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97.02.07, Betts, Three Medieval Greek Romances

97.02.07, Betts, Three Medieval Greek Romances

Precious texts, these. The three in question belong to a fascinating but sadly-neglected niche of medieval literature, a fourteenth-century genre containing eleven stories, all in verse, and linked, volens nolens, through the themes of courtly, romantic love and chivalry. They represent the last wave of ancient Greek romances, though their language is not katharevusa (pure, classic, refined), but rather demotic; i.e., based on the spoken language of the times -- condemned as barbarous or degenerate by typical Renaissance scholars of Greek and Latin studies. Consequently, it was not until the nineteenth century that these late medieval fictions were recognized sufficiently to merit scholarly attention. In fact, a satisfactorily-edited text for "Livistros and Rodamni" has yet to appear.

Betts (= B.) covers all these matters in his generous General Introduction (forty pages), which includes a bibliography of earlier editions, translations and critical studies. After this, the three romances follow, seriatim: "V&C" takes up four pages of introduction, then some twenty-five pages of text and notes. "K&Ch" covers the next sixty pages or so, while the much longer "L&R" runs from pages 91 to 192, inclusive of a short introduction and endnotes.

The three belong to quite a different tradition from what are usually referred to as ancient Greek novels or romances, of which genre, precocious, charming, and subtle, five popular ones in Attic Greek have survived from antiquity (from the Hellenistic era, first or second century A.D.), composed by Chariton, Xenophon of Ephesus, Longus, Achilles Tatius, and Heliodorus. (Greekless readers might enjoy these ancient authors in the Pleiade edition, Les Romans grecs et latins, ed. P. Grimal, which includes all but Xenophon's "Ephesian Tale," which may be found in B. P. Beardon's indispensable anthology, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, 1989).

Associated in antiquity with Byzantine literary tradition, the ancient Greek genre was revived and imitated in the twelfth century, for which four court-related authors provide testimony: Prodromos, Eugenianos, Manasses (fragments), and Makrembolites, who by and large wrote a literary, or "refined" language (at this point, artificial Attic Greek, like Neo-Latin, one presumes), so that it was these who became greatly admired during the western European Renaissance. One might call the twelfth-century romances the "second wave," with the earlier Hellenistic texts forming the canonical base, while the demotic verse versions under scrutiny represent the last medieval effort of this type.

Of the surviving eleven in the youngest grouping, six were imported from continental sources, for in each case they seem to freely adapt earlier French or Italian originals. The five remaining include the three original romances to hand, plus "The Tale of Achilles" and "The Tale of Troy." B. shows convincingly how Western-style literature in Constantinople became fused with the native narrative traditions, and how a "blended society" of Franks and Greeks could constitute an audience for such stories. In spite of a few features like jousting and fowling (mainly in "L&R"), common Western practices, the texts belong to an unquestionably Greek tradition -- what might be identified as part of a "reconstituted" Byzantine Empire (ca. fourteenth century). In that highly conservative arena -- unconquered, never subjected to foreign control, and static -- Constantinople enjoyed (certainly at least until 1200 A.D.) an unbroken link back to the intellectual and cultural traditions of antiquity (see R. Beaton, The Medieval Greek Romance, 1989, for more detail).


Subsequently, in spite of many and great societal upheavals after 1200, the fourteenth-century authors, seeking to create a distinct genre, at once preserved much that was common to Byzantine imperial life and etiquette, and ladled in large servings from the world of fairytale -- dragons, witches, and magic play a vital part in these stories.

B. describes the contemporary Eastern background and the castle motif features of setting that give away Western influence, unlike the remote and paganistic paraphernalia found in the ancient Hellenistic counterparts. But these latter do provide an inescapable context peculiar to Greek tradition, namely the idea of Fortune and Destiny's power, and the heavy use of rhetoric (e.g., ekphrasis, hyperbole, metaphor, hypophora). On the other hand, the status of the king, the beauty contest in "V&C," descriptions of certain automata -- these echo Byzantine institutions and practices.

Moreover, "V&C" boasts reminiscences of the Odyssey, the St. Alexis story and Tristan legend, "Piramus et Tisbe," Chretien de Troyes's "Erec et Enide," "Lancelot," and "Cliges" romances, the later "Aucassin et Nicolette," and the Romance of the Rose, among others. "K&C" contains topical allusions (intentional or not!) to Beowulf, Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, and Flore et Blanchefleur. "L&V" possesses a much more complex, narrative-within-a-narrative pretzel-like structure, recalling the strategies and tone of Boccaccio's stories, with topoi thrown in from various medieval romances, including the motif of dispatching a love letter by tying it to an arrow (cf. the sequence in the twelfth-century Norman French Roman d'Eneas).


B. makes one crucial point that deserves to be reiterated: Escapist prose or verse narratives like these (which some call "novels," some "romances") feature a heroine whose literal importance, and appeal, cannot be ignored. The allure for a new, female audience must be stressed, and the message sent that there is a place for women in the new scheme of worldly affairs. "Boy meets girl, etc." Abducted by dangerous pirates, sold into slavery, hero or heroine enjoys true love in conclusion. Much later, Lorenzo da Ponte and W. A. Mozart were listening to such tales, for sure. As B. notes sardonically: "[F]oreign travel [is] a motif which has always been important in escapist literature" (p. xvii).

The courage of B. to undertake this significant project of vulgarization, when the appearance of totally pristine and reliable Greek editions still awaits an ambitious young palaeographer/textual critic, must be forthwith recognized and appreciated. Let us hope earnestly that Garland will not allow this precious collection to go out of print in two or three years, making it an egregious rarity (as has been done with other volumes in this series).