INTERVIEW - History - The Romance of the Middle Ages:
Curator Nicholas Perkins on Storytelling, Fantasy, and Why Medieval Romances Aren’t Just about Romance
With the massive popularity of series like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, it's clear that as wondrous and strange as the world of fantasy is, we have no problems imagining ourselves in it. Perhaps, the escapist in us all yearns for a world where unlikely heroes pursue noble quests, wizards lead charmed lives, dragons curl up in dens around piles of gold, and damsels find themselves in distress. But Dr. Nicholas Perkins, curator of the Bodleian Library’s exhibition “The Romance of the Middle Ages,” knows that these stories are not just fantasy—they tell us something essential about ourselves.
Alexander the Great battles Porus, from a 14th-century cycle of Alexander romances.
Copyright Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
Although its title implies a focus on the Middle Ages, “The Romance of the Middle Ages” celebrates the power of storytelling in past, present, and future forms by exploring both the sumptuous world of medieval romance and the art and literature that it has inspired. From the literature of Shakespeare and Cervantes, to the Pre-Raphaelite art of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, to the contemporary works of Philip Pullman, J.R.R. Tolkien and the Monty Python team, the exhibition illustrates that the influence of medieval romance is far-reaching.
“Something that all of these writers and artists saw in medieval literature, especially romance, was the sheer pleasure of storytelling” observes Perkins, who currently serves as a Fellow and Tutor at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University.
Dr. Nicholas Perkins
Yet, the Bodleian Library exhibition reminds us that stories are not told via the written word alone. So, while visitors can glimpse century-old tales through rare Illuminated manuscripts, printed books, and documents penned or annotated by famous contemporary authors like C.S. Lewis; they can also “see” stories inside objects like carved caskets, painted tiles, and engraved rings. For instance, the “Tristan casket,” whose carved images from the romance of Tristan and Isolde suggest the box’s function as a bearer of love-gifts.
The magnetism of medieval romance lies partly in the fact that these are not simply stories about knight-errants and fair maidens. The word “romance” actually comes from the medieval French en romance, which refers to writing in the vernacular as opposed to Latin, so they are far from being exclusively about love and loyalty. Rather, notes Perkins, these are “people-shaped stories” grounded in universally recognizable themes such as parent-child relationships, victory and defeat, anxiety and desire. At their core, romances inspire and enliven because we recognize ourselves and our ancestors in them.
In addition to curating “The Romance of the Middle Ages,” Perkins is also hosting the 2012 Romance in Medieval Britain conference. He is the author of many books and articles about medieval matters, including his recent book The Romance of the Middle Ages (Bodleian, March 2012), Anglo-Saxon Culture and the Modern Imagination (Brewer, 2010), and Hoccleve’s ‘Regiment of Princes’: Counsel and Constraint (Brewer, 2001).
“The Romance of the Middle Ages” will run through May 13, 2012 at the Bodleian Libraries of Oxford University, which form the largest university library system in the United Kingdom. Beyond the exhibition itself, “The Romance of the Middle Ages” features lunchtime talks, live music and storytelling, and an accompanying, richly illustrated book of the same title by Nicholas Perkins and Alison Wiggins.
WRR: You have written about books and their readers across the breadth of medieval literature, from the Anglo-Saxon period to the late Middle Ages. What drew you personally to the Middle Ages? What do you think is the greatest modern misconception that we as a culture have about this era, and what is the one thing above all else that you think people should know about it?
NICHOLAS PERKINS: As a child I was fascinated by stories that I now know to be inspired by or inheritors of medieval narratives. I read Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series, and Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, along with retellings of Arthurian mythology. We also had a high school teacher who told us about Anglo-Saxon literature, especially Beowulf, and I read Rosemary Woolf's version of the story. I still have that copy, complete with grisly line drawings. When I was looking for a university course that suited my interests, I came across a degree subject called “Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic” at Cambridge, and that sealed my fate as a medievalist.
