In King Lear , Edgar, son of the Earl of Gloucester but disguised as the mad beggar Poor Tom, declares that "mice and rats and such small deer/ Have been Tom's food for seven long year". The baffled modern theatre audience is likely to register this, if at all, as just another instance of Poor Tom's disjointed babbling - more Shakespearean mad talk, significant only in so far as it represents Edgar's convincing impersonation of a lunatic.
The curious reader who consults an annotated edition of the play would find that the lines are actually a quotation from a chivalric romance, Bevis of Southampton - and be left little the wiser. But Bevis was one of the most popular of 17th-century texts. Relating the adventures of the son of the Earl of Southampton, it tells how Bevis fights pagans and giants, marries a princess and ends up slaughtering some 30,000 enemies on the streets of London. None of which might encourage us to read such an apparently gung-ho tale, but neither should it blind us to the fact that Shakespeare's allusion is as precise as any he makes to Ovid or Chaucer: like Bevis, Edgar is a nobleman disinherited by a treacherous relative; like Bevis, his tale will culminate in the eventual recovery of his patrimony.
Although clearly in some sense a "current" work, Bevis is not in fact a 17th-century text. It was first composed in Anglo-Norman in the 13th century, then translated into Middle English in about 1300. It was one of the first medieval narratives to be printed in the 16th century, and was reissued up to Shakespeare's time and beyond. Lear is far from being the only canonical literary text to reference Bevis: Spenser and Bunyan also drew on it. It might be described as something of a phenomenon - long-lived and intriguingly influential. It barely registers in many modern critical accounts of 16th and 17th-century literary culture.
It is this neglected tradition - of romance narratives surviving from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance while at the same time providing inspiration for new literary production - that Helen Cooper addresses in The English Romance in Time . Its great advantage over other studies of the genre is that it covers the tradition in full - that it is as comfortable in the 12th as in the 16th century. This is a book that deals with Shakespeare as well as Chaucer, Chretien as well as Spenser. It is a daunting task, not just in terms of the timespan covered, but also because of the diversity of the material. As Cooper herself admits, "romance" is a vague and ill-defined term, and her method is to survey a range of different themes characteristic of the genre without fixing on any as essential - not even, as she points out, the happy ending.
Each chapter examines a range of texts from the 12th to the 17th centuries, tracing the transformations of the theme in question: quests, magic, women on trial and so on. The English Romance in Time refers to these motifs as memes: ideas that behave like genes in their ability to reproduce and proliferate while also adapting to changed cultural environments. One might wonder how far the idea/gene analogy can be pushed, but it serves Cooper's purpose perfectly well by lending a study of literary tropes the historical depth and sensitivity to context that she is aiming at.
Her method has the disadvantage that we rarely see the texts she discusses as wholes, but this is more than compensated for as we watch motifs being picked up and modified by successive literary intelligences, their meaning and nuances continually shifting in response to changing political and cultural conditions.
The most interesting chapter is that on the desiring romance heroine. It broadens from a literary discussion that cuts across period distinctions into an attempt to debunk the interpretative cliches these divisions promote - for instance, the assertion that Shakespeare innovated in creating women "both passionate and pure", desiring yet virtuous. As Cooper points out, this is nonsense: women like this had featured in romances for centuries, and she proceeds to situate his plays within these fluid romance traditions rather than in classical theories about genre.
The English Romance in Time is a scholarly and engagingly written account of a genre, as suitable for a student as for an academic audience. It is important and innovative because of the way it uses romance to expose the medieval contribution to the early modern world.
Alex Davis is lecturer in English, St Andrews University.
The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare
Author - Helen Cooper
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 542
Price - £68.00
ISBN - 0 19 924886 9