Race and Ethnicity: Saracens and Jews in Middle English Literature

Race and Ethnicity: Saracens and Jews in Middle English Literature
An Annotated Bibliography for Teachers

Ashley R. Conklin

University of Rochester

In modern contexts, race is often considered to be solely biological; a person’s race is determined by his or her appearance, markers like skin and hair color, facial features, etc. We also tend to assume that race is a fairly recent invention, born of modern political and economic structures and “the Enlightenment and its spawn of racial technologies describing body and nature through pseudoscientific discourses pivoting on biology as the ground of essence, reference, and definition.”1 This sort of exploitative and scientific language does not appear in premodern writings; therefore, race was once considered anachronistic when applied to the Middle Ages.

This position has undergone serious revision in the past twenty or so years, due to work by scholars such as Thomas Hahn, Geraldine Heng, Lisa Lampert, and many others. Recently, two Middle English handbooks have even included specific chapters on race.2 All of these critical works have shown that race existed in the Middle Ages in a variety of complicated and imbricated ways, ways that still have meaning for us as modern scholars and people.3 Cord J. Whitaker eloquently states what is at stake in racial discussions of the Middle Ages—and also what is at stake in ignoring these discussions—in his introduction to a special issue of postmedieval:

To be black is to be other to the European Middle Ages, and this fact has had major implications for the construction of modernity and the place of race in it. It is but a short hop from imagining blackness as other in the Middle Ages to imagining it as absent in the period altogether. If blackness is not present in the European Middle Ages, then the evidence of black people’s abiding presence in modernity…means that they must be exclusively modern….In other words, denying blacks medieval coevalness allows Euro-centric cultures to relegate modern blacks to a strictly modern status in which their history appears to be without the authorizing length and depth available to whites.4

Failure to acknowledge the multifaceted nature of race in the Middle Ages—and for this bibliography, medieval England, specifically—places blackness at the outskirts of European history and has the potential to silence non-white voices entirely. By implying that only certain voices are relevant, this historical erasure can carry over into the modern classroom, silencing students and instructors. This bibliography attempts to highlight a limited cross-section of diversity in Middle English literature by examining Jewish and Saracen figures and modern critical responses to them.

In choosing to use the modern term “race” throughout this bibliography, I am not suggesting that modern conceptions of race are interchangeable with those present in medieval England. But although the strict black-white binary seen in antebellum racial rhetoric is not applicable to medieval race, color does signify in a variety of ways. In Christianity, blackness frequently denotes sinfulness and whiteness indicates purity.5 Colors can also have class associations; for example, white and red are attributes ascribed to the nobility, whereas brown is a descriptor for lower class figures. Color and other biological markers are attached to groups of people in ways that might initially seem unfamiliar to modern readers but in ways that signify racial differentiation.

In the Middle Ages, race is as much determined by culture and religion as by biology.6 The figures in this study are “othered” by medieval English authors as much for their non-Christian religion as for their appearance. The connection between religious and racial othering might sound strange to modern readers, whose identities are often less determined by religion than secular factors. However, religion and race seem especially relevant post 9/11. Geraldine Heng astutely points out:

Definitions of race in practice today at airport security checkpoints, in the news media, and in public political discourse flaunt ethnoracial categories decided on the basis of religious identity (‘Muslims’ being grouped into a de facto race), national or geopolitical origin (‘Middle Easterners’), or membership in a linguistic community (Arab-speakers standing in for Arabs—Arabs themselves, in Census 2000, not having been imagined yet as a race).7

These sorts of religious, geographical, and cultural distinctions are present throughout Middle English constructions of race. Perhaps our modern perceptions of race are not as advanced as we would like to think.

This bibliography attempts to give a representative, though far from exhaustive, look at racial and ethnic constructions of Saracens and Jews in Middle English literature. It is important to keep in mind that these texts are all written for a medieval English audience; therefore the default perspective of these texts is that of an English Christian. This means that Saracens and Jews are generally figures representing a multiplicity of meanings that help create an identity for the “normative” Christian-English body in a way that is perhaps not unlike the way blackness creates meaning for whiteness in Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark.8 These figures often serve as foils to Christian heroes. Therefore Saracens and Jews frequently embody negative characteristics and stereotypes to offset the virtues of the English hero. These depictions are often wildly inaccurate and occasionally conflated; for example, both Saracens and Jews can be seen worshipping pagan deities such as Apollyon or Termagant with some regularity.

The bibliography is split into three parts:

  • Part One begins with an overall Critical Background of general racial discourses in medieval Europe as a whole rather than focusing solely on England.
  • Part Two is about Saracen figures. This part begins with general conceptions of what it means to be Saracen from a medieval English perspective before breaking into smaller subsections organized by narrative types. Each subsection is divided into primary and secondary texts.
  • Part Three is about Jewish figures and is organized in the same manner as Part Two.

Part One: Critical Background

These texts assume that racial ideas in England are developing in conjunction with those in Europe, rather than in isolation. Texts that focus on England alone can be found under relevant subheadings.

Auslander, Diane. “Race and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages.” In Handbook of Medieval Studies: Terms, Methods, Trends. Vol. 2., edited by Albrecht Classen, 1155-70. New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2010.

This three-volume handbook is an excellent resource for a variety of recent topics in medieval studies. Auslander’s entry is especially useful for instructors and students who are considering medieval race and ethnicity for the first time. Her article examines the controversies of — and highlights — recent work in applying race and ethnicity to medieval literature. Auslander begins by defining race and ethnicity and the overlaps between these two terms. Although Auslander discusses race within the Middle Ages as a whole, there is a specific section dedicated solely to the British Isles, as well as a brief selection of resources for further reading.

Bartlett, Robert. “Chapter 8: Race Relations on the Frontiers of Latin Europe (1): Language and Law” and “Chapter 9: Race Relations on the Frontiers of Latin Europe (2): Power and Blood.” In The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization, and Cultural Change 950-1350, 197-220 and 221-42. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993.

These chapters provide a straightforward overview of the historical development of race in Europe. Chapter 8 looks at earlier medieval constructions of race as primarily cultural. Bartlett states that “customs, language, and law…[are] the primary badges of ethnicity” (197) rather than the biological component present in modern definitions of race. Bartlett identifies ethnic laws as a place where premodern racial differentiation can be seen. Different cultural parties, often identified as such by the languages they spoke, were subject to different sets of laws; this type of differentiation did not necessarily punish minorities but it does signal legal differences based solely upon cultural differences, which Bartlett identifies as racial.

In Chapter 9, Bartlett traces the development of a more biological definition of race in the 14th century through evidence of increased anxiety about foreign blood. For example, Bartlett identifies foreigners in the church and foreign bloodlines appearing in royal dynasties as particular places where racial anxiety crops up. These chapters give historical context for the development of race throughout the late Middle Ages, when most of the literature from this bibliography was written.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Many of the Saracens encountered within Middle English texts are giants, so an academic source that deals with the problem of giants and monsters within medieval texts is useful to have on hand. These creatures are also a source of student engagement, and I can imagine lively discussions sparked from asking: What does it mean that this character is both a Saracen and a giant? Which of his characteristics align with being a giant and which with a Saracen? Is it even possible to separate them? Cohen’s criticism is not solely focused upon Middle English literature; he includes discussions of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and French texts as well in his examination of giants. Cohen’s monograph provides an excellent theoretical overview of the giant in relation to many texts that appear in this bibliography and other canonical medieval works. His “methodology combines psychoanalysis with several schools of postmodern identity theory” (xvi), which could sound intimidating to students, but the book is readable for a variety of levels and, moreover, is made enjoyable to read by its subject matter and clear prose. The organization of the book is especially student-friendly; the chapters, which deal with specific themes like “Body, Nation, Family” in Chapter 2, are all subdivided into more detailed topics so it will be easy for students or instructors to excerpt relevant passages.

—. “Race.” In A Handbook of Middle English Studies, edited by Marion Turner, 109-23. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2013.

This handbook focuses on theoretical developments in studies of Middle English, and, as such, is an excellent resource for students and instructors of Middle English literature. The handbook is divided into three conceptual sections: Selfhood and Community; Constructing Texts, Constructing Textual History; Politics and Places. In the chapter on race, Cohen defines and unpacks the complexities of race and ethnicity, highlighting the trends and divides in recent scholarship on the topic of race. In addition to contemporary scholarship, Cohen also discusses racialized moments in medieval literary and scientific texts.

Hahn, Thomas, ed. Special Issue “Race and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages.” The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31, no. 1 (2001).

This special issue of JMEMS examines different facets of medieval race in conjunction with a variety of medieval texts. Thomas Hahn’s introductory essay is especially good at detailing the signification of color in the Middle Ages. While all of the articles are of interest to those studying race in the medieval period, articles that focus primarily on English texts are:

  • Thomas Hahn. “The Difference the Middle Ages Makes: Color and Race before the Modern World,” 1-38.
  • Robert Bartlett. “Medieval and Modern Concepts of Race and Ethnicity,” 39-56.
  • Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. “On Saracen Enjoyment: Some Fantasies of Race in Late Medieval France and England,” 113-46.
  • Linda Lomperis. “Medieval Travel Writing and the Question of Race,” 147-64.
  • William Chester Jordan. “Why ‘Race’?” 165-74.

I have included William Chester Jordan’s concluding response to the essays because it opens up new lines of inquiry that, even 15 years after the initial publication, still deserve answers. His preference for the term “ethnic identity” and his questioning of the usefulness of race as a fixed category certainly anticipated new conceptions of race and of the malleability of race in Medieval Studies.

Heng, Geraldine. “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages I: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages.” In Literature Compass 8, no. 5 (2011): 258-274 and “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages II: Locations of Medieval Race.” In Literature Compass 8, no. 5 (2011): 332-350.

The first part of this two-part article identifies the medieval period as a generally ignored gap in racial theory. This oversight is due to the lack of what modern scholars consider racial language as well as an absence of the political and economic exploitation and the Enlightenment-based biological designations typically associated with modern racism. Heng also gives an excellent overview of the recent racial work medievalists have done, citing two main groups: those who identify race as a bodily designation and those who identify race as a cultural demarcation. Heng ultimately wants a definition of race that encompasses its mutability; she wants to see race not as a stable definition across time but as a process through which human difference—bodily, cultural, religious, economic, etc.—is the means for assigning hierarchy. Human privilege is based on how we read and assign value to these differences, and the emphasis on various aspects of human difference will shift over time.

This article does an excellent job of setting up the discourse surrounding racial theory and how it relates to Medieval Studies. At times, Heng’s diction and sentence structure can become difficult for students to follow, but for the most part her explanations and justifications for articulating race are quite clear. This article is an excellent resource for boiling down the historical trajectory and major issues when studying race in the medieval period.

Part 2 of the essay expands upon her exploration of race by identifying specific instances of race-creation during the Middle Ages. She looks at Lateran IV dress and conduct laws and popular libel stories as a means through which Jewishness is turned into a racial designation. Heng states that non-Christians are differentiated not only spiritually but also biologically and geographically. Since Heng wants to emphasize the multivarious and interconnected aspects of medieval race without giving precedence to color, she leaves her discussion of skin color until toward the conclusion of her essay. This shift in priorities makes this article especially useful with students who likely expect the opposite. These two essays can be used in tandem or separately depending on individual class needs.

Whitaker, Cord J., ed. Special Issue “Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages.” Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies 6, no. 1 (2015).

This issue explores current issues and concerns in medieval race studies. Cord Whitaker’s introduction is of particular interest to instructors faced with students who question the relevancy of studying race in the Middle Ages or who believe that Europe in the medieval period was entirely white. The articles that focus primarily on Middle English texts are:

  • Cord J. Whitaker. “Race-ing the Dragon: the Middle Ages, Race and Trippin’ into the Future,” 3-11.
  • Randy P. Schiff. “On Firm Carthaginian Ground: Ethnic Boundary Fluidity and Chaucer’s Dido,” 23-35.
  • Asa Simon Mittman. “Are the ‘Monstrous Races’ Races?” 36-51.
  • Jamie Friedman. “Making Whiteness Matter: The King of Tars,” 52-63.

Part Two: Saracens

The primary definition of Saracen according to the Middle English Dictionary is “(a) a Turk; also, an Arab; also, a Moslem;—often with ref. to the Crusades,” but it may also mean “(b) a heathen, pagan; an infidel” more generally, or “(e) one of the pagan invaders of England, esp. a Dane or Saxon.”9 All of these definitions appear in the literature in this bibliography, though the most frequent occurrence seems to be in specific reference to Muslims. This specificity is undoubtedly because Saracens appear most frequently in conjunction with crusading, whether in a text that might be categorized wholly as crusade literature or in a romance more focused on a specific hero who then travels to the Holy Land as part of his chivalric journey.

As fictional representations of a potentially real Islamic threat, Saracens are depicted as enemies of the Christian hero and, more generally, Christendom. These Saracens represent a territorial and religious danger to Europe. As such, they are often depicted as stock romance villains motivated by an uncomplicated need to conquer and kill Christians. One purpose of these stories is likely to imagine a supreme and unconquerable Christendom at a time when the Ottoman Empire was demonstrating military superiority over the West.10

Despite being based upon real figures, the Saracens of Middle English literature are a far cry from accurate representations of Muslim beliefs. They are almost always idolaters, worshipping a variety of pagan deities, and occasionally writers even seem to conflate Saracen beliefs with those held by Jews. These figures demonstrate beliefs that the medieval English may have held about Muslims, or at least meanings that the medieval English associated with Saracens, rather than any indication of what Islam looked like during this time period.

Akbari, Suzanne Conklin. Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100-1450. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009.

In this monograph, Akbari engages with the discourse of medieval Orientalism. Like many of the texts from the Critical Background section, this book includes England under a broader Western European heading rather than considering racial developments in isolation. Akbari investigates the nature of Orientalism as a modern phenomenon and how it can be adapted for a premodern context. Akbari’s book engages with a multifaceted racial discourse that effectively explains how components, such as geography, factor into a medieval Christian understanding of race and how all of the components relate. The organization of chapters into discrete aspects of race allows students to focus on a particular interest, such as the Saracen body, with the understanding that physical appearance is only a single piece of a larger, more complicated conception of race.

The introduction can be difficult for students to follow, as it lays out her methodology for examining the relationship between Orientalism, Michel Foucault, and medieval discourse. While of interest to more advanced scholars who might want to see how she skillfully navigates the problems of anachronism, it might be a bit beyond the purview of students who lack a background in Edward Said or Foucault. However, there are other chapters in this text that are worth mentioning for classroom applications.

Chapter 1 is of particular interest to students and useful in dispelling common assumptions about medieval conceptions of the world. This chapter shows how religion, science, and geography overlap in various ways so that these different categories of thinking about race can never be wholly isolated from the others. Akbari identifies geography as a hierarchizing force; essentially, medieval maps and encyclopedias are a means of ordering the world according to a natural and Christian hierarchy. Medieval geography is intimately related to race, since climate is seen as a cause for specific racial traits. This geography of race provides context to many Middle English texts that take place in non-European places, such as crusading texts, where English knights travel to eastern locations. Mappaemundi can help students see how the medieval world was ordered according to geography and race and are also always potential hotspots of multimedia engagement with medieval resources. The latter part of this chapter focuses on The Book of John Mandeville and its more “even-handed, tolerant view of Islam” (54) than seen in many texts.

Chapter 3 focuses specifically on the Jews from a medieval Christian perspective and, like earlier chapters, connects geography and the body to the question of race. This chapter initiates a discussion of “ethnic and religious difference” (114); the distinction between Christian and Jewish races is grounded in both a difference in beliefs and imagined physical differences in the body. This approach to race as spiritual and bodily continues with Saracen bodies in Chapter 4.

Metlitzki, Dorothee. The Matter of Araby in Medieval England. New Haven: Yale UP, 1977.

Though an older text, this is a foundational resource for those interested in intersections of Arabic and English cultures. The book is divided into two parts: “Scientific and Philosophical Learning” and “The Literary Heritage.” The first part provides cultural and historical context for Arabic influences in medieval England, and the second part is a literary criticism of Middle English texts. The dual trajectory provides students and instructors a well-rounded, foundational text. Of particular interest is the chapter entitled “History and Romance,” which deals with many of the themes present in this bibliography, such as Saracen giants and converted Saracens.

Constance Narratives

In the Constance Narrative tradition, a woman’s “constancy” and Christian faith is tested by a series of misfortunes. These narratives tend to have a repeated plot-device: twice, she is cast out to sea in a rudderless boat with no provisions, so that her survival becomes wholly dependent upon divine will. Constance is a figure innocent of any crime, but she is cast out under suspicion of sexual misconduct. Most commonly, Constance’s jealous mother-in-law falsely accuses her of birthing a monstrous child or Constance’s father attempts to initiate an incestuous relationship. She is then set adrift by her accuser. At the conclusion of the romance, usually through a series of recognitions, the entire family is reunited, all sexual threats are eliminated, and the wicked mother-in-law is discovered and punished. These tales are often read as somewhat hagiographical because Constance’s faith remains unshaken throughout her suffering and she is protected on her sea voyages through divine intervention.11 Saracens frequently appear in these stories, as Constance’s first marriage is often to a Sultan.

