Historical imagination in/and literary consciousness: The afterlife of the Anglo-Saxons in Middle English literature
By Richard Joseph Ellman
Master’s Thesis, University of South Florida, 2009
Abstract: This thesis explores the afterlife and literary presence of the Anglo-Saxons in three literary works from the Middle English period. Middle English writers appropriated classical and French traditions for decidedly English purposes, but relatively few scholars have noted the way in which individuals in the Middle English period (particularly in the fourteenth century) drew upon and (re)constructed an organic English identity or essence emblematized by the Anglo-Saxons. Post-Conquest English men and women did not relate to their Anglo-Saxon forebears in an unproblematic manner; changes in language and culture, precipitated by the Norman Invasion, placed a vast, unwieldy gap between Middle English culture and Anglo-Saxon traditions.
The uneasy relationship between the Middle English period and the Anglo-Saxon period marks Middle English literature’s relationship with Anglo-Saxon precedents as one of negotiation and contestation. Through an examination of Chaucer’s The Man of Law’s Tale, and the anonymous Athelston and St. Erkenwald, I consider the ways in which Middle English writers conceived of their notions of “the past,” and how such associations affected and generated new modes of thought in a relational and, at times, oppositional manner. This thesis explores the anxiety of relating to a past tradition that was recognizably “English” yet profoundly “other,” and I analyze discourses on several distinct (occasionally conflated) “others,” including Jews, Muslims, and “easterners” in order to suggest the trepidation of relating to a past tradition that was uncanny due to a familiarity that was quite unfamiliar. Middle English literature encounters, and, at times, recoils from this difference, and the works which I consider domesticate and make known/knowable the “primitive” Anglo-Saxon past.