Siobhain Bly Calkin

title.none: Davenport, Medieval Narrative (Siobhain Bly Calkin)

identifier.other: baj9928.0602.003 06.02.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Siobhain Bly Calkin, Carleton University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Davenport, Tony. Medieval Narrative: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Pp. ix, 305. $28.00 (pb). ISBN: 0-19-925839-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.02.03

Davenport, Tony. Medieval Narrative: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Pp. ix, 305. $28.00 (pb). ISBN: 0-19-925839-2.

Reviewed by:

Siobhain Bly Calkin
Carleton University

Tony Davenport writes that his book is designed to serve as "an introduction to...the many narratives in verse and prose which survive from the eighth to the fifteenth century," and that it is "intended for readers who already have some knowledge of major works of the Middle Ages, such as Beowulf, the Decameron and The Canterbury Tales, the Chanson de Roland and the Morte Darthur" (vii). In this task, he succeeds admirably. The audience who will derive most use and pleasure from this book are lay people with an undergraduate degree in English (or at least a course or two in Chaucer), upper year undergraduate English majors who have had some prior introduction to medieval English literature, and graduate students who are just beginning to focus on medieval English literature. The book provides all such readers with a fairly inclusive survey of what types of narratives existed in medieval England, from beast fable to romance, and endeavors to sketch out the larger European context for these narratives. The focus is predominantly on Middle English texts, but Beowulf, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and other shorter Old English poems are also addressed. Davenport often includes a brief summary of texts, especially of those he terms "less familiar and less readily available" (vii) before analyzing specific narrative or generic features of interest. Davenport's book therefore offers helpful guidance to readers who have read some medieval English literature and would like to read more, but have little sense of the various options for further reading. Two glaring omissions from the survey are noted by Davenport: hagiographic narratives and vernacular theology (281), while he also omits without comment the drama of medieval England, thus students and enthusiasts will not be directed to works in these areas.

The first two chapters contextualize Davenport's approach to medieval narrative and signal the ways in which he sees his book intersecting with the modern world. The first chapter, entitled "The Idea of Medieval Narrative", relates Davenport's project to popular works of medievalist fiction from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well as to the writings of Tolkien, Eco, Burrow, Ong, and Jauss. Chapter Two, entitled "Narrative", offers a discussion of medieval and modern theories of narrative and the intersections Davenport perceives between them, and introduces readers to the thorny issue of identifying and discussing genres in medieval texts. The theoretical section briefly traces the influence of classical theories of narrative in the Middle Ages, highlighting the role of Cicero, then discusses some medieval commentaries on narrative, namely those by John of Garland, Bede, Geoffrey de Vinsauf, and Matthew de Vendome. After relating these to the writings of Chaucer and some other medieval poets, Davenport turns to modern discussions of narratology, exploring in particular the ideas of the Russian formalists and of later scholars of plot before concluding this section with a brief reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight using the distinction between fabula and sjuzet (or plot and story) made by the Russian formalists. Davenport next addresses the question of genre, and offers a succinct and solid introduction to the fluidity of medieval terms denoting genre and to the problems of categorizing narratives in the Middle Ages. In this section Davenport also presents the rationale for the categories of narrative he chooses to investigate in subsequent chapters. These categories are derived from comments in the first fragment of The Canterbury Tales, and are identified as "'cherles tales/harlotrie'; tales that are 'storial' and concern 'gentillesse'; and tales that express 'moralitee' and/or 'hoolynesse'" (35). Davenport defines these categories as encompassing, respectively, fabliaux and comedy; medieval romance, chronicles, epics and biographies; and didactic genres such as exemplum and fable. To these three categories Davenport adds a fourth, "the fantastic or dream narrative" (35). These, then are the structural principles for the subsequent chapters to which Davenport proceeds after a brief discussion of prologues and narrators.

Chapter Three, entitled "Didactic Narratives", examines exempla and fables. The first section introduces readers to texts such as Robert Mannyng's Handlyng Synne, Jacob's Well, and the Gesta Romanorum as well as some of Chaucer's exempla in The Canterbury Tales. The next section, on fables, ranges from Aesop's fables to those by Lydgate and Henryson, and also references those of Marie de France, Odo of Cheriton and Chaucer as well as Le Roman de Renart. Davenport here introduces his intended audience to a rich variety of medieval fables, many of which do not turn up on the reading lists for undergraduate courses in medieval literature. The brief section on Lydgate, however, is somewhat problematic as it does not acknowledge recent critical re-evaluations of Lydgate and instead re-enshrines the older condemnation of Lydgate in comments such as "though such amplitude is acceptable in Chaucer, where it contributes to the comedy, in Lydgate it rather sounds as if amplification is being sought for its own sake and is being supplied according to standard recipes" (85). Although there is no need for Davenport to agree with re-evaluations of Lydgate, it would be helpful for him to signal to his intended audience that there is current critical disagreement about Lydgate and that Davenport's opinion represents only one side of the debate.

