- Constructing ‘England’ in the Fourteenth Century: A Postcolonial Interpretation of Middle English Romance, by Helen Young
This insightful study investigates the at times intimate relationship between the medieval and the postcolonial (and medieval studies and postcolonial studies as academic disciplines), a relationship that shares a distrust of both modernity itself and the dominant historiographical models that emerged in modernity. Young’s study examines seven romance texts: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, St Erkenwald, Bevis of Hampton, Guy of Warwick, Athelston, Wynnere and Wastoure, and Of Arthour and of Merlin (the Anglo-Norman versions of Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton also receive attention). These texts are read in light of the Norman Conquest of Anglo-Saxon England, the need for Norman families to establish themselves in the conquered land, the politics of writing in English or in French, and Young argues that ‘the Anglo-Saxon history of England was being written back into existence through romances such as these [after] Norman historians, such as Orderic Vitalis, represented the Anglo-Saxons as barbaric and lacking a legitimate culture’ (p. 58).
The Introduction discusses postcolonial theory and its imbrication with medieval studies, and briefly introduces the themes in the selected romances. Chapter 1, on Athelston, considers the law as the crucial plot element, noting that the tyrannical king Athelston acts as if the law does not apply to him, whereas the other characters (his sister Edyff and her husband Egeland, and [End Page 298] the noble Alryke) all invoke obedience to a specifically English notion of the law as necessary. The text is set in the Anglo-Saxon past but its treatment of treason may indicate something of its fourteenth-century context, in which ideas of monarchical absolutism, tyranny, and treason were topical, particularly during the reign of Richard II.
Chapter 2 is on Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton, which are similar: ‘both have Anglo-Norman sources, [both] have a diptych structure of repeated exile and return, and [both are] long verse romances’ (p. 99). Young argues that Guy of Warwick addresses family and lineage concerns, and anxiety generated by the Crusades (and deals directly with the image both of ‘the East’ – Greek Christians and Muslims, as well as the Norse – through Guy’s defeat of the Dane Colbrond) current among the fourteenth-century English. Bevis of Hampton also deals with East–West tensions and crusading, and both heroes are redescriptions of Anglo-Saxon warriors as exemplary.
Chapter 3 examines Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, St Erkenwald, and Wynnere and Wastoure in the context of all three being alliterative romances, composed in the late fourteenth or very early fifteenth centuries, that refer to (but are not focused on) the Trojan myth of the origin of the English nation. Gawain contrasts Arthur’s court with the wildness of the Green Knight’s hinterland territory. As Young notes, the Trojan theme links ‘to the poem’s interrogation of centralised control and regional identity’ (p. 188). St Erkenwald employs the Trojan legend to cast the English in a good light. Wynnere and Wastoure presents contradictory images of England: the king and his champion are depicted positively, though the people are ‘tainted by hypocrisy and treachery’ (p. 209).
Chapter 4 considers Of Arthour and of Merlin, which is ‘an unusual romance, because it addresses the origins of the Saxons in Britain’ (p. 213). Elements inviting postcolonial analysis include the lexical shift from Saxons to ‘Sarrazins’, and the concern with illegitimacy and hybridity. It is concluded that these texts, when read through the lens of postcolonial theory, grant insights into ‘the ameliorative power of history’ (p. 252), the valorization of the English past, centralized power and marginal regions and people, and hybridity. Young’s book is well researched, readable, and entertaining, and results in some fresh and innovative interpretations of reasonably well-known texts. It is highly recommended to anyone interested in Middle English literature and in the application of theoretical perspectives to medieval...