BOOK REVIEW: Romancing Treason (Megan G. Leitch)-Review by Melissa Ridley Elmes

Megan G. Leitch. Romancing Treason: The Literature of the Wars of the Roses. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Cloth. Pp. 218. $90. ISBN: 9780198724599.

 

In Romancing Treason, Megan Leitch reads a strong textual presence of, and preoccupation with, treason in the late-medieval literature of England. She argues that in the textual culture developed over the course of the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) treason comprises both a source of anxiety concerning identity and community, and also a way of responding to those concerns. Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, read in the context of the largely neglected fifteenth–century English prose romance tradition and alongside other secular texts penned by Malory’s contemporaries, lies at the center of her insightful, wide-ranging, and compelling study, which draws from and builds on the work of Helen Cooper, Richard Firth Green, John Watts, and Paul Strohm, with nods as well to studies by Larry Benson, James Simpson, David Wallace, and Daniel Wakelin. [1] The resulting monograph, however, is entirely Leitch’s own, and situates her on the front line of a new wave in scholarship on late-medieval English literary and cultural studies that seeks to blur the hard distinction between medieval and early modern and in so doing, draw greater attention to texts which, as Leitch so beautifully illustrates, are very deserving of critical attention, yet often left in obscurity in favor of Malory’s Arthuriad and the works of the English Renaissance.

Leitch opens her study with a brief introductory chapter that situates her argument in the field of romance studies, offers some context for her claims of a literature of the Wars of the Roses as a distinct and unremarked genre, and develops the useful construction of treason as comprising vertical and lateral dimensions—“the more familiar, hierarchical idea of treason in late medieval England [resting] on the legal definition of treason as an attempt to harm or kill one’s king, master, husband, or prelate” and the “horizontal betrayals of one’s neighbor, brother-in-arms, friend, or even foe [which] could be considered treasonous” (4). In chapter two, she lays out the groundwork for her literary analysis of the presence and use of the rhetoric of treason in prose romances by first, defining treason and providing a brief discussion and analysis of its presence in English and French law. She continues by using Foucault’s idea of “discursive practice” and the “enunciative functions” of textual functions as outlined by Tony Bex as a theoretical framework for considering the ways in which use of various terms and phrases specifically associated with treason are used in non-literary genres like letters, chronicles, and political verses (35). This chapter reveals an omnipresent concern with treason and treachery across multiple genres that permits Leitch to claim that “in England during the Wars of the Roses, positive and negative identities were constructed through treason, and hence palpably unstable” (42). Arguing that genre matters less than the shared mentality literary and non-literary texts exhibit when it comes to treason, Leitch states that “a particular and pervasive set of collective fears and aspirations about treason informed the cultural imagination of the Wars of the Roses” (54).

Chapter three begins with a contextualization of the literature of the Wars of the Roses against earlier medieval literature in England, before launching into an extended discussion of how literary texts “select and develop elements of narrative and rhetoric to respond to the understanding of treason circulating in contemporary England, and to treat the contagion of treachery in their own exemplary mode” (57). Leitch focuses on four romances—the prose Siege of Thebes (c. 1421/2) and Siege of Troy (c. 1420), and the Englished prose and verse forms of Melusine (c. 1500)— to accomplish her goal of showing how these texts “bear witness to a cultural imaginary particularly invested in secular ethics and legal procedures” (57).

Chapter four deals expressly with treason in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. Leitch reads treasonous ideas and actions in the Morte as “the ever-present opposites to fellowship” (93). In the first half of the chapter, she focuses on how Malorian treason functions narratively and the work it performs for the audience of the Morte. The second half of the chapter reads the Morte comparatively against contemporary romances and chronicles to show how the various representations of the figure of Mordred both embodies the menace of unchecked treason and offers possibilities of counteracting it. Leitch argues throughout the chapter that “the text’s vocabulary of treason operates as a hermeneutic system, a heuristic modeling of interpretation and exclusion” (93). Like the romances in chapter three, “the Morte addresses social instability by consistently condemning treason and minimalizing reliance on providence” (94). Because of its affinities with the other late-fifteenth century romances studied, Leitch concludes that the Morte—often read as being in a class of its own—in fact should be read as “the foremost exemplar of its genre rather than as a genre unto itself” (136), a provocative claim with major implications for Malorean scholarship going forward.

