Main Boundaries in Medieval Romance
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Boundaries in Medieval Romance

Medieval romance frequently, and perhaps characteristically, capitalises on the dramatic and suggestive possibilities implicit in boundaries - not only the geographical, political and cultural frontiers that medieval romances imagine and imply, but also more metaphorical demarcations. It is these boundaries, as they appear in insular romances circulating in English and French, which the essays in this volume address. They include the boundary between reality and fictionality; boundaries between different literary traditions, modes and cultures; and boundaries between different kinds of experience or perception, especially the "altered states" associated with sickness, magic, the supernatural, or the divine.
D. S. Brewer
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Studies in Medieval Romance, 6
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Boundaries in Medieval Romance

Medieval romance frequently, and perhaps characteristically, capital­
ises on the dramatic and suggestive possibilities implicit in boundaries
- not only the geographical, political and cultural frontiers that medi­
eval romances imagine and imply, but also more metaphorical demar­
cations. It is these boundaries, as they appear in insular romances
circulating in English and French, which the essays in this volume
address. They include the boundary between reality and fictionality;
boundaries between different literary traditions, modes and cultures;
and boundaries between different kinds o f experience or perception,
especially the ‘altered states’ associated with sickness, magic, the
supernatural, or the divine.
Dr N eil C artlidge teaches in the Department o f English at the
University o f Durham.

Studies in Medieval Romance
ISSN 1 4 7 9 -9 3 0 8

Series Editors
Corinne Saunders
Roger Dalrym ple

This series aims to provide a forum for critical studies o f the medieval romance,
a genre which plays a crucial role in literary history, clearly reveals medieval
secular concerns, and raises complex questions regarding social structures,
human relationships, and the psyche. Its scope extends from the early middle
ages into the Renaissance period, and although its main focus is on English
literature, comparative studies are welcomed.
Proposals or queries should be sent in the first instance to one o f the addresses
given below; all submissions w ill receive prompt and informed considera­
Dr Corinne Saunders, Department o f English, University o f Durham, Durham,
D H 1 3 AY
Boydell & Brewer Lim ited, PO Box 9, Woodbridge, Suffolk, IP 12 3DF

Volumes already published

The Orient in Chaucer and Medieval Romance , Carol F. Heffernan,


Cultural Encounters in the Romance o f Medieval England , edited by
Corinne Saunders, 2005

III: The Idea o f Anglo-Saxon England in Middle English Romance , Robert
A llen Rouse, 2005
IV: Guy o f Warwick: Icon and Ancestor ; , edited by Alison Wiggins and
Rosalind Field, 20 07
V: The Sea and Medieval English Literature, Sebastian I. Sobecki, 20 07

Boundaries in Medieval Romance

E dited by


© Contributors 2008

All Rights Reserved. Except as permitted under current legislation
no part o f this work may be photocopied, stored in a retrieval system,
published, performed in public, adapted, broadcast,
transmitted, recorded or reproduced in any form or by any means,
without the prior permission o f the copyright owner

First published 2008
D. S. Brewer, Cambridge

ISBN 9 7 8 -1 -8 4 3 8 4 -1 5 5 -5

D. S. Brewer is an imprint o f Boydell & Brewer Ltd
PO Box 9, Woodbridge, Suffolk IP 12 3DF, UK
and o f Boydell & Brewer Inc.
668 Mount Hope Ave, Rochester, NY 14604, USA

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available
from the British Library

This publication is printed on acid-free paper
Printed in Great Britain by
Antony Rowe Ltd., Chippenham, Wiltshire

Notes on Contributors
Neil Cartlidge
1. When Romance Comes True
Helen Cooper
2. The Curious History of the Matter of England
Rosalind Field
3. How English Are the English Charlemagne Romances?
Marianne Ailes and Phillipa Hardman

The Sege o f Melayne - A Comic Romance; or, How the French Screwed Up and ‘Oure
Bretonns’ Rescued Them
Elizabeth Berlings

Romance Society and its Discontents: Romance Motifs and Romance Consequences
in The Song ofDermot and the Normans in Ireland
Simon Meecham-Jones
6. England, Ireland and Iberia in Olyuer o f Castylk. The View from Burgundy
Elisabeth Williams
7. The Alliterative Siege o f Jerusalem-. The Poetics of Destruction
Arlyn Diamond
8. The Peace of the Roads: Authority and auctoritas in Medieval Romance
Robert Rouse
9. The Hero and his Realm in Medieval English Romance
Eaura Ashe
10. The Courteous Warrior’: Epic, Romance and Comedy in Boeve de Haumtone
Judith Weiss
11. Rewriting Divine Favour
Ivana Djordjevié
12. Bodily Narratives: Illness, Medicine and Healing in Middle English Romance
Corinne Saunders

in memonam

W.R.J. Barron

In April 2004, the 9th Biennial Medieval Romance Conference took place at
Newman House, the historic heart of University College Dublin. Conferences in this
series are traditionally focused on insular (as opposed to continental) romance,
especially texts outside the Arthurian tradition, but they otherwise accommodate a
broad range of approaches to medieval romance; they tend to define insular romance
without regard to the the language in which it was written (whether Middle English,
Old French or Latin); and they also foster consideration of a diverse set of
intellectual contexts. The 2004 conference in Dublin was the first time that any
conference in the series had been held outside Britain; and the crossing of the
particular boundary presented by the Irish Sea seemed to create a distinct intellectual
stimulus that was clearly evident in the papers presented in Dublin. Not only did the
depiction of Ireland in medieval romance feature in several of the papers given: but
also boundaries, and the crossing of boundaries, seemed to feature remarkably often
in the approaches taken to the texts that were considered. As a result, it was relatively
easy to define a theme for this Proceedings volume, which (as is traditional with
volumes in this series) represents a developed version of the presentations and
discussions that took place during the conference itself.
Numerous debts were incurred in the organization of the conference. I am
grateful to the Royal Irish Academy for agreeing to host the plenary lecture given by
Helen Cooper (printed here as Chapter 1), in concurrence with one of the Academy’s
own sessions; and to the School of English at University College Dublin for
providing some financial support. I should also thank Margaret Robson, Frances
McCormack, Veronika Hinterdorfer and Michelle Piazza for so cheerfully
volunteering their assistance both before and during the conference itself.
For assistance with the editing of this volume, I am grateful to the staff at Boydell
& Brewer, particularly Caroline Palmer and Pru Harrison. I also owe an extensive
debt to Corinne Saunders, both for her work as one of the general editors of the
Studies in Medieval Romance series, and for all her help and advice since my move
to Durham. I must also thank Laura Ashe for moral support and helpful criticism
supplied at very short notice. The tolerance, good humour and email-companionship
of all the contributors has made my work on this book a real pleasure. Closer to
home, my partner Kate helped me with some perceptive proof-reading and equally
perceptive advice; while Ian and Sue Thomas and Mrs Muriel Twiggs generously
created time for me to work by giving up a considerable amount of time of their
Finally, I should like to mention my daughters, Carensa and Imogen Thomas neither of whom has been any help whatsoever, but whose company I am very happy
to have had.

Notes on Contributors
Marianne Ailes is a lecturer at Bristol University, having recently moved from
Wadham College, Oxford. She is the editor of the crusade chronicle, Ambroise’s
Estoire de la guerre sainte and has published a book on the Chanson de Roland. She has
also published on chronicle and chansons de geste in various books and journals
including Medium JEvum, Romania,, French Studies and Reading Medieval Studies.
Laura Ashe was a Research Fellow at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, and is
now Lecturer in English at Queen Mary, University of London. She has published
various articles on secular and religious literatures, focusing on the interplay of texts
with historical, cultural and legal contexts. Her book Fiction and History in England,
1066—1200 came out with Cambridge University Press in 2007.
Eli2abeth Berlings is an Associate Professor at St. John’s University, New York, with
an M.Phil. from New York University. She has presented numerous papers on
medieval romances, and also on Chaucer, Marlowe and Shakespeare. In 2006 she
received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and was a
participant in a summer institute at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish
Neil Cartlidge is a lecturer at the University of Durham. He is the author of two
books, Medieval Marriage: Literary Approaches 1100-1300 (1997) and The Owl and the
Nightingale: Text and Translation (2001) and of articles in various academic journals
including the Journal o f Medieval Latin, the Yearbook o f English Studies, Neuphilologische
Mitteilungen, Medium Ævum, Viator and Studies in the Age o f Chaucer.
Helen Cooper is Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at the University of
Cambridge. Her publications include The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs
from Geoffrey o f Monmouth to the Death o f Shakespeare (2004).
Arlyn Diamond is Professor Emerita at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
She is the co-editor of Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts (2000). Her work is
centered on the social meanings of romance.
Ivana Djordjevic is an Assistant Professor in the Liberal Arts College at Concordia
University, Montreal. She has published on Anglo-Norman and Middle English
romance and on the poetics of rewriting, especially translation; she is the co-editor,
with Jennifer Fellows, of a forthcoming volume of essays on medieval versions of the
story of Bevis of Hampton.

Rosalind Field is Reader in Medieval Literature at Royal Holloway, University of
London. Her publications include ‘Romance in England, 1066-1400’ in The Cambridge
History o f Medieval English literature, ed. David Wallace (1999) and ‘Romance’ in the
forthcoming Oxford History o f Uterary Translation in English, VoL /, ed. Roger Ellis
(2007). She has recently co-edited Guy o f Warwick: Icon and Ancestor (2007).
Phillipa Hardman is a Reader in Middle English Literature at the University of
Reading. She has published on medieval romance, manuscript studies, Chaucer,
Lydgate and the Gawain-pott.
Simon Meecham-Jones is an affiliated lecturer for the English Faculty at Cambridge,
and a research fellow for the Medieval and Early Modem Research Centre at
University of Wales, Swansea. He has published on Chaucer, Gower, twelfth-century
Latin lyrics and co-edited (with Ruth Kennedy) Writers o f the Reign ofHeniy II (2006).
Robert Rouse has taught at the Universities of Bristol, Durham and Nottingham in
the United Kingdom, and is currendy a Faculty member in the Department of
English at the University of British Columbia in Canada. A medievalist whose
interests range across both Old and Middle English literary culture, his recent
research has addressed issues of historiography, nationalism and geography within
the romance narratives of medieval England, resulting in the publication of The Idea o f
Anglo-Saxon England in Middle English Romance (2005) and The Medieval Quest fo r Arthur
Corinne Saunders is Professor of English at the University of Durham and English
editor of the journal Medium Ævum. She is also the author of The Forest o f Medieval
Romance (1993) and Rope and Ravishment in the Literature o f Medieval England (2001); and
has edited Chaucer (Blackwell Guides to Criticism, 2001); A Companion to Romance:
From Classical to Contemporary (2004); (with Françoise le Saux and Neil Thomas)
Writing War. Medieval Uterary Responses (2004); Cultural Encounters in Medieval Romance
(2005); (with Jane Macnaughton) Madness and Creativity in Literature and Culture (2005);
and A Condse Companion to Chaucer (2006).
Judith Weiss is an Emeritus Fellow of Robinson College, Cambridge. Her interests lie
mainly in the field of Anglo-Norman romance and historiography. She has produced
a parallel text and translation of Wace’s Roman de Brut, and her translation of Boeve de
Haumtone and Gui de Warewic, for the French of England Translation Series, appeared
in 2007.
Elizabeth Williams lectured in Medieval English Language and Literature in the
University of Leeds until she took early retirement. She has published articles on the
Middle English romances and is particularly interested in the relation of medieval
stories to their analogues in ballad and folktale.

