Christopher Callahan

title.none: Field, ed., Tradition and Transformation in Medieval Romance (Callahan )

identifier.other: baj9928.0005.008 00.05.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Christopher Callahan , Illinois Wesleyan University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Field, Rosalind, ed.,. Tradition and Transformation in Medieval Romance. Rochester: D.S. Brewer, 1999. Pp. vii, 170. $75.00. ISBN: 0-859-91553-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.05.08

Field, Rosalind, ed.,. Tradition and Transformation in Medieval Romance. Rochester: D.S. Brewer, 1999. Pp. vii, 170. $75.00. ISBN: 0-859-91553-0.

Reviewed by:

Christopher Callahan
Illinois Wesleyan University

This collection of twelve essays, which originated at the fifth biennial conference on Romance in Medieval England, held at the University of London in April 1996, focuses on some of the most problematic and neglected texts of the insular tradition. The essays in the volume cover three main genres or methods of inquiry. The majority of the selections, essays one through three and nine through twelve, present strategies for (re)reading which can be expressed succinctly as reading for 1) text, 2) context and 3) intertext, sometimes all at once, while essays four and five explore the relations between romance and folklore, and essays six through eight, finally, treat the genre of 'Historical Romance'. In their contribution to the growing corpus of scholarship on traditionally marginalized Anglo-Norman and late Middle English narratives, these papers take a variety of critical approaches. As the title indicates, in their efforts to revalorize a disparate and disparaged body of work, they run the critical gamut from speculation on lost stemma to narratorial construction of intersecting literary and legal discourses. As such, the contributions are not of uniform interest or benefit to contemporary scholars. The majority of them are nonetheless informed by the developments which have shaped medieval scholarship over the last fifteen years. The collection as a whole has the distinct merit of offering the reader a ready review of the standard critical position on these often difficult works, in light of which s/he can better appreciate the author's rereading of them, while at the same time presenting this body of works to the scholarly world.

The first paper, "Thomas and the Earl: Literary and Historical Contexts for the Romance of Horn", appears to anchor itself in the "tradition" against which to view critical "transformation" in the other contributions. In it, after briefly reviewing critical discussion of Thomas' ethnic and linguistic background, Judith Weiss argues two principal points. She proposes a venue and an audience for Thomas' composition and delivery of the romance, and hypothesizes on the nature of the written source, the escrit, from which Thomas claims to draw his narrative. The existence of a source text is taken at face value in this paper, and Weiss discusses the geographic complexities of Thomas's Horn (and the English King Horn and Horn Child) against the background of a simpler, hypothetical urHorn. Specifically, Weiss considers Ireland, the third county of the romance and second place of exile for Horn, to be an interpolation by Thomas, and uses this argument to support her contention that Thomas first declaimed his romance in Dublin at Christmas 1171-72 before an audience composed of Henry II and other Norman-Welsh barons who had come to the aid of the king of Leinster. Numerous textual details point to Thomas's familiarity with Ireland, though as evidence for his presence among the Earl of Clare's household in Dublin that Christmas, it is thin indeed, as no records prove this unequivocally. Though a public reading of Horn at this juncture would doubtless have lent literary legitimacy to Clare's claim to the kingship of Leinster, the romance does not need this putative audience to explain its genesis. This is particularly the case since the differences Weiss outlines between the ur-Horn and Thomas' romance must remain pure conjecture. Weiss' second thesis proposes a close genetic relationship between Horn and the Gesta Herwardi. The resulting genealogy derives Horn from an escrit which is indebted to both the ur-Horn itself and the Gesta, which borrows from both ur-Horn and the ur-Hereward story. While Thomas' presence in Ireland has been proposed and supported by scholars working in the past thirty years, most of the interesting stemmatic and literary arguments depend on lost texts. These arguments, while attractive, show the limits of the quest for the urtext, which has been abandoned by more contemporary scholarship in favor of other, for the moment more productive, questions.