Primary Sources

Anonymous. Emaré. In The Middle English Breton Lays, edited by Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, 145-84. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001.

Emaré is a Breton Lay that exists in a single manuscript from the 15th century, Cotton Caligula A.ii. From the dialect it appears that Emaré was likely written in the late 14th century. In this Breton Lay, the titular character is a Constance-figure. Like most Constance-figures, she is cast out in a boat twice, the first time because she refuses to submit to her father’s incestuous desires and the second time through the jealousy of her mother-in-law who falsely accuses her of giving birth to a monster. Emaré is sustained on these journeys through divine will, and eventually the family is fully reunited.

There are few Saracen figures in this tale. Emaré’s husband leaves her to aid the King of France against the Saracens, which allows the mother-in-law to get rid of Emaré, but the most interesting mention of Saracens is in conjunction with the beautiful garment that Emaré wears. This has been an item of critical debate, and editors Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury give an excellent overview of this in their introduction to this lay (pp. 149-50). In short, the robe was made by an Emir’s daughter for her lover, the son of a Sultan, and when Emaré wears the robe her beauty becomes unearthly. The debate about the garment’s function—is it magical, is it a sign of female sexuality—could add another facet to the discussion of race and associations of the east with exoticism even when there are no apparent Saracen characters within a poem.

Anonymous. The King of Tars, edited by John H. Chandler. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2015.

According to John Chandler’s introduction to his edition, The King of Tars is “an early variant of the Constance tale” (1). This romance exists in three manuscripts, the oldest of which is the Auchinleck MS, dated from the 1330s, which is the source for this edition. The source for this romance is unknown. Unlike other versions of the Constance narrative, this Christian princess actively chooses to marry the Sultan of Damas as a means of stopping the war between their two kingdoms. Also unlike Constance, this princess pretends to convert to Islam. The Sultan discovers the falseness of her conversion when she gives birth to a monstrous, formless child. The princess and the Sultan each try to cure the child through their respective faiths. When the baby is baptized, he is granted human form, and when the Sultan converts to Christianity, his black skin turns white.

While the romance is ostensibly about the transformational power of faith and baptism, the undesirability of non-Christians and what ultimately requires transformation is coded as racial. Physical differences and religion are inextricably mingled in this text; in many ways the physical exterior, whether the Sultan’s darker skin or the baby’s monstrous form, are what reveal this spiritual lack. The Sultan and his child become not only Christian but European Christians; they are both converted and physically altered. Race is intensely malleable in this story, and students will be able to question what is being said about interreligious, interracial marriage with such dramatic transformations.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Man of Law’s Tale.” In The Riverside Chaucer, Third Edition, edited by Larry Benson, 87-104. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

“The Man of Law’s Tale” from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is one of the most famous Constance exemplars. The Canterbury Tales survive in 82 different manuscripts. The Riverside edition is based primarily on the Ellesmere manuscript, with variants from Hengwrt 154 included. Both Chaucer and John Gower used Nicholas Trevet’s Anglo-Norman Les Cronicles (c. 1334) as a source for their respective Constance narratives. It is generally believed that Gower wrote his edition first and that Chaucer was influenced by Gower in his authorship of this tale.

In this tale, the Sultan of Syria becomes so enamored of Constance’s beauty and piety that he wants to marry her and agrees to convert from Islam to Christianity. His mother, the Sultaness, is angry that her son plans to convert their entire nation and kills him and all of the Christians on the day of his wedding. Constance is set adrift in a boat. Eventually, through the grace of God, she makes her way to the shores of Northumbria in pagan Britain. She ends up marrying King Alla, then is set adrift yet again by a wicked mother-in-law; this time she is falsely accused of bearing two monstrous children. God guides Constance back to Rome, where there is a recognition scene and reunion with her husband. He dies shortly after they are reunited, and she returns to Rome for the remainder of her holy life.

In addition to the ultimate message of perseverance and continued faith in God, this story also uses common stereotypes of the uncivilized pagan Other, primarily through the repeated trope of the wicked, non-Christian mother-in-law. The Sultan’s mother is the instigator of not only Constance’s exile by ship, but also the murder of her own son and the other Christians. A mother who can kill her own son seems particularly unnatural, and her motives are entirely caught up with her identity as a Saracen. She riles up the local lords by telling them that their beliefs and identities will be stripped from them (ll. 337-43). The Sultaness is a sharp contrast to the meek and accepting figure of Constance, who is equally unhappy with marrying the Sultan and traveling to non-Christian lands. Constance is eventually redeemed because she remains faithful throughout her trials and trusts in God.

This narrative relates a fairly typical and flat representation of both the Saracen figures and Constance. Constance is wholly defined by her unshakeable faith and loyalty, and the Saracens are presented as faithless, disloyal, and even murderous. Although the pagan people Constance encounters in Britain are similarly misguided and occasionally malignant, most are actually quite kind to Constance. Perhaps this differing characterization of pagan peoples is due to location: pre-Christian Britain rather than a seat of Islamic power. In the case of the people of Syria, most only pretend to convert and actually intend malice toward Constance and the other Christians, including the newly-converted Sultan.

Gower, John. “Tale of Constance.” In Confessio Amantis, Vol. 2, Second Edition, edited by Russell A. Peck, 49-71. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2013.

Gower’s Confessio Amantis survives in three versions in forty-nine different manuscripts, composed between 1386 and 1392. Russell Peck’s edition of the poem uses Fairfax 3 as the base manuscript and is an example of the 3rd variation, or recension, of the poem. Both Gower and Chaucer used Nicholas Trevet’s Anglo-Norman Les Cronicles (c. 1334) as a source for their respective Constance narratives. It is generally believed that Chaucer was influenced by Gower in his authorship of this tale.

This tale appears in Book 2 of Gower’s eight-book Confessio Amantis. This long poem is a collection of classical and medieval stories that were compiled to be both instructional and entertaining. “The Tale of Constance” is grouped with tales demonstrating envy; in particular, it is meant to instruct the reader about Detraction, or the ills of rumor. The plots of Chaucer’s and Gower’s Constance narratives are very similar, but Gower emphasizes envy as the main motivator for the treasonous actions of Constance’s two mothers-in-law.

In this tale, the Saracens play a fairly minor role. Constance marries the Sultan of “Barbarie” [heathendom] (2.599) in order to forge a peace between Rome and the East. When this alliance is made, the Sultan sends twelve noble hostages back to Rome as a sign of good faith, and the Pope wants Constance to go in order to convert the Saracens. As in Chaucer, conversion and assimilation of the pagan East seems to be a primary motivator of this marriage. However, unlike the character in Chaucer’s tale, the Sultan’s mother decides to massacre the Christians and her son because of envy rather than because of the religious and cultural threat that Constance poses. The Sultaness states: “myn astat shal so be lassed” [my own estate shall so be lessened] (2.649); her own position in the court will be lessened by the marriage to Constance, so her attack seems more about her personal status than that of her people. Because this tale is so similar to that of Chaucer’s, these could pair well together in a classroom discussion, perhaps concerning different uses of Saracen figures by two authors who are telling essentially the same story.

Secondary Sources

Calkin, Siobhain Bly. “Marking Religion on the Body: Saracens, Categorization, and ‘The King of Tars.’ In The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 104, no. 2 (2005): 219-38.

Calkin’s article argues that in The King of Tars, the Sultan’s change from black to white with his conversion is a recuperative fantasy about how easily one can read identity through appearance; the transformation is a solution to the “horror of integration and miscegenation” that occurs through misreading identity in the poem (221). Calkin emphasizes how Muslim and Christian biological and religious identity becomes blurred through the marriage of the Eastern Sultan and the Western princess. The danger of this intermingling climaxes in the birth of the monstrous child; when religious and biological borders are crossed, the outcome is monstrous. The ending of the romance resolves this conflict by transforming the Sultan and child into European-looking Christians. In this way, the romance seems to be presenting a fantasy in which appearance is actually reality; one can tell a person’s identity merely by looking at them. This article puts the relationship of religion and race into clear focus and presents these complex ideas in clear and precise terms.

Heffernan, Carol F. “Mercantilism and Faith in the Medieval Eastern Mediterranean: Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale, Boccaccio’s Decameron 5, 2, and Gower’s Tale of Constance.” In The Orient in Chaucer and Medieval Romance, 23-44. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003.

The religious aspects of the “Man of Law’s Tale” generally take precedence over mercantile aspects in critical scholarship. Heffernan considers the little-investigated mercantilism present in these tales as a means of “consideration of the differing responses to and representations of the Eastern Islamic world by their three authors” (23). Heffernan discusses the relationship between three analogues of the Constance tale, all of which take place in an Italian and eastern-reaching setting, though the two English versions are much more closely related than that of Boccaccio. She argues that Chaucer’s emphasis on the merchants as a means through which goods and tales are transmitted between Christians and Muslims underlines concerns with trade and travel in the Mediterranean. Constance’s travels are productive in another way; her profits are religious, in that she converts those she encounters throughout her journeys. In Gower’s tale, Heffernan argues, the relationship between religion and mercantilism is especially close; Constance converts the visiting Muslim merchants through “a fine mix of Christianity and commerce” (41) rather than the love of Constance’s virtues that seems to convert the Sultan in Chaucer’s tale. As a result, Gower’s Constance seems inadvertently worldly in a way that Chaucer’s Constance is not. This essay is useful for students or instructors who are interested in how comparisons of the analogues reveal differences in East-West relationships and overall thematic concerns.

Jamison, Carol. “John Gower’s Shaping of ‘The Tale of Constance’ as an Exemplum contra Envy.” In Sin in Medieval and Early Modern Culture: The Tradition of the Seven Deadly Sins, edited by Richard G. Newhauser and Susan J. Ridyard, 239-59. Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2012.

Jamison compares the differences between the Constance narratives of Gower, Nicholas Trivet, and Chaucer, in order to demonstrate that Gower’s Constance embodies the virtue of charity, which serves as an opposition to the sin of envy. Jamison claims that, in contrast to the moral exemplum provided by Gower, Trivet writes a history, and Chaucer writes a sort of “secular saint’s life” (239). Although race is not a primary aspect of this article—and rarely is in Gower criticism—this article discusses the Sultaness, the pagan knight, and mother-in-law from Britain, especially in relation to their positions as figures representing envy as opposed to Constance’s charity.

Schibanoff, Susan. “Worlds Apart: Orientalism, Antifeminism, and Heresy in Chaucer’s ‘Man of Law’s Tale.’” In Chaucer’s Cultural Geography, edited by Kathryn L. Lynch, 248-80. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Schibanoff argues that the Man of Law is hostile to both women and Muslims, constructing them as others against which the male Christian audience is meant to define itself as a unified whole. According to Schibanoff, “The Man of Law’s overriding aim…is to preserve and enhance such difference—between women and men, East and West, Islam and Christianity, ultimately between western patriarchal culture and the Other” (250). The threat of the other is its proximity, and the Man of Law seeks to deny this proximity through his narrative. Schibanoff’s essay discusses heresy in relation to medieval conceptions of Islam, as well as some of the sources and analogues of the Constance narrative, which can help to round out classroom discussions of the tale.

Schildgen, Brenda Deen. “‘Hethenesse’ in the Canterbury Tales: Christian versus Islamic and Pagan Space in the ‘Man of Law’s Tale.’” In Pagans, Tartars, Moslems, and Jews in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, 48-68. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2001.

Schildgen describes the “Man of Law’s Tale” as a “political allegory that draws rigid lines and hardens the spatial oppositions between Islam and Christianity and between pagans and Christians” (49). The boundaries enforced by this tale separate and define the Christians in opposition to other places and religions. Constance traverses these boundaries with varying success. Rome’s attempt to convert the Syrians through marriage briefly seems like it will override cultural differences and extend Christian space and power, but it is a failed experiment; the slaughter of the Christian converts reinscribes the border between East and West and expels Christian authority. The Britons, in contrast, are an example of successful conversion, which broadens the borders of Christendom and underscores the firmness of the boundary between Christianity and Islam. This essay highlights the representations of difference in the “Man of Law’s Tale.”

Whitaker, Cord J. “Black Metaphors in the King of Tars.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 112, no. 2 (2013): 169-93.

Whitaker studies how skin color is employed in the spiritual discourse of King of Tars. Whitaker begins by using Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark to create a foundation for black skin color as a metaphor; though Morrison discusses post-nineteenth-century meanings, Whitaker argues that racial metaphors were employed in the medieval period as well, and like the modern reader, the medieval reader uses these metaphors to create spiritual understanding. This article not only provides an excellent analysis of the function of black skin in King of Tars, but also contextualizes this analysis by citing examples in which blackness is utilized by Christian texts as a means of exploring or understanding Christian spirituality. Through the figure of the Sultan and the black hound who speaks to the Christian princess, Whitaker argues that both whiteness and blackness are revealed as inherent in Christianity. This is opposed to usual critical interpretations in which blackness is associated with non-Christianity and whiteness with Christianity. In Whitaker’s view, the Sultan, rather than being a figure for Otherness, is a metaphor for the mix of sinfulness and purity present in the Christian self.

The Converted Saracen

There are two types of converted Saracens that typically appear in Middle English romance. The first is a male Saracen, a knight, who is praised for his prowess; he is frequently described as the best of knights—except that he’s Saracen. The Saracen knight fights the hero of the romance, is defeated by him, and converts to Christianity because he suddenly understands the true power of God and that his gods were false. There is very little of what modern readers would consider “racial” language; the Saracen knight is described first and foremost as a knight, and his physical attributes are otherwise indistinct from the Christian hero. In a sense, he was always a pre-Christian warrior, just waiting to be converted. Firumbras, who can be found in the section on Charlemagne romances, is one example of this figure.

The second type is the converted Saracen princess, who shares many characteristics with her male counterpart. Just as the knight is described as the flower of chivalry, the princess is described as the most beautiful woman in the world. Her beauty and behavior fit the mold of the ideal English romance lady; she just happens to be Saracen. Often, though not always, the Saracen princess plays an active role in helping her paramour, the Christian hero of the story, against her own father. One such example of the converted Saracen princess is Josian from Bevis of Hampton.

Primary Sources

Anonymous. Bevis of Hampton. In Four Romances of England, edited by Ronald B. Herzman, Graham Drake and Eve Salisbury, 187-340. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999.

Bevis of Hamptom survives in six manuscripts and is descended from an early 13th century Anglo-Norman poem called Boeve de Haumton. This edition of the romance uses the Auchinleck manuscript, dated from the 1330s, as its source. Due to the length and imbricated plotlines of this text, it might be difficult to study the entire text in a classroom. However, the episodic nature of this romance could make it usable for a more targeted approach depending on thematic subject matter. To aid with navigating the text, the Bevis introduction in the METS edition helpfully divides the romance into numbered episodes with brief summaries of each. Of particular interest to those studying Saracens are some of the earlier moments in the romance when Bevis’ mother, after remarrying, sells him into slavery in heathen lands and Bevis’ progression from slave to knight. He is purchased by King Ermin. Ermin’s daughter Josian eventually falls in love with Bevis. These sections span lines 500 to 1400, which is midway through this edition’s Episode 1 and continues into Episode 2.

Josian is a perfect example of the Saracen princess who converts to Christianity. She helps Bevis throughout, especially against other Saracens, and agrees to convert out of love. Josian is loyal and beautiful, the perfect romance lady except for her religion; essentially, she is a pre-Christian figure, and it is only a matter of time until she converts and becomes properly Christian. This portion of the text is especially interesting because Josian is not a silent, passive lady, as many students might expect. She speaks boldly to both Bevis and her father, and her actions frequently aid Bevis throughout his enslavement. Josian is a dynamic, compelling character, and there are numerous examples of other Saracen figures, such as Ermin’s more stereotypical treacherous steward, to open conversations about race in this text.

Anonymous. Floris and Blancheflour. In Sentimental and Humorous Romances, edited by Erik Kooper, 1-52. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2006.

Floris and Blancheflour exists in four manuscripts, likely descended from a common, lost Middle English source, but ultimately descended from an Old French original dating from 1160-70. This edition uses the Auchinleck manuscript, dated from the 1330s, as its source. Floris and Blancheflour reverses the usual interracial/religious coupling by having the hero, Floris, be a pagan prince of Spain and Blancheflour, his love interest, a Christian slave. Floris and Blancheflour are raised together in the Spanish court and become inseparable. King Fenix is concerned that his son will become corrupted by Blancheflour’s Christianity, so he sells her to the Emir of Babylon and tells Floris that she has died. Floris becomes love-sick and nearly dies, and to save him, King Fenix confesses the truth. Eventually Floris and Blancheflour are reunited and marry, and Floris becomes a Christian. This romance is especially interesting because, against expectations, it is the hero who is a pagan who must convert. This reverses the typical mold of a hero who imposes conversion upon a secondary character.

