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About this book

This volume brings together a wide range of original, scholarly essays on key figures and topics in medieval literature by leading academics. The volume examines the major authors such as Chaucer, Langland and the Gawain Poet, and covers key topics in medieval literature, including gender, class, courtly and popular culture, and religion. The volume seeks to provide a fresh and stimulating guide to medieval literature.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Reading Medieval English Literature

Introduction: Reading Medieval English Literature

The Middle Ages embraces a wide period of history, and there is always a danger of labelling it simply as ‘the medieval’ or (worse) the ‘Dark Ages’, terms which suggest a false level of homogeneity about the period and its literature. Instead, and more profitably, we might think of the Middle Ages as a period of great variety and richness that can be best appreciated through its vibrant literary culture. As the essays in this collection show, medieval literature is wonderfully diverse in form but also deeply rich in ideas, history and meaning.
Beatrice Fannon

Reading Medieval Romance


1. The Ownership of Literature: Reading Medieval Literature in its Historical Context

It is always useful to consider literature in relation to the context in which it was produced. Such an understanding helps to elucidate more of what a text might mean: for example, which features and factors of contemporary life may be being referred to, and why and how they mattered to author or readers or both. Informed and well-focused ‘historicism’ will bring us closer to an understanding of how aspects of the literature functioned and bore meaning in the context in which that literature arose. It is especially important to appreciate that literature is part of cultural life and thus part of the cultural history of whatever age it originates in. Literature is thus just as much and just as good evidence for a period and place as practical documents, recorded events, archaeological finds, buildings, works of art and monuments.
John Hines

2. Liminality and Gender in Middle English Arthurian Romance

Belonging to the fellowship of the Round Table is, by definition, in any Arthurian romance the greatest honour. In establishing a set of recognizable features of the Arthurian world and its chivalric code, romance authors aligned their stories with accepted models of aristocratic behaviour, subsequently woven into narrative patterns that brought popularity to the genre. By building the context of aventure [adventure] and setting its parameters (in other words, the cycle of departure — challenge/obstacle — (painful) gain — return), authors worked with their audiences’ expectations of a world in which ideals are enacted and deviations from the ‘norm’ are corrected.1 It is not surprising, therefore, that Arthurian romance revels in opposites — characters are either ‘in’ (belonging to) or ‘out’ (not belonging to) of the Arthurian fellowship and court — defining and classifying types of noble behaviour and those who do/do not exhibit it. Thus modern critical approaches focusing on the marginal or liminal and the ‘Other’ can provide profitable avenues for the investigation of Arthurian texts.
Raluca Radulescu

3. Shifting Identities and Landscapes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The anonymous poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight survives in only one manuscript, British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. Normally this would indicate a text with little general appeal (contrast with the multiple manuscripts and variations of Piers Plowman or Canterbury Tales), but Sir Gawain has been popular with academic readers since the manuscript’s rediscovery by Henry Madden in 1 839 and reached a new and wider public audience with Simon Armitage’s poetic translation in 2006. Prior to that, it had undergone numerous translations and editions, including being adapted for children (most recently by Michael Morpurgo in 2004) and transformed into an opera by Harrison Birtwistle in 1991. The phenomenon of its popularity has been noted by Glen Olsen in his preface to the online Cotton Nero A.x project; on his count, ninety-five editions and translations of the poem have appeared since Madden brought the manuscript to light and this number does not include editions available in several formats, such as the Norton edition, which offers the translation by Marie Borroff, or compilations such as The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: the Medieval Period, which uses James Winney’s verse rendition which is also available as an independent, parallel-text edition of the poem. In short, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has become one of the best-loved medieval texts, popular with both scholars and general readers.
Gillian Rudd

4. Untraditional Medieval Literature: Romance, Fabliau, Robin Hood and ‘King and Subject’ Ballad

Speaking as it does for a culture basically controlled by court and church, medieval English literature, like its European avatars, is for the most part concerned with appreciating the behaviour and values, and reflecting the problems, associated with the continued authority of aristocrats and priests. In lordly romance and saintly vitae, secular and religious moralities are propounded and the interesting dangers of deviations are illustrated — lust and malice threaten both court and church, while cowardice and disloyalty haunt the chivalric activists, and sins of the flesh and the spirit stalk the world of the aspirant Christian.
Stephen Knight



