This slim but ambitious volume will reward the efforts of a surprisingly wide community of readers. Leitch examines the relatively neglected secular literature of England from roughly 1437, the beginning of Henry VI's personal rule, to 1497, the end of the last rebellion against the Tudors. She argues that this literature is distinguished by a heightened concern with social and political upheaval, specifically by a preoccupation with the notion of treason. She proceeds, in four chapters, to examine works from a variety of genres, though especially prose romance, in their social and political context by means of what she calls "the lens of treason" (7). Literature from the decades before this period does not display the same kind or degree of preoccupation. Distinctive in this period also is a preoccupation with treason as an expression of the violation of horizontal bonds--treason, in short, that was a violation of affinity and community. Treason as an assault on lordly rule, a growing focus in law in late medieval England, is also treated in these texts. But the legal definition of treason is but one piece of a large and urgent conversation about war and chaos, loyalty and betrayal, Leitch reveals to us. Particularly compelling, in this reader's view, is the evidence Leitch provides of the way English authors altered, adapted and (mis)translated texts then in circulation (for example, stories of Roland, or Llull's Book of the Order of Chivalry) to "make" them speak about treason directly. Also distinct in this period is a secular ethos that does not look to providence to sort out human affairs or to solve human problems, even those caused by human evil or personal betrayal.
We learn a great deal not only about the work English secular literature accomplishes in this period, but also about our own history of interpreting it. For example, when examined as an example of a discourse about treason, Malory's Morte Darthur seems less of a "solitary landmark in a desolate literary landscape" (6). We come to appreciate not only the work accomplished in its day by literature in its own context but also our habit of assigning certain texts to the canon and others to neglect, and the effects such decisions then have on the way we proceed to interpret the texts. This reader found particularly interesting Leitch's argument in her postscript regarding how early modern thinkers began the work of classifying these texts--lumping all late medieval romance together in one period of long decline, rather than seeing the unique features and significance of discrete periods such as the one examined here. This point also reflects the reach of her argument: by appreciating the unique characteristics of this period, we complicate the narrative of change. The year 1500 becomes less of a hard boundary between a thematically united "before" and a differently themed and generic "after."
To make her argument, Leitch has to take on the formidable corpus of scholarship on Malory's solitary text. She also engages with scholarship that insists on the distinctiveness of print culture when she considers Malory alongside the printed editions by Caxton and argues for their thematic commonalities. Throughout, she challenges received notions about genre in terms which do not alienate readers who find such squabbles beside the point. She determinedly considers literary and non-literary texts together in order to uncover a broader "literary culture" (5) than narrowly conceived literary analysis would permit.
Throughout, Leitch deepens her argument by investigating not merely what these texts meant but how they meant. Here, she is using the work of other scholars on book ownership, reading practices and speech acts to demonstrate some of the ways these texts gained purchase in and reflected the cultural imaginary. In this way, and by considering romance along with other genres, Leitch's work heads off the objections of social and cultural historians who want texts to have a "social logic," as Gabrielle Spiegel would call it--and thus opens itself to wider utility, such as by historians (like me) of other periods and nations. In line with several other scholars, she argues that readership of prose romance was increasingly penetrating down the social scale to include merchants as well as gentry.
That said, Leitch situates her argument in the scholarship of English medieval literature. One of the strengths of this volume is that she responds to a deep pool of scholarly writing, yet also reflects a very impressive familiarity with the historical texts themselves in order to trace derivations, interpretations, interpellations and translations from one text to another. Because she is writing for other scholars in that large field, she quotes extensively from the fifteenth-century texts, sometimes in the middle modern sentences, which has the unfortunate effect of breaking up and muddling her argument. It is my view that some editorial decisions in the name of readability--for example, slowing down her presentation of the textual material--would have been well taken. Certainly, quoting Anglo-Saxon without providing a translation, as she does in one instance, should have been avoided. Otherwise, the presentation of material makes the volume accessible to a wide readership: the footnotes are well explicated, the bibliography complete and a chronological listing of major works appended.