Memory and Identity in the Medieval and Early Modern World

by Roman Bleier (Volume editor) Brian Coleman (Volume editor) Clare Fletcher (Volume editor)
©2022 Edited Collection XX, 254 Pages


In both past and modern societies the concepts of memory and identity have been inextricably intertwined. Memory, through its power of recollection and reflection, is perceived as a central and necessary pathway for self-discovery, self-expression, and self-knowledge crucial to an understanding of the physical and spiritual world. Memory, in this way, becomes fundamental to identity itself, as it is through the complex process of both group and individual recollection and commemoration that cultural, political, national, religious, and gender identities are not only imagined but constructed, reconstructed, and represented.
Taking as its focus this complex interplay of memory and identity in the medieval and early modern European context, this volume of essays presents its findings under five thematic headings: ««The Poetics of Memory and Heroic Identity», «Cultural Memory and National Identities», «Emotional Identities», «Nota Bene: The Craft of Memory and Corrective Instruction» and «Memorialising Protestant Identities in Early Modern England». Contributions examine constructions of memory and identity in such key works as the Old English Soliloquies; the Old Norse kings’ sagas Morkinskinna and Heimskringla; medieval Serbian hagiographies; Havelok the Dane; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, Troilus and Criseyde and Adam Scriveyn; Elizabethan translations of the Psalms; John Stearne’s Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft; seventeenth-century portraiture. The research presented here offers valuable insights into the centrality of memory to medieval and early modern constructions of political, religious, and national identities and points up future avenues for scholarly investigation.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • Part I The Poetics of Memory and Heroic Identity
  • 1 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Story-Telling, Memory and “Trouthe” (John Scattergood)
  • 2 Chaucer’s Worthiest Knight: Heroic Identity in Troilus and Criseyde (Natalie Hanna)
  • Part II Cultural Memory and National Identities
  • 3 Negotiating the Memory of Kings and Icelandic Identity: The Ideological Complexity of Morkinskinna and Heimskringla (Marta Miller)
  • 4 “A Most Splendent Path to Jerusalem”: Remembering the Holy Land in Medieval Serbian Hagiography (Thirteenth to Fourteenth Century) (Aleksandar Z. Savić)
  • 5 Where Fact Meets Fiction: The Scandinavian Historical Roots of the Middle English Romance Havelok the Dane (Michael Knudson)
  • Part III Emotional Identities
  • 6 The Memory of Joy in Troilus and Criseyde: Identity and Emotional Temporality (Lucie Kaempfer)
  • 7 An Aristotelian Ideal: The Beauty and Virtue of Blanche of Lancaster in Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess (c. 1368) (Gerald Morgan)
  • 8 Confessions of a Witch-Finder: Fear and Desire in John Stearne’s A Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft (Scott Eaton)
  • Part IV Nota Bene: The Craft of Memory and Corrective Instruction
  • 9 Meditations for a King? King Alfred, His Memory and the Old English Soliloquies (Sumner Braund)
  • 10 Scraping, Scribing and Shriving: The Language of Writing, Judgement and Penitence in Chaucer’s “Adam Scriveyn” (Seamus Dwyer)
  • Part V Memorialising Protestant Identities in Early Modern England
  • 11 Ribbons and Righteousness: Memory and Multiple Identity in the Portrait of a Preston Haberdasher and His Family (Rosemary Keep)
  • 12 Metanoia and Miserere Mei Deus: Penitential Memory in Anne Lock and Mary Sidney Herbert’s Translations of Psalm 51 (Catherine R. Evans)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index

←x | xi→


Memory (memoria) is famously defined metaphorically by St Augustine in Book X of his Confessions as a “great field or a spacious place, a storehouse of countless images of all kinds” (10.8, 214). Here, Augustine emphasises that memory is the chief faculty of the mind that in this instance is figured as a spatial concept, both spiritual and physical. Yet it is also a powerful and active process that brings both the past and the future into the present. It is thus a locational and temporal phenomenon, as well as an imagistic and inventive affect that allows for the construction of new things and evocations in the mind and the soul. In this way, memory transcends the simple act of just remembering, instead encompassing all of human cognition, be it sensations, perceptions, experiences, emotions, imaginations and skills. The importance of “memory” to classical, medieval and early modern writers certainly cannot be overstated and the topic has been explored extensively and diversely by thinkers such as Aristotle, Hugh of St Victor, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Geoffrey of Vinsauf and Jacobus Publicius to name but a few. Critical scholarship has long highlighted the immense cultural, literary and historical significance of memoria. In 1966, Frances Yates in The Art of Memory1 gave the first major critical assessment of the history of mnemonic devices and systems tracing it from Ancient Greece through to the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. In 1979, Michael T. Clanchy followed with his widely acclaimed From Memory to Written Record2 in which he presented a ground-breaking study of the development of English literacy including oral and written memory. In 2008, Mary Carruthers, in The Book of Memory,3 considered the function of memory ←xi | xii→in medieval society from Late Antiquity through to the Renaissance, drawing on the writings of Aquinas, Dante and Chaucer. These studies, however, are not alone in neglecting to sufficiently tie memory to the idea of identity. Indeed, memory as a faculty of recollection and reflection and as a vehicle for self-discovery, expression and knowledge becomes a prime locus of personal identity. Memory, in this way, becomes fundamental to identity, knowledge of the self and of the physical and spiritual world. Identity is therefore inextricably linked with memory, as it is through the complex process of both group and individual recollection that cultural, political, religious and gender identities are constructed, reconstructed and represented.

