I've been spending the last week or so at work on an essay on medieval race for the forthcoming Blackwell's Critical Theory Handbook to Middle English. Much of the essay pulls together work that exists in scattered places, since race has been an abiding concern of mine: each of my previous books treats the subject, the last two in substantial chapters. Though I doubt I have anything original to say after blathering on about the topic for, um, twelve years, I am trying to come up with something. Below is my draft introduction to the essay. Specifics of what race means take up the remainder.
My chapter itself is supposed to be an research-guide type overview, and accessible to undergraduates. Let me know what you think.
The popular Middle English romance Guy of Warwick contains what should be, within the long history of the genre, an almost unremarkable incident: a heroic knight defeats a brutal giant. Such episodes are ubiquitous, and can be found in numerous Middle English texts: Sir Bevis of Hampton, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Degaré, Sir Eglamour of Artois, and The Sowdone of Babylone, among others. Yet something about this particular encounter proved so fascinating that the battle took on a life of its own. Sir Guy has just returned to England from the Holy Land, where he proved himself well suited to crusading-inspired violence against Saracens (a common medieval designation for Muslims). The bellicose Anlaf of Denmark invades the island with his army. His deadliest weapon is an African giant named Colbrond. On behalf of England’s king Guy agrees to meet this monster in single combat, the victor determining the nation’s fate. A long and brutal clash ensues. Guy eventually prevails against his foe, cuts off the giant’s head, and scatters the Danish enemy. The narrative of this well precedented duel -- a small episode within the expansive narrative of Guy of Warwick -- proved so captivating that it circulated as a song, a Latin prose rendition, a painting in Winchester cathedral, and a fast paced poem (Guy and Colbrand, in the Percy Folio). The story was absorbed quickly into the English historical tradition and appears in numerous chronicles, from Robert Mannyng of Brunne to Holinshed.
Enthusiasm for the battle of Guy against Colbrond owes much to its energetic reduction of the world’s messiness into clean binaries. The romance takes an almost clichéd encounter of knight and giant and hones it to a stark meeting of opposed identities, propelled by nationalism and crusading vigor. A Christian warrior transformed on domestic shores into a hero for the kingdom, Guy triumphs against an enemy whose only thought is “þe Inglisse for to quelle” (“to kill the English,” 255.10). His victory purges English history of its inconvenient Danish and Norman content; both these groups had conquered the kingdom in the past, and both had been absorbed into its population. Guy aligns proper Christianity with his assertive Englishness by accomplishing a second crusade at home. Just as he defeated a “blake sarzine” giant named Amourant in the Holy Land, so he vanquishes the African Colbrand. The skin color of these monsters is not accidental. Their darkness is aligned with demonic as well as geographic origin, theology along with place-determined race. The Colbrond episode depends heavily upon a series of identities that suture together history, nation, religion, and collective identity: African, Saracen, Christian, English, Danish.
Like all supposedly clean divisions, however, those in Guy of Warwick hide complexly entangled realities. The mercenary giant Colbrond likely derives from the African king Gormundus in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136). With its charismatic depiction of the Arthurian court, this wildly popular Latin text bequeathed to the Middle Ages its most vibrant mythology, the seeds of the stories that would become narratives like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur. Gormundus and his army of thousands ravage Britain, whose aboriginal population (the Britons, destined to become the Welsh) Geoffrey celebrates. The merciless African bestows portions of the conquered island to the Saxons, the people who will in time become the English … and who will also assimilate Geoffrey’s British version of King Arthur into a resolutely Anglophone and Anglophile monarch. Behind the giant Colbrond therefore lurk issues of Welsh versus English identity, and a postcolonial struggle for insular dominance. Geoffrey of Monmouth in turn took this African king from a French text, Gormont et Isembart, in which Gormant is a Saracen devastating Angleterre who allies himself with the son of the king of France (Isembart, who renounces his Christianity to assist the Saracen). The chanson de geste may derive from a historical episode having nothing to do with England: the defeat of belligerent Norsemen by Louis III in France in 881. Adding to these cultural peregrinations of Colbrond, in a text written shortly after Geoffrey of Monmouth (De Ortu Waluuanii), Gormundus becomes a large Persian king.
With his dark skin, his African origin, his connection to Islam, and his exaggerated physicality, Colbrond possesses what most modern interpreters would recognize as a racialized body. Like the swarming Saracens of the romance The Sultan of Babylon (“soom bloo, soom yolowe, some blake as More,” 1005), otherness is written on the dermis. Yet the English, Norse, French, Danes, and Britons are not neutral or unmarked national groups. The moment they find themselves in proximity to such an exorbitantly visual display of otherness as that incarnated in Colbrond, their own difference is likewise established, performed, and interrogated. What the shifting versions of Colbrond suggest is that all identities are racialized, even as a dominating group deploys some monstrous Other to cloak themselves in a “default” or “normate” body (a body never given in advance, but produced through contact with and concomitant production of deviant bodies). In a recent essay on late medieval race Geraldine Heng observes:
Race makes an appearance in the late Middle Ages not only through fantasmatic blacks, historical Jews and the collections of hybrid humans pressing on the edges of civilization, but can also be found at the centre of things, in the creation of that strange creature who is nowhere, yet everywhere, in cultural discourse: the white Christian European in medieval time (“Jews, Saracens, ‘Black Men,’ Tartars: England in a World of Racial Difference” 265).Europeans blanche as the Saracens darken. Medieval race may certainly involve skin color, as it does with Colbrond, yet race cannot be reduced to any of its multiple signs. Religion, descent, custom, law, language, monstrosity, geographical origin, and even species are essential to the construction of medieval race. Race is a phenomenon of the body in motion. Such restless bodies are therefore always also becoming something else, something unexpected: from pillaging Normans to England-invading Saracens to exotic Africans to Danes with giants, all the while troubling what it means to possess and to retain an identity that prefers to remain unremarked.