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  • Revising Race in Laʒamon’s Brut
  • Jonathan Davis-Secord

The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 led ultimately to radical changes both historically and linguistically, but these changes unfolded only gradually over the following centuries. The English language, although put into temporary political decline by the conquest, remained a living, functioning language, and the validity of a strong disjunction separating Old English and early Middle English has come under question again recently.1 For example, Old English homilies appear in twelfth-century copies, the treatment of which goes far beyond simple reproduction for antiquarian purposes;2 the English annotations added after 1180 to the Anglo-Saxon Illustrated Hexateuch display a fully adequate grasp of an English not too far removed from Old English;3 and the Peterborough Chronicle adds English continuations to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle through the middle of the twelfth century.4 The thirteenth century, [End Page 156] however, brought significant changes in the wake of the Normans’ loss of Continental lands in 1204.5

Before 1204, the Normans had maintained a sense of cultural and even racialized distance between themselves and the “native” inhabitants of Britain, viewing, for example, the Welsh and the Scots as barbaric threats to the English nation.6 In the century after the French King Philip II deprived King John of his Continental territories, that distance and sense of racial division disappeared, and Normans soon began to craft an image of themselves as English.7 Concomitantly, scholars generally describe English at the end of the thirteenth century as “fully” Middle English, while that of the early thirteenth century has been considered still transitional with strong links back to Old English.8 The thirteenth century thus witnessed fundamental changes to both the concept of “Englishness” and the English language itself.

Laʒamon’s Brut, originally composed near the beginning of the thirteenth century but only extant in manuscripts produced in the second half of that century, constitutes an important witness to these linguistic and cultural changes.9 The Brut purports to chronicle the early history of the island of Britain up through the Anglo-Saxon invasion in a manner that is similar in some fashion to Old English literary styles.10 The vagueness [End Page 157] of “in some fashion” and “styles” deliberately recognizes the complexities of the Brut’s relationship to Old English literature and also of debates in the scholarship on the poem. For example, the Brut’s meter certainly resembles that of Old English poetry, but some argue that it could have derived from the late homiletic tradition.11 The situation grows even more complex when one considers the relationship between the two manuscript witnesses of the poem: London, British Library, MSS Cotton Caligula A. ix and Cotton Otho C. xiii. In both manuscripts, the poem generally follows the form and style of rhythmical, alliterative poetry, but Caligula A. ix appears to employ a style more fully reminiscent of Old English discourses than does the other manuscript. That manuscript, Otho C. xiii, contains a version of the poem that lacks many features that scholars generally interpret as constituents of traditional rhythmical-alliterative style, such as compounds, digressions, and rhetorical repetition.12

Compound words in the Brut comprise a particularly important site of investigation in this regard, due to the significant linguistic and cognitive weight of compounds, their prominent place in Old English discourses, and the differing treatments of them in the two versions of the Brut.13 [End Page 158] The Caligula version of the Brut maintains some elements of the reliance on compound words found in Old English, in particular using them to emphasize issues of royalty and the viability of the kingdom. The Otho version of the Brut, in contrast, avoids compounds with relative consistency, specifically lacking words that in the Caligula version emphasize racial division within the developing English nation. Consequently, in this article I present a targeted examination of the two versions’ uses of compounds, demonstrating the continued significance of compound words in both versions but also the Otho version’s interest in avoiding specific compounds in order to suppress the concept of racial division in reaction to political developments in the thirteenth century.14