Volume 40, 2019
“By communynge is the beste assay”
Gossip and the Speech of Reason in Hoccleve’s Series
Thomas Hoccleve—if one believes his autobiographical poetry—was a bureaucrat who met trouble at every turn. At the heart of his frustrations was language, namely his own supposedly mad ramblings and the cruel gossip of former colleagues who refused to believe he had recovered from a previous period of mental illness. This paper argues that Hoccleve undoes malicious gossip by countering it with good gossip about himself, which he encourages readers to spread by using a rhetorical strategy that deploys both reported and direct speech. By highlighting Hoccleve’s victimization, the autobiographical poems effect a poetic authorization that ensures his name is on everyone’s tongue. Hoccleve reclaims his own trustworthiness in “Dialogue with a Friend,” not by convincing the friend of his reasoning, as many critics argue, but instead by undermining the rationality of this friend, who—alongside all other malicious gossips—is shown to be illogical. Such judges do not offer Hoccleve a fair “assay,” but instead judge based on assumption and faulty logic. Through the theme of madness, Hoccleve comments on the fragility of reputation and of a poet-administrator’s solvency in a late-medieval world in which administrators, as professional communicators, are stronger as a group united, not divided, by talk.