In "'Harkeneth aright': Reading Gamelyn for Text not Context", Stephen Knight calls for a literary rehabilitation of a text whose reception has been hampered by fallible readings. Completely overlooked by Derek Pearsall and depreciated as a generic hodge-podge by others, this text's defective transmission has, according to Knight, prevented its true literary value from being appreciated. In reassessing Gamelyn's literary qualities, Knight seeks to liberate if from the strictly historical approach taken by the few scholars (Richard Kaeuper, John Scattergood) who have recognized its value. The crux of Knight's efforts is the Petworth manuscript, the 'head' of the d family of Canterbury Tales manuscripts. Knight argues that Petworth offers a "crucially different" poem, one which is metrically and syllabically tighter. Most significantly, the poem is a decidedly English text; its language suggests that it derives from an oral English predecessor rather than a written French source. Knight proceeds to demonstrate the poem's effectiveness from both a linguistic and stylistic point of view. When he applies the superior readings of Petworth to a generic reclassification of Gamelyn, however, Knight is less successful. He first refutes the conclusions of Skeat and Sands, who on the basis of the metrically inept readings found in the Harley and Corpus manuscripts, had assimilated Gamelyn to ballad literature. The poem's newly acquired five-stress line is not that of ballads at all, Knight argues, but rather that of alliterative poetry. Gamelyn makes spare use of alliterative language, however, and indeed its patterns of rhyme repetition are quite common in outlaw ballads or ballad-epics such as the Gest of Robin Hood or Adam Bell, whose associations with Gamelyn Knight then makes the focus of the remainder of his paper. However circular this argument may be, it is the poem's similarities with the Gest of Robin Hood which allows Knight to argue for Gamelyn's thematic effectiveness along with its discursive effectiveness. After dismissing earlier "misreadings" of Gamelyn (Maurice Keen), Knight offers his rereading as a para-Robin Hood text whose stark, unsophisticated social message is reinforced by its use of language. Knight has argued effectively, relying entirely on internal evidence, for a reassessment of the poem's strengths. Though his efforts to clarify the generic category of the romance come to naught, his linguistic rehabilitation of Gamelyn is convincing.

The third paper, "The Wardship Romance: a new methodology", by Noel James Menuge, underscores the narrative similarities between romance and legal cases. As a major step beyond a traditional 'romance as history' approach which simply reads reflections of extant legislation into romance plot, or seeks to prove the romance author's familiarity with the law, Menuge seeks to break down the generic barriers between romances and legal cases. She treats both as constructed narratives, as fictions which draw upon similar source material and which have a similar purpose. The texts which Menuge indentifies as Wardship Romances are the five geographically scattered members of the King Horn group: King Horn and Horn Child and Maiden Riminild, Havelock the Dane, Beues of Hamtoun, William of Palerne, and Gamelyn. These address a variety of issues that concern the medieval ward and guardian, and are highly visible in wardship cases as well. These include abduction and guardianship abuse, shared by all, as well as corruption among legal executors, corruption in the Church, and partible inheritance vs. primogeniture. In comparing the romance in this group to a real-life case involving one Constance, daughter of Walter del Brome of Skelmanthorp in North Yorkshire against Adam de Hopton, apparently her legal guardian, Menuge is able to show that the two genres are complementary. Legal cases read like romance plots, and provide a rich source of detail about the lives of the litigants which helps us understand the social and cultural make-up of the society presented in Wardship romances. The romances, for their part, offer a better understanding of sociological and legal gaps in the area of care and custody. Equally importantly, they express the author's dissatisfaction with existing legal procedure and offer alternative solutions when the legal system is unable to meet the needs of its recipients. Menuge's most significant conclusion is that we must understand both Wardship romances and legal procedings as subjective representations. They each have a specific audience and seek to achieve a specific result, and are best treated as equally valid, interconnected forms of discourse. This paper is an examplary piece of New Historical Literary criticism.

