- The Impetus of Amateur Scholarship: Discussing and Editing Medieval Romances in Late-Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Britain
In 1734, shortly after the "Society of the Dilettanti" was founded as an exclusive gentlemen's club whose membership shared enthusiasm for Greek and Roman culture and the Grand Tour, Lord Chesterfield could proudly refer to himself as a "humble dilettante." In 1886, John Ruskin's ethos as an educated cultural critic made him dismiss a contemporary's opinion as that of a "mere dilettante." Monica Santini's monograph explains the semantic shift that happened in the roughly 150 years separating both statements in a case study on the reception of medieval romances in late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain. While delight (dilettante derives from Italian dilettare, to delight) in art and literature was a sufficient foundation for the well-to-do members of an early eighteenth-century club, such mere enthusiasm gradually became insufficient for the educated middle-class scholars who championed disinterestedness and scientific evidence as necessary conditions for anyone's work on past texts.
Santini begins her investigation with a welcome foray into similar examples [End Page 543] of telltale Begriffsgeschichte: There are the "antiquaries" (also: "antiquarians"), enthusiastic and devoted amateurs who read and discuss historical documents. They, in turn, are replaced by "philologists" (also: "scholars," "etymologists," "glossographists"), who abandon the general study of medieval culture and life and belletristic pleasure in historical artifacts to focus on more narrow linguistic and structural analysis. Similarly, the term "editor" is less and less used to describe the mere arranging of a facsimile black-letter reproduction and preparing of abridged modernized versions of medieval texts and more and more to entail the interventionist (and sometimes Procrustean) practices that would come to comprise modern textual criticism. Attention to the Middle English romances profited from this gradual professionalizing of the treatment of historical texts, including the steady clarification of the term "romance" itself.
According to Santini, the unclear dating of the texts as well as the strangeness of language, form, and plot led eighteenth-century "scholars" and "editors" to stress the radical alterity of medieval romances. Terms such as "ancient," "old," "early," "romantic," "curious," "wild," and "Gothic" indicate that readers instrumentalize the genre to demonstrate their own enlightened contemporaneity against the backdrop of an unfamiliar and barbarous past. While this otherness fascinates modern readers, the "simplicity," "naiveté," and "unaffected," "rude" nature of the romances keeps them from admitting romances into existing aesthetic canons. Their nonclassical genre features are judged as downright "dull," "tedious," "cumbrous," and "uncouth."
To most of the scholars who deal with them between the 1760s and the 1860s romances are worthless as works of art: the reason why it is worth saving them from oblivion is that they are so different from the rest of English literature— exceptions, unique and singular 'curiosities'. The destiny and appreciation of romance in this sense is diametrically opposed to that of THE fourteenth-century poet Geoffrey Chaucer, whom most scholars of the following generations saw as one of their, not his, time.(p. 28)
This stigmatization of the romance abates toward the middle of the nineteenth century when the New Philology practiced on the European Continent reaches Britain and becomes visible in the new editing standards adopted by Frederick Madden (1801-1873). Santini ends her narrative in 1864, the year in which Frederick James Furnivall published his edition of the stanzaic Morte Arthur with a foreword by the philologist Herbert Coleridge and with a mainstream publisher, Macmillan, "which meant that the volume actually reached the shelves of bookshops" (p. 234) and, thus, moved beyond the confines of the small private printing clubs that had sustained most work on the medieval romances since the 1830s. "Medieval romances," so Santini summarizes,
for more than a century in the hands of amateur or careless scholars, were among the texts which profited most from the age of philology that started in the 1860s and by the beginning of the twentieth century made the corpus of Middle English romances...