts within their concentric rings of context—literary, codicological, and social, my project emphasizes how early literary history and the development of the idea of a literary canon are the product of communities that used poetry for a range of social, practical, and aesthetic purposes.
A close analysis of the Findern manuscript demonstrates that it was originally created to aid a “game of love,” a set of social activities revolving around reading aloud, singing, dancing, fortune telling, collecting and editing texts, composing new poetry, and “love talk”—the ability to participate in courtly conversations and debates on love. Surprisingly, this social “game” had very real class implications for its gentry participants, who sought to demonstrate their gentility by appropriating literary activities from the nobility. The manuscript itself began as a collection of home-made loose-leaf booklets whose pages were copied, added to, damaged, food-stained, and excised over time. The gentry copied popular works by Chaucer, Gower, Hoccleve, and Lydgate into the front pages of these booklets, while the leftover pages at the back were used to record the gentry’s own poetic responses. Analyzing the gentry’s original poems as conversational gambits within this lively performative context reveals multi-voiced love debates that have heretofore remained largely unremarked in scholarship. As a collection, the texts of the Findern MS reveal a surprisingly cohesive gentry interest in gentility and the agency of women, particularly as explored in the medieval nature of women debates. The booklets, which began life as pages to be passed around and used at social gatherings, were probably gathered and bound into a book only after the “game” was over, perhaps a nostalgic gesture that has preserved these remnants of the Derbyshire gentry’s literary activities, giving us what may be our most complete look at the way poetry impacted the social lives of the fifteenth century.
The dissertation's introduction, “A Fifteenth-century Scrapbook,” begins with a look at an enigmatic lyric from the Findern MS. A careful look at the manuscript context of the lyric reveals the interconnected nature of the lyric with the complaints in the same quire, and demonstrates how that changes our reading of the little four-line lyric. A short summary of the manuscript's modern scholarship reveals the need for a study that encompasses the social, codicological, and literary aspects of the codex.
The first chapter, “Gentry Voices: The Manuscript Within its Social Setting,” argues that the manuscript is a physical remnant of a social “game of love,” played by the fifteenth-century gentry. Using Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls as an example of the way texts create multi-voiced conversations by including different classes and genders of voices, this chapter explores how such literary moves within the game of love had pragmatic stakes for late medieval gentry, whose “performance” of gentility is a crucial part of their acceptance within the aristocracy. Looking at the Findern coterie within their social and historical context allows me to argue that the voices within the Findern reveal a gentry interest in gentility, law, love, and the agency of women. Contextualizing the growing social and economic importance of marriage to the gentry helps explain shifts in late medieval Middle English love literature works that begin to view marriage as the end goal of romantic love.
The next two chapters investigate the ways texts in the Findern are purposefully connected to each other through repetitions of themes and formal features. The second chapter, "Debating Love: Lyrics and Music in the Belle Dame Booklet" argues that the lyrics following Richard Roos's Middle English translation of La Belle Dame sans Mercy expand that poem’s dual-voiced love debate into a multi-voiced debate that deliberately take up both the characters and the arguments of the canonical poem. In particular, a female-voiced carol, previously considered enigmatic in scholarship, can be read as a direct answer to an earlier male-voiced carol and also as a reprise of the pragmatic La Dame’s voice. French manuscripts of Chartier's original Belle Dame traditionally included poems that responded to and continued the poem. The presence of a similar sequence in the Findern MS suggests there may have been a similar tradition in Middle English manuscripts, of which only the Findern MS survives. The lyrics in the Findern MS's Belle Dame booklet also show multiple signs of having been used in a performative game of love. Several musical fragments and a sensitivity to the song forms in the layout of the lyrics confirm that these gendered lyrics were meant not only to preserve the words of the songs, but also the future possibility of their performance. Similarly, Chapter Three, “Responding Voices: Formal Linkages as Interpretive Moves” continues tracing the interplay between texts by analyzing the formal linkages between the poems that follow Chaucer’s “Complaint Unto Pity.” I demonstrate that the Findern coterie adopts a pattern of key word repetition from French fine amor poetics that they find in Chaucer in order to create original lyrics that skillfully make use of these courtly poetics. They also adapt the repetition pattern as a means of linking poems together by repeating key words from one poem to the next. These linked sequences invite us to “read across” the poems and hear alternate interpretations of the poems that emphasize minor themes the poems share in common. Hence, the gentry compilers of the manuscript, rather than being indifferent rural poet-tasters, as they have sometimes been characterized in scholarship, are knowledgeably appropriating and adapting a sophisticated courtly technique.
Chapter four, "Defending Women: The Querelle des Femmes within the Findern MS" begins with a brief overview of the querelle des femmes as it appears in Lepistre de Cupide, Thomas Hoccleve's adaptation of Christine de Pizan's original. The Findern MS contains many canonical texts that contain querelle arguments, predominately those which offer defenses of women. The Findern coterie seems to have broadened their collecting criteria to include both texts that consider the nature of women, and those which provide exempla of good women. Two-thirds of the texts within the Findern MS fit within this broader category. Indeed, the coterie even repurposes works to make them fit, such as their dramatic re-editing of "The Tale of Apollonius." A close reading of this edited text makes clear that the Findern Coterie includes the attributes ascribed to gentility as part of their defense of women, and conversely, consider defending women a marker of gentility as well.
A brief conclusion, "Female Voices in the Findern MS," considers both the "pro-feminine" and "ironic" female gendered voices that appear in the manuscripts querelle texts. A comparison with the Devonshire MS, in which specific women's handwriting can be determined, shows that actual historical women are capable of using the same ironically self-undercutting female voices that we find from the pens of male writers. This would seem to imply that these women could "play the game" of love as well as their male counter-parts. Within the Findern MS, where we cannot identify women's hands, the feminine voices within the texts vigorously debate the nature of women. These voices elicited responses by the original Findern coterie, and continue to be rhetorically productive even within our modern world, as we can see from modern scholarship’s continued defense of the agency of women within the creation of the Findern MS.