Boethius at MLA

[I thank the panelists for their paper proposals and interest in this session. Eleanor Johnson and Linda Shenk are authors of recent books bearing on the session topic: respectively, Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages: Ethics and the Mixed Form in Chaucer, Gower, Usk and Hoccleve (University of Chicago Press, 2013) and Learned Queen: The Image of Elizabeth I in Politics and Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). Anne Schindel is undertaking work on this topic in her dissertation. If you are in Chicago for MLA next January, please come see their papers!]

Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy in Medieval and Early Modern England: Form and History

Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, written on the cusp of antiquity and the Middle Ages, was undoubtedly one of the most influential works for medieval and early modern European literature, in both Latin and the vernaculars. In England, reception of the Consolation began early and continued to be vibrant through at least the sixteenth century. In recent years, this English tradition has benefited from renewed and highly productive scholarly attention, perhaps most visible in the nearly simultaneous publication of three definitive new editions: Chaucer’s Boece in 2008, followed by the Alfredian Boethius and Queen Elizabeth I’s translation in 2009. Behind this coincidence of scholarly publication (the projects were not related) lies a long and rich trail of research on the language, form, sources, and circumstances of the individual translations. This MLA special session proposes to put these three moments of Boethius reception—Alfredian, Chaucerian, Elizabethan—in conversation with one another. By presenting new research within the format of a trans-historical panel, we hope to generate new insights about the formal and cultural aspects of individual texts, and also take a fresh look at the long history of Boethius’s Consolation in English.

The first English renditions of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy were produced sometime between the late ninth century and the middle of the tenth, during what was evidently the first great wave of literary writing in English prose. This writing, most of it translation from Latin, was undertaken in part at the instigation of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex (871-99). Indeed, the two surviving copies of the Old English Boethius each bear prefaces claiming Alfred as their author, an attribution that looks increasingly implausible. However, if Malcolm Godden and Susan Irvine’s new edition of the Old English Boethius reopens questions of this work’s authorship and its date and place of composition, their edition also gives newly precise visibility to the Old English Boethius‘s language, style, thematic interests, and techniques of translation. The author or authors of this work freely adapted and transformed Boethius’s Latin text; they also produced two versions of it, one entirely in prose, the other alternating prose and verse in the manner of Boethius’s Latin. In her paper for this session, Anne Schindel proposes to situate these two versions in the context of Anglo-Saxon theory and practice of literary genres. Even the prose version remarks on the formal variousness of Boethius’s work, distinguishing “speech” and “song.” Building from these observations, Anne Schindel’s paper develops an historically sensitive vocabulary for Anglo-Saxon literary genres and shows how the Old English Boethius exemplifies period developments in literary awareness.

In the later Middle Ages, Boethius’s Consolation was fitted with increasingly sophisticated Latin commentaries and translated several times into French. However, it seems that English-language attention to this text resumed only at the end of the fourteenth century. Given the flourishing of literature in English during this period, it is perhaps not surprising that the years 1380-1420 also saw a flourishing of attention, in English, to Boethius’s classic. Geoffrey Chaucer translated the Consolation into English prose and drew deeply on Boethius’s work in his own verse. In an important sense, Chaucer’s engagements marked a new beginning to the Boethian tradition in English: they were soon followed by others. In another sense, however, this burst of Boethian literature was a continuation of the rich and complex Latin and French traditions of previous centuries. In her paper for this session, Eleanor Johnson will show how this medieval tradition responded to the mixed, or prosimetrical, style of Boethius’s Consolation. Situating the work of Chaucer and his contemporaries in the context of medieval continental prosimetrical writing, Professor Johnson will show that, when English writers deployed prosimetric form and style, they activated not only the long-established cultural presence of Boethius, but also the recent and innovative presences of their vernacular near-contemporaries, both as literary writers and as practicing literary theorists. In this way, Professor Johnson’s talk will open up onto questions regarding formalist literary history, the historical status of lyrical poetry, and the relationship between ethical learning and aesthetic action in the literary field.

In the opening decades of the sixteenth century, the major Middle English translations and adaptations of the Consolation were each printed, while renaissance humanists continued to study Boethius’s Latin text. Later in the century, Philip Sidney invoked the example of Boethius’s philosophical prosimetrum as support for the moral and philosophical seriousness of poetry, while the holograph manuscript of Elizabeth I’s translation (1593) shows that the Queen took special care with her renderings of Boethius’s meters, entering them in her own hand. Linda Shenk’s paper for this session combines literary analysis with attention to the theological and political contexts of this early modern reception. Like Professor Johnson, Professor Shenk brings a transnational perspective that clarifies the evolving formal and historical significance of Boethius’s text. Thus, while Boethius’s avoidance of specifically Christian language in the Consolation has long puzzled modern readers, Professor Shenk shows how this feature supplied the Consolation’s sixteenth-century readers with a theologically expansive response to religious division. Elizabeth undertook her translation in the months following the conversion of King Henri IV of France to Roman Catholicism; the Consolation supplied her with a philosophical rhetoric grounded in notions of order and peace deeper than the division between Catholics and Protestants. Moreover, as Professor Shenk shows with reference to a variety of other period documents, Elizabeth was alone neither in turning to Boethius for a theologically expansive perspective on the present, nor in her particular attention to the Consolation’s poetry.


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