Anonymous. Octavian. In Four Middle English Romances, edited by Harriet Hudson, 45-114. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996.

Octavian exists in two Middle English versions, a northern and a southern version, both composed in the mid-14th century. The original romance was composed in Old French in the mid-13th century. This edition is the northern version, from the Thornton manuscript, dated 1430-40. Despite being titled Octavian, the story mostly follows the adventures of his son, Florent, as he recovers his heritage. The narrative employs the “calumniated queen” trope, similar to “The Man of Law’s Tale,” where the Empress, Octavian’s wife, is falsely accused of adultery by her mother-in-law and exiled. Florent is stolen by an ape and is eventually adopted by a butcher. As with the case of most “fair unknown” children, Florent’s inherent nobility is revealed by his longing for noble trappings—a falcon and horse in this instance—and he eventually becomes a knight. In the meantime, a Sultan attacks France, and Florent wants to prove himself by fighting the Sultan’s giant. The Sultan has a daughter, Marsabelle, who is described as the most beautiful woman in the world. Eventually, Florent defeats the Sultan and marries Marsabelle, the Empress is proven innocent, and she and Florent are reunited with Octavian.

One of the themes that runs throughout this romance is the heritability of race. Marsabelle, despite being born a Saracen, is depicted as European. She’s more beautiful than even Christian women and she’s described as “whitt als lely floure” [white as a lily flower] (1478), which connotes moral qualities as much as complexion. Her Saracen heritage is something that is not biological; she can easily shed her “Saracen-ness” by conversion because she is already an ideal romance lady. This mutability is interesting in relation to Florent’s seemingly fixed position as a noble figure; despite being raised by a butcher, his nobility consistently shines through his lower class upbringing. This is an ideal text for sparking student discussion about biological or cultural race creation while also exposing them to common romance tropes.

Anonymous. The Turke and Sir Gawain. In Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, edited by Thomas Hahn, 337-58. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995.

The Turke and Sir Gawain exists in a single manuscript, the Percy Folio, created c. 1650, although the dialect indicates it was written in the early 16th century. The word “Saracen” is never used in the text The Turke and Sir Gawain. However, as Thomas Hahn states in his introduction to this tale, the term “‘Turk’ defines Otherness through geography, politics, religion and class” and is often used in conjunction with the term Saracen (338). This is also evident in the Middle English Dictionary, which includes Turk as a definition of Saracen.

Like the Sultan in King of Tars, the Turk is transformed from black Muslim to white Christian, but this conversion is more overtly violent, as it is a sword and not baptism that transforms the Turk. However, in The Turke, much of the threat is downplayed because it is the Turk who commands Gawain to behead him. He wants and even initiates his conversion. King of Tars and The Turke could be used together to illustrate different types of racial/religious violence and fantasies of conversion.

Secondary Sources

Calkin, Siobhain Bly. “The Perils of Proximity: Saracen Knights, Sameness, and Differentiation.” In Saracens and the Making of English Identity: The Auchinleck Manuscript, 13-60. New York: Routledge, 2005.

This chapter examines Saracen knights in Roland and Vernagu, Otuel (called Otuel a Knight by Calkin), Bevis of Hampton, and Guy of Warwick, and so is cross-listed in multiple sections of this bibliography. Calkin has grouped these texts together despite their disparate subject matter because they all involve single combat between Christian and Saracen knights. According to Calkin, Saracen knights are “indistinguishable in appearance, dress, and behavior” (13) from the Christians they battle. Calkin argues that the sameness of the knights in these texts comments not on East-West relations, but instead on relations between England and France; the Saracen others are in fact stand-ins for the French, and these battles are an effort to create a distinct English identity. This article is a valuable resource for students and instructors who are interested in detailed analysis of the Saracen knights of these romances or in the utility of Saracen figures in articulating 14th-century English identity. This article also covers topics such as textual transmission and genre.

—-. “Saracens and She-Wolves: Foreign Consorts and Group Identity.” In Saracens and the Making of English Identity: The Auchinleck Manuscript, 61-95. New York: Routledge, 2005.

This chapter focuses solely on Josian, the Saracen princess in Bevis of Hampton. According to Calkin, “Josian offers a unique, gender-specific view of this process of changing one’s group identity” (61). Calkin begins by examining the converted Saracen princess as an idealized figure and draws connections between the imagined Saracen princess and the historical figure of the foreign queen; though foreign queens who married into the English royal family were Christian, they were still cultural others who were required to assimilate a new identity. Through Josian, Calkin seeks to demonstrate a distinctly “feminine deployment of rhetoric and the body” (68) as a means of group and individual identity construction. Female performance is a key aspect of creating identity here. This essay is useful for anyone studying Saracen princesses, English queenship, or Bevis of Hampton, specifically.

Hardman, Phillipa and Marianne Ailes. “Crusading, Chivalry and the Saracen World in Insular Romance.” In Christianity and Romance in Medieval England, edited by Rosalind Field, Phillipa Hardman, and Michelle Sweeney, 45-65. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2010.

This article discusses the representation of Saracen figures in both Anglo-Norman and Middle English romances. As such, it is listed in multiple sections of this bibliography. Hardman and Ailes discuss the differences between romances with continental sources—like the Charlemagne romances—and those that are solely of insular origin—like Boeve de Haumtone. This article is extremely useful for showing the process of textual transmission from Old French to Anglo-Norman and finally to Middle English romances. Students studying insular romance will find this article particularly enlightening through its contextualization of the sources and analysis of the different Saracen “types” that appear in these texts. Although this article analyzes a number of different romances, it is especially detailed in its discussion of Charlemagne romances.

Heffernan, Carol F. “A Question of Incest, the Double, and the Theme of East and West: The Middle English Romance of Floris and Blauncheflur.” In The Orient in Chaucer and Medieval Romance, 83-107. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003.

Although Floris and Blancheflour is usually studied as an idealized representation of young love, Heffernan suggests that there is an implicit incest motif present in the tale through the unknown figure of Blancheflour’s father. Her mother is a Christian slave owned by a Saracen king, and Blancheflour and Floris, the king’s son, are raised almost like a brother and sister; therefore, she suggests that the narrative leaves open the possibility that they are, in fact, siblings. Heffernan discusses the incest theme in depth and analyzes how this theme is suppressed in order to create a harmonious East-West relationship, which requires Floris’ conversion to Christianity. In addition to discussions of sources and other incest-motif stories, Heffernan also considers Arabic tales that share parallels with Floris and Blancheflour, all of which can provide additional context for those studying or teaching the romance.

Penitential and Crusade Romances

Despite differing in scope, the following penitential and crusade romances are driven by similar concerns about Christian faith, expanding Christendom, and personal salvation. In a penitential romance, the focus is generally a single main protagonist atoning for past sins. This is a personal journey from chivalric hero to a more spiritual figure.12 Crusade literature, even while focused on a single figure, such as Richard the Lionheart, is more concerned with larger constructions of identity, such as England on a national scale or Western Christendom as a whole. Both penitential and crusade narratives use a war against a pagan East as a way to form national or religious identities. The battles against the Saracens in these narratives, like those of the Charlemagne group, test religious superiority through physical demonstration of prowess, not simply military might on its own. God determines the outcome of these battles by blessing his champions with victory, and the romances often make explicitly clear that military victory is through God’s will, not the earthly strength of men.

Primary Sources

Anonymous. The Chronicle of the Third Crusade: The Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, translated by Helen J. Nicholson. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 1997.

Helen Nicholson’s translation of the Itinerarium is based on the 1864 William Stubb’s edition of the text. Stubbs used Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 129, from the late 13th century, as his base manuscript. There is an earlier version of this chronicle, referred to as IP1, that is used as one of its sources, with additional material from Ambroise’s Estoire de la Guerre Sainte. Nicholson states that the Latin chronicle of Richard I and the Third Crusade is quite long, somewhat disordered, and difficult to date and ascribe authorship to. Despite these complications, excerpts could be useful in rounding out a class studying Richard Coer de Lyon, since many events in the romance are recognizable in this chronicle. Books 3 and 4 are of particular interest to this bibliography because they document Richard’s exploits at Acre, including his illness and his execution of Saladin’s hostages, though without the romance’s cannibalistic embellishments.

Anonymous. The Old French Continuation of William of Tyre, 1184-97. In The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade, translated by Peter W. Edbury, 11-145. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 1998.

The first half of this book is Peter Edbury’s English translation of the Old French chronicle of the Third Crusade. The Chronicle of William of Tyre survives in Latin in a single manuscript, but was translated into Old French in the 13th century and had continuations added to it in several manuscripts. This English translation is based upon the 1982 Morgan edition which was based on the manuscript Lyon Eracles. The years spanning 1184-1197 are unique to this manuscript. Whereas the Itinerarium is considered to be a difficult and disorganized text, the Continuation is much more orderly. The Continuation does not focus primarily on Richard, although he is still an important figure. This text picks up where William of Tyre’s Latin history of Jerusalem ends, in 1184. Early parts of the chronicle recount Saladin’s conquest of Jerusalem and military actions. Richard is crowned in paragraph 99 (91) and the events at Acre begin in paragraph 119 (104). The execution of Saladin’s hostages occurs in paragraph 126 (108). In this version of events, Richard does not become ill; instead, it is King Philip of France who becomes ill, and the chronicler uses this event to show the nastier side of Richard when he attempts to shock and kill the king by falsely reporting that his son and heir has died. This source can be used in conversation with other historical and literary sources about Richard to explore how representations of the king and the Saracens can be used for different purposes.

Anonymous. Richard Coer de Lyon, edited by Peter Larkin. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2015.

Richard Coer de Lyon exists in seven manuscripts from the early 14th to late 15th centuries. All of the manuscripts vary widely, so Larkin posits that there is a lost Anglo-Norman original. The romance is grouped into an A and B version of the text. This edition is from Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College 175/96, which is an A-version of the text. Richard, at 7240 lines, is a massive text that would likely be difficult to cover in the classroom in its entirety. Because it is a crusade text like The Sultan of Babylon and The Siege of Milan (see the Charlemagne Romances for annotations), there are many instances of encounters between the English and the Saracens; however, the most famous and most frequently studied episode depicts Richard’s cannibalism of a Saracen (3069-3758). Richard is unwell during the siege of Acre and craves pork, but his men are unable to find any. His men kill and serve a Saracen “yonge and fat” [young and fat] (3088) to the king, telling him that the meat is pork. The “pork” helps Richard recover his appetite and health, and the next day Richard fights so successfully that he routs the Sultan’s forces. When Richard discovers the source of the meat, he laughs and makes a joke about how good Saracens are to eat and that his men will never have to worry about starvation so long as they have Saracens to fight. As the war continues, Richard uses this moment of mistaken cannibalism to terrorize the Saracens. He serves Saracen lords the heads of aristocratic Saracen captives, eats one in front of them, and then tells them to tell Saladin that he and his men will continue to feast even if their supply lines are blocked: the English will eat Saracens. This section of the text has garnered interest among critics because it is so unusual in that it seems to place Richard, a Christian English king, in a position normally reserved for those who are considered savage or inhuman. Richard could be used very effectively alongside either The Sultan of Babylon or The Siege of Milan to complicate expected patterns of behavior in texts that are so racially and religiously charged. As a final note, Peter Larkin’s introduction gives a clearly written, detailed contextual background about the poem as a whole and the cannibalism incident in specific.

Anonymous. Sir Gowther. In The Middle English Breton Lays, edited by Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, 263-308. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001.

Sir Gowther exists in two late 15th century manuscripts. This edition uses the National Library of Scotland Advocates 19.3.1 manuscript as its base text. The source for this romance is the late 12th century French Robert le Diable. Sir Gowther is primarily a story about the son of a fiend seeking redemption for crimes committed in his youth, including the rape and murder of nuns. Many of his crimes are specifically committed against Christians, and his redemption involves a pilgrimage to Rome. As a part of Gowther’s penance, he becomes mute and is only allowed to eat from the mouths of dogs. He ends up in an Emperor’s court, whose beautiful daughter is also mute, and who is pursued by a Sultan who wishes to marry her. The Sultan and his Saracen followers besiege the Emperor. In the following battles, Gowther prays for and receives a succession of holy armor of varying colors—black, then red, then white—in which he fights with the Emperor’s army. This culminates in Gowther killing the Sultan and ultimately marrying the princess.

In this romance, the Saracens are referred to as “blake” [black] (478), perhaps in appearance or deeds. The Sultan is singled out as a “hethon hownde” [heathen hound] (392), although he is primarily described in romance terms—by the fineness of his clothing and jewels—and has very little presence. His character is undeveloped, and he never even speaks. It is clear he is there to function as the means of unifying Gowther’s warlike prowess with his newfound Christian faith. In considering moments where race and religion overlap, Gowther is an especially interesting figure for students because he begins as a demonic entity, physically and in behavior, and ends his life as a pseudo-saint.

Anonymous. Stanzaic Guy of Warwick, edited by Alison Wiggins. Kalamazoo, MI: TEAMS Middle English Texts Series, 2004.

The Stanzaic Guy of Warwick, descended from the Anglo-Norman Gui de Warewic (c.1220), survives in a single manuscript, the Auchinleck (c. 1330s). This early 14th-century romance is often characterized as a penitential romance. The protagonist, Guy, achieves the usual ends of romance—love and status—early on in the narrative when he marries Felice and becomes the heir to Warwick, but he spends the rest of the narrative repenting for the violence that his earthly desires inspired. Guy forsakes his earthly possessions and his marriage in order to become a crusader-pilgrim. He decides to travel “barfot bi doun and dale” [barefoot by hill and dale] (345) in repentance, though most of his penance arises from battles against Saracens. Guy’s first test of prowess and spiritual worthiness is in his battle against the Sultan’s champion, Amoraunt. Amoraunt is a black Saracen giant, described as a fiend from hell; he is a figure of both religious and physical monstrosity. It is clear during the battle that Guy’s success rests not only on prowess and the legendary if not magical components of his armaments, but on his faith and the grace of God. Guy’s final battle in the romance is against another giant, Colbrand, who fights for the Danes who are invading England. The Danes are Christian, but Colbrand is a giant out of “Afrike” [Africa] (2816) and, like Amoraunt, is described as “a fende of Helle” [a fiend of Hell] (3060). Colbrand also prays to “Apolin” [Apollyon] (3187), which is a common indication in romance that he is Muslim. Guy, with the help of God, triumphs and then resumes his anonymous identity and settles in Warwick. Just before he dies, he sends for his wife, Felice, and when he sees her, he ascends to Heaven, carried by 1007 angels.

Secondary Sources

Ambrisco, Alan. “Cannibalism and Cultural Encounters in Richard Coeur de Lion.” JMEMS 29, no. 3 (1999): 499-528.

Ambrisco takes what is now a fairly standard approach to Richard Coer de Lyon, citing it as indicative of rising 14th-century nationalism. He argues that the English, through Richard’s association with the demonic, are united through barbarity and cannibalism, which marks the extremities to which they will go to achieve their crusade. This is a reversal of usual narrative uses of cannibalism which generally mark an excluded or monstrous Other as cannibalistic. This romance complicates the usual binary between self and other because the French and the Saracens are both cultural others in this text. Through cannibalism, which claims a sort of “other” status for the English, the English are made distinct from their French co-crusaders.

Calkin, Siobhain Bly. “The Perils of Proximity: Saracen Knights, Sameness, and Differentiation.” In Saracens and the Making of English Identity: The Auchinleck Manuscript, 13-60. New York: Routledge, 2005. (Also referred to above)

This chapter examines Saracen knights in Roland and Vernagu, Otuel (called Otuel a Knight by Calkin), Bevis of Hampton, and Guy of Warwick, and so is cross-listed in multiple sections of this bibliography. Calkin has grouped these texts together despite their disparate subject matter because they all involve single combat between Christian and Saracen knights. According to Calkin, Saracen knights are “indistinguishable in appearance, dress, and behavior” (13) from the Christians they battle. Calkin argues that the sameness of the knights in these texts comments not on East-West relations, but instead on relations between England and France; the Saracen others are in fact stand ins for the French, and these battles are an effort to create a distinct English identity. This article is a valuable resource for students and instructors who are interested in detailed analysis of the Saracen knights of these romances or in the utility of Saracen figures in articulating 14th century English identity. This article also covers topics such as textual transmission and genre.

Christie, Niall. Muslims and Crusaders: Christianity’s Wars in the Middle East, 1095-1382, From the Islamic Sources. New York: Routledge, 2014.

This text provides an entry-level look at Muslim perspectives of the crusades. Though the primary focus of this bibliography is a Middle English perspective, this source is included to help introduce students and instructors to other research possibilities and perspectives when studying Middle English texts. This book is extremely student-friendly with a timeline, guide to Muslim names, and a glossary as the front material, as well as terms that are glossed in the margins throughout. Additionally, there are resources for further reading at the end of each chapter. The chapters most relevant to this bibliography are:

  • “5: Victory and Stalemate, 1174-93,” 43-57.
  • “6: War and Peace in the Twelfth Century Levant,” 58-87.

These chapters deal with the Third Crusade and its aftermath.