Anglo-Norman Text Society
British Library
Bibliothèque nationale de France
Classiques français du moyen âge
Early English Text Society, Extra Series
Early English Text Society, Original Series
Exeter Medieval English Texts and Studies
Feet o f Clay
Guards, Guards!
Journal o f English <&Germanic Philology
Loeb Classical Library
Men at Arms
0>ford English Dictionary
Patrologia cursus completus: series latina, ed. J.-P. Migne, 221 vols (Paris,
Publications o f the Modem Language Association
The Rolls Series: Rerum Britannicarum Medii Ævi Scriptores (Chronicles and
Memorials o f Great Britain and Ireland during the Middle Ages), 99 works in
244 vols (London, 1858-1896)
Studies in the Age o f Chaucer
Studies in Medieval Culture
The Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages

N eil C artlid g e

The boundaries addressed in this volume are of various kinds. They include not only
the geographical, political and cultural frontiers that medieval romances imagine and
imply, but also more metaphorical demarcations, such as the boundary between
reality and fictionality; boundaries between different literary traditions, modes and
cultures; and boundaries between different kinds of experience or perception,
especially the ‘altered states’ associated with sickness, magic, the supernatural or the
divine. All of the essays in this volume demonstrate in one way or another how
medieval romances frequently, and perhaps characteristically, capitaine on the
dramatic or suggestive possibilities implicit in all such boundaries. Indeed, one
conclusion that might be drawn from this collection is that medieval romances both
define and challenge boundaries more self-consciously and more provocatively than
is usually acknowledged. Yet romance is, as a genre, notorious for its indifference to
limits - its apparent readiness to breach the rules both of literary decorum and of
literary realism. As a result it has often been interpreted simply as an instrument of or an excuse for - a form of fantasy that is self-indulgently indisciplined, and
therefore intellectually trivial. This has sometimes been seen, in turn, as a reflection
of the relatively unsophisticated nature of medieval romance’s audiences (and
authors). More recently, this has been translated into a more serious allegation, the
suggestion that romance implicitly represents a profound form of intellectual failure,
dishonesty or aggression. Such criticism perhaps says more about the preconceptions
of medieval romance’s critics, the intellectual limits in which they choose to confine
it as a genre, than about the specific effects or achievements of individual romancetexts - the way in which they themselves employ the various different kinds of
boundaries mentioned above. By contrast, the premise that all the essays in this
volume share is that romance is a complex and dynamic phenomenon, and
considerably less amenable to generalization than it is often taken to be, so that
understanding its boundaries is a process that both requires and repays detailed and
sympathetic attention to individual texts.
There is, though, some truth in the suggestion that the imagined worlds of
medieval romance tend to be, by nature, rather unlocated and/or unlocalizable. One
explanation for this is as a form of narrative efficiency, in the sense that it is the
consequence of the subordination of setting to plot. So, for example, one of the
more extraordinary boundaries in medieval romance is spanned by the famous Sword

Neil Cartlidge
Bridge that Sir Lancelot encounters in Chrétien’s Chevalier de la Charrette, and which
serves as a means of access to the mysterious Land of Gorre. This ‘bridge* —a sharp
blade suspended over a torrent - ultimately provides Lancelot with the opportunity
to demonstrate both extreme bravery and absolute devotion to his lady (Arthur’s
queen, Guinevere). It is clearly this opportunity, rather than any attempt to provide a
coherent geographical setting for Lancelot’s adventures, that explains its presence in
the poem. Yet the Sword Bridge is also described with considerable attention to the
physical details of its construction and its particular placing in the landscape:
Au pié del pont, qui molt est max,1
Sont descendu de lor chevax,
Et voient l’eve felenesse,
Noire et bruiant, roide et espesse,
Tant leide et tant espoantable
Con se fust li fluns au deable,
Et tant périlleuse et parfonde
Qu’il n’est riens nule an tot le monde,
S’ele i cheoit, ne fust alee
Ausi com an la mer salee.
Et li ponz qui est an travers
Estoit de toz autres divers,
Qu’ainz tex ne fil ne ja mes n’iert.
Einz ne fu, qui voir m’an requiert,
Si max ponz ne si male planche.
D’une espee forbie et blanche
Estoit li ponz sor l’eve froide,
Mes l’espee estoit forz et roide
Et avoit .II. lances de lonc.
De chasque part ot un grant tronc,
Ou l’espee estoit closfichiee.
Ja nus ne dot que il i chiee
Por ce que ele brist ne ploit,
Que tant i avoit il d’esploit
Qu’ele pooit grant fes porter.
[At the end of that very dangerous bridge they get off their horses to see the
treacherous water thundering swiftly past, black and turbid, as horrid and
terrifying as if it were the Devil’s river, and so perilous and deep that there is
nothing in the whole world which, having fallen into it, would not vanish into
the salt sea. The bridge across it was quite different from all others: there
never was nor will be one like it. If anyone asks me the truth, never did so
terrible a bridge or foot-crossing exist. This bridge over the cold water
consisted of a polished, gleaming sword; but it was a strong, stout sword as
long as two lances. At each end was a tree-trunk to which the sword was


nailed. No one needed to fear falling off on account of its breaking or
bending, for it was so well made that it could bear a great weight.]1
At the same time, Chrétien’s insistence on the materiality of the Sword Bridge and of
the landscape in which it is so firmly fixed (‘closfichiee’) is a peculiarly self-defeating
strategy, in the sense that all his gestures towards realism are inevitably undermined
by the sheer improbability of anyone ever bothering to erect such a structure.
Despite Chrétien’s absurd reassurance that no one need fear for its stability, it is
evidendy not a convenient means of crossing the torrent; nor is it any more
formidable as an obstacle than the torrent itself, despite the intimidating nature of its
razor-sharp and slippery blade. The Sword Bridge thus hardly serves any purpose
very effectively - not even as a symbolic disincentive to anyone trying to enter the
Land of Gorre. Even when Chrétien draws attention to the solidity of the bridge’s
engineering, the care (‘esploit’) implicit in its design and its capacity for heavy loads
(‘grant fes porter’), the effect is only to emphasize, not the realistic qualities of the
bridge, but rather its artificiality. This very artificiality, though, could be read as a
pointer to the sheer meaningfulness of the bridge - its very ‘constructedness’
reflecting the constructedness of the narrative itself, the deliberate way in which
Chrétien generates moral and psychological perspectives from the places through
which the knight travels.
One way of explaining the function of the Sword Bridge, and of the landscape
implied by its presence, is as a means of enabling the ‘series of adventures’ that
Chrétien’s romance tends to elevate ‘to the status of a fated and graduated test of
election’, as Erich Auerbach puts it.12 As such, the topography of romance ‘becomes
the basis of a doctrine of personal perfection’; and thus not just the setting for an
assertion of the values of ‘courtly culture’, but the very means of making that
assertion. In the light of this argument, Auerbach concluded that ‘courtly culture was
decidedly unfavorable to the development of a literary art which should apprehend
reality in its full breadth and depth’. This is a generalization that has been influential
on criticism of medieval romance as a whole, including the insular romances that are
specifically the subject of the essays in this book, and not just the continental
tradition to which Chrétien himself belongs.3 Yet it is a fundamental premise of
Auerbach’s study of the representation of reality in literature that no text can ever
portray reality, to any extent, except by using particular techniques that can be
subjected to literary-critical analysis. No more than any other form of fiction can
medieval romance be read as an attempt at replicating reality. It can never be more
than an imitation of reality (a ‘mimesis’); and from that point of view its tendency to
endow landscape with psychological, moral and even allegorical dimensions is
perhaps better seen as one aspect of the distinctive way in which it mimics reality,
than as a proof of its indifference to, or unawareness of, reality itself.



Chrétien de Troyes, Le chevalier de la charrette: ou le roman de Lancelot, ed. Charles Mêla (Paris,
1992), lines 3007-27; trans. D.D.R. Owen, Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances (London,
1987), p. 225.
Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur (1946; repr.
Tübingen and Basel, 2001), p. 132: ‘in den Rang einer schicksalsbestimmten, stufenweisen
Bewährung eines Auserwähltseins’: trans. Willard R. Trask, as Mimesis: The Representation of
Reality in Western Literature (Princeton, 1953; repr. 1991), p. 136.
Auerbach, p. 138; trans. Trask, p. 142.


Neil Cartlidge
Even if the Sword Bridge hardly serves in itself as a credible depiction of any kind
of political or economic frontier, it certainly cannot be taken to illustrate Chrétien’s
absolute lack of interest in the idea of boundaries. The Land of Gorre to which it
provides access is itself a shadowy, undefined place, but this could be explained as a
consequence, not so much of Gorre’s lack of borders, as of its apparent function as a
kind of border. It is described, for example, as that land:
.. .Don n’ist ne sers ne gentix horn
Qui ne soit de la entor nez,
N’ancor n’en est nus retornez.
Les estranges prisons retienent
Et cil del pais vont et vienent
Et anz et fors a lor pleisir. (Unes 1904-09)
[.. .which no serf or nobleman can leave unless he is a native of these parts:
no one has as yet come back from there. Foreigners are held prisoner there,
whilst the inhabitants come and go in and out as they please.]4
It is not impossible to imagine a country where such conditions could reign, but
there is no suggestion here that the imposition of such conditions was motivated by
any form of poUtical pragmatism. Rather, they seem somehow impUcit in the very
nature of the land itself, and in this sense Gorre could be defined as an essentially
liminal realm - a place fundamentaUy defined by the boundary that allows entry to
non-citizens, but not egress. In that respect, it clearly resembles traditional
conceptions of the underworld;56and this is a reading suggestively supported by the
immediate context of the description that I have just quoted. The words are those of
a hermit who helpfully explains to Lancelot that the people trapped in the Land of
Gorre will only be released by the one knight who is capable of Hfting the Ud of a
particularly large and heavy tomb in the hermit’s cemetery. It might be argued that if
the prisoners can be released at aU, then they cannot be taken as dead in any Uteral
sense, but the very fact that their release is presaged by the Hfting of the Ud of a tomb
surely impUes that Chrétien intended it to be read at least as a symboUc resurrection.
That possibiUty is perhaps stiU further reinforced by the hermit’s subsequent
prediction that the man capable of Hfting the tomb’s Ud will eventuaUy be its
occupant (Unes 1932-36).
In effect, then, Chrétien’s depiction of Gorre serves to dramatize the boundary
between Ufe and death, by suggesting that it is in some sense more permeable than
we are accustomed to beUeve. Another text that apparently sets out to achieve much
the same effect is the Middle EngUsh romance Sir OrfeoS In this case, it is the
wilderness that serves as the liminal space between Orfeo’s kingdom and the strange
otherworld into which his wife, Heurodis, is abducted. Driven distraught by his grief
at her loss, he abandons his kingdom and disappears, barefoot ‘þurth wode & ouer
heþ’ into the wilderness:
Cf. also Chevalier de la charrette, Unes 640-43, where Gorre is described as ‘the kingdom from
which no stranger returns, but is forced to stay in that land in servitude and exUe’ (Owen,
Arthurian Romances, p. 193).
5 Cf. Je ff Rider, The other worlds o f romance’, in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance,
ed. Roberta L. Krueger (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 1 1 5 -3 1 , at pp. 115 -16 .
6 Sir Orfeo, ed. A.J. BUss (Oxford, 1971).


