Middle English popular romance is the most audacious and compendious testimony to the imaginary world of the English Middle Ages. Yet, with few exceptions, it remains under read and under studied. Pulp fictions of medieval England demonstrates that popular romance merits and rewards serious critical attention and that it is crucial to our understanding of the complex and conflicted world of medieval England. Pulp fictions of medieval England comprises ten essays on individual romances that, while enormously popular in the Middle Ages, have been neglected by modern scholarship. Each essay offers, in addition to valuable introductory material, an innovative reading of a single romance that interrogates, variously, the genre's aesthetic codes, its political and cultural ideologies, and its historical consciousness. The essays are informed by a wide range of theoretical perspectives and they explore topics as divergent as the bourgeois body, anti-semitism, same-sex desire, eucharistic piety, historical memory and the Crusades, miscegenation, cannibalism, the dynastic imperative and the construction of story. Nicola McDonald's collection, and the romances it investigates, are key to our understanding of the aesthetics of medieval as well as popular narrative and to the ideologies of gender and sexuality, race, religion, political formations, social class, ethics, morality and national identity with which those narratives engage. It is essential reading for specialists of medieval English literature and for theorists of medieval and modern popular culture; its inclusion of detailed introductory material makes it equally accessible to students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, taking survey courses in medieval literature.
The Middle English romances have been called the ‘ugly ducklings of medieval English studies’. In a discipline that contests even the most basic definition of the genre, romance’s low prestige is one of the few critical certainties. Despite its status as medieval England’s most popular secular genre (more than one hundred romances are extant), the origin of the modern novel (still the most significant literary form), the ancestor of almost all contemporary popular fiction (in print and on screen) and the most audacious and compendious testimony to the imaginary world of the Middle Ages, Middle English popular romance remains, with rare exceptions, under read and under studied. Popular romance is the pulp fiction of medieval England, the ‘principal secular literature of entertainment’ for an enormously diverse audience that endures for over two hundred and fifty years. It is fast-paced and formulaic; it markets itself unabashedly as genre fiction; it is comparatively cheap and, in performance, ephemeral; it has a sensationalist taste for sex and violence; and it seems content to reproduce the easy certainties of sexist, racist and other bigoted ideologies. But this is not a reason to dismiss it. On the contrary, popular romance provides us with a unique opportunity to explore the complex workings of the medieval imaginary and the world outside the text that feeds and supports it.
The purpose of this collection of essays, all specially commissioned for this volume, is to demonstrate that popular romance not only merits and rewards serious critical attention, but that we ignore it to the detriment of our understanding of the complex and conflicted world of medieval England. Each essay concentrates on a single Middle English popular romance that has so far received little critical attention; together they exemplify, but by no means exhaust, both the richness of the primary material and the range of critical analysis that the genre invites. Contributors have been asked to provide relevant introductory material (including date of composition, extant manuscripts, and a plot summary) in order to make these neglected texts accessible to a non-specialist audience, but the focus of the essay is a sustained argument that demonstrates that the romances invite innovative, exacting and theoretically charged analysis. Readers will notice that the essays do not support a single, homogeneous reading of popular romance; in other words, this volume’s authors work with assumptions and come to conclusions, about issues as fundamental as the genre’s aesthetic codes, its political and cultural ideologies, its historical consciousness, that are different and sometimes opposed. This is a sign of healthy scholarship and of the vitality of the field of inquiry.
As an introduction to the ten essays that comprise this book, I provide neither a historical overview of the genre (authorship, audience, manuscripts) nor a survey of the different theoretical approaches that help elucidate the workings of popular culture; both of these have recently received admirable treatment elsewhere.3 Instead, I offer a short polemical essay that confronts head-on the paradox that informs and ultimately circumscribes all of our thinking about Middle English popular romance. ‘Popular’ in its capacity to attract a large and heterogeneous medieval audience, as well as in its ability to provide that audience with enormous enjoyment, romance’s popularity is likewise what excludes it from serious and sustained academic consideration: judged low-class, on account of its non-aristocratic audience, its reliance on stereotypes, formulae and conventional plot structures, and its particular brand of unadulterated good fun, criticism repeatedly dismisses these narratives as unworthy of the kind of close reading, as well as historically and theoretically informed analysis, that we regularly afford so-called elite medieval English art (in particular, but not limited to, Chaucer, Langland and the Gawain-poet). There are of course exceptions to the general trends I identify below; not all readers vilify popular romance, its readers or its aesthetic, but the tenacity with which the received denigration of romance, much of it traceable to outdated standards of aesthetic judgement and intellectual elitism, not only holds but continues to shape the field of inquiry, is nothing short of remarkable. The introduction is divided into two sections that tackle in turn what I think is at stake in our appreciation and enjoyment of these inescapably popular narratives: romance’s status as a socially and aesthetically degenerate form of fiction and its capacity to generate textual pleasure. Not everyone will agree with it, but if it stimulates debate about popular romance it will have more than served its purpose.