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Th' entent of al these maters is the lest clere understanding, to weten, at th'ende of this thirde boke. . . . Yet if these thinges han a good and a sleigh inseer, which that can souke hony of the harde stone, oyle of the drye rocke, [he] may lightly fele nobley of mater in my leude imaginacion closed.

(Testament of Love III.i.137-143)[1]

As is well known, no manuscript of Thomas Usk's Testament of Love has come to light. The work survives only because William Thynne printed it in his 1532 folio Chaucer edition, and until 1844, when Sir Harris Nicolas demonstrated that its biographical details were at odds with documentable facts of Chaucer's career, it was accepted, with few demurrers, as Chaucer's work.[2] As is also well known, the text of the Testament as it appears in Thynne exhibits a sequence of abrupt displacements of text in the third book of the work. These occur in midline and midsentence, and radically disrupt logical and syntactic sense and clear exposition—a state of affairs that implies a disordering of printer's copy.[3]


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That this massive disordering of expository sequence and sense went virtually unremarked from the sixteenth through most of the nineteenth centuries testifies revealingly to the uses made of the work during the interval in which it was taken to be Chaucer's. The work seems to have been read during these centuries chiefly for its contribution to a biography of Chaucer, and as a complement to Boece in exhibiting its author's eloquence in the grand manner, adorned with classical allusion and elegant apostrophe.[4] For these purposes the first two-thirds of the Testament (through the end of Book II) provided virtually all of the apposite material. Its biographically encoded consolatio (the main task of the Testament through II.iv, roughly corresponding to the function of Boethius's Book I) ceases a little more than one-third of the way through Usk's work; the turn toward "remedie" in the middle third of the work provides, with frequent evocation of antique historical example and analogy, the arts, and natural philosophy, the framework in which Love, the visionary instructor throughout the Testament, offers the disconsolate persona a course of moral and eschatological edification: the project of the remainder of Usk's Book II is an approximate counterpart to the functions of Books II and III of Boethius's Consolatio. This second movement of Usk's work yields to sustained philosophical argument in Book III, which retains its Boethian cast only in the dialogic framing of its exposition, but bases its arguments in detail and at length on a different Latin source text, St. Anselm's De Concordia Praescientiae et Praedestinationis et Gratiae Dei cum Libero Arbitrio.

With Book III Usk's work becomes more decisively what it has been pointing toward with its preceding allusive gesturing: a synthetic enterprise of some intellectual ambition and originality, of a kind as yet mostly


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"unattempted yet in prose or rhyme" in English: a complex account of the will and its constancy, drawn in detail from Anselm.[5] In Book III Usk appropriates Anselm's discussion of the human will as it operates within the divine moral and eschatological economy into the service of a broadly analogous argument about worldly integrity of purpose and loyalty in public or civic service—in effect a transmutation of theology into ethics and political theory: service of the earthly and heavenly "king" are uneasily merged in a distinctive and original idealistic discourse. It is an ambitious enterprise, and some would hold that its syncretic argument is at best only partly successful. But whatever its intrinsic merits as a piece of political-philosophical reasoning, for my purposes here it will suffice to emphasize its reception—or rather the lack of one: the argument of Usk's Book III was apparently of insufficient interest in the interval of more than three centuries between Thynne's printing and the later nineteenth century to permit any reader to notice fundamental ruptures of its expository logic and syntax in at least four places.[6]


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Largely in consequence of this inattention, the general bearing and purpose of Usk's Testament as a whole—its design, and designs upon its primary intended recipients, whoever they may have been, as a rhetorical and communicative act within an articulated world of discourse—remained unexamined, beyond the capacious conviction that the work was "Chaucerian," even though the definition and implications of that affinity were not more closely specified. Only when the Testament was loosed from its critical moorings as a work of Chaucer were these intentional and performative dimensions of the work attended to, and then almost entirely to the discredit of its actual author.

