chapter  11
14 Pages

Violent Magic in Middle English Romance

Violence occurs across all genres of medieval writing. Chronicles are constructed around accounts of wars, revolts, and crusades, as well as of the great tournaments that mark festivity. Romance narratives can seem to consist of catalogs of their heroes’ battles against one enemy after another, so memorably satirized by the Gawain poet in his account of Gawain’s foes: dragons, wolves, wild men, bulls, bears, boars, and giants, all in the space of four lines.1 Devotional literature too is full of violence: the blood and wounds and instruments of torture of Christ’s Passion, which is re-enacted in the graphic martyrdoms of the saints. And in a very different mode, fabliau tends to rely on slapstick violence of a distinctly uncourtly kind for its comedy-John the Carpenter’s broken arm in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, Simkin the Miller’s broken head in the Reeves Tale. We might perhaps be inclined to set against this emphasis on violence the other great subject matter of medieval writing, that of love, whether human or divine. Yet we only have to consider those narratives of martyrdom that so vividly portray the extreme forms that love for God may take, or the love for the romance lady that frequently underlies chivalric combat, to realize that love and violence cannot be separated, and that violence may occur within the most courtly context. Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale with its account of the two noble cousins, Palamon and Arcite, blood brothers, fighting “up to the ancle” in blood over Emilye, provides a powerful example.2