5. Chaucer and Politics

The Middle Ages did not conceptualize the political as a distinct sphere of human activity as readily or extensively as we do today. Political issues are often subsumed in moral or religious discourse in Chaucer’s writings, which additionally often display a tendency towards oblique, multivalent, conflicted — at times evasive — treatments of deep or controversial subjects. Chaucer eschews simple single narratives to interpret complex questions about life; perhaps that is why many of his compositions remain unfinished, or present a diversity of voices, or include phrases or speeches within their narratives which open up disconcerting or contradictory viewpoints, or causes for human protest, counteracting received views of how society and the universe are governed.
Helen Phillips

6. The Consolations and Conflicts of History: Chaucer’s ‘Monk’s Tale’

Chaucer’s meditations on the recording, rewriting and understanding of history occur in the context of a struggle between the dominant sacred view of history as a providential, divinely superintended plan and an emergent secular historiography that sought its own internal logic of causation for the events of history. While the late medieval historiographical and epistemological struggles are visible in many of Chaucer’s writings — and prominently in the tales of the classical past, Troilus, Anelida and the ‘Knight’s Tale’ — nowhere in Chaucer’s oeuvre is the conflict between sacred and secular models of history dramatized so directly as in the under-appreciated ‘Monk’s Tale’. Its self-conscious staging of divergent historiographical worldviews is most clearly demonstrated in the discord between the text’s form and its speaker. As a series of tragic histories of great men (and a single great woman), it was inspired by Boccaccio’s virulently democratic and anti-monarchist De casibus virorum illustrium (On the Fates of Illustrious Men, 1355–74), a title which serves as the incipit to the ‘Monk’s Tale’ in many manuscripts.
Rob Gossedge

7. Authors and Readers in Chaucer’s House of Fame

Geoffrey Chaucer’s House of Fame (c. 1 378) is a dream-vision poem in three books. In the first book, the dreamer/narrator (‘Geffrey’) finds himself in the Temple of Venus, which is made of glass and has the story of Virgil’s Aeneid depicted on its walls. In the second book, the dreamer ventures outside into a desert and is picked up by a talking eagle, who takes Geffrey to the House of Fame. In the third book, Geffrey explores the House of Fame itself: he sees many famous authors standing on pillars and watches as the goddess Fame distributes good, bad and indifferent reputations to nine groups of suitors. Finally, Geffrey is taken to see another edifice, variously referred to by critics as the House of Rumour or House of Tidings, in which hordes of people run around telling, embellishing and falsifying stories. The poem ends abruptly when a ‘man of gret auctorite’ appears and the rumour-mongers flock towards him. Several aspects of Chaucer’s poem, including the eagle and the invocations to each book, are borrowed from or heavily influenced by Dante Alighieri’s Commedia (c. 1321). In the Commedia, the narrator travels through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise before finally seeing God. The poem is divided into three sections, or cantiche (singular: cantica), commonly known as the Inferno, the Purgatorio and the Paradiso. The Commedia is, among other things, an allegory of the Christian soul’s progress from sin through repentance and penance to salvation.
Lewis Beer

8. Tie Knots and Slip Knots: Sexual Difference and Memory in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde

Andreas Huyssen observed in 2000 that ‘one of the most surprising cultural and political phenomena of recent years has been the emergence of memory as a key concern in Western societies’.1 Surprising, because, as Huyssen argues, the turn to what he calls ‘present pasts’ — those pasts that are kept alive in the present through memorial practices, of which Holocaust memory is the pre-eminent example — is not only at odds with twentieth-century modernity’s privileging of ‘present futures’ but also strongly opposed to ‘the categories of space, maps, geographies, borders, trade routes, migrations, displacements, and diasporas [that are privileged] in […] postcolonial and cultural studies’.2 Seeking to account for the remarkable rise of memory culture since the 1980s, Huyssen locates it in a variety of historical phenomena, including ‘the broadening debate about the Holocaust, […] genocidal politics in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo’, national memories, consumer culture, archival technologies, ‘our deep anxiety about the speed of change and the ever shrinking horizons of time and space’, and the deployment of memory as a synonym for justice.3 Concomitantly, over the past thirty or so years, there has been a spate of books and articles on memory and memory practices in the Middle Ages, by scholars of very different stripes.
Ruth Evans

9. Chaucer and the Poetics of Gold

In a well-known comment, poet John Lydgate celebrates the beauty that his contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer brought to the ‘Rude speche’ of the English language of the time. He was the first, says Lydgate, to distil ‘[t]he golde dewe dropes of speche and eloquence/ Into our tunge thurgh his excellence’.1 Poet William Dunbar similarly speaks of Chaucer’s ‘fresch anamalit termes celicall’ that ‘coud illumynit haue full brycht’ the poem that Dunbar was writing.2 From this and similar contemporary accolades, Chaucer is credited with developing a literary English that enshrines the rhetorical riches of his classical predecessors. Performing such poetic adornment himself with the term ‘aureat’ (from Latin aureatus, ‘decorated with gold’), Lydgate gives us a critical terminology for a distinctive style of late medieval English poetry that was highly descriptive and used (or coined) words deriving from Latin (or Romance) languages. ‘Aureate’, ‘enamelled’, ‘golden’ and ‘illumined’ became for these fifteenth-century poets key terms to describe this vernacular poetic that was seen to begin with Chaucer.3
Valerie Allen

