Medieval Studies Thomas Usk
by
Andrew Galloway
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0039

Introduction

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.

Biography

Accounts of Usk’s tumultuous life have flourished since Ramona Bressie’s thesis, which served as the basis for her brief article (Bressie 1928); some of the materials of her unpublished thesis, however, have been available in print only in the most recent writings on Usk’s life, in Shawver 2002 and Waldron 2008. The previous focus was on Usk’s involvement in London party politics, as in Powell and Treveylan 1899 and Bird 1949, which present, in different ways, the inquisitions at the trial of London mayor John Northampton. Usk initially supported Northampton, though later siding with Brembre and Richard II, which led to his cruel execution when Richard’s uncles rose up against the king’s favorites in 1388. Usk’s accusation of Northampton, the “Appeal” (Chambers and Daunt 1967), represents a further key document both for his life and for London history; the surprisingly adroitly used legal forms and “genres” of this document, and the absorption of its information into more official records, are traced in Strohm 1992. Strohm 1990 more generally links and compares Usk’s and Chaucer’s careers and thus their modes of literary perspective; this is significant in serving to render more visible not only Usk’s politically calculated uses of textuality but also Chaucer’s. Against Usk’s obvious but fatal partisanship, Chaucer’s apparently noncommittal and polyvocal political style appears more clearly as a survival strategy. Dating the composition of the Testament has been somewhat elusive; probably the “layered” view of Shawver 2002 is likeliest. Barron 2004 discovered Usk’s connection to the Goldsmiths’ Company during the time that he worked under Northampton, opening questions about his range of activities in London in the early 1380s. Galloway 2011 presents proof of Usk’s early employment as a sheriff’s clerk, already involved in London politics as shown by a series of subpoenas that Usk served against a financier and merchant, Gilbert Maghfeld, who included the poets Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower in his network of financial clients. Pursuit of Usk’s life records is likely to yield further discoveries about London and London literary circles in a pivotal period of London literary flowering.

  • Barron, Caroline M. “New Light on Thomas Usk.” Chaucer Newsletter 26.2 (2004): 1.

    E-mail Citation »

    Shows that in 1382, the first year of John Northampton’s mayoralty, Usk was appointed clerk to the Goldsmiths’ Company, with payment of clothing and one mark per year. The information was obscured by an editorial error in the Wardens’ Accounts of the London Goldsmiths’ Company 1334–1446, edited by Lisa Jefferson (Cambridge, UK: Boydell, 2002), p. 198 (where “Usk” in the manuscript is misread as “Vok”).

  • Bird, Ruth. The Turbulent London of Richard II. London: Longmans, 1949.

    E-mail Citation »

    Useful overview of the period, with a fuller (but error-prone) transcription of the Coram Rege roll of the inquisitions in the trial of John of Northampton than Powell and Trevelyan 1899 (pp. 134–140). For comment, see Shawver 2002, pp. 39–40n18.

  • Bressie, Ramona. “The Date of Thomas Usk’s ‘Testament of Love.’” Modern Philology 26 (1928): 17–29.

    DOI: 10.1086/387741E-mail Citation »

    Key early scholar on Usk, taking the Testament as topical self-defense rather than (as Skeat argued) mainly religious. Includes a document showing that Usk was imprisoned a second time in 1385 (when he may have written the Testament), and shows that presumed allusion to Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (assumed to be from 1387) could be better explained by an earlier source (Higden’s Polychronicon). Proposes a better (generally now followed) textual reconstruction than Skeat’s.

  • Chambers, R. W., and Marjorie Daunt, eds. “The Appeal of Thomas Usk against John of Northampton.” In A Book of London English, 1384–1425. Edited by R. W. Chambers and Marjorie Daunt, 22–31, 237–243. Oxford: Clarendon, 1967.

    E-mail Citation »

    Originally published in 1931. Still the only edition of the “Appeal,” a key biographical document, said to be written in Usk’s own hand. Based on the fragmentary manuscript, the edition has many gaps. In part those gaps may be filled by the Latin redaction of the appeal surviving in the Coram Rege roll describing the event (for this, see Bird 1949, Powell and Trevelyan 1899).

  • Galloway, Andrew. “The Account Book and the Treasure: Gilbert Maghfeld’s Textual Economy and the Poetics of Mercantile Accounting in Ricardian Literature.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 33 (2011): 65–124.

    DOI: 10.1353/sac.2011.0042E-mail Citation »

    Locates Usk as a sheriff’s clerk in 1383, serving writs against a powerful but widely disliked moneylender and merchant, Gilbert Maghfeld, whose connections with the poets Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower helps define and explain a general interest in “mercantile accounting” found in the London poetry of the period. The new information about Usk’s early involvement with London politics (also showing new information about the late-medieval London sheriff’s procedures) is presented and discussed on pp. 116–124.

  • Powell, Edgar, and G. M. Trevelyan, eds. The Peasants’ Rising and the Lollards: A Collection of Unpublished Documents Forming an Appendix to “England in the Age of Wycliffe.” New York: Longmans, 1899.

    E-mail Citation »

    Includes selection from the inquisitions (Latin only) at the trial of John of Northampton, mayor of London (1381–1383), whom Usk initially supported (pp. 28–38); these include mentions of Usk, parallel his “Appeal,” and incorporate a modified Latin translation of it. But the edition has unnoted omissions and must be compared to Bird 1949, pp. 134–140; see Shawver 2002, pp. 39–40n18.

  • Shawver, Gary W., ed. Thomas Usk: Testament of Love. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

    E-mail Citation »

    Best edition, including full biography (pp. 7–24), based in part on the unpublished 1928 thesis of Ramona Bressie. Presents important theory of the composition of the Testament, based on internal evidence (pp. 24–26). Parts of Books 1–2 were written in prison in 1384, the rest after Usk’s release from prison in December 1384 but before royal preferment at the beginning of June 1385.

  • Strohm, Paul. “Politics and Poetics: Usk and Chaucer in the 1380s.” In Literary Practice and Social Change in Britain, 1380–1530. Edited by Lee Patterson, 83–112. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

    E-mail Citation »

    Frames Usk’s and Chaucer’s lives and textual production within the political factionalism of the 1380s, between London groups and between nobility and king. Usk used literacy to further his purposes directly. The Testament sought to recuperate his image before the king—a strategy that backfired when he was convicted by the anti-Ricardian Lords Appellant—whereas Chaucer prospered by using literature as witty self-deprecation.

  • Strohm, Paul. “The Textual Vicissitudes of Usk’s ‘Appeal.’” In Hochon’s Arrow: The Social Imagination of Fourteenth-Century Texts. By Paul Strohm, 145–157. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

    E-mail Citation »

    An illuminating textual history, tracing the adroit and effective mixture of legal “genres” Usk used in the “Appeal,” then showing the absorption of its statements and materials into more official accounts used for wider political purposes.

  • Waldron, Ronald. “Usk, Thomas (c.1354–1388).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    Available online by subscription. Succinct outline of Usk’s sparsely known family background (to 2004), shifting political roles, death, and Testament of Love’s features and importance as an early use of vernacular prose and as a contemporary response to Chaucer. Highly selective but apt bibliography; omits Barron 2004.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions and individuals. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article

Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.

If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email onlinemarketing@oup.com to express your interest.

Article

Up

Down