Now es that tyme for ever gone”: exploring memory in select Middle English Arthurian romances c. 1300- c.1500
This thesis explores the ways in which memory was understood, explored, and deployed in the Middle English Arthurian romance corpus. Drawing on a broad range of texts, from the so-called “popular” romances on the one hand, to the most writerly of compositions on the other, the thesis examines memory in relation to some of the central thematic concerns and preoccupations of the form: the intermingling of oral and written storytelling traditions, truth/honour in word bonds, grief-madness, and death. This thesis argues that the diversity of ways in which memory was used in these romances opens up new perspectives from which to understand the texts themselves, and the society in which and for which they were composed. Chapter one of this thesis explores memory’s use in relation to those oral and written compositional traditions which these romances repeatedly and insistently invoke. Each of the texts discussed in this chapter contains references to both oral and written traditions, reflecting the diverse cultural and literary practices in late medieval England, where oral, memorial storytelling interacted in a variety of ways with more writerly modes. Chapter two builds from chapter one’s discussion of how oral, memorial traditions were still prevalent in – and relevant to – late medieval culture, by exploring the role of “treuth” and oral word bonds in the genre. In the aristocratic social world of these texts, fidelity to one’s oral promises and oaths is a key marker and determiner of personal honour, and chapter two explores how the keeping and breaking of one’s word is expressed and understood through the language of remembering and forgetting. Memory, and faulty memory, are therefore understood to have an ethical dimension, which frequently complicates these texts’ exploration of personal morality. Chapter three looks at depictions of grief-madness, and the interconnectedness between grief-madness and memory. This chapter argues that portrayals of grief-madness help to shape how readers and audiences respond both to narratives and characters, as well as exploring the literary and narrative effects which the portrayal of grief madness produces. The final chapter of this thesis explores the relationship of memory to death in the Arthurian romance corpus. Focusing on those romances that represent the death of Arthur and the fall of his court, chapter four argues that remembering the dead in these texts brings into play a variety of religious, ethical, social, and indeed emotional considerations, which in turn shape readers’ responses. This chapter also argues that the realistic representation of funereal and other religious practices, and the religious and ethical imperative to remember the dead which these ceremonies fostered, creates a variety of heightened literary effects, which brings to audiences the immediacy of death, and in so doing, elicits from those audiences strong, affective responses.