The Romance of the Middle Ages is unusual in the sense that it’s simply one facet of a much larger historical project. The museum exhibition sharing the title ended in May, but its virtual counterpart is brilliantly accessible and continues online. The great thing about a virtual exhibition of course — aside from obvious practicalities — is the way it brings everything to life. You become your own curator: click here; listen there; shape it as you go.
The book though, far from being made redundant by the web, wins its spurs with ease by codifying a vast subject in six chapters. Instead of being your own curator, you get a proper tutorial with Nicholas Perkins, a Fellow of St Hugh’s College and Lecturer in Medieval English, and Alison Wiggins, a senior lecturer in English Language from the University of Glasgow.
The pair have taken a thematic approach, while still honouring a chronology. The last two chapters take up the subject of the publishing of medieval romances after the end of the Middle Ages, for instance, but manage to include some 19th and 20th Century echoes extending to Mark Twain and Monty Python. Naturally, the authors draw on some of the jewels of the Bodleian’s collection, the standout example being the mid-12th century copy of France’s national epic La Chanson de Roland.
But the book is not limited by the exhibition it was drawn up around. Above all, the texts, which include non-Bodley examples such as the British Library’s early 15th Century manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and set-pieces such as Thomas Malory’s great Arthurian compilation, Le Morte Darthur, are re-immersed into their historical and literary context. Whereas a former generation tried to categorize romances as ‘chivalric’, ‘popular’, ‘Arthurian,’ ‘penitential’ or ‘burlesque’, the point made here is that actually the function and purpose of different romances overlapped in numerous ways. The genre of Medieval Romance is “more like studying the mix of colours on a palette than biological taxonomy,” warns Dr Perkins.
In anthropological terms, the literature written after the Norman Conquest focused on myths of identity and origin, while at a social and cultural level romance tales frequently possess a cycle of integration-disintegration-reintegration. They are symbolic stories which echo folk tales and ballads and weave narratives around taboo subjects such as adultery and incest. Cultural norms are usually reinforced and celebrated by the end, but as the authors note, the imaginative space opened up by dark subjects, such as infanticide, betrayal and exile, would have enthralled readers long after a reassuring ending. No wonder the Victorians were re-ignited by it, Mark Twain skeptical, and Monty Python amused.