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Postcolonial Fictions in the 'Roman de Perceforest'

Postcolonial Fictions in the 'Roman de Perceforest': Cultural Identities and Hybridities

Sylvia Huot
Series: Gallica
Volume: 1
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 242
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  • Book Info
    Postcolonial Fictions in the 'Roman de Perceforest'
    Book Description:

    The ‘Roman de Perceforest’ was composed about 1340 for William I, Count of Hainaut. The vast romance, building on the prose romance cycles of the thirteenth century, chronicles an imaginary era of pre-Arthurian British history when Britain was ruled by a dynasty established by Alexander the Great. Its story of cultural rise, decline, and regeneration offers a fascinating exploration of medieval ideas about ethnic and cultural conflict and fusion, identity and hybridity. Drawing on the insights of contemporary postcolonial theory, Sylvia Huot examines the author's treatment of basic concepts such as 'nature' and 'culture', 'savagery' and 'civilisation'. Particular attention is given to the text's treatment of gender and sexuality as focal points of cultural identity, to its construction of the ethnic categories of 'Greek' and 'Trojan', and to its exposition of the ideological biases inherent in any historical narrative. Written in the fourteenth century, revived at the fifteenth-century Burgundian court, and twice printed in sixteenth-century Paris, ‘Perceforest’ is both a masterpiece of medieval literature and a vehicle for the transmission of medieval thought into the early modern era of global exploration and colonisation. SYLVIA HUOT is Reader in Medieval French Literature and Fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-582-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. 1-22)

    The vast prose composition known as Perceforest, at this time only partially edited, is the work of an anonymous monastic or clerical author, and was apparently begun under the patronage of William I, Count of Hainaut, Holland, and Zeeland, and father of Queen Philippa, wife of Edward III.¹ The principal modern editor of the work, Gilles Roussineau, has dated its completion, on the basis of internal evidence, to c. 1340—44. The text was reworked in the mid fifteenth century by David Aubert for Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy.² Perceforest draws on the Old French romance tradition — in...

  5. PART I: Founding Myths:: Nature, Culture, and the Production of a British Kingdom

    • 1 First Encounters: Gadifer in the Deserts d’Escoce
      (pp. 25-43)

      Book II of Perceforest opens with a cross-cultural encounter that encapsulates many of the anthropological and historiographic themes of the text as a whole. Gadifer, now king of Scotland, decides to explore his kingdom. And although his entourage does include some very capable Scottish knights, he finds that much of Scotland is a sparsely inhabited wilderness. In the Deserts d’Escoce — the Scottish Wilds, probably corresponding to the Highlands — there are no towns at all, just simple cowherds living in makeshift huts. Gadifer’s encounter with these Scottish ‘savages’ is a classic mise en scenè of Western notions of colonialism...

    • 2 Testing Boundaries: Colonial Culture and Indigenous Nature
      (pp. 44-72)

      Shortly after the two young princes have been knighted, in Perceforest Book Two, Gadifer’s son Nestor and Perceforest’s son Bethidés engage in a ferocious nocturnal battle deep in the forest. Nestor, travelling incognito as the Chevalier Doré, has vowed never to tell another knight his name unless he is conquered in battle; Bethidés, similarly incognito as the Chevalier Blanc, has vowed to determine the name of the Chevalier Doré. Their struggle makes so much noise that it disturbs another knight attempting to sleep in the forest, who is later revealed to be young Gadifer, Nestor’s twin brother. Gadifer, also incognito,...

    • 3 The King, His Law, and His Kingdom
      (pp. 73-96)

      We have seen that Gadifer inaugurates his reign with a law establishing property rights. As befits his mission of transforming the wilderness into a cultured space, Gadifer’s legislation targets the demarcation of land into individual holdings and the attendant issues of ownership, usage, and tenancy. Perceforest, king of England, likewise establishes a foundational law at the onset of his reign. Hoping to reform a decadent society, he regulates access not to land but to women, with a prohibition of rape.¹ Property rights and sexual norms alike are central to the larger process of establishing cultural hegemony. Matters once considered private...

