Anglicising Romance: Tail-Rhyme and Genre in Medieval English Literature

Article excerpt

RHIANNON PURDIE, Anglicising Romance: Tail-Rhyme and Genre in Medieval English Literature. Studies in Medieval Romance. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2008. Pp. ix + 272, 6 plates. ISBN: 978-1-8438-4162-3. $95.00.

The Middle English tail-rhyme romances have long been regarded as a problem, an awkward regional response to the genre, patronized for their metrical clumsiness and derivative narratives. Rhiannon Purdie's previous work as editor of the Ipomadon equips her to provide the authoritative study that should once and for all re-orientate them as a focus of intelligent and important questions.

In order to examine the origins and literary associations of tail-rhyme, Purdie takes the enquiry back across two centuries and into the tri-lingual culture of medieval England, arguing that while tail-rhyme may originate in Latin hymns and Victorine sequences, its use for narrative is a feature of insular literature, both Anglo-Norman and Middle English. There are earlier traditions of tail-rhyme for pious literature-hymns, sermons, hagiography-in Anglo-Norman and Middle English and the indication is that romance writers adopted tail-rhyme stanzas for their association with piety and moral seriousness. There is also a significant association with figures of English history and sanctity in texts that have direct influence on Middle English romances of English heroes, as in the case of the Vie de Thomas Becket and Bevis of Hampton.

A thorough analysis demonstrates the variety of meter and stanza form to be found in the tail-rhyme corpus, one which is throughout the period recognized as distinctive, irrespective of genre (as the grouping of poems in the Vernon MS indicates). This is further illustrated by an account of what Purdie dubs 'graphic tail-rhyme,' an 'unusual, inconvenient and instantly recognisable' manuscript lay-out used by English scribes to display Anglo-Norman and Middle English tail-rhyme poetry. The use of graphic tail-rhyme in numerous manuscripts of Sir Thopas shows Chaucer deliberately using this manuscript convention to deepen his parody of the experience of reading romances-even the bob lines work as a visual joke.

The pre-history of Middle English tail-rhyme has been largely invisible to readers of the romances but establishes a firm basis for a review of the Auchinleck manuscript in which tail-rhyme romances make their first appearance, accompanied by several non-romance texts in the form. …