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“I do not wish to be called auctour, but the pore compilatour”: the plight of the medieval vernacular poet

“I do not wish to be called auctour, but the pore compilatour”: the plight of the medieval vernacular poet

By Graham D. Caie

Miscelanea: A Journal of English and American Studies, Vol. 29 (2004)

Introduction: In the middle of the fifteenth century Osbern Bokenham, an Augustinian friar of Stoke-Clare and author of works such as the Legendys of Hooly Women and the Mappula Anglia writes: “I do not wish to be called auctour, but the pore compilatour”. He sees his work, therefore, as that of a compiler of others’ writings and claims no originality or the title of author. He does not give his own name (except in all acrostic), but one might ask how many authors’ names we in fact know before the last quarter of the fourteenth century? “Anon” was a very busy writer in the Middle Ages. Apart from Cynewulf, who we know nothing about and may never have existed, we have no known Old English poets, and there are also very few names in the early Middle English period other than Layamon. Who wrote, for example, Cursor Mundi, Sir Orfeo, King Horn, Havelok the Dane, Floris and Blanchflour or Arthur and Merlin, and in the Chaucerian period who were the geniuses responsible for Sir Gaivain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Patience, Purity, St Erkenwald and the medieval mystery plays?

Then in Chaucer’s time and in the fifteenth century we know of Gower, Langland, Hoccleve, Lydgate, Clanvowe and many more. Suddenly poets are no longer ashamed to be seen as authors and one wonders about the significance of this change. Is anonymity simply a modesty topos, or are authors afraid of political or ecclesiastical criticism? This is indeed the case of the Wycliffite and Lollard writers and poets of political and religious satire, but would the author of romances have felt politically threatened?  Latin works of authority, on the other hand, had to have named authors and be accompanied by commentary.  If there were no author, then a patristic name would be assigned to the writing.  Even vernacular theological works had named authors, for example in the Old English period we know of Wulfstan and Ælfric.

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