The Alexander Romance in the age of scribal reproduction
The aesthetics and precariousness of a popular text
in Bestsellers and masterpieces
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This chapter begins with the argument that part of what drives the distinction between texts considered medieval masterpieces and those considered ‘popular’ is a (non-medieval) assumption about aesthetics. Masterpieces open themselves to analysis of style, form and literary elements of language (for example, metaphor, allusions to other texts, and so on); and those that survive in one or only very few versions provide a (modern) sense of an authorial hand in their crafting – even where the identity of an author is not known – a position tied to Romantic and modern ideas that art reflects an artist’s genius. Medieval ‘popular’ texts, on the other hand, are rarely recognised for their markers of literariness, perhaps because of the nature of their transmission and circulation: it is difficult to understand widely circulated medieval texts as reflections of a singular authorial intent. To the extent that we have found use for such texts in modern scholarship, we still use methodologies and critical approaches that pay little or no attention to questions of aesthetics and instead think primarily of their ‘cultural’ importance (socio-economic, gendered, religious, interreligious, etc). This chapter considers the case of the medieval ‘greatest hit’ known as the Alexander Romance, to show that its medieval transmitters did indeed consider its aesthetic qualities, and that we too should and can approach this text with an eye to its literary qualities, despite its wide circulation and existence in multiple versions and languages.

Bestsellers and masterpieces

The changing medieval canon

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