Digital scholarship illuminates life of important medieval poet

LAWRENCE – A fresh round of digital scholarship has revealed new information about the family and London network of late-medieval poet Thomas Hoccleve (1367-1426).

Misty Schieberle, University of Kansas professor of English, recently published “Thomas Hoccleve of London: New Evidence of Hoccleve’s Family and Finances” in Studies in the Age of Chaucer, a journal of the New Chaucer Society.

Schieberle cites evidence she pieced together from centuries-old records (which she translated from their original Latin) showing for the first time that Hoccleve’s father was an aristocratically connected draper, or cloth merchant, operating in London when Hoccleve was born, strongly indicating the poet was born in the city.

Scholars of the period previously thought he might have been born in the village of Hockliffe, about 45 miles north of London, which provided the family surname.

From her studies of wills and other legal documents, Schieberle shows that Hoccleve’s father worked with the prominent merchant William Holbech, a former sheriff and member of Parliament, and had business dealings with John of Gaunt, the uncle of King Richard II. Schieberle suggests that Hoccleve had a likely aunt in William’s wife, Maud Holbech, whose will left Hoccleve a yearly income explicitly in the event that he never obtained what was called a benefice: full-time, permanent employment in the Catholic Church as a priest, the vocation he trained for.

That benefice, with job security that might be likened to a tenured professorship, never materialized. Hoccleve spent his days instead employed as a government secretary who copied and processed royal documents.

At the turn of the 1400s, after years as a bureaucrat, Hoccleve completed his first poem, starting a literary career that would make him one of the most important poets between Chaucer and Shakespeare.

“He's one of Chaucer's successors, and he's one of the men most responsible for creating the image of Chaucer as the father of English poetry,” Schieberle said. “He's also remarkably frank about some of his struggles, including his financial woes and a mental health crisis and his recovery from it. And so, in addition to writing poetry that engaged with the popular styles and themes of the day, he's a remarkably personable figure because of what he tells you about his life and his struggles, which a lot of modern readers and students find really approachable.”

Schieberle’s archival work presents new facts about the life of the poet and his family, and it offers a vivid picture of how Maud Holbech’s will acknowledges the financial precarity that Hoccleve complained about in some of his poems.  

Schieberle’s research builds on a 2014 reference by fellow scholars who identified the name of Hoccleve’s father from a single legal record. By cross-referencing all the names in that document in newly available digital databases that summarize wills and property records, then tracking down the original, full-text manuscript copies for details on the individuals and transactions, Schieberle identified over a dozen new records that add to scholars’ knowledge about the poet’s life history.

Schieberle said what she found confirms that although Hoccleve rose to be a senior clerk in the Royal Office of the Privy Seal, he was frustrated by the lack of security and recognition that even that managerial position conferred.

“Hoccleve’s inheritance supplemented his income,” Schieberle said, “but it must have also reminded him of opportunities he never received, which gives us even more sympathy for him.”

Schieberle came to study Hoccleve through the other special focus of her research, his then-contemporary writer Christine de Pizan, whose works Hoccleve translated and copied. 

Tue, 03/12/2024


Rick Hellman

Media Contacts

Rick Hellman

KU News Service