Noþing he fint þat him is ays,
Bot euer he liueþ in gret malais*.
He þat hadde y-werd þe fowe & griis,
& on bed þe purper biis,
- Now on hard heþe he liþ,
Wiþ leues & gresse he him wriþ.
He þat hadde had castels & tours,
Riuer, forest, friþ wiþ flours
- Now, þei it comenci to snewe & frese,
Þis king mot make his bede in mese. (Sir Orfeo, lines 239-48)
Again, the wilderness depicted here is more vividly apprehensible as a space in a
psychological landscape - as the ‘objective correlative’ of Orfeo’s grief —than as a
part of any kind of coherent geography; although it turns out that the gateway to the
otherworld is actually very palpably located within this wilderness, for Orfeo
eventually finds his way there by entering a cave in a cliff (‘in at a roche’, line 323).
More clearly still, the wilderness serves as a contrast with the civilized world, the
world of the living, to which Orfeo’s kingdom belongs, for the poet makes much of
the pathos implicit in his protagonist’s loss of his high estate (‘He that hadde had
castels and tours,/ River, forest, frith with flours...’). The otherworld to which
Heurodis is abducted could even be seen as the mirror-image of Orfeo’s own
kingdom - the only thing differentiating them being, in effect, the boundary between
the two different kinds of reality that they represent. In describing the fairy-king’s
realm, Heurodis uses much the same language as the poet subsequently uses to
describe Orfeo’s own realm:
[The fairy-king] made me wiþ him ride
Opon a palfray by his side;
& broußt me to his palays,
Wele atird in ich ways,
& shewed me castels & tours,
Riuers, forestes, friþ with flours... (Sir Orfeo, lines 155-60)7
It could thus be said that both Chrétien’s Lancelot and the Middle English Sir Orfeo
define boundaries in spaces that are imagined geographically, but that the significance
of such boundaries in these two texts is ultimately moral, or even spiritual, rather
than political. However, there is one particular moment in Sir Orfeo where the cultural
and geographical boundaries of the real world do suddenly emerge, in a fashion that
seems strikingly at odds with the more figurative nature of the boundaries that it
otherwise draws. This is the moment when the poet rather disarmingly identifies the
ancient Greek province of Thrace, which he describes as Tradens,/ Þat was a cité of
noble defens’ (lines 47—48), with the English city of Winchester: ‘For Winchester was
cleped þo/ Traciens wiþ-outen no’ (lines 49—50). This is often cited as a classic
instance of medieval romance’s disregard for historical and geographical accuracy;
there is no evidence that this idea could have been derived from any medieval

On the cultural contexts and implications o f Sir Orfeo’s imagining o f the otherworld, see Alan
J. Fletcher, (Sir Orfeo and the Flight from the Enchanters’, SAC 22 (2000) 141—77; and Neil
Cartlidge, ‘Sir Orfeo in the Otherworld: Courting Chaos?’ SA C 26 (2004), 195-226.


Neil Cartlidgt
‘authority’; and indeed the cultural distance between the ancient Greek province and
the medieval English city is clearly so great that these lines can hardly be anything
other than startling. It might be read as conspicuous proof of the poet’s lack of
learning or as an illustration of romance’s cultural aggression, a bare-faced attempt by
a member of western Christendom to appropriate the pre-Christian, pre-medieval
world for his own imaginative purposes. More charitably, it could be read as a means
of asserting a kind of continuity with the distant past, by reminding the audience of
the status of Winchester as the ancient capital of England. It may also have had a
local or personal significance now lost to us - one might speculate, for example, that
so specific a reference to a particular city was designed to gesture at the Orfeo-poet’s
own origins or affiliations.
Little remarked, though, is that, far from simply exemplifying the readiness of
medieval romance to commit such geographical and cultural solecisms, this passage
in Sir Orfeo also illustrates the self-consciousness with which medieval romance
characteristically disposes, or pretends to dispose, its boundaries. It is the author of
these lines himself who emphasizes that this identification between the two places is
a conscious exercise in historicization (‘For Winchester was cleped tho’) and insists on
its incontrovertibility as a fact (‘was cleped... mthouten no*) - for all that the
unhistorical, unfactual nature of what he says is precisely what strikes the modem
reader. He also lays claim to a degree of judiciousness in his careful, and slighdy
pompous, description of Traciens/Winchester as ‘a cite of noble defens’ (line 24).
The posture he adopts, then, could be described as that of an antiquarian - someone
deeply interested in the past and its places; and indeed one of his primary intentions
in these few lines may have been to be seen to strike that posture. That may not
entirely absolve him of the charge of intellectual naivety, but it does underline that
his was not an unconscious naivety. Whatever his purposes were —and we probably do
not have sufficient evidence to say with any certainty what they were (or even to be
sure that these lines are not a scribal insertion)8 - his identification of Traciens as
Winchester certainly does not prove his indifference to historical and geographical
accuracy: indeed, quite the opposite.
Moreover, this attempt to map the contemporary geography of the medieval
world onto the ancient geography of the classical world is by no means
unprecedented in insular romance. Towards the end of the late-twelfth-century
romance Ipomedon by Hue de Rotelande, we encounter a character called Leander
who is introduced as the duke and ruler of Thessaly (‘De Tessaille fut dux e sire’, line
8928) and as the brother of Ipomedon’s principal opponent at this point, the giant
Léonin, who is himself described as the son of a rich emir from greater India (‘de
Inde major,/ Ffilz a un riche almazor’, lines 7Ó97-98.9 Yet Hue also explains that:
Si fist uns reis gualeis jadis,
Jo quit ke il l’apelerent Ris,
Il fut mut larges de Engleterre,
A ses hirdmans parti la terre,
Herefort e Glouecestre,
Salopesbure e Wirecestre,

Bliss argues that lines 4 9 -5 0 ‘are unlikely to be genuine’ (p. 52; cf. p. xv).

Ipomedon, poème de Hue de Kotelande (fin du XHe siècle), ed. A J. Holden (Paris, 1979).


Mes il en lava ben ses mains;
Il e li son ourent li meins
Kar il fut vencuz e laidiz,
Vilment chacez e descumfiz. (lines 8941-50)
[He was once a Welsh king: I think they called him Rhys. He was very
generous with England, dividing up the land - Hereford and Gloucester,
Shropshire and Worcester - among his retainers. But he was pleased to wash
his hands of it [in the end]: he and his men had the worst of it, for they were
defeated and dishonoured, shamefully harried and routed.]
For Hue, it seems, Leander exists simultaneously in two very different dimensions.
He is, on the one hand, an exotic figure associated with both Hellenic and oriental
culture; and, on the other, a Welsh war-leader operating in the Marches where Hue
himself lived. Hue’s editor, A.J. Holden, tentatively identifies the Welsh prince
alluded to here as Rhys ap Gruffudd, Prince of Deheubarth, but this is problematic
for several reasons: Lord Rhys never campaigned in the English counties that Hue
lists, nor was he ever defeated quite so comprehensively as Hue describes.101Yet even
if Leander cannot be identified with any particular Welsh prince —even if he might
also be read as ‘une créature composite, même symbolique’ as Holden also suggests the effect is to generate a topical resonance of local significance that is, in the
context, really quite incongruous. As with Sir Orfeo, though, the incongruity is most
plausibly explained as an index, not of any presumed ignorance or clumsiness on the
part of the author, but of the deliberateness with which he chose to blur the
boundaries between the fantastic and the familiar.
The identification of Leander as a former Welsh war-leader could conceivably
have been intended as a precise political allusion that is no longer readily explicable,
but whether or not this is the case, the identification is clearly both self-conscious
and highly provocative in the context. One might argue that its effect is to dignify the
political turmoil in South Wales and the Marches in the last decades of the twelfth
century by relocating it, at least imaginatively, onto a much grander and more
glamorous stage. Alternatively it could be argued that, just as the romance of Ipomedon
serves as an exposition and (intermittently ironic) analysis of the courtly ideology of
the Anglo-Norman barons who fought the Welsh princes for control of South
Wales, so Hue’s identification of Ipomedon’s opponents with the Welsh possibly
serves to emphasize the extent of the cultural and political boundary between them.
To quote Holden again: ‘Notre auteur, [u]n citoyen du royaume anglo-normand,
regarde d’un œil méprisant et en même temps inquiet les régions à demi barbares qui
s’étendent au-delà des frontières.’11 Yet this reading of the passage rests to some
extent on Holden’s assumption that the word ‘hirdman’ is pejorative - on the basis
that it denotes a herdsman, peasant or bumpkin (‘pâtre... paysan, individu fruste’);12
10 Holden, pp. 1 0 -11 . But see also Huw Pryce, ‘Rhys ap Gruffudd (1131/2—1197)’, Oxford
Dictionary ofNational Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [
view/article/23464, accessed 12 April 2007]; R.R. Davies, The Age of Conquest: Wales 10631415 (Oxford, 1991), pp. 2 17 -2 4 ; J. Gillingham, ‘Henry II, Richard I, and the Lord Rhys’,
Peritia 10 (1996), 225-36.
11 Holden, p. 566.
12 OED, s.v. ‘herdman’, sb.


