York Medieval Lecture
The Squire of Low Degree is a very strange medieval romance, which survives only in print from the sixteenth century, and in a much shorter version in the seventeenth-century Percy Folio. Including vivid episodes of necrophilia and homoeroticism, the work has been described as parodic, even inexplicably bizarre. The version in the Percy Folio, meanwhile, has often been described as an instance of ‘romance becoming ballad’, supporting the hypothesis that ballad postdates and adapts the romance. The majority of ballads are only preserved in writing from the seventeenth century and later; influential work has insisted that the ballad is essentially a post-medieval product. But as Peter Dronke and Richard Firth Green have argued, a kind of vernacular narrative song, orally transmitted and occasionally traceable in the literary record, must long predate these later literary records. The Squire of Low Degree shares multiple themes, action, and situations with the ballads – and they threaten to disrupt the romance into tragedy. The spectacles of the knight at the lady’s locked door, the battle outside, the mourning lady and the lover’s body; of the clash between the claims of lover and family; of treachery, and deceit: all these are ubiquitous in the ballads. But where the ballads end in tragedy, The Squire outrageously imposes a comic, happy ending. I will argue that this reversal is suggestive of the romance author’s playful innovation, making a parodic happy ending from the ballad’s dark tragedy: and not the reverse.
Professor Laura Ashe
Professor Ashe is the David Woods Kemper Family Fellow in English at Worcester College, and works on the literature, history and culture of England during the high and later middle ages.