- Romance and the Gentry in Late Medieval England by Michael Johnston
Michael Johnston’s Romance and the Gentry in Late Medieval England is an impressive first book. His thesis that late medieval English romances played a part in creating a gentry identity is convincing both in terms of his argument and in terms of the research underlying it. He draws connections between scholarship that is still too often isolated – literary, social, palaeographical, [End Page 248] and codicological – and shows that there is strong evidence that romances played a role in shaping the burgeoning gentry identity.
There are six chapters, an appendix of the composition and circulation of the nine romances analysed in the text, and a very comprehensive bibliography. In the first chapter – aptly titled ‘A Watered-Down Version of Nobility’ – Johnston looks at how the cultural concerns of the gentry varied from both those of the nobility above them, and the peasantry below them. Chapter 2 explores the literary history of the romances, showing that romances could function as apt resources for exploring class identity from the gentry point of view. In the third chapter, Johnston examines the manuscript evidence of his nine chosen romances, making a good case for the production occurring in ‘a provincial setting for a provincial public’ (p. 127). Chapter 4 looks at two manuscripts that originated in Derbyshire (the Findern Anthology and the Heege Manuscript), detailing the political and social upheavals the gentry faced at the time these manuscripts were created. Robert Thornton and his impressive copying efforts are the subject of Chapter 5, with Johnston demonstrating the ideological connections between the socio-economic and political realities of Thornton’s life with those portrayed in the romances. The last chapter concerns itself with the Ireland family, whose romance-only compilation illustrates, argues Johnston, a more ‘equitable ideal of the aristocracy’ (p. 206) than that of Thornton.
The gentry’s uncertain standing within the hierarchical power structure of late medieval England is frequently dealt with in romances in a fantastic manner; for example, both Sir Degrevant and Sir Isumbras see their gentry heroes ascend the social hierarchy from manor to court, gaining social and political power.
The power struggles between the noble classes often involved the fates of the gentry classes, which resulted in a delicate balancing of power by the gentry themselves. The nobles held power through their control of lands and official positions as Justices of the Peace, Sheriffs, and the like, which meant that good relations with those above were essential. Yet these relationships could be fragile, as all gentry families would be striving to be on the good side of the powerful nobles. Johnston argues that romances like Sir Degravent ‘did powerful ideological work’ (p. 201) for gentry readers, allowing them to imagine that moral or martial ability could gain them economic independence. The reality was, of course, the opposite, as Thornton himself experienced during the Wars of the Roses, when the nobility was divided. The romances often call attention to the social gradations in late medieval England, highlighting the protagonist’s status. Yet, despite the often-grave discrepancy in status, the protagonist manages to come to a positive end, an unlikely, if not impossible, event in reality. [End Page 249]
Johnston’s analysis of the social, political, and cultural environment in which these romances were produced and read, makes for a convincing argument. For example, Johnston details how Robert Thornton’s Yorkshire was ‘teeming with nobility’ (p. 206), resulting in a politically and economically distressing environment, which, Johnston argues, is seen in the themes of the romances Thornton chose to copy and read. In contrast with Thornton’s troubled Yorkshire, the Ireland family’s collection of romances mediate the daily economic threats by focusing on aristocratic largesse.
The attention to palaeographical and codicological detail is impressive. The footnotes are extensive, not only covering the significant works relating to the theme in question, but also frequently highlighting areas of modern scholarly dissent, providing both (or more...