The Middle English ‘popular’ romances used to be shunned in academia, but they are so entertaining that they are now back in fashion.
The biennial Medieval Romance in Britain conference, which is dedicated to the study of these romances, began in the UK in 1988 as a very small-scale event, but it has grown and grown and has become global (the 2016 conference was in Vancouver).
In the classroom, it is now normal to have some popular romances (Sir Orfeo, Sir Launfal, Sir Gowther) on the syllabus, alongside works by Chaucer, Gower, and so on. Nevertheless, despite this renewed attention, in many respects we still know very little about the popular romances. Most of them are anonymous; they do not survive in authoritative texts, and the immediate social milieu in which they were produced and for which they were intended is usually unclear. And these are not the only mysteries: until very late in the Middle Ages the people that composed these romances wrote them in verse, but we have little idea about what kind of verse this is.
The form of poetry used by Chaucer and Gower, rhymed iambic verse, is still being written today, but that is not the case with the verse found in many of the Middle English romances, where, astonishingly it is still necessary to begin with the most basic question: what did these poets think they were doing?
To address these questions, we brought together an international team of experts and invited them to focus on the form in which these romances have been transmitted. On the one hand, this is the material form, the manuscripts or early prints, which often offer the only clues about readership, provenance, and social context. On the other hand, there is the verse form, the analysis of which can offer insights into style, literary context, and the manner in which texts were transmitted and performed. The advantage of combining these two approaches, material philology and the study of verse form, is that these approaches are mutually illuminating.
If you are interested in verse form, the physical book is always important: the lay-out of poems on the actual page is a crucial aspect of verse form. And, conversely, if you are interested in how these poems were transmitted, the metre and rhyme scheme of surviving texts contain clues about the text, and sometimes even the visual lay-out of that text, as a manuscript scribe would encounter it.
There are eleven essays in all, and between them the contributors deal with a great many romances (Sir Orfeo, Gamelyn, Sir Tristrem, Bevis, etc.), including ones that do not usually get a look-in (Cheuelere Assigne, Generydes, Amoryus and Cleopes, and Caxton’s printed romances). Because one of the essays deals with illustrated manuscripts of Middle English romances, we pushed the boat out and included several colour reproductions of manuscript illuminations in addition to the usual black-and-white images. Thanks to an award from the Neil Ker Memorial Fund and the University of Bristol the cost of this is not reflected in the price of the book.
This guest post is written by Ad Putter, Professor of Medieval English at the University of Bristol.