Exhibition: The Romance of the Middle Ages

The Romance of the Middle Ages
The Romance of the Middle Ages

I was in Oxford recently and made a beeline for the current exhibition at the Bodleian Library, The Romance of the Middle Ages. It’s well worth a visit.

It covers everything from early romances such as Horn and Havelok the Dane (MS Laud Misc. 108) through cycles relating the tales of Troy, Tristan, Arthur and Alexander, many of which are beautifully illustrated, such as the Roman de Troÿle, a French prose adaptation of Boccaccio’s Il filostrato (MS Douce 331). Romance is truly international: Arthur appears in the Welsh Red Book of Hergest (Oxford, Jesus College, MS 111) and Alexander is present in the Flemish Roman d’Alexandre (MS Bodley 264) and, as Iskandar, in the Persian Shahnama (MS Ouseley Add. 176). Perhaps unexpectedly, the earliest manuscript of the French national epic, Chanson de Roland, turns out to belong to the Bodleian (MS Digby 23 (part 2)).

As well as treasures from the Bodleian’s own collections, there are also significant borrowed items, such as the only surviving manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (British Library, Cotton MS Nero A. x).

There’s a fascinating section in the exhibition on medieval romance after the Middle Ages incorporating everything from Shakespeare’s later plays and The Faerie Queene through chapbooks, the Percy folio and Walter Scott, via the Pre-Raphaelites and the Inklings to Terry Jones’ copy of the shooting script for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. My favourite item was C.S. Lewis’ copy of J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon’s 1925 edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Arch. H e.55). Lewis has annotated the poem’s description of the knight’s armour with a beautiful drawing.

The exhibition is free and runs until 13 May. If you can’t make it there in person, there’s a beautifully illustrated catalogue by the exhibition curators, Nicholas Perkins and Alison Wiggins, and a mini-documentary.

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