Once firmly dissociated from the works of the father of English literature, its posture seen no longer as either pious or playful self-reference but unbecomingly motived emulation, the Testament was doubly orphaned as an object of literary-historical inquiry. It was newly culpable on two counts: for a prose style that only now came to be considered, by the first scholars to attempt to read it closely, pretentious and turgid; and for obtrusive, even abject, political designs of self-exculpation and ingratiation in the eyes of the powerful (generally understood to be the royal circle, however that might be defined). Like a lost or bastard child (as Plato famously says of a text circulating free of the intent of the living mind and voice from which it issued), the Testament was disabled by this textual isolation from giving a coherent account of itself. Despite (or perhaps because of) the gestures of literary as well as political self-explanation that pervade the text, the work was seen as little more than an assemblage of such gestures. The systematic designs of the work and its author upon the world of philosophic and poetic fiction (the chief discursive registers with which it associates itself throughout) seemed once again obscure, explicable only in terms of failed careerist or imitative aspirations. Usk's fall from political grace (he was executed, shortly after his new political master, Nicholas Brembre, March 3, 1388, as one of the London adherents of the royal faction purged during the brief ascendancy of Richard II's magnate opponents, the Lords Appellant) has, it seemed, closed off the legibility of his ambitious literary venture.

The intellectual reception of this work in longer retrospect is secondary, however, to the task of this essay. Rather, I wish to offer here a conjectural account of the kind of material text the printer had in hand: its format, layout, and ornament—all aspects of its ordinatio as a complete book—in order to discover unnoticed aspects of its designs as a verbal and material object, and the legibility of those designs to Usk's contemporaries and to Thynne. I


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attempt here to enlist textual and codicological information and inference in the service of literary history, to ascertain their utility for historical understanding of the worlds of textual production and aspiration in which Usk moved and through which his book was made and preserved to the sixteenth century. I propose here to "read" the bibliographical codes rather than the philosophical argument of Usk's work, to demonstrate that the recoverable features of the material text functioned as metapoetic aspects of the Testament, and to show that the terms of art and connoisseurship by which they were to be noticed and understood are also verbally indicated, and amply supported and justified, in the author's proffered terms of art and gestures of self-exegesis.

On the face of it, this is a quixotic and paradoxical task: to pursue the legible, if elusive, account of itself that the material text of a work distinctively offers, yet in this case in the absence of the chief item of direct material evidence: the manuscript book of the Testament. It is, moreover, a venture founded upon error: this inferential reconstruction begins in, and is enabled by, more than one felix culpa of a textual rather than political character—the errors of Thynne's printer in the ordering of text, and then those of Skeat in reconstructing the correct sequence. Yet this largely reconstructive and descriptive account of a vanished material text does not engage more than glancingly the minutiae of textual criticism per se at the level of individual lections, and contributes little toward the much-needed new edition—though the description offered here may contribute to some systematic rather than piecemeal hypotheses about how some of Thynne's manifestly erroneous lections came about. Rather, this exercise enables us to "read" through the mishaps that befell the material text in transmission some information both about Usk's literary designs and about their immediate fortunes and standing within a few years of his death, and also to recover the terms and limits of Thynne's "reading" of the bibliographical codes of this purportedly Chaucerian work. We can thus infer how Thynne regarded this text, not only as a valued piece of Chauceriana, but also as a piece of fine bookmaking whose codes of physical presentation he could at least admire and attempt to preserve in his own layout of the text, even as he nevertheless failed to read in them the many layers of textworker wit that informed Usk's deployment of them. Not although, but because it betrays at best partial understanding of Usk's work, Thynne's print representation of it discloses much about the character of the lost manuscript, and about the many signals it provided, through its physical format and manner of presentation, of the arts of perspicuous viewing and reading on which the lost manuscript book implicitly depended for its address and immediate reception, and to which it explicitly adverts in its self-advertisement.

