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.