00thinking Twice about Treason in Caxton's Prose Romances: Proper Chivalric Conduct and the English Printing Press

By Leitch, Megan | Medium Aevum, Spring-Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

00thinking Twice about Treason in Caxton's Prose Romances: Proper Chivalric Conduct and the English Printing Press


Leitch, Megan, Medium Aevum


'It is the fouleste crafte that a knyght may for to doo treyson...'

'Ye have called me traytour / but ye lye falsly, for I never dide treison, nor never shal.'

'It were treson and vntrouth, and god forbede that I shold take suche hyre.'

'I reporte me to al knyghtes that euer haue knowen me, I ferd neuer with no treason, nor I loued neuer the felauship of no man that ferde with treson.'

'I swere and assure the that neuer while I lyue shal I be traytour to no man lyuyng.' (1)

Although Malory's Morte Darthur, when printed in 1485, entered wider circulation among a group of other prose romances likewise printed by William Caxton, it is rarely studied alongside them. Other prose narratives similarly treating distant of legendary history that Caxton's press imprinted in the 1480s include Godeffroy of Boloyne (1481), Charles the Grete (1485), and The Four Sonnes of Aymon (1488); the former focuses on the First Crusade and the latter two on the reign of Charlemagne. Because these understudied texts and others like them are Caxton's own translations, following their French sources more closely than Malory adheres to his, they have commonly been dismissed as Burgundian importations with little grounding in or relevance to English culture. (2) Moreover, the few critics who have allowed Caxton's prose romances an immanence in English literature and society have confined their analyses to the texts' individual and collective construction of the reputations of the three Christians among the Nine Worthies--Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey--and thus to the texts' treatment of crusading and hierarchical political obligations, (3) without remarking upon these texts' striking investment in other aspects of chivalric conduct. Caxton's prose romances of the 1480s, like Malory's Morte Darthur, devote a great deal of attention to horizontal chivalric bonds, to anxieties about trust and fellowships of central concern to the aristocratic, gentry, and mercantile readerships of these texts during the later stages of the Wars of the Roses. Again as in the Morte, the mode of ethical narrative employed in Godeffroy, Charles, and The Foure Sonnes engages with ideologies of chivalry and troth by treating concepts of proper social conduct through discussions of these concepts' opposites, negation, or breach.

The brief passages quoted above are paradigmatic of how, in these four texts, exemplary behaviour is defined, interrogated, urged, and elegized in part through chivalric paragons showing a determination 'alweyes to flee treason' (92.32)--a stipulation of the Round Table Oath unique to the Morte Darthur. Here, Malory articulates a standard of conduct that, if less famously codified in Caxton's own prose romances, is equally espoused there, and is promulgated in an equally admonitory and normative fashion. This article analyses these works' pervasive condemnations of treason, represented as an act that can have both hierarchical and horizontal dimensions, and one that can be committed across affinity groups, polities, and faiths, in order to explore the extent to which Caxton's prose romances and related chivalric tracts are cognate with other texts produced in and for the England of the mid- to late fifteenth century. Paying heed to the thematic and structural role of treason in each text permits both a deeper understanding of how these texts (re)imagine and seek to regulate their society, and a reconsideration of the relationships between Caxton's canon of prose romances and contemporary English culture.

In an otherwise perspicacious study of Malory's texts and contexts, Felicity Riddy argues that Caxton's prose romances did not connect with English culture and concerns because, she contends, these romances constituted 'Burgundian court culture' inappropriately transplanted onto English soil. Riddy dismisses Caxton's prose romances on the grounds that they lack longevity, observing that de Worde reprinted 'only three' of Caxton's own translations. …

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