Romance and its Contexts in Fifteenth-Century England: Politics, Piety and Penitence by Raluca L. Radulescu (review)
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Reviewed by
raluca l. radulescu, Romance and its Contexts in Fifteenth-Century England: Politics, Piety and Penitence. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2013.Pp. 252. isbn: 978–18–438–359–7. $99.

This learned and scrupulously researched book by Raluca L. Radulescu demonstrates the benefits of two kinds of critical analysis that have been steadily growing in popularity and refinement: first, reading against and across genre and other familiar critical paradigms, such as sacred/secular, public/private, or Arthurian/non-Arthurian; and second, reading medieval literary works with more intimate knowledge and use of their localized manuscript evidence. The purpose of this book is to illustrate anew the complexities of romance reception in the late medieval period, especially with regard to the anonymous ‘pious’ Middle English romances and the Grail legend, and especially with an eye toward what the author calls ‘politically informed romance reception’ (14). To help navigate these two clusters of interest often perceived as disparate––spiritual content and political context––Radulescu maps out the interrelationship of two central literary themes, ‘the suffering king and genealogical anxiety’ (1), arguing that these themes presented romance audiences with much-needed opportunities to sort through the political upheavals and political propaganda of late medieval England.

The strengths of this book lie in the author’s depth and breadth of knowledge about her chosen works––she is the author or co-editor of six other books on related texts and subjects––and in her extended close readings rooted in painstaking analysis of each text’s manuscript context. Her chapter on the ‘pious’ romances Roberd of Cisely, Sir Isumbras, and Sir Gowther argues that these romances, often understood to be a-historical, in fact offer potential political readings through their treatments of the suffering hero-ruler. Especially evocative here are the author’s connection between the dazzling ‘angel-king’ in Roberd and Edward IV’s sun symbol (48-49); her reading of manuscript additions that seem to heighten the same poem’s imagery of the court fool in the years coinciding with Henry VI’s mental deterioration (52-54); and her use of the paternity anxieties and rumors involving Henry VI’s son, Prince Edward of Lancaster, as a potential context for Gowther’s youthful savagery (59-64). Her subsequent chapter on kingly suffering and genealogical descent in Henry Lovelich’s translation of the Estoire del Saint Graal couples Lovelich’s own narrative additions together with the manuscript’s marginal notes––annotations written by the scribe John Cok––to demonstrate a two-fold heightening of the themes in question in the writing and reception of this text. Particularly effective is Radulescu’s connection between the imagery of Solomon’s lineage in the Grail narrative and Lovelich’s particular interest in contemporary English genealogical rolls (137–139).

Unlike her previous chapters, which study texts that have suffered from critical neglect, Radulescu’s final chapter is on Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, a text about which (as she points out) there is no dearth of criticism, and about which Radulescu herself has previously written a monograph and several articles. A new reading of Malory’s Lancelot is deemed necessary, however, because ‘an examination of the political significance of his suffering during the Grail quest and in his late life, particularly in [End Page 177] relation to Balin’s and Galahad’s trajectories, has not been attempted to date’ (38). Indeed, Radulescu’s often surprising analysis of Lancelot through the Winchester manuscript’s divisions and marginalia offers a brilliant new understanding of the character––and the Morte as a whole––as deeply grounded in the development of a ‘symbolic lineage’ (165) of suffering, one that invites a particular kind of politically-inflected reading of spiritual journeys.

These chapters are chock-full of hard evidence and thorough, often fascinating analysis, easily persuading this reader of most of Radulescu’s micro-arguments. By comparison, her explanation of the larger stakes and structure of this project in the preface and parts of the introductory chapter (‘Fifteenth-Century Contexts for the Reading of Middle English Romances’) feels less coherent and persuasive. While these sections hold crucially important information for the book, the writing of them sometimes makes it...