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Danila Sokolov, Renaissance Texts, Medieval Subjectivities
by Catherine Bates

Sokolov, Danila. Renaissance Texts, Medieval Subjectivities: Rethinking Petrarchan Desire from Wyatt to Shakespeare. Duquesne UP, 2017. ix + 350 pp. ISBN: 978-0820704975. $70.00 cloth.

Aligning itself with the growing body of work devoted to crediting the ongoing influence of medieval literature and culture on the Renaissance, this book considers the complex relations of continuity and change that pertain between the Middle Ages and modernity. Against Burkhardtian models of rupture or swerve, as popularized by Greenblatt’s discipline-directing work on Renaissance selfhood, this approach suggests, rather, that as far as a distinctive sense of human subjectivity is concerned “the break between the medieval and the Renaissance is just not there” (10). Taking Renaissance sonnet sequences as its specific focus of inquiry, the book re-examines the paradigmatic status Petrarch has traditionally held as a harbinger of modernity, not so much to deny modernity to him or his early modern English imitators as to find elements of that modernity anticipated in the rhetorical structures and subject positions of the vernacular poetry of the late Medieval period. One effect, of course, is to collapse the supposed time lag between Petrarch’s composition of the Canzoniere and the introduction of the sonnet into England a century and a half later by the poets of the Henrician court whom Puttenham was to hail as “new.”  

To complicate and nuance its overall argument that subjectivity as it is articulated in the sonnets and sonnet sequences of the English Renaissance depends on subjectivities modeled in earlier poetry, the book distinguishes five key domains—economy, melancholy, marriage, law, and pathology—around which to organize a series of closely argued case studies. Thus, in the first, longest, and most compelling chapter, Langland’s personification of “Mede” in Piers Plowman (a semantically complex word that extended to all kinds of payment and reward, including purchase, wage, bribe, and gift), is read against presentations of the courtly lover’s sense of debt and unrequitedness in sonnets by Wyatt, Spenser, and others. In the second chapter, psychoanalytic theorizations of melancholy identification are brought to bear on The Book of the Duchess to show how Chaucer’s representation of the characteristically self-divided melancholic subject prefigures the sonnet speakers of Surrey and Sidney. Chapter 3 sets the so-called “casket sonnets” (allegedly written by Mary Queen of Scots and published in both Scotland and England to discredit her politically) not only against models of royal courtship and marriage as cultivated by Elizabeth but also by James I Stewart in The Kingis Quair, the aim being to emphasize the pointed contrast between the representation of passion in Mary’s French sonnets and culturally approved ideals of monarchical self-rule. Chapter 4 measures the nostalgic recall of—and increasing distance from—the medieval “courts of love” which emerges when the legalistic imagery of sonnets by Daniel and Drayton is understood in the context of texts like Lydgate’s Temple of Glas and Complaynte of a Louers Lyfe. And the final chapter puts Hoccleve’s “La male regle” and Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid alongside Shakespeare’s Sonnets to suggest that the latter, for all its famed (or infamous) modernity, draws on the same problematics of disease, whether these are figured in terms of financial, physical, or erotic impairment.

In each case, the continuities traced between the earlier works and the later ones are not simply the motifs or allusions of old-fashioned source study but the contradictions and irresolutions of ideological critique that are as evident in “medieval” texts as they are in “modern” ones. Indeed, postmodern theory is mobilized throughout to expose the investments and occlusions of the whole “period” concept. For example, using Bataille’s distinction between the restricted economy (modeled as fair exchange) and the general economy (modeled as pure expenditure or waste), the opening chapter shows how Langland’s conceptualization of “mede mesureless” approximates to the latter. This serves, in turn, to open up an uncomfortable not to say problematic conjunction between a proscribed prodigality, on the one hand, and God’s grace, on the other: a free gift that cannot be earned or worked for, is dispensed regardless of worth or desert, and is exemplified in Christ’s self-sacrifice (giving one’s life being the one gift that can never be paid back). Thus “the ‘bad’ meed of bribery and simony (undeserved gift or payment) and the ‘good’ meed of grace (salvation)” come to be aligned (32). Not only do Langland’s Lollard principles here anticipate key tensions that would erupt in and characterize the Protestant Reformation, but his poem “lays the groundwork…for poetic examination of what trajectory subjectivity can take when faced with an opportunity to pursue reward” (39).

In the readings that follow, the obsession with which Wyatt’s poems address the state of unrequitedness—of love defined as an outlay that nets no reward, whether deserved or otherwise—is compared with Spenser’s Amoretti. “Whoso list to hunt,” for instance, is shown to be predicated on an economy of scarcity (breath, stamina, energy, potency, time, hope, and language all being in short supply) in which Wyatt’s speaker nonetheless chooses to remain: for he gives up the chase and opts to stay within the sphere of “worldly economy and property relations” (53) rather than pursue the ultimate reward that, as in a divine economy, would spell his death and can only exist outside the cycle of exchange. In the Amoretti, by contrast, Spenser’s distinctively Protestant blending of love, reward, fame, and grace blurs the distinction between excess and scarcity—or between the general and the restricted economy—so that apparently opposed terms are seen to exist, finally, in a dialectical relation: “death becomes life, gift becomes exchange” (60). Much the same symbolic economies of death and dearth could be applied to those appeals to “law” to redress erotic grievances discussed in Chapter 4, or to patrons to remedy the perennial sickness or lack of love discussed in Chapter 5. And much the same dialectical model could be said to apply to the key terms this book sets in play, for the various forms of selfhood it discusses are shown, in the end, to be neither “medieval” nor “modern” but both, and as belonging simultaneously to “two poetic paradigms that nonetheless are part of the same vernacular continuum” (272).

While the text is generally free of errors, there is a slip on page 288, note 58, where Solokov refers to the late Marshall Grossman as “Michael.”


Catherine Bates
University of Warwick


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Cite as:

Catherine Bates, "Danila Sokolov, Renaissance Texts, Medieval Subjectivities," Spenser Review 47.3.49 (Fall 2017). Accessed May 23rd, 2024.
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