Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Conquest by Word: The Meeting of Languages in La3amon's Brut

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Conquest by Word: The Meeting of Languages in La3amon's Brut

Article excerpt

La3amon's Brut, in exploring the boundaries between cultures, stands out from its predecessors for its constant interest in the significance of words and names. More so than in any previous telling, the conflict between the Saxons and Britons centres on the use of the Saxon language in Britain. La3amon expands scenes where the Saxons use the unintelligibility of their language to the Britons to their advantage, uses the terms Saxon and Angle deftiy to build momentum towards the transformation of Brut-lond to England, and frames the final takeover in terms of renamings and redefinitions - the Saxon hegemony is both achieved and measured by the influence of their language. It is clear that compared to his precursors llamón has, if not sympathy for the Saxons, a far stronger interest in their language, although Johnson and Wogan-Browne righdy caution, arguing from the trilingualism both of La3amon's sources and of the manuscript context of his finished work, against the "over-simplified view of llamón writing to and for the politically and linguistically oppressed 'English people' of this time".1 It is not English in and of itself that interests him, but the way that the English language functions as a cultural and political indicator within a multilingual context - a situation bearing obvious contemporary relevance in thirteenth-century England.

Typical of La3amon's interests is the iconic scene of Elengest's betrayal of the Britons at Stonehenge. The effectiveness of the Saxon treachery is possible only because Hengest uses a language that is unintelligible to the Britons, who do not know to brace themselves for defence. The phrase "nimeö eoure sexes" ("draw your knives"),2 spoken by Hengest, is present in the Brut tradition as far back as Nennius. In his Historia Brittonum the attack is followed soon by Vortigern's ransom payment of Essex, Sussex, and Middlesex. Wace claims that the suffix -sex in the county names was a reminder of this betrayal: Sussex, Essex and Middlesex were "called '-sex' to commemorate the Treachery of the Knives".3 He adds that the French do not know the word "sexes", while the English ("Engleis") have changed the name for knives "to forget the dishonour committed by their ancestors" (185). La3amon quiedy refutes this view with the firm reminder that the names were assigned "for ban be heo mid cnifent biræueden heom at liue" ("because it was with knives that they deprived them of life", 1. 7678). Whereas elsewhere in the Brut renaming is something done by the invaders to the grief of the Britons, in this case it is the Britons themselves who perform the renaming:

Brut scupten ban londe nomer" for Sæxisce monnen scome. 3 for ban swike-domer bat heo idon hæfden.

(11. 7676-80)

[The Britons "shaped to" that land a name for the shame of Saxish men and for the treachery that they had done.]

In embedding the memory of their betrayal in the landscape, they perpetuate the association between sax and Saxon so that it will never be forgotten that the Saxons inhabit these counties through violence and treachery. The result of La3amon's emphasis on this false etymology is a sense that it was the Saxon language itself which did violence to the Britons.

Preparing the way for Hengest's military victory at Stonehenge are his daughter's linguistic victories within the royal family: wooing Vortigern, then persuading Vortimer of her good intentions so that he will accept the poisoned drink she offers him. In each of the parallel scenes she acts out with father and son, llamón deliberately notes that her use of a language that is foreign to them is the key to her success and their destruction. In her role as wife, Rouwenne enacts a sinister variant on the peace-weaver archetype. Michael Enright, in Cady with a Mead Cup, writes on the meaning of the term freoduwebbe "peace-weaver":

The term is most often applied to women given in marriage in order to secure peace among peoples. …

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