Neil Çartlidge
but the word in question is much more likely to mean simply ‘retainer* —with no
implicit suggestion of rusticity.13 What is striking, though, is that this Anglo-Norman
writer should choose to adopt an English word when characterizing the war­
following of a Welsh prince - which illustrates, if nothing else, that, for Hue, political
and cultural boundaries were not necessarily concurrent with linguistic ones.
Sir Thomas Malory’s attempt to identify the fictional castle of Joyous Garde with
either Alnwick Castle or Bamburgh Castle is also difficult to dismiss as a merely
incidental or accidental detail, if only because - as with the instances that I have cited
from Sir Orfeo and Ipomedon - it is so conspicuously gratuitous to the development of
the narrative in hand. Moreover, the moment when Malory chooses to make this
identification is a highly dramatic and momentous one, with his charismatic
protagonist, Sir Lancelot, already at the point of death:
So when he was howselyd and enelyd and had al that a Crysten man ought to
have, he prayed the Bysshop that his felowes myght bere his body to Joyous
Garde. (Somme men say it was Anwyk, and somme men say it was
Yet, as in the case of Sir Orfeo and Ipomedon, it is easier to argue that Malory’s
suggestion was self-conscious and deliberate, than to define precisely what he might
have expected to achieve by it. Both Alnwick and Bamburgh served as capitals of
Lancastrian resistance (and Alnwick, of course, was the principal seat of the Percy
earls of Northumberland - two of whom, the 2nd and 3rd, died for the Lancastrian
cause during the 1450s and 1460s, along with three of the 3rd earl’s brothers).15 In
1462-63, Malory seems to have taken part in the Yorkist campaign that led to the
siege and fall of the two castles, so he may have come to know them well - at least
from the outside.16 In some ways that only makes it all the more surprising that he
should have chosen to identify the two Northumbrian castles with Joyous Garde, a
castle existing only in fiction, as if in denial of the existence of any gap between the
glories of the Arthurian world and the realities of siege-warfare in a northern winter.
Perhaps that is precisely the point: the identification of Joyous Garde as either
Alnwick or Bamburgh being a calculated attempt to close that gap, to endow the
brutal realities of the Wars of the Roses with some of the sheen of romance. It might
also seem a little puzzling that Malory should have chosen to associate the castle of
his hero, Sir Lancelot, with two castles that he knew as fortresses occupied by his
political opponents; a possible solution for this difficulty is readily provided by the
fact that, by the time he was writing the Morte Darthur; Malory was in prison as a
consequence of falling out with the Yorkists. From this point of view Malory’s
apparent glamorization of Alnwick and Bamburgh (and the Lancastrian defiance with
which he would have associated it) could be read as a gesture of his own defiance
against his gaolers. Alternatively, it might be argued that Malory’s association of
13 OED, s.v. ‘hirdman, hiredman’, sb.
14 Sir Thomas Malory, Morte Darthur, ed. Eugène Vinaver as Maloty: Works (Oxford, 1971), p.
15 Alexander Rose, Kings of the North: The House of Percy in British History (London, 2003), pp. 495—
16 P.J.C. Field, The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Mabry (Cambridge, 1993), pp. 129-30, 142;
Vinaver, p. 778.


Alnwick and Bamburgh with Joyous Garde was not intended to be partisan; and that,
in this sense, his imagination was perhaps more generous and less factionalized than
his own behaviour during the Wars of the Roses might suggest.
What I want to emphasize, though, is that such problems are not at all unusual in
medieval romance: that they are, to some extent, characteristic of medieval romance.
In other words, for all the unspecificity of some of the landscapes found in romance
and for all the disorientations created by magic or madness or the supernatural,
medieval romances do have a tendency to depict topographies through which the
contours of the real can sometimes be perceived. More often than not, however, the
real emerges in ways that are rather fitful and surprising. The problem, in other
words, is not that the boundaries of romance simply do not correspond with those of
reality, but that, where identifiable points of contact do exist, they are so often so
troublesome to explain that they demand a high degree of tact and insight - if,
indeed, it is possible to explain them at all. Consequendy, it could perhaps be argued
that romance tends to draw boundaries in particularly provocative ways (relative to
other genres of fiction) precisely because its correspondences with the real world are
so very troubled, intermittent and complex.
Nor is it always the case that such correspondences are explained by romance’s
imitation of reality: there are certain respects in which the opposite is true, as Helen
Cooper demonstrates in the first essay in this collection (which is based on the
Conference’s plenary lecture, delivered at the Royal Irish Academy). She defines four
different ways in which romance might be said to ‘come true’, including the
possibility that certain historical events were modelled, to some extent, on narrative
patterns typical of romance. In these cases, the process of ‘mimesis’, to use
Auerbach’s term, is effectively reversed: it is reality that serves as the medium for an
imitation of fiction, rather than the other way around. As Cooper shows, one of the
mechanisms for this particular form of reverse-takeover was a shared preoccupation
with the ideology of rightful inheritance. In the same way that the order of events in
medieval romance is often subordinated to the vindication of the rights of the ‘true’
king, likewise kings in reality apparendy sought to play the part of the hero in a kind
of ‘true’ romance. So too did the ‘imposters’ who attempted to compete with them
for their thrones, even if their own attempts to impose romance on history by
adopting a starring role in it were to be, by definition, frustrated. Implicit in such
appropriations of romance-motifs for political effect is a deliberate blurring of the
boundary between the real and the ideal - or, to put it another way, a deliberate
attempt to supply romance with a specific localization, a specific set of borders: the
literally generic realm of romance was interpreted as if it were a paradigm for the
dynastic future of a particular realm: in this case, England. The sheer readiness with
which the topography of medieval romance lent itself to being ‘realized’ in this way
suggests that its apparent insubstantiality or abstractedness should be seen as a
function, not of the genre’s historical irrelevance, but of its political adaptability.
The next two essays both question the way in which specific groups of medieval
romances might be said to demonstrate a coherently ‘English’ self-consciousness.
Rosalind Field draws attention to the peculiar history of the term ‘Matter of
England’, a term that has become widely used in romance-scholarship as a means of
establishing a distinct identity for texts set in England (such as Guy o f Warwick and
Havelok the Dane). As she shows, the origins of the term are much more obscure, and

much less authentically medieval, than those of the other traditional ‘Matters’ of
medieval romance (those of France, Britain and Rome). The boundaries implied by
the term are thus highly artificial —and potentially misleading in that they suggest a
much more rigid sense of national identity than romance-texts themselves support.
Only Havelok the Dane, she suggests, comfortably inhabits the ‘Matter of England’
category; but even this romance has been more surprisingly and subversively
influential than the traditional categorization would imply, as she shows in her
provocative postscript, which observes the recent re-emergence of Havelokian
motifs in some of the fantasy novels by Terry Pratchett. Meanwhile, Marianne Ailes
and Phillipa Hardman joindy consider the extent to which Middle English romances
deriving from chansons de geste depicting the deeds of King Charlemagne and his
knights might be said to have given them a distincdy English spin. In this particular
case, they suggest, English adaptations of the ‘Matter of France’ tended to involve a
distinct shift of emphasis, towards a more consciously pious and moralistic reading
of Charlemagne’s knights as Christian heroes in an implicitly universal fight against
In the next essay, Elizabeth Berlings tries to assess both the extent of the national
partisanship expressed by the Middle English Sege o f Melayne and the extent to which
the text is deliberately comical. The boundaries at issue in this essay, as in its two
predecessors (by Field and Ailes/Hardman) might thus be said to be simultaneously
political/cultural and generic; or, perhaps more accurately, all three essays might be
said to address the question of how closely such boundaries might be said to be
aligned. The same is true, to some extent, of Simon Meecham-Jones’s essay on the
text traditionally known as the Song o f Dermot and the Earl\ but re-titled by its most
recent editor as The Deeds o f the Normans in Ireland. These competing denominations
reflect considerable disagreement about the genre to which this text actually belongs;
and this disagreement in turn affects any assessment of its value as a witness to the
Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland. Since this is a work that presents a notably
partisan view of this event, according to Meecham-Jones, the debate about its generic
identity bears directly on any evaluation of its sophistication or success. The essay by
Elizabeth Williams also discusses the depiction of Irish history in medieval romance
(and she briefly considers the same Dermot as the one celebrated by the Song o f
Dermot and the E arl); but in this case Ireland appears in a considerably longer
perspective. The romance that she discusses, The Hystoiye o f Olyuer o f Castylle,
originated in the ducal court of Burgundy during the fifteenth century. Leisurely and
eclectic though this text is, it still alludes to historical events (in Ireland and
elsewhere) in a fashion that is at times provocatively precise. The source of such
allusions often seems to have been the chronicler Jean Froissart, as Williams
demonstrates in this essay.
Arlyn Diamond’s contribution to this collection addresses a text with a
remarkable capacity to cause discomfort among modern critics: the alliterative Siege o f
Jerusalem. She takes a bold approach to the difficulties that it poses, suggesting that it
gratified its medieval audiences not because it celebrated violence against Jews, but
because it celebrated violence itself. What makes the poem memorable, she suggests,
is the ‘imaginative force’ of its descriptions of war, as much as the ‘figurai and
historical exegesis’ that it might be taken to supply. Robert Rouse’s essay, by
contrast, is much more concerned with peace - and specifically the motif of the

peace-creating king. As he demonstrates, this is a recurrent element in the
idealization of England as an entity with a distinct national and legal identity to which
insular romances tend to subscribe, but it is also a motif with parallels in a wide range
of European texts. This he illustrates most strikingly with a brief excursus on its
occurrence in the tradition of stories about the original Count Dracula - that is, the
Prince of Transylvania, Vlad Dracul. ‘England’ also figures as a central idea in Laura
Ashe’s study of the idea of the hero in medieval romance. She points out that neither
Middle English nor Anglo-Norman possessed any word properly signifying the
concept of the ‘hero’. Both languages lacked the term as it was elaborated in classical
Latin, and as it was to be recoined in the sixteenth century, to designate ‘the man
distinguished by supreme and superlative qualities of bravery’, ‘a person reverenced
and idealised’. The absence of the word, however, evidendy did not preclude the
writers of romances from inventing such characters, and she discusses the different
strategies by which romancers went about constructing their idealized ‘heroes’. In
discussing the insular romances of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, she suggests
that their rediscovery of the hero was concomitant with the emergence of a sense of
the distinctness of England as a nation.
Judith Weiss also touches on the question of what constituted heroism for the
authors of insular romance in the course of her analysis of the generic affiliations of
Boeve de Haumtone; and she discusses two other issues that are prominent elsewhere in
this volume - the extent of comedy’s incursions into romance and the complexity of
romance’s attitudes towards ‘Saracens’. She argues that ‘as a text that is part epic, part
romance, Boeve de Haumtone could be said to exploit the tensions implicit in its
occupation of the boundary between the two genres.’ Ivana Djordjevid’s essay is
concerned with a different generic boundary: that between romance and
hagiography. She demonstrates a shift in the way that medieval romances tend to
depict the possibility of divine intervention, according to which the heroes of later
medieval romances define and justify their heroism in terms of a much more intimate
and demanding relationship with God. Paradoxically, she suggests that as the
protagonists of pious romances came to rely increasingly ‘on God’s active help, the
hero becomes in a sense less heroic, but God also becomes less divine’. The final
essay in the collection, by Corinne Saunders, addresses a similar ambivalence: the
uncomfortable relationship in medieval culture between different conceptions of
medicine - on the one hand, as a sober science of the human body; on the other, as a
more or less fantastic field of magic, miracle or superstition. Illness and healing have
the capability of bringing us to the very frontiers of our rationality, to the very edges
of our experience as rational individuals. As such, the process of sickness and
recovery also readily serves as metaphor for moral and intellectual transformations of
all kinds, but especially those transformations that take place at the limits of what we
take to be ‘natural’. As Saunders herself puts it, the depiction of illness and healing
allows romance writers ‘to create flash-points where human, otherworldly and divine
may intersect, and where romance and realism meet’.


