09.04.12, Calkin, Saracens and the Making of English Identity

Main Article Content

John Tolan

The Medieval Review baj9928.0904.012


Calkin, Siobhain Bly. Saracens and the Making of English Identity: The Auchinleck Manuscript. Studies in Medieval History and Culture. New York: Routledge, 2005. Pp. xx, 299. ISBN: 978-0-415-97241-8.

Reviewed by:
John Tolan
Université de Nantes

The Auchinleck manuscript (named for one of its former owners), now in the National Library of Scotland, was probably produced in London in the 1330s. It contains forty-four texts in English: romances in verse and in prose, hagiographical legends, didactic and pietistic works, and a variety of other works. The manuscript provides important testimony to the affirmation of English as a language of learning in a variety of areas, though the miscellaneous nature of the texts contained in the codex make broad generalizations difficult. Hence many studies on the manuscript have tended to be specialized: limited to codicology, language, or specific textual genres.

Siobhain Bly Calkin, though not attempting to tackle the manuscript as a whole, addresses the place of Saracens in a variety of texts in the Auchinleck manuscript, primarily in romances. These "Saracens," much like those of the French chanson de geste, bear little resemblance to historical Muslims: they adore a colorful array of idols, including their principal god Mahoun. While some of these Saracens are placed in the Orient, others are geographically much closer to home: pagan Vikings and other historical enemies of the English are labeled as Saracens and hence conflated with more recent Muslim foes of English crusaders. In the various texts from the Auchinleck manuscript that she analyzes, Calkin shows that portrayals of Saracens often reflect preoccupations with rivals closer to home, notably French and Scottish.

Many of the texts in the manuscript are translated or adapted from French texts. In chapter one, "the perils of proximity," Calkin studies six texts all associated with the matière de France of the French chansons de geste, narrating the imaginary adventures of Charlemagne and his knights against various Saracen adversaries. These texts represent the "Englishing" of a very French textual tradition, and this at a time of French-English tensions that would soon lead to the outbreak of the hundred years' war. As in the French texts on which the English romances are based, one finds very diverse images of Saracens, some of whom are portrayed as half-human beasts devoid of any redeeming qualities. Others, on the contrary, are presented as model knights who participate with their Christian counterparts in a sort of brotherhood of universal chivalry, in what Calkin sees as a "class" consciousness that transcends the Christian/Saracen divide (just as it transcended English/French divisions in the fourteenth century). Calkin's intuitions seem on the whole good, though she shows little awareness of earlier work in this area: particularly glaring is the absence in her bibliography of any of the works of Paul Bancourt or Jean Flori.

Chapter two, "Saracens and She-wolves," focuses on Josiane, a Saracen princess in Beves of Hamtoun who falls in love with the Christian knight Beves and subsequently converts to Christianity and marries him. The heroine's exploits include warding off (and killing) unwanted suitors, helping her husband escape from prison, helping him fight off two lions--or rather, offering to help him, for he complains that if she keeps holding down one of the lions he won't be able to brag to his friends that he had killed two lions single-handed. Calkin's idea here is that Josiane is a foreign consort that helps Beves affirm his Englishness. The argument here seems strained, as do parallels to historical foreign consorts, such as Queen Philippa, consort of Edward III. Here again, Calkin shows little awareness of recent work on the subject: notably absent is Valérie Galent-Fasseur's study of the Saracens in the French text (La Tentation sarrasine de Beuve de Hantone, in La Chrétienté au péril sarrasin, Dijon, Université de Provence, 2000, p. 27-39).

Chapter three focuses on the conversion of a Saracen sultan in the King of Tars. This nameless sultan (the text calls him simply "Soudan") lays siege to Christian Damascus out of love for its princess who refuses to marry him. Eventually, she relents in order to bring an end to the bloodshed, goes off with her captor, and at his behest worships Saracen idols and dresses like a Saracen woman. The couple is married and she gives birth to a formless lump of flesh which has no face and no limbs. The Soudan accuses his wife of being responsible for this monstrous birth: she has remained a Christian in her heart. She, on the contrary, puts the blame on her husband's Saracen religion. The Soudan calls in his priests and magicians, who are unable to do anything for the monstrous offspring; the princess calls in a Christian priest, who baptizes the lump of flesh, which immediately turns into a normal healthy boy. The queen then bids her husband to convert, which he does: he is black when enters the baptismal waters, white when he emerges. He then proclaims that his subjects must choose between baptism and death. Calkin does a good job of presenting this text and its story in context, showing how various earlier Latin texts, based ultimately on the Mongol siege of Muslim Damascus, related tales of a monstrous birth and a miraculous conversion (though details differ in the various versions). For Calkin, this story highlights the difficulties of mixed or intermediary identities. The Christian princess indeed feigns to be a Saracen, dresses like one, even practices Saracen idolatry, yet in the end forcefully reasserts her Christian identity and insists that her husband do so as well. The birth of a monstrous lump of unformed flesh shows that no fusion, no common ground is possible between Christians and Saracens.