By thus "reading" a material text that no longer survives, I also propose a revised understanding of the implied audience immediately addressed by the work, and of the mode and language through which Usk asserted his purpose and its performative claims—both of which have long dominated both historical and philological accounts of the Testament. All authorities thus far agree that Usk meant with this work to ingratiate himself with those "on


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whom [his] fate might depend"; critics to date have differed chiefly in the degree of disgust this (stipulatively) ulterior yet all-too-transparent motive excites. While I do not ultimately disagree with this claim as a general description of the work's intentional design, I dissociate the present account from much of what has often followed from this observation—and not simply in my rather more benign view of the ethics of Usk's enterprise. These I find no more unworthy than those implicit in, say, Chaucer's "Envoy to Scogan" or Legend of Good Women, or Gower's "In Praise of Peace" or Confessio Amantis: all texts, I suggest, which participate in a larger conversation among men of letters about their shared condition as thinkers and actors in a world in which they were ultimately dependents—a conversation to which Usk's work eloquently testifies, and to which it contributed significantly.[7] More fundamentally, I identify differently from most scholars heretofore who those were "on whom Usk's fate might depend": these addresses were in the first instance, I claim, other members of the clerical class, not the magnates, burgesses, or royal patrons who might employ them—the latter usually imagined by modern critics to be the intended readers of this work.[8]

More fundamentally still, I dispute the purported ulteriority of the work's motives, and of the terms of its intentional artfulness. These are, I shall show, in plain view, and plainly, pervasively, and wittily legible in this remarkably


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intricate text and book—above all to Usk's fellow "clerics": textworkers and bibliophiles who blend without distinction into the several other occupations covered by this capacious and fluid term in the later fourteenth century. The category encompasses scriveners as well as versifiers, ecclesiastical and legal odd-job and regular-service men of several sorts: in a lifetime, and in rapid alternation, one man might be described accurately under several of these headings. The Testament, I suggest, speaks in the first instance to such men, and in their craft-languages—that is, to those who serve, not to the king, lords, or knights as prospective "patrons." It speaks, in short, to others of Usk's kind, to those for whom documentary and bibliographic high literacy is a means and medium of service, whose self-image and skills, and terms of art and connoisseurship, are acquired "on the job" (whatever the job may be), whose positions and self-representations are for all that largely under-authorized, and for whom these common facts of life are matters of complex self- awareness, as the founding conditions of what would in retrospect be called literature. Usk's art in the Testament, I suggest, shows most clearly in his witty and complex engagement with the terms and values of these textworkers' common vocation (and the problems of their necessary self-advertisement) within that capacious yet elusive and precarious category of being: men of letters.

Usk's self-representation in the Testament wittily realizes this commonplace identity of the verbal artist in the most literal way possible: an acrostic formed by the initial letters of each chapter spells out Usk's name in a petitionary message that extends across all three books of the work: (I) MARGARETE OF (II) VIRTW HAVE MERCI (III) ON THIN VSK. Only with the nineteenth-century conjectural reordering of the displaced segments of the text as it appeared in Thynne was the acrostic message and authorial signature recovered, confirming the attribution of the work to Usk—an attribution earlier conjectured by Henry Bradley, who recognized in some features of the euphemistically occulted "biography" of the persona of the work events that accorded with some of Usk's actions as scrivener of, then as appealer against, London Mayor John Northampton in the fraught London political climate of the 1380s. Since then there has been little attention to the text per se, which has seen no new published edition since Skeat's in the 1897 supplementary seventh volume to his six-volume Works of Chaucer (which remains the only published edition to this day, and is therefore by default my text of reference here). Skeat's conjectural account of the disordering of the printer's copy is still, therefore, the only one readily available.[9] I have


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learned much from, and largely agree with, the work of those scholars who have since undertaken to correct Skeat's reconstruction, but here I use Skeat's text heuristically, in the service of a different enterprise: to discover the bibliographical and metapoetic signs of Usk's effort to engage the attention of the "sleigh inseers" and "good bookamenders" he seeks, and to prompt reconsideration of the milieu and semiotic systems within which he made his bid for "frendes," and of the immediate fortunes of these efforts.