Cynthia A. Rogers


Dissertation Abstract:


‘Make thereof a game:’
The Findern Manuscript’s Lyrics and their Late Medieval Textual Community

A close analysis of the Findern manuscript demonstrates that it was originally created to aid a “game of love,” a set of social activities revolving around reading aloud, singing, dancing, fortune telling, collecting and editing texts, composing new poetry, and “love talk”—the ability to participate in courtly conversations and debates on love. Surprisingly, this social “game” had very real class implications for its gentry participants, who sought to demonstrate their gentility by appropriating literary activities from the nobility. The manuscript itself began as a collection of home-made loose-leaf booklets whose pages were copied, added to, damaged, food-stained, and excised over time. The gentry copied popular works by Chaucer, Gower, Hoccleve, and Lydgate into the front pages of these booklets, while the leftover pages at the back were used to record the gentry’s own poetic responses. Analyzing the gentry’s original poems as conversational gambits within this lively performative context reveals multi-voiced love debates that have heretofore remained largely unremarked in scholarship. The booklets, which began life as pages to be passed around and used at social gatherings, were probably gathered and bound into a book only after the “game” was over, perhaps a nostalgic gesture that has preserved these remnants of the Derbyshire gentry’s literary activities, giving us what may be our most complete look at the way poetry impacted the social lives of the fifteenth century.

The dissertation's introduction, “A Fifteenth-century Scrapbook,” emphasizes the utilitarian creation of the Findern manuscript. Rather than a beautiful illuminated manuscript, which imbues its owner with status, the Findern is a home-made scrapbook of love texts. After surveying the historical and codicological contexts of the manuscript, I offer a reading of a little four-line lyric, which has been ignored in scholarship. Noticing its connections to and borrowings from canonical poems in the same booklet, I demonstrate that rather than an incomprehensible bit of doggerel, it is a carefully crafted tart reply that mocks the pretensions of male love longing. The interconnection of the little quatrain to the earlier poems in its booklet  demonstrates the playful approach of the manuscript's earliest readers and compilers to the larger literary traditions they were appropriating.

The first chapter, “Gentry Voices: The Manuscript Within its Social Setting,” argues that the manuscript is a physical remnant of a social “game of love,” played by the fifteenth-century gentry. I outline the parameters of this game by looking at its appearance in both literary texts and historical examples. Appropriating this originally courtly “game of love” has pragmatic stakes for late medieval gentry, whose performance of gentility is a crucial part of their aristocratic ambitions. Caught between an increasingly wealthy merchant class and a powerful nobility, the gentry take great pains to assert their position within the aristocracy—inventing ancient lineages for themselves, negotiating advantageous marriages, and carefully acquiring skills that mark them out as “gentle.” I use Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls as a framework for the chapter to discuss how the original lyrics in the Findern incorporate voices of different social registers and genders as part of their replication of aristocratic love debates. These apparently disparate voices within the Findern reveal a unified gentry interest in gentility, law, love, and debates on the nature of women.

The next two chapters investigate the ways texts in the Findern are purposefully connected to each other through repetitions of themes and formal features. The second chapter, “Love as a Dance: The Lyrics in a Multi-voiced Debate,” systematically analyzes the thematic links between canonical texts and the Derbyshire gentry’s own lyrics—links that have been gestured toward in recent scholarship but left largely unexplored. My close readings of the lyrics that follow La Belle Dame sans Mercy show how the canonical poem’s dual-voiced debate is expanded in the lyrics to create a multi-voiced debate—a heteroglossia that reveals elements of the “game of love.” Hearing the lyrics as conversationally connected sequences constructed within a playful social context necessarily changes our interpretation of them. For example, a female-voiced carol’s inversion of love-sickness symptoms takes on humorous overtones when heard as a direct answer to an earlier male-voiced carol, which first lists these love ailments. The presence of a musical incipit after the former suggests that these two metrically identical carols may have been sung as part of an ongoing informal poetry contest, where one of the Derbyshire gentry replies to another’s creation. Chapter Three, “Responding Voices: Formal Linkages as Interpretive Moves” continues tracing the interplay between texts by analyzing the formal linkages between the poems that follow Chaucer’s “Complaint Unto Pity.” I demonstrate that the Findern coterie adopts a pattern of key word repetition from French fine amor poetics that they find in Chaucer in order to create original lyrics that skillfully make use of these courtly poetics. They also adapt the repetition pattern as a means of linking poems together by repeating key words from one poem to the next. These linked sequences invite us to “read across” the poems and hear alternate interpretations of the poems that emphasize minor themes the poems share in common. Hence, the gentry compilers of the manuscript, rather than being indifferent rural poet-tasters, as they have sometimes been characterized in scholarship, are knowledgeably appropriating and adapting a sophisticated courtly technique.

While the opening chapters examine the clever compositional play of the Findern coterie, the final chapter, “Change and Discord: Texts in Conflict,” examines locations within the Findern where the game of love seems to break down. By analyzing texts that have been ignored in Findern scholarship because they appear to be outliers, I show how the Findern coterie adapts and repurposes texts to fit within their thematic parameters and social interests. In particular, I look at the changes made to Gower’s “Tale of Apollonius” to show how a tale replete with violence towards women has been surprisingly remade to emphasize the importance of “game of love” activities to gentry notions of hospitality. I also map the shifts in subject matter from fine amor to social discord in a sequence of texts that use key word repetitions to move associatively from topic to topic. This progression of linked texts ends with John Lydgate’s enigmatic, “Treatise for Laundresses,” which purports to be a set of instructions for washer-women removing stains. Although Lydgate’s poem seems an off-topic addition, I argue that within the Findern’s manuscript context, it can be read as an ameliorative for discord. By analyzing the way the Findern coterie brings potentially disruptive texts back within certain thematic boundaries, I reveal their concern about maintaining equilibrium and unity within their class-defined social circles—an understandable agenda during the political turmoil of the late fifteenth century.    

The project's brief conclusion, “One Among Many,” lays out the richer readings possible after re-setting the texts into their layers of contexts (codicological, literary, social, and political). I end by suggesting that the practices of literary production evident in the Findern were not unique, but rather that the introduction of lower cost paper allowed the poetic aspects of an originally ephemeral “game of love” to be captured beginning in the fifteenth century. By detailing the importance of the social coterie to the Findern’s production, I suggest that seventeenth-century honnête manuscript culture in England can be seen as a continuation of an earlier medieval literary practice.



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