Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Reading Romance in Late Medieval England: The Case of the Middle English Ipomedon

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Reading Romance in Late Medieval England: The Case of the Middle English Ipomedon

Article excerpt

Along with the text's materiality, the reading modality constitutes an external variable that defines the reception of the literary work, and thus its signification. Despite its relevance, however, we often universalize our reading practices and assume that texts, both modern and medieval, have been conceived for silent and solitary readers with the same intellectual priorities as ours. This paradigm has proved so prevalent that it is even imposed when there are unequivocal indications that other reception modalities were intended by the author. (1)

As Roger Chartier recommends, "we need to stress that reading is a practice with multiple differentiations varying with time and milieu, and that the signification of a text also depends on the way it is read." (2) Consequently, any attempt to ascertain how medieval texts were perceived and interpreted by contemporary audiences needs to inscribe their reading in its corresponding cultural matrix, since reading is a socially and historically embedded activity.

Taking such methodological considerations into account this essay begins by delineating the socio-historical context for the reading of romances, and then inquires into the reading practices in late medieval England. Next, I place in this cultural framework the reading of a specific romance--the Middle English versions of Ipomedon (3)--in order to identify and interpret the reading styles by which contemporary audiences apprehended these texts. In so doing, this paper will examine the circumstances for the composition and transmission of the various instantiations of the romance using Coleman's ethnographic method.


As a socially framed practice, reading is susceptible to ideological changes defining those texts that are "worth reading," and those which are morally deleterious. (4) The social projection of the Middle English romances and their popularity made them vulnerable to moralizing and officious voices, whose discourse would evolve in rime from the committed acceptance of romances to their rejection and later condemnation. The author of the Cursor Mundi, a clerical text composed in English for the edification of the laity around 1300, appeals in the prologue to the public of romances, readers and auditors of stories of Arthur, Gawain, Kay, Tristram, and Isumbras among others (see lines 1-20), showing respect for their diversion when he admits that "to rede and here ilkan ys prest, / pe pynges pat ham likes best." (5) This is a rhetorical trick with which to attract more adherents, as the Cursor Mundi aires at conveying the Church's message more accessibly to those unschooled in Latin, for which purpose the author opts consciously for the English vernacular: (6)

   pis ilke boke ys translate
   vn-til Ingeles tonge to rede
   for pe loue of englis lede
   englis lede of engelande
   pe commune for til vnderstande.


Furthermore, he adopts a format reminiscent of the romances and with more inviting resonances for ordinary people than the standard pulpit idiom: "per-fore sum gestes wil I. shawe" (115). This fragment acknowledges the success of romantic narratives in captivating wide audiences, and rather than criticizing it, tries to apply the same formula that has granted the Middle English romances their popularity.

Half a century later the York ecclesiastical administrator William of Nassington, in the introduction to his Speculum Vitae, expresses a more critical opinion about romances, embracing the ideological discourse of official morality:

   I warne yow ferst at pe begynnyng,
   I wil make no veyn spekyng
   Of dedes of armes ne of amours,
   Os don mynstreles and oper gestours

   Al pow it mowe som men like,

   I thenke my spekeng schal not be;
   For I holde pat nowht bot vanyte.
   Bot pis schal be my spekyng:
   We speke of most nedful thyng,
   Pat sykerest is for soule and lyf
   Of man and womman, maiden and wyf. … 
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