Boethius in Medieval England

I have contributed a chapter on Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy to the forthcoming Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature, vol. 1: The Middle Ages. Written in 524-25, on the cusp of antiquity and the Middle Ages, the Consolation was one of the most influential works in the literary culture of medieval Europe. My chapter offers a narrative history of its reception in Old and Middle English, with some contextualizing discussion of medieval Latin and French traditions. Here is an outtake, the opening paragraphs:

‘Boethius on consolation: The greatest misfortune is to have been happy’. Thus runs the first marginal Latin gloss in Thomas Hoccleve’s narrative prologue to The Regiment of Princes (1410-11). The Latin gloss, which almost certainly derives from Hoccleve’s holograph, corresponds closely to a line uttered by Boethius’s fictional persona in the Consolatio philosophiae (2p4.4-6). It appears in the Regiment of Princes beside the Hoccleve-persona‘s expression of this same woeful aphorism. Placed so close to the head of the poem, the citation serves a programmatic function. Henceforth, ‘Hoccleve’s’ complaint will channel the Consolatio‘s grand pathos; likewise, ‘Hoccleve’s’ dialogue with the Old Man will evoke ‘Boethius’s’ dialogue with Lady Philosophy. However, though keyed to the Consolatio in this way, the Regiment could not be more different from it. In the Consolatio, Lady Philosophy deploys the techniques of Stoic and Platonic ascesis—that is, philosophical exercise—in an effort to free her protégé from his attachments to both past fortune and present misfortune. As reworked by Hoccleve, the Boethian apparatus of dialogic counsel has precisely the opposite trajectory: the Old Man seeks to equip ‘Hoccleve’ with new strategies for success in the world of Fortune. His message is ‘Try harder. Try better. Maybe this time will be different’.

By invoking Boethius’s ethical project only to mark a distance from it, Hoccleve’s poem exploits a possibility always present in literary reception, but also dramatizes the textual forms—gloss, adaptation, and translation—by which the literature of classical antiquity was projected through the literature of medieval England. The Consolatio, whose medieval reception was thoroughly mediated by Latin glossing and commentary, appears here as a gloss on an independent English poem. The poem thus glossed is itself a distant adaptation of the Consolatio. And this adaptation includes, at the point corresponding to the gloss, a fairly precise translation, consisting of a single verse couplet: “The werste kinde of wrecchednesse is / A man to han ben weleful er this.” The Regiment‘s narrator-protagonist introduces his despondent thought as something he has found ‘in bookes thus writen’; however, it is only outside the fictive frame—that is, through the gloss’s emphatic citation—that the Consolatio itself becomes present as a privileged interpretive intertext. In short, the Consolatio enters Hoccleve’s poem in several different states of mediation, while Hoccleve’s poem relates to the Consolatio in a dialectic of affinity and dislocation. In all these respects, it is emblematic of the wider Boethian tradition in medieval England. The present essay makes a sequential account of this reception history—a history in which the gloss-adaptation-translation triad recurred and recombined in several languages over several centuries, swinging between proximity to and distance from Boethius’s text.

The essay addresses the following texts: Alcuin’s De vera philosophia (late eighth c.); the beginnings of the Latin glossing tradition; the Old English versions (880-950?) and their reception; William of Conches’s Latin commentary (1120-25?); Simund de Frein’s Roman de Philosophie (late 12th c.); Nicholas Trevet’s Latin commentary (c. 1300); Geoffrey Chaucer’s verse adaptations, especially in Troilus and Criseyde (early 1380s); Chaucer’s prose translation, the Boece (early 1380s); Thomas Usk’s Testament of Love (1384-85); John Walton’s verse translation and its prose commentary (c.1410); the anonymous English commentary on Boece, book 1 (early/mid fifteenth c.); the manuscripts and early printed editions of Walton’s and Chaucer’s English translations; James I of Scotland’s King’s Quire (early fifteenth c.); George Ashby’s Prisoner’s Reflections (1463); Robert Henryson’s Tale of Orpheus (1460s/70s?).

Along the way, I seek especially to show how these texts folded Boethian thought into new discursive and generic configurations, as exemplified by Hoccleve’s Regiment in the introductory paragraphs quoted above.

I have created a zotero bibliography on these topics, available for browsing here.

This entry was posted in Publications and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.