Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 May 2015
The earliest known extant copies of the Middle English pious romance Roberd of Cisyle (henceforth Robert) survive in the compendious Vernon manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Eng. poet. a. 1) and its sister, the Simeon manuscript (London, British Library Additional MS 22283), both dated to around the last decade of the fourteenth century. Overall Robert is extant in ten manuscripts dated from the end of the fourteenth to the end of the fifteenth century. Its length in these witnesses ranges from 79 to 516 lines, with the ‘standard’ version being 444 lines (in Vernon and Simeon). The distribution of the extant manuscripts is broad geographically and linguistically, attesting to the popularity of this text in later medieval England. By the time the text was selected for inclusion in these manuscript books, however, the story had been popular for a long time. Its analogues are numerous and wide- spread in a number of languages and geographical areas across Europe. This is not surprising, given the exemplary nature of the story, focused on the fall of a king from power due to his excessive pride. It fulfils the expectations of a medieval audience that God will overthrow the mighty rulers of this world for their overweening pride.
Little or no attention, however, has been paid by modern scholars to the cultural significance of this text apart from its penitential and didactic features. It is commonly relegated to the category of ‘pious romances’ (on which see below) and its core message reduced to that of a lesson in humility intended for ‘Everyman’. Close scrutiny of the manuscript contexts in which Robert survives, including formal features, reveals that much can be gained by reading this text afresh and in the material contexts in which it survives. The examination of the material appearance of the text on the page reveals previously unexplored generic affiliations of manuscript versions of Robert, making a case for a combined secular and spiritual reading of the romance, rather than a purely didactic one, as has been the case in earlier studies.
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