I think the greatest misconception that we have about the Middle Ages is that somehow it was a time of stasis, between Antiquity and the Renaissance. That's clearly nonsense, but it suited scholars and polemicists in the sixteenth century to make that claim and describe what had gone before as an age of darkness and ignorance. Something that we should think more about is the variety of experience, belief and cultural output of this period. A friend of mine who runs a website about the past – www.retronaut.co – has a good way of putting this: 'Nobody ever lived in the past.’ For medieval people, their world was exciting, or fragile, or doomed, but it was never 'medieval' to them.
The Eglinton Tournament of 1839. Copyright Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
WRR: In your recent book, The Romance of the Middle Ages (Bodleian Library, March 15 2012), you discuss the ways in which medieval romances continue to influence literature and art up through modern times. Why do you feel that artists and writers like Shakespeare, Edward Burne-Jones, and J.R.R. Tolkien all looked back to medieval literature for inspiration? And what is it about the romance of the Middle Ages that draws our modern attention?
PERKINS: Something that all of these writers and artists saw in medieval literature, especially, romance, was the sheer pleasure of storytelling. Romances can be very plain or very complex, but they nearly all exploit a basic desire for telling people-shaped stories that we also share. But having said that, there are a whole host of more particular reasons for individuals' engagement with medieval material. For Shakespeare it was all around him, and formed the core of the popular narratives and plays of his time. For Morris and Burne-Jones there is a huge element of nostalgia, and a desire to revisit an age that they saw as having more noble aspirations than their own.
WRR: In what way is modern story-telling similar to, or even generated from, medieval romance? What points of difference between modern and medieval story-telling should a modern reader keep in mind while reading medieval romances?
PERKINS: Both medieval romance and modern storytelling have many different forms, and so it depends what kind of book, play or film we're talking about. But let's take a popular example like J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. Along with the costume elements (the wands, beards and gnomes) that evoke medieval or medievalist fictions, there is a fundamental, powerful plot at work, of a young unknown who turns out to be destined for great things, and whose formative years are interwoven with a larger struggle of good against evil. Many of the most influential medieval romances use this kind of narrative drive. Many also find it hard to conclude, except with numerous spin-off stories or the tales of how subsequent generations make their mark.
One important difference is that many medieval romances are not particularly interested in 'character,' in the sense of the inner life of protagonists and how their thought processes affect the story. This is not to say that medieval writers didn't care about people's emotional life, but that their dilemmas, desires or fears are projected onto external or symbolic elements of the story, rather than dwelt on by an authorial voice. Reading a medieval romance is usually not like reading a Henry James novel.
Sir Eglamour fights a huge boar. Copyright Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
WRR: Medieval artists conveyed romances not only through manuscripts and printed publications, but also through the visual mediums of stained glass, carved ivory, tapestry, and other objects of art. Why were visual mediums such a large part of telling romances and other stories?
PERKINS: One of the things that I've really enjoyed in working on the Bodleian's exhibition and the accompanying book is the chance to spend time thinking about these storytelling objects. We tend to think of a story being transmitted in written form, and for illustrations of it to be, exactly that – illustrations of an existing narrative. What the ivory carvings, painted tiles, caskets and other objects remind us is that medieval stories were easily passed on in pictorial forms, and that people's knowledge of, say, Tristan and Isolde, was not only from poetry but via a number of media. These are also often luxury items – gift objects – and each individual example could have carried a very personal message too.
Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford North East Lincolnshire Archives ref. 1/942/1
WRR: One of the most prominent themes of romance is courtly love, which often objectifies a woman as an ideal rather than as a person. Yet on the other hand, medieval literature provides us with seemingly proto-feminist characters like the Wife of Bath from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Morgan le Fay from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, both of whom display cunning, assertiveness, and active agency. What does the exhibition suggest to present-day audiences about the lives and roles of women (and men) in the Middle Ages?
PERKINS: That's a very big question! The short, but also accurate answer is that the exhibition tries to show a big range of representations both of women and men, and how male-female and male-male relationships are debated by romance narratives. These go from the impossibly perfect rose of The Romance of the Rose – an object of desire for the narcissistic dreamer of the poem; to aristocratic women who take the initiative in love; to the fateful adulterous affair of Tristan and Isolde; and also to the sworn friendship of male protagonists such as Amis and Amiloun. In their story, Amis murders his children and bathes Amiloun in their blood as a cure for his leprosy (don't worry – the kids are miraculously restored to life). Though many women's and men's lives were very constrained in the Middle Ages, that did not stop a lively debate about their roles and wishes.