Flori, Jean. Richard the Lionheart, translated by Jean Birrell. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006.

This biography, much like the romance Richard Coer de Lyon, is too long to read in its entirety in a class setting. However, the structure makes it easy to excerpt for small, focused chunks of Richard’s life. The first half of the book is a chronological history of Richard’s life, while the second half examines Richard’s role as king and knight, as well as lasting ideas about him. Of particular interest to this bibliography are the following chapters:

  • “6: Cyprus and Acre,” 113-131
  • “7: Richard versus Saladin (1191-2),” 132-54.
  • “20: Richard and His Legend,” 397-414.

These chapters are about Richard’s role in the Third Crusade and the legends about him, and will provide useful context for the romance.

Hardman, Phillipa and Marianne Ailes. “Crusading, Chivalry and the Saracen World in Insular Romance.” In Christianity and Romance in Medieval England, edited by Rosalind Field, Phillipa Hardman, and Michelle Sweeney, 45-65. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2010.

This article discusses the representation of Saracen figures in both Anglo-Norman and Middle English romances. As such, it is listed in multiple sections of this bibliography. Hardman and Ailes discuss the differences between romances with continental sources—like the Charlemagne romances—and those that are solely of insular origin—like Boeve de Haumtone. This article is extremely useful for showing the process of textual transmission from Old French to Anglo-Norman and finally to Middle English romances. Students studying insular romance will find this article particularly enlightening through its contextualization of the sources and analysis of the different Saracen “types” that appear in these texts. Although this article analyzes a number of different romances, it is especially detailed in its discussion of Charlemagne romances.

Heng, Geraldine. “Chapter 8: The Romance of England: Richard Coer de Lyon, Saracens, Jews, and the Politics of Race and Nation.” In The Postcolonial Middle Ages, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, 135-71. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

This chapter discusses one of the most famous moments of Richard Coer de Lyon in which Richard cannibalizes a Saracen. In this romance, Heng argues, this act of cannibalism is a racially charged joke and a tool that helps create an English national identity. The chapter, which is divided into clearly labeled sections, contextualizes this argument through brief historical background and a detailed close reading of Richard. Heng also considers how this scene might be read in relation to Jews, who, after all, are the community most frequently accused of cannibalistic tendencies through the various blood and murder libel stories circulating during the late medieval period. This article could be used very effectively in tandem with the relevant excerpt from Richard and seems like a catalyst for provoking lively discussion about this shocking scene and the political uses of romance. This article was later expanded into a chapter in her monograph Empire of Magic. The expanded chapter also includes a section on sexuality, but I have chosen this earlier version because the narrower focus seems more manageable for students.

Hopkins, Andrea. The Sinful Knights: A Study of Middle English Penitential Romance. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

This book is an excellent resource for students or instructors looking to expand their understanding of romance generally, and penitential romance specifically. The introduction begins with an overview of the fraught history of defining genre and identifies particular trends used to categorize romance before moving into a more specific categorization of penitential romances. In these religiously focused romances, the sinful hero is subjected to harsh penance on his road to salvation. In addition to specific chapters on individual romances, of which Guy of Warwick and Sir Gowther are the most relevant to this bibliography, Hopkins also has a chapter explaining the history of penance, which is helpful to those unfamiliar with official church doctrine on the subject.

Hurlock, Kathryn. Britain, Ireland, and the Crusades, c. 1000-1300. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Hurlock’s monograph is a historical study of the impact of the crusades on the British Isles. Her introduction begins with a solid overview of scholarship of the crusades in relation to specific geographical locations in the British Isles. This background provides good resources for students or instructors who might be interested, for example, on the crusades and Wales. Hurlock is interested in documenting not only participation in crusading, but also the social, cultural, political, etc. effects on the citizens who remained behind. This text provides historical context of the culture in which Richard Coer de Lyon was produced.

Jotischky, Andrew, ed. The Crusades: Critical Concepts in Historical Studies. 4 vols. NY: Routledge, 2008.

This four-volume collection is intended for an undergraduate audience. It groups previously published essays by time-period and topic, so the collection is easily navigable by students and instructors seeking a number of essays on one specific area, such as “The First Crusade.” For the purposes of this bibliography, Vol. 2 Part 5 is most useful, as this is the section dealing with the Third Crusade, Richard I, and Saladin. The essays in this section provide historical context for the romance, Richard Coer de Lyon. One thing to note is that these essays are somewhat limited by age; the most recent about the Third Crusade was published in 1997. While this is an excellent resource for a look at the evolution of critical study—one of the stated purposes of these volumes—it will not have the most up-to-date scholarship.

Manion, Lee. Narrating the Crusades: Loss and Recovery in Medieval and Early Modern English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014.

Manion’s study of crusading romances “plac[es] these narratives in the context of historical and political writing…” in order to show “the significant effects of crusading on the English literary imagination and on English audiences” (3). His introduction gives a brief overview of scholarship on and definitions of crusading and penitential romances. Manion redefines the genre in order to expand the body of texts in which he sees crusade discourse as a key element of the romance’s meaning. This text could be used by instructors or students as a complement to a class on romance or crusading, as well as to round out a more focused look at the interactions of race and religion in specific crusade romances. Chapters of particular interest to this bibliography are:

  • “1: An anti-national Richard Coer de Lion: associated forms and the English crusading romance,” 19-66.
  • “3: Fictions of recovery in later English crusading romances: Octavian and The Sowdone of Babylon,” 107-45. (See the Secondary Sources in the Charlemagne Romances section for a full annotation of this chapter.)

Montaño, Jesus. “Sir Gowther: Imagining Race in Late Medieval England.” In Meeting the Foreign in the Middle Ages, edited by Albrecht Classen, 118-32. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Montaño looks at Sir Gowther within the context of crusade literature’s drive to be victorious over a non-Christian Other. In this instance, Montaño argues that Gowther functions as a Saracen figure within the text; therefore, examining how Gowther is represented can help one “map the biological and cultural constructions of race and ethnicity” (119). According to Montaño, Gowther’s demonic birth resembles the offspring of Saracen and Christian marriages, such as represented by the monstrous child in King of Tars. Gowther’s role as part-demon is similar to that of the Saracen, since both exist outside of the Christian community and pose a threat to it. Saracens are also frequently represented in romance in demonic terms. Montaño highlights Gowther’s falchion, a curved sword associated with Saracens rather than Christian knights, as a key aspect of his identity. This article is useful for engaging with the anxieties of miscegenation present in Sir Gowther and can help create a conversation between this romance and others, like King of Tars or the other Constance narratives, that deal with similar themes.

 

Wilcox, Rebecca. “Romancing the East: Greeks and Saracens in Guy of Warwick.” In Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular Romance, edited by Nicola McDonald, 217-40. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2004.

Wilcox argues that Guy of Warwick rewrites history in order to assuage English anxiety about Eastern relations, both in regard to military failures and to the immoral behavior of Latin Christian crusaders, in particular, the Fourth Crusade sacking of Constantinople, an Eastern Orthodox city. According to Wilcox, “Guy’s military triumphs compensate for the West’s historical losses in the East, while his moral and spiritual superiority recuperates Latin atrocities against fellow Christians during the Crusades” (221). The setting of the romance in the 10th century places Guy’s actions before the failures and abuses committed in the East, allowing for a revision of events with a more successful, less problematic outcome. Guy’s domination over the East—Christian and Saracen alike—is central to Wilcox’s argument, and she examines both the Greek Christians and the Saracens as potentially threatening cultural others.

 

Charlemagne Romances

 

The Charlemagne romances focus on the court of the historical French king and his 12 Peers or Douzepeers. Saracens frequently appear in the Charlemagne romances, since Charlemagne is a king primarily known for defending Christendom against the threat of Islam. The opening description of Charlemagne in The Siege of Milan, for example, describes him as “the heghe kinge of alle/That ofte sythes made hethyn men for to falle” [the high king of all/That oftentimes made heathen men fall] (4-5). These romances tend to focus upon the heroic acts of his Douzepeers against assorted Eastern forces. The Middle English versions are translations or adaptations from French sources and tend to be divided into three groups, two of which are represented in this bibliography: the Firumbras Group and the Otinel Group, named after the pivotal Saracen character who converts in the romance.13

Some typical characters in these romances are as follows: Roland and Oliver, generally the greatest of the Douzepeers; Ganelon, who gives Charlemagne bad advice and inevitably betrays him; a Saracen knight or prince such as Otuel or Firumbras who converts after being defeated in single combat by a Christian knight (usually Roland or Oliver).

Primary Sources

The Firumbras Group

Anonymous. Firumbras. In Firumbras and Otuel and Roland: edited from MS. Brit. Mus. Addit. 37492, edited by Mary Isabelle O’Sullivan, xi-xliii, 3-58. EETS. London: Oxford University Press, 1935. Reprinted by EETS and Kraus Reprint Co, 1971.

Firumbras survives in British Museum Additional 37492, also known as the Fillingham manuscript. The manuscript was compiled in the late 15th century, but the romance was likely composed in the late 14th century. The source for Firumbras is the Old French Fierabras. This romance is an analogue of The Sultan of Babylon (see citation below), although according to the introduction to this edition, they likely did not come from the same source. This text is shorter and more focused than that of Sultan; however, this edition may be more difficult for students, since the EETS texts tend not to modernize spellings or provide marginal glosses. The text does have marginal notations that briefly summarize events. Also, it is worth noting that there are several gaps in this text, though they do not seem to hinder an understanding of the story.

Firumbras would easily fit into the converted Saracen section, since the victories of Charlemagne and his Douzepeers against Balam the Admiral are dependent upon the actions of Firumbras and Floripas, his children. In this text, the Douzepeers are freed from imprisonment by Floripas because of her love for Guy, one of the Douzepeers, and Firumbras helps Charlemagne defeat his father in battle. Balam, unlike his children, refuses to convert to Christianity and is killed.

In Firumbras, the Saracens are associated with magical abilities in both positive and negative ways. Floripas possesses a magical girdle that protects the imprisoned French knights from starvation. But another Saracen, Manby, uses magic to lull the French knights to sleep so that he can steal the girdle. In one particular scene when the Saracens attempt to burn the tower in which the French are hiding, Floripas turns the flames back upon the Saracens “thorow crafte…and quentyse of gynne” [through skill…and cleverness of ingenuity] (801). In this instance, it’s unclear if Floripas’ “crafte” is a supernatural or more earthly skill.

This text occasionally grafts Jewish terminology onto Saracen practices, such as when the heathen temple is referred to as a synagogue (246). The worship of Islam is also inaccurate, as within the temple there are idols of Mahoun, Termegaunt, and Jupiter, among others. The Saracens are rarely physically differentiated from the French, but one of the few Saracens described is the giant who guards the bridge Charlemagne’s army needs to cross to rescue Roland and the Douzepeers. This giant is clearly an analogue to the giant Alogolofre from The Sultan of Babylon and is similarly described with body parts in monstrous proportions. He is also “blak” [black] (1255), and it’s not entirely clear whether this color is tied to his position as a giant or as a Saracen or a combination of both, since no other Saracens seem to be identified by skin color.

Anonymous. The Sultan of Babylon. In Three Middle English Charlemagne Romances, edited by Alan Lupack, 1-104. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1990.

The Sultan of Babylon survives in a single manuscript, Garrett No. 140. This manuscript was compiled in the mid-15th century, but the poem likely dates from the late 14th or early 15th centuries. The source for this poem is the 12th century French Fierabras. The physical and geographical variety of Saracens in The Sultan of Babylon demonstrates the paradox inherent in the term “Saracen.” The 300,000 men of the Sultan’s army are gathered from lands spanning from Asia to Africa, are referred to as Saracens, and seem to worship the same set of pagan deities—Mahounde, Apolyne, and Termagaunt among the most mentioned—yet they are far from uniform in their appearance: “Some bloo, some yolowe, some blake as More” [Some blue, some yellow, some black as a Moor] (1005). Firumbras and Floripas, the Sultan’s son and daughter respectively, are not physically described at all. One might be led to assume they look like Europeans; this is supported by descriptions of Floripas’ maidens as “white as swan[s]” (2749), their easy conversion to Christianity, and Floripas’ marriage to Sir Guy, a nephew of Charlemagne. The conversion and assimilation of the Sultan’s children is in fact integral to Charlemagne’s victory. Firumbras joins Charlemagne’s army and rallies them to rescue the king from a Saracen stronghold, and Floripas saves the captured Douzepeers from execution and starvation. In this way, the text fits equally well into discussion of converted Saracen princesses. Floripas is an especially feisty and entertaining character, and students will no doubt enjoy a character who shatters preconceptions of the passive medieval woman by boldly speaking back to her father when he threatens her with hanging, essentially telling him it’s a shame he didn’t break his neck when he leapt out the window to escape capture by the freed Douzepeers.

Other Saracens, however, are less sympathetically drawn, and many even verge on the monstrous. The Sultan is initially described as a powerful leader, but the text makes it clear that he is an inferior foil to Charlemagne; though the Sultan is able to conquer Rome, it is less his martial ability than the sinfulness of Christendom that allows him to succeed. The Sultan’s followers are described even less favorably. The Ethiopians are depicted as plainly monstrous, perhaps even demonic. King Estragot is large and powerful and possibly descended from “Belsabubbis” [Beelzebub] (357), and he has a boar’s head. Another Ethiopian, Alagolofure, is a giant with leopard’s spots and head and tusks like a boar. In this text, we get the full range of possible meanings of “Saracen.”

Although the episodes in the text seem somewhat disconnected and the plot moves quickly and jumps between locations and events, the action is not difficult to follow. The vibrant action of the narrative and the slippery nature of the term “Saracen” will likely create lively student discussions.

The Otinel Group

Anonymous. Otuel. In The English Charlemagne Romances Part IV: The Taill of Rauf Coilyear with the Fragments of Roland and Vernagu and Otuel, edited by Sidney J. H. Herrtage, v-xvi, 65-116. EETS. London: Oxford University Press, 1882. Reprinted 1969.

Otuel survives in the Auchinleck manuscript (c. 1330s). Its source is the Old French Otinel. In this romance, King Garcy of Lombardy is primarily identified as a killer of Christians, and Charlemagne, as a king and warrior of Christendom, is placed in direct opposition to him. Garcy wants to rule all of Christendom and convert its inhabitants into heathens. He sends his knight, Otuel, to convey this message to Charlemagne and challenge Roland to single combat. This battle and Otuel’s conversion to Christianity occupy nearly the first half of the romance, and the battle to subdue Garcy occurs in the second half.

Although Otuel is frequently described as rude and arrogant, he is otherwise as proper and

powerful a knight as Roland. Roland and Otuel are presented as parallel figures; both are nephews to their respective kings and among their most powerful warriors. Additionally, the text itself describes them in tandem: “Bothe knightes were gode & stronge,/& foughten to gider swithe longe” [Both knights were good and strong/And fought together very long] (507-08). Otuel and Roland seem like true equals in this battle, separated only by faith, which is perhaps not that surprising since Otuel is destined to convert at the end of the romance. He, like Firumbras in The Sultan of Babylon, is a pre-Christian figure more than he is strictly heathen. Unlike Firumbras, who is defeated by Oliver and then converts, Otuel is converted by a miracle that occurs during the battle; when the French knights pray, a dove lands on Otuel’s head, and Otuel pauses and tells Roland he will become Christian. Otuel even fights and kills a former ally, King Clarel, in single combat in defense of God. He also helps capture King Garcy. The manuscript breaks off when Otuel leads Garcy to Charlemagne.

During the battles between French and Saracen knights, there is no clear distinction between them. The Saracens are not exoticized or physically described at all; they are simply enemy knights who desire to kill the Christians.

Anonymous. Otuel and Roland. In Firumbras and Otuel and Roland: edited from MS. Brit. Mus. Addit. 37492, edited by Mary Isabelle O’Sullivan, xlii-lxxxiii, 59-146. EETS. London: Oxford University Press, 1935. Reprinted by EETS and Kraus Reprint Co, 1971.

Otuel and Roland survives in the Fillingham manuscript, a late 15th century manuscript, though the romance was likely written in the early 14th century. Sources for this romance are the Old French Otinel and the Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle. The plot of this romance is very similar to that of Otuel, though at over 2700 lines it is significantly longer. The beginning of Otuel and Roland is concerned with the battle between the two knights and Otuel’s miraculous conversion and subsequent fealty to Charlemagne. As in Otuel, he helps capture and convert Garcy. This romance, unlike the other, does not end with Garcy’s conversion. Charlemagne’s war against the Saracens is carried on against Ebrahim, the king of Spain who also appears in Roland and Vernagu. After winning Spain and converting or hanging the surviving Saracens, the narrative shifts focus to the death of Roland. In this version of events, the traitor Gwynes (an analogue to Ganelon, the more familiar traitor of Charlemagne romance) betrays the French to Saracens who serve the Sultan of Babylon so that all of the Douzepeers are ambushed and killed. Roland manages to kill the Saracen leader, Mansure, but, as in the French Song of Roland, Roland blows his horn so loudly that it bursts his temples. Charlemagne rides once more to battle to avenge his fallen Frenchmen, and God’s favor is shown through the sun shining for three straight days until Charlemagne is victorious. The romance ends with Gwynes being drawn and quartered and the burial of Roland, Oliver, and all the Douzepeers. Otuel is among the knights who survive and is specifically singled out in the final battle as the knight who kills the King of Persia, so he clearly becomes an important part of Charlemagne’s surviving court, despite his beginnings as a Saracen.

