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Playing the Game of Love: Intertextuality in the Findern Manuscript (working title)

Playing the Game of Love explores the Findern manuscript, a late medieval scrapbook created by gentry families in Derbyshire. The manuscript contains both excerpts of Chauceriana and also poetic responses to those texts written by its readers. As the only surviving Middle English miscellany that contains both sources and substantial responses, the Findern gives us a unique opportunity to see those source texts "doing" what they were written to do—provoking responses to their embedded love questions and debates. My investigation of these intertextual connections reveals a wealth of playfully irreverent, as well as heartfelt, connections. Rather than showing fin'amor to be a matter between two lovers, these late medieval gentry responses show it to be the foundation of a cultural "game of love" that privileges social reading and verbal debate.


The creators of the Findern MS had a predilection for the kinds of texts that supported this ludic game, excerpting vernacular love poems that contain debates, questions, and riddles—essentially creating their own “greatest hits” by Chaucer, Clanvowe, Gower, Hoccleve, Lydgate, and Roos. Although these texts were copied by dozens of different hands, they demonstrate a surprising thematic coherence centering on female agency and eloquence—themes also taken up in the manuscript’s original lyrics. Previous scholarship has struggled to explain the manuscript's unusual consistency. By analyzing the manuscript as a whole, I reveal that many of the texts of the Findern MS participate in the querelle des femmes (nature of women debate). However, only one side of the debate (the defense of women) is represented in the Findern, showing that the manuscript's creators were following Chaucer's injunction that "gentle" men must always take the defense side of the debate.


By situating these texts within their manuscript, cultural, social, and literary contexts, Playing the Game of Love reveals how and why these later gentry readers in the fifteenth and sixteenth-centuries were excerpting courtly texts from the age of Chaucer—how they heard those texts and what uses they had for them. I argue that the Findern manuscript functioned as both an aid to entertainment and also a performance of gentility for its socially ambitious creators. The game of love, with its emphasis on reading, performance, conversation, and conviviality, functioned as an important social marker during the late-medieval shifts in social order—a time when the performance of gentility could have surprisingly pragmatic economic, social, and political value.


My book also functions as a literary and cultural introduction to the Chaucerian world of fin'amor—where love is part of a long-lived social game. My engaging presentation of this world allows modern readers to hear the voices of the past, as the Findern's gentry use poetry to create moments of debate, laughter, singing, and conversation. Thus, Playing the Game of Love reinvigorates our investigation of courtly literature by setting the Findern’s texts within the lively cultural practices of the late medieval period. By analyzing this archaeological artifact of one iteration of the game of love, we can better appreciate and understand the attraction and enormous staying power of both the game and its literature. Perhaps most importantly, the game of love and the querelle des femmes have particular relevance in our current moment, as we try to disentangle these naturalized games from our evolving beliefs about gender and romantic attachment.


As the first book-length study of the Findern manuscript, Playing the Game of Love breaks new ground on a number of fronts. Recent scholarship has made a turn towards the material artifact of the manuscript, and I have taken seriously this call to return texts to their manuscript contexts. This is particularly relevant for an analysis of the Findern, as some of its lyrics are incomprehensible when read in isolation, but become witty responses when returned to their intertextual conversations. My book adds to this century's renewed interest in manuscripts as discreet objects for consideration, such as Susana Fein's work with Digby 86 and the Auchinleck, Robert Meyer-Lee's observations about the changes between the Hengwrt and the Ellesmere, and Martha Driver's analysis of Confessio Amantis manuscripts like Morgan M 126. As well as looking at a specific manuscript, Playing the Game of Love also situates the creators of the Findern in a particular time, place, and cultural position. Because of this specificity, it participates in considerations of the late-medieval gentry's relationship with literature, such as Michael Johnston's Romance and the Gentry in Late Medieval England and the essays in Gentry Culture in Late Medieval England (edited by Raluca Radulescu and Alison Truelove). It likewise follows in the footsteps of location-centric scholarship, such as Ardis Butterfield's edited collection on Chaucer and the City,  Julia Boffey's articles on London manuscripts, Linne R. Mooney's work on transmission networks, and the online Networks of Book Makers, Owners, and Users in Late Medieval England at Stanford University.


