In The Revelation of the Monk of Eynsham, a knight who vowed to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem but who failed to keep his oath tells the visionary that each night he is transported back to the exact location where his journey broke off the previous dawn and that demons at first light drag him back to purgatory, his torment eased ever so slightly the closer he makes his slow way to Jerusalem. The living cannot complete this task for the dead knight, and the living cannot pray him out of needing to finish it. His unfinished business is his alone to complete. There are, of course, many puzzles left to the reader’s imagination in this brief anecdote. For example, it is unclear how exactly the knight travels at night, whether he is a reanimated corpse that rides a dead horse, or walks, or crawls, or something else. Likewise unknown is whether the living can see him or help him on his way by offering a faster mode of transportation or a reliable means of crossing bodies of water. The knight mentions that feebleness of strength, bad weather, and ‘sharpness of the way’ impede his journey, but offers no further particulars. Because the reader is not privileged to see the knight in his revenant form but only to hear second-hand his brief report as to what happens to him every night, what the dead knight looks or sounds or smells like while briefly back on earth remains unknowable. Middle English literature rarely offers its readers anything so exotic as the Norse draugr or the blood-hungry demon knights found in the Middle French text Perlesvaus, but it does have its share of revenants, resurrected corpses, headless knights, and perhaps even a corpse bride or two, all of which offer an opinion on those figures who exist between the living and the dead. This paper explores the presentation in Middle English literature of one particular type of ghost who refuses to be forgotten by the living, the revenant. Texts considered in the paper include The Revelation of the Monk of Eynsham, Handlyng Synne, Sir Amadace, The Trental of St. Gregory, The Gesta Romanorum, The Awntyrs off Arthure at the Terne Wathelyne, The Gast of Gy, and Piers Plowman B. The method is close reading.
Medieval memoria helped focus the self toward the superlunary; memory’s place in the virtuous holism of prudence allowed devotional recollection to insulate Christian subjects against the earthly, fallen, and mundane. What, then, when mnemonic cues seemed to emanate from the fallen world? In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and the later, Galfridian-inflected romance Awntyrs off Arthure at the Terne Wathelyne, landscape – the earthly matter of Britain – manifests strange, ecological appeals to prudential memory. While the historico-literary treatment of landscape per se helped enfold sublunar landscape toward superlunary prudentia, these imagined histories lack the prudential confidence of less territorially acquisitive works.
In one of the most moving and poignant passages of the fourteenth-century medieval romance Sir Orfeo, Orfeo’s self-imposed exile in the wilderness is contrasted with his former mode of life as the king of Winchester. The trope of memory plays a vital role in this passage as the luxuries and regal comforts of Orfeo’s kingly past are compared with his present state of penitent contrition to mark the extent of his spiritual progression. I wish to analyse this passage, together with an examination of its language and eschatological imagery, in order to discuss the importance of memory as a crucial structuring motif in the romance.