There are some unusual religious miracles within this text worth mentioning although they are not explicitly racial. As Charlemagne prepares for battle against the King of Navarre, he prays to God and Mary to know who will die in battle and has a vision in which some of his knights have a red cross on their shoulder to mark their deaths. As a result, he has these ill-fated knights remain safely at home. When Charlemagne returns, the men he tried to save are dead anyway; despite being the favored side in the war, no one can escape their appointed death. Also, near the end of the narrative, Charlemagne learns of Roland’s death through Bishop Turpin’s vision of angels and fiends. We are told that as Turpin says mass, the angels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael carry Roland’s soul over Charlemagne’s chapel, and Turpin hears a great clamor of fiends. When questioned, the fiends tell him that they carry Mansure’s soul to hell because he has served them faithfully but that Roland resides in Paradise. Narratively, this serves to inform Charlemagne of Roland’s passing, but it also seems to draw a strict dichotomy between Christian and Saracen belief, where though both warriors are dead, the Christian is saved and the Saracen is damned.

Anonymous. Roland and Vernagu. In The English Charlemagne Romances Part IV: The Taill of Rauf Coilyear with the Fragments of Roland and Vernagu and Otuel, edited by Sidney J. H. Herrtage, v-xvi, 37-61. EETS. London: Oxford University Press, 1882. Reprinted 1969.

Roland and Vernagu survives in the Auchinleck manuscript (c. 1330s). The sources for this text are the Latin Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle (c. 1140) and the French Estoire de Charlemagne (c. 1206). This text opens with four men of power: Charlemagne, Emperor Constantius of Constantinople, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and Ebrahim, the Saracen King of Spain. With this dynamic, the poem seems to be creating an Eastern and Western Christendom that is united against the Saracen threat; the racial division here is, as in many of the Charlemagne romances, primarily one of religion. Ebrahim, the Saracen enemy, is identified as a slayer of Christian men and has exiled the Patriarch, and religious visions and iconography appear throughout the text. There are moments similar to some in The Siege of Milan, such as when the angel sends Constantius to Charlemagne, and Charlemagne has a vision—this time of St. James not an angel—in which he is assured of victory and told that all who engage in this holy battle will find salvation. This war is a holy crusade and is concerned with both salvation and recovering lost land. As such, there is a convert-or-die mentality at play throughout the romance. At Pampiloun, Charlemagne prays for the walls to fall, and when they do, 10,000 Saracens are converted by the miracle. Those who refuse to convert are hanged. Charlemagne continues this movement throughout Spain until he has conquered—and presumably converted—the entire country. After conquering all of Spain, Charlemagne breaks all the idols and builds churches with the spoils of war.

The second half of this poem tells of the single combat between Vernagu, a giant Saracen, and Roland. As in The Siege of Milan, religion is the primary difference between the French and the Saracens, but with Vernagu, a Saracen sent by the Sultan of Babylon to fight with Charlemagne, is defined through his body. He’s 40 feet tall, and his physical characteristics are described in monstrous proportion: his face is four feet wide with a foot-long nose and his eyebrows are like bristles. He is “lotheliche/& was swart as piche” [loathly/And was dark as pitch] (482-83). Vernagu fights Charlemagne’s knights one by one and carries them off under his arm, almost as if they were children. All knights fail until Roland challenges Vernagu. This fight lasts for days, and in the midst of this fight Roland teaches Vernagu all about the tenets of Christian faith. Once Vernagu understands, he states that their battle should become a battle to see whose god is mightier. Roland agrees and prays to God for aid; an angel appears again and tells Roland he’ll win. When Roland injures Vernagu, the giant prays for help from his gods, but no one answers. Roland decapitates him. This is an unambiguous display of Christian superiority.

The poem is fun to read and quick-paced. It is short—only 880 lines—and action-packed. There are a few brief interludes of religious exposition, but even these moments are fairly entertaining. The dishonest executor who is carried off to Hell by fiends is particularly engaging (373-421). Overall, this is an enjoyable read for students who are interested in seeing how religion can be prioritized within racial conflicts.

Anonymous. The Siege of Milan. In Three Middle English Charlemagne Romances, edited by Alan Lupack, 105-60. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1990.

The Siege of Milan has no known source. The single extant copy is found in the Thornton manuscript. The manuscript dates from the mid-15th century, but the poem likely dates from the mid-14th century. This romance depicts a holy war between the French and the Saracens in which God miraculously aids the Christian warriors against the Saracens holding the city of Milan. The poem opens with a description of the Sultan Arabas conquering various cities of Christendom, filling them with heathens, and destroying religious icons and replacing them with idols to his pagan gods. Arabas is interested not only in conquering Christian lands but also in converting the people to Islam. He offers Alantyne, the King of Milan, lordship over his city and all of Lombardy if he will convert and threatens Alantyne with the dismemberment and death of his children if he refuses. Alantyne’s prayers to God are answered by an angel who tells the king that Charlemagne will aid him. On this same night, Charlemagne also dreams of an angel who calls him Christ’s warrior on earth, and he sees this angel strike down the walls of Milan; thus, Charlemagne and his French warriors are explicitly chosen by God to avenge Christendom and are identified as the victors from the beginning of the romance. The actual battle and victory are not depicted in this text, as it breaks off as the siege of the city begins.

Milan’s Saracens are religious others—and this is clearly a religiously driven text and conflict—but they are not differentiated from the French by appearance or culture. In fact, the Saracens are hardly described at all. Unlike The Sultan of Babylon, in which the Saracen habits and appearances are exoticized, here they are a seemingly faceless enemy, defined solely through their worship of “Mahownn” [Mohammed] (395). The only obvious exoticism similar to that in Sultan is a brief mention of the Sultan Garcy who receives a tribute of 60 maidens from the King of Macedon. Garcy has sexual relations with all 60 and then marries them to his knights (866-71). In this way, he is linked to sexual excesses, but this seems to be a singular moment in this text. Are we to assume that the Saracens look, dress, fight, eat, etc. like the French and are only different because of their religion? The lack of descriptors seems to suggest so and that the primary and most important distinction in this text is religion. God is, after all, the sole hope of French victory—and the text says as much while Roland’s army of 40,000 is being slaughtered.

Secondary Sources

Akbari, Suzanne Conklin. “Incorporation in the Siege of Melayne.” In Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular Romance, edited by Nicola McDonald, 22-44. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2004.

Akbari argues that the religious content of The Siege of Milan creates a Christian community that remains whole despite the Saracen military and religious threat. Much of this essay is focused upon Bishop Turpin as a Christ-like figure who unites the Christians through his wounded body. Although Saracens are a secondary concern of this article, Akbari gives an in-depth reading of the scene in which the crucifix is burnt by the sultan Arabas and yet remains unharmed. Akbari compares this miracle with a similar scene in The Croxton Play of the Sacrament. Additionally, Akbari discusses the unusual treatment of Saracens in this narrative, in that they are killed rather than converted. She states that this is strange for Charlemagne romances, in which there is usually some conversionary presence, and perhaps the lack of this indicates that the Christian community has no room for additional members. This article is useful in comparing specific aspects of Charlemagne romances in relation to the Saracens or in comparing religious testing scenes across different genres and ethnic groups.

Calkin, Siobhain Bly. “The Perils of Proximity: Saracen Knights, Sameness, and Differentiation.” In Saracens and the Making of English Identity: The Auchinleck Manuscript, 13-60. New York: Routledge, 2005.

This chapter examines Saracen knights in Roland and Vernagu, Otuel (here called Otuel a Knight), Sir Beves of Hamtoun, and Guy of Warwick, and so is cross-listed in multiple sections of this bibliography. Calkin has grouped these texts together despite their disparate subject matter because they all involve single combat between Christian and Saracen knights. According to Calkin, Saracen knights are “indistinguishable in appearance, dress, and behavior” (13) from the Christians they battle. Calkin argues that the sameness of the knights in these texts comments not on East-West relations but instead on relations between England and France; these battles are an effort to create a distinct English identity. This article is a valuable resource for students and instructors who are interested in detailed analysis of the Saracen knights of these romances or in the utility of Saracen figures in articulating 14th century English identity. This article also covers topics such as textual transmission and genre.

Hardman, Phillipa and Marianne Ailes. “Crusading, Chivalry and the Saracen World in Insular Romance.” In Christianity and Romance in Medieval England, edited by Rosalind Field, Phillipa Hardman, and Michelle Sweeney, 45-65. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2010.

This article discusses the representation of Saracen figures in both Anglo-Norman and Middle English romances. As such, it is listed in multiple sections of this bibliography. Hardman and Ailes discuss the differences between romances with continental sources—like the Charlemagne romances—and those that are solely of insular origin—like Boeve de Haumtone. This article is extremely useful for showing the process of textual transmission from Old French to Anglo-Norman and finally Middle English romances. Students studying insular romance will find this article particularly enlightening through its contextualization of the sources and analysis of the different Saracen “types” that appear in these texts. Although this article analyzes a number of different romances, it is especially detailed in its discussion of Charlemagne romances.

Manion, Lee. “Fictions of recovery in later English crusading romances Octavian and The Sowdone of Babylone.” In Narrating the Crusades: Loss and Recovery in Medieval and Early Modern English Literature, 107-45. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014.

Manion groups these texts together because they are roughly from the same time period—the late 14th and early 15th centuries—and they both deal with crusading impulses focused in France, Italy, and Iberia. These romances show a shift in English crusade interests from the Holy Land to localized interests in Europe. Manion includes Octavian and The Sultan of Babylon with English crusade romance despite not being specifically about English crusaders. Octavian is about a Roman emperor, and Sultan is generally considered a “matter of France” text because of the focus on Charlemagne’s exploits. However, including these romances with more typical English crusade romances, he argues, reveals an evolution in interests in and concerns about crusading that are distinctly English.

Manion begins the chapter by elucidating crusade discourses circulating in the 14th and 15th centuries, such as Philippe de Mézières’ Letter to King Richard II. This section provides context for his later literary criticism by describing the circulating ideas and historical events. Although this chapter discusses Saracens tangentially as the enemies of imagined Christendoms, this chapter provides a useful foundation for understanding late medieval crusade romances and changing concerns within them. The section on Sultan analyzes Floripas in relation to her actions, conversion, and real-world parallels of foreign intermarriage.

A cautionary note: this chapter studies the southern version of the Middle English Octavian, not the northern one, which is generally considered more cohesive, and is included in this bibliography, which is why this text is not cross-listed with the Octavian romance.

 

Viking Saracens

Modern readers commonly associate the term Saracen with Muslims and the Middle East, but in the Middle Ages this is not always the case. In some instances, without accompanying references to the deities Middle English literature associates with Islam, the term can simply refer to non-Christians. The texts in this section have examples of Saracens that seem to be coded as Vikings rather than Muslims.

Primary Sources

Anonymous. Alliterative Morte Arthure. In King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure, edited by Larry D. Benson, 129-284. Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1974. Revised by Edward E. Foster. Kalamazoon, MI: 1994.

The alliterative Morte Arthure survives in a single manuscript, the Thornton manuscript, from the mid-15th century. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century History of the Kings of Britain is one of the main sources for this romance. The alliterative Morte Arthure details the rise and fall of King Arthur with particular attention to his role as a conqueror. As such, much of the poem is concerned with battle scenes. The Saracens appear in the Roman section of the poem, in which Arthur fights against the Emperor Lucius; the Saracens are from lands that owe fealty to Rome and are allied with Lucius against Arthur. These Saracens are largely from various eastern lands, and so it seems like the battle lines are drawn between a Western army and that of an Eastern, non-Christian army, similar to crusade literature. However, Mordred, whom Arthur has left as warden of England while he conquers Europe, also employs Saracens in his rebellious army. It is unclear where these Saracens come from, since the majority of his army is Saxon or from other pagan tribes native to the British Isles. Another point of interest is in the battle between Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, and Priamus, a pagan knight of noble lineage. Priamus is a self-described rebel to Rome, but he is never explicitly called a Saracen in the text.

This poem could provide an interesting medium to discuss the slippery nature of the term “Saracen,” which is most commonly used in relationship to non-Western peoples but can also simply mean “pagan.” This poem can be challenging for students due to its length and the antiquated diction frequently used in alliterative verse which can obscure the meaning of passages. However, reading the alliterative lines aloud showcases the sounds and energy that motivate the poem and can be an entertaining way to practice pronunciation and rhythm.

Anonymous. King Horn. In Four Romances of England, edited by Ronald B. Herzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury, 11-72. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999.

King Horn is one of the earliest Middle English romances, dating from the late 13th century. It survives in three manuscripts. This edition uses Cambridge Gg. 4.27.2, a manuscript compiled sometime in the late 15th to early 16th century. One possible source for King Horn is the Anglo-Norman Romance of Horn (c. 1170). As one of the oldest Middle English romances, the word “Saracen” seems to mean “pagan” without the later Middle English associations with Islam or the Middle East. In fact, usual markers of Islam, such as worship of Mahoun or one of the other frequently named idols are entirely absent from this text. The poem opens with a Saracen invasion of England. The Saracens—Vikings, in this case—are largely flat characters; their only motivation seems to be killing Christians, taking over their lands, and converting those who remain to pagan worship. They seem like a stock evil enemy that the exiled Horn must defeat in order to reclaim his father’s kingdom.

Secondary Sources

Cawsey, Kathy. “Disorienting Orientalism: Finding Saracens in Strange Places in Late Medieval English Manuscripts.” In Exemplaria 21, no. 4 (2009): 380-97.

Cawsey opens her article by describing the illumination of British Library Harley 2278 fol 98v.—Lydgate’s Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund. In these images, the invading Danes appear to look more like Middle Eastern Saracens than Vikings. There are other examples of “Saracen” headgear throughout the MS, and Cawsey uses the hats as a means of tracing the assimilation of Edmund’s foreign courtiers. She applies this comingled view of Dane-Saracen to the Viking-Saracens of King Horn, teasing out the metaphorical or literal meanings of the phrase “Sarazins blake” [black Saracens] (1333), finally settling on the term “hybrid” as the most effective means of understanding the ambiguity of these figures. Looking at the images Cawsey cites (available free through the Digitized Manuscripts section of the British Library website) in conjunction with the Saracens of King Horn could lead to interesting discussions about the conflation of race in medieval texts and some possibilities of what medieval readers might imagine. This would also allow students to experience firsthand the manuscript resources available for research projects. The end of the article brings in the Constance stories told by Gower and Chaucer, which compare British pagans with those from the Middle East through the parallel storylines rather than the strict conflation that seems to happen in the earlier examples.

Hamel, Mary. “The ‘Christening’ of Sir Priamus in the Alliterative Morte Arthure.” Viator 13 (1982): 295-307.

In this article, Hamel discusses the identity of Sir Priamus. Though Priamus is often interpreted as a Saracen, particularly since this is how he is depicted later, by Malory, Hamel argues that Priamus’ lineage is in fact complicated by a number of factors. One of these is his name and lineage which suggests Trojan, Greek, and Hebrew ancestors. Another is the slipperiness of time in the narrative; the alliterative Morte Arthure was written in the 14th century, based on 12th century sources, and tells the story of a likely 6th century Arthur. Since Priamus is lord over Alexandria, it is possible that he could be considered either a 6th century Byzantine Christian or a contemporary Muslim ruler of Alexandria. Hamel’s article deftly unpacks these layers of identity and meaning within the romance.

Nievergelt, Marco. “Conquest, Crusade, and Pilgrimage: The Alliterative Morte Arthure in its Late Ricardian Crusading Context.” Arthuriana 20, no. 2 (2010): 89-116.

Nievergelt’s article argues that the alliterative Morte Arthure explores contemporary issues such as the Hundred Years’ War, the Papal Schism, and Richard II’s crusade revival through the crusade rhetoric of the poem. Violence and religious devotion are entangled through references such as the giant of Mont St. Michel as a saint or the battle against him as a pilgrimage. This article doesn’t emphasize Saracen action in the poem but rather uses them to give meaning to Arthur’s Christian armies. Nievergelt claims that Lucius’ forces seem to be caricatures of evil Saracens that nonetheless closely resemble Arthur’s forces, blurring the line between Christian and Saracen.

Speed, Diane. “The Saracens of King Horn.” Speculum 65, no. 3 (1990): 564-95.

