Michael Foster

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.

Making Books, Shaping Readers

School of English, O' Rahilly Building, University College Cork, Ireland.