Saturday, March 21, 2009

Britoun Books, Written with Evaungiles, Again

by J J Cohen

Two weeks ago Karl catalyzed a vigorous discussion by posting on Reading Alla's Britoun Book. The topic is a rich one, and has stayed with me in ways small and large. Suzanne Conklin Akbari noted in the post's comments an excellent essay of hers at the moment I happened to be reading it for a different project. David Wallace pointed out to me that the BBC has adapted several Canterbury Tales, most successfully the MLT. From the website:
Constance (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is a Nigerian refugee found on a small boat in the Chatham docks by a couple, Mark and Nicky, who take her in. A devout Christian, Constance, cannot remember what has happened to her. At church a young man, Terry, falls for her. But the feelings are not mutual, as Constance is falling in love with Mark's boss, Alan (Andrew Lincoln). When Constance rejects Terry's physical advances, his violent revenge has tragic consequences for all involved.
I haven't viewed the program myself, but it seems this version picks up well on the tale's interest in racial and cultural differences.

Today, though, I want to focus on a comment made by theswain as part of the discussion in the original post:
Bede is not attempting to forget British Christianity in contrast to Rome. He's indicting British Christianity because according to Bede they failed to convert the Anglo-Saxons. Recall that he spends the majority of his first book talking about how Christianity comes to the island, and Pelagian heresy etc. It is clearly an indictment in the back of the MLT tale, as Aelle isn't Christian in spite of a "Britoun book" with the gospels ready to hand. I think Jonathan correct that the tale goes out of the way to mention the British gospel book, and I think it throws into relief the pagan leaders of Northumbria in spite of the presence of British Christians making books.
On the one hand, the statement is completely true: Bede (and Chaucer) indict the Britons for their failure to proselytize. They trace an origin for Christianity to Rome (the capital of Anglo-Saxon England) rather than allowing for an indigenous source. But indicting can be a form of forgetting, especially if the condemnation fundamentally alters the terms of judgment. Moreover, just because Bede and Chaucer state or imply that the Britons did not influence the conversion of the English, should we believe them? Don't both have something at stake in imagining that Northumbrian/Anglian/English Christianity comes not from the Britons but directly from Rome?

Here is what I wrote quite some time ago in Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity when I was thinking about Bede's project of separating the Britons from the Angles in his Ecclesiastical History. I was trying to get at why Bede makes it seem as if cohabitation had not happened, as if the Angles and the Britons dwelled in separate, noncommunicating, ever-warring worlds:
By the time Bede set pen to vellum the inhabitants of Britain had long spoken a variety of languages in an abundance of dialects. No doubt rapidly changing patois enabled trade and other less ephemeral forms of exchange. Many islanders would have been multilingual, indeed multiracial. The peoples of Britain were for much of this period more alike than different: possessing cultures and speaking tongues that lacked internal uniformity; prone to forming princely, kingly, and familial factions of variable scope and duration; mixing pastoral and pillage economies with less mobile religious and agrarian pursuits; willing to ally themselves militarily and matrimonially with those outside their linguistic and cultural circles. The British archipelago was, in short, as unsettled as it was compound, a dynamic expanse engendering what contemporary theorists of the postcolonial label creolization, métissage, doubleness, mestizaje, hybridity. No surprise, then, that "Anglo-Saxon England" is famous for its syncretism, its ability to embrace diverse and even contradictory traditions simultaneously.

Yet Bede stresses throughout his Ecclesiastical History the separateness and the supersession of insular peoples, a point emphasized even in his opening observation that Britain was "formerly known as Albion" (1.1; by whom he never says). He therefore acknowledges hybridity only obliquely. In the narrative arc formed by the Ecclesiastical History 2.13-3.3, we witness Edwin of Northumbria forsaking his native ways and converting to Christianity, reorienting his northern kingdom along a Mediterranean axis.* The same king unites Britons and Angles in paninsular dominion. Rædwald of the East Angles, we are told, once erected a temple in which one altar served Christ and the other heathen deities. Papal epistles travel the world to ensure that the Northumbrian and Irish races (gentem Nordanhymbrorum, genti Scottorum) celebrate a unified Christianity. The pagan English of Mercia enthusiastically join forces with the Christian Britons of Gwynedd to overthrow Edwin. The exiled sons of Æthelfrith, the man from whom Edwin had captured the Bernician throne, dwell with their retinues among the Irish and Picts, awaiting Edwin's death. When these men return to their native kingdom, they immediately revert to their indigenous religion, a worship they had rejected after accepting baptism abroad.

