Patricia C. Ingham

title.none: Krueger, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance (Patricia C. Ingham)

identifier.other: baj9928.0209.024 02.09.24

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Patricia C. Ingham, Lehigh University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Krueger, Roberta ed. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance. The Cambridge Companions to Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. vii, 290. ISBN: 0-512-55342-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.09.24

Krueger, Roberta ed. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance. The Cambridge Companions to Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. vii, 290. ISBN: 0-512-55342-3.

Reviewed by:

Patricia C. Ingham
Lehigh University

Scholars endeavoring to characterize the genre of Medieval Romance often note the impossibility of the task, since generalizations will, as Simon Gaunt puts it here, "inevitably fail to account for the richness and diversity of the genre" (46). This fine book manages somehow to do both things at once: it provides an informative and coherent account of the genre that nonetheless suggests its rich array and diversity of texts. Editor Roberta Krueger has gathered an impressive list of scholars and a textured set of essays. Divided into three parts (Part One: Origins, Forms, Contexts; Part Two: European Romance and Medieval Society: Issues for Debate; and Part Three: European Transformations, and including useful bibliographies), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance offers what is certainly the most comprehensive overview of the complicated situation of medieval romance currently available. Romance emerges here as a labile yet enduring form: a genre variously able to promote and to question the values of elite medieval society. Among the volume's strengths lie its attention to the famous variability of romance as a mark of the genre's range, historicity, and cultural plasticity and its ability to accommodate, under diverse circumstances, a host of audiences, contexts, and aims.

Part One begins appropriately with Matilda Bruckner's account of the shape and shapeshifing form of the French twelfth-century tradition in which, as she writes, "change remains the major constant" (13). Identifying authorial and narrative sophistication alongside a narrative diversity that destabilizes the authorial "je" it evokes, Bruckner's essay traces a shift from a self-conscious authorial "I" to "the more impersonal stance of a story that claims to tell itself as transparently as the written text allows" (18). Bruckner argues finally for the protean nature of the genre, one variously yet persistently apposite for cultural concerns with the identity and community, discourses of love in competing value systems, power relations and relations of affection, and issues of language and representation. While Bruckner's essay bears implicitly on long-standing debates about the purchase of romance on history, Christopher Baswell's, "Marvels of Translation and Crises of Transition," explicitly develops questions of history as content via versions of the Romans d'antiquité. Emphasizing the cultural and imaginative agency of "the learned, clerkly poet [who] brought ancient narrative to his aristocratic audience" (30), Baswell reads the interplay of history and erotics as both intimate and opposed. He identifies three central aspects: the political stakes in the deployment of an ancient past as a culture's heroic inheritance, the usefulness of ancient stories as a reflection on change and transition, and the relation of eroticism to the "progress of political history and chivalric values" (40). In each case, the translated texts provide compelling explorations of cross-temporal links, but it is the last of these that, Baswell argues, "tend to reverse or even subvert linear narration of history" (31). To be sure, this emphasis upon history as linear narration (and thus as genealogy) makes sense in the context, as does Baswell's consideration of the relation of eros to it. Yet the essay nonetheless seems to oppose eros to genealogy, and thus to history.

Simon Gaunt's excellent essay "Romance and other Genres" develops, in contrast to standard renditions of generic "influence," an important model of cultural contestation among genres, arguing that romance expectations are contested by other kinds of texts contemporaneous with them. He goes on to suggest, most compellingly, that "romance ideologies are questioned from within romance through play on the horizon of expectation of other genres" (50-1). Moving directly to the material circumstances of reception, Sylvia Huot's "The manuscript context of medieval romance" next offers a careful comparative account of manuscript transmission and illumination for Old French and Middle High German, suggesting, in general, a diverse medieval situation for both individual romances and the romance genre itself. Summarizing patterns of compilation and transmission, Huot emphasizes the uncommon nature of authorial textual positioning in Chapter One. Huot turns finally to some suggestive comments on the implications of this for the view that increased silent reading and literacy accompanied the rise in vernacular prose romances in the later period.