Diane Speed's "Middle English Romance and the Gesta Romanorum" is the first of two papers which explore intersections between romance and folklore. This at least is the visible conclusion of a survey of parallels between the corpus of Middle English Romance and the huge collection of exempla known as the Gesta Romanorum. The "corpus of Middle English Romance" is rather loosely defined as that embraced by standard modern surveys. By a criterion which escapes the reader, Speed narrows her focus to eighteen romances which she groups according to theme. Her survey suffers in being almost completely anecdotal, with little visible theoretical underpinning. Indeed, much as the Gesta configuration which she discusses lacks, in her words, "a center as well as an outer circumference", the reader is frustrated by the same lack of organizing principle in her presentation. Her conclusions raise nonetheless issues which will facilitate further work with this vast, unwieldy corpus. First of all, she establishes that the motifs shared by the corpuses are essentially folklore elements, while the moralizations which identify exempla in the Gesta bear little relation to exempla in the romances. The two genres have influenced each other mutually, despite one being a vernacular and the other a Latin product, although why this is an issue is unclear. For Speed, it raises the unanswered question whether some exemplum narratives could be identified as romances. It is nonetheless certain that vernacular prose narratives based on the Gesta were consumed in literate homes with the same enthusiasm given to romances, and the printers Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde gave equal attention to the production of both types of text. Speed's concluding remark, that prose romance and exemplum stand as precursors to today's novel and short story and shared the same narratorial relationship, is her most thought-provoking statement in a paper that has the merit of bringing to our attention the material and the questions that she treats.

The second paper in this group, Elizabeth Williams' "Sir Amadace and the Undisenchanted Bride: the relation of the Middle English romance to the folktale tradition of 'The Grateful Dead'", focuses on a single romance and a single motif. Seeking to supercede the pioneering work on the theme of the Grateful Dead by folklorists such as Gordon Gerould, Antti Aarne, Sven Liljeblad, and Stith Thompson, Williams argues that Sir Amadace is not a simple story, but uses the Grateful Dead motif in two contradictory ways. In fact, the Grateful Dead label does not refer to a complete narrative, but in Sir Amadace is only a trigger, a catalyst motif which can generate a variety of complex tales. "Pure" occurrences of the Grateful Dead folktale, cited as Cicero's De Divinatione and Simonides, offer a clear-cut morality which is incompatible with the complexities of romance. In Sir Amadace, this initial motif gives way to a more ambiguous development with the introduction of a further motif, the "Divided Winnings" plot. Williams then philosophizes at length, discussing characterization in Sir Amadace, Christian and chivalric morals, and the havoc played on predictability and controllability of plot occasioned by the incursion of elements from the Otherworld, such as is visible in Sir Amadace. Though Williams takes the romance beyond the Grateful Dead motif, she does not liberate it from the realm of folklore. Both the tale and the exposition of it leave the reader somewhat perplexed, particularly when Williams reviews a number of folk motifs and stories in search of a source for Sir Amadace. The paper loses its focus at this juncture, and the conclusion leaves the reader puzzled. While Williams' analysis of Sir Amadace suggested that the complexities of the romance took it beyond the realm of the folk tale, at the end we are back squarely in the realm of the fairy tale, and one wonders where we have been. This reader's sense of the romance of Sir Amadace, based on this exposition, is that its neglect is not unjustified.

