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

Leila K. Norako,  “Thenne three londes gunne they wynne / And crystenyd alle that was therinne,  In romaunse as men rede”: Reading Sir Isumbras as a Crusades Fantasy

In the fourteenth-century romance Sir Isumbras, the eponymous hero is commanded by God to undergo an arduous redemptive journey in order to atone for his pride. He adopts the role not only of a pilgrim but of a crusader by carving a cross into his shoulder before embarking on his journey. In the process, he loses all noble signifiers (from horse and hunting dogs, to heirs and wife), and only begins to climb back into (and ultimately transcend) his social role as a knight once he reorients his spiritual priorities. The story is, first and foremost, an heroic fantasy rooted in the hagiographic story of St. Eustace; but nevertheless, there are various aspects of it that link the tale to what Christopher Tyerman has called “recovery literature” – that is to say, literature in the 14th-15th centuries concerned with the recovery by western Christians of the Holy Land.

Many Crusades historians, Thomas Madden in particular, have noted that the 14th century was a time in which the possibilities of launching another passagium generale (a massive pan-cultural crusade) to take back Jerusalem was largely impossible. That did not mean, however, that the desire to do so disappeared. For this reason, perhaps, as Dorothee Metlizki has noted, this century witnessed in vernacular literature “a distinct shift to the territory of the Crusades, the Saracen East, as a scene of romantic action.”

Isumbras fits neatly into both Tyerman's and Metlizki’s descriptions for, as Stephen Powell has observed, this is a romance that negates any possible mode of coexistence with the Saracen and encourages, instead, the utter destruction and subjugation of the “other” at every available opportunity as the narrative progresses. The cultural fantasy propelling the poem ultimately proposes not only episodic violence but eradication of the Saracen threat, and the narrative ends with the slaughter of roughly thirty thousand Saracens and the reassertion of Christian dominion in the Levant.
This paper argues that Isumras is a romance that, while seeking to entertain the reader (or listener) with innumerable fantastic plot devices, reinforces deep-seated cultural assumptions and anxieties about the East as a means of glorifying the Christian prerogative to possess the Holy Land.  These anxieties are given added weight in this romance by the consistent evocation of crusades motifs that imbue the text with a nostalgia for the crusades of the 11th and 12th centuries while endorsing the idea of renewed martial activity for the sake of the Holy Land.


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