When Romance Comes True’
H elen C o o per

The romances that form the subject of this paper were not written by famous named
authors, or by identifiable poetic masters. Almost all are anonymous, and so do not
lend themselves to the kind of traditional criticism that one can apply to writers who
have a known life and context; and since the dates of composition and the intended
audiences for some are uncertain, and others are translations of works originally
written within different political circumstances and a different social and linguistic
culture, it is not at all easy to historicae them in the new or the old senses. They tend
to be open about their meanings, avoiding subtexts and codes, so they are not
amenable to the kind of hermeneutic of suspicion that fuels New Historicism. They
are often talked about as ‘popular’ romances, though the term is somewhat
misleading, since any text that was written down in the Middle Ages has by definition
at least something elite about it. They are, however, written in English, not French or
Anglo-Norman, and so mark themselves as linguistically accessible to all social
classes. They do not generally carry the markers of high culture that characterize
medieval French-language romance, though a number of them exist in continental or
insular French versions as well as English; and several of the later ones were
‘popular’ almost by definition in the sense conveyed by the shift from individual
manuscript copies to entire printed editions. It remains true, however, that all these
romances overdy address the concerns of the gentry and the upper classes rather
than peasants or townsmen; they emerge from an elite culture, first that of the
Anglo-Norman romances written for aristocratic readers, later that of the ducal court
of Burgundy, and throughout the Middle Ages their link with the aristocracy remains
close - a fact that is of some importance for much of what follows.
The tide ‘When Romance Comes True’ probably sounds like a paradox.
‘Romance’ has become the accepted antonym of ‘realism’, and we accordingly tend
to define romance in terms of what is not true: much killing of dragons and giants by
knights in shining armour. Those elements are of course there, but it is tempting to
emphasise them to a degree that makes us overlook just how closely much Middle
English romance connects with real life. Perhaps the very obviousness of those
connections has something to do with the ease with which they are overlooked:
This paper was originally delivered as a lecture at the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, in April
2004, in association with the concurrent Medieval Romances Conference.

Helen Cooper
dragons and giants make their presence more strongly visible, and are indeed what
the authors seem most proud of. They are interesting just because they are not part
of real life. There are, none the less, four major ways in which romance can ‘come
true’. Two of those processes are deliberate and self-fulfilling. First is the writing of
romances as a retrospective explanation of what is happening in the present; and
second, the deliberate re-creation of romance in actual practice. The other two
processes are more complex, in that the impact of immediate contemporary (or to us,
historical) concerns on the writer serves to place romance at least partly outside his
control: he is responding to a given context of historical or cultural incident that
limits his freedom to invent or adapt or explain. Of these next two processes, the
first has to do with how cultural practices, cultural changes, helped to create
romance; and the second, with what happens when specific historical events appear
to model themselves on romance structures, and how those events can be given a
conscious extra boost by romance authors or patrons to make the parallels even
closer. Across all four of those phenomena, there is a turning of history into
romance, or romance into history.
The first two of those processes, the deliberate and self-fulfilling connections, are
comparatively straightforward, and require only a brief outline to indicate how they
work. The use of romance to offer a retrospective explanation, or indeed a
justification, of the known facts of the present, is something with which any scholar
of romance will be familiar. Texts of this variety often develop romance into a kind
of myth of origin; and in a Christian culture, such a mythic element carries with it a
strong implication of endorsement by God. This usage emerges most often in
genealogical romances, which tell the stories of the origins of countries, or towns, or
aristocratic families. Geoffrey of Monmouth is in this sense writing a gigantic myth
of origin, which runs from the foundation of Britain by Brut forwards; and if he
wrote it genetically as history, many of his stories were given a later development as
individual romances. Not all such stories are purely glorificatory, and romance can
stretch itself to accommodate a degree of personal or political downfall alongside its
celebratory function. Legends of origin can be invented or adapted to explain a
present disaster, and therefore to shift the blame for that disaster back from the
present onto the past. Melusine offers a particularly clear example. In its primary form,
it tells of the foundation of the house of Lusignan by a woman who is half-fairy, and
who is, in Donald Maddox’s term, the ‘mega-mother’ of the dynasty in all its
numerous branches.1 In the late fourteenth century, however, a series of disasters
that befell one particular branch of the family was given just such a retrospective
explanation in the form of a curse imposed on one line of her descendants that was
set to last for nine generations.12 The story does not obviously qualify as ‘true’ in any
normal sense of the term; but to an age that lacked the techniques of historical


Donald Maddox, Fictions of Identity in Medieval France (Cambridge, 2001), pp. 172, 177-86. On
the historical parallels for Melusine’s sons, see the introduction to the edition o f the metrical
version by Eleanor Roach, Le Roman de Mélusine ou Histoire de Lusignan par Coudrette,
Bibliothèque française et romane B. 18 (Paris, 1982), pp. 20—52. The prose version was
composed in the 1390s in support o f Jean de Berry’s claims to the lordship. Both versions
were translated into Middle English around 1500.
The history is set out in the introduction to Laurence Harf-Lancner’s modernized edition,
Coudrette: H Roman de Mélusine (Paris, 1993), pp. 26-35.


When Romance Comes True
investigation that we take for granted, it was perhaps the best that could be done
(and we need to remember how frequently we do exactly parallel things even though
we know better: the American myth of the colonizing of an empty and unpeopled
land, for instance, is a close replication of what is found in Geoffrey's legend of Brut;
and film habitually rewrites history in favour of the audience for whom the film is
made, as with the U-571 version of the capture of the Enigma codes in the Second
World War that turns it into an American rather than a British achievement). So far
as the Middle Ages were concerned, the present state of affairs had to be reached
somehow: how did the facts of the contemporary world come to be? Those facts,
moreover, could themselves appear to ‘prove' the romance version of the past
invented to explain them. Such versions of history were not always or altogether
received without some degree of scepticism, even at the time; but at least they
provided a kind of just-so story that was impossible to better. To borrow a term
from the early development of science, such legends ‘saved the appearances',
provided a working hypothesis that accounted for the observed phenomena, and so
offered a functional stand-in for truth until such time as it was either proved to be
true or replaced by a better hypothesis.
Such a readiness to accord truth to a romance version of the past was confirmed
by the deliberate recreation of romance in life, in a process of life imitating literature.
The medieval social elites, particularly aristocratic and royal courts, had something of
a genius for turning their lives into art, or ritual.3 This is what happened, for instance,
with the creation of the Order of the Garter by Edward III in 1348. The Order was
specifically and deliberately modelled on the fellowship of the Round Table; and
indeed there was already a round table in existence that Edward could use if he so
wished, which had probably been commissioned by his grandfather, and which is still
preserved in Winchester Great Hall.4 The table seems to have been linked with
Edward I’s revival of Arthurianism as courtly play,5 but it was play with a serious
edge: the revival, and the ton-and-a-bit table as a physically massive endorsement of
the point at issue, were above all a deliberate propaganda move, to show how the
greatness of the imperial British past as embodied in King Arthur was recreated in
himself, with particular reference to the dispute concerning the overlordship of
Scodand. At some point, however, the origins of the table were forgotten, and it
began to look as if it might be the real thing; and if it were, then, as Caxton noted in
his Preface to Malory’s Morte Darthur, it constituted a proof of the historicity of



The adoption o f chivalric values and the rituals o f knighthood in both romance and
aristocratic life is o f course a dominant feature o f medieval culture, and the processes o f
imitation and symbiosis appear to have been mutual. The numerous studies include Maurice
Keen, Chivalry (New Haven and London, 1984); Richard Barber, The Knight and Chivalry, rev.
edn (Woodbridge, 1995); Michel Stanesco, Jeux d’Errance du chevalier médiéval: Aspects ludiques de
lafonction guerriere dans la littérature du moyen âgeflamboyant (Leiden and New York, 1988); and, for
a series o f case studies, the essays in Chivalric Literature: Essays on Relations between Literature and
Life in the Later Middle Ages, ed. Larry D. Benson and John Leyerle (Kalamazoo, 1980). For
more extensive modes o f performance, see for instance Susan Crane, The Performance of Self:
Ritual, Clothing, and Identity during the Hundred Years War (Philadelphia, 2002).
Not all the evidence is conclusive, but this is the best hypothesis reached in Martin Biddle et
al., King Arthur’s Round Table: A n Archaeological Investigation (Woodbridge, 2000).
The classic article is Roger Sherman Loomis, ‘Edward I: Arthurian Enthusiast’, Speculum 28
(1953), 114-2 7 .


Helen Cooper
Arthur, just as the whole cult of chivalry seemed to promise a way back to a golden
age of the past.
There are strong arguments for regarding romance as always retrospective, always
nostalgic, from the moment of its inception; the romans antiques describe the lost
chivalry of Troy, Chrétien locates the chivalric Golden Age in the reign of Arthur. To
set against that, however, is the fact that romance as we know it is the product of
identifiable and specific changes in social practices, and therefore much more closely
modelled on the immediate conditions of contemporary life than our association of
the form with dragons allows. Far from being always exotic and implausible,
romance would be almost unimaginable without those changes, which were
happening just ahead of, or contemporary with, the emergence of romance itself in
the mid-twelfth century. The simplest example is a purely technological one: the
introduction of the stirrup in the early Middle Ages. That in turn enabled the
mounted charge, impact combat, of the knight with the heavy lance couched under
his right arm.6 Chivalric romance appears within a couple of generations of the
introduction of such horseback combat (and of course the French terms chevalier,,
chevalerie, literally ‘horseman’ and ‘horsemanship’, make the connection explicit, as the
English ‘knight’ and ‘knighthood’ fail to do). Fighting of that kind in turn demanded
heavier armour —plate armour. Knights in shining armour may look like fantasy
figures to us, but shining armour developed out of the same practical considerations
that enabled the emergence of chivalric romance; and its authors did not forget, as
we tend to do, that armour needed to be kept shiny, to have the rust removed.7
Still more important to the emergence of romance, and indeed to the whole
history of western Europe, were two more far-reaching social changes, both of them
to do with those central concerns of the medieval secular world, inheritance and the
family. One was the categorization of the principles of primogeniture in the twelfth
and thirteenth centuries. It had long been normal practice for the eldest son to
succeed to his father’s lands and tide; but if there were no suitable or obvious heir,
then the dde had commonly passed to the most competent claimant - a system
enshrined, for instance, in the election of the Holy Roman Emperor. Alternatively, a
king could name his own successor, as Edward the Confessor named William of
Normandy. Primogeniture as it developed in these centuries, however, insisted that
there was only one right heir to a title, or a throne. That was in the first instance the
eldest son and his issue (so that if the eldest son predeceased his father, his own
eldest son was given precedence over the next living brother); if there were no son,
then the inheritance passed to the eldest daughter; or if a direct line failed altogether,
an elaborate series of rules was devised for working back up the generations and
down again to establish the correct inheritance. What was initially set up as a legal
principle rapidly came to be interpreted as ordained by God, a divine as well as a
human law. On the death of a prince, you have to identify not just the legally correct
heir, but the true heir in sight of God.

