Article

Thomas Usk

Andrew Galloway

in Medieval Studies

ISBN: 9780195396584
Published online April 2012 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0039
Thomas Usk

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)
  • Literary Studies (Early and Medieval)
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  • Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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Interest in the life and works of Thomas Usk (b. c. 1354–d. 1388) began with the mistaken attribution of his Testament of Love to Chaucer in the 1532 edition of Chaucer’s works by Thomas Thynne—still the earliest copy of the Testament known. Early scholars using Thynne’s edition treated the Testament—disordered though parts of it are in that edition—as not only Chaucer’s but also as an allegorical record of unknown events in Chaucer’s life. Even after Usk was discovered (by means of the acrostic in the Testament as well as a more careful reading of that work) to be a quite separate writer, scholars have tended to see the two figures in comparative terms. Much of the comparison has been biographical: in some respects Usk’s career represents a kind of unsuccessful and tragic complement to the career of Chaucer. Like Usk, Chaucer also rose from London origins to considerable courtly and presumably royal favor—though Chaucer, somewhat surprisingly given his own range of connections to the king that led in part to Usk’s downfall, managed to survive unscathed the events that claimed Usk’s life. Usk began his literary career as a London legal clerk and guild scrivener, but also as a paid rabble-rouser and go-between for the charismatic but divisive London mayor and conspirator John Northampton, against whom, when Northampton lost political power, Usk lodged a formal accusation of treason before the king, in English: the “Appeal.” After imprisonment and a period of house arrest, in which he seems to have written his long prose Boethian allegory, the Testament, Usk enjoyed some royal favor, leading to a brief appointment as undersheriff of the County of Middlesex, but he was indicted by the Lords Appellant in 1388 in their peremptory parliamentary trials of the king’s supposedly corrupt associates and was executed with others in 1388. Literary comparisons between Usk and Chaucer are perhaps inevitable, given the Chaucerian context of the earliest copy of the Testament and the work’s high praise for Chaucer. The superficial resemblance of Usk’s writing to Chaucer’s is also due, in part, to Usk’s heavy use of Chaucer’s Boece, Troilus, and the House of Fame. Yet Usk’s own prose style and carefully inserted translation of Anselm’s Concord of Foreknowledge, Predestination, and the Grace of God with Human Free Will—an extension, perhaps a competitive one, of Chaucer’s insertion of passages of Boethius on “free will” in the English Troilus—display more originality than some scholars have credited him with. Usk’s political ethics, expressed in his career and in his writings, remain enigmatic. However, as a distinctly London witness to Chaucer’s influence and example and as an ambitious contributor to a new phase of learned, but explicitly “public,” English prose—filled with self-justifications, social idealism, and display of learned foundations for an English vernacular literature—he is unique.

Article.  5472 words. 

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500) ; Literary Studies (Early and Medieval) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy ; Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400) ; Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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