Of Wilderness, Forest, and Garden: An Eco-Theory of Genre in Middle English Literature
By Barbara L. Bolt
PhD Dissertation, University of South Carolina – Columbia, 2015
Abstract: “Of Wilderness, Forest, and Garden: An Eco-Theory of Genre in Middle English Literature” proposes a new theory of genre that considers the material elements of the natural environment in Middle English literature composed between 1300-1450 CE. Instead of treating the setting as just a backdrop for human activity, I posit that the components of the environment play a role in the deployment of the narrative by shaping the characters and influencing the action. More than an acknowledgement of the particular natural features, this study explores the role that these components play and how they give us a deeper understanding of the text. This project presents a view of the text that both engages and augments the traditional genre classification, offering a way to study a lesser considered subject in medieval literature—the material world of the setting—by reassessing the genre classification of the texts.
By teasing out the material details of the setting, an eco-theory of genre cuts across conventional genres and offers another way to connect medieval texts. I argue that, instead of romance, Breton Lai, ballad, and fabliau, the texts examined in this dissertation are wilderness, forest, or garden poems. The eco-theory of the genre wilderness sees the adversarial elements in an untamed environment. The forest genre is a space of rules and regulations that circumscribe the environment and, in turn, manage the resources found there. The genre of the garden focuses on the conflict between what is manmade and what is natural and considers which of these is more real. By thoroughly investigating the representations of material nature within certain Middle English texts, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Geste of Robyn Hode, and “The Franklin’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales, it is the aim of this dissertation to demonstrate that medieval people negotiated the divide between the philosophy of nature and the lived experience of nature through literature.
Introduction: In the Middle English Yvain and Gawain, the knight Colgrevance of King Arthur’s Round Table seeks a magic spring. When he finds it, he triggers a storm that rivals any he has ever seen:
The weder wex than wonder-blak,
And the thoner fast gan crak.
Thare come slike stormes of hayl and rayn,
Unnethes I might stand thare ogayn;
The store windes blew ful lowd,
So kene come never are of clowd.
I was drevyn with snaw and slete,
Unnethes I might stand on my fete.
In my face the levening smate,
I wend have brent, so was it hate,
That weder made me so will of rede,
I hopid sone to have my dede;
And sertes, if it lang had last,
I hope I had never thethin past. (369-82)
All of the phenomena that Colgrevance lists are naturally occurring: rain, sleet, snow, thunder, and lightning, and anyone who has been caught out in the open during a severe thunderstorm recognizes the drama Colgrevance describes. A conventional critique of this episode as part of a medieval romance poem considers how Colgrevance exposes his vulnerability to the elements of very foul weather to see if he can survive and therefore affirm his identity as a knight in that survival.