Romance and the Gentry in Late Medieval England
Romance and the Gentry in Late Medieval England offers a new history of Middle English romance, the most popular genre of secular literature in the English Middle Ages. This book argues that many of the romances composed in England from 1350 to 1500 arose in response to the specific socio-economic concerns of the gentry, the class of English landowners who lacked titles of nobility and hence occupied the lower rungs of the aristocracy. The end of the fourteenth century in England witnessed power devolving to the gentry, who became one of the dominant political and economic forces in provincial society. As this book demonstrates, this social change also affected England’s literary culture, particularly the composition and readership of romance. Romance and the Gentry in Late Medieval England identifies a series of new topoi in Middle English that responded to the gentry’s economic interests. But beyond social history and literary criticism, it also speaks to manuscript studies, showing that most of the codices of the ‘gentry romances’ were produced by those in the immediate employ of the gentry. By bringing together literary criticism and manuscript studies, this book speaks to two scholarly communities often insulated from one another: it invites manuscript scholars to pay closer attention to the cultural resonances of the texts within medieval codices; simultaneously, it encourages literary scholars to be more attentive to the cultural resonances of surviving medieval codices.
Chapter 1, ‘”A watered-down version of nobility”: The Growth of the Gentry in Late Medieval England,’ analyzes the emergence of the gentry in the middle of the fourteenth century as a unique stratum with late medieval English society, arguing that they had cultural interests that were unique to their particular socio-economic position. Chapter 2, ‘Gentry Romances: A Literary History,’ argues that many of the romances that were written in the period of the gentry’s emergence speak directly to socio-economic concerns unique to the gentry. In particular, I identify five motifs that are new to romances in this period and that directly relate to the gentry. Chapter 3 turns from literary history to manuscript history, arguing that the majority of the manuscripts containing the romances discussed in Chapter 2 were copied out and circulated in gentry households.
Chapters 4-6 then take up close readings of particular compilations of romance connected to gentry households about which we know a good deal. Chapter 4, ‘Derbyshire Landowners Read Romance,’ looks at two manuscripts belonging to two families: the Findern Anthology, which belonged to the Findern family, a landowning family from Derbyshire; and the Heege Manuscript, which belonged to the Sherbrooke family of Derbyshire. Chapter 5, ‘Robert Thornton Reads Romance,’ looks at the Lincoln Thornton Manuscript, which was copied out by Robert Thornton, a member of the gentry from the North Riding of Yorkshire. Finally, Chapter 6, ‘The Irelands Read Romance,’ takes up the Ireland Manuscript, a codex belonging to the Ireland family of Lancashire. In each case, I examine how the issues raised in the romances speak to the specific socio-economic concerns of the individual families that owned them.