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2 - From Sorceresses to Scholars: Universities and the Disenchantment of Romance

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 December 2023

A. S. G. Edwards
Affiliation:
University of Kent, University College, London, and King's College, London
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Summary

Romance is a genre that features duels and dragons, trusts in martial prowess and magic, and is peopled by knights, ladies, enchantresses, dwarves, hermits and kings; clerks and scholars have a much more tenuous foothold, and universities, as the institutions behind them, are given even less space. Scholars may be invoked as putative narrative sources: ‘in storye as clerkes seye’, romances sometimes aver, but usually when clerks are unlikely to have said anything of the sort. University masters and students, those who are, or become, clerks, conventionally uphold views that are antithetical to romance’s values and pleasures, and generally do not feature directly in romance narratives. This essay analyses how universities and clerks interact with the genre’s conventions when they unexpectedly appear in Middle English romance, and in texts that offer a similar concentration on matters such as magic in ways that generate strong romance expectations. Focusing on Chaucerian and Arthurian romance, and especially on a relatively neglected narrative in the Middle English Gesta Romanorum, I show how, across these diverse representatives of romance material, the scholars that appear within these texts – and, by association, the institutions that produced them, the universities – are at odds with the values of the genre, and act to disrupt romance expectations.

I argue that the under-studied romance intrusions of the intellectual Third Estate are ideological, contributing to generic hybridity and commenting on the genre’s class dimensions and especially on its gender politics. In late medieval England, the terms ‘clericus’ and ‘clerk’ could denote a range of intellectual occupations, from those in orders to those who worked with documents, or to the wider group of those who could read Latin. In most contexts, however, medieval clerks are men who have received a formal education denied to women, an education centring on the university, and whose status as clerics exempts them from secular jurisdiction. This essay focuses on men specifically associated with universities, and by extension on the universities that produced them and which are on occasion named. Where romance often employs enchantment to test yet uphold aristocratic values, universities encroach on the role of magic in particular to interrogate the genre’s axioms, such as that of the innate superiority of the aristocracy, the happy ending, or the constructive agency of women – not least since women are often, elsewhere in romance, those who wield magic.

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Medieval Romance, Arthurian Literature
Essays in Honour of Elizabeth Archibald
, pp. 16 - 33
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2021

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