Phillipa Hardman's "The Sege of Melayne: a fifteenth century reading" examines a romance which survives in a single, incomplete, fifteenth century copy and whose origins and classification are a puzzle. As a Charlemagne romance which derives from no known French source, Melayne has been persuasively termed a hybrid--heroic, homiletic, hagiographic-- by Stephen Shepherd (1991), a label with which Hardman is in agreement. In contrast to Shepherd, however, who considers Melayne to be a canonical piece of crusading propaganda, and to Douglas Gray, who suggests a hagiographic impetus for the romance, Hardman argues for a reception of the romance based on its relation to all of the other texts compiled in the same manuscript. The London Thornton ms. of which Melayne is a part contains four romances and two devotional texts: Cursor Mundi, the Northern Passion, the Siege of Jerusalem, the Sege of Melayne, Duke Rowland and Sir Otuell, and Richard Coeur de Lion. The Passion narrative occupies the central place in the manuscript, and Latin inscriptions mark the transition between the first three texts. In addition, a devotional lyric following each text links their themes together and celebrates each as an episode in Christian history. Thus Melayne, following the Siege of Jerusalem, opens at a point in "history" when Christian Rome is overrun by heathens who desecrate its holy places, and is in turn followed by Sir Otuell, another Charlemagne narrative. Addressing first the question of the hold which the Charlemagne material had over the fourteenth century English imagination, Hardman argues that it derives from the need to justify the war in France rather than promote a crusade. In doing so, she cites scholars who pointed out the poem's linguistic efforts to 'nativize' a lost French original. She then discusses major features of the French Charlemagne texts, and contrasts them with Melayne. The latter's preoccupation is not with relics but with Marian devotion, an emphasis which Hardman ascribes to the contemporary promotion, by the mendicant orders, of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. This is also the focus of Sir Otuell, and the link forged between the two romances by the intervening Marian lyric 'O florum flos' indicates that they must be read in conjunction. The emphasis on Charlemagne becomes much clearer, finally, when understood as part of Caxton's didactic program. Melayne is a text whose identity and purpose become clear when viewed as part of a whole, whose components all contribute to the manuscript's overall purpose as a vehicle of both orthodox instruction and popular devotion.

Robert Warm's contribution entitled "Identity, Narrative and Participation: defining a context for the Middle English Charlemagne romances" offers both an intriguing answer to the question raised by Phillipa Hardman concerning the popularity of Charlemagne romances in late medieval England, and a valuable insight into the social role which reading had come to play in the late Middle Ages. Warm's point is as disarmingly simple as it is insightful. Rather than promote the crusading ideal (as Shepherd and Hamel have argued) in a time when, despite the Ottoman advance across Europe, the impetus for crusade was everywhere on the wane, the Charlemagne romances of this period sought to unite and save a fragmented Christendom. The Turkish threat is of course the immediate catalyst for the renewed interest in Charlemagne and his knights, and Warm sees the Sege of Melayne and the Siege of Jerusalem as a nostalgic clamor for a spirit of unity which rose above the nationalist conflicts and papal schism which were tearing Europe apart. Significantly, in this age when financial support for crusade was considered to be active participation rather than a substitute for action, and every Christian was enjoined to pray for the recovery of the Holy Land, reading historical romances was a legitimate form of participation in the recovery effort. Such romances then offered a model for a unified and victorious Christendom which would heal Christian Europe's wounds and foster its expansion.

The trio of papers on historical romance is neatly capped by Joerg Fichte's paper "Caxton's Concept of 'Historical Romance' within the Context of the Crusades: conviction, rhetoric and sales strategy". Fichte reviews Caxton's program of didactic publication, as alluded to in two previous papers, with two purposes in mind. First, he places the genre we label 'Historical Romance' within Caxton's own nomenclature and conceptual system, and second, he discusses Caxton's purposes, both political and mercantile, in the choice of texts produced for public consumption. Of the two categories of didactic book Caxton created, 1) books of contemplation and 2) other types of exemplary material, history books fall into the latter category. Fichte points out that for Caxton, verisimilitude was less important as a criterion for inclusion in category two than imparting lessons. Thus, under the rubric Christian History we find chronicles such as Godefroy of Boloyne, prose romances such as Kyng Arthur, and chansons de geste such as Charles the Grete. Fichte then turns to the roles, both moral and political, which these three "Christian Worthies" played in Caxton's program. For Caxton's motives were consciously political rather than crassly mercantile. His access to the Burgundian ducal library's vast collection of crusade literature coincided with the Turkish sweep across Europe, and the texts he chose to translate and publish reflected and helped shape the European response to it. Mass printing was in a new and privileged position to sensitize the public to current events, and mass consumption of such texts as Caxton's permitted a sense of vicarious participation in the crusading efforts, as Robert Warm's paper also pointed out. A global view of Caxton's publishing program reveals the printer's sense of the value for readers of his own day of history and of works of historiography. He could at least be sure of having assuaged the conscience of his readers, and thereby, as he enjoyed his wealth, his own conscience.

