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This essay takes its impetus from the thriving discipline of ‘book studies’ with its dual emphasis on the book as material object and as cultural force. Of the five ‘events’ in the life of a book defined in a foundational article by Thomas R. Adams and Nicolas Barker—publication, manufacture, distribution, reception and survival—I limit my discussion to just two, publication and reception, in the life of The Thornton Romances, a volume edited by James Orchard Halliwell and published in London in 1844 by the Camden Society. While studies of the literary sources for Victorian medievalism most often focus on widely known works by Dante, Chaucer, Malory and Froissart, I hope to demonstrate that the four anonymous poems collected in The Thornton Romances played a surprisingly significant role in that medieval revival, despite the modest reputations today of Sir Perceval of Galles, Sir Isumbras, Sir Eglamour of Artois and Sir Degrevant.
‘The text’, Adams and Barker write, ‘is the reason for the cycle of the book’, and ‘publishing is the name we have given to the point of departure, the initial decision to multiply a text or image for distribution’. The decision to publish these four anonymous Middle English romances in one volume at this particular historical moment was made by the Council of the Camden Society, an organization founded in 1838 as one of numerous nineteenth-century learned societies devoted to securing publication for historically important books that no commercial publisher would undertake. The Society's stated object was ‘to perpetuate, and render accessible, whatever is valuable, but at present little known, amongst the materials for the Civil, Ecclesiastical, or Literary History of the United Kingdom’. Its members constitute a Who's Who of prominent mid-century figures, including Francis Egerton (later Earl of Ellesmere); Henry Hallam; Sir Robert Peel; the young John Ruskin; William John Thoms (later to found Notes ' Queries and coin the term folklore); Sir Frederic Madden (Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum); the scholar Sir Henry Ellis; the Bishop of Durham; the Archbishop of Canterbury; the Prince Consort; and the Queen as patron.
Materiality and the material are important in medieval romance. The essays here focus both on the physical forms of romance texts (manuscripts, verse form, illustrations and visual portryals), and on how romances themselves inhabit and reflect on the material culture of the Middle Ages. Specific themes discussed include social, historical, and physical space; bodies and gender politics; and romance illustrations in manuscripts, and in other media. Nicholas Perkins is University Lecturer and Tutor in medieval English, University of Oxford. Contributors: Siobhain Bly Calkin, Nancy Mason Bradbury, Aisling Byrne, Anna Caughey, Neil Cartlidge, Mark Cruse, Morgan Dickson, Rosalind Field, Elliott Kendall, Megan Leitch, Henrike Manuwald, Ad Putter, Raluca Radulescu, Robert Rouse,
Gamelyn finds a place among this volume's potential anti-heroes because his behaviour has so often struck readers as gratuitously violent. In his influential study Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe, Richard W. Kaeuper cites The Tale of Gamelyn to illustrate the propensity of lay elites to claim the right to violence as a ‘defining privilege… in any matter touching their prickly sense of honour’. He writes that Gamelyn recovers ‘right and honour by violently overwhelming the meeting of a corrupt royal court, has hanged the sheriff and jurors, and will shortly hang the king's justice, after cleaving his cheekbone and breaking his arm’. Jean E. Jost's characterization in Violence in Medieval Courtly Literature marks the extreme pole of negative response to Gamelyn as hero: the tale asks us to accept, and even admire, his ‘brutality’ and ‘hard-hearted vengeance’; he partakes of his villainous brother's ‘crassness and cruelty’; ‘he becomes inured to violence; his anger and aggression become more gratuitous, part of his ordinary behavior’; his response to mistreatment is ‘brutally unchivalric’; he seems ‘to know no other path of resolution but violence’. Enough has doubtless been said to justify an inquiry into Gamelyn's heroism in a volume meant to step back from authorial praise of romance heroes to re-examine their often morally ambiguous deeds.
Gamelyn is indeed a knight, and he does indeed break spines, limbs, and cheekbones throughout the tale. But, despite the words Chivalry in Kaeuper's title and Courtly Literature in the title of the volume that contains Jost's essay, I question whether Gamelyn's exuberant sprees of bone-cracking are best understood under the rubric of chivalry, medieval romance's key justification for knightly violence.
This essay offers some fresh contexts for reading The Taill of Rauf Coilyear, one of many late medieval narratives that sit uneasily, and therefore intriguingly, within the generic category ‘medieval romance’. Preserved in a printed edition of 1572, the tale is nevertheless ‘medieval’: its composition is generally dated to the later fifteenth century, and scholars regularly extend the boundary of medieval Scots poetry well into the sixteenth. Rauf Coilyear's claims to the designation ‘romance’ include the appearance of the cyclical romance hero Charlemagne among its characters, the adaptation of an alliterative stanza form shared by a subset of English romances, and the extreme elasticity of the romance category itself. The existing scholarship examines The Taill of Rauf Coilyear within a variety of contexts, including Scottish romances, alliterative romances, Charlemagne romances, romances depicting Saracens, and encounters with unrecognised kings. I hope to expand Rauf's frame of reference in two ways: first, by comparing the main character's peasant identity and his use of language to that of the peasant speaker in the Middle English prose Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf (c.1492) and, second, by attending to two subgenres embedded within Rauf Coilyear, the proverb and the popular complaint or ‘poem of social protest’. These contexts for The Taill of Rauf Coilyear help us to see more clearly what is at stake in its representation of a speaking voice only rarely heard in the realm of romance.
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