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The mark of the hero: Language and identity in the Middle English romance

Ann Margaret Higgins, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation is a study of the early fourteenth-century English manuscript, National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.2.1 (The Auchinleck Manuscript), and three of the eighteen romances it contains. Commercially produced ca. 1330-40, Auchinleck is the earliest extant English manuscript containing texts exclusively in Middle English rather than Latin or French, and the majority of its 44 surviving texts appear there in their earliest copies. Through an examination first of the manuscript as a whole, then of the romances Amis and Amiloun, Sir Tristrem, and Sir Orfeo, I demonstrate that the physical and literary act of translation from French to English that constitutes the Auchinleck Manuscript had a transformative effect upon its texts, causing their authors and copyists to incorporate in them a direct (though often subtle) reflection of the social and cultural environment of fourteenth-century England. Chapter 1 draws on contemporary manuscript and historical evidence to argue that in this period literacy in English was predicated upon literacy in French and/or Latin, and that Auchinleck's exclusive use of English was thus a matter of choice rather than necessity, constituting an assertion of the value both of the language of its texts and of Englishness itself. That assertion, I argue through my analyses in Chapters 2, 3, and 4 of Amis and Amiloun, Sir Tristrem and Sir Orfeo, influenced the scribes and poets who selected, adapted and/or translated romances for inclusion in the Auchinleck Manuscript, heightening their sensitivity to the interplay between those texts and the environment in which they lived and worked. Amis and Amiloun makes no secret of its dependence on an Anglo-Norman source; Sir Tristrem is derived from the Anglo-Norman verse Tristan of Thomas; Sir Orfeo has no vernacular forebear but is indebted to Ovid's tale of Orpheus. The Auchinleck versions of all three, however, display a distinctly English character, arguing that the circumstances of their composition and/or inscription prompted these scribes and poets, consciously or unconsciously, to modify these works so as to create English translations of their sources that function not only linguistically, but in the social, cultural and political sense as well.

Subject Area

Literature|Middle Ages|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Higgins, Ann Margaret, "The mark of the hero: Language and identity in the Middle English romance" (2006). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3242102.