Review of Week 8: March 1, 3 (by Naomi Benjamin)
This week we focused on discussing the romance as a literary genre and distinguishing Middle English romances from French ones. The poems in Ashmole 61 that we read were The Erle of Tolous and Lybeaus Desconus, and the critical articles that supplemented those texts were “Romance” by Christine Chism and “The romances in MS Ashmole 61: an idiosyncratic scribe” by Lynne Blanchfield.
After a short period of passing around a shopping bag filled with candy, our slightly smaller-than-usual class resumed Tuesday with a more in-depth discussion of The Erle of Tolous. We looked at Beulybon as a pinnacle of truthfulness and moral integrity for those who were part of her sector of society, and talked about what sort of value truthfulness held for them. Dr. Seaman compared the Empress with a character from “The Franklin’s Tale” by Chaucer: a woman who, while her husband is away, is propositioned by a knight who swears to be dying from his love for her. She says she will give in to his wishes if he is able to accomplish what she believes is an impossible task—to remove the dangerous rocks from the harbor where her husband’s ship will sail—but she is quite surprised when the knight completes her request. Meanwhile, her husband returns and the woman is stuck, wanting to be true to her word in respect to both men. (In the end, when her husband hears of the vow she made to the other knight, he recognizes the need for her to be truthful and tells her to go to him; the knight, upon hearing of the husband’s decision, insists the she not break her vow to him.) We discussed this story in terms of the importance placed upon truth at this time, and how the virtue of truthfulness characterizes Beulybon as someone to look up to.
Other instances where Beulybon is shown to be a revered figure include her description: beginning at line 329, the Erle relates the many merits of the Empress’ physical being, including her fair skin, red cheeks, small waist and long sides. Beulybon being served by the young knight carving meat (line 706) also demonstrates her position of authority in the romance. The respect for her ends there for members of her society, however: despite the old, wise knight questioning the story of the Empress’ impropriety at court, she is still locked up and condemned to death. Other sections of society, however, tend to view her differently. The merchant whom the Erle runs into is completely assured of her innocence; Beulybon’s common uncle is also sure. This point is interesting because of the irony of the characterization: the knights of the tale are supposed to be the pure and truthful ones fighting for the ideal of a woman, but instead they are the most untrustworthy ones of the lot. The common gentry and merchants, meanwhile, recognize right and wrong without a doubt.
We turned back to the Diamond essay and his use of the Christine de Pizan quote in order to understand the two worlds represented by this romance. The first world is one of “abstract moral codes” where there is a universal morality—where Truth is spelled with a capital T (that rhymes with P) and where what is good is good always. The second world is one of “social relations” where the particular situations you find yourself in define how you must act—virtue is described in terms of society. Diamond argues that Beulybon seems to represent the first world, whereas the Erle lives more in world number two.
We wrapped up class with a discussion stemming from Leslie’s questioning the Erle as a noble character: if, she asked, he was placed in Sir Isumbras, would we view him the same way, or would he be a sheep in wolf’s clothing (because of his disguising himself and hearing Beulybon’s confession)? Although the point is up for debate, someone did point out that she had already confessed her sin of giving away her ring as a love token, and despite his trickery the Erle was still “the most honest man on her planet”. (Aww.)
Thursday focused mainly on Chism’s “Romance” and characterizing romances. First we understood the principal features of a Middle English romance: its formulaic, conventional structure, complete with stock figures and set guidelines. It is as a genre, however, very flexible: although it follows a pattern, it is able to relate to the audience in terms of immediate, local and historical issues that they would understand. Much like fairytales, it is “reassured by the traditional” but also “gripped by the urgent and imminent”. Although critics used to look at Middle English romances as a poor-man’s French romance, Chism would argue that you have to look at it from an English perspective and for the purposes of an English audience. Instead of categorizing the romances, she insists we view them all together and recognize the group as a “variety”. Instead of “domesticating” them and trying to control their apparent wildness (in variety) we must let them be. After all, Chism points out, genres come about not from the text itself but from the text’s reception—something that’s built up over time. When one does look at the differences between French and Middle English romances, however, they do seem to be quite opposite. The former group is focused more on the author and his particular circumstances for writing: for these romances, individual subjectivity is key. The latter bunch is made up of texts which are a product of a community of authors: for these stories, “subjectivity is enacted through public performance” (59).
The class then moved on to Lindsay’s presentation of the Blanchfield article, which revolved around the scribe Rate and his role with Ashmole 61 as a compilation. From her first question, we talked about the errors scribes made generally and whether or not Rate’s were deliberate or unintentional. We did conclude that we can tell there were no proofreaders for this manuscript, indicating it to be a more personal text and unlikely that it was widely spread. We concluded class with Dr. Seaman’s question: what is the purpose of this essay? What significance does this inspection of Rate’s role with Ashmole 61 have? Although a few points were made as to why Rate included these romances (including Leslie’s point that they had the most room for interpretation compared to the religious and conduct texts), we ended class without a resolution after being pointed to a quote from page 68: “[Rate’s] idiosyncrasies are not, in fact, best illustrated by the romances, as his interests lie more with the devotional texts, which show much significant alteration”. Perhaps we will pursue this question further after Spring Break …
Preview of Next Week:
Leslie will be class secretary. We have only 6 weeks of class remaining.
I will have posted the assignment sheet for the Researched Analysis over Break, so we will be discussing that in class this week. The annotated bibliography is due the Monday of Week 13, the Proposal due the Monday of Week 14, and the paper itself due the Monday of what would be Week 15 (if we had class that week).
Tuesday we will do some catching up from the last week before break, a week thrown off by both the aftermath of the midterm exam and the looming Break. We will discuss Lybeaus Desconus, the long “Fair Unknown” romance you read for last week. Please return to it to refresh your memory of its concerns, before class on Tuesday. While there, read items 21-23, the short narratives Sir Corneus, The Jealous Wife, and The Incestuous Daughter. The first of these is a surprisingly lighthearted depiction of adultery at King Arthur’s court; the next two are exempla providing cases of what we might call “extreme forgiveness.” I find them both really delightful, and just as unexpected in some ways as Sir Corneus. DO be sure to read the Explanatory Notes for all of these, and for Lybeaus Desconus, before class. The editor’s notes there are really helpful for positioning the texts you’re reading. (I in fact would read those before reading the actual Middle English poem they describe.)
Tuesday we will also discuss Philippa Hardman’s article “Compiling the Nation: Fifteenth-Century Miscellany Manuscripts.” Maria will lead us through that discussion.
On Thursday, we will cover Sir Cleges, The Feast of All Saints and All Souls, and The King and His Four Daughters (items 24-26). The first of these is a gorgeous short romance that offers us much to consider in terms of the other romances we’ve read and in terms of the family orientation of the collection as a whole. The second is the kind of text you’re not likely to encounter in a “standard” Middle English literature class, a poetic justification and explanation of the feast from which its title as we know it comes. Given our concern earlier in the semester about Purgatory and notions of the afterlife generally, be sure to keep your attention on how this is represented (and what views and beliefs are thus conveyed) in the poem. The last of these items, is an allegory, and I’d like you to consider what editor Shuffelton says about this particular text, as you read it: “though allegory can tend towards atemporal stasis, the allegorical portion of The King and His Four Daughters operates in a carefully constructed historical frame” (502). How, for instance, does that affect our response to it?