Section Two focuses on the relation of romance to medieval society and alludes to long-standing debates on important questions of romance and gender. In "Courts, clerks, and courtly love," Sarah Kay addresses the relation of romance texts of twelfth-century France to their political context, not as a "direct reflection of social practices" but as fantasies that "raise alternatives, permitting contradictions to surface, but within a restricted agenda of social preoccupation" (85). Kay's essay intervenes in a host of the standard oppositions to do with romance links to courtly love, brilliantly resituating that relation amidst tensions and convergences of clerical and lay interests at the courts. The view of love in these texts as both "social and antisocial," "sensual and erotic...yet deeply spiritual," she writes, "effects a balancing act between lay and clerical discourses [at court], but one that is precarious, and whose immediate past is full of controversy" (86). Her analysis suggests, in contrast to Baswell's, that the erotics of romance link to its interest in the past, its links to public and institutional concerns. Courtly romance encodes the "divisions and contradictions of court life, and the problematic status of the clerks who made their lives there" (94). These energies and social tensions, moreover, provide a clue to both the power of the early genre and its elusiveness. Historian Richard Kaeuper turns us next to chivalric romances in Northern Europe, arguing for their appreciation as "macro" social forces, a "literature of debate criticism and reform" (99). Kaeuper's essay, like some recent analyses of Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur, position romance in the midst of debates on the appropriate and inappropriate uses of violence and militarism. His essay is followed by Jeff Rider's account of the narrative aims of the fictive otherworlds of romance. Noting the extent to which such other places drive the narrative movement and help define courtly culture, Rider reads the various ways that other worlds constitute alternatives (sometimes utopian, sometimes dangerous) to aristocratic culture. Rider's reading is subtle and nuanced, although it suffers from time to time from an implicit opposition between fictive and "real" worlds. This means that the utopianism of romance emerges here as always "unrealizable," an assumption that forecloses the revolutionary impulse of romance that Louise Fradenburg, for example, had suggested. It might, moreover, be useful to think about the geographic issues at stake in such fantasies of land and place.

The next two essays, by Roberta L. Krueger and Sheila Fisher, together typify the debate about the gendered politics of medieval romances: do these texts encode female agency or the trivialization of women? Both scholars refuse unqualified positions, but they disagree in their overarching claims. Corroborating the position of romance in cultural contestation and debate in essays by Gaunt, Kay, and Kaeuper, Krueger emphasizes the destabilizing aspects of romance in its investigation of "sexual and social gendered codes" even as the same texts seek to maintain those boundaries. She notes, moreover, the continual activity of aristocratic women as "readers, patrons, and sometimes as creators" of romance. Fisher offers a view from the other side, suggesting the "trivialization" and even dismissal of women in Middle English romances by Chaucer, the Gawain-poet, and Thomas Malory. She argues that anxieties of masculinity legible in these texts produce an "uneasiness" about women and about heterosexual relations generally. Such anxieties voice themselves, Fisher argues, "in the persistent marginalization of women" (162). The pairing of Krueger and Fisher's essays makes it clear that important debates on gender and romance continue. Section Three: European Transformations, moves toward an important variety of geographic specificities, including essays on "The Evolution and Legacy of French Prose Romance" (Norris J. Lacy); "Medieval German romance" (Ann Marie Rasmussen); "Chivalry and medieval Italian Romance" (F. Regina Psaki); "Gawain and popular chivalric romance in Britain" (Thomas Hahn); "Middle English Romance: family, marriage, intimacy" (Felicity Riddy); and "Romance at the crossroads: medieval Spanish paradigms and Cervantine revisions" (Marina S. Brownlee). These essays are of a consistently high quality, and constitute an interesting set of particular case studies. In sum, they suggest that greater attention to the wide geographic range in evidence in this third section might have been helpful throughout (France and England are, as Krueger acknowledges in her introduction, somewhat over-represented). On the basis of this third section, one might hazard the opinion that another volume could take us even further, particularly one as forcefully devoted to the comparative geographies of medieval romance as the current excellent volume is to issues of history, language, and gender.

Amidst such a wealth of consistently learned and intelligent accounts, any critique will seem petty. Krueger has done a superb job of organization and design. The bibliographies alone will almost certainly serve as the essential guide to current scholars at work on the topic as well as to their students. But the volume shares a fault evident in a number of edited collections, that is, an under emphasis upon what we might learn from the disagreements among the contributors. To be sure, in some cases the arrangement of the essays implicitly gestures toward the debates within them, as with Krueger and Fisher's divergent approaches to gender. Yet it might be useful to point more directly to those disagreements, as an indication of the richness of the field and the current state and limit of consensus about it. This may seem a paradoxical request for a volume in the Cambridge Companion series: presumably such books endeavor to describe scholarly agreements upon rather more than differences. It remains true, nevertheless, that if much of the power of medieval romance involves its appropriateness to and appropriation of the crucial debates of its time, attention to current controversies about romance would seem important related knowledge, and a mark of analyses still to be done, questions as yet unasked.