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Anthony Davenport. Medieval Narrative – An Introduction

Richard TRIM
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Anthony DAVENPORT. Medieval Narrative – An Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2004, 284 pp., €22.53, ISBN 0-19-925839-2.

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1This latest book by Tony Davenport represents not only a very useful guide to the different types of narrative associated with the Middle Ages but also succinctly describes their origins in Antiquity as well as linking up the various genres of medieval story-telling to present-day fiction in prose and film. The introductory pages thus give a global picture of narrative both before and after the medieval period and the Middle Ages are thereby not left in a vacuum. Although the focus is on English literature, references are made to a wide range of European works of the period, drawing together the different narrative strands.

2For better or worse, many modern writers have also used medieval themes in their story-telling. They range, according to Davenport, from pseudo-medieval fictions such as Sister Fidelma to the highly imaginative creations of Tolkien's The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings and the more intellectual concerns of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. He claims that the use of settings in the past can give the writer a certain amount of freedom in conveying specific ideas to the modern reader such as Tolkien's visualisation of the conflict between good and evil.

3The beginning of Davenport's account of medieval narrative really begins with his description of Cicero being its main source with the three categories of fabula, historia and argumentum. The first concerns facts which are not true, the second involves the reporting of events which have taken place in the past and the third implies events which are more hypothetical. The latter thus involves fictitious circumstances which could nevertheless have taken place and very often the implication that divine ordering may shape the narrative. On the basis of these three categories, many other secondary types developed during the Middle Ages, some of which are hard to define as they may overlap, and the labelling of genres such as romance, fable, allegory, etc. are often approximative. Indeed, the problem of narrative categorisation appears to be a major concern throughout the book. Modern critics have had different views as to how the categories developed. For example, the structuralists in the first half of the twentieth century attempted to identify and define the narrative base and the range of variations which go with it. The Russian Formalists made a distinction between plot and story, i.e. between the logical ordering of events and their actual sequence as they are told. Narratologists of the 1970s and 1980s, on the other hand, attempted to point out the rich and complex effects of sophisticated medieval poems rather than the tabulation of common denominators used by the structuralist school.

4After an introduction to problems of narrative structure, including the role of prologues and the narrators themselves within the overall framework, the book is divided up into an account of the specific genres: didactic narratives, historical epics; comedy, fantasy and tragedy, and concluding with a chapter on how they may be included in tale collections. The first genre, the didactive narrative, goes back to Aesop's fables in the 6th century BC and creates a situation in which the narrator is able to preach to the reader. Chaucer's Pardoner is a typical case in the medieval period. He uses the term ensample, as in the line: “Thanne telle I hem ensamples many oon.” This refers to the notion exemplum employed in modern literary criticism and refers to a story based on a moralised anecdote, very often using animals to portray human behaviour.

5The search for origins continues in the chapter on historical epics, traditionally covering the Ciceronian label historia in which fact and fiction are frequently intermingled. An informative account is given of historical origins from Homer to Boccaccio with fascinating descriptions of archaeological research” into fragments of various medieval European epics, including Beowulf, the Hildebrandslied, the Nibelungenlied and their connections to Norse sagas. However, the complex amount of information gleaned from different sources of fact and fiction demonstrate the difficulties of categorising medieval narrative along Ciceronian lines. Davenport observes that difficulties of categorisation are also found in medieval romances, whose notion is notoriously difficult to define, largely because there is so much of it that spills over and needs subcategories and overflow tanks.” However, an important and well-defined element of romances is their move away from traditional epics, in which characters are hero-centred, to the exploration of psychological factors such as frustration and desire, as in Marie de France's lays, or to chivalric conduct rather than knightly conquests on the battlefield, as in Chrétien de Troyes' Arthurian romances.

6One revealing aspect of the book is that many scenario techniques used today in prose, theatre and cinema are not new and were common features in medieval narrative. Slapstick farces and adultery, for example, are outlined in the chapter on comedy and Davenport cites Bakhtin as stating that medieval man had the serious and comic aspects of life co-existing in his consciousness. The interplay between the two can be seen in many of medieval Europe's poets such as Chaucer and Boccaccio. It therefore comes as no surprise that Chaucer put the farcical Miller's Tale immediately after the Knight's Tale of chivalry in his ordering of the Canterbury Tales.

7The problems of narrative categorisation are discussed further in the chapter on fantasy and dream. It is logical that the dividing line between truth and fiction is unclear in this area of human thought. The travel tales The Voyage of St. Brendan and Mandeville's Travels mix fantasy with references to real geographical places. The fictional nature of places varies in the voyage theme and becomes clear, however, in versions such as the Divine Comedy which does not involve travelling across the surface of the earth but through it. Fantasy and dreams do, at the same time, give the writer more freedom from a philosophical and abstract point of view when describing historical events. The technique was also used in allegories. The Roman de la Rose is a clear example with society being debated through the medium of metaphor.

8The last major narrative genre described in the book is tragedy. The Aristotelian sense of the word concerns a noble story beginning in joy and ending in grief.” Again, this chapter suggests that classifications are complex and medieval definitions tended to differ from the original Aristotelian concept. Chaucer uses the term when he describes the Wheel of Fortune being turned and a character falling from a high position of prosperity to one of misery, as in the Monk's Tale.

9The final topic of the book concerns the technique of tale collections, used less today but which can still be found in trilogies such as the Lord of the Rings or Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End. The aims of this technique varied in medieval narrative. They were used for introducing different stories, for example, as illustrations of varying and developing themes. Sometimes they used competing narrator voices or offered the reader to react to the writer's proposal. This latter technique was a frequent one employed by Chaucer.

10Medieval Narrative offers a thought-provoking and informative account of this particular literary field. It covers in detail a large number of different aspects of English medieval literature, drawing on a rich and varied background of European literary trends. The significant problems of categorisation among different literary genres are consistently raised and dealt with in a clear and concise manner. It represents, in particular, an ideal book for students embarking on studies in medieval literature and for all those who would like to have an overall picture of the major literary trends of the period.

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Richard TRIM, « Anthony Davenport. Medieval Narrative – An Introduction »e-Rea [En ligne], 3.2 | 2005, document 11, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2005, consulté le 23 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Richard TRIM

Université de Provence

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