The Medieval Review 14.11.01

Edlich-Muth, Miriam. Malory and his European Contemporaries: Adapting Late Medieval Arthurian Romance Collections. Arthurian Studies, 81. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2014. Pp. 186. $99.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9781843843672 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Kenneth Hodges
University of Oklahoma

Miriam Edlich-Muth complains that New Historicism's tight focus has overlooked the potential contributions of comparative literary analysis. Her study, looking at five massive late medieval works on King Arthur, addresses this perceived neglect by reading works in English, German, Italian, French, and Dutch against each other. The result, which displays a linguistic mastery I can only envy, presents not a comprehensive driving argument or sustained readings of individual texts but a description of the selection, style, and structure of a group of late medieval Arthurian works.

Edlich-Muth proposes the term chronography for a collection of stories presented roughly chronologically within a period loosely defined by one great man's biography--such as King Arthur's--related to cycles but more tightly connected (Povl Skårup's definition of cycles demands that they be made up of at least two distinct texts). While she is cautious about calling chronographies a genre or a sub-genre, this is how her term functions. The three chronographies that Edlich-Muth considers most carefully are Sir Thomas Malory's fifteenth-century Le Morte Darthur, the fourteenth-century Tavola Ritonda, and Ulrich Fuetrer's fifteenth-century Buch der Abenteuer. The fourteenth-century Lanceloet compilation and Micheau Gonnot's fifteenth-century compilation (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale MS fr.112) are used when needed to firm up generalizations about the form or to note the occasional exception.

Malory and his European Contemporaries is organized around a set of characteristics or shared issues. The first chapter looks at the compilation process: what the authors selected, what structures they chose, what divisions they marked, what prologues or transitions they constructed. As she points out, the structure and unity of each work has been a matter of debate, the most tightly unified (the Tavola Ritonda) sometimes being considered a mere translation of the French Tristan en Prose, despite the incorporation of stories from the Mort Artu and Palamède, while others such as Le Morte Darthur and the Buch der Abenteuer are sometimes claimed to be collections of separate tales; nevertheless, they show a common effort to compile a coherent account of events within a period roughly defined by a significant character's life (perhaps looking back a generation or two but lacking a full genealogical history). This is, perhaps of necessity, a fairly descriptive chapter, introducing the texts to readers who may not know them, and defining the scope of each work.

The second chapter, "Style and Narrative Strategy," focuses particularly on narrative voice. A passage from each of the five works is picked and analyzed for how it constructs time and place, what it says about the text or sources, for how it uses the narrator's persona (if there is one), and how it positions its audience. A little is said about the verse or prose style as well. The conclusion of the chapter is, unsurprisingly, that the works have diverse styles, which may have contributed to their diverse receptions.

The next chapters present a more unified argument and a tighter focus on three of the works. Chapter 3 looks at the use of time and genealogy, arguing that the chronographs tend to focus on a more limited time period (not stretching from the time of Christ to the fall of Arthur, the way the Lancelot-Grail cycle does), and accordingly shifts the role of genealogy away from a technique providing historical structure to a variety of other purposes: a compressed set of political relations, as in Malory; or a way of setting up relations between characters, as parallel family histories makes Lancilotto a subordinate double to Tristano in the Tavola Ritonda; or as a way of assuring the worth and foreshadowing the success of a hero, as in the Buch der Abenteuer. Chapter 4 argues that the effect of this historical flattening is to dilute the narrative drive to discover the history's overall structure. Instead, the works develop a historical beginning and end, as characters rise into the roles we expect to have, establishing their identities and positions; a long middle; and then fall into factionalism and death. In the middle, characters function for indefinite periods without significant changes to their positions or relationships, a romance time functioning without history or consequence, and it is in these middles that the authors are most likely to introduce new characters, to bring in story lines from other sources, and to give a comforting sense of fullness and completion to their accounts. Chapter 5 looks at how these new characters and the mixing of stories affects characters and their relationships. In most texts (the beginning of Malory is an exception) Arthur is transformed from Geoffrey of Monmouth's warrior king into a weaker, more benevolent figure presiding over a court defined by many knights' greatness. The English and the Dutch tend to celebrate Gawain (with this sliding into German), while the French tradition denigrates him. Lancelot replaces Gawain in the French tradition, Parzifal in the German (and Tristano, who becomes the hero of the Tavola Rotunda). Edlich-Muth locates the preference for different heroes not in any meaningful cultural difference but in the historical contingencies of what knights the great twelfth- and early thirteenth-century authors in each language chose to celebrate.

