Joseph Parry

title.none: Dalrymple, Language and Piety in the Middle English Romance (Joseph Parry)

identifier.other: baj9928.0209.016 02.09.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Joseph Parry, Brigham Young University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Dalrymple, Roger. Language and Piety in the Middle English Romance. Rochester: D. S. Brewer, 2000. Pp. iv, 269. 75.00. ISBN: 0-859-91598-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.09.16

Dalrymple, Roger. Language and Piety in the Middle English Romance. Rochester: D. S. Brewer, 2000. Pp. iv, 269. 75.00. ISBN: 0-859-91598-0.

Reviewed by:

Joseph Parry
Brigham Young University

In his Language and Piety in Middle English Romance, Roger Dalrymple explores the aesthetic purposes for which romance writers used formulaic pious tags or invocations (e.g., "god, that syttyth in trone," "him zat dyed on rode"). Dalrymple amasses an impressive array of evidence that these pious formulae are not simply the line fillers and rhyme makers that medievalists have too frequently considered them to be, but play, rather, a vital role in the meaning and, indeed, in the devotional power of a significant number of Middle English romances from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. But at a deeper level, what seems to drive this study is a question which Dalrymple makes explicit as he opens his fifth and final chapter: "Why could the Church not make peace with the romances?" (p. 139). Pious formulae, as Dalrymple discusses in his second chapter, have a crucial function in much medieval devotional and doctrinal writing, so why did the moralists not recognize these romances' similar investment in a discourse that builds itself on formulaic, but sincere expressions of piety? The author briefly and unsatisfyingly puts the question to rest in his conclusion with the claim that the moralists' issues were with literature itself; they would not have appreciated, therefore, the ways in which pious formulae--uttered with faith or art--were appropriated for literary use. It is evident, however, that the rest of the book constitutes a somewhat fuller, but perhaps no more satisfying answer: as evidenced in a variety of close readings of these formulae in particular romances, the moralists should have not only "made peace," but also opened their arms to the romancers, who were on their side all along.

This book actually comes in two parts, a critical sampling of the character and function of pious formulae in romances, and an extensive appendix (101 pp.) that catalogues all of the tags and invocations Dalrymple could find, listed both by work and by type (e.g., "Incarnation and Nativity," "Crucifixion and Passion"). This appendix alone renders a marvelous service to scholars and nicely completes, as it were, the spirit of genuine enjoyment and almost celebration of the rich variety of these formulae that Dalrymple registers in the first half of the book. The critical portion of the book consists of five chapters. The first two chapters--an introductory chapter and a chapter that gives an overview of "cognate formulae" in Middle English devotional and doctrinal writing--lay the groundwork for the work that Dalrymple sets for himself in the third and fourth chapters. Chapter 3 examines the self-conscious use of tags in two individual romances that illustrate the place of pious tags in very different works--the "upbeat," alliterative William of Palerne and "the lugubrious Stanzaic Morte Arthur" ( p. 64). Setting a tone of "reassurance and optimism," the author of William of Palerne employs frequent use of creator-formulae that underscores the possibility of metamorphosis within a general sense of benevolent providence that is available to all of God's creations (pp. 77, 80). In the Stanzaic Morte Arthur Passion-formulae mark the poem's "process of retreat from the temporal world and . . . [its] demonstrative commitment to spiritual values" (p. 81). Resonating more with the writing Dalrymple discusses in Chapter 2 than William of Palerne evinces, the Stanzaic Morte derives power and pathos from Passion-formulae that not only creates the fiery demise, then the smoldering ashes of the world that dimly flickers at us at the poem's end, but also animates the devotional resolution and resignation to which the text's characters come--for instance, "the deep spiritual resolve of Bedevere" (p. 95), or Guinevere's penitential retreat from chivalric society and from Launcelot (pp. 95-98).

