"Ne canstu me noght knowe?": Disguise, Exile and Medieval Romance

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Date
2014-09-12
Authors
Scribner, Matthew
Keyword
Exile , English Literature , Old Norse Literature , Medieval Literature , Disguise
Abstract
I believe that disguise reveals that medieval identities were fluid and unfixed, but also subject to patriarchal and authoritarian attempts to stabilize them. In these romance traditions, disguise exposes at once the fluidity of identity and the anxiety surrounding this fluidity. I argue that Le Roman de Horne, King Horn, L’ai de Haveloc and Havelok the Dane are conservative reactions to the radical potential of disguise. This impression is much less obvious in the Middle English King Horn, however. With that romance’s famously sparse narration, Horn needs to define his identity through his disguise, leading to a plot structure where his final noble identity is built on (rather than created in contrast with) the lower-class identities that he adopts throughout the romance. The second chapter focuses on the episode from the Tristan romances where Tristan disguises himself as a leper in order to create a conceivable story for Isolde to tell when she is brought to trial for adultery. Tristan and Isolde manipulate Mark and deceive him in order to keep their affair a secret, but in doing so, they also bolster his rule by keeping scandal out of the court. It is only in the Old Norse versions of the tale that the Isolde character is able to carve out an identity free from the dominant order. My final chapter consists of the Middle English, Old French and Old Norse versions of the romance Bevis of Hampton. Josiane is described as white, yet she colours her face black to search for her husband in Saracen lands—at least, in the French version. The relationship between Josiane and Bevis parallels the imperialist crusading ethos: Josiane is “Other” enough to justify conquering her, and that Otherness is performed with her blackface disguise. At the same time, she is safe and “normal” enough to marry (as demonstrated by her whiteness) and to incorporate into the Christian world. The Middle English and Old Norse versions de-emphasize this racial aspect due to their diminished investment in the Crusades.
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