Viewing the medieval period as an era of constant change rather than as a monolithic whole, Robert S. Sturges examines a wide variety of English and French literary works within the cultural contexts of the early and late Middle Ages.
Sturges analyzes these medieval works in roughly chronological order, thus providing a sense of historical change within the general period. Seeking to discover which critical methods best serve each work, he also compares medieval with postmodern approaches to interpretation, pointing out, of course, where current critical practices do not apply.
Examining the Chanson de Roland,
and Chre;tien’s Charrette,
Sturges reveals how belief in an indeterminacy of literary meaning grew between the 12th and 15th centuries. He argues that whereas the earlier Middle Ages’ Neoplatonic cultural context produced the "directed vision" of the early genres (chanson de gest, saint’s life), changes introduced in the 12th century and later allowed a second vision to emerge.
Supplementing rather than replacing the Neoplatonic view, this new mind set emphasized a multiplicity of possible literal meanings in the world and in language. Authoritative truths no longer could be revealed through allegorical interpretation.
In his second chapter, Sturges compares Chre;tien’s Conte del Graal
with the Queste del saint Graal
to counterpoise the levels of interpretation required by allegory against the potential multiplicity of literal meanings possible when interpreting nonallegorical works. Chre;tien, he notes, rejects allegory in favor of ambiguity.
Chapter 3 compares Marie de France’s Lais
with Machault’s Voir-Dit,
making an analogy between the erotic activity of the represented lovers and the reader’s interpretation of the literary works. Sturges points out that by the 14th century semantic indeterminacy in love and in reading was expected, conventional, and enjoyable. Still, both Marie and Machault suggest the dangers of uncertainty in human relations: if true knowledge of the other (lover or text) is impossible, how can we communicate?
In his fourth chapter, Sturges examines The Book of the Duchess, Troilus and Criseyde,
and "The Wife of Bath’s Tale" to determine how at various points of his career Chaucer responded to the essential question: how can any truth be communicated among people or between texts and readers?
Chapter 5 approaches such questions of truth and communication from the perspective of alterity and historical understanding in both La Mort le roi Artu and the final sections of Malory’s Mort Darthur, two works that present themselves as works of history. Yet the ambiguity introduced from 13th-century romance on through the 15th century undermined the historical foundation such works rest on.
Sturges considers four centuries, two nationalities, and the genres of verse and prose romance, allegory, Breton lay, dit, dream-vision, and frame-story. He convincingly applies his study of medieval literature to issues vital to 20th-century literary theory, issues ranging from the interplay of speech and writing to the reader’s role in the production of meaning.