Oswald, the newest successor to Northumbria, is witnessed mediating the Irish tongue of the visiting bishop Aidan of Iona as he addresses the Angles: "It was indeed a beautiful sight when the bishop was preaching the gospel, to see the king acting as interpreter of the heavenly word for his ealdormen and thanes, for the bishop was not completely at home in the English tongue [Anglorum linguam perfecte non nouerat], while the king had gained a perfect knowledge of Irish [linguam Scottorum iam plene didicerat] during the long period of his exile"(Ecclesiastical History 3.3). Bishop Aidan oversees monasteries that conjoin his native country to the Picts and the Angles. He lives on an island, Iona, which straddles the space between Britain and Ireland. His monastic community (if Adomnán of Iona is to be believed) amalgamates the Irish, Picts, English, and Britons. Through Aidan's friendship with Oswald, English Britain is transformed by Irish learning into a composite space (3.3).

Despite these multicultural vectors, however, most interminglings unfold only to be condemned. Rædwald's East Anglia is the location of the famous Sutton Hoo burial, an archeological discovery that – like the corpus of Old English poetry itself – suggests that the Rædwald's syncretism is far more indicative of the practice of Christianity in England than Bede's absolutist vision of pagan/Christian separation. Because Rædwald stations Christ alongside native gods and privileges neither, because his desire is to combine rather than to sort, the monarch must in Bede's account be deplored. The Mercians are allowed their alliance with the Britons only because they are pagans, and therefore as detestable as the confederates they treat as equals. The sons of Æthelfrith deserve their violent deaths because they move back and forth between the categories Christian and heathen, a troubling inconstancy rather than an easy fusion (they must be wholly one or the other; they are not permitted the strategic embrace of both). Oswald is allowed his Irish tongue and his subjects their Irish instruction because this source of Christianity does not come from a people, like the Britons, vying against Bede's Angles for possession of the island.

Onto Britain's primal and enduring heterogeneity Bede projects a reductive separateness. Bede's narrative is rather like the Hadrianic and Antonine walling projects that he describes early in the text, demarcations that engender unity through exclusion. In Bede's vision the entirety of the island constituted the natural dominion of a singular gens Anglorum, the English people. This group did not quite exist in Bede's day. Yet by imagining the island's past as a story heroically accomplished by this putative collective, by distilling a complicated historical field into the chronicle of a single people, Bede breathed life into the collective identity English and aided in the genesis of what was to become Europe's most precocious nation. The Ecclesiastical History imagines a past that, despite ample evidence to the contrary, seems monolithic, pure.
This is a long way of saying that Karl identifies in his post a preoccupation that unites Chaucer to Bede. Both authors lived with a past as well as a present where cultural borders were indistinct. Both nonetheless refused to see this messiness, describing instead an island where boundaries and segregations held impossibly firm.

*The source of Edwin's Christianity is crucial: not the Britons, living near and perhaps among his own people, but missionaries tied to the church in Rome. By denying the possibility of an indigenous connection for the Christianity adopted by the gens Anglorum, Bede instigates his process of separating the two peoples absolutely. For a reading that stresses the overlap and interchange between the two peoples during this period, depicting a world very different from Bede's purified spaces, see Patrick Sims-Williams, Religion and Literature in Western England, esp. 25-33, 77-84. Sims-Williams argues forcefully for the role Britons living with the Anglo-Saxons played in their conversion, at least among the Hwicce and Magonsætan. Walter Goffart observes that the Roman and Irish vectors in Bede's narrative of Christianization are meant to exclude the Britons in Narrators of Barbarian History 250.

1 comment:

JH said...

Very glad to see this topic continued on ITM. I just wanted to address the BBC adaptation series you mentioned in the beginning of this posting: I often bring in clips of these into my classes and I find the MLT highly thought-provoking and easily the most compelling adaptation in that series. We recently discussed the MLT adaptation in my Chaucer class; I like bringing it in simply b/c I find its opening scene is so gripping - it re-stages the moment when Constance/Custance washes ashore on the coast of Britain, and the adaptation then goes on to transmute many of the tale's central issues in creative ways. Not only does it play up the coexistence of systems of divine justice and human forms of legal procedure (something I only dimly perceived in the MLT itself prior to viewing this adaptation) but this version also finds creative ways to transport Chaucerian concerns to modern multicultural Britain (among other things, the "Sowdanesse" figure is an Iranian immigrant who resists the impending romance between her son Alan and the refugee Constance).

When we discussed this version of the MLT I was surprised that some students found the modernized version *less* nuanced than the original, and that it actually works very hard to tidy up many of the messy notions of cultural difference that they already perceive within Chaucer's original text. This is just to say I very much appreciate how this adaptation compels the viewer to entertain (and indeed interrogate) the affinities between modern multicultural Britain and Chaucer's own multicultural Britain - and what our investments are in acknowledging cultural difference in the first place. I would like to think that Chaucer's cosmopolitan, Continental leanings allow him to imagine cultural difference in a more nuanced, flexible manner, esp. where the Mediterranean context is concerned - but I do acknowledge that even Chaucer is not without "blindspots" (or even deliberate omissions) concerning Britain's own internal diversity.