Sunday, June 18, 2006

Dreaming Imperial Desire in Medieval Wales

I've reproduced below some of a paper that I'm going to deliver next month in Leeds. It's about Breudwyt Maxen Wledic (The Dream of Macsen Wledig) and imperial desire. As always, any comments would be appreciated.


In the midst of Breudwyt Maxen Wledic a most unusual act of colonization is undertaken by Emperor Macsen Wledig of Rome.

The emperor, who is consolidating his conquest of Britain by permitting his new wife, a British noblewoman, to establish castles and build roads, has a little bit of home transported from Italy to the furthest end of Wales. At Arfon Macsen has soil from Rome, gweryt Ruvein, “brought thither so that it might be more comfortable for the emperor to sleep, to sit, and to walk about.” That this literal grafting of the metropole onto the empire’s newest and most far-flung province comes hand-in-hand with domestic improvements—the building of castles and roads—is central to the rhetoric of empire that drives Breudwyt Maxen Wledic. Not only does the emperor Macsen implant imperial authority firmly onto Welsh ground, but also he binds his new British province to Rome in a way that will betoken a political relationship of mutual value rather than one of outright colonial domination. Breudwyt Maxen Wledic is at pains to stress the potential benefits of empire to colonised and coloniser alike, and I shall argue today that this text advocates a native British or Welsh “constructive engagement” with an occupying imperial power—an imperial power literarily Roman and historically English or Anglo-Norman.

Breudwyt Maxen Wledic is a narrative of desire. It is not, however, a narrative in which only the desires of the colonizer are realized. We have here a text that is primarily concerned with defining the agency of the colonized, with determining how and in what way a colonized space, a province, can exert influence on the empire as a whole. Likwise at hand is the crucial question of what benefit the province can derive from its domination by or integration into the empire. Breudwyt Maxen Wledic advocates a savvy, almost Machiavellian political strategy for conquered space when Elen and her brothers “play ball,” so to speak, with Macsen. Elen surrenders her body to Macsen in exchange for improvements to the infrastructure of Britain and the appointment of her father as viceroy over the island, and her brothers Cynan and Gadeon lend their martial prowess to Macsen in exchange for his endorsement of their empire-building in Brittany. The native Britons adopt a policy of happy complicity rather than forlorn resistance in response to Macsen’s conquest; they eagerly and quickly respond to his amorous and martial desires with demands of their own.

That the inhabitants of Britain have and exhibit what I’ll call “national agency” is apparent from the outset of Macsen’s interest in Elen. After having dreamt of her, Macsen sends a deputation to Britain to find this woman of his dreams. His nobles approaches Elen, who, keenly aware that the ball is in her court, tells the nobles that while she doesn’t doubt their claims—that she is the beloved of the Emperor of Rome—she doesn’t overmuch believe them, either, saying: “If, then, I am the love of the emperor then let him come here and fetch me.” Although it could be said that Elen is merely being coy or playing hard to get, it is also true that Elen’s refusal to go to Rome—and her demand that Macsen come to Britain—shifts the locus of imperial power to Britain. It is this invitation of Elen’s that not only enables her eventual domestic improvements but that also elevates her father to the lordship of Britain. Macsen, after all, deposes and drives into the sea Beli, son of Manogan, thus making the lordship of Britain obtainable for Elen’s own family.

The native Britons are certainly ready for Macsen when he arrives to claim his empress. Elen’s brothers kill time whilst awaiting Macsen by playing gwyddbwyll, surely plotting their next moves all the while. This next move is seven years off, when Macsen finds himself stripped of his imperial title. At this development Macsen, but he’s stymied at the gates of Rome. For all his martial prowess in the provinces, Macsen gets nowhere besieging his home city, and the stalemate drags on for a whole year.

It is after this fruitless year that Elen’s brothers seize the opportunity to display to their colonial master the usefulness of his subjects. In a nice turnabout, Macsen, probably dethroned because of Roman fears that he had “gone native” during his seven years in Wales, has deviated not one bit from Roman culinary customs. This is to say that both the Romans and Macsen’s party stop fighting when they break for lunch. Such niceties are as eminently polite as they are eminently ineffective as a war strategy. This seems obvious only to the Britons, who vow to fight in a wiser way (“Nini a geisswn ymlad a’r gaer yn gallach no hyn”). The strategic innovation proposed by the Britons is remarkably successful: they drink all morning, and then, in high spirits (they are brwysc, or drunk), they scale the walls of Rome with ladders, thereby recapturing for Macsen his throne. Such tactics hardly amount to high chivalry, but they do work.

