Medieval into Renaissance: Essays for Helen Cooper. Edited by Andrew King and Matthew Woodcock. D.S. Brewer, 2016. x + 285 pp. ISBN: 978-1843844327. $134.00 cloth.
Over the course of a long and distinguished career, Helen Cooper has done much to recover the dimensions of late Medieval and Early Modern English literature obscured by strict notions of periodization. The thirteen essays in this collection, all written by Cooper’s students, demonstrate the diverse ways in which Cooper’s approach has informed the work of a new generation of scholars. The title Medieval into Renaissance, drawn from the subtitle of Cooper’s first monograph, is aptly chosen, as it foregrounds the interest in literary transformation that link these varied essays with each other, and with Cooper’s scholarship.
In their introduction, editors King and Woodcock situate Cooper’s work in the context of the debates over the nature of the boundary between Medieval and Renaissance literature and culture. With its nuanced attention to the reproduction and reinvention of genre and motif, Cooper’s work never ignores this boundary, but shows it to be permeable and elastic rather than rigid. Cooper’s methodology is remarkable for what might be called its scale: rather than make sweeping pronouncements or restrict itself to the micro-historical, it traces themes, motifs, and generic conventions over time, revealing both overlooked continuities and surprising points of change and rupture. The essays in Medieval into Renaissance all take up her approach in one way or another. Many deal with romance, the genre to which Cooper has arguably devoted the greatest degree of critical thought; pastoral, complaint, and drama are also represented.
In keeping with Cooper’s emphasis on literary and generic form over time, a number of the contributions explore the fate of older textual models brought to bear in new political, literary, and cultural circumstances. James Wade traces the popularity of penitential romances, and their persistent popularity even after the Reformation. Joyce Boro takes up the little-studied play Swetnam the Woman-Hater to demonstrate how a fifteenth-century Spanish romance could become the basis of a dramatic intervention pamphlet war on the woman question. Moving further into the seventeenth century, Andrew King explores the ambivalent relationship that Samuel Sheppard’s Faerie King bears to both its Spenserian source material and the sovereign it is meant to celebrate. In a fascinating essay that concludes the volume, Helen Vincent looks at the surprisingly robust afterlife of Sidney’s Arcadia in eighteenth-century chapbooks.
An additional subset of essays explores how poets and other writers use genres and literary conceits drawn from Medieval and classical past to meditate on the nature of inheritance and authority under shifting conditions. Alexandra Gillespie considers E.K.’s famous Chaucerian misquotation—“vncovthe, vnkiste”—from The Shepheardes Calender as a Spenserian meditation on the instability of poetic legacy and the ways in which textual preservation is also at the same time textual transformation. Megan Leitch asks whether fifteenth-century prose romances might usefully be read together as a subgenre characterized by concern with both familial and poetic inheritance, while Mary C. Flannery argues that Skelton’s perpetually unfinished self-laureation in Garland of Laurel is “Janus-faced” and looks to both past and future in characteristically Skeltonic fashion. Drawing on Early Modern depictions of Rome and the Medieval notion of the hortus conclusus, Nandini Das explores how the overlap of past and present makes Arcadia the superlative site of memory and remembrance in the Renaissance literary imagination. Jason Powell considers generic sources of the fatherly and father-like advice offered up in Hamlet, and demonstrates how much of the advice given in the play departs from expected norms.
A third cluster of essays focuses on the evolution of genre and its conventions, as its audience and the wider context for its reception changes over time. R.W. Maslen offers an analysis of “armor that doesn’t work” modeled on Cooper’s own consideration of “magic that doesn’t work” in Medieval and Early Modern romance. As in Cooper’s analysis of magic, Maslen shows how the failure of the usual trope is used to reinvent and reinvigorate familiar generic conventions. Matthew Woodcock explores the ways the mid-Tudor poet Thomas Churchyard links the Medieval genre of satirical complaint with contemporary politics and the new audiences afforded by a burgeoning culture of cheap print. Foregrounding geographical as well as temporal distance, Aisling Byrne turns to Early Modern Irish romance, arguing that these tales were shaped by romances from England circulating between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Although Spenser is not a special focus of the volume as a whole, there is much here to interest Spenserians. Gillespie offers a close and careful consideration of “uncouth unkist,” while Maslen considers the place of Redcrosse Knight in his assessment of “armor that doesn’t work.” Spenserians may also take interest in essays on romance (Leitch, Byrne, Wade), laureation (Flannery), the place of Rome and Arcadia in the Renaissance imagination (Das), and Sheppard’s Faerie King (c. 1648-54) (King).
Taken as a whole, this collection demonstrates the utility and flexibility of what might be termed the Cooperian approach to literary periodization and generic analysis. In their individual ways, the essays in Medieval into Renaissance all engage in careful genealogical analysis of literary form and convention. By tracing the multifaceted ways genres and literary conventions evolve and permutate over time, they make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. The two essays that conclude this chronologically-organized collection hint at the utility of this methodology beyond the Medieval/Renaissance break: Andrew King’s piece on the Faerie King takes up the English Civil War, while Vincent’s piece on adaptations of Sidney’s Arcadia looks to the afterlife of Tudor writing in the eighteenth century.
As a whole, these essays speak to a set of intersecting concerns around periodization, genre, and literary authority. Together, as is appropriate for a festschrift, they celebrate the vibrancy of Cooper’s thinking and vitality of her legacy, amply attested here in the writings of her students.
Megan L. Cook