  6. PART II: Heteronormative Sexuality and the Mission Civilisatrice

    • 4 Compulsory Love
      (pp. 99-118)

      We have seen in Chapter 3 that Perceforest’s law against rape had the effect of establishing love in England, and that from the advent of love flowed all the blessings of civilisation. Love inspires heroic exploits and courtly refinements and, in Perceforest, nearly always leads to marriage and the continuation of noble lineage. Ostensibly enacted for the protection and empowerment of women — virtually by popular demand — Perceforest’s law is a mainstay of his own royal power. The prohibition of rape creates a knighthood, bound to the king in part through his power to approve marriages, and eager to...

    • 5 Marriage and the Management of Difference: Between Incest and Miscegenation
      (pp. 119-139)

      We have seen that the cultural revival effected by the Greek rulers of Britain is indissociable from the institution of heterosexual love and marriage, and that Perceforest’s reign is founded on the prohibition of rape. Equally important in the adventures of the first generation of the Greco-British knighthood is the balance that must be struck between endogamy, with its dangers of stagnation and isolation, and exogamy, with its dangers of corruption and pollution. The eradication of incest occupies two of the most important characters: the sublimely heroic Lyonnel, who marries the Scottish princess Blanchete, and young Gadifer, Blanchete’s brother and...

    • 6 Sexual Violence, Imperial Conquest, and the Bonds between Men
      (pp. 140-158)

      The Trojan identity of the wicked lignaige Darnant is explicit and formative. Of the evil customs that characterise the clan, sorcery is most directly linked to the Trojan heritage: Dardanon explains to Perceforest that ‘tous les enchantemens de cest pays’ [all the enchantments of this land] were brought there by Cassandra, who in turn imparted her knowledge to ‘ceulx qui puis en ont usé mauvaisement’ [people who subsequently put them to ill use] (I.i, pp. 424—5). The treacherous and anarchic proclivities of clan members also correspond to the Trojan reputation, well developed in medieval tradition, as traitors and murderers....

  7. PART III: Greeks, Trojans, and the Construction of British History

    • 7 Lest We Forget: The Trojan War as Cultural Matrix
      (pp. 161-182)

      Perceforest portrays British history as a cyclical process of cultural rise and decline, in which different groups vie for dominance: the lignaige Darnant, the lineage of Brutus as embodied in Britus and his continental descendants, the Greek dynasties established by Alexander, the Romans, and various continental peoples such as the Sicambrians and the Norwegians. Overall, most of these ethnic and cultural bids for power are subsumed within the archetypal conflict that, according to legend, determined the shape of the ancient world: that between Greeks and Trojans. And the Trojan heritage of the British knights, with its elements both of glory...

    • 8 Lest We Remember: The Artifice of History
      (pp. 183-206)

      ‘Historical reality . . . is only available through textual sources and cannot be recovered independently of the processes of construction and manipulation which those involve.’¹ Thus Bart Moore-Gilbert sums up one side of Spivak’s theoretical position and of Subaltern Studies in general. At the same time, Moore-Gilbert also acknowledges a counter strain in the work of Spivak and other postcolonial theorists, one that posits an absolute ‘real’ independent of such mediation: what is sometimes called ‘the “real history” of colonialism’ (ibid.). The problem of historical truth — of authentic, lived experience and its distortion or concealment beneath competing discursive...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 207-216)

    This study has examined the construction of culture and history through the careful management of difference. We have seen complementary, or at times contradictory, impulses: strategies of hybridisation, assimilation, and fusion on the one hand, and of separation, isolationism, and purification on the other. In closing I wish to examine a pair of images through which this insoluble problem of difference is emblematically expressed: the two dragons unleashed at the Perron Merveilleux to be interred in a subterranean pool, and their comical double, a pair of serpents in a fountain. The two dragons, red and white, are identified as the...

  9. Glossary of Proper Names in Perceforest
    (pp. 217-220)
    (pp. 221-230)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 231-234)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. None)