Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Language and Piety in Middle English Romance

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Language and Piety in Middle English Romance

Article excerpt

Roger Dalrymple, Language and Piety in Middle English Romance (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000). x + 270 pp. ISBN 0-85991-598-0. C45-00.

In Pragmatism (1907), William James complained about the philosophers' habit of finding the solutions to problems in the power-bringing name: "`God", "matter", "reason", "the absolute", "energy", are so many solving names. You can rest when you have them.' A favourite solving name for medievalists is 'convention': it names recurrent formulae, motifs, story patterns; and many critics seem to think that, simply by invoking the word, their work ends. But in fact, James writes, it has only just begun: `You must bring out of each word its practical cash value, set it at work within the stream of your experience.' Roger Dalrymple acts on James's advice: the solving name he sets to work is the conventional religious formula (`By God that harewedde helle', etc.); and the stream of his experience is the Middle English metrical romance. The general thesis of the book, convincingly demonstrated, is that these formulae contribute significantly to the meaning and affective appeal of these romances.

After an introduction which sets out the agenda and reviews previous work, Dalrymple contextualizes the functions of pious formulae in medieval romance by examining their use in contemporary discourses (devotional, hagiographic, homiletic, dramatic). It is a shame that the liturgical context is not systematically explored, because when Dalrymple does turn to it - in his discussion of Guy of Warwick's invocation of Susanna, Daniel, and Lazarus before the climactic fight with Colbrand - he produces a moment of real illumination: the invocation goes back to the rite of commendation of the soul before death, and so the formula expresses poignantly that Guy is preparing (and prepared) to die. …

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