The Findern is the most complete example of late medieval readers' interactions with Middle English poetry. As such, Playing the Game of Love contributes a historical example of medieval reading practices to works on social reading, such as Joyce Coleman's Public Reading and the Reading Public in Late Medieval England and France, Jessica Brantley's Reading in the Wilderness: Private Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England, and Heather Blatt's Participatory Reading in Late-Medieval England. In particular I provide a much-needed update to John Steven's description of the ways poetry is used within the social "game of love," adding additional historical examples and critiquing his reading of the Findern lyrics. His analysis in Music and Poetry in the Early Tudor Court centers on courtly culture only, relegating the lyrics of the Findern to a mere "borrowing of the courtly mode by those outside the charmed circle." My contextualized reading of the lyrics argues that these provincial gentry were creating complex intertextual responses—not merely inexpertly borrowing tropes. Playing the Game of Love also provides a bridge between dedicated works on the querelle des femmes, which tend to begin with Christine de Pizan, and Chaucer studies, where The Legend of Good Women is currently enjoying a resurgence of interest. I demonstrate that the Findern gentry's interest in defenses of women provide us with both a particular viewpoint on the querelle and a demonstration of how French elements of the debate are reworked by English pens.


Each chapter of Playing the Game of Love begins with a guiding text drawn from the manuscript that introduces a foundational concept for the chapter: fin'amor and the game of love, gentry culture, disputatio, the querelle des femmes, and lyric personae. These provide a careful through-line that lead readers through medieval literary genres and cultural considerations. The key points of the chapters: 1) demonstrate the importance of reading the Findern lyrics within their intertextual manuscript context; 2) explore late medieval readers’ reception of Chaucerian texts; 3) situate the manuscript’s querelle des femmes and other love debate texts within the medieval game of love; 4) examine how such texts aid in performances of gentility and the stakes of those performances; and 5) challenge accepted truisms about women's participation in this highly gendered game.



Chapter Descriptions:


The book's Introduction uses a short, seemingly enigmatic and unimportant lyric from the Findern to illustrate the architecture of the manuscript. When read in its manuscript context, this deliberately doggerel lyric can be seen to provide a humorous 'tart reply' to ten previous pages of male love longing, scolding—"it is your own fault if you are in pain, since you knew she was merciless." Many of the original lyrics composed by the gentry creators of the Findern MS are equally dependent on the intertextual conversations in which they are embedded. These poetic conversations are possible due to the manuscript's scrapbook construction. A look at the manuscript's codicology and provenance reveals that a series of rural gentry coteries comprised of family and friends in and around Derbyshire created home-made paper booklets that circulated independently before being later bound together into the codex called the Findern MS. Each booklet begins with a formal copying project (such as the tart reply's booklet, which begins with Chaucer's "Complaint Unto Pity"), but also contains space at the back of the booklets for the addition of their own poetic responses.


In Chapter One: The Game of Love, I argue that the dense intertextual connections between the Findern's texts, such as the ones described above, are an example of the way poetry was used within a set of leisure activities called (in modern terms) the "game of love." The gentry creators of the Findern booklets seem to have had an interest in understanding and performing well in this social game, as they excerpted passages from Gower's Confessio Amantis that list some of the game's activities—singing, dancing, telling fortunes, reading love poetry, debating love questions, etc. Contemporary accounts of the game let me add to Gower's list—writing poetry, hunting, playing chase games, gathering flowers, concealing and revealing one's identity through masks at a dance or the use of sobriquets in poetry. Normally this game of love was ephemeral, leaving little trace. However, the Findern MS can be read as an archaeological artifact of one particular iteration of this game—a physical remnant that shows us how courtly love literature was used in this lively social environment. Physical aspects of the manuscript give us signs of this use—food and drink stains, candle wax drips, texts copied by dozens of different hands, and booklets whose grubby outer folios argue that they were passed around as loose-leaf booklets—not high status material objects meant for a book, but pragmatically useful aids in leisure entertainment. Most of the Findern booklets contain texts of a length to facilitate social reading (around 45 minutes), and which give scope for conversations—texts that keep the game going even after the reader has finished reading to the group. Several of these texts, like the Confessio extracts, model game of love activities. For instance, in Les Voex du Paon, a group of nobles play The King Who Cannot Lie, a suggestive love question game similar to modern Truth or Dare. As fin'amor poems generally do, the original lyrics written by the Findern's creators position themselves as authentic expressions of feeling between two lovers. However, when read within their playful manuscript context, these lyrics are revealed to be gambits in the game of love—responding, challenging, and defending various positions about love, while simultaneously demonstrating the wit and poetic proficiency of their gentry authors.


