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The Romance of the Middle Ages by Nicholas Perkins, Alison Wiggins (review)

From: Arthuriana
Volume 23, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 76-77 | 10.1353/art.2013.0014

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Nick Perkins and Alison Wiggins are to be congratulated both for this illuminating introduction to the field of Medieval Romance and for the wonderful exhibition at the Bodleian that accompanied it in the Spring of 2012.

Organized in six chapters, three written by each of the authors, this lushly illustrated volume seeks to convey the ‘wonder and pleasure’ of the Bodleian’s rich collection of medieval romance, augmented by some wonderful loans—both manuscripts and artifacts—from a wide variety of libraries, museums, and from figures such as Terry Jones and Philip Pullman. After an introduction by the Head of the Bodleian, Sarah E. Thomas, the first four thematic chapters discuss medieval romance itself, addressing ‘Romance of the Medieval World,’ ‘Empire of Romance,’ ‘Scribes and Settings,’ and ‘Dangerous Encounters.’ The final two chapters chart the legacy of romance after the end of the Middle Ages, through ‘Romance in the Age of Print’ and ‘Romance in the Modern World.’

In ‘Romance in the Medieval World,’ Perkins highlights the pervasive influence of the romance mode within medieval literature and culture. It is, he suggests, the malleable nature of romance that allows it to be used for so many different purposes, from knightly aventure to the critiques of chivalry found in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Chaucer’s often-ambiguous hybrid romances, and the moralizing of Gower. The second chapter continues this theme of flexibility, surveying how romance began as a form of literature that narrated the ideology of Empire, constructing popular histories for medieval readers. Starting with Wace and the Chanson de Roland, Perkins follows such a desire for histoire through Horn, Havelock the Dane, and on into the popularity of the Alexander and Troy romances. Through the deployment of such figures, romance both articulates ideologies of empire and conquest, while simultaneously permitting a critique of such modes of power and rulership. In this we are made aware of the often-pluralistic voice of romance, in which multiple social and political discourses may entwine.

‘Scribes and Settings’ introduces the reader to the material manuscript context of romance. In this inspiring chapter, Alison Wiggins surveys a number of well-known romance manuscripts, from the relatively humble to the monstrous and magnificent collections known as the Auchinleck and the Vernon manuscripts. While the entire book is saturated with gorgeous manuscript images, here the reader is especially encouraged to engage with the sumptuous material reality of medieval reading culture and the role of romance within it. ‘Dangerous Encounters’ continues on with this theme of reading, highlighting the role of romance as spiritual exemplum, as in Sir Isumbras, or more often as spiritual danger. Dante’s tale of Paolo and Francesca, damned by the erotic affect of reading the romance of Lancelot, acts as the starting point for Perkins to lead us into a discussion of love within romance. This aspect of romance is perhaps the most readily apparent to the uninitiated modern reader. Here also we find the multilingual landscape of romance exemplified in the narratives of Tristan in Anglo-Norman French, Orfeo in Middle English, Owein in Welsh, and Eger and Grime in Scots. Love is not, as one well knows, ever a simple thing, and Perkins ends the chapter with the Gawain-poet and Chaucer, and their presentations of fin’amor as an ethical laboratory where the unaware stand in danger of more than merely a broken heart.

The final two chapters treat the post-medieval legacy of romance, and while they are indeed fascinating, they will be treated more quickly here. Suffice to say that they contain a great deal of interest for the casual reader and the medievalist alike, from C.S. Lewis’s own heavily-annotated teaching copy of the Gordon and Tolkien 1925 edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (of which I would gladly purchase a facsimile, should the Bodleian be interested in producing one), a hand-written draft page from Tolkien’s own Two Towers, and Terry Jones’ own copy of the script page in which Arthur meets the Black Knight (‘Tis just a scratch.’).

While this is not an academic book as such, it is engagingly written in a register that insistently avoids talking...



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