Academic journal article Western Folklore

Comparative Notes on the Performance of Middle English Popular Romance

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Comparative Notes on the Performance of Middle English Popular Romance

Article excerpt


In the introduction to the Middle English version of the romance of Partonope of Blois we find a short apology for fiction. The primary function of written texts, the author argues along Augustinian lines, is that of teaching us to live according to the laws of God:

For be wrytinge we moste lere

How we moste gouerned be

To worshyppe Gode in trinite.

And ther-fore Stories for to rede

Wolle I conselle, wyth-owten drede,

Bothe olde and yonge hat letteryd be. (11. 15-20) (Bodtker 1912:1)

(For through written works we can learn how we should be ruled to worship God in Trinity. And therefore I indeed advise both old and young who are able to read and write to read stories.)

But what if one cannot read?

To the lewed also, parde,

Is goode sum-tymefor to here.

For by herynge he may here

Thynge pat fyrste he ne knewe;

And to sache folke aide frynge ys new,

Whanne hyt ys in gestes songe,

Or els in prose tolde wyth tonge. (11. 21-27) (Bodtker 1912:1)

(It is, by God, often a good thing also for the illiterate to listen. Because by listening they can learn something which they did not know before. And for such persons old things are new when they are sung in gestes or else told with tongue in prose.)

A neat distinction is made between gestes that are sung and prose stories that are narrated or read out aloud. We have evidence that although with the rise of fictional prose in the later Middle Ages in England literacy increased considerably, prose romances were nevertheless just as often read out aloud to an audience as read silently and privately on one's own (Coleman 1996). As to the singing of gestes, the author of Partonope of Blois-or rather the English translator, because this passage is missing in the French text-is certainly not implying that all types of verse narrative are sung. The romance of Partonope of Blois is itself in verse, but with its more than 12,000 verse lines it is not intended for singing, as is explicitely stated in the text (11. 64-67).

What is sung then are verse narratives belonging to the genre of geste. The Middle English word geste, in conformity with its etymology (derived, via Old French, from Latin res gestae), denotes any deeds, in particular of a memorable kind, and consequently also their recording in narrative. It is hence used in the general meaning of "story," as when Chaucer declares in the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women (Text G) that he will give the "naked text in English" of "many a geste" (11. 85-88). In a number of cases, Middle English geste might be equivalent to French chanson de geste or at least denote a popular narrative of an adventurous or heroic nature. The romance of Havelok, for instance, refers to itself as geste as do the romances of Richard the Lionhearted and Of Arthur and Merlin, but also-and here the term is used in its restricted meaning of chanson de geste-The Siege of Melayne, one of the Middle English romances of the Carolingian cycle (MED s.v. gesten. [I]; Strohm 1971).

The author of Partonope of Blois probably means quite literally that certain popular narratives were generally performed by singing narratives named gestes and including (but probably not denoting solely) romances of the chanson de geste type. However, when it comes to pinning down the exact manner of performance, practically all the words we encounter in the sources are either ambiguous or imprecise in their meaning. The genre term geste has, as we have seen, a number of different senses, which cannot always be clearly identified in a given context. The same applies to words like singen or reden. Although Middle English singen does basically mean the same as Modern English to sing, it is often used in a stereotyped or vague sense, and a collocation like "rede and singe" is in some contexts no more than "a meaningless rime tag" (MED s. …

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