The Neighboring Text

Chaucer, Boccaccio, Henryson

George Edmondson

Selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2011

Most medieval texts were not really texts in the modern sense of printed, bound, stand-alone volumes, but were instead scribal productions that circulated in manuscript form, often alongside unrelated writings, thereby producing what seem to be haphazard compilations. In The Neighboring Text: Chaucer, Boccaccio, Henryson, George Edmondson argues that we have tended to apply a vertical, linear model of literary history to this late medieval manuscript culture. By contrast, he brings recent work in the fields of psychoanalysis and political philosophy to bear on the question of literary history in order to develop a countermodel informed by a horizontal ethos of “neighborliness.”

Edmondson analyzes the different ways that three canonical texts—Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde; its source, Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato; and its fifteenth-century Scottish derivative, Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid —treat two figures, Troilus and Criseyde, and how those differences affect our understanding of literary history. He argues that what makes them neighboring texts is their shared concern with the subject of medieval Trojan historiography in general, and their very different treatments of Troilus in particular. At the same time, Edmondson supplements the medieval ideal of neighborliness with the psychoanalytic understanding of the neighbor as a figure both proximate and strange: at once the building block of community and its stumbling block. The result is a repositioning of the three works as a textual neighborhood—one in which the legendary history of Troy is transformed from the basis of imaginary national genealogies to a figure for the aggression and enjoyment, the conflicting gestures of identification and estrangement, that shape the neighbor relation.

George Edmondson is associate professor of English at Dartmouth College.

“In The Neighboring Text, George Edmondson offers a compelling new model for conceptualizing literary relations, and impressive new readings of a crucial set of texts. In Edmondson’s deft hand, the neighbor emerges as an important figure for relatedness, one pliable enough to compass historical, spatial, affective, or ethical modes. Immensely exciting and utterly absorbing, his study infuses new life into questions of literary inheritance and historiography that we have long thought settled.” — Patricia Clare Ingham, Indiana University

“George Edmondson has authored a major intervention into medieval cultural studies. A brilliant work of criticism, The Neighboring Text reconfigures how to think about textual relations, opening a space where meanings unfold through contiguity rather than filiation of influence. The book deploys a historically sensitive psychoanalytic mode of analysis that foregrounds the place of the ethical within literary analysis.” — Jeffrey J. Cohen, George Washington University

“George Edmondson’s book marks an innovative and promising approach to the Chaucerian tradition of Trojan historical fiction. This is an incredibly smart and compelling book. Its central idea about reconfiguring genealogical relations between texts into ‘neighbor’ relations that can complicate the normally linear ideas of cause-effect-revision extends our historical understanding of medieval texts and invigorates a field that threatens to become a rigid and stultified scene of reading.” — Elizabeth Scala, University of Texas, Austin

“This is the most important recent reconfiguration of medieval English literary history. Edmondson’s book reanimates both a rigorous psychoanalytic method and the question of what Chaucer did to Il Filostrato . It demonstrates not only that Boccaccio, Chaucer, Henryson, C. S. Lewis, David Wallace, and Aranye Fradenburg belong in the same neighborhood but that its smart and urgent thinking about what it means to be a neighbor could open valuable new real estate in medieval literary studies generally.” — D. Vance Smith, Princeton University


“Edmondson (Dartmouth) has written an exemplary study of literary relations of the late Middle Ages. . . . The book is well grounded in psychoanalytic theory, yet Edmondson’s prose is conversational and clear, which is refreshing. The book also acts as a literary history of sorts . . . which is both useful and necessary. . . . This reviewer has not read such a masterful study of Henryson’s text in some time.” — Choice

“The connections between Henryson and Chaucer, and then Chaucer and Boccaccio, are hard to overlook. George Edmondson’s book takes a new vantage on this well-known situation, specifically on each poet’s telling of the doomed love affair between Troilus and Criseyde.” — Renaissance Quarterly

“Over thirty years ago, Richard Rorty said that ‘we are in for another few hundred years of getting adjusted to the availability of the psychoanalytic vocabulary.’ The appearance of George Edmondson’s The Neighboring Text is surely an eloquent demonstration of just how fast such adjustment is happening and how developed critical uses of this psychoanalytic vocabulary has become. In the same spirit, it is also true to say that this is surely a book ahead of its time.” — Review of English Studies

“The Neighboring Text in many ways proceeds from the ground-shifting studies of historicists who work with psychoanalytic concepts, like Ingham and Aranye Fradenburg. But, making full critical use of a specialized psychoanalytic vocabulary, it also offers a new model for assessing the relations between texts in a culture in which the imperative to neighbor love was taken seriously and potentially influenced a medieval reader’s response to a text.” — Comitatus

“This is a valuable contribution to the field and a book that well repays deep engagement, critique, and debate, for there is a level of erudition here that is not easy to put to one side, and which calls out for further discussion.” — Parergon

“The Neighboring Text: Chaucer, Boccaccio, Henryson establishes a new way of looking at the relationship between texts, particularly the Troilus text of the three authors mentioned in the title. Moving beyond simple ideas of genealogy, Edmondson introduces the concept of neighboring and thus offers a fresh perspective on the interaction between the texts that deal with the story of Troilus and Criseyde.”Sixteenth Century Journal

“This book breaks new ground in the field of literary history. . . . [Its] originality lies in its argument that literary inventiveness is spurred not by an Oedipal relation but by ‘identification, aggression, love, charity, and the possibility of a community organized around something other than sacrifice and exchange.’ This has large implications for textual relations.” — Medium Aevum