Religious Texts and Contexts


10. The Torment of the Cross: Perspectives on the Crucifixion in Medieval Lyric and Drama

The Crucifixion is the central event in salvific history and provides the focal point for much of the literature of the Middle Ages. The following essay looks in some detail at a variety of thirteenth-and fourteenth-century religious lyrics which take aspects of the Crucifixion for their subject, and then, after discussing the treatment of the Crucifixion in a number of the Corpus Christi cycle plays, explores the sacrificial and sacramental vision of the Eucharist offered in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament.
Beatrice Fannon

11. Encountering Piers Plowman

Piers Plowman is a dream-vision poem, part theological allegory about the quest for truth and part social satire. It recounts the experience of the poet-narrator, Will, who receives a series of dream visions when he falls asleep in the Malvern Hills. The narrator’s ‘merveillous swevene’ [wonderful dream] (B Prologue. 11) opens up further levels of, and perspectives on, experience and reflection on the question of salvation in a social context.1
Catherine Batt

12. Work in Progress: Spiritual Authorship and the Middle English Mystics

The Middle English mystics are five spiritual writers from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries:1 the hermit Richard Rolle (c. 1300–1349); the anchoress Julian of Norwich (c. 1343–c. 1416); Walter Hilton, an Augustinian canon (c. 1343–1396); an anonymous Carthusian, writing in the 1380s; and an illiterate laywoman, Margery Kempe (c. 1373–c. 1438). Rolle and Hilton wrote works in Latin as well as English; the others wrote only in English. Their works fall into two broad classes, though each presupposes the other: works of spiritual direction, often addressed to particular (sometimes named) individuals; and records of spiritual experiences. The most important of the former are Hilton’s Scale of Perfection, in English, and The Cloude of Vnknowyng by the anonymous Carthusian; of the latter, Julian’s revelations on the Passion of Christ — surviving in short and long versions (ST, LT) — and Margery’s spiritual autobiography, the first of its kind in English. These writers and their readers (now as then) are beneficiaries of programmes of spiritual instruction for religious and lay people that were started in the thirteenth century and developed exponentially thereafter up to, and including, the Reformation. The present essay, a literary introduction to their writings, principally considers the ambiguous and provisional nature of the authority they claim for themselves and their work, an issue complicated by the religious model of authorship which underpins their literary practice2 and brought most clearly into focus in their readiness to rework their materials, characteristically by adding to them, so as to suggest that their literary project is always work in progress.
Roger Ellis

13. Women’s Voices in Late Middle English Literature: Who Gets to Speak, and How?

While it is true that medieval men dominated discourse, women’s voices are hardly absent from late Middle English literature. Their range is arguably as variegated and modulated as the voices of men. Think of the seductive teasing of the Lady in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the many moods of Chaucer’s Criseyde, the Pearl-maiden’s chiding, Alison’s ‘tee-hee’ and Lady Meed’s whining. These are male-authored, fictional female characters whose voices are so diverse because they inhabit the multiple genres available to male writers, and thus can run the gamut from allegorical figures to fabliau-wives. But what happens when women voice themselves, or at least seem to, when the narrator’s subjectivity is gendered female? What kinds of women get to speak themselves, and what do they say?
Sheila Fisher

14. History, Frescoes and Reading the Middle Ages: A Final Note

It was 21 December 2003 when The Daily Telegraph announced that the Doom Fresco in Holy Trinity Church, Coventry, depicting the Last Judgement, was ready to be revealed after seventeen years of restoration work. That work involved removing varnish put over the Fresco by a local restorer in 1831 which had been intended to preserve the painting but instead had turned it black. Prior to this, the Doom Fresco had been covered over by Protestant reformers sometime in the 1560s. Along with many others, the Fresco had proved unacceptable to the reformers given its strong visual representation of Christ at the Last Judgement and its overt connection to Catholicism. Remarkably, the Fresco had survived the attempt to hide it as well as the unintended blackening of the 1831 restoration work and today is a fine example of its kind. The Fresco is usually dated somewhere around 1430.
Martin Coyle
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