Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 May 2015
Caroline Walker Bynum argues in Christian Materiality that the period between 1100 and 1550 is marked by a ‘prominence of holy matter’ in western Christian devotion. ‘Issues of how matter behaved, both ordinarily and miraculously, when in contact with an infinitely powerful and ultimately unknowable God were key to devotion and theology’, she states, and these issues frequently manifested themselves as debates surrounding devotional objects. In late-medieval England, one of the cultural debates that erupted most violently was that surrounding images and relics. Firmly enshrined in orthodox theology and ritual, these devotional objects came under attack from Wycliffite writers who railed against ‘veyn pilgrimagis and offryngis to dede stones and rotun stokkis’. In her study of these debates in Middle English texts, Sarah Stanbury suggests that
If the theatrical display of ritual objects in a text provokes sharp emotional responses from its reader or from its characters, those reactions bespeak […] a response to the image debate out there in the world. They also describe a relationship to the […] physical spaces and cultural performances by which images were graphically and often strategically displayed.
This essay considers the ‘physical spaces’ and ‘cultural performances’ surrounding devotional objects in two Middle English Matter of France romances from the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Specifically, it examines what happens when Christian devotional objects undergo translation into Saracen space. In The Sege of Melayne (London, BL Additional MS 31042, dated between 1430 and 1450), Saracen conquest of parts of Italy leads to the attempted destruction of Christian devotional images. In Sir Ferumbras (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 33, dated to the late fourteenth century, after 1377), the eponymous Saracen hero carries off the Crown of Thorns and the Crucifixion nails from Rome and entrusts them to his sister's keeping. In both cases, movement into Saracen space becomes an occasion for reflection on the material nature of the Christian object, on the manner in which it should be treated and understood, and on the ways in which this object can influence the Saracen and Christian communities with which it interacts.