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  • Sir Orfeo and English Identity
  • Dominique Battles

Scholars have long noted how the abduction of Queen Heurodis in the Middle English Sir Orfeo is as much, if not more, a political crime as a personal one, and how the loss of Heurodis very quickly turns into the loss of a kingdom.1 The nature of the crime attests to this. Rather than taking her outright, the Fairy King approaches Heurodis in the orchard, takes her against her will on a tour of his kingdom, then returns her to the orchard, only to then steal her again the next day. The intervening time turns what would have been a private act (i.e. an abduction/rape) into a public and political act, as Heurodis reports to King Orfeo on the extent of the Fairy King's holdings, his "palays … castels & tours, / Riuers, forestes … / & his riche stedes ichon" (lines 157–61), and as Orfeo assembles an army into a defensive maneuver.2 Orfeo's failure the next day to protect the queen becomes, therefore, not simply a personal loss but a military defeat of sorts, witnessed by hundreds of fighting men, to a foe whose land holdings, as far as we can tell, outclass Orfeo's own. The invasion of Orfeo's realm, the failure of his forces, and the subsequent exile of the king himself clearly mirror the storyline of political conquest. In this article, I explore how the land holdings, castles, and military strategies surrounding this crime, among other aspects of the poem, to some extent cast the central conflict between Orfeo and the Fairy King in cultural terms that suggest an [End Page 179] awareness of racial difference between Anglo-Saxon and Norman long after the Conquest.

In order to explore the Anglo-Saxon aspect of Sir Orfeo, it is necessary to establish that as late as the early fourteenth century, when Sir Orfeo was written, an awareness of ethnic difference between the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons prevailed. While the French influence on English society and literature in the post-Conquest period remains indisputable, recent studies have argued for the persistence of Anglo-Saxon cultural identity well beyond the Conquest. Nick Webber, for instance, explores how the inescapable cultural conflict that resulted from the Conquest served to solidify and polarize English and Norman identities, from both perspectives, throughout the colonial period.3 Hugh M. Thomas explores several important texts that uphold English honor against the backdrop of rampant prejudice against the English as rustic, militarily inept, and incompetent.4 (Of course, the Normans more or less created this model of Englishman by killing off most of the native English aristocracy.) The subject of ongoing English resistance to Norman dominance is a growing area of study, chiefly among historians, and one that holds important implications for literary scholarship of the Middle English period.

A select body of scholarship has begun to explore the survival and expression of this "Englishness" in post-Conquest English literature. Thorlac Turville-Petre has written extensively on the survival and assertion of an English (i.e. Anglo-Saxon) national identity in opposition to the Norman, and earlier Danish, invaders in a host of literary, as well as historical, texts and manuscripts.5 His study of the famous Auchinleck manuscript, which preserves the earliest and best version of Sir Orfeo, demonstrates just how pervasive native English identity could still be, even as late as the early fourteenth century.6 Mark Amodio's recent study argues that Anglo-Saxon poetry did not, in fact, die with the Norman Conquest. Instead, it went underground, from which it resurfaces [End Page 180] in the Middle English period in the form of themes (e.g. exile) and story patterns (e.g. the return song) that appear in Sir Orfeo.7 Most recently, Robert Allen Rouse explores the survival and proliferation of the memory of Anglo-Saxon England in the romances of the fourteenth century. Examining the Matter of England romances, among other texts, Rouse explores how English identity is negotiated, revised, but nevertheless preserved well beyond the Conquest. He argues that "the Anglo-Saxon past, far from being marginal to post-conquest English culture, occupied an important role within the...


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