Academic journal article Arthuriana

Saracens and the Making of English Identity: The Auchinleck Manuscript

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Saracens and the Making of English Identity: The Auchinleck Manuscript

Article excerpt

SIOBHAIN BLY CALKIN, Saracens and the Making of English Identity: the Auchinleck Manuscript. Studies in Medieval History and Culture. New York & London: Routledge, 2005. Pp. xii, 299. isbn: 0-415-97241-8 (cloth), 0-415-80309-8 (pbk). $131 (cloth), $39.95 (pbk).

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. …

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