Baylor professor receives NEH grant to complete book on notable medieval poet

May 5, 2022

May 5, 2022

By Randy Fiedler, Director of Marketing and Communications, College of Arts & Sciences, Baylor University

Sebastian J. Langdell, PhD, assistant professor of English in Baylor University’s College of Arts & Sciences, has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to complete a book that collects the shorter works of a notable medieval English poet –– some 600 years after they were written.

The NEH summer stipend grant of $6,000 will give Langdell the funds to finish the research and writing for “Thomas Hoccleve’s Collected Shorter Poems: A Critical Edition (1422-26).” The book will be the first full modern edition of the poems in question –– poems written over the course of Hoccleve’s lifetime, but compiled and copied by Hoccleve during the last four years of his life. The new edition will succeed the previous scholarly editions of the poems, published in two parts in 1892 and 1925.

“The manuscripts themselves are a truly unique occurrence, as Hoccleve recorded all his shorter poems in his own hand –– and the resulting manuscripts constitute the first ever author-curated ‘collected poems’ in the English language,” Langdell said. “This critical edition will provide the modern scholar a unique opportunity to read Hoccleve’s shorter poems in precisely the way he personally copied them, without concerns about scribal interventions.”

“This new book will be a reliable scholarly edition of Hoccleve’s manuscripts that future medievalists will use for many generations,” said Kevin Gardner, PhD, professor and chair of English. “Dr. Langdell is a first-rate scholar, and is also an excellent teacher and an innovative and exciting classroom presence. We are truly fortunate to have him at Baylor.”

Langdell has been doing research on the new book for the past four years, supported by three consecutive summer sabbaticals from Baylor as well as a Baylor University Research Committee Award grant. He also used a Huntington Library Mayers Fellowship in the summer of 2019 to work with the original manuscripts of Hoccleve’s poems, which are held in the archives of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

Thomas Hoccleve was born in England around 1368 and began work around age 20 as a clerk in the Office of the Privy Seal. By his own account, he trained to become a priest, but abandoned the path to priesthood after deciding to get married.

In his poem “The Regiment of Princes,” written in 1410 or 1411, Hoccleve paid tribute to Geoffrey Chaucer, the English poet who died in 1400 and is best known for writing “The Canterbury Tales.” Hoccleve apparently knew Chaucer personally, and might have even been his student.

“‘The Regiment of Princes’ is one of the first English poems to memorialize Chaucer, and it’s the first poem to position Chaucer as a figure of unquestioned moral and intellectual authority,” Langdell said. “Hoccleve was at pains to position Chaucer as morally acceptable and as unequivocally orthodox, at the same time that the English church was intensifying its efforts to quash heresy.”

Langdell addressed Hoccleve’s positioning of Chaucer in his first book about the poet –– “Thomas Hoccleve: Religious Reform, Transnational Poetics, and the Invention of Chaucer,” which was published in 2018, the year Langdell joined the Baylor faculty.

“Dr. Langdell’s first book demonstrated Hoccleve’s role in mediating between the rather militant English church and the beginnings of English literary tradition, and also showed Hoccleve’s importance in establishing Chaucer as the ‘father’ of English poetry,” Gardner said.

In Langdell’s new book, he hopes to throw more light on Hoccleve’s role as a religious writer.

“Hoccleve was a writer of devotional texts, works written for and about the Virgin Mary, and works to be used explicitly for affective piety, Christian meditation and prayer,” Langdell said. “All of these are on display in the shorter poems.”

Langdell said Hoccleve is also of interest to modern-day scholars because he was one of the first English poets to incorporate autobiographical elements into his work.

“One of the reasons that Hoccleve has been so deeply valued, and why there has been a renaissance in Hoccleve Studies in the last 20 years, is because he uses a ‘Hoccleve’ persona who feels very real, very present,” Langdell said. “He experiments with an early form of what we now call autobiography, and his ‘Hoccleve’ persona makes appearances both in his longer poems and in his shorter verse ­­–– most notably in his early short poem, the ‘Male Regle,’ in 1405.”

Because of the many layers present in Hoccleve’s works, Langdell said a renewed study of the poet and his legacy is timely.

“Despite the distance of 600 years, Hoccleve offers us a route to empathy, engagement, and imaginative connection,” Langdell said.