This collection and the romances it investigates are crucial to our understanding of the aesthetics of medieval narrative and to the ideologies of gender and sexuality, race, religion, political formations, social class, ethics, morality and national identity with which those narratives emerge.
The lump-child and its parents in The King of Tars
The central figure of the Middle English popular romance known as The King of Tars (hereafter KT) — a formless lump of flesh born instead of a child — defines a certain view of popular literature. The birth is an outrageously sensationalist event; the ideological message conveyed by its subsequent transformation into a human being through baptism is simplistic, vulgar and racist. This chapter concentrates on the treatment of the lump in order to show how its treatment throws into relief the different configurations of paternity and maternity, of gender roles and of religious politics put forward in a range of re-tellings.
The fourteenth-century popular romance Guy of Warwick engages contemporary socio-political concerns in critical and transformative ways. Guy's fantastic reworking of England's past through its titular hero both recognises England's historic culpabilities in its interactions with other countries and transforms these culpabilities into redeeming alternative possibilities for remembering the past and for performing the future. This chapter argues that at the centre of each of Guy's two cycles, the hero finds himself on a formative adventure in a fantastically imagined East; Guy devotes so much narrative attention to the East because the romance responds to and reimagines the West's conflicts with the East during the Crusades. Guy simultaneously asserts Latin dominance in both Christian and Muslim settings and rejects the most egregious moral error of the Crusades—the sack of Constantinople—by creating an alternative outcome in which the hero chooses not to seize control of the Byzantine Empire.
The fourteenth-century alliterative narrative The Siege of Jerusalemhas recently begun to generate the kind of interest associated with more canonical Middle English works. Scholarly studies have emerged to fill the lacunae of response and readings, and a new edition is forthcoming. This chapter argues that this new attention to Jerusalem is well deserved and long overdue, inhibited more by scholarly distaste for the poem's perceived relentless and violent anti-Judaism, than by any intrinsic lack of literary or cultural value. The argument concerning the poem is predicated on a recuperative reading in another sense of the word. It suggests that the virulent anti-Judaism from which scholars recoil is neither as unambiguous nor singular as is commonly claimed.
According to Sir Degrevant, an early fifteenth-century romance with a lively plot and remarkable density of description, what women want is a handsome, valiant, wealthy and noble lover, triumph over fierce paternal opposition, a splendid wardrobe, and a fabulous room of their own. Degrevant is written in the sixteen-line tail-rhyme stanza often characteristic of popular romances, and, although it has no identifiable main source or close analogues, it also incorporates a number of conventional thematic and verbal formulas. It argues that the term landowning class tends to occlude women's social and cultural activities. In the getting and maintaining of wealth and power, a particularly demanding task in the political and economic upheavals of the fifteenth century, the making of marriages was a way of brokering alliances and providing for the orderly transfer of wealth.
The romance of Sir Percyvell of Gales was probably composed in the north of England early in the fourteenth century but obviously enjoyed widespread popularity in medieval England. This chapter notes that the Percyvell-poet is a master of the proairetic code: he is clear about where the story is going, and makes sure that we are clear about it too. In the fourteenth century, however, Percyvell owed most of its popularity not to being read, but to being told and re-told, possibly from memory. The discussion of the poet's reshaping of his source is in two sections. The first deals with the Percyvell-poet's ‘unscrambling’ of Chretien's plot, and considers how this affects the mood of the story. The second deals with the poet's happy ending and asks what makes it, in all senses of the word, fulfilling.
Le Bone Florence of Rome and bourgeois self-making
The earliest surviving representation of an English bourgeois family at prayer appears in a fifteenth-century book of hours, now known as the Bolton Hours, made for members of a York mercantile family. The family's whole prayer, cast as it is in that form of the future that imperatives bring into being opens up a space for narrative. The family is represented around the issue of sexual conduct and good name of its female members. There was more than one late-medieval discourse of virginity. On the one hand, virginity was represented as a sacred vocation that was placed highest in the triad virginity-widowhood-marriage. This way of categorizing female sexuality had been a commonplace of Christian thought since the fourth century.
Sir Gowther is a 700-line narrative probably originating about 1400 in the North Midlands. It is conspicuous for that surface crankiness and drastic speed which are often found in medieval English verse romances. The peculiarity of Sir Gowther is that it focuses key anxieties of society's dominant group at such a pitch as to project a kind of worst-case threat to dynastic stability. The questions that loom dramatically in this narrative concern the state of society as well as the state of the soul. It begins with warnings about the power of the devil. It then introduces a society wedding between a Duke and a bride who seem to have stereotypical credentials for producing noble heirs.
Considering the role of nonreading through the lens of digitally-inspired object-oriented theory that focuses on assemblages and relations within networks, this chapter argues that, when letters or books are more valuable for nonreading, their meanings, and the ways in which readers participate with them, change. This change affects books even in moments of reading, for it highlights their ever-present potential to act and be used in ways contrary to how writers might want them to work. Analyzing the role of nonreading through its literary instantiations in scenes like that from the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, and in manuscripts where readers draw or inscribe their names, encompasses acts of participation that resist and critique modes of participatory reading like those studied in previous chapters. In this way, nonreading could shift books into alternative networks, and highlights how medieval readers could take charge and make books and reading work for themselves.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and John Lydgate’s Troy Book
This chapter begins with an exploration of an overlook aspect of the widespread medieval humility topos, used by Chaucer, Lydgate, and other late medieval writers. Far from simply expressing humility, the topos is often also used to invite readers to correct the text, thus laying the groundwork for a discourse of participatory reading in late medieval England. This chapter argues that emendation invitations represent an act of participatory reading demonstrating affinities with today’s crowd-sourced editing practices, and shows how Chaucer, Lydgate, Thomas Norton and William Caxton, alongside other writers, turned to the emendation invitation in ways that sheds light on how they anticipated and attempted to control their readers and their readers’ participatory reading practices.