- Expectations of Romance: The Reception of a Genre in Medieval England
In this engaging and important study, Melissa Furrow offers a rewarding and provocative foray into the world of medieval romances in England. Six chapters comprise the book, followed by an appendix and an extensive bibliography. Each chapter ends with a coda summarizing its central argument, offering fresh conclusions, and preparing the path to the following chapter. The final chapter is itself a coda, which recapitulates and develops the preceding chapters. The appendix documents the evidence for the male clerical readership of romances in late medieval England.
Chapter 1, “The Problem with Romance,” serves as both an introduction to the volume and its first section. Furrow begins with two foundational questions, “What did medieval readers think of romances?” and the inseparable “What did medieval readers think were romances?,” and the remainder of the chapter sets up the framework for these perplexing questions, which later chapters unpack and explore. As the title of the book suggests, Furrow underpins her study with reception theory, especially as developed by Hans Robert Jauss and his theory of the “horizons of expectation” that readers bring to their experience of any text or genre. To determine what those horizons were, Furrow investigates medieval reactions to romances as inscribed not only within romances but also [End Page 255] those reflected in didactic and religious texts or non-textual media, such as the Chertsey Abbey tiles.
Chapter 2, “The Name and the Genre,” moves to the problematic issue of genre. Furrow notes that although medieval culture presents an untidy notion of what romance means or includes modern scholars are no less uniform or clear in their opinions. This significant chapter reviews various twentieth-century, largely unsatisfactory, efforts to define the genre, but none provides a satisfactory explanation of what was the actual shared idea of romance in medieval culture. What we need at this point, Furrow suggests, is to reassess categories altogether and reapply our new ideas to medieval romance; for this she turns to George Lakoff’s idea of radial categories in his Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind, which Furrow declares, “can help to make clearer how the generic category of romance may have worked for medieval readers” (51). The theory of radial categories groups items together not because of shared essential features or family traits but in terms of a series of surprising and disparate connections, the most significant of which are for Furrow centrality (prototypical romances), chaining (the logic of inclusion within varying lists of romances), and experiential domains (what emphases or kinds of experience we find in romances). Furrow’s application of radial categories allows her to offer a series of astute connections, determine shifting horizons of medieval expectations, and present truly perceptive readings of a variety of medieval romances, and this is the real strength of her book. Furrow selects romances central to the genre from familiar medieval lists of romance, such as those found in Richard Ceor de Lyon xxx (c. 1300) and the Laud Troy Book (c. 1400). Expectations of genre shift over time and from country to country; as Furrow observes, “Romance in England is a different genre, centred differently, from romance in France, or Italy or Spain” (71). This is a difficult and complex chapter, and readers will want to take time to follow the intricate shades of interpretation, connection, and analysis through which Furrow adeptly leads them. I suspect that inclusion of the story of Tristram and Isolde as a central romance in England may surprise many readers, as will Furrow’s choice of Felice from Guy of Warwick as a prototypical generic heroine.
In chapter 3, “Genres, Language, and Literary History,” Furrow examines the “neighbouring genres” of chanson de geste and fabliau, which in French and in Anglo-Norman literary circles define romance by contrast. In England, however, the chanson de geste was a kind of romance, Furrow argues, whereas the fabliau was absent from...