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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Feeling Bureaucratic: Political Poetry, Affective Rhetoric, and Parliamentary Process in Late Medieval England

  • Author(s): Forbes, Jonathan James
  • Advisor(s): Fradenburg Joy, L.O. Aranye
  • et al.

This dissertation explores the formation of the English parliament in the fourteenth century and tracks its conceptual development via an archive of texts produced within a culture of Westminster-based, Oxford-influenced government bureaucrats. These bureaucrats worked alongside the parliament, and through their writings, intervened in the very political processes that they helped to administrate. "Parliamentary" texts include not only allegorical portrayals but also debate poems, dream visions, bureaucratic "how-to" manuals, and archival documents, which often conceptualize the institution as engaging in practices of collective care by valuing ongoing political process. Such a conceptualization was valuable within a historical context of widespread cultural trauma in the fourteenth century and offered the institutionalization of collective care practices in parliament as a response to trauma. By way of psychoanalysis, assemblage theory, and trauma theory, this study offers a new historiography of parliament, one that turns away from longue durée arguments about barons restraining royal power to a more synchronic approach targeting the discursive and affective origins of parliamentary practice and thinking in fourteenth-century England.

The introduction presents the formation of the parliament in fourteenth-century England alongside the century's well-known cultural traumas--plague, warfare, and a young king--to offer a new cultural historiography of parliament. Chapter 1 places examples of medieval assembly in the Modus tenendi parliamentum, the headlinks to the Canterbury Tales, and the episode of Lady Meed in Piers Plowman alongside contemporary assemblage theory to suggest that medieval conceptualizations of the body politic became more flexible in response to parliamentary process. Chapter 2 considers the value of ongoing, unresolved political process in Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls to argue that process-oriented politics builds attachments that sustain politics and inspire a vision of common profit that is both intimate and integral to the practice of collective care. Chapter 3 turns to the petitionary language in the Prologue to William Langland's Piers Plowman to argue that parliamentary petitions offered affectively-charged rhetorical scripts for communicating and preserving one's lived experience in an institutional arena that often addressed trauma. The conclusion finishes with a brief analysis of political process, activism, and group care in Trump's America, insisting that process-oriented politics provides reparation even in the twenty-first century, where fascination with political outcomes shades the very human processes and affects at the core of our political practices.

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