Truesdale, Mark. The King and Commoner Tradition: Carnivalesque Politics in Medieval and Early Modern Literature. Outlaws in Literature, History, and Culture 4. New York and London: Routledge, 2018. ISBN: 978-0815364764. $155.00. 225pp.
Reviewed by Renée Ward
University of Lincoln
In his study, Truesdale traces the evolution of king and commoner tales in English and Middle Scots through the late medieval and early modern periods, with a brief foray into the eighteenth century. He suggests that the king and commoner tradition is highly adaptable, and that its mutable nature allows for it to be blended with other literary genres, including medieval romance, fabliau, outlaw ballads, and complaint literature. He also argues that this mutable nature renders the tradition accessible to a range of ideological positions, and that the previously understudied texts of his study reflect explicitly “on the nature of power, kingship, surveillance, revolt, and the commoner’s place in an often oppressive world” (1). The fifteenth-century comic texts in particular, he notes, provide a rare glimpse into the concerns of the commons, specifically into worries over the systemic and subjective violence (ranging in practice from excessive and exploitative taxes to physical abuse) that the lower classes suffered at the hands of the ruling elite. He then explores how the medieval texts give way to early modern ballads and chapbooks which increasingly rework the tradition as conservative and pro-monarchic propaganda. This shift, he notes, parallels the state’s increasing discomfort with and censorship of both carnival celebrations and printed materials. He thus shows how something once critical as a site of dissent becomes adopted and redeployed as part of official culture, consequently losing its revolutionary power.
Truesdale presents his argument chronologically, with an introduction, four chapters, conclusion, and appendices, and, overall, provides close-readings of a select group of texts using primarily Bakhtinian and Foucauldian lenses. The medieval king and commoner texts, he explains, typically self-identify as “bordes” or “bourdes,” short comedic ballads which include elements of revelry and mischief associated with the carnivalesque. Given this detail, and the study’s focus on power relations and inversions, the methodology is fitting, and Truesdale deftly demonstrates how Bakhtin, whose ideas have been less fashionable since the late twentieth century, still has a place in the critical realm. The introduction includes a thorough literature review of previous or related scholarship, highlighting the paucity of criticism on the king and commoner tales and the need for this study. It also includes a summary of the standard king and commoner narrative, noting key features such as the use of disguise by the king and his separation from peers, often while on a hunt; the frequently carnivalesque nature of the feasts within the story and their connection to inversions of the social hierarchy; and the reciprocal exchange between the king and his subject, with all of its inherent social obligations.
The chapters follow a tight structure, starting with a brief synopsis of their specific arguments and an overview of each text’s provenance and plot summary. These are followed by detailed synchronic and diachronic discussions of the text or text group upon which the chapter focuses. In Chapter 1, Truesdale establishes King Edward and the Shepherd (c. 1400-1450) as the pinnacle example of the king and commoner tale, suggesting that its inclusion of the greatest selection of traits from the wider tradition demonstrates how firmly established the genre was by the fifteenth century. In Chapter 2, he expands his discussion to include the contemporaneous John the Reeve (c. 1450), a tale that epitomizes the subversive nature of the king and commoner tradition. These early texts, he posits, contain content that threatens hegemonic structures. They operate primarily as sites of resistance, reveling in carnivalesque feasting and violence, with comedic moments arising from the violence inflicted upon the king’s body and the body politic, and, at the feast table, from the collapsing of boundaries between the commons and the elite. These elisions, he suggests, reflect the very real social upheavals of the period and the decline of feudalism.
In the next chapter, Truesdale examines groups of texts that demonstrate how, once established, the king and commoner tradition blends with other genres and ultimately anticipates the uses to which it will be put in the sixteenth century. He presents his texts in two groups, the first of which includes the only extant Middle Scots example of the tradition, Rauf Coilȝear (c. 1460), and what is, perhaps, the most examined of Robin Hood tales, A Gest of Robin Hood (c. 1495). These narratives embody all of the elements established in earlier texts but now blend these with other literary traditions—Carolingian romance and outlaw ballads, respectively—demonstrating the king and commoner tradition’s ability, once firmly established, to transgress generic boundaries in a way that enhances its carnivalesque identity. The next grouping, however, reveals what he considers the tradition’s “restlessness” (81) with its established identity. Both King Edward & the Hermit (c. 1500) and The King and the Barker (c. 1468), he suggests, demonstrate movement towards a less radical position than their antecedents, as their source of comedy shifts. Truesdale reveals how audiences previously invited to laugh alongside the fool, often at the king, are now instead invited to laugh at the fool alongside the king. The social inversions that threatened social hierarchies become subdued or subsumed by more conservative elements, a move he suggests anticipates the ideology of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts.
The final chapter has considerable breadth, exploring texts from the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Truesdale breaks his discussion into three smaller sections, starting with broadside ballads from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—King Henry II and the Miller of Mansfield (1624), King Alfred and the Shepherd (1578), and King Henry VIII and the Abbot of Reading (c. 1680). He likens these narratives to the last text group in Chapter 3, identifying them as examples of the king and commoner tradition in transition. These texts ultimately favour the maintenance of social or class difference even if they hint at the possibility of boundary transgressions. Their radicalism, he remarks, is countered with conservativism. Truesdale then turns to ballads and chapbooks from the seventeenth century—King Edward IV and the Tanner of Tamworth (c. 1600), The King and the Cobler (c. 1680), The Royal Frolick (c. 1690), and King William III and the Loyal Forrister (c. 1689-1702)—arguing that these texts respond negatively to the radicalism of their predecessors, often eliminating core features considered potentially seditious in the seventeenth-century political climate, especially episodes of violence against the monarch’s body and, by extension, the body politic. Further, he unpacks how, especially in the latter two texts, the king and commoner narrative is redeployed after the Glorious Revolution and the ascension of William III explicitly as a form of pro-monarchic propaganda. Yet, in the final pages of the chapter, he also reveals how, in the same period, the king and commoner tradition takes on a different meaning in the north. Here he demonstrates how King James I and the Tinker (c. 1745) and several late Scottish tales concerning James V constitutes a form of nostalgia for the pre-union Scottish realm. While he concludes that King James I and the Tinker is a pro-English narrative, he simultaneously gestures to the king and commoner tradition’s ability to adapt yet again, returning to its roots as site of resistance, even if only subtly, in the Scottish stories of James V.
The volume closes with a brief conclusion that restates its major arguments, noting that the study only scratches the surface of the king and commoner literary tradition. Truesdale invites further examination not only of the texts he includes but also of their afterlives and of Bakhtinian approaches to the wider corpus. He rounds out the volume with three appendices that present analogues to and studies of the works in his volume. The temporal, geographic, and generic breadth of the material included in these appendices speak to his call for further study of the king and commoner tradition.
Overall, Truesdale’s clear structure, detailed outlines, and analyses render the volume a solid introduction to the king and commoner tradition and to the specific texts under examination. Individuals wanting to further their knowledge of these texts or of literary reflections of late medieval and early modern culture will benefit from the study, while those thinking of teaching these texts for the first time will find it a valuable resource. Individuals already teaching specific texts included in the study—A Gest of Robin Hood, for instance—will appreciate the fresh insight Truesdale offers. Further, the volume reminds readers that older methodologies do not necessarily amount to dated methodologies. His use of Bakhtin’s theories of the carnivalesque are particularly compelling. In short, he offers a sound critical framework and thorough exposition of his materials that is accessible to specialists and non-specialists alike.