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West is east: the Irish Saracens in 'Of Arthour and of Merlin'

Byrne, A. (2011) West is east: the Irish Saracens in 'Of Arthour and of Merlin'. Nottingham Medieval Studies, 55. pp. 217-230. ISSN 0078-2122

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1484/J.NMS.1.102424


Among the more striking episodes in the Middle English poem Of Arthour and of Merlin is an invasion of England by, amongst others, an army of gigantic Irish pagans. Adapted from the French Estoire de Merlin, the English poem’s depiction of the Irish represents one of the more intriguing points of divergence between the two versions. Of Arthour and of Merlin paints the Irish in a highly negative light and repeatedly refers to them as ‘Saracens’. The French text, by contrast, depicts the Irish as gigantic, but it does not suggest that they are ignoble or pagan. Although, the term ‘Saracen’ was sometimes applied to non-Islamic enemies of England, such as the Vikings, this appears to be its only application to a historically Christian people dwelling west of England. This paper argues that the depiction of the Irish in the poem reflects a complex of ideas about Ireland in circulation in England in the period. In particular, the influential writings of Gerald of Wales lay great emphasis on supposed Irish heterodoxy and repeatedly link the Irish Occident with the Orient as the furthest extremities of the world, abounding in marvels but rendered barbaric by their isolation

Item Type:Article
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > Graduate Centre for Medieval Studies (GCMS)
Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Literature and Languages > English Literature
ID Code:52250

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