Speed’s article takes an unusual approach in that she questions the general assumption that the Saracens in King Horn must be Vikings or Danes. In doing so, Speed’s article can expand classroom discussion of Saracens in the text. In her article, Speed points out that in King Horn the Saracen invaders are never explicitly identified as Scandinavian in origin. Speed also notes that the Anglo-Norman source, Romance of Horn (c. 1170), identifies the Saracens as invaders from Africa. The Middle English version may have been altered in transmission to accommodate more English anxieties about invasion; however, Speed’s article troubles the easy delineation of King Horn’s Saracens as Viking invaders through a comparison of the romance with chansons de geste that may have influenced its depiction of Saracens.

Arthurian Saracens

King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table are among the most iconic figures in literature from the Middle Ages. Arthur’s kingdom is an idealized place of justice and chivalry, but the story of Camelot is typically tragic; Arthur’s kingdom generally falls because of Arthur’s personal weaknesses as a king and internal betrayals.

The Saracens in Middle English Arthurian literature tend to be the same sort of stock non-Christian romance villains that appear throughout this bibliography. However, the Saracen knight Palomides is an interesting deviation from the typical pattern, as he is a lone figure who becomes incorporated into the Round Table despite his foreign and non-Christian origins.

Primary Sources

Anonymous. Alliterative Morte Arthure. In King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure, edited by Larry D. Benson, 129-284. Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1974. Revised by Edward E. Foster. Kalamazoon, MI: 1994.

The alliterative Morte Arthure survives in a single manuscript, the Thornton manuscript, from the mid-15th century. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century History of the Kings of Britain is one of the main sources for this romance. The alliterative Morte Arthure details the rise and fall of King Arthur with particular attention to his role as a conqueror. As such, much of the poem is concerned with battle scenes. The Saracens appear in the Roman section of the poem, in which Arthur fights against the Emperor Lucius; the Saracens are from lands that owe fealty to Rome and are allied with Lucius against Arthur. These Saracens are largely from various eastern lands, and so it seems like the battle lines are drawn between a Western army and that of an Eastern, non-Christian army, similar to crusade literature. However, Mordred, whom Arthur has left as warden of England while he conquers Europe, also employs Saracens in his rebellious army. It is unclear where these Saracens come from, since the majority of his army is Saxon or from other pagan tribes native to the British Isles. Another point of interest is in the battle between Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, and Priamus, a pagan knight of noble lineage. Priamus is a self-described rebel to Rome, but he is never explicitly called a Saracen in the text.

 

This poem could provide an interesting medium to discuss the slippery nature of the term “Saracen,” which is most commonly used in relationship to non-Western peoples but can also simply mean “pagan.” This poem can be challenging for students due to its length and the antiquated diction frequently used in alliterative verse which can obscure the meaning of passages. However, reading the alliterative lines aloud showcases the sounds and energy that motivate the poem and can be an entertaining way to practice pronunciation and rhythm.

Anonymous. Sir Perceval of Galles. In Sir Perceval of Galles and Ywain and Gawain, edited by Mary Flowers Braswell, 1-76. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995.

The extant copy of Sir Perceval of Galles survives in the mid-15th century Thornton manuscript. The source for this romance is Chrétien de Troyes’ Conte del Graal. Perceval is a Fair Unknown romance. Fair Unknown texts are concerned with the growth of an inexperienced and unidentified young knight into a mature figure who learns of and has earned his noble heritage. Perceval’s mother Acheflour fled Arthur’s court because of the violence of the chivalric world; her husband was killed in a tournament, so she wished to raise her son where he would not become a knight. This does not succeed, and Perceval, a youth ignorant of courtly manners and even of God, makes his way to Arthur’s court to demand a knighthood of him. Perceval performs a series of trials, first against the Red Knight who is taunting Arthur and who killed Perceval’s father years before, then against the Sultan besieging Lady Lufamour, and finally against a giant, the Sultan’s brother, whom he encounters a year after he defeats the Sultan and marries the lady. The Sultan and other Saracen characters are fairly flat, stereotypical enemies, but the battles between Perceval and the knights are a bit unusual because of his lack of knowledge about proper knighthood. This is an entertaining Arthurian romance to read because Perceval is so delightfully dense; students will no doubt be amused by Perceval’s lack of knowledge about knightly behavior and his struggles to remove knights from their armor.

Anonymous. The Turke and Sir Gawain. In Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, edited by Thomas Hahn, 337-58. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995.

The Turke and Sir Gawain exists in a single manuscript, the Percy Folio, created c. 1650, although the dialect indicates it was written in the early 16th century. The word “Saracen” is never used in the text The Turke and Sir Gawain. However, as Thomas Hahn states in his introduction to this tale, the term “‘Turk’ defines otherness through geography, politics, religion and class” and is often used in conjunction with the term Saracen (338). This is also evident in the Middle English Dictionary, which includes Turk as a definition of Saracen.

Like the Sultan in King of Tars, the Turk is transformed from black Muslim to white Christian, but this conversion is more overtly violent, as it is a sword and not baptism that transforms the Turk. These two texts could be used together to illustrate different types of racial/religious violence. These texts show the threat behind conversion: be baptized or be killed. In The Turke, much of the threat is downplayed because it is the Turk who commands Gawain to behead him. He wants and even initiates his conversion.

Malory, Sir Thomas. Book of Sir Tristram de Lyonesse. Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript, edited by Helen Cooper, 169-309. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Reprinted 2008.

Helen Cooper’s edition of Malory is based upon the Winchester manuscript from the 1460s. Malory drew his text from a variety of sources, such as the alliterative Morte Arthure. Most of his sources are prose French romances like the Suite de Merlin, the prose Lancelot, the prose Tristan, and the Queste del Sainte Graal. Malory’s text is likely far too long to read in a classroom in its entirety, but it is fairly easy to excerpt key sections. One of the most interesting sections that represent Saracens is the Tristram section because it contains the story of Palomides, a Saracen knight who serves King Arthur. The Book of Sir Tristram is also quite long, so focusing on a couple of subsections is probably the best approach to teaching Palomides. I suggest looking at the first chapter of The Book of Sir Tristram, specifically pp.178-202, because this shows the introduction of Palomides to the narrative and focuses on his quarrel with Tristram for the love of Isolde. Also see the conclusion of the Book of Sir Tristram, pp. 304-09, for Palomides’ christening.

Palomides is an unusual figure because he competes in tournaments prior to his conversion, and he is partially incorporated into the chivalric world even before he is Christian. Primarily, he is Tristram’s rival for the love of La Beale Isolde, though his quest to win her love is ultimately doomed. Isolde does not desire Palomides’ love, but she protects him in battles with Tristram because she does not wish for him to die unchristened. In one instance, Isolde intervenes in a battle between her competing lovers, saying “I would be loath that he should die a Saracen” (p. 201). At the end of the Tristram section, Palomides converts, but this is basically the end of his narrative; immediately after he is christened, he goes seeking the mysterious Questing Beast. Although Palomides seems to fit the mold of the converted Saracen who is then integrated into Christian society, he, unlike the figures of Otuel or Firumbras, remains on the margins of Arthur’s court.

Secondary Sources

Armstrong, Dorsey. “The (Non-) Christian Knight in Malory: A Contradiction in Terms?” Arthuriana 16, no. 2 (Summer 2006): 30-3.

Armstrong succinctly analyzes the threat of religion to the chivalric cohesiveness of Arthur’s court; both paganness and extreme Christianity are a threat to the Round Table. Although “race” per se does not feature in Armstrong’s discussion, religion as a point of disunity is a theme that recurs throughout the texts of this bibliography. It seems important to include a source that looks not only at the threat of the “Other” religion, embodied by the Saracen knight Palomides, but also the threat of an internal, overbearing Christianity, as portrayed through the hyper-Christian Galahad.

Goodrich, Peter H. “Saracens and Islamic Alterity in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur.Arthuriana 16, no. 4 (2006): 10-28.

Goodrich argues that Malory generally represents Saracens as a conventional mass of non-Christian enemies. Goodrich briefly outlines minor Saracen groups and characters before moving to a closer study of Palomides, whom he identifies as the single significant Saracen character in Malory. Goodrich states that Palomides’ “uniqueness, coupled with the overall lack of Saracens in Malory’s romance, underlines the isolation of the Other” (17). Malory depicts Palomides far differently than in the source material, and Goodrich studies each of these differences to show how Malory’s Palomides exists on the outskirts of Arthur’s court and the Round Table. Students and instructors will find this article a useful resource for a general overview of Malory’s treatment of Saracens in relation to chivalric concerns and as a detailed analysis of the character of Palomides, specifically.

Hamel, Mary. “The ‘Christening’ of Sir Priamus in the Alliterative Morte Arthure.” Viator 13 (1982): 295-307.

In this article, Hamel discusses the identity of Sir Priamus. Though Priamus is often interpreted as a Saracen, particularly since this is how he is depicted later, by Malory, Hamel argues that Priamus’ lineage is in fact complicated by a number of factors. One of these is his name and lineage which suggests Trojan, Greek, and Hebrew ancestors. Another is the slipperiness of time in the narrative; the alliterative Morte Arthure was written in the 14th century, based on 12th century sources, and tells the story of a likely 6th century Arthur. Since Priamus is lord over Alexandria, it is possible that he could be considered either a 6th century Byzantine Christian or a contemporary Muslim ruler of Alexandria. Hamel’s article deftly unpacks these layers of identity and meaning within the romance.

Nievergelt, Marco. “Conquest, Crusade, and Pilgrimage: The Alliterative Morte Arthure in its Late Ricardian Crusading Context.” Arthuriana 20, no. 2 (2010): 89-116.

Nievergelt’s article argues that the alliterative Morte Arthure explores contemporary issues such as the Hundred Years’ War, the Papal Schism, and Richard II’s crusade revival through the crusade rhetoric of the poem. Violence and religious devotion are entangled through references such as the giant of Mont St. Michel as a saint or the battle against him as a pilgrimage. This article doesn’t emphasize Saracen actions in the poem but rather uses them to give meaning to Arthur’s Christian armies. Nievergelt claims that Lucius’ forces seem to be caricatures of evil Saracens that nonetheless closely resemble Arthur’s forces, blurring the line between Christian and Saracen.

de Weever, Jacqueline, ed. Special Issue “Saracens in Malory.” Arthuriana 16, no. 4 (Winter 2006).

This special issue of Arthuriana is dedicated to understanding the term “Saracen” as it appears in Malory’s Morte Darthur. All of the articles are of interest to scholars of Saracens, and the introduction is particularly good for giving background of the use of the term and of Palomides, the Round Table’s Saracen knight.

Articles:

  • Jacqueline de Weever. “Introduction: The Saracen as Narrative Knot,” 4-9.
  • Meg Roland. “Arthur and the Turks,” 10-28.
  • Donald L. Hoffman. “Assimilating Saracens: The Aliens in Malory’s Morte Darthur,” 43-64.
  • Maghan Keita. “Saracens and Black Knights,” 65-77.

Part Three: Jews

As with the Saracens, an accurate representation of Jewish belief is not important to the Middle English writers representing the Jews. Jewish figures are as likely to be seen worshipping an idol of Appolyon or calling out to Mahoun as a Saracen is. However, Jews are infrequently seen in romance or crusade texts; though they are often depicted, like Saracens, as enemies to Christians, they are not typically chivalric enemies. Jews do not often appear as important figures in secular tales. Instead, they are often featured in stories with religious agendas, like Marian miracles or mystery plays.

According to the MED, a Jew is “(a) one of the Jewish race or religion, one following the Mosaic law in biblical or post-biblical times,… (b) one of the Jews of the New Testament.”14 This definition makes it clear that “Jew” is not simply a religious designation but is also a racial category. Unlike “Saracen,” a term which seems to encompass multiple ethnicities and geographies, such as Turk or Arab, Jews seem to be considered largely homogenous. This does not mean that they were simpler figures; in fact, medieval Christians had a very complicated relationship with Jews. One of the paradoxes of the Christian faith is that it is founded on Judaism, and as such, Old Testament figures are revered as the patriarchs of Christianity. However, this reverence becomes problematic with the Passion of Christ; in medieval Christian discourse, Jews feature as those primarily held responsible for the killing of Christ. As such, they become associated with a number of negative characteristics, such as blindness—for not recognizing Christ’s divinity—murder, and treachery. These negative associations continue through accusations of blood libel and ritual murder against Jews. These libels were stories about Jews murdering Christian youths, which often resulted in real-life mob actions against Jewish communities.15 The English fascination with these stories seems especially odd considering that in 1290, the Jews were expelled from England by royal decree.

Bale, Anthony. The Jew in the Medieval Book: English Antisemitisms, 1350-1500. Cambridge UP, 2006.

Bale’s study examines the link between antisemitism and English devotional culture in four different genres of texts: history, miracle, cult, and the Arma Christi poems. His primary focus is English literature; however, he mentions analogues in other languages frequently throughout this chapter. This helps to situate English artifacts within the larger tradition that he’s discussing, pointing out overlaps and divergences and explaining what they mean. This text is extremely useful for students who are unfamiliar with the larger conversation of these genres. Chapter 3, which focuses on the “miracle of the boy singer,” is of special interest to anyone studying Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale” or the boy-singer Marian miracle more generally.

Chazan, Robert. “The deteriorating image of the Jews—Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries.” In Christendom and its Discontents: Exclusion, Persecution, and Rebellion, 1000-1500, edited by Scott L. Waugh and Peter D. Diehl, 220-33. Cambridge UP, 1996.

This essay studies the increasingly negative views of Jews in northern Europe from 1000-1500. Though not focused exclusively on England, Jewish presence in England is an important aspect of this essay. This study can be used to situate English ideas within a larger European landscape during these centuries. It can give a deeper context to the 1290 Expulsion by highlighting ideas circulating elsewhere in Europe. Chazan’s goal with this essay “is to identify those factors that gave rise to this deteriorating image of Jews” (222); so rather than focusing on what the image was, as many other essays in this bibliography do, he is attempting to trace the historical reasons behind this image, which would help to round out a more literary-critical approach to texts.

—. The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom 1000-1500. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Most history books focus on the history of the dominant culture and have a limited view of minority cultures. Instead, Chazan’s book focuses on the history of Jewish communities in Europe, and European history is characterized in relation to these communities, which makes this history book an excellent source for anyone studying medieval Jews and who doesn’t want to wade through mountains of extraneous material. Chazan’s prose is clear, and the book is arranged into chapters both geographically and thematically, so it is easy to navigate and target just the information you need. The framing chapters look at the bigger picture of Jewish communities as a whole across Europe between the years 1000-1500. One of the biggest changes during this time is geographical; prior to 1000 Jews typically lived in the Middle East and Africa and after this time they began moving more steadily into Europe, which is also around the time we start seeing an increase of anti-Jewish polemic in Christian discourse—and vice-versa. These framing chapters are useful for understanding what is happening within Jewish communities of the late medieval period and for understanding the overall consequences of these changes throughout Europe.

On a more specific—but equally helpful—level, Chazan dedicates the central chapters of his text to specific geographical locations, such as a chapter on Northern France and England. These chapters provide detailed information about historical events concerning Jews in these areas and would pair especially well with literature created in those locations.

Delany, Sheila, ed. Chaucer and the Jews: Sources, Contexts, Meanings. New York: Routledge, 2002.

This collection of essays engages with the wide range of meanings that could be embodied through and associated with the figure of the Jew. The collection is divided into 3 parts: Chaucer texts, Chaucerian contexts, and Chaucer, Jews, and Us. The first two sections have a number of essays analyzing how and why Jews are represented as they are in the texts of Chaucer and his contemporaries, which would be of interest to students and teachers alike. The third section is of more interest to instructors, since it engages with pedagogical questions involved in teaching Chaucer. Essays of particular interest to this bibliography are:

  • Sheila Delany. “Chaucer’s Prioress, the Jews, and the Muslims,” 43-58.
  • Sylvia Tomasch. “Postcolonial Chaucer and the Virtual Jew,” 69-86.
  • Elisa Narin van Court. “The Siege of Jerusalem and Augustinian Historians: Writing About Jews in Fourteenth-Century England,” 165-85.
  • Colin Richmond. “Englishness and Medieval Anglo-Jewry,” 213-28.

Jones, Sarah Rees and Sethina Watson, eds. Christians and Jews in Angevin England: the York Massacre of 1190, Narratives and Contexts. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2013.

This collection of essays takes an interdisciplinary approach to the York Massacre of 1190. The text argues that it is an integral part of English history that is largely ignored outside of specialized classes and books. This collection’s organization into three interrelated parts—“The Events of 1190,” “Jews among Christians in Medieval England,” and “Representations”—is helpful for students and instructors who are looking for historical accounts of the events, a sense of the socio-cultural experience of Jews in England, and/or analysis of how Middle English authors understood and represented Jews. This is an excellent resource for a deeper sense of the historical realities of Jews in medieval England.

Signer, Michael A. and John Van Engen, eds. Jews and Christians in Twelfth-Century Europe. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001.

