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Constructing Ethnic and Regional Identities

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1The Æðelen of Engle: Constructing Ethnic and Regional Identities in Laõamon’s Brut At the beginning of Laõamon’s Brut, the author makes a striking point of identifying himself by telling us his name and that of his father Leovenath. This strong statement of identity—an oddity for a vernacular writer of the late twelfth or early thirteenth century—sets up ethnic and national tensions that permeate the rest of the poem.1 To some readers, Laõamon’s Scandinavian name and his father’s Anglo-Saxon one may have suggested that the author was of mixed ancestry.2 Whether or not this was the case, the names serve as a reminder of the multiple origins of Laõamon’s countrymen, foreshadowing the ethnic ambiguities that problematise his attempt to 1 See Lesley Johnson and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, “National, World and Women’s History: Writers and Readers in Post-Conquest England,” in The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, ed. David Wallace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 92-121 at p. 96. For the dating of the Brut, see Françoise Le Saux, Laõamon’s Brut: The Poem and its Sources (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1989), p. 10. 2 The word lagamaðr or lögmaðr originally applied to a judicial office in Scandinavia or regions settled by Scandinavians but passed from a title to a personal name as early as the eleventh century; however, it may still have been a marker of Scandinavian heritage one or two hundred years later. See J.S.P. Tatlock, The Legendary History of Britain: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniæ and Its Early Vernacular Versions (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1950), p. 513. Tatlock hesitantly speculated on the basis of this and other evidence that Laõamon may have been the son of a Worcestershire adventurer in Ireland who married an Irishwoman of Norse descent (p. 529). To my knowledge, his theory has not been pursued. Rosamund Allen discusses the possibility that Laõamon was a legal expert and that the name may have been an honorary title but concludes that “it must have acquired the familiarity of a personal name or ‘Lawman’ would not have asked for prayers for his soul under this name;” see Lawman, Brut, trans. Rosamund Allen (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1992), pp. xxiv.2tell the history “of Engle þa æðelæn” (of England’s outstanding men) (line 7).3 Other readers, upon learning that Laõamon was a priest at Areley Kings in Worcestershire (line 3), may simply have been struck by the incongruity of his possession of a name that was rare in the West Midlands.4 We have no way of knowing whether Laõamon had grown up locally or had moved to Areley Kings from elsewhere, but the following lines, in which he tells of his pleasure in reading near Redstone Rock upon the banks of the Severn (lines 5-10), leave no doubt as to his affection for his region. He tells us that his reading inspires him to compose the Brut, for which he travels “wide õond þas leode” (line 14) in search of exemplars for the Brut. This charming image diverts further speculation about his origins, ethnic or regional, and instead paints a 3 All quotations from the Brut are taken from Laõamon, Brut, ed. G.L. Brooke and R.F. Leslie, EETS 250, 277 (London: Oxford University Press, 1963-1978); however, I have supplied modern punctuation. Translations are my own, although I am greatly indebted to those published previously by Rosamund Allen, Donald G. Bzdyl, Laõamon’s Brut: A History of the Britons (Binghamton, NY: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1989), and the partial translation by W.R.J. Barron and S.C. Weinberg, Laõamon’s Arthur: The Arthurian section of Laõamon’s Brut (Lines 9229-14297) (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989). I adopt Allen’s translation for “of Engle þa æðelæn,” although the phrase has been variously interpreted as “the noble origins of the English” (Barron and Weinberg) and “the glorious history of England” (Bzdyl). For a recent discussion of this issue, see Lesley Johnson, “Reading the Past in Laõamon’s Brut,” in The Text and Tradition of Laõamon’s Brut, ed. Françoise Le Saux (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1994), pp. 141-160, at p. 142, n. 3. 4 Tatlock finds that by the thirteenth century, the name Laõamon was still largely restricted to the former Danelaw counties, whereas his father’s name Leovenath had just the opposite distribution. See Tatlock, The Legendary History of Britain, pp. 510-511 and p. 514. Frankis concludes that in the West Midlands the presence of the name Laõamon seems “to mark a deliberate, even demonstrative, attitude that is best explained in terms of a family-tradition deriving from a Scandinavian ancestor, though the influence of godparents can probably not be excluded.” See “Lawman and the Scandinavian Connection,” p. 84.3picture in which his love for his country appears to flow seamlessly from region to nation. The discussion below will consider this transition in closer detail to determine how Laõamon’s regional affiliations interact with the tensions between ethnic and national identity present in the Brut. Although Laõamon claims to have compiled material from an “Englisca boc þa makede Seint Beda” and a Latin one “þe makede seinte Albin / & þe faire Austin” (lines 16-17), his primary source is Wace’s Roman de Brut.5 This he strikingly renders in a form of English poetry consciously reminiscent of the poetry of the Anglo-Saxon past.6 For many readers, Laõamon’s use of material taken from Wace in combination with his archaistic style creates a troubling inconsistency. As Daniel Donoghue puts it, “He praises Celtic warriors in a poetic medium directly derived from their enemies, the Anglo-Saxon descendants of Hengest.”7 The apparent irony of this inconsistency has tended to focus critical attention on the depiction and significance of the passage of dominion between the Britons and the Saxons in the Brut. Some readers have tried to reconcile this irony by assuming that Laõamon blurs ethnic distinctions out of forgetfulness or confusion about his original plan to write about the English, or else out of a sort 5 See Wace’s Roman de Brut: A History of the British, ed. and trans. Judith Weiss (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1999), hereafter cited as RB. For discussion of Laõamon’s acknowledged sources, see Le Saux, Laõamon’s Brut: The Poem and its Sources, ch.


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