D. S. Brewer's Studies in Medieval Romance series performs a valuable service for scholars of romance, offering in just its first eight years fourteen books, nearly half of them edited collections such as its most recent, a product of the 11th Biennial "Romance in Medieval Britain" conference in 2008. The editors' introduction begins with what has become a truism in literary study, the recognition that "[m]eaning is generated through context, or rather contexts" (1), an awareness missing from the earliest modern reception of the genre. This book aims to situate particular English and Scottish romance narratives in relation to contexts attended to throughout literary studies of the last forty years, including matters of genre, transmission and audience. At times, individual contributions to the collection venture into less well-trodden territory for romance scholarship, such as baptismal practices, clerical culture, and ekphrasis, offering intriguing new directions for historicist readings of romance.
The editors describe Derek Pearsall's prefatory essay as a "personal 'retraction'" (2), and while it is, it also challenges the very critical activity to which this collection is devoted, the historical and social contextualization of romance, encouraging instead a renewed evaluation of structure and form. The first four essays following the prefatory essay study specific medieval discursive contexts for what they might offer our understanding of romance (though rarely the reverse): Nancy Mason Bradbury reads The Taill of Rauf Coilyearin terms of peasant identity and discourse and in terms of the proverb and the popular complaint; Michael Cichon argues that Eger and Grime's peasant audience's response is guided through the romance's calling on the authority of the proverb tradition; Nicholas Perkins situates Emaré and Sir Eglamour of Artois in relation to ekphrasis and material culture; and Marianne Ailes views romance production in self-conscious relation to chansons de geste. The next two essays by John A. Geck and Phillipa Hardman turn attention to Middle English romance's variation and repetition. Geck's study of variants throughout the Middle English appearances of Floris and Blancheflor finds that the hero's faith is as ambiguous as his gender. Hardman considers the Middle English Song of Roland not only in terms of its better-known French predecessor but also in terms of how its audience's familiarity with that earlier poem accounts for characteristics that have been poorly received by modern readers of the Middle English poem. Both Geck and Hardman thus encourage reading romance through those very features that have in the past been seen as marking its stylistic failure. The last six essays, by Siobhain Bly Calkin, Judith Weiss, Robert Rouse, Yin Liu, Emily Wingfield, and Rosalind Field attend to social, intellectual, and cultural contexts of romance. Calkin shows (through The King of Tars and Sir Ferumbras) how romance scenes of baptism reveal an understanding of religious identity as a product of actions, experiences and visions rather than words, contrasting the views of theologians. Weiss puts the swooning of Troilus and Criseyde in similar context, this time medieval medical understanding of syncope, to challenge modern perceptions of this activity as indicative of Troilus's weakness. Rouse looks to romances (Guy of Warwick in particular) for how they reveal a (perhaps surprisingly) informed medieval geographical understanding. Liu considers romance alongside genealogy in a fifteenth-century chantry priest's use of Guy of Warwick in armorial rolls. In the final two essays, attention shifts to patrons and authors as contexts for reading romance, Wingfield in the Scottish Buik of King Alexander the Conquerour and Field in Anglo-Norman romance generally. Wingfield shows, by studying signatures and inscriptions in these manuscripts, how one owner of both extant copies of the text seems to have read it. Field concludes the volume with a reading of Anglo- Norman romance as more concerned with good governance than with individual or dynastic matters and proposes a third romance category, the clerical.
While the essays all present new contexts for reading medieval romances produced in England and Scotland, many and perhaps most of them look in new directions in terms of content; the methodology relied upon is often familiar, doing little to push romance studies in unanticipated directions. Ailes, for example, expresses her essay's aims by saying that each of her three texts will be "examined in turn with consideration given to their place within the literary tradition and whether the generic labels previously applied to them have any validity" (63). In taking this critical path, Ailes ignores the longstanding debates about the utility of such rigid taxonomies for understanding the narratives we call romance. Other essays in the collection could similarly benefit from critical self-assessment of the very sort encouraged by Pearsall in his prefatory essay.