Chapter Four, entitled "Forms of History", presents an introduction to chronicle, epic, and romance. The chronicle section is very much focussed on texts about England, examining in detail the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (especially the Cynewulf and Cyneheard episode) and the Arthurian material in Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace. The epic section discusses Beowulf in the context of other Germanic heroic narratives of the Middle Ages and then analyzes aspects of the Chanson de Roland, the Cantar/Poema de mio Cid, and Layamon's Brut before concluding with a brief discussion of Latin and Italian materials. The broad range and the survey nature of Davenport's project are clearly evident here and the breadth of coverage precludes extended analyses, but these are not Davenport's goal and the section works very well to achieve his stated aim of introducing readers to the wide variety of narratives available in the Middle Ages. Davenport then concludes the chapter with a discussion of romance, concentrating particularly on the writings of Marie de France and Malory, but offering as well a roughly chronological listing of the appearance of various types of romance including the matters of Britain, Rome/antiquity, France, and England. He also surveys the types of romance found in Chaucer and Boccaccio.

Chapter Five introduces readers to medieval "comic tales." The first section of this chapter discusses theories of the comic with reference to Bakhtin and Eco, and then analyzes some Old French fabliaux, "Dame Sirith", and "A Penniworth of Wit". The last section of the chapter examines Chaucer's fabliaux in detail before concluding with a brief referencing of the Till Eulenspiegel tales.

Chapter Six, entitled "Fantasy and Dream", first examines voyages and otherworld journeys, surveying Mandeville's Travels, The Voyage of St Brendan, Owayne Miles, and The Vision of Tundale before concluding with some comments on Dante's Divine Comedy. The second section of the chapter addresses visions and courtly dreams and discusses Macrobius' commentary on Cicero's Dream of Scipio as well as Dream of the Rood, Winner and Waster, The Parliament of the Three Ages and The Disputation between the Body and the Worms. Pearl and Piers Plowman are then examined before Davenport proceeds to Chaucer's dream visions.

The last two full chapters of the book concern narrative structures that elude Davenport's four main categories. Chapter Seven introduces the reader to medieval concepts of tragedy, and anchors this discussion in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and the alliterative Morte Arthure, which both receive thorough analyses. Chapter Eight, entitled "Putting Narratives Together", looks at tale collections such as Boccaccio's Decameron and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and then presents a close study of narrators and commentators in The Canterbury Tales. The chapter concludes with a section on "Cycles and Composites" that focuses on the Old French vulgate cycle of Arthurian romance and the ways in which texts about Arthur get intertwined in the later Middle Ages. The book ends with a brief chapter called "Postscript", which returns readers to some of the questions Davenport raised in the opening, specifically the issue of what modern writers might learn from a consideration of medieval narrative and the ways in which ideas of medieval narrative inform the fiction of Eco and Tolkien.

As can be seen from this summary, Davenport introduces his audience to a broad range of late medieval texts, and communicates a clear sense of the rich variety of narrative available in the later Middle Ages, directing readers' attention to widely read authors such as Chaucer and Boccaccio as well as to less familiar texts such as Marie de France's beast fables or Owayne Miles. Davenport also succeeds in the essential task of an introductory survey: he makes readers want to go out and read the primary medieval texts. The book thus works very well for its intended audience. That said, future readers or recommenders should make note of a few aspects of the book. First, as Davenport himself acknowledges, there are some omissions, namely those noted in the first paragraph of this review. Second, the book is firmly rooted in Chaucerian texts (but this is probably an asset for the intended audience given that an introductory course on Chaucer may well have been their only previous exposure to medieval texts). Third, as Davenport acknowledges, his discussion of modern theories of narrative in relation to medieval ones works to establish some dialogue between the two, but does not constitute a comprehensive overview of either and reflects his individual theoretical tastes. Some terms might also be glossed for the intended audience (e.g. the term "comitatus" is used without definition when it is introduced on page 108, the Middle English word "olypraunce" turns up without a defining gloss in a quotation on page 57). Finally, there is one point when Davenport admirably attempts to give his readers a sense of the variety of narratives in a Middle English manuscript, but in so doing misrepresents the current state of the manuscript discussed, implying that the version of King Alisaunder in the Auchinleck manuscript is complete when, in fact, the version in this manuscript is particularly fragmented (142-44). These points, however, are minor cavils and there is no doubt that Medieval Narrative: An Introduction is an excellent resource for students or non- specialists who have taken a course on medieval literature (particularly on Chaucer) and would like some guidance for further reading or a better sense of medieval ideas about narrative.