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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Cultural Nostalgia and the Production of Collective Identity in Medieval England

  • Author(s): Libbon, Marisa Ann
  • Advisor(s): Miller, Jennifer
  • et al.

Richard I was England's king from 1189 to 1199, though he famously spent much of that time away on the Third Crusade. England's stories about Richard I's reign in absentia were textualized mainly in chronicles until the mid fourteenth century, when that textual archive was augmented: with no obvious provocation, King Richard, a Middle English verse narrative about Richard I, was written down in a manuscript book now known as the Auchinleck Manuscript (Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS Advocates' 19.2.1). King Richard has no readily recognizable precedents or analogues that survive to us, but after its appearance in Auchinleck the text was transmitted in England for another century and a half. Prompted by this sudden and then continuous retrospective engagement with Richard I that King Richard's appearance in the fourteenth century and continued transmission thereafter evinces, this dissertation seeks to answer two related questions: first, what might explain the emergence of Richard I's reign as a site of ongoing retrospection and textual reconstruction beginning in fourteenth-century England? And second, how were narratives about the past constructed and sustained over time, across and in the spaces between manuscripts, in medieval England? Chapter 1 turns to the period between Richard I's reign and the mid fourteenth century, to interrogate Richard's relevance in England prior to the appearance of King Richard. Based on thirteenth-century legislative innovations around legal memory, I suggest a terminus post quem for later medieval England's retrospective engagement with Richard I and argue that this legislation made his reign a formal mechanism for the past's reconstruction. Chapter 2 pursues the implications of this reconstructive process to understand its effects on England's public. I find that, by the last decade of the thirteenth century, narratives of Richard's reign were being orally constructed and disseminated throughout England, especially in local courts, where, I contend, Richard I became a subject of urgent talk, gossip, and public contestation. In chapter 3, I examine this ongoing narrative and memorial reconstruction of Richard's reign from a different angle, focusing on the earliest traces of "new" stories about him, traces that are neither talk nor text, but in between: unfinished sketches in Oxford, Christ Church, MS 92, a book made for Edward III in the early fourteenth century. I show how the book's nuanced visual program harnesses and mobilizes the legally generated talk and ephemeral stories, or "gossip," about Richard to validate Edward's reign, but also how the emerging picture of Richard I is of a man on crusade: the man we have come to enshrine in our own histories. Chapter 4 tracks this emerging picture to Auchinleck's King Richard, which glosses the sketches in Edward's book, and, I argue, pointedly textualizes the gossip in circulation about Richard in an attempt at once to stabilize and politically mobilize England's collective memory of the Third Crusade. Chapter 5 traces the evolution of this "textualization of gossip" throughout King Richard's later transmission, demonstrating how and why King Richard became a space in which collective identity and the idea of England were continuously reconstructed. This discussion then extends to our own scholarly retrospective engagement with the medieval memory of Richard I, retrospection that has been shaped primarily by the most "recent" textualized gossip: Karl Brunner's 1913 composite edition of King Richard. Through its investigative trajectory, this dissertation shows how King Richard became a space for defining the idea of England, and argues for a paradigm-shift in the way we attempt to recover the past.

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