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17.10.14, McKinstry, Middle English Romance and the Craft of Memory

17.10.14, McKinstry, Middle English Romance and the Craft of Memory

Adding to scholarship on medieval memory theory, in Middle English Romance and the Craft of Memory Jamie McKinstry argues that Middle English romances not only act as the site of memory but also tool for memorization practices. Inside a romance are multiple layers of memorial devices or acts of memory spanning from the narrator of the romance who frames the story as a tale once heard or read, to the characters who actively remember--or do not remember--or the objects that recall meaning, to the audience who employs their memory through the act of reading and recollection and finally, to the poet who recreates a something new from something old. To convey the importance of memory across the genre, McKinstry incorporates examples from an impressive number of major and minor romances--Emaré, Sir Orfeo, Troilus and Criseyde, Sir Gowther, Gawain and the Green Knight, King Horn, Athelston, and Le Morte Darthur to name only a few. Memory, according to McKinstry, brings the past into the present and "is essential to a romance's success as morally satisfying, entertaining, and challenging literature" (217).

Before unpacking memory and romance, McKinstry summarizes a selection of criticism on the function and performance of memory. He begins the chapter with Aristotle who linked memory with image and provided medieval memory theorists like Aquinas and Hugh of St. Victor with a guiding principle of memoria: "To engage with one's memory was to work, to create, to understand, but the remembering subject must want to undertake this work in the first place" (27). Although some actions will still be involuntary, "the subject must be willing to use their own memory, and become receptive to the past in the present through the fluidity of a memorial catena or 'eidetic' imagery" (27), which establishes the practice of remembering via a "journey, chain, image, and place" (27). Middle English romances, therefore, both consciously and unconsciously store the past in easily accessible forms for retrieval by the author, the characters, and the readers.

Following the theoretical framework, the remainder of the monograph surveys a range of memorial devices that romances incorporate beginning with the foundation that they inherently provoke a recollection of the past through their place settings and their sources and analogues. Subsequent chapters focus on various reoccurring rituals in the wild space of the forest; the memorial power of repetitive words, objects, and dreams; false memories, lies, and forgetting, and each chapter includes an array of texts, some of which support the chapter's main argument and others that serve as a reinforcement or parallel example. Throughout, McKinstry emphasizes the point that while memory and memorial devices are essential to romances, their functions are fluid and even these examples are subject to change depending on what the text needs to resolve its central conflict.

Middle English Romance and the Craft of Memory is an ambitious text. Not because of its argument, which makes some obvious claims about textual inheritance, but because of the sheer number of romance texts that McKinstry includes. Such a wide selection in each chapter often distracts from his ultimate aim to unpack "memorial mechanisms" (1) that might be avoided by footnoting some of the examples in the main body. Although the variety of sources may be overwhelming at times, McKinstry does bring many minor romances to the fore that have received less criticism, such as Emaré, Sir Gowther, and Ipomadon, providing a nice counter to the more popularly discussed works, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Troilus and Criseyde, and Malory's Le Morte Darthur. His close reading is finely done, but missing from the analysis are any references to nostalgia or intertextuality, both of which utilize memory and could have added another dimension to his analysis. In all, Middle English Romance and the Craft of Memory is an insightful read but does not offer any groundbreaking contributions to scholarship on memory or Middle English romance.