19.11.01 Archibald et al. (eds.), Romance Rewritten

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Leah Tether

The Medieval Review 19.11.01

Archibald, Elizabeth, Megan Leitch, and Corinne Saunders, eds. Romance Rewritten: The Evolution of Middle English Romance. A Tribute to Helen Cooper. Studies in Medieval Romance. Woodbridge, UK: D.S.Brewer, 2018. pp. xii, 295. ISBN: 978-1-84384-509-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Leah Tether
University of Bristol

This fine volume pays tribute to one of the best-known scholars of Middle English literature: Professor Helen Cooper. This book, though, makes a far greater contribution than simply in its guise as a festschrift. Picking up on one of the most en vogue movements of current medieval literary scholarship--rewriting--, it offers a wide-ranging set of essays structured across four thematic sections: Romance Disruptions; Romance and Narrative Strategies; Romance and Spiritual Priorities; Late Romance. At first glance, these section titles do not seem intrinsically linked to the overarching topic of rewriting, but Megan Leitch's deft and astute introduction sets down a compelling marker for how we should read the contributions to the volume. Instead of just providing a straightforward summary of each contribution's content and argument, as is so often the standard format for introductions to volumes such as this, Leitch skilfully draws together the threads of the volume by introducing and analysing examples of her own from the romance genre, arguing in a sense that Middle English romance needs to be valued in its own right, rather than consistently compared (often unfavourably) with its French predecessors. Together, Leitch's examples demonstrate the mutability of romance motifs and hammer home the notion that we should see rewriting as a broad church, one encompassing a large variety of modes of adaptation. When thinking of "romance rewritten," in other words, we should be concentrating just as much on redefining what we know about the genre of the romance as on exploring examples of textual rewriting from within the genre. This introduction, perhaps even more meticulously than any of the chapters that follow, perfectly echoes the skill and style of the volume's dedicatee, whose seminal book The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare (Oxford, 2004) favoured this form of approach, and has contributed significantly to setting the agenda in rewriting studies from the moment of its publication right up until the present day. Leitch is accordingly to be commended for having constructed this veritable model of introductory practice.

The first section of the volume contains three essays that together explore the disruption of expectations in English romances. Neil Cartlidge helpfully reminds us that such disruptions are often a result of our modern perceptions and sensibilities, habits that have often shaped the ways in which romances have been edited for, and presented to, modern audiences. Marcel Elias picks up the same thread, focusing on the unsettling nature of motifs in romance, and discusses with close attention to textual detail the ways in which fourteenth-century crusader narratives adopt rewriting strategies so as to avoid jarring with socio-political anxieties of the time. Christopher Cannon seems less focused on the notion of rewriting than his predecessors, instead focussing on the subject of comedic disruption in Malory as a narrative technique, a topic inspired at least in part by Cooper's work. If this chapter does not speak quite as clearly to the volume's core subject matter as it might, it does set up neatly the second section on narrative techniques.

In this second section are four essays that each present an enquiry into the adaptation of old material for new contexts, often focusing on material inherited from classical and courtly forebears. Jill Mann's analysis of the juncture between comedy and tragedy echoes, in content, Cannon's chapter, and is thus well placed as the opener of this section. Chaucer's commencement of theKnight's Tale with the ending of another narrative proves a helpful way to demonstrate the point. The subject of endings is also powerfully addressed in R. F. Yeager's consideration of Gower's decision to conclude his Confessio Amantis with a rewritten version of the tale of Apollonius of Tyre. What Yeager draws out especially well here is how vital endings were to the medieval audience--crucial enough to require especial attention in composition. Elizabeth Archibald's brave and persuasive chapter brings us back to Malory and the sources he may or may not have used to write his Morte Darthur. There has always, of course, been wide-ranging conjecture as to whether Malory read the Vulgate or Post-Vulgate Cycle, or both, or even something in between. Archibald here suggests that if we embrace the notion that Malory read the entirety of the Post-Vulgate then various aspects of the Morte seem to find more credible explanation than has hitherto been achieved. The final chapter of the section, by Barry Windeatt, moves the reader somewhat away from the previous discourse by focusing specifically on how body language is rewritten in Middle English verse romances. His suggestion that gestures in themselves are narrative techniques (hence the chapter's inclusion in this section) seems trickier to support, but nonetheless his collection and analysis of examples of physical communication are both valuable and well executed.

Section three brings together three essays on the spiritual and supernatural in romances, and the ways in which both are subject to practices of rewriting. Marco Nievergelt posits the rewritten spiritual narrative elements in Sir Cleges as indicators of an approach to romance that specifically attempts to construct a narrative with homiletic priorities. This question of generic awareness also runs through Miriam Edlich-Muth's excellent chapter on the swan children in the fourteenth-century Chevalere Assigne; Edlich-Muth uses Cooper's notion of memes as a fulcrum for her analysis, which argues for a shift towards the spiritual in its thirteenth-century crusade rendering, albeit one balanced carefully with secular considerations. Corinne Saunders closes the section with a further chapter on generic balance, this time between the spiritual and the supernatural in Malory's Morte. To some degree echoing the sentiments of Archibald's earlier contribution about Malory's adaptation of earlier material, Saunders shows how Malory carefully manipulates visionary experience to push his narrative towards a more spiritual realm than is present in his sources. Three further essays make up the final section on later rewritings of romances. All three essays serve beautifully to illustrate that practices of rewriting extend well beyond the period immediately following a text's original composition. Ad Putter's analysis of a little-known fifteenth-century romance, Court of Love, aptly demonstrates the dexterity and textual knowledge of many late medieval rewriters, a fact also brought out by Julia Boffey and A. S. G. Edwards, who show how Wynkyn de Worde skilfully adapts the Squire of Low Degree for the tastes of a print audience in the early-sixteenth century. Finally, Andrew Lynch whisks us forward to the nineteenth century and to examples from Walter Scott and Charlotte M. Yonge, which together offer a nuanced picture of the Victorian understanding of medieval chivalry. It is perhaps in these last three essays that Cooper's legacy is made most clear, demonstrating--as she has done--that the rewriting of motifs in medieval romance to suit the appetite of developing audiences continues to be an uninterrupted hallmark of the "medieval romance rewritten."

In sum, this volume makes a valuable contribution, both for the tribute it offers to its dedicatee, and for the examples of scholarship on the topic it covers. There are moments where perhaps more clear reference to the subject of rewriting might have focused the reader's mind better; it would also have been useful to have seen a more systematic and consistent engagement with the approaches and methods of the dedicatee as starting points for each analysis. Nonetheless, the legacy of Cooper's work is both implicitly and explicitly clear throughout the contents of this volume. The book, in short, does what every good festschrift should: it reminds the reader of both the achievement and, importantly, the potential of the person's oeuvre from which each of the individual studies take its inspiration, such that each chapter demonstrates, through a new and original analysis, what avenues it is now possible to explore, and what kinds of questions can now be answered, thanks to the dedicatee's foundational work.

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