The Medieval Siege: Theme and Image in Middle English Romance

The Medieval Siege: Theme and Image in Middle English Romance

The Medieval Siege: Theme and Image in Middle English Romance

The Medieval Siege: Theme and Image in Middle English Romance

Synopsis

Sieges were a popular subject in medieval romances. Tales of the Crusades featured champions of Christianity capturing towns in the Holy Land or mounting heroic defences. The fall of a great city such as Troy, Thebes, or Jerusalem provided opportunities for the recreation of ancient chivalry and for reflections on historical change. Images of the siege in romances also point to other forms, such as drama and love allegory, where it represents the trial of the soul or the pursuit of the beloved. This book is the first full-length study of an important theme in medieval literature. Close reading of selected Middle English shows how writers used descriptions of sieges to explore such subjects as military strategy, heroism, chivalry, and attitudes to the past. This study also draws on a wide range of writings in several languages, to set the romances in a broad context. When they are seen against a background of military manuals, patristic commentary, pageantry, and love poetry, the sieges of romance take on deeper resonances of meaning and reflect the vitality of the theme in medieval culture as a whole.

Excerpt

A siege like the one described in The Prose Siege of Thebes could have taken place in the thirteenth or early fourteenth century. the trebuchet was the key feature of this period, and remained the only significant medieval contribution to siege warfare, before advances in gunpowder during the fourteenth century. the basic elements of defence and attack in this account of the fall of Thebes, however, continued into the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This continuity in methods provides a context for the romances, which do not differ greatly in the basic description of siege techniques, unless an author wants to stress a particular aspect of his story, such as its exotic location or the skill of a commander. the romances are more notable for the variety and sophistication of literary themes surrounding a siege than for the technological terms they employ.

One of the most important themes is the depiction of the commander, and the ways in which his strategic and ethical approach to siege warfare is portrayed. the siege of Acre (1191) by the English and French crusading armies, as described in the Middle English romance Richard Coeur de Lion (c.1300), provides a good example of the siege techniques employed during the crusades. It also presents a striking portrait of a crusading commander in the figure of Richard I. the roughly contemporary Anglo-Norman poem known as The Siege of Caerlaverok, which describes an event of 1300 during Edward I's Scottish campaign, combines literary techniques derived from epic and romance writings with a list of heraldic motifs and some detailed descriptions of the conflict. Barbour treatment in The Bruce (c. 1375) of the siege of Berwick by the English in 1319 includes much realistic detail, and a perspective on this type of warfare from the point of view of the defenders. Finally, the siege of Metz in the alliterative Morte Arthure (c.1400), while probably not based on an actual historical episode, nevertheless includes many features typical of the sieges of the later fourteenth century fought by Edward III; in the figure of King Arthur, the poet presents an . . .

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