Discussed in e.g. Keen, Chivalry, pp. 23-25.
A rust-removal process is part o f the service provided for Gawain at Bertilak’s casde (Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon, 2nd edn rev. Norman Davis
(Oxford, 1967), lines 2 0 17 -18 ); and Launfal returns from time to time from Olyroun to joust
in order to ‘kepe his armes fro the rustus’ (Middle English Verse Romances, ed. D.B. Sands,
EMETS (1969; repr. Exeter, 1987), line 1028).


When Romance Comes True
The rules of primogeniture were presumably designed to prevent disputes over
inheritance. In practice, they made them much worse. Historically and politically,
they made the problem of a weak or tyrannical or mad king, or of an infant heir, or
of an heir whose paternity was in doubt, impossible to resolve, since the replacing of
a king or an heir meant, by definition, unrightful rule. It was that kind of situation
that enabled successive English kings to lay claim to the throne of France in the
Hundred Years’ War, when all the lines of inheritance except that of Edward III lay
in an impossible tangle. It was the need for divine endorsement too that made Joan
of Arc’s advent at the end of the war so important, not so much for military strategy,
but because her appearance seemed like direct divine intervention on behalf of the
man who therefore must be the true king, whatever the English claims or the doubts
over his paternity.
The other social change occurred in the mid-twelfth century, with the papal
decision that what made a marriage valid was not a public ceremony nor parental
arrangement, but simply the consent of the spouses.8 In everyday practice, this
probably made very little difference; arranged marriages (as distinct from forced
marriages) continued to be the norm. Combined, however, with those new principles
that bestowed a father’s lands and titles on his daughter if he had no son, it
potentially gave extraordinary political, economic and erotic patronage to the heiress.
Her erotic patronage, moreover, was interpreted in romance not just as consent, but
as free and faithful sexual choice. So if the invention of stirrup and armour and lance
enabled chivalric romance, these other changes enabled all those romances about the
dispossession and return of the true heir, or about the fair unknown who turns out
to be the missing claimant; and they enabled too those other twinned romance plots,
of the young man who makes good by marrying the titled heiress, and of the young
woman who makes her own choice of husband and pursues that choice through all
kinds of adversity - plots that constitute a high proportion of Middle English
Given the basis of such stories in actual inheritance practices, it becomes less
surprising that history and romance can sometimes chime very closely: closely
enough for poets to rewrite history into romance, to mythologize history, even as it
happened, or for people caught up in political events to see themselves as
participating in those quasi-mythic romance structures, structures that insisted that
what was happening was providential, willed by God. There was a particular
incentive to cast events in these terms if what you were doing (deposing the king, for
instance) was driven by political ambition or desire for power, or if you knew that
your claim to the title you held or desired was not as indisputable as you might have
hoped. In such cases, there was all the more reason to present your claims and
actions - to spin them - in just such patterns of divinely sanctioned romance. Spin is
most typically thought of as antagonistic to truth; but events could also be spun to
resemble romance motifs in ways that endorsed genuinely held beliefs rather than
setting out to fabricate belief where none might otherwise exist. The rest of this
paper will consider some instances of historical spin of all these kinds: romance as

On the edict and its context, see Neil Cartlidge, Medieval Marriage: Liferary Approaches, 11001300 (Cambridge, 1997), pp. 12 -19 .


Helen Cooper
propaganda, whether employed idealistically or cynically, or, as is normal with human
motivation, something of both at once.
An early story of a dispossessed heir, Havelok, furnishes a familiar and transparent
point from which to start. It was in origin an English legend that first appears in a
chronicle setting, Gaimar’s Anglo-Norman Estoire des Engleis of about 1137. Over the
course of the next century or so, it was reworked as an independent romance, first in
Anglo-Norman, then in English. It re-entered chronicle history in the Prose Brut at
about the same time as it was given its English romance treatment; and the story
then cut between chronicle and romance for the next few centuries, becoming
increasingly unrecognizable in the process, until it dropped decisively away from
history with its conversion into a sentimental ballad in the eighteenth century.9 It is in
fact a story about two dispossessed heirs, children who are disposed of after the
deaths of their fathers by wicked guardians who want to keep power for themselves.
Havelok, son to the king of Denmark, is ordered by his guardian to be killed; but he
is saved when the wife of the fisherman Grim, his designated murderer, sees a light
coming from the child’s mouth, and they recognize a bright birthmark on his
shoulder as a ‘kynemark’,101a birthmark defining his kin as royal, a king-mark. Grim
escapes with him to England, where his homestead becomes the origin of the future
Grimsby: a major function of the legend, in fact, was to provide a foundation legend
for the town, a legend recorded on its seal and still familiar in the early seventeenth
century. Meantime Goldeburh, the orphan daughter of the king of England, is also
being raised by a wicked guardian. (In the chronicle versions, he is her uncle, the
male equivalent of the wicked mother-in-law, and for analogous reasons: both are cut
off from potential or real power, one by the existence of the heir or heiress who
prevents what would otherwise be his own inheritance, the other by the advent of
the young wife who supplants her as the senior woman of the dynasty.11) In order to
keep power for himself, he decides to interpret literally the promise he made to her
dying father to marry her to the strongest and highest man in England, in the form
of a heroically tall and athletic young scullion employed by the Bishop of Lincoln - a
scullion who is, of course, Havelok. On their wedding night, Havelok, exhausted by
his day’s labour, falls asleep; and she in her turn, grieving over her compelled fate,
sees the light from his mouth, and a further sign of royalty, a king-mark on his
shoulder in the form of a gold cross:

For its early history, see the edition by G.V. Smithers, Havelok (Oxford, 1987), pp. xvi-lvi. For
its post-medieval history, see Helen Cooper, ‘The Elizabethan Havelok'. William Warner’s First
V’ o f the English’, in Medieval Insular Romance: Translation and Innovation, ed. Judith Weiss
(Cambridge, 2000), pp. 16 9-83, and, for a text overlooked there, a reworking o f Warner
entitled ‘A Song o f the Strange Lives o f two Young Princes in England’, which relocates the
story to Devonshire and entides the lovers Raymond and Maudlin (in A Collection of Old
Ballads, vol. 3, possibly ed. Ambrose Philips (London, 1725), pp. 1-10).
10 Ed. Smithers, line 605.
11 The uncle in question is thus most often the father’s brother, the second son whose
inheritance is foiled by the existence o f the child. In the Havelok stories, he is the dead
mother’s brother: he therefore has no lineal claim to the throne, but his selection as guardian
shows him to be the highest-ranking competent male, and therefore the kind o f man who
under the older more flexible inheritance patterns that were in the process o f being displaced,
or under a system o f election or acclamation, could have expected to succeed as ruler.


When Romance Comes True
On hise shuldre, of gold red,
She saw a swiþe noble croiz.
Of an angel she herde a uoyz:
‘Goldeborw, lat þi sorwe be!
For Hauelok, þat haueþ spuset þe,
He [is] kinges sone and kinges eyr Þat bikenneth þat croiz so fayr.’ (lines 1263—69)
The angel's message not only interprets the physical symbol, but gives his royalty
divine endorsement. Only at that point does Goldeburh make her own willed
election of Havelok as her husband, with the implication that the consummation of
their marriage, her full sexual choice, follows from that act of her will. In due course
he wins back both his kingdom and hers, and rules them jointly; and the wicked
guardians come to a nasty end.
Whatever Gaimar or the compiler of the Prose Brut or the good folk of Grimsby
or Lincoln thought about the story, there is no historical evidence that anything like
this ever happened. What is likely is that the legend emerged in response to cultural
pressures: in this instance, it has been argued, by the need retrospectively to
legitimize Danish rule in England, especially in the eastern areas, not least
Lincolnshire, that had embraced it so readily.12 The romance of Havelok addresses
precisely that historical fact. It casts itself as predictive of the Danish rule of England
that did indeed come about, even if it did not occur in anything like the way the
romance represents it. If the Danes had been defeated, a romance might still have
been produced at some point in the future, but it would not have been one that put a
Dane on the throne of England, and that made his heirs legitimate linear English
rulers through his marriage.
To us, Havelok is a romance precisely in the sense that it is not true, and the
element of miracle it contains, that divine symbol of true royalty, confirms that; but it
is dangerous to make assumptions about its fantasy on that basis. Let me step aside
into the historical record, to the year 1238, when the legend of Havelok was
apparently already long established in oral tradition and familiar in written form in
Anglo-Norman, though probably still before the Middle English romance had been
composed. Here is another story, from the Greater Chronicle of Matthew Paris, about
Henry III:
In the same year, a great danger beset the king, such as astonished all those
who heard it. On the morrow of the nativity of the blessed Virgin, a certain
squire who was said to be educated came to the royal court at Woodstock,
and pretending to be mad, he said to the king, ‘Resign to me the kingdom
which you have usurped unrightfully and held for yourself too long.' He also
added that he bore a king-mark on his shoulder (signum regale in humero). The
king’s servants seized him and wanted to beat him out of the royal presence,
but the king stopped them as they ran on him, saying, ‘Leave the lunatic
alone, as it’s natural for someone like that to play the fool; such men’s words
carry no weight of truth.’ But in the middle of the night, that same man got in
12 See Thorlac Turville-Petre, ‘Havelok and the History o f the Nation’, in Readings in Medieval
English Romance, ed. Carol Meale (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 121-34.


Helçn Cooper
through the window of the king’s chamber, carrying an unsheathed dagger,
and rushed in a frenzy on the king’s bed. He was baffled at not finding him
there, and hurriedly searched for him in all the comers of the chamber. By
the Lord’s providence, however, the king was lying with the queen. A certain
maid of the queen’s was by chance awake, reading her psalter by candlelight;
she led a holy life in devotion to God, and was called Margaret Biseth.13
So Margaret screams and raises the alarm, and the king is saved. The squire who had
wanted to assassinate him (to kill him in the manner of the assassins, more
Assessinorum) is tortured until he names his • co-conspirators, whereupon he is
condemned as a traitor and executed in appropriately nasty ways. It is a story about a
claimant with a king-mark who did not succeed; and it remains as history, not
It is however worth pausing on the evidence that the madman, or the feigned
madman, cites for his demands: to paraphrase just a little, ‘Resign the kingdom to
me, for you have usurped it unrightfully, and I bear a kingmark upon my shoulder.’
How do you know who is the rightful king? The laws of primogeniture insisted that
there was one, and one only. Henry’s father, King John, was not such a rightful heir,
having overridden the claims of Prince Arthur, the young son of his elder brother
Geoffrey: John was, in fact, the conventional wicked uncle. And even if a man
plausibly claims to be the son of the rightful king, how can you be sure that he is
what he asserts, in an era before DNA testing? Another unknown young squire,
named Arthur, drew a sword from a stone to prove his right to the throne; the
scullion Havelok had his king-mark, the gold cross inscribed on his body, and the
light from his mouth that became visible in the dark, which marked him indelibly
even in the most adverse of circumstances - providentially endowed and endorsed
signs. So the squire of Woodstock who demanded Henry’s throne from him,
claiming a similar king-mark, was much more dangerous than we might at first glance
think. Henry’s dismissal of his words as the ravings of a madman may have been
humane, but it was also politically astute, since it disarmed the force of his demands.
The rest of the story, however, recasts the lunatic as only pretending to be mad, as
his naming of a further group of conspirators confirmed. If the man were indeed
sane, it none the less seems a crazy way to go about mounting a conspiracy; but the
claim he makes about his king-mark was presumably thought by the other
malcontents, if they indeed existed, to carry real weight - for if a king is faced with a
man who makes such a claim, how can he prove his rival is not what he says he is?
13 Eodem anno accidit regi periculum, omnes audientes nimis reddens attonitos. In crastino
enim nativitatis beatae Mariae, venit quidam armiger literatus, ut dicitur, ad curiam regis apud
Wodestok, se fingens infatuatum, dicens regi: ‘Resigna mihi regnum, quod injuste tibi
usurpasti, et diu detinuisti.’ Addidit quoque, quod signum regale gestabat in humero. Quem
cum ministri regales arripuissent, volentes eum baculatum a praesentia regis propellere, rex
irruentium in eum impetum compescuit, dicens: ‘Sinite infatuatum ut talem decet desipere;
verba enim talium carent pondere veritatis.’ Media autem nocte, ecce ille idem per fenestram
regii thalami introgressus, cultellum portans extractum, lectum regis adiit furibundus; quem
cum non invenisset, confusus est; sed festinus quaesivit eum per plura thalami diverticula.
Erat autem tunc temporis, Domino providente, rex quiescens cum regina. Quaedam autem
puella reginae, cum forte vigilaret, psalterium psallebat ad candelam; erit enim sancta et Deo
devota, nomine Margareta Biseth (Matthew Paris, Chronica Maiora, ed. H.R. Luard, Rolls Series
57 (London, 1872-83), 3.497; my translation).


