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Chivalry Revisited

In Print and Online

By Rachel Galvin | HUMANITIES, March/April 1999 | Volume 20, Number 2

Voices from the High Middle Ages are being rescued from long neglected manuscripts through the Middle English Texts Series project. Until now, the study of the vernacular literature of romance, poetry, and protest in English from 1000 to 1550 has focused on a canon of core authors: Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, Langland, and Malory. The Middle English Texts Series, or METS project, is expanding that canon by making obscure and out-of- print works available in durable, reasonably priced scholarly editions and on the Internet. More than one hundred texts are online at the METS website, complete with scholarly essays and linked annotations for easy navigation between text and notes.

“The METS editions have transformed the teaching of Middle English across the world,” says Russell Peck, general editor of the series and professor at the University of Rochester. Courses dealing with literature of social and ecclesiastical protest or stories of heroic women from the Old Testament in Middle English verse, which simply could not be taught before, are now being offered. “Students of medieval literature have some small notion of this from Chaucer’s satires of the friar, but now we have these primary documents, which are very exciting to study.”

The METS editions shed new light on daily activity, religion, social change, political unrest, and women’s lives and writing in the Middle Ages. The texts represent a wide sampling of literary genres, styles, and rhetoric, ranging from early Scots poetry and medieval romances to stories of saints’ lives. Texts are accompanied by scholarly apparatus—essays and notes designed for beginners through specialists—and are particularly friendly to the contemporary reader, as they are written in the modern alphabet, without Middle English thorns, edhs, and yoghs.

The Middle English Texts Series began in 1990 with a group of scholars determined to widen the selection of texts available for their medieval courses. They surveyed two-hundred-fifty scholars on which texts they would like to see included in the series and who would be qualified to edit the texts. Sixty-four editors have chosen to donate their expertise and labor, writing scholarly apparatus and collaborating in the complex editing process.

METS produces six or seven volumes a year and has published twenty-eight volumes already. By May 2000, forty volumes will be available. The series includes the only student editions in Middle English of The Book of Margery Kempe and Gallacher’s The Cloud of Unknowing, a key text about medieval English mysticism; medieval English political writings; the first scholarly publication of the Middle English Breton Lays; and the definitive volume of Robin Hood and other outlaw tales.

Works such as “The Plowman’s Tale” and “Piers the Plowman’s Crede” expand what we know about ecclesiastical protest in the fifteenth century. “The Plowman’s Tale,” an apocryphal Chaucerian tale, and “Piers the Plowman’s Crede,” which takes off on the “Tale,” are satiric attacks on monastic establishments. “`Piers the Plowman’s Crede’” presents a poor man’s quest for spiritual truth,” explains James Dean in his introduction. The narrator consults a number of friars from different orders in the hope of learning the Apostles’ Creed, but is disappointed. Instead of discovering the “graith,” or the plain truth, the speaker encounters friars who apparently do not know the Creed and are more concerned with insulting rival fraternal orders and obtaining money from the narrator than discussing religion. Finally the narrator meets a plowman named Piers who tells him the friars are hypocrites and teaches him the Creed in ordinary language. The poem articulates the age’s predominant stereotypes of fraternal corruption and hypocrisy, and is a source of information about antifraternal and church reform movements of the late fourteenth century.

“Why I Can’t Be a Nun,” an early fifteenth-century poem portraying a young woman who wishes to become a nun, criticizes the corruption of ecclesiastical institutions and addresses the dilemma this presents to a pious young woman. The poem was edited and published only once after its original composition, in F. J. Furnivall’s 1862 Early English Poems and Lives of Saints. Before the recent METS edition, “Why I Can’t Be a Nun” could only be found tucked away in Furnivall’s book or amidst the British Library’s manuscripts.

“Why I Can’t Be a Nun” demonstrates women’s involvement in issues of piety, religion, education, and the need for vernacular literature. “It is a wonderful poem which shows you how sophisticated women in the audience might be and what the expectations of a young woman might be,” says Peck.

Katerine, the speaker, wishes to join a convent but her father is concerned that she “may not fulfylle in dede / The purpose that ye have begun,” that is, that she may not be able to fulfill her wish to live a pious life if she joins a convent, because of the rampant corruption in ecclesiastical institutions. Although downcast, Katerine respects her father’s opinion.

