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The Sea and Medieval English Literature

The Sea and Medieval English Literature

Volume: 5
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 218
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  • Book Info
    The Sea and Medieval English Literature
    Book Description:

    As the first cultural history of the sea in medieval English literature, this book traces premodern myths of insularity from their Old English beginnings to Shakespeare's ‘Tempest’. Beginning with a discussion of biblical, classical and pre-Conquest treatments of the sea, it investigates how such works as the Anglo-Norman ‘Voyage of St Brendan’, the Tristan romances, the chronicles of Matthew Paris, ‘King Horn, Patience, The Book of Margery Kempe’ and ‘The Libelle of Englyshe Polycye’ shape insular ideologies of Englishness. Whether it is Britain's privileged place in the geography of salvation or the political fiction of the idyllic island fortress, medieval English writers' myths of the sea betray their anxieties about their own insular identity; their texts call on maritime motifs to define England geographically and culturally against the presence of the sea. New insights from a range of fields, including jurisprudence, theology, the history of cartography and anthropology, are used to provide fresh readings of a wide range of both insular and continental writings. SEBASTIAN I. SOBECKI is Professor of Medieval English Literature and Culture, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-591-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-24)

    Barely four weeks in office, on 4 June 1940, Winston Churchill went before the House of Commons to perform one of his most defining rhetorical feats. On the previous day the evacuation at Dunkirk had effectively been completed but the new Prime Minister did not deem this a cause for celebration: with France teetering on the brink of collapse and the prospect of Hitler’s invasion of Britain seeming only a matter of time, Churchill chose to dispel any illusions Britons might be harbouring at this stage. As his speech unfolded, he reminded his audience that wars are not won by...

  7. 1 Traditions
    (pp. 25-47)

    Wace’s (c. 1115–c. 1183) tribute to the audacity of the first seafarer is heir to a long literary tradition of uneasiness and ambiguity concerning the sea. The blend of admiration and incredulity betrays the narrator as an observer of the sea, an islander but a land-dweller. And although I believe that the parallel has not been noticed before, it should come as no surprise that another land-dweller, Seneca (c. 4 BC–AD 65), provided the source for the above passage from the Roman de Brut

    Audax nimium qui freta primus

    rate tam fragili perfida rupit

    terrasque suas post terga videns


  8. 2 Deserts and Forests in the Ocean
    (pp. 48-71)

    Benedeit’s Voyage de Saint Brandan (c. 1118) has often been unjustly labelled a translation of the anonymous Latin Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (eighth century).² It cannot be readily assumed that Benedeit’s skilful adaptation of his source material results from a direct translation of the Navigatio. M. D. Legge has even argued for a Latin version of the legend prepared by Benedeit for Henry I’s first wife, Queen Maud or Matilda, which he himself translated into French as the Voyage.³ As one of the more widely read poems of the pre-modern period, the Latin Navigatio boasts over 120 extant manuscripts and...

  9. 3 Almost Beyond the World
    (pp. 72-99)

    For Gildas, things could only get worse. Disintegration and the slow but steady decline of Romano-British civilisation into chaos form the main themes of his On the Ruin of Britain, which was composed in the first half of the sixth century. In many ways, he cannot be blamed. After the Romans had abandoned Britannia, their cultural inheritance began to deteriorate and, with time, established British civilisation was confronted by pagan newcomers. As if this were not punishment enough, it was in times such as these that the inhabitants of the British Isles were paying the price for their frontline position...

  10. 4 Realms in Abeyance
    (pp. 100-118)

    Romance tales are crowded with accounts of people who are exposed to the sea against their will, but the topos is of course much older.³ In his groundbreaking study, ‘Setting Adrift in Mediaeval Law and Literature’, J. R. Reinhard discusses the custom of setting people adrift in (mostly) unseaworthy boats, and he classifies the extant literary instances into a number of categories.⁴ Reinhard concludes that in Celtic custom and, to a lesser extent, in some Germanic communities (as, indeed, was the case in Roman practice), there existed a code of punishing criminals and sometimes even presumed offenders by setting them...

  11. 5 Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
    (pp. 119-139)

    When God charges Jonah to proselytise among the gentile Ninevites, the prophet shies away from this task. The Bible is silent about the rationale for Jonah’s conduct: ‘et surrexit Iona ut fugeret in Tharsis a facie Domini’ (Jonah 1.3) [And Jonah rose up to flee into Tharsis from the face of the Lord]. In the fourteenth-century alliterative poem Patience the causal relationship between the prospect of obedience to the divine will and the promise of suffering is made explicit: ‘If I bowe to His bode and bryng hem þis tale, / And I be nummen in Nuniue, my nyes begynes’...

  12. 6 A Thousand Furlongs of Sea
    (pp. 140-160)

    At first glance, the concept of territorial waters must be a paradox. ‘Territory’, with its etymology rooted in terra, denotes ground, firm land, which contrasts sharply with the fluidity of ‘waters’. The term ‘territorial waters’ denotes the theoretical and, at times, practical imposition of political claims on spaces that seem ill-equipped to meet them, with the result of yielding, at best, a mixed metaphor (one only has to think of Xerxes’ whipping of the sea). And yet, wars have been fought for the strategic or economic value of water territory, and even to this day there exists no universally accepted...

  13. Epilogue: The Tempest’s Many Beginnings
    (pp. 161-166)

    After all is said and done, and the Milan-bound party has left the stage, Prospero turns to the audience in one of Shakespeare’s rare and perhaps last epilogues. Speaking of himself as ‘confined’ in ‘this bare island’, he asks the audience for release ‘from [his] bands’

    With the help of your good hands.

    Gentle breath of yours my sails

    Must fill, or else my project fails,

    Which was to please. Now I want

    Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,

    And my ending is despair;

    Unless I be relieved by prayer

    Which pierces so, that it assaults

    Mercy itself, and frees...

  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 167-192)
  15. Index
    (pp. 193-206)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 207-207)