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REVIEWS Joel T. Rosenthal. Telling Tales: Sources and Narration in Late Medieval England. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003. Pp. 217. $49.95. The project of Telling Tales is to provide ‘‘a close reading of familiar historical texts from late medieval England’’ in order ‘‘to impose narrativity ’’ upon them, the ultimate goal being ‘‘to impose social or sociological (if not literary) unity’’ upon the world from which they derive. What this somewhat rebarbative description means in practice is the analysis of three different archives—testimonies delivered in Proof of Age proceedings , depositions given in the course of the Scrope-Grosvenor dispute , and the letters of Margaret Paston—in order to elicit a sense of the world they directly or inadvertently describe. This is a bold and imaginative enterprise: the individual testimonies and depositions from the two judicial proceedings are brief and formulaic, and by limiting himself to Margaret Paston’s 104 letters from the family total of 306 Rosenthal deliberately excludes relevant evidence. These limitations are part of the book’s methodological point. Even the most unpromising materials, Rosenthal wishes to demonstrate, can be made to yield insights about late medieval English culture—specifically ways of understanding ‘‘the idea of community and the nature of memory’’—that are otherwise unavailable. The results, unfortunately, suggest otherwise. Proofs-of-age proceedings were held when an heir claimed to have reached the age of majority (twenty-one for men, sixteen for unmarried women, fourteen for married women) and wished to enter into property that had previously been held in wardship. As Rosenthal points out, these proceedings were not merely uncontested but were largely ceremonial . Twelve jurors with special knowledge testified to their knowledge that the heir was of age, usually by correlating the date of birth or baptism with some contemporaneous event in their own lives. Naturally this ‘‘proof’’ was entirely circular: that a birth or baptism occurred at the same time as some other event was hardly evidence that both took place the requisite number of years ago. But evidence was less important than testimony: if twelve men of substance were prepared to say that such-and-such was true, then—judicially if not ontologically—it was true. Rosenthal subjects some two thousand of these individual testimonies to a variety of analyses, some statistical, some thematic. He is interested in the distribution of ages among the jurors, the kinds of cognitive claims they made (did they see the baptism? did they hear about the PAGE 353 353 ................. 11491$ CH13 11-01-10 14:02:52 PS STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER birth?), and the sorts of events they remembered. Fairly soon, however, the analysis declines into what Rosenthal frankly admits is ‘‘a choice of impressions and anecdotes.’’ Despite the claim that we will gain insight into ‘‘a world of feeling and evocative expression,’’ we actually get a series of occasionally amusing or suggestive incidents that do not finally add up to much. The author tends to render this material more evocative with a glaze of sentimentality—‘‘such memories (and their elaboration through retelling) were the centerpiece of many an evening’s talk over ale or the spinning wheel’’—although he is well aware of the dangers of ‘‘a ‘Merry England’ perspective.’’ He also knows that questions of status are crucial here, since the jurors are far from ordinary villagers and are testifying to the fitness of someone who more often than not will exercise some form of power over them. Nonetheless, the harsher realities of medieval social life are kept well out of sight. It is doubtless true that ‘‘the whole dynamic of the recollections emphasizes the cooperative and harmonious aspects of village life,’’ but of course that hardly means either that village life was cooperative and harmonious or that it was thought to be. It is also true, however, as Rosenthal disarmingly acknowledges, that neither this material nor his analysis is ‘‘going to open new vistas into behavior, life experience, or family relations.’’ The depositions from the well-known Scrope-Grosvenor dispute over the coat of arms Azure, a bend Or are not much more promising: ‘‘The depositions’ repetitiveness is striking.’’ For Rosenthal, however, here is the chivalric...


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pp. 353-355
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