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  • Medieval Narratives of Alexander the Great: Transnational Texts in England and France by Venetia Bridges
  • Keith Busby
Medieval Narratives of Alexander the Great: Transnational Texts in England and France. By Venetia Bridges. (Studies in Medieval Romance, 20.) Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2018. xi + 306 pp.

In this well-written and cogently argued book, Venetia Bridges raises issues usually swept under the carpet of critical discourse on medieval romance. The body of narrative devoted to Alexander the Great has recently received significant attention in the work of Catherine Gaullier-Bougassas and her collaborators (for example, the volumes in the series ‘Alexander Redivivus’), but coverage of the manifestations of the Alexander-material has tended to emphasize their specificity rather than that which enables them to transcend boundaries. From the earliest Greek texts through the Middle English Kyng Alisaunder, Bridges traces the deployment of diverse variants of translatio studii, generously defined. She lays out her intentions in the Introduction, defining terms (mercifully retaining ‘Anglo-Norman’) and setting the parameters of the study. Stepping outside of a single matière, Bridges proposes to compare the central Alexander-texts with narratives of Troy, Arthur, and Horn, in Latin, the langue d’öıl, and Middle English. The five central chapters demonstrate how the translationes studii transform the tales of Alexander and his deeds into a ‘transnational’ and translingual corpus, unified and fragmented at one and the same time. Chapter 1 looks at the origins of Alexander-literature in antiquity and the transition to Christianity, in particular the Greek Alexander Romance, Diodorus Siculus, Valerius Maximus, Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus, Arrian, Justinus, and Orosius. These varied texts all evince a tension between the exigencies of historicity and ethical underpinnings. In Chapter 2, Bridges considers the late twelfth-century Alexandreis of Gautier de Châtillon alongside the Ylias of Joseph of Exeter, both likely composed at Reims. It is in this chapter that Bridges begins to work out notions of literary contexts and social networks and institutions which both determine and permit the translatio of narrative material. The conclusions of the chapter provide the foundation for Chapter 3, in which the Old French Roman d’Alexandre is compared to Benôıt de Sainte-Maure’s Roman de Troie and Chrétien’s Greek-Arthurian stepchild romance, Cligès. All three, albeit differently, rise above local and linguistic matters to articulate ethical concerns. The Anglo-Norman Roman de toute chevalerie by Thomas of Kent (late twelfth century and later redactions) does not fit well into the usual continental/insular romance paradigm. It is the principal subject of Chapter 4, where it is compared with the ‘indigenous’ romance of Horn by Thomas (c. 1171–72). If the Roman mainly explores the artistic potential of matter and form, Horn both responds to specific English–Irish politics of the time and offers commentary on comparable political circumstances in general. The Roman is tantalizingly brought into the orbit of St Albans and Matthew Paris. In Chapter 5, Bridges moves from the langue d’öıl to Middle English, reading Kyng Alisaunder alongside the contemporary Of Arthour and of Merlin and The Seege or Batayle of Troye. The unduly local and monolithic reading of Middle English romance in its narrowly English context is shown to be inadequate as a means of accessing its wider import and reception. The Conclusion ties up the various strands of the book. Bridges also provides a useful chronology, narrative summaries, a generous bibliography, and an index. This book is characterized by a rare linguistic competence, sensitivity to textual and codicological matters, concern for literary, historical, and cultural contexts, and a reluctance to comply with the idées reçues of scholarship on medieval [End Page 445] romance narrative. Some may find parts of the cultural and historical contextualization speculative, but Bridges’s speculation is food for thought.

Keith Busby
University of Wisconsin–Madison


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