Work, text, and context: steps towards discovering the genre of Middle English prose romances
Pfile, Angela Elizabeth
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Generic classification has historically been based on a biological taxonomic metaphor in which genre equals genus. A result of using this metaphor has been an assumption that any given literary work cannot belong to more than one clearly defined genre. A better metaphor for generic classification is suggested by stellar cartography, where genre is a multidimensional star chart and a work may belong to more than one such generic star chart. The fifteenth-century Middle English prose romances have received little scholarly attention, partly because they do not fit the reigning generic assumptions for Middle English romance, which have been based on the canonical verse romances. However, deriving our generic understanding of Middle English romance from early French verse romances has limited our ability to understand and appreciate the prose romances fully. The generic characteristics of the Middle English romance should be rediscovered, beginning with the generic characteristics of the often-ignored prose romances. The method for discovering these generic characteristics involves focusing in turn on the works (literary culture), the texts (material culture), and later contexts (culture of collection) of the romances being studied. The romances considered here as examples for the application of this method are King Ponthus and the Fair Sidone from Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 185, once in the library of Sir Kenelm Digby, and The Three Kings' Sons from London, British Library MS Harley 326, once in the library of Sir Simonds D'Ewes. The study of these two works and their associated texts and collections has yielded a list of eleven provisional generic characteristics for the Middle English prose romance.