For in "The Pleasure of Popular Romance: A Prefatory Essay," Pearsall offers a critical context for the essays that follow by tracing over the course of nearly fifty years the changing reception of his 1965 essay that has become a touchstone in medieval English romance scholarship. He points to the formalist and metrical critical environment in which that essay was originally produced and, in response to later negative assessments of his critique there of most Middle English romances on (presumably universal) aesthetic grounds, admits that "It is easy and tempting to ladle out abuse in this way and there is much fun to be got out of it" (10). As one who, working on a romance dissertation in the nineteen-nineties, found myself responding in horror to the critical reception of the genre by mid- twentieth century scholars, there is much fun to be got out of reading his reassessment of that earlier critical orientation. As a grad student I would have appreciated as well his thorough but quick history of twentieth-century medieval romance criticism. From there, Pearsall models an alternative formalist analysis of romance, in pursuit of an understanding of the genre's distinctive "value" (11). This he finds in the particular ways these narratives offer pleasure to the reader, who delights not in their aesthetic disappointments but in extra-aesthetic arenas. He teaches us to read as medieval listeners with an intense familiarity with and appreciation for such stories, rather than as modern experts on medieval poetry. He traces romance's formulaic (and repetitive) narrative features to show that they "creat[e] community and a sense of shared values[...] vital to the aesthetic economy of romance" (15). In comparing the pleasures of medieval romance to those of the Hollywood Western, Pearsall concludes, "perhaps I am the only one left that relishes such things" (17). His essay does much to ensure that this will not be the case for a long time to come.
To provide a flavor of the more challenging essays in the collection, more detailed attention is given below to three such arguments. Nicholas Perkins' essay, "Ekphrasis and Narrative in Emaré and Sir Eglamour of Artois," deploys a critical context that has recently begun informing the study of romance: thing theory and cultural materialism. Certainly the material items in romance have long been investigated from other approaches (most commonly the symbolic), but Perkins here demonstrates that romances describe objects and the relationships between them and the people who make use of them in ways that produce the relationships between romances and their audiences. He provides a sample reading of two romances from a single manuscript, showing how in Eglamour objects act as triggers to particular desired emotional reactions in the narrative and in the audience, and in Emaré how the heroine acts as a gift object that "inspires desire and wonder," emotions that themselves "bind an audience together and nourish social relations" just as a romance itself does with and to its audience (53). He traces through Emaré's cloth how her society has been formed by the objects of the East, as the genre of romance had been formed by incorporating foreign material and values. The essay concludes by attending to "medieval imaginative materiality" (60), where romances' working in networks both fictional and material requires us to conceptualize context anew.
Siobhain Bly Calkin, in "Romance Baptisms and Theological Contexts in The King of Tars and Sir Ferumbras," considers medieval representations of baptism as a site for determining the qualities that produce or mark a human body as a Christian body. In writings of late medieval theologians and in manuals for priests, Calkin finds the Christian body is marked by the utterance of sacramental verbal formulas in baptism. In contrast, romance poets emphasize the actions of washing the body and the priest's presenting a performance for the audience (including the literary one), emphasizing "the spectacle of the body [so that] physical acts, experiences and sights, not words, change religious identity" (108). In Sir Ferumbras Calkin extends this reading, finding that "Christian identity is a physical identity, physically made" (115), one shown to be appropriate to Ferumbras through his wounded body, connecting his wish to be baptized to the experience of suffering. In the process, the essay demonstrates how religious identity, like emotional and mental "states," is presented through physical action; such a reading of romance's investments would have been much more difficult to ascertain without the context offered by theological and priestly texts.
Rosalind Field's essay, "'Pur les francs homes amender': Clerical Authors and the Thirteenth-Century Context of Historical Romance," closes the collection. Here, Fields responds to what she diagnoses as a critical overemphasis on the influence of patrons of Anglo-Norman romance, one she aims to correct with her investigation of its authors, to understand, as she puts it, "whose interest is being served" in these texts (175). She argues that the authors are aware of their position as authors, with "an awareness of contemporary developments in fiction" (180) finding an "intertextuality" among the narratives that indicates the authors are not, as their geographical locations might suggest, working independently and solely in response to the needs of their immediate audiences. She sees Magna Carta and the romances of the time as being produced by "[a] lively clerical culture...looking to the English past for inspiration and precedent" (187). Ultimately she makes the case for returning attention to clerical culture, often dismissed in romance (and other medieval literary) scholarship--recommending that a third category of romance be added to the "popular" and the "courtly": the "clerical," invested in using history as "a model and a mirror for developing the ethical values of the present" (188).
The essays in Medieval Romance, Medieval Contexts offer extended engagements with particular romance texts, many of them rarely encountered even in romance scholarship, and with a range of meaningful contexts. Students of medieval English and Scottish romance will be turning to this collection for careful and informative readings of the particular texts addressed in individual selections; they might, as well, find themselves led by some of its contents in unexpected critical directions, perhaps even inspired to revisit familiar texts to experience them anew. Pearsall's essay models a reassessment of not only the literary texts but of our own personal and collective responses to them, demonstrating the pleasure to be gained in re-contextualizing our own reception of the genre.