Romance and its Contexts in Fifteenth-Century England: Politics, Piety and Penitence employs manuscript evidence and source study to examine fifteenth-century political reception of the Middle English romances Roberd of Cisely, Sir Gowther, Sir Isumbrus, Henry Lovelich's History of the Holy Grail, and Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur. In this book, Raluca L. Radulescu pursues "the themes of regal behaviour, human suffering, and genealogical anxiety," thus offering sustained political consideration of romances that she sees as previously undervalued and marginalized by simplistic binary categorizations based on "form (verse/prose), content (Arthurian/non-Arthurian), authorship (anonymous/known author) or status in the canon of English medieval literature (minor/major)," which she challenges (xiii). Alternatively, Professor Radulescu seeks to put discourses of piety into conversation with discourses of romance. As she argues, "spiritual journeys on which romance heroes and heroines embark involve secular choices that have repercussions on the political landscape, be it kingdoms or people they rule" (xiv). In this way, Romance and its Contexts in Fifteenth-Century England takes up an important task with wide appeal: it attempts to relate two discourses that are virtually ubiquitous, distinguishable, and yet thoroughly imbricated throughout later medieval literature.
The first of four chapters, "Fifteenth-Century Contexts for the Reading of Middle English Romances," introduces Radulscu's project, in three parts. It explains that this study aims to demonstrate that the pious theme of penitential suffering and the political theme of genealogy "in fifteenth-century political culture influenced romance reception as much as the romances themselves provided authors of political propaganda with easily recognizable topoi in which sensitive contemporary issues could be expressed" (2). The lengthy first part of the chapter surveys the aforementioned themes as they appear in fifteenth-century political history and reflect on the Middle English romances in question. The shorter second part addresses the challenges and purposes of Radulescu's approach to manuscript study. Here, Radulescu draws on the work of Ralph Hanna and others to assert the potential historicist value of shedding light on understudied, but "interesting" manuscripts that modern editors would reject in their searches for "the best readings, the best copy-text, the most appropriate presentation of codicological information" (29). Her approach recognizes the significance of class, and she ultimately argues that manuscript ownership indicates "the political involvement of a broad section of society" (31). This chapter's final part offers a rationale for analyzing the three anonymous pious romances, Gowther, Robert, and Isumbrus, which "grew and changed throughout the period thanks to anonymous compilers and scribes," in second chapter and then treating the remaining grail romances by Lovelich and Malory separately in Chapters 3 and 4. Radulescu holds that "thematic organisation of the analysis would take away from the depth and scale of innovation encountered in each text" (32). She proposes that the second chapter will survey the period of political crisis in question, the late fourteenth century through the late fifteenth century, creating a frame for the two subsequent chapters.
"Spiritual Journeys through Political Realities: The 'Pious' Romances" begins by suggesting that its three romances' general thematic concerns prepare them to instruct contemporary leaders in times of crisis. The first section on Roberd of Cisely argues "that the image of the suffering ruler employed in the Lancastrian and Yorkist propaganda was influenced by, and in turn influenced the reception of, models of suffering already familiar to fifteenth-century audiences from romances and religious literature. By copying Robert…the scribe/compiler invited a politically minded audience to make connections between this universal story and the contemporary situation" (50). The following section on Sir Gowther examines the two extant later fifteenth-century manuscripts containing the poem and asserts that this fourteenth-century poem regained popularity in the fifteenth century because its focus on repentance for ancestral sins resonated with "contemporary political debate, dominated by discussion of heirs, the king's suffering and the consequences on the population of God's punishment of secular rulers" (66). The final section on Sir Isumbrus engages readers with some useful insights on the Isumbrus texts and their manuscript contexts, including interesting points about the politics of social status and cooperation between men and women. It explains how Henry VI's subjects and later "fifteenth-century audiences could read a counter-model for governance as the protagonist's choices are coupled with the lesson he learns (how to perform one's religious and secular duties well) from his wife" (71). This last part is perhaps the chapter's strongest and refers back to the other two romances helpfully.
Chapter 3, "Chronicling Britain's Christian Conversion: Henry Lovelich's History of the Holy Grail," uses manuscript study to yoke together writerly and readerly moves that reflect fifteenth- century political attitudes, as Radulescu argues. Surveying Lovelich's source, Estoire del Saint Graal, she suggests that Lovelich's particular changes and stresses coupled with the manuscript reader's annotations and various emphases indicate a sharper focus on the romance's themes of kingly suffering and genealogical descent as well as on that of "social stratification and the king's support from a wide range of social strata" in its fifteenth-century reception (108). Radulescu asserts that Lovelich deserves recognition for his key role "of 'inscribing'…the story of the Graal into fifteenth-century genealogical rolls" thus helping to record English national history and participating in "the broader debate over memory and its functions in a period dominated by religious reform" (140, 141). Alas, this chapter's circuitous argumentation mires its important lesson about Lovelich's project in laborious prose.
In the fourth and final chapter, "The Politics of Salvation in Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur," Radulescu maintains that "Lancelot's model of spiritual and secular behaviour provides the audience with an alternative to Arthur's predominantly secular outlook" (149). Thus, she attends to a woefully ignored matter: "Malory's incorporation of the 'Sankgreal' story into his design of a political society in his Arthuriad" (150). Toward this end, Radulescu compares the journeys of Balin, Arthur, Lancelot, and Galahad in Le Morte Darthur to show "that lineages and suffering offer an interpretive code in which fifteenth-century audiences were invited to consider spiritual journeys against a politically constructed Arthurian universe" (153). She considers the political implications of Lancelot's religious experience on the Grail quest by designating him a point of moderation and balance between the resolutely secular Arthur and the simply spiritual Galahad. Radulescu's analysis covers marginal glosses, manicula, and Malory's original additions as well as the ways in which he stresses themes inherited from his sources. The first part of the first chapter presents one of Romance and its Contexts in Fifteenth-Century England's most intriguing meditations; there Radulescu contemplates the politics of the intimate relationship among romance, chronicle, and history. This discussion concludes that "the desire to articulate satisfactory explanations that would make sense of kings' depositions and their aftermath, of the suffering endured by the individual king and of the consequences of violent disruptions in the royal lineage faced by the population" crosses the "the artificial generic boundaries between romance, chronicle, and history in the period" (26). Radulescu suggests that by reading such themes of anxiety in pious romance, we can "reveal political interpretations of these romances hitherto unconsidered" (26). Geraldine Heng's Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (Columbia, 2003) also begins with a chapter devoted to this very generic interrelation. Heng's first chapter more clearly and powerfully identifies the political stakes of cultural trauma and memory, the common ground that history, chronicle and romance tread, in her own analysis. Unfortunately, Romance and its Contexts in Fifteenth-Century England and its bibliography miss Heng's foundational work entirely. This book could have defined its project much more clearly from the beginning and developed it more fully through its end, perhaps offering a theoretical framework that would help readers to grasp connections among the historical background, Radulescu's manuscripts, and her claims about political reception. There are lucid moments and insightful readings, yet the work generally proceeds as an ambitious attempt to bring piety and romance to bear on each other through rather basic political readings of sparse annotations and thematic parallels that vary loosely from source to source by degree. Ultimately, in place of a clear and sustained argument that explains how its evidence demonstrates its logic, this book presents simple parallels between monarchial history and manuscript emphases. Such conclusions seem a bit thin, especially given the labor involved in establishing and understanding the claims about these parallels, and so make for a relatively unsatisfying reward.