In chapter five, Leitch reads Malory’s Morte Darthur specifically against other contemporary romances printed by William Caxton (c. 1422-1491)—primarily Godeffroy of Bologne, Charles the Grete, and the Foure Sonnes of Aymon, but also referencing the Recuyell of the Histories of Troy, Blanchardine and Eglantine, and Enydos—alongside Caxton’s conduct books (The Game of Chess, The Book of the Ordre of Chyvalry, and The Book of Fayttes of Armes and of Chyualrye) to argue for the possibility of a “Caxtonian canon” (160)). She compelling points out that “Caxton printed these four prose romances and a series of handbooks on chivalry across the 1480s, a decade that witnessed four kings and two dynasties on the English throne” and argues “that Caxton intended these works to be read together, regardless of whether each was issued under the aegis of the Yorkist Edward IV and Edward V, or Richard III, or their Tudor successor Henry VII, is implied both by the explicit connections made between the texts in their prologues’ discussions of the Worthies, and by the texts’ shared cultural work” (168). For Leitch, this speaks to Caxton’s ethos as a publisher; he “remained loyal not only to his material, but also to the expectations of reads of manuscript romances” and “such continuities and overlaps between manuscript and print culture in the late fifteenth century further testify to the relevance of Caxton’s printed prose romances and their concerns with treason to contemporary English culture” (169). Caxton’s ability to recognize the appeal of works like the Morte Darthur for late fifteenth-century English readers, and then to build a body of printed works around that appeal, created a canon of literary works that, while not at all identical, “share a mode of operating, and with respect to the same concerns” (172)—those concerns namely the presence, development, dealing with, and aftermath of treason in the literary imaginary.

Romancing Treason advances our understanding of the late-medieval textual culture of England generally, and Malory’s Arthuriad specifically, by calling attention to how periodization and a preoccupation with canonical texts that fit neatly into either the medieval or the early modern period have obscured scholarly insight into the ways in which the literature of the Wars of the Roses can be read as a genre. Leitch reads Malory’s Morte Darthur not as the standout book of its time in a class of its own—a long-held scholarly understanding of the Morte’s place in the canon—but rather as part of a well-developed literary tradition of prose texts responding to treason that has heretofore gone unremarked. This reading has significant implications for the field of English literary studies; it will be difficult at best, irresponsible at worst, not to consider a shift in both the medieval/early modern “divide” and the premodern English literary canon in the wake of this study.

 


Melissa Ridley Elmes completed her PhD in English in May 2016, with a dissertation entitled, “Negotiating Violence at the Feast in Medieval British Texts.” In addition to serving as the Senior Editor for Hortulus, Elmes is also on the editorial board of The Heroic Age.  She has published on the Arthurian tradition, Chaucer, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and has a forthcoming article on characterization in the Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode. She is currently co-editing a collection of essays on the Melusine legend.


 

Notes

[1] I include here the essential works from Leitch’s four most significant source scholars for ease of reference. Her bibliography includes a number of Helen Cooper’s works, most notably “Counter-Romance: Civil Strife and Father-Killing in the Prose Romances” in The Long Fifteenth Century, ed. Helen Cooper and Sally Mapstone (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1997), pp. 141-62,The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs From Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), and “When Romances Come True” in Boundaries in Medieval Romance, ed. Neil Cartlidge (Cambridge: Brewer, 2008), pp. 13-27. Of Richard Firth Green’s research, the most pertinent titles are Poets and Princepleasers: Literature and the English Court in the Late Middle Ages (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980), A Crisis of Truth: Literature and Law in Ricardian England (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1999), and “Palamon’s Appeal of Treason in The Knight’s Tale” in The Letter of the Law: Legal Practice and Literary Production in Medieval England, ed. Emily Steiner and Candace Barrington (Ithaca: Cornell university Press, 2002), pp. 105-14. John Watts is represented broadly, including Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), “The Pressure of the Public on Later Medieval Politics” in Political Culture in Late Medieval Britain, ed. Linda Clark and Christina Carpenter (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004), pp. 159-80, and “Public or Plebs: The Changing Meaning of ‘The Commons’, 1381-1459” in Power and Identity in the Middle Ages, ed. Huw Pryce and John Watts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 242-60. Strohm’s work is represented in Hochon’s Arrow: The Social Imagination of Fourteenth-Century Texts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), England’s Empty Throne: Usurpation and the Language of Legitimation, 1399-1422 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), and Politique: Languages of Statecraft Between Chaucer and Shakespeare (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005).