- A Companion to Medieval Poetry
This book belongs to Blackwell’s wide-ranging series of companions to literature and culture. The publisher’s aim is to ‘provide new perspectives and positions on contexts and on canonical and post-canonical texts, orientating the beginning student in new fields of study and providing the experienced undergraduate and new graduate with current and new directions, as pioneered and developed by leading scholars in the field’. This laudable aim is achieved handsomely in this volume which does everything a ‘companion’ should do. It introduces a wide-ranging corpus of texts, genres, and languages, concentrating on poetry from the seventh to the sixteenth centuries. Contributors include veterans of longstanding reputation alongside newer, but no less incisive and influential scholars and critics: Ralph Hanna, A. V. C. Schmidt, John Scattergood, R. F. Yeager, and Douglas Gray, for example, rub shoulders with Daniel Anlezark, Lawrence Warner, Daniel Wakelin, and Matthew Woodcock.
Medieval poetry, as explored in this volume, is the literature of England (my only quibble with the book being its misleading title). The volume [End Page 248] divides into three sections: Old English Poetry, Middle English Poetry, and Post-Chaucerian and Fifteenth-Century Poetry. Within these divisions, each section has useful chapters on Contexts, dealing respectively with historical contexts, language, and manuscript traditions. The Old and Middle English sections have chapters on Genres and Modes, and the Middle English and Post-Chaucerian sections have chapters on Poets and Poems.
The plan is intelligent. Each chapter can stand alone and is followed by a rich bibliography with suggestions for further reading based on issues raised in the chapter. These reading lists give students a solidly reliable guide through both classic secondary sources and influential modern works, providing a road map that balances the best of traditional against path-breaking up-to-date scholarship. Yet while the chapters are independent of each other, the volume is well integrated, with much salient use of cross-referencing. Nancy Mason Bradbury’s chapter on Popular Romance and Corinne Saunders’s chapter on The Canterbury Tales, for example, consciously illuminate each other. The three chapters dealing with manuscript and book traditions resonate with all the texts under consideration, making it clear that, as Hanna says, the modern editions of medieval texts are the ‘hypothetical construction of modern scholars’ and cannot hope to ‘reproduce any recorded medieval attitude to this text or to texts in general, just as it does not reproduce any single manuscript or reading experience’ (p. 202). This insight, spelled out in detail by Jayatilaka, Hanna, and Boffey, opens up exciting new possibilities for studying medieval texts which many of the chapters introduce into their analyses.
I particularly welcomed the sections on genre, always a tricky subject for students of Old and Middle English. To have separate chapters on both popular and Arthurian romance gives the authors the opportunity, which they grasp, of drawing together new approaches from the vast numbers of books and articles written about these genres in recent times. The twelve chapters on genres and modes in Old and Middle English poetry with full references for further study will be invaluable, not only to those embarking on the study of the literature, but to busy tutors and lecturers who are likely to find much of interest and use here. I also enjoyed the ten chapters on ‘contexts’, clear guides through the historiography related directly to the genesis and production of poetry.
Of special interest, bearing in mind the burgeoning of scholarship in the history of the book in recent times, are the chapters, alluded to above, by Rohini Jayatilaka: ‘Old English Manuscripts and Readers’, Ralph Hanna: ‘Middle English Manuscripts and Readers’, and Julia Boffey: ‘Manuscript and Print; Books, Readers and Writers’. These three chapters exemplify what is [End Page 249] original about this ‘Companion’ – attention to cutting-edge scholarship in recently developed fields of research. Equally forward looking is C. Annette Grisé’s chapter, ‘Women and Writing’, as applied to the...