The Book's Purpose
The Book's Purpose: The Relationship between Courtesy Poetry and Romances in Cotton Caligula A.II
When eighteenth century antiquarians such as Thomas Percy and Thomas Warton defined the short romances of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as popular works originally performed by a minstrel in a marketplace to a gathering of simple common folk, they were beginning a critical tradition that would continue to the present day. Like Percy and Warton, Victorian and Edwardian critics took the simple style and magical themes of a poem such as Guy of Warwick as proof of its distance to the courts, where sophisticated tastes disallowed for such crudity. In the late twentieth-century this attitude was challenged by being inverted, and the supposed popular style of poems like Guy ceased to be a cause for scorn and derision, and became a precious insight into the marginal, common culture of an era that had spoken for so long only through the voices of the elite.
Although this theoretical inversion invited revisionist approaches to the poems’ literary merits, it did not raise questions on these texts’ supposed popularity. Recent analyses of the book as an object with a real function for its creators and intended readers invite a return to these texts with a focus on the books that contain them. In this paper I examine how a closer look at one fifteenth-century manuscript, Cotton Caligula A.II, can help us identify the intended contemporary readership of both its romances and the other works it contains, including short courtesy poems, religious lyrics, and advice poems by John Lydgate. Despite differences in genre, purpose, and theme, they are all united in how they reflect a particular set of social, economic, and spiritual concerns that can help us identify their intended readership. A study of the manuscript’s format, script, and layout also gives us clues as to how this readership was envisioned, how they were expected to use the book, and how they were thought to perceive the texts it contains.
Based upon my study of the whole book as an anthology, I suggest that it was a functional compilation produced for the enjoyment of a domestic readership, and that it can be compared to the well-known Thornton miscellanies, which also contain a large number of the romances, including a Northern version of Octavian, which is found in Caligula in a different form. Its compiler thought of its readers as a family with children, who were quite probably town citizens and who had connections to but were also separated from high aristocratic circles, and who also held ambitions of acquiring social status and the cultural capital of the courts. Finally, I conclude by showing how the study of the medieval miscellany as a whole gives us a fuller view of the moral perceptions, intellectual interests, and social concerns of its intended readership.