Miriam Youngerman Miller

title.none: Claassens and Johnson, King Arthur in the Medieval Low Countries (Miriam Youngerman Miller)

identifier.other: baj9928.0109.007 01.09.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Miriam Youngerman Miller, University of New Orleans,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Claassens, Geert and David Johnson. King Arthur in the Medieval Low Countries. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2000. Pp. v, 274. 39 Euro. ISBN: 9-05867-042-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.09.07

Claassens, Geert and David Johnson. King Arthur in the Medieval Low Countries. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2000. Pp. v, 274. 39 Euro. ISBN: 9-05867-042-2.

Reviewed by:

Miriam Youngerman Miller
University of New Orleans

During the Middle Ages, the Low Countries (that is to say, the region along the North Sea where Middle Dutch in its several varieties was spoken) were of substantial importance in the political, economic, and cultural affairs of western Europe. One has only to stroll through the Flemish cloth towns like Gent and Brugge to see the evidence of the economic and political power that characterized the Low Countries during the Middle Ages. The castles, guildhalls and cathedrals still convey a sense of the wealth and prestige that once accrued to the aristocracy and merchant class of this compact geographic area. As for cultural contributions, the Low Countries have been known from the Middle Ages to the present as the home of a long line of visual artists of the highest rank. What is much less well known is that Middle Dutch held high "international status as a cultural language with an impressive literary output". (viii) Indeed the estimates of the number of extant Middle Dutch manuscripts containing every possible type of text range from 11,000-15,000. (31) As Geert H. M. Claassens and David F. Johnson point out in their preface to King Arthur in the Medieval Low Countries, the obscurity of Middle Dutch literature stems not from any lack in quantity or quality, but from the fact that knowledge of Modern Dutch is far less widespread than is knowledge of other western European languages. Up until very recently almost all Middle Dutch literary texts were available only in editions with Modern Dutch apparatus, if they were published at all. Thus the modern audience of Middle Dutch literature was confined almost exclusively to native speakers of Modern Dutch, and they are relatively few. Those unable to read Modern Dutch had no reasonable access to this large and intrinsically interesting body of literature, and indeed beyond a few well-known texts like Elckerlijc, long recognized as the source for Everyman, most non-Dutch-speaking scholars of medieval literature have been simply unaware of the large number of extant Middle Dutch texts. When I myself undertook, for personal reasons, to learn Modern Dutch some five years ago, I had no idea that learning Dutch would open up a new world of medieval literature which I have only just begun to explore.

Fortunately, scholars of medieval Dutch literature have very recently begun to publish editions, translations, and critical studies in English, and are thus finally in the process of making Middle Dutch literature available to the international scholarly community. In 1994, Cambridge University Press published Middle Dutch Literature in its European Context, a collection of essays written by Dutch scholars for an international audience and edited by Erik Kooper of Utrecht University, an obvious starting place for those who wish to develop some sense of what remains from the literary output of the Low Countries in the Middle Ages. As for Middle Dutch Arthuriana in particular, Boydell and Brewer has undertaken to publish a series of six volumes devoted to the Middle Dutch Arthurian romances, all volumes to contain critical editions and facing page translations as well as explanatory notes. When completed, this series will make the Dutch witnesses to the medieval Arthurian tradition available to all scholars of Arthuriana.

And what are the Dutch witnesses to the Arthurian tradition? The bulk of Middle Dutch Arthurian verse romances can be found in an early fourteenth century manuscript (MS The Hague, KB, 129 A10) and are known as the Lancelot Compilation. Three of the romances (Roman van Lanceloet, Queeste vanden Grale, and Arturs doet) contained in this collection are verse translations of portions of the Old French Vulgate Cycle. The rest (Perchevael, Moriaen, Wrake van Ragisel, Ridder metter mouwen, Walewein ende Keye, Lanceloet en het hert met de witte voet, and Torec) are either adaptations of Old French originals (altered to fit their context in the compilation as a whole) or Dutch originals. While there are other Middle Dutch Arthurian works, such as those from the hands of Jacob van Maerlant and Lodewijc van Velthem (there has been speculation that these works were contained in a first volume, now lost, to which the Lancelot Compilation would have been a companion and indeed that Lodewijc himself might have been the Compiler), the current volume concentrates on the romances in the Lancelot Compilation proper and on the Roman van Walewein. Characterized by Claassens and Johnson as "the gem in the crown of Middle Dutch Arthurian romance" (28), the Roman de Walewein exists in two fourteenth-century manuscripts, one complete, one fragmentary, and is written in West Flemish. The manuscript identifies the two authors, Penninc, who wrote the first two-thirds, and Pieter Vostaert, who completed it. Nothing is known of these individuals but their names.