The next two papers challenge traditional assessments of language and authorial intent in Troilus and Criseyde and the Confessio amantis. The first of these, Nancy Mason Bradbury's "Chaucerian Minstrelsy: Sir Thopas, Troilus and Criseyde and English metrical romance" argues for a more positive reception, on Chaucer's part, of English narratorial style than has been the critical position since the eighteenth century. While Chaucer's stylistic debt to English metrical romance is well recognized in principle, its presence and meaning in Chaucer's works have rarely been examined. Bradbury's remarks focus on how the conventional (L.H. Loomis) view of Sir Thopas as an irremediable disparagement of minstrel-style asseverations has impeded a balanced view of the same elements in Troilus and Criseyde. For such conventions are as present in Chaucer's non-parodic verse as they are in works like Sir Thopas, and cannot be derided in his serious works as inartistic or ludicrous. Bradbury purports herself to be riding a wave of reassessment of irony in Chaucer, and in doing so, she argues two main points. The standard position on irony is rooted in an aversion to fomulaic language which dates back to Enlightenment aesthetics and which has not allowed itself to be reshaped by twentieth century research in orality. We must give full credit to the associative power which native formulaic verse still held for increasingly literate fourteenth century audiences and recognize what it could offer Chaucer that continental works could not. Secondly, Bradbury sides with Alan Gaylord (1982) by pointing out that in Sir Thopas, Chaucer denounces minstrel language in words borrowed from Guy of Warwick, a notable English metrical romance; his target is his own excesses rather than metrical romances themselves. This is a cautious but enthusiastic effort to offer a fresh look at a constellation of issues which, due to the authoritative weight of Chaucer studies, have been slow to embrace recent developments in narratology.

In his "'Redinge of Romance' in Gower's Confessio Amantis Jeremy Dimmick offers an interpretation of the term 'romance', as Gower used it in the Confessio, that provides a unifying thread among the tales which Genius selects for the protagonist Amans. Acknowledging Gower's minimal description of 'romance' as tales of lovers from the distant past, Dimmick argues for a much broader application of the term, and succeeds in the process in holding together a collection of tales that in Dimmick's own words "often seems inclined to fly apart at the seams". Starting with a tale, 'Amadas et Ydoine', whose traditional romance status makes it ideally suited to Amans's motives as a reader, Gower procedes to undermine Amans's private, self-absorbed pursuit of love by promoting tales which affirm family, morality and the body social as the proper domains for matters of love. The soundness of this broader interpretation is highlighted by the contrast between tales whose closure celebrates recognition of blood ties and re-establishes just political rule--the 'Tale of Florent', 'Constance' and 'Apollonius of Tyre'--and tales where pursuit of those values has gone disastrously astray--'Jason and Medea' and 'Phrixus and Helle'. Gower's quest for a social definition of the romance hero is visible in Amans's own uneasiness with an unvaried diet of traditional romances, and Amans's banishment from Venus's court (and unmasking as the author himself) at the end of the Confessio confirms Gower's didactic purpose. This essay suffers from some of the same entropy that Dimmick seeks to contain in the Confessio, and the distinction between established Gower scholarship and new ground broken by Dimmick is imprecise. Nonetheless, Dimmick's conclusions confirm the narrative reflections, in this poem, of the political vicissitudes of fourteenth century Europe. Dimmick's 'redinge of romance' offers us an appreciation of the Confessio Amantis as a poem which has the all of exhortative force of Lorenzetti's mid-century diptych "The Effects of Good Government in the City and the Country".

