The Medieval Review 10.03.22

Radulescu, Raluca L. and Cory James Rushton. A Companion to Medieval Popular Romance. Studies in Medieval Romance. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Brewer, 2009. Pp. xiii, 209. $95 978-1-843-841920. .

Reviewed by:

David Klausner
University of Toronto
david.klausner@utoronto.ca

Middle English romance, long the ugly duckling of medieval literary studies, has over the past couple of decades come back into fashion, just as a romance hero after battles, privations, and adventures is reintegrated into his society. Boydell and Brewer have been leaders in this recuperation, with a list of monographs and essay collections on romance unparalleled by any other publisher. So this present Companion is welcome not only as a contribution to a field of increasing interest and importance, but also--given that the other nine Companions so far issued deal with texts whose canonical status is unquestioned--as a recognition that the romances are worth reading and studying in their own right.

Unlike the most influential of the recent essay collections on the romances, Henk Aertsen and Alasdair MacDonald's Companion to Middle English Romances, Ad Putter and Jane Gilbert's The Spirit of Medieval English Popular Romance and Nicola McDonald's Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular Romance, this Companion is not a series of studies of individual romance texts, but focuses rather on a series of themes, backgrounds, and problems which need to be addressed in the study of any romance. [1] The collection is also far more focused than the Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance, which attempts with limited success to cover both courtly and popular romance in England, France, and Germany. [2] Each of the essays here takes full advantage of the burgeoning volume of romance studies in the recent past; many of them take Nicola McDonald's "Polemical Introduction" to Pulp Fictions as a starting point.

There is no full consensus among the authors represented in this Companion concerning the corpus of romances which should be considered "popular," and the subject of range is not addressed by the editors in their introduction. The field is limited to England, though both English and Anglo-Norman texts are included. Presumably romances which are "popular" are those which are not (or less) concerned with chivalric virtues and are not (or seem not) intended for a courtly or aristocratic audience. This clearly eliminates Gower and Chaucer (except for Sir Thopas) and Malory, but does it include Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? For some of the authors it does. There is clearly agreement among the contributors that it does include the Breton lays, especially Sir Orfeo. The question of what constitutes "popular" romance is taken up in the Putter/Gilbert volume's introduction; the lack of discussion here leads to a somewhat different understanding of the corpus on the part of each contributor.

That quibble aside, each of the volume's essays considers an important aspect of these texts. Rosalind Field begins the collection by addressing my quibble in part by considering what constitutes "popular" in both an Anglo-Norman and a Middle English context, concluding that, unlike the romances of chivalry, the popular romances "deal with the bases of human existence in society: getting born, surviving childhood, negotiating the family, finding a mate, facing threats, achieving justice and accepting mortality" (29). A major problem in discussion of these texts was for the second half of the twentieth century the difficulty of classifying them into a neat genre, and Raluca Radulescu tackles the long-standing question of their generic unwieldiness concluding that medieval authors saw genre in a much more flexible way than we, and that their response to these texts was less conditioned by generic expectations.

Two essays deal with the conditions of survival of romance texts: Maldwyn Mills and Gillian Rogers with the manuscripts and Jennifer Fellows with the movement of romances into print in the early sixteenth century. Mills outlines the contents of the major anthology manuscripts in which most romances have come down to us, though something seems to have gone wrong with the use of boldface in the table on pp. 53-4. Rogers surveys the contents of the seventeenth- century Percy Folio for popular romance, a discussion which seems out of place in such a collection of background essays, especially so in that her stated purpose is to argue for a consideration of the Percy materials as a whole, pressing the discussion well beyond romance into ballad and historical poetry (a good deal of it non-medieval). Fellows focuses on the five romances in CUL Ff.2.38 which appeared in print, hoping to "throw some light on the practices of sixteenth-century printers in the selection and treatment of Middle English romance texts" (67). Her discussion of the treatment of the texts sheds light on the kinds of changes printers brought to the romances, but her conclusion is that the reasons for the printers' selection of texts is a question "that it would be hard to answer" (78).

