Remembering the Crusades: Myth, Image and Identity

28th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies

Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 29-30, 2008

Iain Macleod Higgins, Crusading against the Anglo-Saracens in Richard Holland’s Buke of the Howlat (c. 1450)

Of all the medieval Christian works that remember the Crusades, Richard Holland’s mid-fifteenth-century 'Buke of the Howlat' (Owl) is surely the strangest. In seventy-seven, thirteen-line rhymed alliterative stanzas, the poem tells the story of an owl that, having complained about his ugly, unnatural appearance, receives from Dame Nature a new, more beautiful plumage borrowed from other birds; since the nocturnal owl in medieval allegory is by definition a villain, it follows that this borrowed plumage instantly makes him proud and imperious, an attitude that requires his being returned forcefully to his original lowly state. Contained within this simple fable, though, is a lengthy heraldic pageant that is used to hymn the Scottish house of Douglas, and contained within that pageant is the narrative of Sir James Douglas’s early-fourteenth-century armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem with the royal heart of Robert the Bruce — a heart that brings Scotland and the Douglas arms into contact with the Holy Land. Suddenly, and entirely unpredictably, the Howlat interrupts its beast fable to present a brief, central chanson de geste in which the Christian hero’s prowess (tied to the image of the heart) against the infidel Saracens also represents his bravery against the faithless “Saxonis,” or English. Unlike the borrowed bird feathers, the “bludy hart” of the Douglas arms is sanctioned by its hard-earned contact with the Holy Land, giving the Scottish symbol a proper Eastern origin in defence of the faith. In short, the story works to place the Douglas clan at the centre of Scottish power as the King’s and therefore the country’s truest servants by virtue of their devotion to both God and the Holy Land and King and Country — by their devotional violence against the enemy.

This paper will examine how the propagandistic historical narrative at the centre of this intricately nested set of stories uses its memory of crusading in the service of nationalist ideology, equating Saracens and Sassenachs. To bring out the particular ways in which the poem “misremembers” the crusade it recounts (Douglas actually died in Spain fighting against the Moors) as well its ideological distinctiveness, I will set specific passages from it against analogous ones from the English romance, Richard Coeur de Lion.

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