Chapter four involves the images of Saracen persecutors in the passion texts of saints Catherine and Margaret. Catherine (or Katerine, for Auchinleck) and Margaret (Mergrete) are given appropriately evil pagan persecutors: for Katerine, a Saracen emperor Maxens who swears by his god Mahoun, who offers her riches and glory if she will only worship his idols--he even offers to have a temple built to her when she dies. Calkin tries, with limited success, to affirm that these stereotypical pagan prosecutors would have evoked, to Auchinleck's readers, the Muslim opponents of the crusaders. Indeed, some place names (Antioch, Cyprus) were associated with the crusades, but in order to understand how the image of Saracen paganism was attributed to the fourth-century emperor Maxens, it would have been more fruitful to examine such images in French medieval hagiographical traditions and in English liturgical drama--neither of which Calkin mentions.

The fifth chapter is perhaps the most successful: it concerns the "Englishing" of material from the French Arthurian cycle (Lancelot-Grail cycle, the Vulgate cycle, and the pseudo-Map cycle). True, Calkin suffers here as elsewhere from a regrettable ignorance of recent publications, whether text editions (she still uses Sommer's 1908 edition of L'Estoire du Saint Graal) or of key criticism (she cites neither Amaury Chauou nor Martin Aurell, both of whom have published important recent studies central to the themes at issue here). All the more pity because these works would have allowed her to refine and contextualize what is indeed a very interesting story. Of Arthour and of Merlin relates the tales of its two eponymous heroes. While much of the story will be familiar to readers of the French romances on which the text is based, a prominent place is given to Arthur's epic and endless battles against "Saracen" enemies. Arthur is presented as an English king rather than a Celtic one (this is nothing new, as she would have realized had she read Chauou). What does seem new here is that a wide variety of enemies are lumped together as "Saracens": Saxons, Vikings, Scots, and others. This allows the anonymous author to present Arthur's battles against the Saracens as a courageous defense of a Christian English homeland. This nationalist English twist on the Arthurian legend appears of course at the outset of the hundred year's war. The English have always been English, its enemies have always been Saracens--and the Norman invasion is conveniently forgotten (no doubt the Normans, too French, would have complicated the story too much). When Saracens and English intermingle, the result is nefarious: it is like "maggot-ridden meat." Through violence, English heroes succeed in putting an end to such intermingling and in expelling the Saracens. War against the Saracens unites English knights under Arthur's banner and leads to the clear establishment of English hegemony throughout Britain.

Throughout this study, there are clear and interesting analyses of texts. Together, they comprise an interesting overview of ways in which "Saracens" were perceived by fourteenth-century English authors. Yet Calkin has read too little to be able to put this properly into context. She at times evokes the context of the crusades yet shows little clear understanding of the texts and studies concerning crusades. For example (55), the Intinerarium peregrinorum proclaimed that the fall of the Jerusalem in 1187 had been God's punishment for His people's "immoral behavior, disgraceful lifestyle, and foul vices." For Calkin, this means that "residents of the crusader kingdoms forgot their (western) Christian origins," that they had gotten "too close to Saracens." In fact nothing of the sort is implied: this is rather a standard invocation of military loss as God's punishment for sin. This is indicative of a broader problem. While in chapter five the argument for the role of Saracens in the affirmation of English identity is cogent and convincing, elsewhere the argument is strained. The book reads like a dissertation, and Calkin has not taken the necessary time between dissertation and publication to read broadly and deepen her understanding of the historical and literary contexts in which these texts were written.

Article Details

Author Biography

John Tolan

Université de Nantes