contributor.author: Graham Drake

title.none: Radulescu, Gentry Context (Graham Drake)

identifier.other: baj9928.0407.012 04.07.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Graham Drake, SUNY Geneseo, GrahamD960@aol.com

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Radulescu, Raluca L. The Gentry Context for Malory's Morte Darthur. Series: Arthurian Studies, vol. 55. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003. Pp. viii, 165. $75.00 0-85991-785-1. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.07.12

Radulescu, Raluca L. The Gentry Context for Malory's Morte Darthur. Series: Arthurian Studies, vol. 55. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003. Pp. viii, 165. $75.00 0-85991-785-1. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Graham Drake
SUNY Geneseo
GrahamD960@aol.com

Through most of its history, Arthurian romance has served as a tournament ground for an astonishing variety of ideological purposes. In the lists one might find a chronicler setting up Arthur as a native Briton against the Romans; Geoffrey of Monmouth tracing Arthur back through a series of kings to a Brutus of Troy; Arthur starring in a rich and fastidious courtly culture in the Anglo-Norman Wace; or Arthur presiding over a group of Grail-questing knights, all of them inundated by allegorical exegesis, in the endless cycles of the twelfth-century French Vulgate.

Probably the most influential source for Arthuriana in the modern English-speaking world is Malory, the "knight-prisoner" who translated, streamlined, and adapted the circuitous narratives of his "French Book" (and some English sources) into Le Morte Darthur. While Malory's Arthur may have generated a whole series of possibilities for later English writers, Malory himself was using the past for his own purposes: as a member of a changing and upwardly mobile group, the English gentry, who had suffered the effects of instability, loss, and death through the decades of the Wars of the Roses. The gentry and their superiors whom they emulated--the traditional nobility--may have read the same books and often held similar positions of authority in the countryside and at court. But the lesser group had to work at attaining and maintaining their new situations. The fifteenth century had seen an expansion of the class of knights under Edward IV, and achieving this status depended increasingly on what one did (and what others thought about one's actions) than what one was. The gentry's major concerns and values become apparent both in their own correspondence and in their preferred reading.

Radulescu's book enumerates the chief political values of the gentry, arguing that this group would have approached Le Morte Darthur--a work written, after all, by one like themselves--with such values in mind. Some literary scholars have dismissed this historicized endeavor, but Radulescu makes a compelling case for interpreting Malory's work in the context of his putative audience.

The first half of Radulescu's study closely examines collections of gentry letters and the contents of the "grete bokes" which gentry families commissioned for their private reading. Thus she turns primarily to the Paston Letters and collections such as the Armbrugh Papers and the letters of the Stonor family. This correspondence reveals the gentry's preoccupation with worship and profit; friendship and lordship; and fellowship.

"Worship" denotes reputation and the fulfillment of social obligations to one's family, lord, and peers. Proper worship means hospitality to visitors, proper respect to the deceased, avoidance of slander, and co-operation with neighbors and partners in enterprise; it could even extend to matters of personal deportment and wardrobe. This value is often intertwined with profit and financial prosperity. The discourse of worship in the fifteenth century, as Radulescu notes from Philippa Madden's studies of the Paston correspondence, adapts the model of king and adviser to all estates; "the resulting image is that of Paston 'as a little king, advised by his faithful servant'" (21).

The social relationships that maintain good worship are proper friendship and lordship. "The choice of a good lord was an ever more important concern in the troubled decades of the 1460s and '70s," and Radulescu sees in the time of Le Morte Darthur's composition an increasing anxiety over both proper friendship and lordship (33). The Pastons advise each other to nurture friendships with close neighbors, since these will be the first allies in times of crisis. Friends protected each other from slander, supported mutual reputations, and assisted in political and legal matters, including influence with the king himself. Meanwhile, friendship with one's lord was important for gentry prosperity; those lords in turn needed the influence of local landowners to promote noble interests and maintain regional stability.

Fellowship is closely related to friendship, and Radulescu is at some pains to distinguish the two. Fellowship can mean, on the one hand, casual acquaintances, but it can also refer to more rigorously defined associations of allies (particularly military ones). Landowners needed established fellowship with their neighbors--and ultimately, with the king. One must carefully choose good fellowship over bad. Radulescu notes that fellowship as a word usually appears in negative or anxious contexts in gentry letters; the Pastons (who provide the only substantial evidence for the use of the term) often denounce "'unruly felysheps' and their 'adhomynable dedis'" (37).

From this inventory of gentry values, Radulescu next turns to evidence of their major reading. "Whether religious, chivalric or political, these gentry manuscripts largely emulated the tastes and attitudes of the nobility" (39). Libraries of families such as the Pastons included (sometimes in the same volume) chronicles based on the Brut tradition or by Hardyng; royal genealogies and coats of arms; chivalric texts by Vegetius and Christine de Pizan; Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes; and cautionary political poems by Lydgate. These last two authors "appealed to the concepts of stability in the realm through wise kingship and thus gained popularity in an age dominated by internal strife and anxiety over the future of the possessions in France" (52). Hardyng, meanwhile, is interesting from a compositional as well as thematic standpoint, since he draws on older books--in his case, Geoffrey of Monmouth and the prose version of the Brut--to create a coherent narrative (which he explicitly links to contemporary events), similar to Malory's own method.

