The Medieval Review 11.06.05

Weiss, Judith. The Birth of Romance in England: The Romance of Horn, The Folie Tristan, The Lai of Haveloc, and Amis and Amilun - Four Twelfth-Century Romances in the French of England. The French of England Translation Series and Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2009. Pp. 207. $45 978-0-86698-392-1. .

Reviewed by:

Heather Blurton
University of California, Santa Barbara

Judith Weiss's The Birth of Romance in England is a very welcome updated re-issue of her 1992 The Birth of Romance: An Anthology, which appeared originally in the Everyman Library. When this collection of romances was initially published, it represented the first time all four texts had been translated into English. The new volume comes with a new title, which will be useful in distinguishing the new version from the old, but which also reflects trends in scholarship since the initial publication, as well as the principles of the new series in which it now appears: The French of England Translation Series (FRETS). The new title, The Birth of Romance in England, along with its two new subtitles: The Romance of Horn, the Folie Tristan, the Lai d'Haveloc, and Amis and Amilun and Four Twelfth-Century Romances in the French of England, notably includes the word "England" twice, and substitutes the "Anglo-Norman" used in both the original and revised introductions for "the French of England," reflecting the series editors' desire that the FRETS series encompass all manner of French- language texts that circulated in the British Isles throughout the medieval period. Given that ambition, it is easy to see why this seminal translation was selected for re-issue. Indeed, what truly distinguishes this volume from its previous incarnation is the addition, particularly in the bibliographies and footnotes, of the huge amount of rich scholarship on these texts that has been produced in the intervening decade, and it is clear that this scholarship owes its existence in no small part to Weiss's pioneering work in bringing these romances to our attention.

The four romances translated here together give a broad introduction to the themes and preoccupations that characterize Anglo-Norman romance, and indeed medieval English romance more generally: a lack of interest in marvels and the supernatural compared to French romance, but a keen interest in the representation of kingship, the importance of topography, the persistence of folkloric motifs, and a responsiveness to the current interests and cultural needs of the baronial classes imported by William the Conqueror. The Folie Tristan translates the episode of the madness of Tristan from the Folie Oxford: one of two folie texts, but the only one in Anglo-Norman. Here the exiled Tristan visits Isolde in disguise, but must convince her of his true identity before they may enjoy each other's company. The theme of disguise continues in both the Romance of Horn and the Lai d'Haveloc. Both romances describe the rise of the titular hero from exile to the rightful inheritance of his kingdom. Amis and Amilun is a story of friendship; it depicts the sacrifices two identical friends make for each other because of their strong bond of love.

This new version includes an updated introduction, footnotes, bibliography, some changes to the translations, and an appendix containing brief excerpts of the original Anglo-Norman texts. While both the introduction and the bibliography engage with recent scholarship, the footnotes show the most distinct and welcome change, having been nearly doubled in number (for example: the 1992 version of Horn has 46 footnotes, while the new version boasts 115). The appendix is also a welcome addition, especially for teaching where it will be useful for reading aloud, but also for visually noting the difference between the longer laisses of Horn and the octosyllabic rhymed couplets of the other romances. This is especially useful, since Weiss has translated into prose--but a very readable prose that conveys well much of the character and pace of the original. Weiss has translated in every case from the standard edition of the text, but in the introduction she notes the decisions that the editors have made in producing those translations, as well as where she has diverged from the text, and for what reason. These decisions are often flagged up in the footnotes as well. This all serves to make the translations very easy to key into the edition, while also highlighting their status as translations.

The previous volume in the FRETS series is Boeve de Haumtone and Gui de Warewic: Two Anglo-Norman Romances (2008), also translated by Weiss: thus, in two volumes the FRETS series offers six of the ten or so extant Anglo-Norman romances. For this feat alone we should be grateful, and to have them all in such useful, accessible editions with readable translations that are well suited for teaching both undergraduates and graduate students is invaluable. One final note: when P.J.C. Fields reviewed the 1992 version for The Review of English Studies, while he praised the edition itself, he lamented the quality of the book, complaining, "an attractive miniature on the cover aside, theirs is an ugly book, with furry print on coarse paper." I am pleased to be able to report that in addition to its other merits, the FRETS version retains the "attractive miniature" but uses the "opaque paper" and "crisp and readable type" that Fields favored (RES 48 [1997], 223).