King Arthur in the Medieval Low Countries had its origins in sessions at the 1996 and 1997 International Medieval Congresses at Western Michigan University. All but one of the papers in the current volume were presented there, most by Dutch scholars, although the United States is also represented. The twelve essays are preceded by a lengthy introduction, essential for the many who will come to this subject with little or no prior knowledge. Claassens and Johnson do a thorough job of orienting the reader to the corpus of Middle Dutch Arthurian romances, covering such important matters as codicology, textual criticism, sources, questions of translation, transmission, and adaptation, historical context, and so forth. The Introduction concludes with a diagram schematizing the relationships of the various Middle Dutch Arthurian romances with the Vulgate Cycle and with each other, most helpful because the introduction considers matters both complicated and (in all likelihood) unfamiliar. Following the articles there is an appendix with summaries of the Middle Dutch Arthurian romances, both those within the Lancelot Compilation and those without. Each summary was prepared by a scholar who has worked intensively with that particular text. Finally there is a substantial bibliography that will assist the newcomer in navigating the waters of Middle Dutch studies, an index, and an index of manuscripts. Those who feel strongly about the desirability of footnotes (as opposed to endnotes) will be pleased at the presence of copious footnotes. I noticed just a few typos, and the book appears to have been carefully edited and proofread. I will say that the price seems high for a paperback, albeit one with a dustjacket, but for reasons unknown to me books published in the Netherlands and Belgium cost the earth.

A collection of essays by diverse hands and diverse minds is perhaps not the best format for acquainting oneself with unfamiliar subject matter, but in this case there are few other ways of approaching the Middle Dutch body of Arthurian literature as a beginner, save articles in reference works. There are three essays on the Roman van Walewein by Bart Veldhoen, Ludo Jongen, and Karina van Dalen-Oskam. Of most interest to me as a specialist in English literature was Veldhoen's comparison of the Roman van Walewein and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ludo Jongen looks at the role of confession and (lay) confessor, and here, although Veldhoen and Jongen don't mention it, there is another possible comparison with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight where lay confession is also an issue. And van Dalen-Oskam examines the flying chess board which starts the action of the Walewein romance (much as the entrance of the Green Knight does in the English work).

Frank Brandsma's contribution is an exercise in codicology, examining the marginal annotations made by the so-called Corrector for clues to, among other things, modes of oral performance. Bart Besamusca and Soetje Oppenhuis de Jong both consider the treatment of individual characters, the Damsel of Montesclare and Agloval, in light of the Compiler's effort to mold the separate romances which make up the Lancelot Compilation into some sort of unified whole. Norris J. Lacy and Geert H.M. Claassens look at narrative technique in the Moriaen and Lanceloet en het hert met de witte voet respectively. Geert H.M. Claassens compares the Queeste vanden Grale with its French source, Geert Pallemans treats the role of parody in the Wrake van Ragisel, and Marjolein Hogenbirk examines characterization in the Walewein ende Keye. Rita Schlusemann demonstrates that Middle Dutch Arthurian romances played a key role in the transmission of Arthurian literature to the German- speaking courts in Heidelberg and Blankenheim.

While, as is to be expected from such collections, the authors each treat a small part of their own personal areas of interest and expertise, nonetheless a number of themes emerge from the collection as a whole. These center on the contributions of Middle Dutch authors to the pan-European Arthurian tradition and raise questions about the roles of translation and adaptation and the ties between and among the Dutch-speaking literary world and the neighboring literary traditions in English, French, and German. We also gain insight into the place of Middle Dutch as a language of courtly literature in Flanders, Holland, the Brabant, and Zeeland. Clearly not all the courts in the Low Countries relied solely on French to satisfy their literary tastes.

In sum, if this volume had contained only the introduction, the summaries of the romances, and the bibliography, it would be a worthwhile introduction to medieval Dutch Arthurian literature. The dozen essays are what we would call in Louisiana lagniappe, enabling the beginner to go beyond basic orientation to consider some of the subtleties of this hitherto little-known body of romances.