The last two essays, finally, examine episodes in late Middle English redactions of traditional romances which differ markedly from those in earlier or later versions. In "The Ide and Olive episode in Lord Berners's Huon of Bordeaux," Elizabeth Archibald discusses a text which is unique in its cumulation of two themes currently enjoying a critical heyday: incest and cross-dressing. The Ide and Olive episode belongs to the third continuation of Huon de Bordeaux, and comes down to us in an English translation made in 1515 of a prose redaction composed a half-century earlier, of which only the 1513 printed version survives. Archibald's detailed review of the Berners text, which is unique among Huon redactions, touches on Ide's flight from her incestuous father, disguise and chivalric prowess, betrothal to the daughter of the Roman emperor, and miraculous gender change after the wedding, and is completed by a solid character sketch. The contrasts between this story and more traditional arms-and-love tales, occasioned by the chivalric heroine herself, include Ide's decidedly unchivalric behavior when she and her traveling companions are beset by bandits, and the absence of any expression of love for Olive on Ide's part. The core of Archibald's presentation is a comparison of Yde and Olive with Emare, the only other extended Flight-from-the-incestuous-father narrative in Middle English. The cross-dressing motif which, Archibald suggests, could derive from Ovid's juxtaposition of the Iphis story with those of Byblis and Myrrha, turns the conventional narrative pattern of the incest story inside out. Ide is the only cross-dressing female character in the literature Archibald surveys whose gender shift becomes permanent, and in its denouement, Yde aligns itself with a minority subset of cross-dressing romances in which the recognition of true gender provokes a new crisis. As she reviews a number of scholars' views on the cross- dressing motif in medieval and Renaissance literature, Archibald steers between de Weever, who argued that Yde deconstructed the entire estate of knighthood, and Roussel, who pessimistically and shortsightedly (for A.) considered gender transformation as the only reliable way to avoid unwelcome sexual advances. Her own position is stated as a mere throw- away line at the conclusion of her paper, however, which frustrates the reader whose attentions she has hitherto retained through her discussion of this very topical and engaging theme.

In the last essay in this volume, 'The Strange History of Valentine and Orson', Helen Cooper carefully traces the metamorphoses of a tale which enjoyed astonishing textual longevity. As first a metrical romance, then a prose romance, and through numerous theatrical manifestations, it remained in circulation, in both French and English, from the early fourteenth century until its last known edition in the 1870s. The tale's life as an early Tudor prose romance forms the centerpiece of Cooper's history, for at this stage in its existence, it stands in marked contrast with both earlier and later versions. Particularly striking is the fact that all of the romance tropes which traditionally validate the discourse of Christian unity and secure patrilineal descent are transgressed at the end. Expectations of blissful resolution are dashed by incest, adultery, civil war, and parricide. Cooper focuses on the "destructive processes" so visible in this redaction, and directs the reader's attention to the inescapable association of these tendencies with prose itself. The medium of prose does not bear sole responsibility for this narrative anomaly, and it is natural to view it in conjunction with late medieval Zeitgeist. Yet Cooper seeks to avoid facile connections between the tragic denouement of Valentine and the political climate of fifteenth century England. Rather, she argues that the peculiarly anti-romance collapse of Valentine's world must be understood to reflect an early Renaissance world view rather than a late medieval one. Cooper considers Valentine to be characteristic of the secularized despair which infuses Hamlet and Marlowe's Dr Faustus, and supports her analysis with King Lear, which Shakespeare rewrote as a tragedy, though its source play was set in a Christian world and had a happy ending. This captivating argument is further reinforced by the romance's ongoing textual history. In all post-Renaissance redactions, the episodes are abridged in ways that eliminate the destructive elements, and though the endings are diverse, they restore the dimension of escapist wish- fulfillment which the late medieval prose version had written out. In tracing the long and variegated life of this story, moreover, Cooper argues that Valentine and Orson should not even be considered primarily as a medieval text. The prose version which appeared at the turn of the sixteenth century can be profitably understood, on the other hand, as a Renaissance experiment in writing a world in which God no longer intervened.

The title of this collection reflects very well the overview of the last thirty years of scholarship in Middle English Romance which its contents represent. At the same time, the majority of the papers offer innovative, thought-provoking readings using recent critical approaches. All of them have the merit of providing an easy reference guide for the great questions which have shaped insular romance scholarship. The essays also constitute an excellent review of the texts themselves for medievalists whose teaching assignments carry them, as so often happens in our profession, into unfamiliar territory.