Empire of Magic

Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy

Geraldine Heng
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 536
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/heng12526
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    Empire of Magic
    Book Description:

    Empire of Magic offers a genesis and genealogy for medieval romance and the King Arthur legend through the history of Europe's encounters with the East in crusades, travel, missionizing, and empire formation. It also produces definitions of "race" and "nation" for the medieval period and posits that the Middle Ages and medieval fantasies of race and religion have recently returned.

    Drawing on feminist and gender theory, as well as cultural analyses of race, class, and colonialism, this provocative book revises our understanding of the beginnings of the nine hundred-year-old cultural genre we call romance, as well as the King Arthur legend. Geraldine Heng argues that romance arose in the twelfth century as a cultural response to the trauma and horror of taboo acts -- in particular the cannibalism committed by crusaders on the bodies of Muslim enemies in Syria during the First Crusade. From such encounters with the East, Heng suggests, sprang the fantastical episodes featuring King Arthur in Geoffrey of Monmouth's chronicle The History of the Kings of England, a work where history and fantasy collide and merge, each into the other, inventing crucial new examples and models for romances to come.

    After locating the rise of romance and Arthurian legend in the contact zones of East and West, Heng demonstrates the adaptability of romance and its key role in the genesis of an English national identity. Discussing Jews, women, children, and sexuality in works like the romance of Richard Lionheart, stories of the saintly Constance, Arthurian chivralic literature, the legend of Prester John, and travel narratives, Heng shows how fantasy enabled audiences to work through issues of communal identity, race, color, class and alternative sexualities in socially sanctioned and safe modes of cultural discussion in which pleasure, not anxiety, was paramount. Romance also engaged with the threat of modernity in the late medieval period, as economic, social, and technological transformations occurred and awareness grew of a vastly enlarged world beyond Europe, one encompassing India, China, and Africa. Finally, Heng posits, romance locates England and Europe within an empire of magic and knowledge that surveys the world and makes it intelligible -- usable -- for the future.

    Empire of Magic is expansive in scope, spanning the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries, and detailed in coverage, examining various types of romance -- historical, national, popular, chivalric, family, and travel romances, among others -- to see how cultural fantasy responds to changing crises, pressures, and demands in a number of different ways. Boldly controversial, theoretically sophisticated, and historically rooted, Empire of Magic is a dramatic restaging of the role romance played in the culture of a period and world in ways that suggest how cultural fantasy still functions for us today.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50067-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction: In the Beginning Was Romance …
    (pp. 1-15)

    Romance, of course, has no beginning, no identifiable moment or text in which it is possible to say, here is the location of the origin.

    Before the Middle Ages, and the first usages of the Old French grapheme, “romanz,” to signify an expanding category of fabulous narratives of a literary kind, something, we feel, existed that was already romance-like, that preceded the medieval concretions. Casting back in time, we speak of “Ancient” or “Greek” “romances, of the Odyssey (but not the Iliad) as a “romance,” and of the “romances” of Alexander the Great that descend from the third century of...

  5. History as Romance:: The Genesis of a Medieval Genre
    • Chapter 1 Cannibalism, the First Crusade, and the Genesis of Medieval Romance: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain
      (pp. 17-61)

      Almost nine hundred years ago, between 1130 and 1139, the legend of King Arthur erupted for the first time in full literary form in England, elaborated out of hints and sketchy entries in written history and Celtic legendary tradition by Geoffrey of Monmouth in an infamous, celebrated chronicle-history, the Historia Regum Britannie, or History of the Kings of Britain.¹ Geoffrey’s Historia was simultaneously celebrated and infamous in part because its status as history was called into question, then as now, by the pervasive aura that the Historia contrived of the fantastical, an aura more usually associated with the medieval literary...

  6. Popular Romance:: A National Fiction
    • Chapter 2 The Romance of England: Richard Coer de Lyon and the Politics of Race, Religion, Sexuality, and Nation
      (pp. 63-113)

      At the heart of one version of the thirteenth/fourteenth/fifteenth century romance, Richard Coer de Lyon (RCL)1—whose surviving Middle English texts recount, in romance mode, the putative history of the Third Crusade of Latin Christendom against the Islamic empire of Saladin in the Levant—is a spectacular story of cannibalism performed by the king of England, Richard I. During his siege of the Muslim-occupied city of Acre, the story goes, Richard falls ill from the travails of his sea journey to Syria, the unnatural cold and heat of the local climate, and the unsuitable “mete and drynk” that his body...

  7. Chivalric/Heroic Romance:: Defending Elite Men and Bodies
    • Chapter 3 Warring Against Modernity: Masculinity and Chivalry in Crisis; or, The Alliterative Morte Arthure’s Romance Anatomy of the Crusades
      (pp. 115-179)

      In medieval England, I have been suggesting, cannibalism and crusading warfare stalk the corridors of romance with a certain flourish. From Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannie, Wace’s Roman de Brut, and La3amon’s Brut to Richard Coer de Lyon, and the Alliterative Morte Arthure, cannibal plots, cannibal characters, cannibal jokes, and cannibal obsessions dog the narratives, so that some romances seem willfully to outstrip their predecessors, doubling back on romance’s field of vision with cunning, re-creative energy and ingenuity. We saw how, under the exuberant attentions of nationalist cannibal enthusiasts, Geoffrey’s (bad) crusader-cannibal-giant from St. Michael’s Mount and (good) king-of-Britain-cannibal...

  8. Family Romance/Hagiographic Romance:: A Matter of Women (and Children)
    • Chapter 4 Beauty and the East, a Modern Love Story: Women, Children, and Imagined Communities in The Man of Law’s Tale and Its Others
      (pp. 181-237)

      In the “Constance group” of medieval romances—a literary family in which Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale (henceforth MLT) is a senior member—a beautiful Christian princess from the East journeys far from her imperial family and homeland, in travels urgently begun and continued by desire: the amatory desire of men who want to marry and possess her; the hostile desire of royal queen mothers who want her away from their homeland; and, above all, the intense desire of fourteenth-century medieval culture and authors for her story. Wherever she goes—her narrative has two parts, two locales, in the East...

  9. Travel Romance/Ethnographic Romance:: Mapping the World and Home
    • Chapter 5 Eye on the World: Mandeville’s Pleasure Zones; or, Cartography, Anthropology, and Medieval Travel Romance
      (pp. 239-306)

      “When Leonardo da Vinci moved from Milan in 1499,” a noted scholar of Mandeville’s Travels observes, “his books included a number on natural history, the sphere, the heavens. … But out of the multitude of travel accounts that Leonardo could have had, in MS or from the new printing press, there is only the one: Mandeville’s Travels. At about the same time (so his biographer Andrés Bernáldez tells us) Columbus was perusing Mandeville for information on China preparatory to his voyage; and in 1576 a copy of the Travels was with Frobisher as he lay off Baffin Bay” (Moseley, Introduction,...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 307-466)
  11. Works Cited
    (pp. 467-498)
  12. Index
    (pp. 499-522)