The gift of narrative in medieval England places medieval narratives – especially romances – in dialogue with theories and practices of gift and exchange. It argues that the dynamics of the gift are powerfully at work in these texts: through exchanges of objects and people; repeated patterns of love, loyalty and revenge; promises made or broken; and the complex effects that time works on such objects, exchanges and promises. The book ranges widely, from the twelfth-century Romance of Horn and English versions of the Horn story to the romances of the Auchinleck Manuscript, and from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to Geoffrey Chaucer and John Lydgate. In reading these texts alongside some of the debates about giving and receiving that radiate from Anthropology and critical theory, Nicholas Perkins asks a number of questions: What role does the circulation of things play in creating narratives? Do romance protagonists themselves act as exchanged objects, and what difference does gender make to how they navigate networks of obligation and agency? Is storytelling a form of gift-giving? Do linguistic exchanges such as promises operate like gifts? How do medieval stories place obligations on the audiences who listen to them or, perhaps, receive a manuscript copy as a precious gift? Bringing together literary studies, Anthropology and material practice in an invigorating way, this book encourages close attention to the dynamics and pleasures of the gift in narrative.
The Introduction sets the book in the context of medieval literary studies, theories of the gift, and scholarship on exchange in medieval society. It summarizes each chapter and sets up the argument of the book.
This chapter pays detailed attention to a major but little-studied poem of the twelfth century: The Romance of Horn. It reads the many gifts, obligations and exchanges in the text through ongoing debates about the nature of gift-giving: for example, whether a spirit or surplus is generated in the act of giving, and how an individual gift relates to larger structures of reciprocity in society. It argues that in The Romance of Horn, the eponymous hero acts as a gift to the story: arriving as if unmotivated, before revealing the narrative’s prior commitments, debts and patterns of reward and revenge. It also suggests that the act of storytelling, both inside the text and of the text itself, shares these attributes of the gift. The chapter also analyses two English versions of the Horn legend, comparing their treatment of the dynamics of gift and exchange with The Romance of Horn.
This chapter focuses on one of the major surviving collections of Middle English romances: the Auchinleck Manuscript. It investigates the movement and value of objects in Horn Childe and Maiden Rimnild, Amis and Amiloun, Tristrem and Orfeo. These objects have their own narrative trajectories, and operate as events themselves, as scholars of material culture have suggested. In dialogue with Annette Weiner’s work on inalienable objects, the chapter explores how precious objects in romance also embody personal relationships and the values suggested by keeping as well as giving. Finally, it analyses Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, showing how Gawain acts both as an object of exchange and a participant in exchange who must judge what should and should not be given, and exploring how the poem harnesses the dangerous surplus of narrative that is inscribed in its hero.
Chapter 3 pursues the idea that people may at times be givers, receivers and exchanged objects in patterns of reciprocal relations. It focuses on prisoners and gendered exchange in Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale and Troilus and Criseyde, reading them through debates over the ‘traffic in women’, and through the reflective work of anthropologist Marilyn Strathern on gender and the gift. How does Chaucer represent these texts’ protagonists as both given objects and desiring subjects? Strathern’s notion of ‘partible’ persons, and her attention to the way that people’s agency is expressed through the obligations in which they are bound, prompt a reading of Chaucer’s poems as a network of obligations, forces and gendered performances, embedded in which are notions of what it means to have agency, to give, and to be given.
Chapter 4 focuses on the giving and receiving of promises and speech acts. Reading The Franklin’s Tale and The Manciple’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it asks what kind of obligations and responses are engaged by promising and other performatives, and how gender and genre make a difference to the effects of these linguistic acts. In The Franklin’s Tale, a potential sex triangle is resolved happily through the protagonists’ generosities of body, word and coin. The Manciple’s Tale, by contrast, has a darker narrative patterning whose reciprocal gestures are destructive, and whose final warnings are of the dangers of giving and telling. Both tales represent the spoken or written word as an unpredictable object, whose meanings and return value may be initiated but not finally contained by its speaker or author.
Chapter 5 explores the persistence and ambivalence of narrative exchange through John Lydgate’s Troy Book – a fifteenth-century retelling of the Trojan story encompassing epic, moral history and romance. Lydgate’s poem is patterned by repeated exchanges of words, acts of violence, gifts and thefts, and the movement of bodies in and out of the besieged city. The chapter reads The Troy Book’s exchanges in the light of theories of materiality, the vibrancy of matter and networks of agency. It also suggests that particular performances of a narrative shed light on how giving and receiving are understood, and it focuses attention on a ‘performance’ of the Troy Book in Manchester, John Rylands Library MS English 1. This magnificently illustrated copy, itself both a gift book and containing the recursive histories of Trojan exchange, provides an arena for exploring how the reciprocities discussed in each of the book’s chapters are not limited to the narrative structures of a particular literary text, but are embedded in relations between source and poem, author and patron, and a book and its owners or audiences.