Chapter Two: Gentry Love and Order presents the necessary background on the Findern's gentry and how their poetic practices could be used as a performance of gentility that had real-world effects. I use The Parliament of Fowles to introduce the late medieval entanglements of social disorder, love, courtship, dowry negotiations, marriage, and perceptions of gentility. The Findern's unique poem, "The Parliament of Love" further reveals how the gentry desired to exploit certain aspects of the late-medieval permeability between social groups, while at the same time they wished to re-fix their society into stable categories. Late-medieval legal innovations, such as the entail, placed pressure on gentry families to produce successful, fruitful marriages for their eldest sons and daughters. Simultaneously, this placed pressure on younger sons to perform their gentility as a means of maintaining their foothold within the gentry. Exploring elements in the Findern, in combination with the Paston letters, allows me to give a rich narrative about the families whose names appear in the manuscript—their literacy, affinity for legal proceedings and land acquisitions, and their skillful marriage negotiations. Love poetry—collected, read aloud, composed, sung, and debated—played a surprisingly substantial role in these pragmatic gentry endeavors.


Chapter Three: Debating Love explores the disputatio tradition and its incorporation into vernacular love poetry by analyzing the connections between Sir Richard Roos's Middle English translation of La Belle Dame sans Mercy in the Findern MS and the eight lyrics added after it in different hands. In French manuscripts, Chartier's original version of the poem is often followed by response poems that continue its debate. Though the Findern is the only example of this in English, its lyrics similarly pick up and argue various viewpoints that they take from Roos's La Belle Dame. I focus on two carols from this sequence. The first is a male-voiced carol that takes up the persona of the love-sick L'amant, borrowing rhymes extensively from the original poem in order to create a song that summarizes the male side of the debate—though the lyric's author makes L'amant less pathetic. The second carol, accompanied by a musical incipit, answers from the persona of Belle Dame. This pragmatic female voice humorously inverts the conventions of love, telling us that—having gotten rid of a pernicious lover, she now sleeps better, has a better appetite, and has time for her friends. This poem borrows key terms and rhymes from both La Belle Dame and from the male-voiced carol. Indeed, to secure the listener's recognition that this is a female response to the earlier song, the second carol repeats the other carol's first line. Both carols are signed using sobriquets—a way of playfully hiding, but also revealing the authors' names. These authors' reworkings of resonant words, poetic themes, and melodies from the restricted corpus of well-known love poetry are a deliberate display of poetic skill. By carefully exposing the connections between a text such as La Belle Dame and its ludic response lyrics, this chapter argues that the manuscript’s creators were not trying to mimic a perceived fourteenth-century standard and failing, but rather that they were knowledgeably assembling and dis-assembling pieces of that tradition to use within a deliberately multi-voiced writing community.