It is the combination of these two understudied themes, memory and identity, which inspired a wide-ranging three-day conference at Trinity College Dublin in April 2016. This conference was the twentieth incarnation of the Borderlines series of annual conferences for post-graduate and early career researchers working on medieval and early modern topics rotating between Trinity College Dublin, Queen’s College Belfast, University College Cork and University College Dublin. Those present in Dublin in April 2016 were treated to a broad and diverse range of excellent interdisciplinary papers by speakers from across Ireland, Britain and beyond, including delegates from Serbia, the Czech Republic and Iceland (by way of Edinburgh). The enthusiastic response to the themes of memory and identity, the imaginative interplay between them and their use to enlighten a great variety of fields and topics alongside the intellectual quality of the papers persuaded the present editors to seek to preserve something of Borderlines XX for a wider audience, following in the footsteps of previous volumes of essays inspired by the conference.

The authors who have contributed to this collection illuminate several quite varied ways of looking at the past through the twin prisms of memory and identity. In the first part, “The Poetics of Memory and Heroic Identity”, John Scattergood examines memory and truth in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He argues in his chapter that while truth is of paramount importance to the story, memory plays a comparably important role. Scattergood tells us that the narrator relies on his memory of historical events (albeit fictional) in the heroic times of King Arthur, wishing to ←xii | xiii→truthfully recount a story of adventure and marvel which, in effect, is the transmission of memories preserved through oral and textual traditions. He further argues that the anonymous author utilises the language and vocabulary of memorialisation and states that physical objects have the power to prompt memory and in turn generate individual narratives both of “truth” and “untruth”. He thus contends that material objects are used throughout the poem as memorialising devices, most notably Gawain’s axe given to him by the Green Knight, Gawain’s pentangle, the Lady’s girdle and the scar on the hero’s neck from Bertilak’s third blow.

Natalie Hanna, in her chapter, examines what it means to be a heroic and exemplary man in fourteenth-century England as evoked in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. Chaucer’s text approaches the issue of masculine identity and the concept of knightly “worth” directly through his presentation of two Trojan brothers, Hector and Troilus. Throughout the poem, Troilus’ identity is intertwined with that of Hector, as he is continually recognised as a “secounde Ectour”. Critics have previously debated whether or not this comparison casts Troilus positively, as the next Hector, or less enthusiastically, as second to Hector. Hanna considers what might qualify one as better than the worthiest knight. In a close reading she examines the semantics and associated phraseology of the status “worthy knyght” which is only used to denote Hector and Troilus in the poem. Hanna also draws on medieval literary and historical texts and images to reveal a semantic distinction between the two knights.

In the second part, “Cultural Memory and National Identities”, a number of contributions examine collective cultural memory and its central role in the construction of national identities. Marta Miller explores the complex construction of memory in two thirteenth-century compendia of Icelandic saga-material, the Morkinskinna and Heimskringla, using this material as a means of examining constructions of the place and role of the Norwegian kings within Icelandic cultural memory. She demonstrates the complexity of the views and voices that are captured within these texts. The two compendia have been the source of much scholarly attention, with a broad consensus that they reflect different attitudes to the kings of Norway and to ideal kingship. Miller applies the methods of analysis of novelistic discourse developed by Mikhail Bakhtin to the texts. In doing so ←xiii | xiv→she shows that the depiction of the Norwegian kings in these texts is complex. Rather than representing a clear authorial ideology or schema, they instead contain a “polyphony” or “dialogue between equals” of differing voices and (equally valid) views of kingship, reflecting their origins in the cultural memory of thirteenth-century Iceland.

A not dissimilar methodology can be seen in Aleksandar Savić’s examination of the legend of St Sava and the memory of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In this chapter, Savić shows how this proto-narrative for Serbian hagiography strongly shaped the Serbs’ cultural memory of the Holy Land and argues that the legend of St Sava influenced a strand of Serbian Christian identification as the new “Chosen people”.

While memory can be used deliberately to construct group identities, real but half-remembered cultural memories can reveal themselves in vernacular literature. In this regard, the differences between languages have played an important part in the creation of group identities from early society through to the nationalist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Changes of language, as in England following the Norman conquest, can generally be taken to reflect significant changes in group identity, but they can also obscure continuities. Michael Knudson, in his chapter, illustrates how particular terms used in the Middle English Romance Havelok the Dane reveal the continuation of North Sea links in the former Danelaw regions of England. This belies the image of an Anglo-Norman literati taking their linguistic and cultural cues from the world centred on the English Channel.

