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The Romance of the Middle Ages
The Romance of the Middle Ages
28 January — 13 May 2012
Exhibition Room, Bodleian Library
Old Schools Quad
Curator: Dr Nicholas Perkins
In Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition (Oxford, 2010), James Simpson argues that the post-Enlightenment museum neutralizes its contents as well as preserving them. Objects preserved in the archives of research libraries, however, are subjected to a different kind of ideological neutralization. The immensely important collections of libraries such as the Bodleian are, for the most part, kept out of sight and only made available to researchers. All too often when such collections are exhibited, only the most beautiful and richly-illuminated objects are chosen – a tendency which reflects the primarily art-historical focus of most manuscript exhibitions.
The Bodleian’s current exhibition, The Romance of the Middle Ages, is unusual: it places objects usually available only to researchers in a gallery setting. Even more importantly, it chooses not to focus only on aesthetic beauty, offering instead a narrative of a literary mode’s transmission and development through more than 800 years of history. While some of the objects on display are beautiful and ornately decorated, many of them are not – but they are all culturally significant.
The exhibition consists of thirteen cases in a fairly small room, but this initial impression of a modest offering is immediately refuted by the cases’ contents. The first case contains the earliest surviving copy of the Old French Chanson de Roland, a text which became a keystone of French national identity in the nineteenth century, and which now occupies a position in the French literary canon analogous to that of Beowulf for the British.
Other treasures abound: these include the Vernon Manuscript, one of the largest surviving medieval vernacular codices, and MS Arch Selden B. 24, an immensely valuable anthology of texts including Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. Remarkably, the British Library has lent both the Percy Folio, a unique collection of ballads and popular poetry, and one of their most important medieval books, the sole surviving copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But this embarrassment of riches is not displayed as a collection of treasures only worth seeing for their rarity. The most impressive achievement of the exhibition is to organize all of these literary monuments into a coherent narrative. Pieces of text accompanying the objects give an accessible, but never reductive account of the development of medieval romance and its cultural significance, both in the Middle Ages and afterwards. Manuscripts and printed books form the core of the exhibition, but are supplemented by objects – rings, ivory caskets, and tiles – as well as illustrative pre-Raphaelite paintings and engravings. The exhibition’s final case contains objects revealing medieval romance’s influence on twentieth-century fantasy texts, from the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien to Monty Python.
The ideological purpose of The Romance of the Middle Ages is one of education and access. A generous programme of free public lectures and tours took place earlier in the run, and the exhibition’s website is a rich supplementary resource. These supporting materials make sure that the objects on display are as accessible and comprehensible as possible during their brief stay outside their protective – but also culturally isolating – archives. The exhibition runs until May 13th – once it closes, many of the objects displayed will not return to public view for a long time: have a look while you still can.
Daniel Reeve is reading for a DPhil in medieval British literature at New College, Oxford.