Early Middle English (EME) 1.1 (2019): 83–89.
By Larissa Tracy
The early-fourteenth century Auchinleck manuscript (c. 1330) includes a stunning array of early Middle English texts from hagiography to romance, from Matter of Britain and England to Matter of France, celebrating heroes like Arthur, Richard I, and Charlemagne. These three seemingly disparate heroes—one legendary and British, one real but hardly admirable and mostly French, and one laudable but very distant and very French—are brought together in a narrative endeavor that promotes the development of early Middle English in favor of Anglo-Norman or Continental French and creates competing figures of English national identity. Later Middle English romances like the Sowdone of Babylone (Sultan of Babylon) that echo the Auchinleck Roland and Vernagu and Otuel, A Knight, attempt to shape Charlemagne into a hero that could still appeal to an audience that no longer had strong cultural or linguistic ties to the French. Texts like the Alliterative Morte Arthure, grounded in the tradition of the Auchinleck Of Arthure and Of Merlin, focus on a reshaped and rehabilitated English King Arthur, while the Auchinleck Richard Coer de Lyon creates a valorous and noble portrait of a historical English king who spent more time and money abroad and preferred France to England. The Auchinleck manuscript provides a template for reading Arthur and Richard as “English” and engages in a process of appropriation that legitimizes an English identity distinct from that of France rooted in the use of Middle English as its literary language.