Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Tale of Sir Thopas" is now perhaps the best known of all Middle English tail-rhyme romances. This narrative, told by the Chaucerian narrator in The Canterbury Tales, was of course intended as a parody of the content and style of "popular" Middle English romance; indeed as a way of encapsulating an entire tradition of insular romance writing. In Anglicising Romance. Tail-Rhyme and Genre in Medieval English Literature, Rhiannon Purdie presents a full and authoritative account of the history, principal characteristics and significance, of the tail-rhyme romance which "Sir Thopas" so wittily exemplifies at the end of the fourteenth century when the form was approaching the height of its popularity. Romances written in the tail-rhyme stanza "account for just over a third of all known Middle English verse romances" (1). However, besides the popularity of this kind of text, Purdie convincingly demonstrates that the tail-rhyme romance was also one of the most innovative forms of Middle English romance, and as distinctive, she argues, as the tradition of alliterative poetry which flourished in the North and West Midlands. Practised as "an active literary genre" (150) for nearly two hundred years, and circulated both in manuscript and print form, these romances are important to our understanding of the development of insular romance and more generally to our understanding of medieval English literary culture. The book's five chapters and detailed appendix examine the origins and development of the tail-rhyme romance, covering key aspects of the manuscript history and circulation of romances written in this form. The book shows detailed knowledge of the Latin, continental French, Anglo-Norman and early Middle English contexts for the development of the genre, but also combines source-study and literature survey with acute interpretive insights into individual texts and manuscript collections, including devoting one chapter to the role of the tail-rhyme romances in the Auchinleck Manuscript.
The book explores and offers resolutions to a number of problems and mysteries surrounding the development of the tail-rhyme stanza and tail-rhyme romance, which have not been convincingly answered by previous studies. Central to the study is the question of why, given that tail-rhyme romance "unites a genre native to literature in French...with a continental stanza form" (3), Middle English poets were alone in developing this particular style of narrative poem. Purdie argues convincingly that the tail-rhyme stanza was used by English romance writers to "temper or even redirect an audience's reception of a poem which was otherwise quite recognisably a romance" (6). Building on the conclusions of Chapter 1, which identify Latin hymnody and Anglo-Norman lyric poetry as the most likely precursors for the tail-rhyme stanza, Chapter 2 develops Purdie's theory of the function of the Middle English tail-rhyme romance. Here Purdie demonstrates that the tail-rhyme stanza was associated in different genres of continental French writing and subsequent insular literature (such as religious or political lyric, sermon, saint's life, moral tale, debate poem and moral or devotional drama) with subjects that were "spiritually or morally instructive" (32). This insight into the expectations raised in early readers by this stanza form, with its "impressive pedigree as a vehicle for moral edification" (33), provides an illuminating way of identifying a commonality of purpose and approach in the diverse and disparate body of extant Middle English tail-rhyme romances.
Chapter 3 examines technical questions related to "little-studied features of the mise en page of tail-rhyme romances in their manuscripts" (66) and to the transmission of these texts. Much of this chapter is concerned with what Purdie refers to as "graphic tail-rhyme," a complicated habit, related to the scribal practice of bracketing rhyming lines, of setting out tail-rhyme texts in two columns on the page, "one containing the couplets [of the stanza] and the second containing tail-lines connected to them by red brackets" (67). Purdie proposes that this may be a "specifically English tradition" (71), being observed in manuscripts for the copying of Anglo-Norman and English tail-rhyme poetry from the late twelfth century until the end of the medieval period. She makes the fascinating suggestion that the use of graphic tail-rhyme for the copying of "The Tale of Sir Thopas" in early Canterbury Tales manuscripts is likely to have been Chaucer's idea, producing the comic visual effect of a "maze of brackets, scattered lines, and drifting bob lines" (77) on the page, which would also be experienced by an audience listening to the confusions produced by this practice in the recitation of the text: "[graphic tail-rhyme] relies upon the reader's recognition that Sir Thopas is arranged in a layout traditional for Middle English tail-rhyme romance, thus adding another layer to Chaucer's parody of Middle English romance conventions" (76). The question of whether or not graphic tail-rhyme can be associated with the musical performance or memorisation and oral performance of romance is also explored in this chapter. This in not, nor perhaps ever can be, satisfactorily answered here. Nonetheless Purdie's observation that the employment of graphic tail-rhyme for the copying of other types of texts is sometimes associated with musicality is a useful reminder of how little modern scholars can be certain of in relation to the transmission of Middle English romance.
Chapter 4 turns to the presence of the earliest examples of tail-rhyme romance in the Auchinleck Manuscript where they appear alongside other pious and moral texts in tail-rhyme stanza. Here Purdie relates the Auchinleck compiler's interest in tail-rhyme romances to the theme of Englishness which other scholars, such as Thorlac Turville-Petre, have identified as unifying the contents of the manuscript. She points out that all of the Auchinleck romances which feature an English hero are written "at least partially in tail-rhyme" (101) and that the compiler clearly sought out tail-rhyme versions of these stories when other versions would have been available. Thus this distinctively English fusion of stanza form and subject matter contributes to the overall design and coherence of the manuscript collection.
Chapter 5 focuses on provenance and engages with the difficult question of whether or not it is possible to ascertain the geographical origins of tail-rhyme romance. Purdie reviews earlier and unsatisfactory theories which linked tail-rhyme romance exclusively to particular regions (such as East Anglia) and also re-examines the dialectal evidence for provenance and circulation presented by the extant texts. Her conclusions identify some "general trends" (139) in the geographical spread of tail-rhyme romances, including the flourishing of tail-rhyme romance in the late Middle English period in "the North and Central/East Midlands" (144). This chapter serves to introduce the extensive appendix to the volume which comprises a lucid survey of the provenance of the thirty-six tail-rhyme romances which have been identified, covering date, manuscript witnesses, and the dialect of each poem, as well as its formal characteristics. This will be a particularly valuable resource for those interested in the dialectal profiles of Middle English texts.
A study of this thoroughness and scope, which also offers new or refined insights into the nature and significance of the tail-rhyme romance, is to be warmly welcomed as an important contribution to the scholarship of Middle English romance and to the study of distinctively regional or national developments in medieval writing. With tail-rhyme romances such as Sir Orfeo, Sir Launfal and The Weddyng of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnelle having become more widely available in accessible editions for use on Middle English courses in recent years, this book will find a ready audience. Indeed, Purdie's written style is accessible and lively throughout and the book will provide an excellent companion to those wishing to explore less-well known examples of the genre. The book's more technical information on stanza form, metre and dialect will be challenging for some student readers. However, its value for scholars and advanced students certainly lies in its thought-provoking (and in recent romance scholarship, rather rare) synthesis of these literary, codicological and linguistic details, authoritatively presented so as to promote a better understanding of this important species of Middle English romance.