BOOK REVIEW: Savage Economy: The Returns of Middle English Romance—Review by Ana Rita Martins

Walter Wadiak. Savage Economy: The Returns of Middle English Romance. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2016. Hardback. pp. 195. ISBN: 978-0-2681-0118-3

In Savage Economy: The Returns of Middle English Romance, Walter Wadiak’s first book, the author proposes a new look at late Middle English romances through the practice of noble gift giving. Wadiak examines gift exchanges and how they foreshadow violence, which he claims was key to the development of medieval warrior aristocracy. The connection between violence and gift giving is crucial for Wadiak’s argumentation as he highlights that bestowing gifts was used to set up and/or preserve feudal power. The noble gift expresses violence in the sense that it refuses “a certain and predictable return, throwing the receiver into uncertainty” and introduces a dependent relationship where the giver aimed to create a bond of subservience (12). As a result, scenes of gift exchange in medieval romance might be read as narrative strategies that mirror real life power relationships in which a lord or a king would establish dominion over others without overt violence. At the same time, the author suggests English romances in particular try to reconstitute themselves by using the gift as a way to fantasise about the past.

Chapter one, ‘The Persistence of Romance’, serves as a theoretical introduction to the analysis, laying the foundation for his study and centring his attention on key concepts such as the “noble gift”. At the same time, Wadiak poses questions that serve as guidelines for the readers, such as “What do we mean when we speak of noble gifts as symbolic violence?” (6). By suggesting that the romances written in England after the Norman Conquest can be understood as narratives obsessed with the return to a golden age of chivalry, Wadiak attempts to clarify how the gift-giving motif is employed to invoke that very return. The first chapter is a strong introduction to the topic, and a pertinent reading for those particularly interested in Middle English romance.

The following chapters mostly focus on romances produced during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In chapter two, ‘The Gift and Its Returns’, Wadiak examines the gift as a currency of romance, pointing out how aristocratic excess is especially explored in spendthrift knight romances (Sir Cleges, Sir Launfal, and Sir Amadece). Considering that gift giving has innate limitations, the author clarifies how these are acknowledged in texts that position themselves against mercantile culture (37), while simultaneously deriving economic profit for the heroes who receive gifts that enable them to thrive. Chapter three, ‘Chaucerian Capital’, focuses on Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, namely The Knight’s Tale. Wadiak’s analysis suggests that gifts serve to impose order through the covert violence they imply, but also to limit its destructiveness (77). The construction of the amphitheatre by Theseus in The Knight’s Tale is an example of this, since it encourages violence to be performed within a given space. In this perspective, gift exchange represents the civilising potential of chivalric life, which is nevertheless enacted by means of violence. By drawing attention to the dual nature of the noble gift as a source of peace and violence which encourages alliances and at the same time promotes power struggles, Wadiak shines new light on issues frequently overlooked. However, though it is thought-provoking, chapter two comes across as perhaps the least clear of the whole, diverting into details of Chaucer’s text that do not necessarily contribute to the author’s main line of reasoning.

On the other hand, chapter four, ‘Gawain’s Nirt and the Sign of Chivalry’, offers a stimulating analysis of the Gawain romances, namely Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the later “bourgeois” romance Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle. Looking at both texts, Wadiak offers a novel reading, underscoring how the symbolic gift giving verges towards very real violence (95). Wadiak further develops the concept of hospitality and the problems it poses as a gift of impossibility and a form of possession, making every act of hospitality an assertion of mastery (109). The final chapter, ‘What Shall These Bowes Do?’, expands on one of Wadiak’s earlier essays (2012),[1] addressing outlaw literature of the fifteenth century. In Savage Economy, Wadiak examines The Tale of Gamelyn and A Geste of Robyn Hode suggesting not only that outlawry forms of displacement and exile are central to romance (123), but also that chivalry found in these narratives is a way to persist in a world that was already aware of its own forward thought. In an intricate and well-organised assessment, Wadiak makes an enquiry into the different ambiguous representations of gift and not-gift (loan or commodity), highlighting how the two ballads are both chivalric and mercantile in nature.

Overall, Wadiak’s Savage Economy offers a valuable, useful examination of the noble gift giving motif in late medieval English romance and its complex use in texts where its implicit link to violent acts stands as a symbol of a distinct class (the chivalrous nobility) and time period. Equally interesting is Wadiak’s suggestion that English romances’ ‘returns’ are intertwined with a kind of violence which is read as the founding gesture that guarantees coherence in the community (149). Yet, possibly because of the elaborate arguments the author attempts to establish, at some points the prose is dense. This makes Savage Economy more suitable for an academic audience, which is a drawback since there are not many studies dedicated to the significance of gift giving in Middle English romance. In fact, academic essays and books more aimed at a general audience are needed, particularly in what concerns lesser known texts such as Sir Cleges or Sir Amadece.

Some degree of familiarity with the stories looked at by Wadiak is also advisable, as a reader not acquainted with them might find the line of thought hard to follow. Furthermore, some of the author’s arguments would have been made clearer had concepts such as ‘commodity vs. gift’ or ‘not-gift’ been clarified. While it is understandable that the author may not have wanted to devote much of the book to explain specific terminology, even readers who are familiar with these terms might not make the same associations that the author does. Despite these limitations, Wadiak’s study provides a good opportunity to consider late medieval romance from a novel perspective, and it ultimately constitutes a solid contribution to the field of medieval literary studies.

Ana Rita Martins, University of Lisbon

Ana Rita Martins is a PhD Candidate in Medieval Studies at the University of Lisbon and a researcher at ULICES (University of Lisbon Centre for English Studies). She is working on popular medieval literature with a special focus on Middle English romances. Her research interests include medieval popular culture, hero/heroism, monsters and monstrosity, and medievalism.


[1] See Wadiak, Walter. “‘What shall these bowes do?’: The Gift and Its Violence in A Gest of Robyn Hode.” Exemplaria. Medieval, Early Modern, Theory, 24: 3 (2012) pp. 238-259.