As eloquently stated in the introduction to this collection of essays, this book presents a more unified narrative of Christian-Jewish relations in northwestern Europe. This collection shows the complexity of a mutual relationship—the points of intersection and cross-influence between Christians and Jews—rather than the Christo-centric, one-sided view presented by many Middle English and, more generally, medieval texts (and, due to the scope of this project on Middle English literature, the majority of texts included in this bibliography). The essays in this collection situate specific Christian-Jewish encounters within Europe as a whole, highlighting for both students and instructors that though representations and cultural encounters are always time- and place-specific, they do not occur in isolation. England, though unique in many ways and separated geographically from the continent, was not isolated from the ideas and events of continental Europe. Essays of particular interest to this bibliography include:

  • John Van Engen. “Introduction: Jews and Christians Together in the Twelfth Century,” 1-8.
  • Robert Chazan. “From the First Crusade to the Second: Evolving Perceptions of the Christian-Jewish Conflict,” 46-62.
  • Robert C. Stacey. “Jews and Christians in Twelfth-Century England: Some Dynamics of a Changing Relationship,” 340-54.

Skinner, Patricia, ed. The Jews in Medieval Britain: Historical, Literary, and Archaeological Perspectives. Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2003.

This collection of essays takes a similar, interdisciplinary approach to that edited by Jones and Watson—or, more accurately, since it was written ten years earlier, Jones and Watson take a similar approach to Skinner. This collection focuses on a broader view of Jews in Britain rather than just the events of York 1190. The collection is organized into two parts: “The History of the Jews in Britain” and “Case Studies and New Evidence.” The essays focus on British history from 1066-1290, though Skinner points out in her introduction that there may have been some Jewish presence prior to the Norman Conquest and there was certainly a lasting influence post-Expulsion. Skinner’s introduction is also useful in giving a general overview of the study of medieval Jewry and how it has been largely neglected by British history, except as a specialty field. Of particular use to students is a map of 12th century Jewish communities which codes communities by the source that lists them (14).

Stacey, Robert C. “King Henry III and the Jews.” In Jews in Medieval Christendom: “Slay Them Not,” edited by Kristine T. Utterback and Merrall Llewelyn Price, 117-27. Boston: Brill, 2013.

This historical article studies the entanglement of royal policy and Henry III’s personal regard for Jews in thirteenth-century England. Stacey begins by briefly outlining the series of taxes, attacks against Jews, and laws that, taken together, bankrupted Jewish communities in England. The main focus of this article is an examination of Henry’s attitude toward Jews and how much this influenced government policies. Stacey concludes that Henry viewed the Jews negatively, since he sought to convert and support converted Jews en masse and individually. Henry also legitimized the ritual murder accusation against the Jewish community in the case of Hugh of Lincoln. This article can be used to contextualize many of the Jewish texts in this bibliography, especially those concerned with Marian miracles or libels.

Libels

Jewish figures appear most frequently in Middle English texts in conjunction with libelous accusations of violent intent against Christians. Geraldine Heng outlines three distinct but interrelated accusations that circulate most frequently.16 The first is the ritual murder libel in which Jews are accused of reenacting the Passion upon young Christian boys. This is especially closely related to the blood libel, in which Jews bake the blood of Christian boys into Passover matzo. The third accusation is that Jews steal the Eucharist and torture it in order to reenact the Passion. These fictional crimes are imbued with ritualistic overtones and suggest that the Jews as a group are heavily invested in actively opposing Christians. The libels allow medieval Christians to imagine the Jews as potentially dangerous figures living among them, and there are historical instances of mob and juridical violence linked to these stories. The most famous of these anti-Jewish attacks occurred in Lincoln in 1255. A young Christian boy, Hugh, was found murdered, the Jews were accused of the crime, and at least eighteen Jews were found guilty and hanged for the crime.17 Hugh of Lincoln is the martyred Christian boy that Chaucer’s Prioress invokes at the end of her tale.

 

Primary Sources

Anonymous. The Play of the Sacrament. In Medieval Drama, edited by David Bevington, 754-88. Hougton Mifflin, 1975. Reprinted Hackett Publishing Co, Inc., 2012.

The Croxton Play of the Sacrament (hereafter referred to as Croxton) survives in a single 16th century manuscript, Dublin, Trinity MS F.4.20. The play itself can be dated to after 1461, but a more specific composition date is not known. Croxton dramatizes the host desecration libel made against Jews. This a text that modern readers and students in particular struggle with because it is extremely anti-Semitic but also humorous at times, and it is difficult to reconcile the two. This play is more troublesome because the banns claim that the events depicted actually happened, and one can imagine the real social and political effect this may have had on listening audiences. In this play, Jonathas and his cohort—all Jews—purchase the Eucharist from a clerk in order to test to see if it is actually the true flesh of Christ. They perform various tortures upon the host and the miracles that ensue—the wafer bleeds, Jonathas’ hand comes off when it becomes attached to the wafer, Jesus appears and berates the Jews, etc.—cause the Jews to become believers and convert to Christianity.

Bevington’s edition is one of the standard anthologies of dramas used in the classroom. His brief introduction gives some background information on host desecration stories and where this play fits generically within medieval drama. He also gives excellent information about staging practices.

Boyd, Beverly. The Middle English Miracles of the Virgin. San Marino, CA: The Huntington Library, 1964.

This collection is an excellent sampling of Marian miracles from a variety of Middle English sources, including Thomas Hoccleve, the Vernon MS, the Auchinleck MS, and the South English Legendary. Many of these stories are considered sources or analogues of “The Prioress’s Tale” and could spark interesting student conversations in conjunction with the “Prioress’s Tale.” The stories are generally short and clearly labeled by manuscript and approximate dating. In addition to the tales themselves, Boyd’s introduction to the volume gives a brief overview of what Marian miracles are and their transmission history. As she says herself “the tales are an interesting cross section of medieval thought, culture, and narrative traditions” (10) and will help give deeper context to any class engaging with “The Prioress’s Tale.”

Generally, Marian miracles show the Virgin Mary acting as an intercessor in human salvation. Some, such as the example of “The Pilgrim of St. James,” show Mary facing off with Satan for the possession of a man’s soul. Though a man dies in sin, Mary returns him to life so he has a chance to perform penance and purify his soul for Heaven. In these sorts of stories, Mary is a source of mercy and salvation. Marian miracles are also infamous for their anti-Judaic content, such as with “The Child Slain by Jews,” a close analogue to Chaucer’s tale. “The Jewish Boy” is another problematic narrative, in which a Jewish father throws his son into an oven after the boy goes to church. The child is saved from burning by Mary “that maiden milde” [that mild maiden] (157) whom he recognizes from her icon in the church. The boy’s mother is converted by the miracle, and the father is sentenced to burn in the oven. Both of these narratives seem to fall within the murder libel stereotype, in which a Jew is responsible for killing a child, generally a Christian child.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Prioress’s Tale.” The Riverside Chaucer, Third Edition, edited by Larry Benson, 209-11. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

“The Prioress’s Tale” is, for modern readers, one of Chaucer’s most controversial stories. Set in “Asye” [Asia], it pulls characteristics from Marian miracle tales, in which an innocent Christian youth is murdered by Jews. In this story, a “litel clergeon” [little schoolboy] who demonstrates Christian piety by singing “O alma redemptoris mater” as he traverses the Jewish quarter in order to reach his school, is murdered by a Jewish assassin and hidden in the privy. He is discovered by his mother and other Christian townfolk by his miraculous singing, which continues after his throat has been cut. The Jews are summarily tried and executed, and the clergeon relates the miracle to the local priest: the Virgin Mary placed a grain on his tongue, and he will cease singing when it is removed. The priest removes the grain and the litel clergeon falls silent and is buried. The Prioress concludes her tale by reminding her audience of Hugh of Lincoln, a young boy who was supposedly killed by Jews in 1255. Chaucer is such a canonical medieval author, that this text should be included in any discussion of libel stories or representations of Jews in the Middle Ages. This text could also be used in conjunction with its Marian analogues to demonstrate the popularity of such stereotypes.

Secondary Sources

Besserman, Lawrence. “Ideology, Antisemitism, and Chaucer’s ‘Prioress’s Tale.’” The Chaucer Review 36, no. 1 (2001): 48-72.

This text, while primarily a critique of applying modern ideologies to medieval works (and Louise O. Fradenburg’s “Criticism, Anti-Semitism, and the ‘Prioress’s Tale,’”18 specifically), is a useful resource to students for a number of reasons. The article provides an overview of the history of Chaucer criticism, which, since the essay was published in 2001, is a bit dated now but still helpful in giving a sense of older trends. Besserman also defines “ideology” in its various uses, which is a good refresher for upper level students and a solid introduction to literary criticism for lower level students. Besserman discusses in depth the perils of approaching medieval works from a modern perspective rather than trying to discern medieval values inherent in the text, which can be especially challenging when dealing with a difficult topic, such as antisemitism.

Boyarin, Adrienne Williams. Miracles of the Virgin in Medieval England: Law and Jewishness in Marian Legends. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2010.

Boyarin’s monograph focuses on the short miracle stories that are commonly known as Marian miracles. Marian stories appear in vernacular collections in a variety of European languages—and also in Arabic and African languages (4). Boyarin is interested in investigating what happened in England in the 250-year gap between the development of these tales in Latin and their apparent vernacular popularity in the 15th century; though they appear in some earlier collections, in England, the popularity is not comparable to that of Europe in general until later.

Boyarin’s book is a comprehensive source for anyone studying Marian miracles in England. For those who are thinking about Marian miracles in terms of “The Prioress’s Tale” and other singular miracle stories, the introduction and first chapter of the book are excellent resources. The introduction gives a general overview of the book itself, as one might expect, but it also gives an account of historical developments of Marian devotion. The first chapter is especially useful for understanding the troubled nature of categorizing Marian miracles in the English tradition and the relationship between Latin miracles and the later vernacular miracles. Boyarin also summarizes and analyzes specific miracle stories within this chapter.

Fenn, Jessica. “Apostrophe, Devotion, and Anti-Semitism: Rhetorical Community in the Prioress’s Prologue and Tale.” Studies in Philology 110, no. 3 (2013): 432-58.

Fenn argues that speech is a communal act and that the Prioress’s performance is meant to highlight the use of speech in creating community. Her tale does this through repetition of formulaic phrases in common use in late medieval England. These sayings are “the repeated and repetitive vehicles of anti-Semitic attitudes and relations” (434); these sayings, often in the form of apostrophe in the “Prioress’s Tale,” unite the Christians into a community inspired by both devotion to God and hostility toward the Jews. The Christian community is united—as the tale is—by this dual position. Fenn’s article emphasizes how the “Prioress’s Tale’s” structure as well as content is implicated in anti-Semitism.

Friedman, Albert. “The Prioress’s Tale and Chaucer’s Anti-Semitism.” The Chaucer Review 9, no. 2 (1974): 118-29.

Friedman argues that the “Prioress’s Tale” demonstrates Chaucer’s anti-Semitism. Friedman states that critics struggle with the tale because though the clergeon’s murder lacks the ritual aspects, it keeps alive the ritual murder discourse. Critics often attempt to recuperate Chaucer by displacing the anti-Semitism of the tale onto the Prioress rather than the poet. Friedman objects to this displacement by stating that anti-Semitism and Christian piety are closely associated during the Middle Ages, explicitly so through certain prayers and devotions. The Tale, he argues, is well-crafted to evoke sympathy and piety, even if it is overly sentimental and the teller is somewhat suspect. This is a foundational article for scholars of all levels.

Hamel, Mary. “And Now for Something Completely Different: The Relationship Between the Prioress’s Tale and the Rime of Sir Thopas.” The Chaucer Review 14, no. 3 (1980): 251-59.

Hamel’s article tries to recuperate Chaucer the poet by describing the anti-Semitism as a rhetorical device that interrogates Jewish stereotyping as Christian enemies. She claims that Chaucer was “most capable of recognizing the Jews’ bogeyman image for what it was” (258). Chaucer exposes the Jew as bogeyman through the relationship of “The Rime of Sir Thopas” and the “Prioress’s Tale.” Hamel states that parallels between the stories—specifically the repeated image of gem and lily in both tales and Thopas’ and the clergeon’s devotion to an unknown and powerful woman—create a loose association that allows the overtly ridiculous “The Rime of Sir Thopas” to undermine the legitimacy of anti-Semitism in the “Prioress’s Tale.”

Krummel, Miriamne Ara. “Impossible Desires and Fabulistic Dreams: Conversion in the Croxton Play.” In Crafting Jewishness in Medieval England: Legally Absent, Virtually Present, 137-55. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Krummel argues that the anti-Semitism in Croxton manifests itself not as a desire to destroy but a desire to convert and create a unified Christian community. This play is a fantasy of anxiety about the proximity of Jews; here, Jewish and Christian behavior overlaps in regard to mercantilism. The play seeks to eliminate this anxiety by transforming Jewishness into a unified Christian community. The genuine contrition of Jonathas and his fellows seems to cement their conversion. However, Krummel argues that the play ends with a new problem: how permanent is Jonathas’ conversion? Krummel posits that Croxton does not create Christian purity but rather a Christian-Jewish hybrid identity that is irresolvable. Croxton “introduced the likelihood that Jewish and Christian identities are not only intertwined but also porous” (154). This article deals with complex theoretical issues that might be a bit too advanced for lower level students.

Lampert, Lisa. “Creating the Christian in Late Medieval East Anglian Drama.” In Gender and Jewish Difference from Paul to Shakespeare, 101-37. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

In this chapter, Christian identity is explored through the figures of the Jew and the woman in Croxton and N-Town, respectively. The boundaries of Christian identity and belief are tested via these liminal and doubting figures. Lampert discusses the symbolism of the punishment of the withered hand that appears in both of these texts. The hand represents the literal and carnal over the spiritual, but once faith is proclaimed, the figures are made miraculously whole once again. Lampert argues that the audience is able to question faith through these doubting figures and be reintegrated back into the Christian community alongside them once faith is restored. However, this integration is partial. The Jews of Croxton disappear at the end, suggesting that there are limits to Christian universality, and these liminal spaces, while constructing Christianity, can also show how fragile it is by revealing it as made through actions rather than being innate.

—-. “Reprioritizing the Prioress’s Tale.” In Gender and Jewish Difference from Paul to Shakespeare, 58-100. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

This chapter contextualizes the functions of Jewish figures within not just the commonly-cited “Prioress’s Tale,” but within Fragments VII and VIII of the Canterbury Tales, the sections that surround and give meaning to the “Prioress’s Tale.” Lampert reads the Tale as a response to the “moral chaos” (72) of the “Shipman’s Tale,” in which boundaries are complicated by the merchant’s practice of usury. The “Prioress’s Tale” seeks to assert clear boundaries between Jewish and Christian identity through the clergeon’s martyrdom by the Jews. “The Second Nun’s Tale,” also one of the frames of the “Prioress’s Tale,” though focusing more on the role of female piety, “draw[s] upon an opposition to non-Christian blindness (and hence to Jewishness) in order to define Christian identity” (91). The pagans who martyr St. Cecilia are parallel—though not identical—to the Jews in the “Prioress’s Tale.” This book chapter highlights the flexible role of Jewishness in these tales, even when Jews are not explicitly present. The chapter also helps to give students a sense of how the meaning of the Chaucer’s tales change in relation to each other. This would be a good addition to any Chaucer class.

Langmuir, Gavin I. “The Knight’s Tale of Young Hugh of Lincoln.” Speculum 47, no. 3 (1972): 459-82.

This article is one of the older critical texts included in this bibliography, and it is included as one of the initial studies of Hugh of Lincoln’s death and the aftermath which influenced the development of the ritual murder libel and boy martyr cult tradition in England. Langmuir makes clear that although in some cases actual boys died or were killed, ritual murder itself is a fantasy that nonetheless had real-world consequences for the Jewish communities who were targeted and killed. The primary focus of this article is England, but Langmuir also includes some continental sources. He studies the various histories that include mentions of Hugh—including Matthew Paris’ Chronicle, the Burton annals, and the Waverly annals—in order to analyze the inconsistencies between them. The second half of the article discusses the background of John de Lexinton, a member of Henry III’s household who was responsible for investigating Hugh’s death.

 

Rubin, Miri. Gentile Tales: The Narrative Assault on Late Medieval Jews. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Rubin’s study of the host desecration stories that circulated during the late Middle Ages was groundbreaking at the time of publication and remains one of the most informative monographs on this topic. She traces its inception during the late thirteenth century and its evolution. Rubin looks at the narrative within the context of its historical moment, both as giving meaning to and taking meaning from the historical events that occurred contemporaneously with host desecration narratives. Most of the surviving texts are from the position of Christian authorities; these, like most of the texts in this bibliography, are medieval Christian texts about Jews. Despite that, Rubin makes clear, she’s interested not only in finding the violent moments in which people seem incited by the tale but also in finding evidence of Christian resistance to this stereotypical representation of Jews.

In addition to thoroughly examining the Christian representation of this narrative, Rubin also provides a brief glimpse at the other side of the story in what she calls “Interjection: What did Jews Think of the Eucharist? According to Jews and According to Christians.” In these 10 or so pages, there are excerpts from Christian and Jewish sources concerning the nature of the Eucharist, and Rubin discusses how the language of these polemics changes over time and how we can see the increased stakes in protecting the Eucharist and transubstantiation after Lateran IV. For students, this is also great exposure to a variety of primary texts and gives a sense of the sort of religious dialogue that may have been active while texts like “The Prioress’s Tale” or Croxton were written and read.