In the third part, “Emotional Identities”, Lucie Kaempfer, in her chapter, explores emotions, emotionalities and the object of desire in Troilus and Criseyde. She argues that acts of memory and imagination are crucial to the construction of the identity of Chaucer’s Troilus and are key to the trajectory of the poem itself. Though memory has been previously discussed in relation to the poem, Kaempfer offers new analysis by linking emotion to memory which raises a key question regarding the temporality of memory. To respond to this new inquiry, Kaempfer focuses not on sorrow or anguish, which have tended to attract the attention of scholars to the poem, but on the positive emotion of joy. She argues that the first two books of the poem represent a looking forward to joy or joy in the future tense and the last two books represent a looking back at joy or joy ←xiv | xv→in the past. As Kaempfer demonstrates, the third and central book is the representation of joy in the present.

The next chapter by Gerald Morgan discusses the portrait of Blanche of Lancaster in Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess in the light of its principal sources, Machaut’s Jugement du roy de Behaigne and Remede de Fortune. Morgan shows Chaucer’s depiction of Blanche is not merely an attempt to capture her as an historical figure but is also a poetic representation by a master of the art of rhetoric drawing on Aristotelian notions of moral virtue to elevate her physical and moral qualities and portray her as the “very essence of feminine beauty”. The poet constructs an “enduring monument to his patron’s dead wife” which commemorates the loss of a great lady, functions to console the husband in his grief and to establish a moral exemplum.

Memory can equally be constructed and performative and even invented memory can shed light on the complex undercurrents of identity, need and desire in a society under stress. Scott Eaton illustrates just such a dynamic in the witch trial literature of East Anglia during the crisis period of the 1640s. He shows how both “witchfinder” and “witch” engaged in a collaborative process to create a memory of physical interaction with the supernatural. This interaction fuses the accepted tropes of witchcraft with the very personal (and very real) emotions, fears and desires of the accused women, and these fears range from money to sexuality to the predestined inevitability of damnation. As Eaton shows, this process of construction of memory was part of the creation of the witch as an inverted image against which godly society could define itself.

In the fourth part, “Nota Bene: The Craft of Memory and Corrective Instruction”, Sumner Braund explores the Old English Soliloquies as a work produced for the private devotion, prayer and meditation of King Alfred the Great. Traditionally the Old English Soliloquies have been placed in the context of Alfred’s educational reform. By looking at them in the context of devotional works of the time, such as The Book of Cerne and The Prayer Book of Charles the Bald, a new perspective is applied to these texts which yields fresh insights into the King’s religious praxis and identity. An underlying instructive concern of the texts is the virtues and meditation of a “good” Christian king. ←xv | xvi→

Seamus Dwyer’s chapter considers the nature of professional working relationships and identities through his close reading of Chaucer’s shortest poem “Adam Scriveyn”. In this poem, Chaucer describes his frustrations with a scribe called Adam who has apparently been copying Chaucer’s works in a hasty and negligent fashion. Dwyer argues that a frequent assumption when discussing the poem is its light-hearted tone; scholars seem to enjoy envisioning an intimacy between Chaucer and Adam and readings of the poem often assert this affection. Dwyer, however, states that there is nothing that explicitly suggests a positive relationship between author and scribe and, in fact, Chaucer’s language is quite reminiscent of judgement and penitence rather than of paternal love and jocular threats. Dwyer explores the use of judgemental and penitential language in order to suggest a more serious reading of the poem. He also considers the use of similar language in contemporary or near-contemporary documents and literature with a view to exploring further notions of professional integrity and identity in the late Middle Ages.


XX, 254
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (March)
Memory identity medieval literature Memory and Identity in the Medieval and Early Modern World Roman Bleier Brian Coleman Clare Fletcher
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022 XX, 254 pp., 1 fig. col., 1 fig. b/w, 1 tables.

Biographical notes

Roman Bleier (Volume editor) Brian Coleman (Volume editor) Clare Fletcher (Volume editor)

Roman Bleier, who holds a PhD in Digital Arts and Humanities from the Department of History, Trinity College Dublin, is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Information Modelling–Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities at the University of Graz. His research interests include digital scholarly editing and digital history. Brian Coleman is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and a former Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar. His doctoral thesis focused on office and society in late medieval Ireland. Clare Fletcher holds a PhD in Medieval Literature from the School of English, Trinity College Dublin, where she is currently teaching. A former Trinity College Postgraduate Scholar, her research interests lie mainly in late fourteenth-century English poetry and she has published on both Chaucer and Gower.


Title: Memory and Identity in the Medieval and Early Modern World
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276 pages