Le Roman de Troÿle, from a 15th-century manuscript. Copyright Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
WRR: The film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974) appears to satirize the Middle Ages, but writer and co-director Terry Jones is a critic and medievalist whose work frequently aims to challenge our own contemporary misconceptions of that era. As a result, it can be said that Monty Python and the Holy Grail teases its audience for its own mistaken beliefs about medieval superstition and ignorance as much as it mocks its medieval subjects? How do you think audiences respond to this version of the Middle Ages? How does it fit into the context of this exhibition?
PERKINS: I think you’re absolutely right that Monty Python and the Holy Grail does satirize both the excesses of medieval romances, and also our caricatured view of medieval life. The film is a brilliant parody of the violence, mysticism and ill-advised sex of some Arthurian romances, but medieval romances are already often parodying themselves. For example, one of the earliest and greatest romance authors, Chrétien de Troyes, is also one of the funniest, mocking the pretensions of aristocratic chivalry. In that sense, the film script fits very nicely into the exhibition's themes, alongside other modern material such as a draft page of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (which often teeters on the edge of self-parody, if not diving right off it).
MontyPython and the HolyGrail, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford (image courtesy of Terry Jones)
WRR: William Caxton’s introduction of the printing press into fifteenth century England revolutionized the means by which literature could be accessed, allowing stories to reach wider audiences. Furthermore, scholars credit Caxton’s printing with standardizing the English language and thus contributing to the linguistic shift from Middle to Modern English. One might argue that the Internet is playing an equivalent role to the printing press in making media accessible and changing the language. How does this exhibition help us see that equivalence between the transition from manuscript to print and print to digital?
PERKINS: In a way, the exhibition itself has a limitation here, in not being able to display a great deal of digital material. Motifs from medieval romances are still busily working their way into internet gaming, while scholars are beginning to exploit very high quality digital facsimiles of manuscripts to tell more about the medieval books in which romances survive. I hope that the exhibition will encourage people to think not just about transitions from one medium to another, but more about the interactions between speech, writing, printing and digital reproduction, which are still going on now. A manuscript we're displaying by Philip Pullman is exactly that: hand written with a blue biro. So despite printing, the web and everything else, pen and paper is still an active and durable technology.
Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
WRR: Manuscripts from the Middle Ages are often too fragile to be made accessible to the public. This poses a dilemma to curators, since your goal is to both preserve and promote these texts, but by keeping them locked up they are unable to be used as they had once been intended. How does a curator strike a balance between these two responsibilities? In your view, how can technology help bridge this gap?
Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford MS. Digby 185, fol. 166r
PERKINS: I think that technology can have a very important role to play. For example, the Bodleian Library hosts images from many of its manuscripts and other treasures on its website, and our own exhibition website aims to make the items as tangible as we can to people who can't make it to Oxford. More and more will be done like this, making the amazing richness of medieval manuscripts available to a larger audience. However, this is expensive, and there's also a need for interpretation, not only wonderment. In the room itself, there is a very careful balance in place to protect the manuscripts and printed books from damage, overseen by the experts at the Library, Madeline Slaven and Martin Kauffmann. Lighting, the angle of the book rests (many made especially for the exhibition), temperature, humidity and security are all closely monitored. Having said this, parchment is an incredibly durable material; many of the books look as fresh and glittering as they did 600 years ago. For me, there's nothing quite like the experience of seeing them in the flesh, however good a digital photograph might be.
WRR: Is there anything that you would like to highlight about any other part of the exhibition?
PERKINS: One aspect of the exhibition that I particularly like is the way that by bringing these books together, we are also revealing an aspect of the Bodleian Library's own rich history. Tracing what scholars call the provenance of a manuscript – its ownership and milieu, or biography, if you like – and seeing how it arrived in Oxford, has been fascinating for me, and has shown how much the Bodleian's collections have relied on huge donations of material from sometimes eccentric or obsessive scholars and antiquarians down the centuries.