When Romance Comes True
At one level, Matthew Paris, like the king himself, seems to want to dismiss the affair
as the actions of a madman; but he is also anxious to prove the claim untrue, and
therefore treasonable not just in men’s sight but God’s.
Havelok being a romance, the king-mark is a true, and therefore also divine,
signifier, and the story records its hero’s restoration; there, the man who holds the
throne unrightfully is the one who comes to a sticky end. In Matthew Paris’s story,
Henry’s legitimacy as king is confirmed by enlisting God on his side. It is by God’s
providence, Domino providente, that the king is not in own bed; and the devout
Margaret Biseth, reciting the psalms and therefore with a hotline already open to
God, serves as the divine agent in raising the alarm. That may indeed have been what
happened; but if it was not, something of the kind would have had to be invented something that demonstrated that the man who occupied the throne was indeed the
true king in the sight of God.
The contemporary stories of the scullion of Lincoln and the squire of Woodstock
invite reading against each other. Jump forward two and a half centuries, and you
find another set of contemporary romances that invite similar parallel readings
between their own texts and the sequence of children, men and one woman who in
the years following 1483 all claimed to be the true heir to the throne of England.
Two of these are fifteenth-century prose works emanating originally from Burgundy
that were translated into English on either side of 1500: Blanchardyn and Eglantine,
translated by Caxton around 1489; and Olyuer o f Castylie, printed in 1518. Probably
dating from slightly later is a third text, a ballad-style romance entitled Lady Bessy,
much more demotic in style and dissemination,14 that fictionalizes history more
directly: most of its characters are historical, but their actions, as in a historical novel,
are rewritten to produce a version of events that is close enough to fact to be
credible but that reaches its final outcome (here, the Tudor takeover) by imaginative
The background to the late fifteenth-century struggle for the English throne went
back almost a century, and demonstrated all the problems consequent on the
equation of the rightful monarch with the true heir as defined by the system of
primogeniture. The trouble had started in 1399 when Henry Bolingbroke deposed
Richard II; both were grandsons of Edward III, Richard through his eldest son, the
Black Prince, Bolingbroke through the third son, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster.
Since Richard was so evidently the true king in linear terms, this necessitated the
fiction that Richard had not been deposed, but rather had freely resigned the crown
to Bolingbroke as his designated heir, somewhat as Edward the Confessor had
designated William the Conqueror. Bolingbroke’s reign was, however, haunted by
stories that Richard was still alive, that he was a king in waiting, like the dispossessed
heir of romance, for the moment of his return.15 In addition, and less spectrally,
Bolingbroke was beset by the descendants of Edward’s second son, whose claims he
14 It now survives in two manuscripts, one among the papers o f John Stowe in London, British
Library, Harley MS 367, and also in the collection o f popular literature assembled in the Percy
Folio Manuscript. It is printed as The Most Pleasant Song of Lady Besy, ed. J.O. Halliwell, Percy
Society 20 (1847), and in Bishop Percy’s Folio Manuscript: Ballads and Romances, ed. John W. Hales
and FrederickJ. Furnivall (London, 1868), 3.319-63.
15 On these issues see in particular Paul Strohm, England’s Empty Throne: Usurpation and Textual
Legitimation, 1399-1422 (New Haven and London, 1998).


Helen Cooper
had simply overridden - and done so all the more easily since the grandchild initially
in question was female. The importance of the equation of rightfulness with the rules
of primogeniture necessitated the further fiction, accepted by Parliament as
underlying his claim, that he was ‘desendit be right hyne of the Blode comyng fro the
gude lorde Kyng Henry therde’, on the grounds that Edmund Crouchback, earl of
Lancaster and younger brother of Edward I, was in fact the elder son of Henry III,
and so carried a superior right to the throne. Bolingbroke accordingly claimed the
crown not by virtue of his descent from Edward III, but through his mother,
Blanche of Lancaster.16 Perhaps not surprisingly in view of its implausibility, this
rewriting of history proved no deterrent to the displaced descendants of the senior
line from Edward III. It was their claims that haunted the whole Lancastrian dynasty
and finally overturned it, even though it took five generations of Yorkists before they
succeeded; for a claim based on primogeniture never goes away so long as the line
continues. The Yorkists could and did represent themselves as the equivalent of
Haveloks, true heirs emerging from the shadows to claim the throne that was
rightfully theirs. While a strong man held the crown, rival claimants stood litde
chance, as the Lancastrian Henry V disposed of the earl of Cambridge, and as the
Yorkist Edward IV could keep the last Lancastrian claimants at bay; but Edward died
when his sons were still children, and the linear system promptly broke down. There
followed two successful usurpations by men who had no valid claims from
primogeniture; and a third, unsuccessful, attempt by a pretender who did make such
a claim, but who failed to impress it on history.
The first usurpation was Richard duke of Gloucester’s seizure of the throne from
the young heirs of Edward IV. He justified his action by claiming that they were
illegitimate, on the grounds that an earlier contract of marriage entered into by
Edward rendered his marriage to their mother bigamous or adulterous, or indeed
both; but that still left the child of an intervening brother, the young earl of Warwick,
surviving, just as Bolingbroke had ignored the line intervening between the Black
Prince and John of Gaunt. In the late fifteenth-century case, the boy in question may
well have been feeble-minded; but in genealogical terms, that made no difference to
the linear strength of his claim. Richard might pragmatically be the man best
equipped to rule, but in no way was he the rightful heir. The disappearance of the
princes from the Tower, whatever in fact happened to them, did not help; for it was
all too familiar as an act of a usurping tyrant or a wicked uncle, like the ones in the
Havelok story, to try to kill the child heir. Whether or not Richard was actually guilty
counted for nothing beside the fact that he was believed to be guilty.
The next usurpation followed from the first both chronologically and logically:
Richard’s failure to impress his legitimacy on his subjects made Henry Tudor’s
takeover all too easy. Henry had an even less plausible claim than Richard: his
accession indeed marked the biggest disruption to the linear descent of the crown
since the Norman conquest. He too was descended from John of Gaunt, founder of
the Lancastrian line, but illegitimately, and even though the duke had eventually
married their mother, the Beauforts had been explicidy excluded by Act of
16 John Ashdown Hill, ‘The Lancastrian Claim to the Throne’, in Tant d’Emprises —So Many
Undertakings: Essays in Honour of Anne Sutton, ed. Livia Visser-Fuchs, The Ricardian 13 (2003),
27-38; quotation from p. 30 (my italics), citing Rota Parliamentorum (1832), 3.422-23.


When Romance Comes True
Parliament from any claim to the throne. Richard, however, was killed in battle
against him at Bosworth, and Henry had Parlianient declare him king by virtue of the
indisputable fact that he occupied the throne; and he proceeded to liquidate every
possible rival claimant over the next few years, the feeble-minded earl of Warwick
among them. It was all the more necessary, therefore, for Henry to mythologize his
seizure of throne on the romance model, to claim a status as the divinely identified
true heir. How well he succeeded can be measured by the fact that we never describe
him as a usurper: we still buy into the Tudor myth of rightful kingship.
It was not, however, an easy myth to create. There were indeed Welsh prophecies
ascribed to Merlin of the advent of a ‘son of prophecy’, which Henry could apply to
himself; and prophecy, the foreseeing of the present in the past, was a way of
guaranteeing that what was happening in the present was right, was divinely
foreordained. Writing the Faerie Queene a century later, Edmund Spenser similarly
found Merlin useful for prophesying just such a providential advent of the Tudors.17
Henry also claimed that God had made His own views clear, not by a king-mark, but
through trial by batde on Bosworth Field. He made some claim to being in the line
of descent from Arthur, though he did not press that too hard, as it lacked
plausibility as grounds for asserting a contemporary right to the English throne even
in the age of Sir Thomas Malory;18 he famously called his eldest son Arthur, but the
ploy died with the child. In addition, Henry’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort (who,
if his linear claim had anything in it, should herself have been the one to be
occupying the throne), commissioned a translation of a romance from Caxton that
offered a story analogous to Henry’s. She was renowned for her piety, and this was
the only secular work in which she ever showed any interest. Blanchardyn and Eglantine
describes how a young prince leaves home to test himself in chivalry; in his absence,
his father is overthrown by pagan enemies, and he himself in due course returns to
claim his own tide and to marry a neighbouring heiress. The story offers a series of
parallels to the overthrow of Henry VI, Henry Tudor’s sojourning on the continent
to keep himself safe from any Yorkist attempts to harm him, and his return from
over the sea (a distincdy English motif, as Rosalind Field has pointed out) to recover
his throne and to marry the heiress to the Yorkist line, Elizabeth of York, Edward
IV’s eldest daughter and, since the presumed death of her younger brothers, his
linear heir.19 Blanchardyn and Eglantine thus provided the romance patterning that the
Tudor takeover so singularly lacked. It suggests that what happened was not
usurpation but the return of the rightful heir, and so offered a way to assimilate the
deeply disturbing historical and genealogical upsets of the Tudor accession as right
and proper.
Blanchardyn was not the most obvious, nor at first glance the most appropriate,
choice of romance for Lady Margaret to have selected for translation. She might
17 Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A.C. Hamilton, 2nd edn (Harlow, 2001), III.iii.48. In
II.X.75, he invents an elfin genealogy for the Tudors, so bypassing the problematic nature o f
their lineal claim.
18 See Sydney Anglo, ‘The British History in Early Tudor Propaganda’, Bulletin of the John Bylands
Library 44 (1961), 17 -4 8 , and his revisions to those views in his Images of Early Tudor Kingship
(London, 1992), pp. 40-60. Direct descent from Arthur was o f course impossible, as he died
without legitimate issue.
19 Rosalind Field, ‘The King over the Water: Exile-and-Retum Revisited’, in Cultural Encounters in
the Romance ofMedieval England, ed. Corinne Saunders (Cambridge, 2005), pp. 4 1-53.