In the garden, Katerine encounters a dream vision of Lady Experience. “The character of Experience is like a philosophy teacher,” explains Peck. “She guides Katerine on her own terms through the question to the end so that she makes her own decision. That’s really remarkable as a poetic statement.” Experience shows Katerine that the personifications of Pride, Hypocrisy, Sloth, Vainglory, Envy, Love Inordinate, Lust, Wantonness, and Dame Disobedient all dwell in the convent. In fact, the convent is full of women so “feble, lewde, and frowarde” (weak, lewd, and unruly), Charity and Patience must live outside it.

“Although the poem is similar to Chaucer’s “Second Nun’s Tale,” it doesn’t have the same satiric edge,” says Peck. The poet does not ridicule Katerine’s idealism and devotion, her father’s concern for her, or even the convent. “Rather, Lady Experience points to the worldliness that has infiltrated the convent. The poet isn’t saying that the girl shouldn’t be educated, but that she should have a more protestant education in which she studies on her own and reads things in the vernacular. There is a great sense of the need for vernacular literature for educational purposes.”

The gender of the poet has not been established, though scholars guess that the poet was most likely a man. It is possible that the author was commissioned by a woman to write the piece. “Many of these manuscripts are of male-authored poetry and probably copied by scribes, but they are often commissioned by women for a specific purpose such as the education of a great household,” says Dr. Peck. “Here you have educational programs in the vernacular with literature at the very heart of those programs.”

The misconceptions that women of the Middle Ages received no education and that the “Dark Ages” had no literary culture are dispelled by the Findern manuscript. “The manuscript contains poems that were apparently copied down by several women, whose names appear in the manuscript,” says Peck. Some of the women whose names appear in the Findern manuscript were daughters of John Shirley (1366-1454). Shirley was a copyist, a little younger than Chaucer, who had a bookshop and lending library that circulated texts among his patrons, many of whom were women.

It is suspected that the women who created the Findern manuscript held garden gatherings where they read poems aloud to each other, either poems they’d written themselves or other people’s writing that they admired. “Whether the poems in the Findern manuscript were collected on formal occasions is not known,” explains Peck. “It seems likely that they must have been occasions like those described in The Assembly of Ladies.” In the poem The Assembly of Ladies, nine women assemble in the Court of Love to petition Lady Loyalty with their complaintes d’amour, or complaints against men’s behavior in the game of love.

Thomas Usk’s The Testament of Love is another significant document about literary circles in London at the end of the fourteenth century. “It is a veritable gold mine of information on who was reading what and how they read it,” Peck says. “It is also of enormous importance to students of Richard II’s trouble-fraught reign in the 1380s.” Usk, who was a friend of John Gower and Chaucer, imitates both of them and alludes to the philosophies of St. Anselm and Boethius.

“Usk was accused of treason by the Merciless Parliament, tortured, hanged, eviscerated, beheaded, and then quartered,” recounts Peck. “He writes the Testament from prison, and in the manner of Boethius, defends himself from the charges brought against him while offering a polemic on the care of one’s soul in times of crisis. His text is highly literate.”

The authorship of The Testament of Love was in doubt until a century ago when W.W. Skeat discovered an acrostic of sorts woven into the text. When the letters at the beginning of each section are read sequentially, they spell out Usk’s signature: “THINE OWN USK.”

The METS publication of The Middle English Breton Lays, edited by Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, is the first scholarly edition of English poems in the genre of romance. These romances, which often deal with love, faith, patrimony, quests, and the supernatural, and which are threaded with folklore and fairytale motifs, tend toward what Peck terms “intriguingly bizarre plots.”

The fourteenth-century romance Sir Degaré contains all the ingredients necessary for a heroic romance: Degaré, the hero, undergoes trials with dragons and giants in his quest for knighthood. The tale begins with Degaré’s grandfather, the king of Brittany, challenging his daughter’s would-be suitors for her hand in marriage. When the princess visits her mother’s grave in the woods one day, she slips away from her entourage and encounters a scarlet-robed fairy knight. The knight ravishes the princess and gives her a broken sword to pass on to the “knave” to whom she will give birth.

When Degaré is born, the princess leaves him on the doorstep of a hermitage with a quantity of gold and silver, the broken sword, a pair of gloves sent by the fairy knight, and a letter instructing that Degaré be given these objects when he is ten years old. The hermit names the baby Degaré, or “lost one,” and raises him.

At age twenty, Degaré goes on a quest to find his parents. In his first trial, he rescues an earl from a fire-breathing dragon using only an oaken bat. The earl knights Degaré in recognition of his strength and valor.

