England the Nation: Language, Literature, and National Identity, 1290-1340

England the Nation: Language, Literature, and National Identity, 1290-1340

England the Nation: Language, Literature, and National Identity, 1290-1340

England the Nation: Language, Literature, and National Identity, 1290-1340

Synopsis

Turville-Petre surveys the wide range of writings by the generation before Chaucer. He explores how English writers in the half-century leading up to the outbreak of the Hundred Years War expressed their concepts of England as a nation, and how they exploited the association between nation, people, and language. The study forms a significant contribution to current debates on nationalism.

Excerpt

At the moment in his Chronicle when Robert Manning leaves his account of the ancient Britons to turn to the story of the English who succeeded them, he writes:

Of Bretons þere leue we to ryme,
And now of Englische wil we telle,
Syn þe Bretons here gan dwelle,
Þat toke þe lond þorow Godes heste.
Þeyr tyme we calle al 'Englische geste';
Al ys cald 'geste Englische'
Þat on þis langage spoken ys. (Part I, 16,694-700)

'Englische geste' is 'English story', that is to say the history of the country from the time of the coming of the English. 'Geste Englische' is 'story in English', the use of the English language to recount that history. Manning's pun turns upon the conjunction between the nation, English history, and the English language. His remark demonstrates a self-consciousness about language and an awareness of the implications of using English. 'Englische geste' and 'geste Englische' are the subject of this book.

Those who write on nationalism commonly argue that it is a modern phenomenon, that no such concept was possible in the Middle Ages, or that even if national feeling did exist, there were fundamental differences between medieval and modern perceptions of the nation. The underlying contention of this book is that it is the similarities between medieval and modern expressions of national identity that are fundamental, and the differences that are peripheral.

Because I attempt to develop an argument throughout the book by drawing on a large number of texts, most of them little known, covering a wide variety of genres, and adopting a diversity of critical approaches, it may be appropriate to outline that argument here. I begin by looking at ways in which writers of the mid- thirteenth century expressed their sense of England as a nation, but did so in Latin or in French. In consequence they found it difficult to convey the concept of the nation constituted by the whole . . .

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