Ensley (2020 Congress)

James Eric Ensley
(English Department, Yale University)

“Antiquity Revisited:  Ancient Gems in Medieval English Seals”

Abstract of Paper
Intended To be presented at the 55th International Congress on Medieval Studies [CANCELLED]
(Kalamazoo, 2020)

Rescheduled for the 56th International Congress on Medieval Studies
(Kalamazoo, 2021)

Session I of II on
“Seal the Real:  Documentary Records, Seals, and Authentications”
Part I:  “Signed & Sealed”

Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized by Mildred Budny
2020 Congress Program
2021 Congress Program Planning

[Published on 10 March 2020, with an Update on 17 March 2020 reporting the Cancellation of the Congress as a whole,
and with an Update on 19 November reporting the Rescheduling for the 2021 Congress



Recent scholarly attention has labeled the early 15th-century English poet Thomas Hoccleve (1368–1426) many things:  bureaucrat, poet, propagandist, “nobody’s man,”1 imitator, and materialist, among numerous others.  It seems each time Hoccleve is labeled one of these, the other labels, all accurate to some degree at various points in the poet’s life, seem to fall out of focus.  In this paper, drawn from my dissertation research and drawing upon several of the previous labels, I follow in the path of Ethan Knapp’s Bureaucratic Muse (2001) and a recent article on Hoccleve’s poetic materialism by Taylor Cowdery (2016) to suggest that one of the material and bureaucratic touchstones for the poet in his Regiment of Princes was not just the idea of bureaucracy but the day-to-day operations of his place of work, the Office of the Privy Seal.  The Office had as its core function the validation and authorization of documents and letters originating from the royal household and destined for the Chancery, Exchequer, foreign courts, and English institutions. The main means of verifying documents through the Office was via the seal — particularly the privy seal but, as I will discuss in my paper, the Great Seal of the Realm, and the signet seal were frequently noted in documents.

Though the title of this panel is “Seal the Real,” my paper suggests that Hoccleve had doubts about the efficacy of seals to promise the real — that is authorization, presence, and legitimacy; this is a concern perhaps supported by trouble with forged or misused seals and momentous changes in seal design during the period when Hoccleve wrote the Regiment of Princes. In sum, this paper draws upon numerous material and poetic sources — Hoccleve’s own holograph Formulary, seal design, textual evidence from the Regiment, and ars dictaminis manuals — to speak to ongoing debates about Hoccleve’s role and the role of bureaucracy in late medieval poetics.


1 James Simpson’s term from a 1995 essay, “Nobody’s Man.”


We thank Eric for his continuing contributions to our Congress Sessions.

See the Abstract for his joint Paper at the 2019 Congress.