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22.08.17 Perkins, The Gift of Narrative in Medieval England

22.08.17 Perkins, The Gift of Narrative in Medieval England

What does Chaucer have to do with Indigenous Melanesian cultural practices and ways of thinking? Nicholas Perkins’s monograph The Gift of Narrative in Medieval England approaches medieval romance and the long interdisciplinary history of scholarly reflections on the gift from a number of fresh perspectives that enrich our understanding of both phenomena. The main primary texts covered include the Horn romances in French and English; several of the short poems of the Auchinleck Manuscript; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde along with three of the Canterbury Tales; and John Lydgate’s Troy Book. Despite this heavy emphasis on Middle English literature, the depth of Perkins’s engagements with anthropological thought in particular should make the book of some interest to scholars who do not specialize in later Middle English, especially those curious to learn more about the intersection of anthropology and literature more broadly. The book in fact identifies a kind of “speculative Anthropology” within many of the texts it examines, one “that imagines other peoples in order to examine customs, desires, dilemmas, beliefs, and other forms of interplay in the groups that they represent” (240). Perkins also demonstrates great skill in recapping complexly layered debates in the history of anthropology without alienating or overwhelming non-experts, and his applications of anthropological ideas always show sensitivity to the problems inherent in comparing, for example, Chaucer’s fourteenth-century English milieu and modern anthropological fieldwork in Papua New Guinea.

The introduction explains Perkins’s overarching interest in the book in the narrative trajectories of gifts, but more specifically “how acts of giving and receiving are embedded and described in [medieval] texts, tracing, deepening, or constraining relations between their protagonists; how persons may themselves become given objects; and how gifts in these narratives are intimately linked to the telling of stories” (3). Here Perkins also frontloads much though far from all of the more extensive anthropological material, and, while parts of his analysis of exchange rely on familiar theorists such as Bourdieu, Bataille, and (a critique of) Derrida, figures far less well-known to literature scholars become the major repeated points of reference as the book’s argument ranges across different texts: Marcel Mauss, Marilyn Strathern, and others. Perkins never mechanically applies, for example, Mauss’s work on the (contested) concept of hau in gift circulation that he derives from his study of Maori culture, but instead prefers to track how such anthropological perspectives “provide questions and opportunities” for scholars approaching medieval texts with them in mind (127). Inspired by the debates surrounding Mauss’s concept of hau about the “yield” and “excess” that the gift generates, throughout the book Perkins will return to a more general “concept of the active gift--one that grows and yields something more,” and also frame “romance narrative itself as a form of gift-giving” (28). Several such concepts will recur across The Gift of Narrative in Medieval England: surplus; exchange; return; obligation; reciprocity; telling as giving and giving as telling; recognition and misrecognition; constraint and agency within those constraints; generosity or its absence; and indeed the messiness or ambivalence of the gift and the systems of social relations it inheres in and creates.

The Anglo-Norman Romance of Horn becomes Perkins’s first major vehicle for testing out these ideas, and a thorough discussion of it dominates the book’s first chapter, even though the remainder of book commits itself almost exclusively to later Middle English texts. In his reading, “the story seeds obligations whose interconnecting root system, at times unseen, sustains and thickens the narrative,” such that dynamics of exchange and circulation come to define the poem, even in a sort of metafictional way, self-positioning the narrative as gift to its audiences that keeps on giving (29). As a close reader Perkins proves a true virtuoso, and he maps many layers of exchange in the narrative that are sometimes but not always linked to literal gifts of objects described within it: Horn, for one, as Perkins will suggest of other romance protagonists, characteristically functions as a circulating gift himself. The project’s preoccupation with objects in motion leads to special attention paid to ekphrases, and Perkins’s accounts of the various “itineraries of people and objects” in this text as well as in King Horn and Horn Childe convincingly point to a “pattern of prestations that give shape and coherence to the story” in its varied Insular forms (59, 55).

The second chapter also begins with a Horn romance, although Perkins introduces new complications underlying the dynamics of the gift, pointing out how value can be generated precisely when certain gifts are kept back or otherwise not circulated, and pondering the connection between gift and eventhood. The remainder of this long chapter proceeds to investigate Sir Gawain and the Green Knight after selected romances from the Auchinleck manuscript, for example following “the flow of debts and obligations” in Amis and Amiloun (77); the “layers of giving and keeping” in Tristrem and other texts (85); and the “losses, debts, and recoveries” of Sir Orfeo (91). While Perkins devotes more space to SGGK than to any of the Auchinleck texts, I found the account of the latter more impactful in its sensitivity to the manuscript and otherwise material contexts for these works, and indeed in its originality, perhaps only because SGGK is so obviously recognizable to the novice student of the gift as “a romance bound together by exchange, bargain, and return” (96). Perkins’s reading of this familiar poem will nevertheless provoke new considerations of how it probes “the nature of exchange itself” (99), and in this chapter more generally it becomes clear that, in part, the stakes of such reconfigurations of our reading of romance around the dynamics of the gift can lie in a kind of a rescue of medieval narrative from its own tendency towards conservatism on the surface: “Romance’s gifted narratives allow for speculation to surface about alternative story paths, whether that is gifts (not) retained and returned, or promises (not) kept” (83).

