Nowhere in the Middle Ages
The title of this book is a riddle that mimics the riddle of the word ‘utopia’ coined by Thomas More. As that place that is both a ‘happy place’ and ‘no place’, More inaugurated a riddle at the heart of the concept, albeit one that most moderns have abandoned for the idea of an ideal society. Lochrie’s riddle is posed in conversation with early modernists and utopian scholars who have created the narrative of utopia’s ‘birth’ in the Renaissance and, in doing so, have established the ‘somewhere’ to which the Middle Ages is effectively ‘nowhere’, as far as utopianism is concerned. The book argues for a range of utopianisms in medieval texts, including Macrobius’s commentary on the Dream of Scipio, the Land of Cokaygne (and its neglected mis-titled French version, Le fabliau de Cocagne), Mandeville’s Travels, PPl, and More’s Utopia. The book’s structure posits a strategy of ‘reading forward’ from medieval texts not by way of offering a genealogy for More’s work, but by way of uncovering that rich, capacious, and complex historical supplement that both anticipates and diverges from More’s utopianism. In addition, the book pairs each medieval text with a later text from the Renaissance to the twentieth century to insinuate alternate utopian trajectories from the single one credited to More’s work. Science fiction in the form of Johannes Kepler’s Omnium draws on Macrobius and the Dream of Scipio for its utopian perspective; early twentieth-century revivals in poetry of the labour movement and African-American folklore revive the irreverent potential of the medieval Cokaygne; William Morris’s The Dream of John Ball, while it does not return to L’s poem, engages with the spirit of that poem in its reverie of hope in the face of overwhelming evidence from the future of failure. The book ends with the unmooring of More’s Utopia from ex-nihilo position in order to consider it anew in view of the landscape of medieval-to-modern strains of utopianism within which it establishes the genre, coins the term, and lodges itself as the origin. The project of unmooring is aimed not at diminishing or dethroning More from utopian histories, but instead, of engaging him in an expanded field of utopian imaginaries and at the same time, providing utopianism with a past and altered future.
Chapter 4 examines PPl as a utopian poem, not in the usual sense, but in the sense in which Fredric Jameson has articulated utopia’s ‘deepest subject, and the source of what is vibrantly political about it’, that is, ‘precisely our inability to conceive it’. Jameson’s concept uncannily captures the experience of most readers and scholars of L’s poem, who become snarled in its failures and reboots. This chapter takes that failure as the principle of L’s negative utopianism, a utopianism that unlike the positivist utopias of More’s legacy, in fact invokes the present’s foreclosure of utopian possibility. L’s failures, however, provide the paradoxical vision of utopian possibility in the midst of Jamesian critique of the present. The chapter argues that L’s utopianism places its hope in the education of Conscience as a social, rather than individual, faculty and of Will. Conscience’s refugee search for grace and Piers at the end of the poem is less a sign of defeat than it is an image that, in the words of Walter Skeat, ‘the end is not yet’. The legacy of L’s poem in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is well known (and this book argues it finds reverberations in More’s Utopia), but the idea of utopian failure as the basis for utopian possibility finds its most poignant expression in William Morris’s The Dream of John Ball, a dream vision that takes place on the eve of the uprising of 1381. Although L might not have sympathized with John Ball and his peers, Morris re-imagines the future-directed utopian failure of PPl in the context of that historical event.