Chapter 4 takes up the romances in the Auchinleck romances to assess the role of pious formulae in "the wider context in which romances exist--the manuscript collections and miscellanies" (p. 103). Having already surveyed these formulae in the devotional material that this collection contains, Dalrymple wishes to trace "the range of changing functions" that this manuscript exhibits, and thereby demonstrate how "'God's names' take on an incremental force as they are iterated in the contrasting texts which constitute the codex" (p. 103). For Dalrymple, pious formulae become increasingly important bridges between disparate discourses of piety that these works self-consciously employ. Pious formulae in The King of Tars, Otuel, and Roland and Vernagu allow these romances to distinguish the concreteness of Christian devotional discourse--depicting a god who creates, who willingly suffers for, and who saves humankind--from the abstractions of Pagan invocations and images. The Christians are able "to reify their god in the Word," (p. 137), thus marshalling the resources of narrative for the cause of Christianity. In the case of the Charlemagne romances, Dalrymple perceptively sees these formulae functioning as "linguistic relics" that these texts can bear into battle (p. 112). In Amis and Amiloun, the formulae allow "the steady convergence of the fraternal and the Christian" to take place, giving this work a "hortatory tone" that produces in its narrative the kind of "moral force" that the more explicitly devotional and doctrinal material examined in Chapter 2 claims for itself (pp. 119, 137). And finally, pious formulae in Guy of Warwick does much of the work of converting this poem from romance to saint's life. They delineate and then allow for the reconciliation of the poem's two "central strands of imagery . . . : the omnipotent deity and the suffering Christ" (p. 137), and are, consequently, a force of aesthetic and spiritual unity in the work.

Dalrymple's basic impulse to find poetic art--in all senses of that term--in the formulaic is a welcome and a productive one. His readings of these romances yield rewarding results, and these readings and the catalogue of formulae lay important groundwork for further research in this area. He is at times perhaps too dedicated to finding what he is looking for (but aren't we all). For instance, there is a more subversive reading of the role the formulae play in his discussion of the Stanzaic Morte that actually thematizes the very problems of locating meaning in the formulaic as part of the darker eschatology with which the poem wrestles. Dalrymple is strong in localized readings, but I missed a more comprehensive engagement with the broader literary, rhetorical, and iconographic contexts that Dalrymple's interests necessarily broach. He does address very briefly some of the issues that emerge for his topic, for example, in the context of current reassessments of orality in medieval romances. Yet despite explicitly seeing his work "in light" of the work that John Miles Foley and Nancy Mason Bradbury have done to set a new course for understanding the aesthetics of formulaic poetic language, Dalrymple's own reevaluation of the aesthetic function of formulaic devotional tags in Middle English romances does very little to reexplore the formulaic in a wider sense of medieval poetics and rhetoric that requires modern readers to adjust their assumptions about the very notion of authors, authority, and originality in writing, and that sets the boundaries between "literature" and "devotional" or "doctrinal" writing more fluidly. Dalrymple only seems partially aware that his work with pious formulae in anonymous, formulaic romances opens a window into the otherness of medieval writing and reading that not only differs from, but also interrogates more modern notions of the writing and reading self.

In a similar vein, he also seems to under-appreciate the ways in which these formulae participate in the otherness of medieval time. This is a missed opportunity for most of the book, but in the drama section of Chapter 2, the role of the formulae in the sense of dramatic time that, for instance, the Towneley Cycle achieves is somewhat distorted (pp. 52-54). Pious tags about God the creator, the Passion of Christ, the resurrected Lord, the final Judge, must ultimately be situated in the most fundamental conception the Middle Ages has of God--that is, God is uncircumscribable within the structures by which we understand God's world: time and language. Jesus's crucifixion exists in the past, present, and future, and these tags wonderfully concrete manner of invoking God's story into the stories of his creations also draws simultaneous attention to language's fundamental inadequateness to conceptualize God in human terms and humans in God's terms. Such a poetic gesture by these romances has tremendous implications for the way we talk about the narrative dimensions of these poems--the ways in which they do and do not produce meaning by plot development, change in characters, etc., in their semantic, as well as their metrical, motions. Dalrymple measures very nicely the ways in which formulaic tags work in the semantic, as well as the metrical, rhythms of Middle English romance; he has an especially nice feel for the incremental use and power (often through irony) of these pious formulae. Moreover, his serious attempt to treat the piety of these works unapologetically is downright refreshing. Yet his aspirations to articulate the piety of romance writing are best fulfilled by connecting these romances to their broader participation in medieval ways of engaging with the problems of knowing and representing the truth that arises out of and accordingly animates a profound sense of faith in and desire for God. Nevertheless, his book will be important reading and a good source for those who do wish to confront these larger questions.