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One’s own culture can seem so familiar that it is easy to presume no explanation of it is needed. The very existence of the two books under review here reminds us that memory, increasingly outsourced to the Internet, and emotion, increasingly complicated by encounters with people from other cultures, cannot be taken for granted as unchanging or universal. Spanning the widening gap that separates us from medieval lives, the books under review work admirably to replace reflexive responses to romance literature and the culture that produced it with informed understanding, illuminating both the past and the present.
The essays in Emotions in Medieval Arthurian Literature expand on papers read at the 2011 and 2014 International Arthurian Society congresses. Displays of emotion are plentiful in Arthurian romances, and because parallel versions of Arthurian romances abound in different European languages, comparative study of the behaviors and vocabulary of emotions across linguistic boundaries delivers rich results. The book’s subtitle refers to the operation of emotions in the mind and body and to their expression in speech. Thus, “emotion is physically written on the body” (p. 9) in the form of behaviors such as blushing and weeping and in responses such as illness. In medieval texts, emotions normally convey a nonverbal message to other characters and to readers alike. They therefore supplement what readers learn from narration and speech. Even when a character’s emotions are concealed from other characters, the reader is always privy to them.
The first two essays frame the volume methodologically in modern and medieval contexts for understanding emotion. Jane Gilbert’s “Being-in-the-Arthurian-World” reads emotion in the Prose Lancelot for evidence of “magical thinking” as described in Sartre’s Esquisse d’une théorie des émotions (1939) and “magical nominalism” as presented in Martin Jay’s eponymous essay about photography. Her point is that the affect summoned forth in him by his love for Guinevere takes Lancelot “to a higher, magical sphere” (p. 25) both physically and morally. More broadly, something like this “Lancelot affect” attaches to other Arthurian figures, who represent a distinct affective “thisness” that is conjured up for the reader by their names alone; and, moreover, this affective dimension of character is preserved from text to text, even in translation, by Arthurian romancers. Corinne Saunders’s “Mind, Body and Affect in Medieval English Arthurian Romance” is grounded in a review of premodern medical treatises, establishing a key premise about medieval emotion: “Mind, body and affect are interconnected, and the emotions necessarily have a cognitive as well as an affective aspect” (p. 35). From there, Saunders convincingly challenges the commonplace that English Arthurian romances define character by action, arguing instead, via attentive readings of passages from Ywain and Gawain, Sir Launfal, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Malory’s Morte Darthur, that character is created out of an imbrication of mind, body, and affect.
In the same vein, in “‘What cheer?’ Emotion and Action in the Arthurian World,” Andrew Lynch cautions against ignoring the historical valences of medieval discourses of emotion. Lynch seeks the narrative purpose of emotion in Laʒamon’s Brut, Thomas Chestre’s Sir Launfal, and Malory’s Morte, finding that the Arthurian [End Page 257] court is in harmony when the emotions of Arthur’s subjects mirror his. If Arthur is angry, then the Round Table is roused to wage war against his enemies, and whether his knights achieve victory or suffer defeat, the king’s emotional response to their deeds echoes back at him from his retinue. Absent this sympathetic bond, however, the Arthurian polity is threatened—for example, by the rebellion of Mordred or the adultery of Guinevere. Publicly performed emotion is the focus of Raluca Radulescu’s...