Jon Whitman (ed.), Romance and History: Imagining Time from the Medieval to the Early Modern Period

Jon Whitman (ed.), Romance and History: Imagining Time from the Medieval to the Early Modern Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2015) 338 pp. $82.00 PDF, £22.99 Pb, £67.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781107042780

In Romance and History: Imagining Time from the Medieval to the Early Modern Period, Jon Whitman brings together experts from different countries to discuss history and romances. Based on literary works from the Medieval and Early Modern period, these authors analyze the European representations of history through romance. However, these representations are often questioned as forms of historical records. Divided into six blocks that include different chapters, this book studies romances and writings about King Arthur, the Grail, and other figures. Because of the density of the book in terms of dates, names, and titles, I will briefly mention each author’s ideas for each chapter, and a small commentary at the end of the review.

The opening block written by Jon Whitman introduces the topics and configuration of the book. Whitman mentions some of the problems with romances and history. Some of these distinctions discuss what is real and what is fake, the continuity of time, the political context, and the representation of reality. He argues that not only does this volume bring an analysis of the romance, but also an analysis of its relationship with different kinds of history. He briefly introduces the contents of the book.

The second block starts with the 'matter of Rome' and it has two chapters. In Chapter Two, which is the first chapter of the second block, Christopher Baswell addresses romances about Alexander the Great. In his study, Baswell explores history from the anxiety produced by the influence of lineage, the foundations and endings of empires, and the fear of their own histories and humanity. In Chapter Three, Catherine Croizy-Naquet focuses on the topic of Troy and Rome. She approaches the topic through prose by explaining that this was a form considered suitable for history. She works with two main books; Roman de Troie by Sainte-Maure and Faits des Romains by an anonymous author.

The third block is the 'matter of Britain', and it contains five chapters. In Chapter Four, Robert W Hanning presents Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, and he also includes commentary about a variety of romances on the topic. Hanning explains that Geoffrey believes himself to be responsible for writing down history. Known for his fictional creations of history, Geoffrey also wrote extensively about King Arthur and the importance of the juvenes to his empire. In Chapter Five, Adrian Stevens takes the Tristan and Parzival romances, and shows some of the similarities between King Arthur and Tristan. He also comments on the ideology of lineage as an essential tool for history even though it’s fictional in these romances. In Chapter Six, Friedrich Wolfzettel introduces the reader to the grail legend and proposes a deconstruction of the tradition of the grail as a mystery. According to Wolfzettel, the grail functions as a medium to promote class interests and not so much as a religious symbol. He uses several romances to show the difference between sacred and worldly history, and the meaning of the grail in those accounts. In Chapter Seven, Edward Donald Kennedy presents the case for fortune and destiny as concepts that influenced the conclusions of King Arthur’s stories. He mainly discusses the Prose Brut, Chronicle by Hardying, and Morte Arthure, along with other works, to observe the death of King Arthur, his fall, and even his return. In the last chapter of this block, Chapter Eight, Helen Cooper discusses Morte Darthur by Malory. Morte Darthur represented important changes. For instance, it brought a change from verse to prose, and a revival of the image of King Arthur as previously presented by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Morte Darthur conveyed a nostalgic view of King Arthur, with the notable difference that Malory made him an English king, excluding the fantasy of the French romances.

The fourth block discusses the 'matters of France and Italy' and it contains three chapters. In Chapter Nine, Jean-Pierre Martin explains the role of memory in the chansons de geste. Martin discusses the genealogical literature with its features of nobility, political matters, and the artificial view of memory. In Chapter Ten, Riccardo Bruscagli introduces Ruggiero’s story. However, Ruggiero appears as a new and essentially different kind of hero; a figure of great perfection. In Chapter Eleven, Marco Praloran analyzes the temporality and narrative in the late romances of Italy and Spain. Praloran observes the polyphony in the plot and the characterization of the heroes in romances such as Amadis de Gaula, Inamoramento de Orlando, Orlando Furioso, among others.

The fifth block discusses 'fabulation and fact' and it contains four chapters. In Chapter Twelve, Daniel Javitch focuses on Italian poetics to explain how these romances were lacking historicity. According to Javitch, Tasso attempts to reuse poetry as a means to convey seriousness to history. Javitch explains how this is viewed in the text, for instance in the use of verisimilitude. In Chapter Thirteen, David Quint continues with Tasso, and more specifically with his Gerusalemme Liberata. Quint argues that since romance had lost value, Tasso had not promoted a new era with the old qualities of romances, but rather a history that was mainly poetic. In Chapter Fourteen, Gordon Teskey scrutinizes Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. For Teskey, Spenser wanted to convey the feeling of living in history, including an ethical and objective view. In the last chapter, Marina S Brownlee focuses on romances and history in Spain. This is the only chapter that fully addresses the case of Spain. Brownlee mainly approaches La Cava; a female figure of great controversy. According to Brownlee in Crónica sarracina by Pedro del Corral, and in 'The Captive’s Tale' included in Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, there is an interesting discussion about history and romance. These texts mix the present and the past, and present La Cava and Zoraida as ambiguous characters in terms of time, beliefs, and desires.

The last block is a closing chapter by Jon Whitman. He references the ideas discussed in the book. This chapter returns the reader to the overarching theme of the collection but with a deeper contemplation of the individual topics.

This book is a comprehensive compilation of resources, dates, names, titles, and a deep literary analysis. It is a book for a reader who has a good knowledge of Medieval and Early Modern literature. Without a previous knowledge of these periods, it could be difficult to read this book and understand the relationship between romance and history without confusing real events with myths, and so on. Some chapters include an exhaustive set of notes and bibliography which can make the reading go slowly. Nevertheless, this book is an excellent resource that offers a deeper understanding about the use of romances and history. Instead of separate papers on the topic, the ideas here are linked like a chain, and guide the reader through these periods. The authors mention each other and provide the reader with broader connections. The book is an ambitious project that outlines the collaboration and unity of experts in these periods. I believe this is essential reading for those interested in the representation of history in the past, and a excellent resource for Medieval and Early Modern experts.

Angela P Pacheco, Purdue University

css.php