Until recently, the literature of 15th-century England had a poor reputation, being characterized as lacking talent and literary imagination. Coming after Chaucer’s death in 1400 and before the well-known works of the Elizabethan period, the period’s literature struck many readers as being overly decorous, didactic, and dull.
“The Provocative 15th Century,” a conference I’m co-convening at The Huntington on Oct. 16-17 with my colleague Lisa H. Cooper, challenges this characterization. Conference participants will explore the many ways that 15th-century English texts defy traditionally negative criticism, showcasing how they are in fact especially provocative in their various engagements with readers’ expectations. We might think of this forgotten corner of history—when the late medieval and the early modern periods briefly met—as a dynamic and often startling site of confrontation between two very different literary cultures.
The Huntington is an ideal location for this conference because of its substantial holdings in 15th-century manuscripts and early printed texts (incunabula). Several of our speakers will discuss their work on rare manuscripts from The Huntington’s collection, using them to think about two main themes: “Aesthetic Misbehavior” and “Evocative Objects.” How do writers in this period use literary form to provoke their patrons and other readers into action? How are literary genres in this period made to act unexpectedly against their own interests? In what way do literary aesthetics in the 15th century work to defy their own histories, appearances, objects, and emotional effects? Scholars from around the globe will convene to discuss these and other questions.
The conference is also meant to generate discussion about how 15th-century literary activity in England stimulates responses from modern readers. To this end, a public reading and discussion by British poet and translator Simon Armitage—professor of poetry at Sheffield University and newly elected professor of poetry at Oxford University—will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Thurs., Oct. 15, in Rothenberg Hall. (This event is free to the public; reservations are not required.) Author and translator of more than 20 books, Armitage will read his poetry and discuss how medieval poems have provoked his own work over the years.
Bridging the worlds of modern and medieval poetry, Armitage will set the ideal tone for thinking about 15th-century literature in new and provocative ways. While he has translated several medieval English poems, including the 15th-century Alliterative Morte Arthure (translated as The Death of King Arthur), he has also experimented with the archetypal social role of the medieval poet, turning himself into a modern-day troubadour who must sing for his supper as he travels across England—as one can read in his prose memoir Walking Home.
Andrea Denny-Brown is associate professor of English at University of California, Riverside, and a former Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow at The Huntington.