Some of these attempted rescues--“romance as a genre is especially accommodating to imagining alternative paths, even when the generically normative path is the one usually chosen” (114)--strike me as more successful or plausible than others. The book’s third chapter marks a shift towards Chaucer’s more generically heterogenous works, although Perkins remains interested chiefly in those of Chaucer’s poems that share at least some family resemblances with the romance tradition. In the end I found myself the least persuaded--or at least the most troubled--by the extended reading of Troilus and Criseyde in this chapter, which emphasizes how Criseyde can still lay claim to “a form of agency” (142), and discourages readings of both this text and The Knight’s Tale that would understand the women characters’ (even sexual) agency as simplistically denied: “reading them primarily through the exchange of women is limited, because both move beyond a paradigm of men being secure or fully agential persons and women being traded objects”: “Instead, flows of obligation and relationship pass through the protagonists and the text” (147). Even as such a reading deemphasizes the specter of sexual assault lurking in so many of Chaucer’s works, Perkins crucially fails to engage with the extensive and rapidly proliferating scholarship on rape and sexual violence in Chaucer and later medieval literature; working explicitly with or against this body of work could have helped shored up the argumentation here. To be sure, some of the scholarship that might have been useful is more recent than the book (such as the 2022 edited collection Rape Culture and Female Resistance in Late Medieval Literature by Sarah Baechle, Carissa M. Harris, and Elizaveta Strakhov), and some more pedagogical in nature, emphasizing the implications of such issues for the classroom (such as Anna Waymack’s essay “Teaching de raptu meo: Chaucer, Chaumpaigne, and Consent in the Classroom” or Sarah Powrie’s “Criseyde, Consent, and the #MeToo Reader”), but other such work is not, including for example the groundbreaking 2001 collection Representing Rape in Medieval and Early Modern Literature, which includes multiple essays engaging with Troilus. In other words, I would have liked to see Perkins ask more clearly what sexual assault in the medieval and/or modern understanding may have to do with the forms of exchange and obligation he traces in these multiple texts that are at the very least “rape-adjacent.”

Chapter 4 retains the preceding chapter’s focus on Chaucer, juxtaposing The Franklin’s Tale and The Manciple’s Tale as contrasting depictions of the capacity for generosity and destructiveness inherent in powerful acts of speech, but makes a turn from anthropology proper to J. L. Austin and his conception of performative language. Perkins’s analysis of The Franklin’s Tale writes against previous readings that foreclose the possibility of generosity or the gift in the tale, finding it finally a narrative “where conflict may both be initiated by a speech act […] but is also healed by reciprocal generosity in language or body” (168). By contrast, in an explication not of speech-act theory so much as “word-deed theory” in The Manciple’s Tale, Perkins stresses that for Chaucer “language and power interact to create new realities” in ways that can prove destructive rather than conciliatory in their generated surplus (171).

The final chapter ambitiously tackles the behemoth that is Lydgate’s Troy Book, and turns out, fittingly, to run twice the length of the preceding chapter to become the longest in the monograph. I also found it to be the most illuminating and methodologically most fruitful of the chapters, particularly in its close attention to a specific presentation/gift manuscript copy of the poem and its illustrations: “MS Eng. 1’s pictures are at interplay with the text. They themselves constitute a narrative, they accompany the textual narrative and they compete with it for space and priority” (215). This chapter thus continues to showcase Perkins’s typically persuasive close readings by means a deft movement through the text of the imposing work itself, but also provides compelling close readings of those accompanying manuscript images, which in his view “tug at and rearrange the assemblage of materials that the manuscript’s user experiences” (218). Not coincidentally, I think, the final subheading “Pretexts, patrons, and hors-texte” also offers the most sustained and effective historicist reading, specifically of Lydgate’s navigation of “a relationship of service and reciprocity with the King,” the poet “as giver, as well as servant” (220), and emphasizes that “[t]his particular Troy book, then, accrued meanings different from those available to a reader of the poem in 1420” (228). Perhaps surprisingly, it is Jane Bennett and her vision of agentive or “vibrant” matter that come to guide this chapter theoretically, and this final turn towards the material aptly concludes a book that might be otherwise accused of dwelling overmuch on the purely textual. For Lydgate, Perkins intriguingly argues, matter is textual and the textual material, acting on the world in those same systems of obligation and exchange tracked across the entirety of the book.

A very brief conclusion follows in which Perkins reiterates that above all “thinking about the gift inevitably opens up new levels of analysis,” as “Gifts embroil people with other people, and people with things” (239). Perhaps the book could have benefitted, then, from a greater engagement with thing theory itself, and maybe even its specific application to medieval literature in James Paz’s 2017 book Nonhuman Voices in Anglo-Saxon Literature and Material Culture, which examines the circulation of objects and questions of agency in an earlier body of literature (after all, Perkins does make occasional comparative references to well-known moments in examples of Old English literature such as Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon). But Perkins already juggles an impressive number of very different disciplinary and otherwise theoretical apparatuses alongside his own consistent dedication to closely parsing the texts of medieval poems and their manuscript contexts, and his book will give all readers much matter to ponder in its own vibrant life in circulation. In the acknowledgments, Perkins indicates that he has been thinking about the general subject of the book for a full two decades, having shared some first thoughts in public as early as a 2006 conference; its polish and wide ambit show it to be the product of long reflection, and I am sure it will prove newly productive and generative in the hands of readers.