Degaré goes on to fight his grandfather, the king of Brittany, for his inheritance and the princess’s hand. Degaré manages to defeat the king and win the princess. Unaware that she is his mother, he tells her to try on the enchanted gloves. The gloves fit, and the two recognize each other. Degaré leaves to seek his father and becomes a knight errant, enduring a series of trials, knightly missions, and battles.

In one episode, Degaré discovers a community of women living in an island castle. The lady of the castle teaches him about chivalric love and sends him on a mission to kill a marauding knight who has murdered all her protectors. Degaré breaks a magical enchantment, slays the knight, and is rewarded with arms, a horse, gold, and silver.

Sir Degaré finally encounters his father, although he does not know his identity, and the two knights engage in battle. When they begin hand-to-hand combat, Degaré produces his broken sword and his father immediately realizes Degaré is his son. The fairy knight shows Degaré the point of the sword, which he has carried with him for twenty years, and father and son are reunited. Degaré’s parents are soon reconciled, the incestuous marriage is nullified, and Degaré marries the lady of the island castle.

As Laskaya and Salisbury’s introduction explains, Sir Degaré is similar to Oedipus’s tragedy and to fairytales in which a quest resolves a conflict or undoes a magical spell. In this case, the poem concludes with forgiveness and reconciliation.

The short romance based on a single character is an example of English literary innovation in the Middle Ages. “Other innovations include the complex developments of dream visions, such as elaborate uses of multiple personae, dreams within dreams, first person and ‘autobiographical’ narrative,” says Peck. Shifts in diction, prosody, and poetic structure occurred during this period, and French forms such as the fabliau and balade were appropriated into English vernacular.

Vernacular literature in English burgeoned in the last quarter of the fourteenth century with the works of Chaucer, Gower, Lydgate, and many romance poets. “This terrific outpouring suggests that they were aware of the possibility and value of vernacular literature,” Peck comments. “In the fifteenth century they look back to Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate as the parents of a great literary tradition.”

METS is editing Lydgate’s Troy Book, a work that recounts the Trojan War and provides detailed architectural descriptions of the construction of private places. “Lydgate has often been regarded in a pejorative manner and called tedious in his meter and prosody, endless in his prose—you can get lost in it, and so forth,” says Peck. “But when we started looking at his work, I was amazed at the literary sophistication of his Troy Book and the terrific experimentation present.” Troy Book, which was meant to be read out loud, adapts Chaucer’s heroic couplets from The Canterbury Tales.

John Metham is another fifteenth-century writer who wrote in a sophisticated, experimental rhythm. METS has just published his book Amoryus Cleopes, which is a prose narrative written in a rhyme royal, seven-line stanza. “People have railed against him for lacking any sense of prosody,” Peck says. “But what is really exciting is that he’s writing in rhymed, seven- line prose that reads aloud really well when you don’t try to force it into iambic pentameter. You might see it as incompetent or you might see it as experimental.”

After 1350, many more writers chose English over French as the medium for vernacular literature. “Once the impetus of English as England's vernacular language is underway it carries the day hands down, despite the continuance of French in the courts,” says Peck.

The rapid development of vernacular literature was a result of social, political, and cultural changes. A preoccupation with salvation led people to meditation and self-reflection, which was generally conducted in Latin. For those who didn’t speak Latin, particularly the new bourgeoisie, this was an obstacle. “A great deal of vernacular thirteenth- and fourteenth-century literature consists of debates of the body and soul, allegorical journeys, meditations on love, romances that take the acolyte through various sorts of moral trials, saints' lives, penitential treatises, and so on,” says Peck. The genre of philosophical and literary autobiography also arose at this time.

Household education and church schools helped create a public literate in English.

For Peck, the most inspiring aspect of the METS project is that vernacular literature from the High Middle Ages which has been lost in obscurity or has not been available in current editions—sometimes for centuries—is being brought to light. “The texts may have been edited once in a scholarly edition, but those are virtually unusable in a classroom,” he says. “What’s exciting about this project is to have texts available so that you can teach them in an ordinary way. It’s then that ideas about the text come to life and you can see the whole area of study. It’s a great eye-opener to go over texts that were on the margins of study and see how rich they can be.”

About the Author

Rachel Galvin is a writer in Austin, Texas.

Funding Information

The Middle English Text Series has received $415,000 in grants from NEH.