 

The Vengeance of Our Lord

The “Vengeance of Our Lord” is a narrative tradition in which the Jewish figures in the narrative are punished by the righteous vengeance of God for their complicity in Christ’s death. This narrative depicts the historical war between the Jews and the Romans, culminating in the sacking of Jerusalem and destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. This tradition emphasizes the triumph of Christianity over Judaism and has appeared in a variety of genres in the later Middle Ages.19

 

Anonymous. Siege of Jerusalem, edited by Michael Livingston. Kalamazoo, MI: TEAMS Middle English Text Series, Medieval Institute Publications, 2004.

The Siege of Jerusalem survives in nine manuscripts. It is believed by Ralph Hanna and others to have been composed in the 1370s-80s in Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire. Bodleian Library MS Laud Misc. 656 is the base-text for this edition. This late 14th-century alliterative romance is infamous for its rampant anti-Semitism. In this retelling of the destruction of Jerusalem, Vespasian and Titus, father and son Roman generals and future emperors, are anachronistically converted to Christianity when they are miraculously healed of various physical ailments. This conflict therefore becomes not a matter of lapsed tribute between Judea and old, pagan, corrupt Rome under Nero, but instead retribution for the death of Christ and a sort of mass conversion and triumph of Christendom over both pagan Rome and the old law of the Jews.

This poem has been infrequently studied due to its difficult subject matter. The Siege of Jerusalem, despite having a fairly straightforward narrative logic of the destruction of Jerusalem, is complicated in its depiction of Jewish figures. On one level, they are the enemy that must be punished and utterly destroyed for killing Christ, and the overall plot of the poem moves toward this end. The violence against Jewish bodies is spectacular and moves beyond the stock violence of missing limbs and decapitations typically found in romance. Caiaphas and his clerks are flayed alive in a particularly horrific scene, and the torment of their deaths is compounded by the psychological suffering of the besieged Jews who witness the torture of their former leaders. But even during what should be dehumanizing moments, we as readers are not allowed to forget that the Jews are people. They are filled with grief, and when they witness these atrocities, many fling themselves from the walls of Jerusalem in woe. Even Titus, their destroyer, feels pity for the physical privation of the starving Jews. The Jews of this poem exist in a paradoxical space in which they must be destroyed (and medieval readers familiar with the history would know that the fall of Jerusalem is the conclusion of this story) but at the same time this destruction is intensely conflicted because of the physical suffering. This intersection of spectacular violence and pity is one reason that this narrative is so difficult to deal with. The Siege of Jerusalem is an important representation of this tradition but only more mature students would likely be able to cope with the subject matter.

 

Secondary Sources

 

Chism, Christine. “Profiting from Precursors in The Siege of Jerusalem.” In Alliterative Revivals, 155-88. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

 

Chism identifies a number of 14th century Christian concerns that motivate the Siege of Jerusalem. The first is the need to neutralize the Jewish “threat” as the source and potential rival of Christianity. The text both exploits and destroys the Jews, highlighting tensions between the Augustinian doctrine of tolerance and growing anti-Semitism. The second is a need to unite Christendom at a time of great anxiety about Christian fractiousness and eastern military threats. The third is a need for wealth; Jerusalem and even Jewish bodies are destroyed and converted to the wealth of a new Christian empire. Chism also discusses the relationship between Jews and Saracens in the romance. She states that though the Jews are associated with romance Saracens through exotic trappings and the crusading impulse against them, they do not simply stand in for Saracens. This article demonstrates the complexity of Jewish-Christian relations and creates an interesting conversation between the Siege of Jerusalem and other crusading literature that does focus solely on Saracens as the enemy, and as such is a valuable resource for students and instructors alike.

 

Hanna, Ralph III. “Contextualizing The Siege of Jerusalem.The Yearbook of Langland Studies 6 (1992): 109-21.

This article is a foundational text for any study of the Siege of Jerusalem, famous for referring to the poem as “the chocolate-covered tarantula of the alliterative movement” (109). Hanna discusses the violence of the poem, in particular how physical violence becomes transformed into “‘ennobling’ acts of racial violence” (111). It is this transformation, which legitimizes the annihilation of all non-Christians as a divine act of purification, that is so disturbing to modern readers. The latter half of the article contextualizes the authorship and manuscript transmission of the poem, linking its conception to Yorkshire, and suggesting possible uses of the text in regard to actual violence against Jewish communities (as occurred in York) or, even later, against Lollards.

 

Schiff, Randy P. “The Instructive Other Within: Secularized Jews in The Siege of Jerusalem.” In Cultural Diversity in the British Middle Ages: Archipelago, Island, England, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, 135-52. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

In this article, Schiff takes an unusual critical position in that he reads the characters of the Jews not as strictly anti-Semitic but instead sees them as ambiguously positioned as having an “instructive yet simultaneously debased” role in the text (135). The prowess and suffering embodied by the Jews places them in a sympathetic position and instead the reader is meant to critique the motives and behavior of a Roman Empire which is a symbolic stand-in for England. This poem is primarily about anxieties about English imperialistic tendencies in the 14th century. This article could be used with students to demonstrate the unstable signifier that “Jew” truly was during the medieval period and to show that representations can be complicated and infused with multiple meanings. Schiff parallels the Jews and King Arthur’s court in their refusal to pay tribute to Rome. Jews are shown to be competent and brave warriors and not without the bravado evident in some of Arthur’s knights, like Gawain, in the alliterative Morte Arthure. Schiff’s article suggests interesting ways of pairing seemingly unrelated texts and rethinking knightly behavior.

 

Mystery Plays

The mystery plays were an important part of medieval culture and celebration of biblical matters. These plays, of which we have four main groupings—York, N-town, Towneley, and Chester—tell the full scope of biblical history from the Creation to the Final Judgment. As such, these plays are especially interesting in relation to Jewish figures. The Jewish patriarchs are presented positively and revered throughout these texts, but the Jews are also blamed extensively for the murder of Christ in the Passion Plays of these cycles. These plays can be an interesting way of demonstrating to students the complicated relationship that medieval Christians had to Judaism. Additionally, many of these plays have been performed and recorded in recent years, and the viewing of these plays can add a multimedia dimension to the classroom.

In a previous volume of this journal, Scott O’Neil has compiled an excellent bibliography on medieval drama and its possible pedagogical uses. For an in-depth consideration of these cycle plays, I highly recommend his bibliography as a resource.

Price, Merrall Llewelyn. “Re-membering the Jews: Theatrical Violence in the N-Town Marian Plays.” In Comparative Drama 41, no. 4 (2007/2008): 439-63.

Price examines the Marian miracles of the mystery plays—the N-Town cycle, specifically—in relation to the power of Mary’s virgin body. In N-Town’s “Nativity,” one of Mary’s Jewish midwives doubts Mary’s virginity after Christ’s birth, touches Mary to determine the truth, and is afflicted with a withered hand. When she repents and converts, she is healed. Price convincingly argues that Marian miracles that end with conversions rather than death are equally anti-Semitic, since the Jewish presence is obliterated either way. There is a similar moment in “The Assumption,” where a Jewish priest attempts to defile Mary’s funeral bier and is punished until he repents. In addition to discussing N-Town itself, this article identifies other Middle English versions of these miracles, which can be especially helpful to give students a sense of the popularity of these stories. Price also provides brief historical context for the development of the figure of the “doubting Jew” in relation to the Cult of the Virgin and the discourse of Marian miracles as a whole. This article could be useful in discussing N-Town or as an addition to a course that already includes “The Prioress’s Tale.”

Saracens and Jews

Mandeville, Sir John. The Book of John Mandeville, edited by Tamarah Kohanski and C. David Benson. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2007.

The Book of John Mandeville is generally believed to have been written first in French (c. 1357). Mandeville exists in hundreds of manuscripts in a variety of languages. There are five distinct English versions that survive in over forty manuscripts. The Defective version is believed to be the most popular, since it survives in about thirty-five manuscripts. This edition of the text is based upon British Library MS Royal 17 C. xxxviii, one of the Defective version manuscripts.

Mandeville is an unusual text in that it claims to be a factual travel narrative written by Sir John Mandeville but is actually a compilation of various sources dealing with matters of the East. Despite this, Mandeville was likely a very popular medieval text, as it appears in numerous manuscripts in various languages. This text is unique in this bibliography in that it explicitly refers to both Saracens and Jews, and I have singled this text out in its own section because much of the meaning derived from these figures seems to be in the way the author relates them to each other.

Mandeville is perhaps best known for its depiction of the monstrous races of the Far East, but it is also frequently cited by critics for its unusually tolerant views of Saracens. The narrator praises the Sultan of Babylon for his respectful protection of the holy places of Jerusalem, and even claims that the Saracens revere the places where holy patriarchs are buried. Islam is described as so close to Christianity that Saracens are easily converted. This imagined convertibility, along with reverence that the Saracens display for Christian holy places, is doubtless a reassuring view of the non-Christians who held Jerusalem at that time. Additionally, according to the narrator, the Sultan says that the Saracens are able to hold Jerusalem only because of the sins of the Christians. If they repent, they will be too powerful to resist. The reformed Christians will recover the holy land and convert the Saracens, successfully spreading Christianity throughout the world.

In a sharp contrast to this relatively benign view of the Saracens, the Jews who are mentioned in Mandeville are particularly ill-regarded. There is a monstrous race of Jews mentioned in Chapter 19 of the text, who are called the kin of Gog Magog. Alexander chased these Jews into the hills and prayed to God to imprison them there. The Jews will remain in the hills until the time of the Anti-Christ when they will emerge to torment the Christians. The narrator adds that because these men speak only Hebrew, all Jews must learn Hebrew so they can understand each other. The narrator is thus presenting the Jews as maliciously united against Christians, biding their time until the Apocalypse.

Secondary Sources

Braude, Benjamin. “Mandeville’s Jews among Others.” In Pilgrims & Travelers to the Holy Land, edited by Bryan F. Le Beau and Menachem Mor, 133-58. Nebraska: Creighton UP, 1996.

In this article, Braude argues that Mandeville presents a remarkably universal tolerance toward the diversity of humanity presented in his text. However, this tolerance does not extend to the Jews, and Mandeville seems to deliberately represent them as evil. Braude discusses the Ten Lost Tribes of Jews who were imprisoned in a hill by Alexander the Great and how Mandeville links the freedom of these Jews to the coming Antichrist. Braude also traces how this particular story was retold by later authors. The clarity of Braude’s argument makes this article appropriate for both instructors and students who are interested in depictions of Jews in Mandeville.

Grady, Frank. “‘Machomete’ and Mandeville’s Travels.” In Medieval Christian Perceptions of Islam: A Book of Essays, edited by John Victor Tolan, 271-88. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996.

This article provides a detailed analysis of the Saracen chapters in Mandeville. Grady draws connections between the Sultan’s speech against Christian sinfulness and the narrator’s similar speech in the Prologue, but stresses that this is a rhetorical strategy that goes beyond “simple ventriloquism” (274). The narrator makes a concerted effort to legitimize the Sultan’s authority through “his ability to manage his realm effectively and magnificently” (274) in order to lend the Sultan a sort of superiority which allows him to criticize the vices of Christians. The faithfulness of the Saracens is repeatedly emphasized throughout these passages. Although the Saracens are generally depicted more positively than many of the other texts in this bibliography, Grady ultimately concludes that we as readers should not be distracted by this apparent acceptance of difference. In fact, he argues, Mandeville presents a narrow view of the world in which the east exists to be reclaimed, through the inevitable conversion of the Saracens and retaking of the Holy Land. This essay encourages readers to look critically at even the positive figurations of Saracens, and as such, is a useful text for those studying and teaching Mandeville.

Krummel, Miriamne Ara. “Encountering Jews Beyond the Kingdom of Cathay: Imagining Nation in Mandeville’s Travelogue.” In Crafting Jewishness in Medieval England: Legally Absent, Virtually Present, 69-88. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Although Mandeville is often read as a text that is more tolerant of diversity than others in the Middle English corpus, Krummel argues that the travelogue actual privileges a single, universal presence over diversity. She says that “Mandeville’s desire to convert, change, and alter Otherness expresses intolerance, for in attempting to assimilate Otherness into the Mandevilean world, Mandeville is not so much trying to understand as to eliminate difference” (72). Rather than understanding the diversity he encounters, Mandeville tries to show similarities between his culture and that of others; this assimilation turns Otherness into an expansion of his universal culture. Krummel examines the episode of the Jews who live beyond Cathay. Although she studies the Cotton MS, this episode also appears in the Defective version that the Cotton version is based upon. Chapter 19 in Kohanski’s edition of Mandeville (cited above) contains this story. Krummel sees a sort of dual movement occurring with the figures of the Jews. First, as stated earlier, there is an urge to assimilate the Jews through conversion. But second, there’s an urge to imitate their unity and use them as a model to create a strong, singular English nation. This unified Englishness, despite being modeled on the Jewish community, ultimately requires that this community be eliminated.


  1. Geraldine Heng, “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages I: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages.” In Literature Compass 8.5 (2011): 262.
  2. See Diane Auslander, “Race and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages,” in Handbook of Medieval Studies: Terms, Methods, Trends. Vol. 2., edited by Albrecht Classen (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2010): 1155-70 and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Race,” in A Handbook of Middle English Studies, edited by Marion Turner (West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2013): 109-23.
  3. See: Thomas Hahn, “The Difference the Middle Ages Makes: Color and Race before the Modern World,” in Special Issue Race and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages, ed. Thomas Hahn, The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31.1 (2001): 1-38; Geraldine Heng, Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (NY: Columbia University Press, 2003); Lisa Lampert, “Race, Periodicity, and the (Neo-) Middle Ages.” Modern Language Quarterly 65.3 (2004): 391-421. For some additional sources that provide background information for what race was in the Middle Ages, also see the Critical Background section of this bibliography.
  4. Cord J. Whitaker, “Race-ing the Dragon: the Middle Ages, Race and Trippin’ into the Future,” in Special Issue: “Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages,” Postmedieval: a Journal of Medieval Studies 6.1 (2015): 5-6.
  5. See Hahn, “The Difference the Middle Ages Makes” for further examples.
  6. See Robert Bartlett, “Chapter 8: Race Relations on the Frontiers of Latin Europe (1): Language and Law,” in The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization, and Cultural Change 950-1350 (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993): 197-220. Bartlett identifies language as a primary determinant of racial differentiation under the law.
  7. Heng, “Invention of Race I,” 262.
  8. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992).
  9. The Middle English Dictionary (MED) Online at http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/med.
  10. Geraldine Heng’s Empire of Magic, for example, makes a cohesive argument about how crusading literature exorcises historical and social pressures and helps create a unified national identity in Middle English literature. The figure of the Saracen as the racial-religious other that needs to be suppressed is central to her argument.
  11. See the introduction to Emaré for more details of the tradition. In The Middle English Breton Lays, edited by Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001): 145-50.
  12. See the pilgrimage section in Wiggins’ introduction in Stanzaic Guy of Warwick, (Kalamazoo, MI: TEAMS Middle English Texts Series, 2004): 8-13, and Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury’s introduction to Sir Gowther in The Middle English Breton Lays, (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 200): 263-308. See pages 270-72, for specific details about these knights as penitential figures. For a complete study of the penitential romance and individual romances that fit this genre, see Andrea Hopkins, The Sinful Knights: A Study of Middle English Penitential Romance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), annotated in the Secondary Sources of this section.
  13. See Lupack’s introductions to The Sultan of Babylon and The Siege of Milan in Three Middle English Charlemagne Romances (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1990): 1-6 and 105-08, for more details about Charlemagne romances and groupings.
  14. The Middle English Dictionary (MED) Online at http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/med.
  15. See the Libels section of this bibliography for more specific detail about blood libel and ritual murder and sources on both.
  16. Heng, “Invention of Race II,” 333. For additional information on blood libel, see Miri Rubin, Gentile Tales: The Narrative Assault on Late Medieval Jews (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), annotated below; Anna Sapir Abulafia “Anti-Jewish Libels” in Christian and Jewish Relations 1000-1300: Jews in the Service of Medieval Christendom (Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd., 2011): 167-93; Hannah R. Johnson Blood Libel: The Ritual Murder Accusation at the Limit of Jewish History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012). For a collection of essays on the blood libel legend as it developed from medieval to modern times, see Alan Dundes, ed., The Blood Libel Legend: A Casebook (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991).
  17. See Robert Chazan, The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom 1000-1500 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006): 164.
  18. Louise O. Fradenburg’s “Criticism, Anti-Semitism, and the Prioress’s Tale.” Exemplaria 1 (1989): 69-115.
  19. For more information on the tradition, see Livingston’s introduction to The Siege of Jerusalem (Kalamazoo, MI: TEAMS Middle English Text Series, Medieval Institute Publications, 2004): 5-7.