The quest for collective identity in the Middle English Charlemagne Romances
This project examines the Middle English Charlemagne Romances, a scattered group of nine metrical romances from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in the sociocultural context of late medieval England’s growing perception of nationhood. I argue that these romances employ the complicated figures of Islamic Saracens as symbols of perceived threats to unity. Just as the Saracens of the Chanson de Roland and crusade literature present dangers to the wholeness of Christendom, the Saracens of the Middle English material provide vehicles to indicate some threat to the developing sense of English collective identity in the later Middle Ages. No mere cultural bogeymen, the Saracens of these romances embody English anxieties that their historical circumstances may not allow them to achieve collectivity by way of the traditional categories that define group identity. I ground my readings of the romances in the history of late medieval England, drawing on psychoanalytic approaches to identity and theories of nation both medieval and modern, and I organize my chapters around the definitions of group identity put forth by Robert Bartlett: in the Middle Ages, concepts of racial and ethnic identity, and, by extension, national identity, were determined by shared language, law, and blood. Ultimately, I problematize Bartlett’s categorizations by considering the difficulties of including women and workers into an idealized collective identity.
British and Irish literature
0593: British and Irish literature