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Saracens and the Making of English Identity: the Auchinleck Manuscript (review)

From: Arthuriana
Volume 22, Number 3, Fall 2012
pp. 91-92 | 10.1353/art.2012.0036

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The present entry into the lists of studies about the Saracens undertakes to narrow the focus to fictional Saracens of one particular manuscript in English. Professor Calkin argues that the Auchinleck manuscript, compiled during the 1330s, demonstrates the process of the formation of English vernacular self-consciousness and identity. For this endeavor other representations of other foreigners, Danes and Irish, also designated Saracen, are included as well as the conventional Saracen from the Middle East, all part of the investigation of anxieties aroused by such contact in the formation of national consciousness.

The Aucinlieck manuscript offers romances, for example Sir Orfeo, Sir Degare, Lay le Freine (also retold by Marie de France), saints' lives, and nineteen of the forty-four emphasize that they are written in English, thus appealing to an English audience. These are also romances, a few folk tales, and saints' legends, and aids to personal piety, and 15 texts include Saracens.

The first chapter, entitled 'The Perils of Proximity,' examines the difficulties encountered when the foreigner against whom awareness of English identity must be created is the same, that is, the same knightly culture and social values, the same in the ideas held, the same in skin color, but different in religion. This is the dilemma faced by the arrival of Otuel, a Saracen knight at Charlemagne's court, in the poem bearing his name. He resembles European knights in all but religion until he converts to Christianity in a text stipulating that Charlemagne rules both England and France. This similarity 'points to one of the largest impediments to creating a heightened sense of Englishness during the fourteenth century.' It is religion that defines the difference. Otuel converts, but must establish his resolve when he meets Clarel who refuses to follow suit; Otuel kills Clarel in combat, thus establishing his place among the knights. The opposite is true in Roland and Vernagu. Vernagu the Saracen is the absolute equal of the Christian knights, but refuses to convert, and the angel of the Lord tells Roland that he has permission to kill Vernagu in the ensuing fight. Religion establishes the point of difference in identity. The same is true of Bevis of Hamtoun. The representation of Saracens as the same as the Christian knights in all but religion hampers the attempts to establish real difference between them, as the writer emphasizes. But the dilemma is also religious: the commandment that 'thou shalt not kill' is explicitly put aside so that the Christian slay the Saracen.

In the second chapter, the attempt at establishing Englishness is more complicated by the representation of Josiane, beloved of Bevis of Hamtoun. Here Professor Calkin posits that the foreign princess's troubles reflect historical processes of foreign wives in the English court: Margaret of Anjou was called a 'she-wolf.' The creators of the character Josiane, a Saracen princess, inscribe her with the negative attributes found in the conventional characterization. She does not rule with him in England, and here the discussion about identity falters.

The discussion of The King of Tars provides a detailed analysis of cultural intermingling and the solution once again is assimilation. Cultural intermingling leads to a monstrous outcome, since the product of the Christian's sexual mingling with the black Soudan produces a formless lump of flesh. Upon baptism, the lump becomes a beautiful baby boy. The Soudan, his father, thereupon requests baptism, immediately becoming white. The extensive discussion of the feared results of cultural and religious intermingling is interesting, but the writer does not reveal how assimilation leads to the formation of English self-consciousness, except by erasing foreignness.

The last chapter examines Of Arthour and Of Merlin, where the Saracens, Danes and other Northerners, are expelled by Arthur. But the Welsh claim Arthur for their own. The chapter shows how problematic claims, for racial or cultural purity, equally fictional, can undermine themselves, given the realities of wars and conquests and the sexual drive always complicating such claims.

Copyright © 2012 Arthuriana
Project MUSE® - View Citation
Jacqueline de Weever. "Saracens and the Making of English Identity: the Auchinleck Manuscript (review)." Arthuriana 22.3 (2012): 91-92. Project MUSE. Web. 27 Jan. 2013. <http://muse...

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