The conclusion laments the dearth of comparative work amidst flourishing of detailed studies of single texts in tightly-defined political contexts, labelled as New Historicist, and argues that comparative approaches can shed light on interpretive issues. As an example, she focusses on Malory's treatment of Trystram, suggesting that Malory scholarship has tried too hard to find tight links between this section and the beginning and end of the book, or alternatively has despaired of there being any connection whatsoever. She contends that a loosely-connected middle focusing on new characters is normal in late medieval Arthurian chronographies and should be accepted as characteristic of the genre. While I am sympathetic to the call for a more comparative approach to medieval literature generally and Arthurian literature in particular, I am not sure it is fair to blame New Historicism for monolingual studies and the lack of fluently multilingual scholars. The professional demand to write only on works one can read in the original language has as an unfortunate corollary that one should find reasons to ignore works one cannot read, and the temptation to pick one's history to emphasize only those languages that one knows can be strong (thus English-French connections have received more sustained attention than English-Dutch, for instance). Ideally scholars who lack Edlich-Muth's linguistic competence would be motivated to learn more languages; more practically, more attention to translations or even surveys such as Malory and his European Contemporaries would result in richer, more nuanced readings. While this book hints at such rich readings, however, it does not itself provide them; it remains too general to offer a sustained reading of any one of these works. This is perhaps inevitable, as is the occasional mistake, as when she confuses Guinevere with the damsel who comes to court with Balin's sword at the start of the Grail quest in Malory, making the division between heavenly and earthly chivalry easier than it actually is (143); nonetheless, had this work generated more powerful readings, the case for the comparative approach might have been stronger.

Even should Edlich-Muth be right that constraints of time, space, and academic training make comparative and historical approaches difficult to undertake simultaneously, the lack of historicism in this book is surprising. Beyond a few remarks about circumstances of composition and patronage, there is no effort to situate these works in the communities from which they came: the analysis remains almost exclusively formal. The ahistoricism seems a missed opportunity. The excitement of seeing these works treated not just in terms of sources from previous centuries but in relation to other roughly contemporary works is tempered by the lack of a clear framework for considering the linkages of the texts: are they long-lost cousins, sharing ancestors but isolated from one another? Are there contemporary connections, either literarily or socially, driving the emergence of these chronographies? What networks, literary or economic or social or familial, tied the Italian, German, Dutch, French, and English works together? Both chivalry and book production were international, and I found myself wondering how William Caxton's strategies of presenting Malory's work were influenced by his time in Bruges and Cologne; or whether Gawain's popularity in the north might have something to do with his home in Orkney, a North Sea trading center; or how differences in Arthurian literature might reflect or create different views of international knightly orders such as the Order of the Garter or Hospitallers, or how much the chivalric ethos was permitted to cross class lines and engage non-knightly readers, or how Saracens were imagined in relation to Christian communities. But these are questions left for the readers.

Malory and his European Contemporaries is firmly founded on impressive scholarship, and it achieves its goals of characterizing a related group of late medieval Arthurian compilations. Developing a sense of a related group of works provides a valuable frame against which each book can be considered, and it invites scholars to be aware of the breadth of roughly contemporary Arthurian literature. This book will achieve much more if it does spur others to generate deeper readings of these chronographies in contexts that go beyond the national or near-neighbors to consider broader international communities.

Copyright (c) 2014 Kenneth Hodges

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