England’s Medieval Literary Heroes: Law, Literature, and National Identity

in progress (under consideration by Oxford University Press)

By Larissa Tracy

Framed within the discourse of modern popular concepts of medieval heroism, England’s Medieval Literary Heroes: Law, Literature, and National Identity examines the medieval popularity (or relative obscurity) of some of the best known English literary heroes including Beowulf, Havelok the Dane, Richard the Lion Heart, King Arthur, Gawain and Robin Hood in terms of medieval legal motifs and national identity. This book situates these heroes within their contextual moments and excavates their origins through textual, historical and manuscript analysis, fostering a deeper understanding of how these heroes evolved over time as representations of what it meant to be “English” in the Middle Ages, even if, like Beowulf, they seem unlikely candidates.

The first three of these heroic figures survive in a single textual tradition—one text—that records their deeds and exploits. Beowulf is a unique text of which there are no other surviving copies; Havelok the Dane evolved from an Anglo-Norman narrative tradition into the Danish hero of a unique Middle English text which later propels him into chronicles as a historic figure. Richard I, historical king and crusader, is transformed into a character of romance in Richard Coer de Lyon, the two surviving versions of which present a very different, conflicted image of this famous (or infamous) king who spent little time in England and, yet has come to embody the ideal of English chivalry.

The second three are literary heroes about whom there are entire traditions—texts that have been appropriated and adapted over centuries to form a substantial body of literature. King Arthur evolved out of twelfth-century legendary histories into the vaunted monarch of romance; diminished and weakened in the French tradition, Arthur is reclaimed and rehabilitated in the English tradition of the fourteenth century which restores him to a position of reverence as a good, just king whose kingdom is destroyed through no fault of him own, but through the machinations of others. As Arthur’s nephew, Gawain’s fortunes waxed and waned with the development of the French Arthurian tradition. From the stalwart warrior at Arthur’s right hand in the twelfth century, Gawain collapses under the weight of Lancelot’s preeminence in French Arthuriana into a womanizing savage whose vengeful nature propels the Round Table to its disastrous end. But the same fourteenth-century endeavors that revive Arthur’s fortunes breath new life into Gawain, who emerges in several texts as the loyal, just, knight at Arthur’s side, who learns the lessons of humility and wisdom sadly ignored by his fellows and who is incapable of stopping the tragic fall to come. Finally, Robin Hood—the outlaw hero of the late-fourteenth century, whose earliest reference appears as an admonishment against sloth—develops from a yeoman champion of forest chivalry in support of the rights of the King and the qualities of just knighthood, into a noble figure subjugated by corruption and greed, to a champion of the poor who stands for the most English values of justice and loyalty.

Many of these later texts survive in Middle English manuscripts that were collected and gathered specifically because of their “English” flavor, bound with religious texts like the South English Legendary that records the lives of specifically English saints in conjunction with those of early Christian and continental saints popularized by the Legenda aurea. Manuscripts like the Auchinleck Manuscript, Bodleian MS Misc. Laud 108, King’s College Cambridge MS 13, and British Library Cotton Nero A.x suggest that scribes and compilers were aware of the interest in ‘English’ literary traditions crafted from earlier French tradition or entirely invented to serve and English audience.

Overall, England’s Medieval Literary Heroes traces the origins of these heroes framed by modern popular culture and medievalism, through their development as cultural figures who have come, in modern terms, to represent the best qualities of medieval English literary heroism.