In their introduction to A Companion to Fifteenth-Century English Poetry, Julia Boffey and A. S. G. Edwards cite the ‘general tendency to see the verse of the period between Chaucer and the early sixteenth century as largely unrewarding’ (p. 1). Undervalued for reasons of aesthetic preference, and suffering from a dearth of editions until the early twentieth century, fifteenth-century English poetry was for a long time inaccessible to most readers, and unpalatable to others. This collection of seventeen essays heralds the latest stage in a process begun in the early twentieth century to reappraise and exonerate this period in English poetical history. The Companion's contributors – eminent scholars drawn from a broad range of late mediaeval literary studies – in no way harm this agenda of rehabilitation.
The Companion is divided into three sections: Part I: Background and Context, Part II: Authors, and Part III: Themes and Genres. Part I deals primarily with the creational circumstances of fifteenth-century poetry: Who patronized it, and why? How did it circulate? In ‘The Patronage of Poetry’, Carol Meale considers the implications of class, status, wealth, and gender in verse written by civil servants whose primary incomes were not derived from their poetical works. In ‘Forms of Circulation’, Simon Horobin traces a Chaucerian inheritance in manuscript layouts and circulation of fifteenth-century verse.
Part II: Authors opens with Sheila Lindenbaum's chapter ‘Thomas Hoccleve’ – an informative introduction to this clerk of the Privy Seal, situating the poet as Chaucer's literary heir and his verse within the wider political landscape. ‘Thomas Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes’ by David Watt hones in on this poet's association with Prince Henry (the future Henry V), as well as the Regiment's sources and manuscript history, and argues for this poem's literary importance in its own right. Robert Meyer-Lee highlights the physical, monumental nature of Lydgate's works and their wide circulation in his own time in ‘John Lydgate's Major Poems’, and a consideration of the material texture of verse beyond the page continues in Anthony Bale's study ‘John Lydgate's Religious Poetry.’ Joanna Martin highlights a neglected body of works in ‘John Lydgate's Shorter Secular Poems’ and goes some way towards redressing the balance by examining several of the shorter poems, including the ‘Complaint of the Black Knight’ and ‘The Churl and the Bird’.
John Lydgate and Thomas Hoccleve feature prominently in Part II, as might be expected, but poets who have been treated less often by scholarship in the past are also given coverage, including John Capgrave, Osbern Bokenham, Peter Idley, George Ashby, John Audelay, and James Ryman. The final three chapters of Part II signal a turn to poets who have historically received less critical attention. Sarah James's chapter ‘John Capgrave and Osbern Bokenham: Verse Saints' Lives’ emphasizes the flourishing of hagiographic verse in the fifteenth century and argues that the versification of source materials gestures to contemporary political and religious concerns. In ‘Peter Idley and George Ashby’, John Scattergood examines the advice manuals of these two writers, and Susanna Fein's ‘John Audelay and James Ryman’ explores the work of two authors who both have their names attached to large fifteenth-century collections of religious lyrics.
In Part III: ‘Themes and Genres’, Ad Putter considers the merits of ‘Chaucerian apocrypha’ in ‘Fifteenth-Century Chaucerian Visions’ (p. 154). The varying poetical forms used for historical and political writing in the fifteenth century are the subject of Alfred Hiatt's ‘Historical and Political Verse’, and Daniel Wakelin examines translations into English, and from prose to verse of Classical material in ‘Classical and Humanist Translations’. Andrew King rekindles an important genre of the fifteenth-century in ‘Romance’, and Anke Timmermann's ‘Scientific and Encyclopaedic Verse’ suggests that such literature is ‘emblematic’ of the fifteenth century (p. 199). Julia Boffey broadens the Companion's focus to scrutinize verse with a ‘more widespread appeal’ (p. 214) in ‘Popular Verse Tales’, and the volume ends by looking forward to the next generation of courtly poets in A. S. G. Edwards's ‘Beyond the Fifteenth Century’.
A repeated refrain throughout the collection is the under-examined quality of fifteenth-century English poetry. The Companion successfully contributes to tackling this issue. This extensive and varied collection of essays feels like a primer, introducing the main writers, genres, and contexts, as well as outlining important critical work that has been undertaken. Situating this body of verse firmly within its cultural and historical contexts, the Companion prompts readers to measure its worth against criteria other than those of aesthetic or ‘literary’ value alone, as part of a rich and complex historical moment. The Companion opens a door on fifteenth-century English poetry, with the hope that future generations of scholars will walk through, explore this ‘fertile hinterland’, and return with further riches (p. 109).