In Chapter Four: Defending Women, I address the unusual coherence of the manuscript, with its repeated themes of women's agency and eloquence. I argue that much of this coherence stems from the Findern coteries having collected defenses of women—one side of the debate in the querelle des femmes. This preference for defense texts is not surprising in a gentry production of this time period, since it was understood that 'gentle' men must always take the defending position. The Letter of Cupid, Thomas Hoccleve's Middle English translation and reworking of Christine de Pizan’s poem, provides an encyclopedic view of the debate from both sides. The poem purports to be an edict to men from the god of love that rehearses all the evil men say against women and provides systematic defenses against those attacks. The Findern gentry appear to have appreciated this witty guide to the debate, as its booklet shows the most signs of use of any in the manuscript. Using The Letter of Cupid as a springboard, this chapter briefly tracks the history of the debate on women from its roots in classical and patristic writings, through the troubadours, and into later vernacular love literature. Hoccleve's poem provides an excellent overview of the fully-flowered version of the debate found in the literature of the later Middle Ages. The Findern coteries also copied a wide selection of Querelle texts from Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate. Roughly two-thirds of the items in the Findern touch on this debate. However, a careful examination of the Findern coteries' collecting, editing, and authoring reveals that certain kinds of criticism of women seem acceptable (male-voiced love complaint), but rigorously misogynist poems are not. Lydgate's "Pain of Evil Marriage" cuts off after only a few stanzas and is left unfinished. Surprisingly, in a collection of defenses of women, the Findern's gentry compilers also include exempla of good men as well as good women. For instance they choose to copy "Thisbe," the only tale from The Legend whose male lover is faithful. Examining this carefully sculpted version of the querelle in the Findern, shows how the game of love and its nested activities of disputatio and poetry were used by the Derbyshire gentry to perform a tailored version of gentility to their coterie peers.


Chapter Five: Lyric Voices challenges scholarly notions about female participation in the production of the Findern lyrics. As the previous chapters have demonstrated the Findern coteries collected and authored texts that walk a careful circle around the sorrows, unreasonable expectation, and joys of love from a male perspective. Surprisingly, they also walk that same circle from the female perspective. Of the 25 unique lyrics in the manuscript only four are told from a male perspective. Five are voiced as female, and 16 remain gender neutral, allowing the reader to hear their "I" voices as either gender. This chapter examines the standard voices that are in the main texts and how those gendered voices are appropriated and used in the gentry's own compositions. The male voices in the Findern range from avowals to complaint, largely maintaining an earnest, courtly register. The female voices replicate this same range, but also add a lower-register pragmatic voice. These voices, such as Belle Dame in La Belle Dame, and the goose in Parliament of Fowles are often humorous and, in their original fourteenth-century context, implicated the female character as having ignoble views on love. For this reason, scholarship has traditionally assumed that lyrics using that low-register voice (such as the carol discussed in chapter three) were penned by men. Previous scholarship on the Findern, such as Sarah McNamer's influential article, has speculated on the possibility of female authorship of the earnest-voiced avowal lyrics, but excluded that possibility for the humorous lyrics. I interrogate that assumption by comparing lyrics from the Findern and the Devonshire MS, a scrapbook of lyrics created by courtiers at Henry VIII's court. Mary Shelton, writing in the Devonshire MS in her own hand, adopted the stereotypical low-register voice for her own purposes, humorously rejecting the poetic overtures of another courtier. On the strength of Shelton's example, I argue that the sisters, daughters and wives of the Findern gentry were as capable of assuming a broad range of personae in the game of love as their brothers, sons, and fathers.


The Conclusion returns to the Introduction's tart reply lyric, allowing me to briefly revisit the various topics covered in the intervening chapters. The little doggerel lyric is clearly a response in a game-like poetic conversation, linked both thematically and formally to the items that come before it. Its low-register pragmatic tone humorously mimics a particular kind of female voice that provides a damper to overwrought male love-longing—a standard move in love debate. As I have shown, this kind of female voice is sometimes used in querelle texts to ironically undercut a defense of women. But we should not be too quick to ascribe this tart reply to a man's pen, since at least one historical woman assumed that pragmatic voice for her own purposes. Ultimately, this lyric stands as an exemplum for why it is necessary to read the Findern texts in their manuscript context. Read as part of a specific intertextual conversation, set within the cultural context of a social game of love, this lyric provides a vibrant response to the Chaucerian love complaints that precede it. If we listen to all such textual interplay among the lyrics and source texts that the Findern manuscript uniquely preserves, we can hear echoes of the conversations, debates, songs, and laughter of these Derbyshire gentry. 

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