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Desire Out of Order and Undo Your Door

From: Studies in the Age of Chaucer
Volume 34, 2012
pp. 247-275 | 10.1353/sac.2012.0003

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This is an essay about romance and desire, but not the kind of desire we usually associate with romance. Its focus is a young woman’s physical intimacy with a disfigured corpse in Undo Your Door, a Middle English verse romance (better known as The Squire of Low Degree) that is preoccupied with the genre’s capacity not only to articulate desire but to contain the disorder that it inevitably produces. It argues that readers’ discomfort with her errant conduct has produced persistent misreadings, both purposeful and inadvertent, since at least the second half of the sixteenth century. Moreover, it suggests, those misreadings are inseparable from an impulse to circumscribe Middle English romance, to render its desires benign and readily intelligible. Romance is an enormously powerful cultural discourse; it both scripts our desires, as it does for the protagonists of Undo Your Door, and seeks to organize them into legible and socially acceptable forms. At the same time, our desire for romance, particularly our desire as modern readers for historical or archaic forms, affects the kinds of meaning that we attribute, indeed that we want to attribute, to the Middle English romances. First published c. 1520, and extant in a complete version only from the 1550s, Undo Your Door is commonly regarded as a relic of an outmoded genre. Ostensibly backward looking in its choice of form and subject matter, its achievement can only be understood as a critique of romance’s limitations, as a cultural ideology and an aesthetic form. Too medieval to warrant the attention of early modernists and too late to secure a spot in the canon of Middle English romance, Undo Your Door awkwardly straddles the “great divide” that continues not only to structure our desire for the past but to condition the kinds of desire we allow that past to narrate.

“otherwise called the squyer of lowe degree”

Undo Your Door is an early Tudor verse romance first printed by Wynkyn de Worde, c. 1520, and then again by William Copland, c. 1555–60. A radically abbreviated version also survives in the seventeenth-century Percy Folio.1 Over the past few decades, it has attracted a body of criticism, often nuanced and sympathetic, that has nonetheless failed to consider seriously its most dramatic episode: the princess of Hungary’s seven-year-long intimacy with the mutilated corpse that she mistakes for her lover.2 Scholarship’s palpable discomfort with the princess’s misplaced desire (it is routinely ignored or diminished) is, however, nothing new. Sixteenth-century readers were likewise disquieted by the errant narrative and they were the first to try to impose some kind of familiar order on it.

The original title of the romance, attested on the title page of the earliest print and in the day book of John Dorne, a bookseller in Oxford in 1520 (who sold two copies, priced at three-and-a-half pence each), is Undo Your Door.3 This essay argues that Undo Your Door not only has the advantage of primacy, but that it puts the princess and her door at the center of the romance and prevents us from skipping over what happens when she undoes it. In the middle of the night, stark naked, the princess opens her door. She finds a disfigured corpse, assumes it is her lover, the squire, and takes it into her chamber. She eviscerates and embalms it, then locks it in a coffin that she puts inside a tomb at the head of her bed. Every day for seven years, the princess takes the corpse out of its monumental casing, embraces and kisses it. Ultimately, it disintegrates. At this point, the real squire returns from seven years of adventuring (summed up in a short seventeen lines) and the couple is reunited. They marry and—convention would suggest—live happily ever after.

Although medieval titles are more fluid than their modern counterparts (and much medieval poetry is untitled), the nomenclature of Middle English romance, in both manuscript and print, is remarkably predictable. The majority of extant romances bear the name of the knight whose adventures the narrative charts. John Dorne, for instance, also records sales of Syr Eglemour and...

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