Such miscellanies might also contain romances which amplify the political issues raised by these treatises. Radulescu demonstrates the strong probability that Malory had access to the Woodville family library or even that of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. It is in this context that Malory would also have found his "French book" and native English romances--most likely not in complete or stand-alone cycles, but in composite miscellanies. Radulescu argues that both Malory and his peers would have circulated and exchanged texts and ideas from their libraries in their own homes and in the king's court.

The inventory of this reading that Radulescu adduces next is exhaustive, perhaps to the point of exhaustion. Much of this material would fit more appropriately into an appendix, perhaps with a closer focus on a few choice examples, such as the miscellanies associated with John Shirley or John Vale. Indeed, Vale's manuscript in particular contains his own chronicle of fifteenth-century events, Sir John Fortescue's Governance, and Lydgate's political poem, The Serpent of Division. In Vale's collection, Radulescu sees an interesting "urban-gentry intersection" and political and social themes that Malory's work also shares.

In the second half of the book, Radulescu focuses on portions of Le Morte Darthur that highlight gentry concerns: worship and service, and then lordship and establishment. "In the Morte, knightly worship is bound with values and duties implied in loyalty, friendship, lordship and fellowship, all of which were profoundly significant to fifteenth-century gentry" (84). Sir Gareth appeals to chivalric worship when he defends his support of Lancelot in the dispute with the other members of the Round Table, and Arthur's ensuing speech acknowledges the rightness of Gareth's decision (queen or no queen). Gareth's own earlier narrative further illustrates the realization of worship through deeds and manifest virtue--thus providing a model for socially aspiring gentry looking to increase their own worship.

Closely connected to worship in Le Morte Darthur are concepts of proper lordship and kingship. Radulescu shows how Malory adds these contemporary concerns to his French sources. Unlike the Suite de Merlin, Malory's work pointedly features all of the estates coming to King Arthur and acknowledging his ascendancy. His subsequent establishment as an accepted sovereign comes not simply through lineage, degree, or magic, but through the acclaim of the commons. Arthur also strengthens his position early on by his martial exploits and his success in unifying all of Britain under his command.

Finally, Radulescu traces the importance of counsel and proper governance in Le Morte Darthur, its shifts from Merlin's dominance to the Round Table itself. It is particularly instructive that Merlin has his master Blaise write down the events of Arthur's life thus far, mirroring the "grete bokes" that Malory himself would have drawn from. At this point, it would have been interesting for Radulescu to describe more closely how gentry readers would have read the special case of Merlin as a counselor. She does, however, apply this point of view to Arthur's judgment of Guenevere:

"To a fifteenth-century gentry reader Arthur's haste would appear as a change in behaviour from the young king who needs advice to the experienced king who thinks he can trust his own judgment. In the judging of Guenevere King Arthur is dealing with a matter of state, and his contemporaries would have expected him to listen to his council's advice, rather than allow his attitude to be decide by personal considerations" (126-27).

The breakdown in counsel goes hand in hand with a breakdown in governance, a tragedy for Arthur and the Round Table and a refraction, if not reflection, of the failed counselor relationships of Edward IV and Warwick as well as Henry VI and the Duke of Suffolk (141).

Perhaps the only real objection one could make to this fine study appears in this half of the book. At the beginning of Chapter Three, Radulescu claims that her analysis "keeps in focus the difference between gentry and noble access to power and the exclusively aristocratic view of Arthurian romance" (83). This is certainly true as she shows how the meaning of nobility was contested in Malory's day, stressing deeds and not merely inherited status. Yet on occasion the gentry context seems to disappear from view, and the distinction between noble and gentry context becomes blurred. For instance, while she initially frames her discussion of lordship in terms of gentry concerns, the lordship-kingship-gentry connection could be more explicit; it is not completely clear how Malory's tailoring of Arthur's lordship is specifically a gentry issue as opposed to an aristocratic one. Similarly, the analysis of counsel narrative shows what counsel looks like in Le Morte Darthur and how it contradicts itself and finally breaks down. Still, it takes a little too long for Radulescu to remind us that the gentry would have recalled the bad counselors surrounding fifteenth-century kings.

At the same time, this work reads the gentry context of Malory in a convincing and well-documented fashion. Knowing Malory's class-based context leads to a more nuanced and sympathetic understanding than a simple reading of a "timeless" Arthurian narrative can provide on its own. As Radulescu herself concludes, "There is a sense of anxiety, of a 'quesye world' (in the Pastons' words) especially in the final Tale in Malory, which reflects, in a striking manner, the gentry concerns at the time of the Wars of the Roses, when kingship and governance of the realm were questioned and redefined" (146).