Themes of national and personal identity inform the essays of Thomas Crofts and Robert Allen Rouse ("Middle English Popular Romance and National Identity") and Joanne Charbonneau and Désirée Cromwell ("Gender and Identity in the Popular Romances"). Questions of identity have been central to much of the scholarship on the romances in the recent past, and both these essays provide welcome surveys of these discussions. Crofts and Rouse warn that while the theme of nationalism can be followed through some of the romances, many offer "more complex challenges" and remind us that "generalizing about medieval genres" (95) tends to be a mug's game. Gender identity, especially in its relation to family structures, is a central concern of many of the romances, and Charbonneau and Cromwell outline the texts' concerns with the upholding and the subversion of traditional gender roles at a time when these were understood socially as rapidly shifting territory.

Ad Putter contributes an essay on the metrics of popular romance, marked by close analysis of the different uses and effects inherent in four-beat couplets, the bob-and-wheel stanza, or the tail-rhyme stanza. This is a particularly useful essay, since metrics tends in many cases to be left out of the discussion. Putter's outline of the usefulness to the poet of the three-beat lines in tail-rhyme is very effective in an area where many critics simply hold their noses. Karl Reichl considers issues of orality with respect to the romances, both from the point of view of reading aloud in public or private and of professional (minstrel) performance. His discussion of the imprecision of terms for performers (138) would benefit from reference to Abigail Ann Young's articles on the subject. [3] His discussion of bilingual minstrels (147, note 52) would also benefit from the inclusion of Constance Bullock-Davies seminal lecture "Professional Interpreters and the Matter of Britain," even though that deals primarily with French and Welsh texts rather than English. [4]

Phillipa Hardman makes an interesting but ultimately unconvincing case for children as the target audience for many of the popular romances. She is, of course, quite right that a "preponderance of narratives [are] centred on children or family groups," but that is a big "or" and it is very difficult to argue successfully (as Hardman attempts to do) that some of the "family"-oriented romances like "Amis and Amiloun" could have been "especially appropriate for parental guidance of young readers." The earlier sections of the tale do, no doubt, trace the "exemplary development" of the sworn brothers, but I do not see the story of the murder of the children as leading very happily to the appropriate upbringing of children (159). On the other hand, the Percyvell story's focus (162) on the relative importance of nature and nurture and the humour with which the commentary is conducted seems a good bet for a possible audience of young people.

Finally, Cory James Rushton considers the modern and academic reception of the popular romances, demonstrating the clear influence of these stories on contemporary popular literature (Harry Potter, Star Wars, The DaVinci Code on the one hand, and the often negative critical commentaries from the academy on the other. His conclusion that the romances are, like a hero coming home, "moving back into the centre of literary studies" (179) seems inescapable. Had he written that fifteen or twenty years ago, we might well have laughed, but the wealth of studies on the romances which have appeared over the past decade and a half (not least from Boydell and Brewer) prove the truth of his observation. This new Companion will provide a very useful entry point into the field, especially for graduate students and Middle English scholars who have so far avoided the excitement of these stories.

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Notes:

1. Aertsen, Henk and MacDonald, Alasdair A. A Companion to Middle English Romance. Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1990; Putter, Ad and Gilbert, Jane, eds. The Spirit of Medieval English Popular Romance. Series: Longman Medieval and Renaissance Library. Harlow: Pearson Education, 2000; McDonald, Nicola, ed. Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular Romance. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004. The essays in the Aertsen/MacDonald volume are a mix of thematic and single-text studies.

2. Krueger, Roberta L., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

3. Young, Abigail Ann. "Plays and Players: The Latin Terms for Performance."" REED Newsletter. 1984:2, 56-62; 1985:1, 9-16.

4. Bullock-Davies, Constance. Professional Interpreters and the Matter of Britain. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1966.