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19.08.24 Edlich-Muth, Medieval Romances Across European Borders

19.08.24 Edlich-Muth, Medieval Romances Across European Borders

This modest volume with ten internationally-focused essays embraces secular and vernacular narratives--popular medieval romances--as reworked for various linguistic and cultural publics. Bestsellers all, such as Floire et Blancheflor, Partonopeus de Blois, Valentine and Orson, the Old Norse Clári Saga, Libeaus Desconus and late Arthurian materials, among others, arose in a variety of regions. The contributors from eight different countries, some of whom presented their work at a 2014 conference at the University of Bremen, aim here to examine the intricate steps by which romances (many forged in the lingua franca crucible of French) were reworked across European borders. Accomplishing their work as a kind of "balancing act" (10), the authors examine how the content, form and re-contextualisation of individual romances were reshaped by the transition from one region to another; in this way they address how translators, narrators, editors and compilers revised the tales for different literary and codicological settings. Evaluated are both shifting plotlines and generic features in light of changing intellectual codes, thus raising greater questions concerning the links among genre, manuscript form, cultural assimilation and the popularity of certain romance texts in different artistic communities.

The studies are (somewhat arbitrarily) divided into "Genre and Context," "Translation as Adaptation" and "Continuities." It falls to Bart Besamuca to open matters with "The Value of Genre for the Study of Multi-Text Codices" (15-32), considers multi-text manuscripts (five are scrutinized using three cases studies) in terms of genre, selection and order, highlighting the comprehensive "fluid processes of reader reception" (7), and he notes "a movement in [] text collection from recreation to instruction" insomuch as "edifying tales" follow the entertainment of romances (28). "'L'aventure ke avez oïe | Veraie fu':Bisclavret, Slender Man, and Story Transmission" by Elizabeth Dearnley (33-56) leapfrogs from versions of Marie de France's werewolf lai to ingeniously use the contemporary Internet meme of the "Slender Man" to illustrate how oral and textual versions of "truthful" dissemination models can parallel modern-day digital developments. The editor, Edlich-Muth, contributes "A Saint's Romance: Rósa, Rosana and the Hispano-Scandinavian Links Shaping Flóres saga ok Blankiflúr" (57-76) bravely comparing a pious Italian hagiographical prose retelling of the Floire et Blanchfleur story with an Icelandic/Old Norse epic/poetic version of the same narrative. It is the Italian Leggenda della Rosana that preoccupies the author, a textual "curiosity" (58), when compared to the Old NorseFlóres saga ok Blankiflúr. Her exploration demonstrates the important malleability of genre and the location of the text, less so in terms of the manuscript itself, but within a perceived literary practice.

Next, with "Translation as Adaptation," Virgil Reiter with "Femininity and Masculinity in Flores och Blanzeflor" (79-94) and Sofia Lodén with "Laudine and Lunete Moving North" (95-106) each discuss gender roles in Old Swedish aristocratic translations of (better known) French romances--again Floire et Blanchefleur and Le Chevalier au Lion. In these two Scandinavian cases, fundamental simplifying alterations occur through a re-construal of the principal female characters as well as the standards of femininity, all to appeal to a worldly elite readership in the guise of a "miroir des princes." Venetia Bridges, with "The Romans Antiques Across Time and Space" (107-132) uses "multifaceted" "[s]hapeshifters and literary chameleons" as her interesting terms to define these romances, which include the Roman d'Énéas, Benoît's Roman de Troie romance and the Roman d'Alexandre. It should be noted at the outset that the last-named does not belong to the distinct codicological group--romans antiques--of the first two (along with the Roman de Thèbes), and, amazingly, she uses the word "political" thirty-one times in her twenty-five page essay. As well, several risky conclusions about presumed textual relevance to the Angevin context are listed, followed by a thought-provoking comparison between Lavine's "staged" monologues and an "intellectual" side to Briseida's. An ethical fondness for Ovidian love descriptions continues in the "timeless" afterlife of these texts, irrespective of national boundaries. A pity Bridges could not avail herself of the new (2017) translation of the Roman de Troie by Glyn S. Burgess and Douglas Kelly. Fake attribution is the focus of "The Phantom of a Romance: Traces of Romance Transmission and the Question of Originality" (133-152) by University of Iceland professor Sif Rikhardsdottir. She examines the fraught Clarí Saga, a mid-fourteenth century Old Norse romance, considered for years to arise from a Latin original; the aim is to show how the narrative structure of a "maiden king romance" or bridal quest romance can illustrate origins and originality in translation.

Three studies fill out the "Continuities" segment. Roger Nicholson leads off with "Translating Treason: Shameful Death in French and English Romances of Arthur's Last Days" (155-176) so to highlight the relationship between earlier French Arthurian texts and Malory's Morte Darthur, all the while focusing on shame and contrasting narratological notions of treason. He writes, "[t]reason against the order of knighthood is an international crime" (167). Book One of the Morte Darthur and other texts are emphasized by Suxue Zhang in "Between Father and Son: Interpreting Motherhood in L'Estoire de Merlin and its Middle English Adaptations" (177-204). She surveys the re-alignment of the role of mothers as adapted in several texts, paying attention to Merlin's mother, adultery and Arthur's genealogy, as well as reviewing medieval medical and scientific theories of generation and childbirth. But quite disappointing is Zhang's trite insight, that a "story could travel across ideological as well as linguistic boundaries to become palatable to a new audience/readership" (179). "The Serpent with a Woman's Face: Transformation in Libeaus Desconus and the Vernacular Fair Unknown Tradition" (205-228) by Natalie Goodison brings the volume to a close. She observes new significance in a (demonic) key image that epitomizes shifting representations of heroic endeavor observed in Fair Unknown stories. Transformation and enchantment in Italian, French, German works are examined, although if Goodison had approached the problematic motif as a folklorist I am certain the argument would lead to very different conclusions.

In sum, a rather uneven piece of principally British-focused scholarship, with a few remarkable exceptions (forced to choose, I would pick Dearnley's "Slender Man" as outstanding and Rikhardsdottir's confident assessment of a phantom romance). Others may find hidden gems, no doubt.