Thomas Hoccleve and Medieval Mental Health

This has two strands. The first of these is about Middle English poetry and how we ought to pay more attention to those poets who weren’t Geoffrey Chaucer. The second relates to madness and poetry and how Hoccleve in particular has challenged my view of the confessional poem.

I’m a relative newcomer to medieval verse, I’d been put off Chaucer at A level (as with most other things) and since then have been pre-occupied by other periods. My knowledge of the 14th and 15th centuries is scanty and it seemed like to much effort to acquire the context as well as the ability to read Middle English.

Two things then occurred- the internet got better and I decided that rather than move forwards through the canon, which would have meant Dryden and Pope, I would move backwards. The improvement in the internet has meant that there are many more resources on-line and that I now have access to a wide range of books on the period as well as primary texts.

The first thing that I’ve learned is that Middle English is gloriously expressive and this makes me smile a lot. The second thing is that it isn’t ‘fixed’ in that there are huge variations in vocabulary and sentence construction. This ‘mobility’ is much more apparent than it is in the 16th century early modern usage.

So, I’m paying attention to Hoccleve and am being dragged further and further into the work because he throws himself into his poems (in every sense) and he’s really good at feeling sorry for himself. I first came across him on the TEAMS site which is really good for us newbies because it provides both an introduction and translates the more difficult words. The site has Hoccleve’s best known work ‘The Regiment of Princes’ and, on the strength of that, I’ve subsequently bought ‘My Compleinte and Other Poems’ edited by Roger Ellis. I’ve had a recent moan about Ellis’ gloss but it is mostly serviceable even if it makes me cross.

We now come to the confessional. I’m against confessional poetry because most of it strikes me as self-indulgent whinging with more than a little exhibitionism which I find distateful. I accept that this is a personal view but it’s one that I can usually defend. As a bipolar depressive I’m particularly against confessional poems about the poet’s mental health and share Geoffrey Hill’s distaste for the work of Lowell and Plath because of this. I also readily accept that this is about my view of how ‘we’ should respond to and ‘deal with’ our condition. Thomas Hoccleve experienced a bout of mental illness and wrote a poem about his experience which has gone some way to modify the above view.

Before proceeding, it is important to note that Hoccleve is one of literatures great complainers, he complains about not having enough money, about not being paid and about the poor state of his health and therefore qualifies as the leading miserablist of the late medieval period. The other point to note is that he was a senior civil servant, working as a senior clerk in the office of the privy seal and was never poorly paid by the standards of the day. Having this job also implies a thorough knowledge of both Latin and French.

The onset of the illness is described (in strictly medieval terms) in the first stanza after the prologue of ‘My Compleinte’. I have had to use contemporary lettering throughout because WordPress doesn’t seem keen on ME, I’ve marked with an asterisk where this occurs-

Almygh*ty God, as liketh his goodnesse,
vesiteth* folke alday, as men may se,
With los of good and bodily sikenesse,
And among othir, he forg*at not me.
Witnesse vppon the wilde infirmite
Wiche th*at I had, as many a man wel knewe,
And wiche me oute of mysilfe caste and threwe.

As you might expect, the medieval explanation for mental illness is much more straightforward then ours, no mention of childhood trauma, nor of genetics or excessive substance use but it’s about God not forgetting our inflicted poet.

The last line is a wonderful example of the expressive qualities of Middle English, I can relate to what’s being described, in fact it seems in many ways more accurate than contemporary attempts to portray the onset of mania/depression. Being cast and thrown out of yourself is also gloriously succinct and neatly avoids the details that so many poets dwell on. I’m taking ‘wilde infirmite’ to relate to a period at the psychotic end of mania primarily because other forms of wildness tend to recur and because of how Hoccleve describes the negative reaction of his friends. I may of course be entirely wrong on this but it does seem likely.

Those of us who do recover or have periods of being well do find the reaction of some former friends and acquaintances quite difficult- even in these enlightened times there is still huge stigma attached to mental illness and people often find it easier to sever ties with those who have been ill. Things were not at all different in the early 15th century. Hoccleve reports that is has been five years since his recovery (occasioned by God) and that he is still shunned by his friends:

For th*ough* my wit were hoom come ag*ein,
Men wolde it not so undirstonde or take.
With me to dele hadden they disdein.
A rietous persone I was and forsake.
Min oolde frendshipe was al overshake.
No wigh*t with me list make daliaunce.
The worlde me made a straunge continuance.

Hoccleve explains this rejection as being due to his friends’ belief that his infirmity will recur- which is entirely reasonable given that most periods of illness are episodic- whether treated or not. I’m sure that many of us have experienced that sense of isolation and I know that I have also isolated myself in the fairly recent past What strikes me as remarkable in this passage is (again) the last line which seems to capture what still goes on today. ‘Continuance’ is taken by Ellis to mean ‘face’ but I think ‘countenance’ is more accurate. Most bouts of madness, in whatever form, still kick off a negative societal reaction that is more to do with fear of othernerness than straightforward ‘disdain’.

In conclusion, I’m very glad that I went backwards instead of towards Dryden and Pope primarily because of the joys of the language but also because of the greater differences and smaller similarities between then and now. I’m also becoming more mellow about confessional verse.

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One response to “Thomas Hoccleve and Medieval Mental Health

  1. How did you go about reading Middle English before you were able to fluently read it? Did you simply find a dictionary from Middle English to English? My library did not have one of those, and I gave up with out much effort. I would like to return to make the attempt–now that you have blazed the trail. Did you just patiently read until you figured out each word from context that you might not recognize?

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