Hekn Cooper
more logically have chosen the mid-fifteenth-century French Olyuer o f Castylle (which
is also discussed elsewhere in this volume by Elizabeth Williams), for this romance
already fortuitously contained a wicked duke of Gloucester who usurped the throne
of England. He is overcome in batde and killed by a stronger claimant named Arthur,
whose claim derives from his wife’s status as the true heiress; and so the rightful line
is restored. Olyuer does, however, have one decisive drawback, evident even in that
short plot summary: it makes it very clear that the husband’s claim of kingship lies
solely in his wife. That was a step too far for Henry Tudor. He claimed the throne in
his own right, not in that of Elizabeth of York; and he was careful to establish his
own hold on the crown before he married her, so that there could be no question
that his kingship was in any way dependent on her. It is perhaps, therefore, not
surprising that Olyuer o f Castylle was translated into English only after his death, in the
reign of his son Henry VIII, who inherited the claims of both his mother and his
father to the English throne.20 At first glance, Olyuer o f Castylle might seem like the
perfect example of romance that comes true; but for all its coincidences with history,
it was not a model that Henry VII himself could have tolerated.
That did not mean, however, that there was no contemporary awareness of the
possibility that both Henry and Lady Margaret rejected, that the crown righdy
descended through the Yorkist line as embodied in Elizabeth. Her own historical
story was given a romance treatment some time in the next few decades, to bring it
into line with that social change mentioned earlier in this paper: the location of
political and erotic patronage not just in the passive consent of heiress, but in her
own active personal choice. Cady Bessy turns the story of Elizabeth of York, the Lady
Bessy of the tide, into a romance of the dispossessed heiress who herself instigates
the wooing of the man she loves.
It might sound as if the true heir and the true heiress should have analogous
biographies, but in fact there are interesting differences between them. Typically, the
true heir is lost from sight: he becomes a foundling, a fair unknown, who may
himself not know his true identity, and others certainly do not. He is brought up
away from the court, out in the world at large. A woman, by contrast, is oppressed or
imprisoned rather than lost. She typically remains within the land that constitutes her
inheritance, as if she were a metonym for the territories she owns. The process of
restoring her to her rightful position and power is a matter of rescuing her from a
tyrannical father who forbids her choice of marriage partner, or from rival suitors of
a highly undesirable sort (such as pagans), or from a usurper. Thus Havelok’s wife,
Goldeburh, the heiress to England, is never ‘lost’ in the same sense as he is. He is
brought up as a fair unknown in an alien country; she remains under her guardian
uncle’s control. She does not need to be found, but to be rescued and married to the
right man. Goldeburh is an unusual romance heroine in that her active choice of
husband comes after her forced marriage. Most heroines make their own choice
much more positively, as do Lavine in the Eneas, Rimenhild in Horn, Josiane in Bern
o f Hamtoune, or the eponymous Melusine. Willed choice of this kind is especially
common in genealogical romances, with their concern with the founding of a family,
as if the future of a dynasty must lie in the active choice of the founding mother
20 The nearest thing to a modem edition is by Gail Orgelfinger, The Hystotye of Olyuer of Castylle
(New York and London, 1988).


When Romance Comes True
(Maddox’s ‘mega-mother7) more than the founding father; and Lady Bessy accordingly
rewrites history to fit.
The poem opens when Richard III is already on the throne. Bessy, who is
consistently presented as the true heiress to her father, herself decides to woo the
exiled Henry Tudor, whom she loves despite never having met him; and she sends
messengers and money to bring him back over the sea. She possesses a book of
prophecy foretelling that she will be queen, and there is no mention of any Tudor
claim to the throne at all; Henry is merely the means to her own declared end. Bessy
is accordingly present at the batde of Bosworth, as a kind of spirit of rightful victory,
and she marries Henry on the field of batde. This gives a decisively Yorkist spin to
the Tudor takeover - indeed it turns the Tudor myth into a Yorkist myth. Here, the
Plantagenet princess legitimizes the Tudor gendeman, as if he were a squire of low
degree winning the hand of a superior lady; which is perhaps precisely why Henry in
fact made so sure that he established himself on the throne before he did marry her.
There is no evidence whatsoever as to what the historical Elizabeth thought about
the marriage, whether she was enthusiastic or reluctant, though she certainly had no
choice in the matter. She is unlikely to have objected to becoming queen, especially
in view of what the alternatives would have been: all the evidence we have indicates
that Henry was much more ruthless than Richard III.
A romance should end at that point, with the ‘true’ heir restored to the throne;
that was how Henry and his mother and the Yorkist author of Lady Bessy aimed to
structure their propaganda. Another claimant, however, soon made his appearance
on the field of history, and this one had a still more compelling claim to a biography
modelled on romance. There is something of the Havelok about him, and also
something of a more up-to-date romance hero, the Valentine of Valentine and Orson,
for Valentine becomes a foundling in consequence of a charge of adultery brought
against his mother, just as this new pretender has lost his status as a result of a
comparable charge. Valentine has no idea who he is; he too, however, bears ‘a crosse
upon [his] shoulder, the whiche is also yelowe as the fyne golde’, a mark that makes
him suspect that there is more to his lineage than he knows and that impels him to
seek his true parentage; and in due course he recovers his status as heir to the
emperor of Greece.21 His real-life counterpart was the young man we know as Perkin
Warbeck; but to most of the crowned heads of late fifteenth-century Europe, he was
Richard of England, a name he was accorded by virtue of his claim to be Richard
duke of York, the second son of Edward IV and the younger of the princes in
Tower.22 He had, he said, been spared (like Havelok) by the man who had been
21 Valentine and Orson, ed. Arthur Dickson, EETS OS 204 (1937), quotation from p. 85; the
English translation was made by Henry Watson. Its first edition dates from some time in the
first decade o f the sixteenth century - interestingly, after the threat represented by Warbeck
had been eliminated (both he and the earl o f Warwick were executed in 1499); but it may date
from as late as 1510, by which time any coincidence between the stories would have ceased to
22 For a double biography o f Warbeck/Richard, see Ann Wroe, Perkin: A Story of Deception
(London, 2003). Warbeck did declare himself to be an impostor on the scaffold, a moment
when it would be very unlikely indeed that he would not tell the truth; but by that time he had
an infant son, and therefore also a strong motive to try to protect the child from the
consequences o f royal birth. Nothing further is known about the child, or the circumstances
o f its death.


Helen Cooper
ordered to murder him; he had then (like Havelok) escaped over the sea; and he now
came back from the dead, returned to claim his throne. He further declared that he
bore marks on his body that proved his identity - in effect, king-marks, like
Havelok’s and Valentine’s, though the reference is presumably to distinctive
birthmarks (also widespread in romance: Cymbeline’s lost eldest son and heir is
identified by just such a birthmark).23 He furthermore carried himself with a natural
grace and authority such as all those other fair unknowns had possessed who turned
out to be indeed the heirs to great fathers. His supposed aunt, Margaret of Burgundy,
seems to have believed he was genuine, as did Charles VIII of France. James IV of
Scotland gave him a close kinswoman as his wife; and Margaret’s son, the emperor
Maximilian I, recognized him as Richard IV. If he were indeed the son of Flemish
parents, as Henry VII claimed, it was odd that he spoke English perfecdy, with no
accent; and it was odd too that after he had captured him, Henry absolutely refused
to have him brought face to face with those supposed parents. Was he afraid that
they might confess that they were not his true parents, just as Grim was not
Havelok’s father, nor Sir Ector Arthur’s? Francis Bacon, writing his history of Henry
VII a century later, confessed himself baffled as to just what the truth of the matter
was.24John Ford, in his play with the double-edged title The Chronicle Historie o f Perkin
Warheck: A Strange Truths has Henry (of course) insist that Perkin is no more than
that, but neither Warbeck nor the play offers support for that insistence: it leaves the
question of his real identity, the ‘truth’, unresolved and ‘strange’, though the play’s
sympathies clearly lie with the pretender.25 That we speak of him now as Perkin
Warbeck simply echoes the verdict of history. If he had succeeded - if, when he
invaded England with a pitifully small force, the people had risen in his support then we too would know him as Richard IV. Henry Tudor would be no more than a
brief interlude in the royal line of the Plantagenets, an adventurer who had seized the
throne and forced the heiress into marriage, only for the foundling prince who had
escaped death to return and claim his crown, to assert his own right above his
sister’s; for if Henry is cast as the wrongful king, then the shape of his life becomes
not romance wish-fulfilment, but nightmare.
The point at which we traditionally mark the end of the Middle Ages, when the
dynasty of the Plantagenets was replaced by the Tudors, thus offered itself as four
different romance plots: as a story of the fulfilment of supernatural prophecies; as a
story of the dispossessed heir, Henry Tudor; as a story of the dispossessed heiress,
Elizabeth of York; and very nearly, as a story of the true heir spared as an infant
from murder by his wicked uncle, and who returns as a fair unknown to claim the
throne that is rightfully his - though we hear of Richard of England now only as
Warbeck, a mere impostor on the edge of more significant political events. The only
23 Cymheline, 5.6.365-70, in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary
Taylor (Oxford, 1986). Warbeck is unlikely to have had Havelok itself in mind, as the romance
is not known to have been copied after c. 1400 (Smithers, p. xv) and the chronicle versions
omit the king-mark; he could well have known the French Valentin, but that itself witnesses to
the continuing currency o f the motif. The return o f an exiled hero from over the sea was also
widespread: e.g. in Blanchardyn, or in the prose reworking o f the Horn romance entitled

Ponthus and Sidoine.
24 Francis Bacon, History of the Reign of King Henry VII, ed. Brian Vickers (Cambridge, 1998), p.
25 In John Ford: Three Plays, ed. Keith Sturgess (Harmondsworth, 1970).


When Romance Comes True
figure of all these ambitious climbers whose story comprehensively resists any such
romance shaping is Richard III, the one among them most demonized by history; for
history, as we know it, is romance written by the victors.


The Curious History o f the Matter o f England
R o sa lin d F ield

The discussion of several of the texts central to our understanding of insular
romance habitually employs the familiar term ‘Matter of England’. The familiarity has
encouraged a comfortable sense of the meaning and value of the term; this paper
aims to investigate whether such confidence is well-founded and to trace the
development and use of the term, and its effect on the perception of the romances
associated with it.
The term ‘Matter’ is modelled on Bodel’s famous classification of the subjects of
narrative into the three Matters of France, Rome and Britain, a genuine, and rare,
glimpse into the medieval sense of narrative.