This book considers Middle English romance from a new historical perspective, by examining its development, audience, and ethos against a background of 13th- and 14th-century royal-baronial conflict, which was largely precipitated by the reluctance of Henry III, Edward II, and Richard II to acknowledge the lords of the realm as the monarch's 'natural counsellors'. Friction between Plantagenet kings and dissident barons contributed to the development of parliament as a representative body and to the prominence of the 'problem of counsel' as a topos in learned and popular literature of the period. Rule by counsel, an ideal which informs medieval English government at every level -from royal, baronial, and manorial councils to parliamentitself -is, it is argued, central to the ethos of Middle English romance; and the shire knights, the most influential members of the parliamentary 'commons', constitute the core of its socially diverse audience.Sage advice, as supplied by a variety of 'counsellor' figures, provides the tactics for success in the hero's quest.
The procedural formula of 'counsel and strategy' is tested against a number of romances: Ywain and Gawain, Havelok, Gamelyn, Athelston, a selection of nine romances from the Auchinleck manuscript, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Some of these narratives, such as Athelston and Beves of Hamtoun, actively engage with the 'problem of counsel' and promote wholesome counsel as a strategy against tyranny. Guy of Warwick, on the other hand, explores the relationship between counsel and prowess, and Floris and Blauncheflur and Kyng Alisaunder focus on the planning and execution of a wide range of military and 'social' strategy. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the hero's rejection of divine guidance in favour of worldly counsel and strategy leads to his humiliation and failure. GERALDINE BARNES is Senior Lecturer in English Language and Early English Literature at the University of Sydney.