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Response to Review of Romance and the Gentry in Late Medieval England

In responding to such a charitable review of my work, one which begins with the claim that my book ‘is, above all, a well-researched and enjoyable book’, one is tempted to invoke the principles of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and leave well enough alone. But a few brief comments are in order. First, I am grateful that Bridger spends so much time detailing the interdisciplinary nature of my study, for interdisciplinarity – specifically, the combined recourse to literary criticism, social history, and manuscript studies/codicology – was one of the explicit ideals motivating the project. I am trained in English literary studies and have been working on codicology and the history of the book for several years now, but the more I worked on both these romances and their manuscripts, I came to recognize the central role that social history must play in explaining the intersection of these texts and their audiences. For all these reasons, I had hoped that my book would find a readership among historians, and it is thus gratifying to be reviewed in a venue such as this one.

As I read it, Bridger notes two points of criticism about my study, both of which I would like to address and both of which are well taken. First, she suggests that my reliance on Susan Wright’s definition of the gentry, which I lay out in the preface, might be too reductive. As Bridger writes, ‘it would have been helpful perhaps to have noted briefly that this definition, whilst generally suitable, may not fit all circumstances’. I agree. As Bridger also notes, among historians there is little consensus as to what constitutes the gentry, which makes it difficult for scholars to discuss this social class without spending undue amounts of time justifying one’s definition. I simply chose to rely upon Wright’s definition, as it seemed the most coherent; seemed best to fit the historical evidence; and seemed best to capture whatever scholarly consensus exists about what constituted the gentry. I also, on pp. 25–7, tried to alert readers to the diversity of scholarly views on this question.

The second criticism that Bridger lodges is that ‘It is somewhat surprising to note that, despite a series of allusions, the community element as a key historiographical component of the gentry topic is not explored further here. An exploration of this theme would have been an interesting point of discussion, particularly in a regional work such as this’. Once again, this point is well taken. I am certainly aware that one of the key debates among historians of late medieval England is whether the gentry’s primary affiliation was with their local community, or whether they primarily identified themselves with noble affinities that cut across county divides. (I nod to this debate on p. 26, n. 15.) That being said, I do not think such an issue has much purchase on these romances when read in abstraction from their manuscript context, which was the topic of the first half of my book. In this first half, I explore how such romances were not written immediately for a particular gentry audience in a particular locality, but rather they speak to gentry concerns more broadly and were subsequently made local by being copied and read by individual readers in local communities. But this process presupposes, at the point of authorship, a rather un-localized, generic gentry identity for these literary texts that could then be picked up by anyone who identified with this social class. As a result, I do not see the issue of local community deserving a prominent place in any interpretive paradigm for these texts qua texts. But, when we turn to their role in individual reading circumstances, as I do in chapters four–six, then local conditions deserve much more prominence. In these final three chapters, I have much to say about the local concerns of particular gentry readers of the romances. And though I did not engage with this historiographical question in the framing parts of my book (i.e. chapters one–three), I remain receptive to the suggestion that the local community might be important to understanding these romances, and I would be most curious to see how such a reading might play out.