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  • Introduction: Performing Emotions in the Arthurian World
  • Raluca L. Radulescu

The history of emotions has encompassed, for the past few decades, a plethora of fields, making a significant contribution to our understanding of earlier eras, including textual studies. It is now agreed that emotions are culturally and socially constructed. They inform behavior and attitudes within the private and the public sphere, hence reconstituting their significance in a moment that can be perceived to be truly locked in the past is no easy feat. On the one hand, the pressures of period-specific social norms and etiquette manifested themselves in the encoding of emotions in literary and other texts written in the medieval period. On the other, modern scholars point out that the interpretation of any form of pre-modern art must go beyond noting the gestures, looks, tone of voice, and myriad other manifestations of emotion in the written text, to focus on what these would have meant to their first audiences—both from a regulatory point of view (rules of conduct) and as deliberate or inadvertent deviations from the norms.

The study of the intensity and nuances of feeling represented in texts surviving from the medieval period can thus assist with gaining deeper insight into the interpretative codes used by various audiences and recipients of these art forms in ways that tend to be very different from our modern understanding of emotion and its manifestations. Efforts to gain such insight need to start from delineating the ‘communities of feeling’—or, in Barbara Rosenwein’s pioneering term, ‘emotional communities’—that are organized around learning class-based forms of behavior (and emotion).1 Similarly, the multiple facets of education captured in manuals, treatises, and moralizing stories from saints’ lives to popular romance (Arthurian romance included), have to be scrutinized in order to engage with the complex pressure mechanisms that would guide the expression of emotion in both the private and the public spheres.2

While the study of all forms of emotional expression within the parameters of a specific reading community is desirable, approaching medieval Arthurian romance adds at least another layer to be considered: the pressures of a literary tradition that often refuses to offer alternative endings to the major stories on which it is founded. Arthurian romances written and circulating across [End Page 3] Europe from the twelfth century onwards testify to this resistance to change, while they also stand as evidence of the creativity of remanieurs and scribes in nuancing well-known story lines. The immediate effect of changes in such narratives is naturally the audience’s (emotional) response, be it in relation to the private emotions of love, or the broader considerations brought about by grand emotional gestures with a political import. Tailored as Arthurian romance remains to the cultural, economic, and political elites of its day, its witnesses in all the languages of medieval Europe attest to the endurance of interest in testing boundaries and the malleability of a literary form that prides itself in inspiring ideal qualities in its audience. The boundaries tested in romance—and particularly in the Arthurian tradition—include behavior and customs, social class and privilege, with a view to exposing difficult questions: gender and power relations in society, or pressures at the geographic, linguistic, or cultural borders (physical and imaginary) between the Arthurian world (situated as a ‘center’) and other systems and powers.3

While the study of emotions in earlier literature, and, more specifically, Arthurian romance, has broadened to encompass medical and philosophical tracts, educational and political treatises, and many other manifestations of codes in medieval society—including literary tradition—a conspicuous absence has been the material context in which texts survived and were transmitted: the medieval manuscript. Irrespective of the nature of any one codex that survives from the medieval period, the way in which texts were copied and, even more particularly, their collocation with other texts, be it by intent (usually much harder to establish with any degree of precision, if at all possible) or by accretion, speaks volumes about how audiences would have encountered them. Work on Arthurian (and non-Arthurian) romance has often focused on the presumed or known commissioners, authors, and audiences of high...


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