The small band of provincials that so easily overcomes the imperial defence force is a testament to the importance of injecting fresh blood into a seemingly sclerotic body politic. Macsen brought the Britons roads and castles, the accoutrements of civilization, and in return they leant him their might as mercenaries. The stereotype of the eternally abused colonial subject falls away here, and instead we see a complimentary relationship between, as it were, junior and senior partners. Yet another stereotype that falls away is that of the rustic, clueless Welshman, the depiction so common to romance. These Welshmen are canny, tactical, and shrewd. Their presence is not only useful but also integral to Macsen’s designs and to the tale’s resolution.

Why, then, is Breudwyt Maxen Wledic’s depiction of Welsh interaction with Roman imperial power one that encourages eager complicity? Earlier narratives, such as those of Ieuan ap Sulien in the eleventh century, chose to remember and to praise British resistance to Roman might. What makes Breudwyt Maxen Wledic different? I think that the answer to this question can be found by mapping the narrative onto the period of its production as the text that we have. I propose a native Welsh sentiment, perhaps nascent in the century or so that immediately following the Norman Conquest and certainly more developed by the time of the first extant manuscript of the tale, that the ancient rhetoric of Welsh entitlement to the whole of Britain was no longer suited to political realities. Just as Huw Pryce has argued that the replacement of the terminology of “Briton” and “British” with that of “Welsh” and “Wales” is indicative not of a Welsh sense of fatalism but of adaptability to circumstance and necessity, so too do I argue that this narrative’s pronounced exhortation of the usefulness of empire reflects post-Norman Welsh sensibilities about the possibility of belonging—or belonging again—to an empire. The possibility that the Welsh, the ancient Britons, might return to the dominion of the whole island, if remote in Anglo-Saxon times, was virtually zero after the Norman Conquest. Such an ambition, thought still alive in native folklore, had become something of a joke to those who were truly masters of the bulk of Britain, and I ascribe to medieval Welsh people the wherewithal to realise the political futility of aspiring to the mastery of all of Britain. The tale of Macsen Wledig exhorts its readers to aspire to another kind of mastery, that of Brittany, a small corner of a larger empire in which the Welsh are free to perpetuate their language, unmolested all the while because of their usefulness to the empire.

In Breudwyt Maxen Wledic, then, the medieval Welsh state—or, perhaps more correctly, the Welsh-speaking part of Britain—articulates a policy more politically suitable than that of resistance born of outmoded if proud mythology. We should not forget that Wales in the Middle Ages could gaze across the Marches at a country that had valiantly and vainly attempted to halt an invasion force. The failure of this attempt resulted in the wholesale mauling of the local vernacular, the slaughter of most of the native nobles, and the eventual reorganization of the polity along foreign lines. Such a sea change in England must have caused ripples in Wales, and by the mid-thirteenth century, when Welsh eyes had seen the Anglo-Saxons become Anglo-Normans, the results of a full-scale cultural and political invasion must have been obvious. With the English steadily asserting their power not only in the Marches but also in the heart of Wales after the late thirteenth century, it is quite likely indeed that Welsh minds would have concerned themselves with making the best of a bad situation. To quote Patrick Sims-Williams, “It is a commonplace of modern anthropology that origin stories are influenced by current realities,” and I would add that the political preoccupations of this text ought to be viewed as the political preoccupations of the culture that produced it. The redactors of Breudwyt Maxen Wledic were well aware of the potential dangers of resistance and rebellion, and the text that they have left us is impressive in its political maturity, its shrewdness, and its concern with how best the Welsh people might perpetuate themselves in an ever-changing medieval world.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Bravo -- nice piece. I like how it never sides with an uncomplicated "colonizer vs. indigene" binary, but focuses on the complex negotiations and accomodations that uneven cultural minglings always bring about.

Thanks for posting this.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

PS Sylvia Huot is doing similarly complicated work in her forthcoming book on the Perceforest, possibly the strangest romance ever composed (and that is really saying something!) Her Postcolonial Fictions in the'Roman de Perceforest': Cultural Identities and Hybridities is out next year in the new Gallica imprint from Boydell & Brewer -- and as that imprint indicates, the romance is in French (though it unfolds in a postcolonial or perhaps midcolonial Britain). Some bare information is here:

JKW said...

Thanks for the kind words, JJ. Now I'm curious to read this Perceforest, which I note that we have stuffed in one of our offiste library locations...

I hope that you're enjoying Maine.

Anonymous said...

JKW--you might want to also look at the special issue of the "Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies" devoted to "The Cultural Processes of 'Appropriation'," ed. Kathleen Ashley and Veronique Plesch, 32.1 [Winter 2002]. Once again, a lot of what you are thinking about is really "cultural-anthropological," and the JMEMS issue will give you some excellent bibliographic information on "appropriations" work in the field of cultural anthropology. Cheers, Eileen