Insular Exceptionalism: Anglo-Norman Romance, Alexander, and the Roman de toute chevalerie
In this chapter, my focus moves from Alexander texts composed in northern France (the Angevin, Capetian, and Champagne contexts of previous chapters) to those probably created in the British Isles or Angevin territories on the continent, often called ‘Anglo-Norman’ romances. This raises important questions of definition, geographical, political, and linguistic.
As discussed in the introduction, ‘Anglo-Norman’, ‘the French of England’, and ‘Anglo-French’ are all terms describing the French used in England after the Norman Conquest, in which many twelfth- and thirteenth-century romances were composed. My decision to opt for Anglo-Norman on linguistic grounds does not lay the issue of terminology to rest, however, but raises further questions highly relevant to any definition of insular literary culture in these centuries. Firstly, in addition to the problems inherent in the terminology, using language to define Anglo-Norman texts can be simplistic, since the manuscripts, often of later date than the works’ identified origins, sometimes alter linguistic features, recopying Anglo-Norman works into different French dialects and complicating the linguistic clarity implied by the label. Secondly, lost or fragmentary Anglo-Norman works sometimes have an afterlife via continental adaptations and reworkings, and thus may be included in surveys of Anglo-Norman literature although they no longer exist as complete works in that linguistic register. Thirdly, works like the romans d'antiquité are often excluded from analyses of insular literature, despite their potential connection to the Henrician court and their Anglo-Norman linguistic nature, being habitually discussed as continental productions relating rather more to the history of French national literature than to that of the British Isles. Describing a work as ‘Anglo-Norman’, then, leads to consideration of what makes a text ‘Anglo-Norman’ (or ‘insular’) beyond language and/or geographical location or circulation, facts that may well be redundant or assumed. Are there in fact distinctive identifying features enabling us to define Anglo-Norman texts as such and then to analyze them as a corpus?
Recent scholarship on twelfth- and thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman romances (here referring to texts’ linguistic status) answers yes to these questions. Rosalind Field, for example, considers these works to have a distinctive narrative identity:
The majority of the Anglo-Norman romances seem to owe little to the international and peripatetic court of Henry and Eleanor … [they are] baronial, local, and insular … ambitious in scope and inter-textual with a marked preference for English settings and ‘history’.