Weekend Fun? Reading Alla’s Britoun Book

NORalbanLast week, I read the Man of Law’s Tale (hereafter MLT) for the second time (I think) and taught it for the first (I should say: I tried to teach it, since my students refused to leave the prologue alone: they love the Host, and they love the horizontal optative affiliations of the pilgrimage as a countermodel to the ‘natural’ English hierarchical communities of city or kingdom). Because I can’t leave well enough alone, and just because I’m hung up, I’m throwing myself into the breach again next Wednesday before moving us onto the Wife of Bath’s Prologue.

I’m hung up on the “Britoun book” of MLT 666. Some background: our heroine,

PaulineCustance, after having escaped Syria by washing ashore in Northumbria, is now wrongly accused of murdering Hermengyld, one of her (newly) Christian Northumbrian protectors. The actual murderer is of course a lascivious knight outraged by Custance’s virtue. In the relevant stanzas, Custance is on the verge of execution, when King Alla of Northumbria–astonishingly without feminine assistance–tries to find an out:

This Alla kyng hath swich compassioun,

As gentil herte is fulfild of pitee,

That from his eyen ran the water doun.

“Now hastily do fecche a book,” quod he,

“And if this knyght wol sweren how that she

This womman slow, yet wol we us avyse

Whom that we wole that shal been oure justise.”

A britoun book, written with evaungiles,

Was fet, and on this book he swoor anoon

She gilty was, and in the meene whiles

An hand hym smoot upon the nekke-boon,

That doun he fil atones as a stoon,

And bothe his eyen broste out of his face

In sighte of every body in that place. (II.659-672)

Now, I’m not a Chaucerian, and, once again, I’m new to MLT, and I haven’t read all that Kathy Lavezzo has to say on it, and for the life of me I can’t recall the substance of Mary Kate’s Kzoo 2007 paper on MLT and Bede (that right?), so take the following claims cum grano salis: the Chaucer Bibliography Online doesn’t suggest that there’s a lot on the Britoun Book, and neither do searches on Google Books and eBrary (which includes JJC’s Medieval Identity Machines and Heng’s Empire of Magic): there’s a bit on it in Elizabeth Robertson’s essay on “Nonviolent Christianity” here and in Patricia Clare Ingham on “Contrapunctal Histories” here and a fair amount of attention on it in Don-John Dugas’s “The Legitimization of Royal Power in Chaucer’s ’Man of Law’s Tale’” (Modern Philology 95 (1997): 27-43). Despite the onrush of postcolonial criticism on MLT (by Dinshaw, Susan Schibanoff, Kathryn Lynch, &c.), it seems that the “Britoun book” hasn’t been gummed to death yet by Chaucerians.

Let’s commence gumming, then. Here are the peculiarities: if you don’t know MLT, Custance had been sent to Syria by her father, the Emperor of Rome, to marry its Sultan; to secure the marriage, the Sultan converts from Islam to Christianity, and is promptly martyred (with all his allies) by his vengeful and pious mother. Thus Custance arrives in Northumbria from a (very temporarily) Christian East. Northumbria itself is largely pagan, although pockets of Christians survive here and there in “privetee” (II.548), but especially in Wales (II.544). Alla himself converts to Christianity only after the miracle in II.668-72. As Lavezzo (and I’m sure others) have observed, Alla’s name necessarily recalls Allah. How can we read this scene of Christianity and conversion and swearing? How should we understand the “Britoun book,” which might remind you of another “certain very ancient book written in the British language” as much as it reminds you of a certain Biblical story?

I have tentatively proposed understanding the book as an element in a systematic (and all too obvious) effacement of the Eastern origins of Christianity.

  • Bear in mind that the Man of Law complains that the stars “hurlest al from est til occident / that naturelly wolde holde another way” (II.297-8), which contradicts not only Ptolemy (who says stars move East to West) but also a gloss in Hengwrt and Ellesmere that reads “semper ab Oriente in Occidentem” (cited in Lynch “Storytelling, Exchange, and Constancy : East and West in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale.” Chaucer Review 33: 409-22, at 416): faced with evidence that light routinely comes out of the East, the ML distorts the scientific evidence, and is called out on it by the glosses themselves!
  • What Christianity there had been in the East appears only to be almost immediately extirpated at its root; later, the Roman Christians massacre the remaining Syrians (II.960-967), as if salting the Earth from which Christianity sprung;
  • Alla should also be heard as Allah: I’m not sure what to make of this except to suggest that it relocates “Allah” from the East to West, converts him to Christianity, and shows him in possession of a Gospel book written in…Welsh?
  • the roots of English Christianity either come directly from Rome (in the form of Custance) or go even deeper, back into Wales, the site of Britain’s primordial past, the place (and the place of the language) that signals its earliest days

Admittedly, this is not much to go on, but it’s the beginning of a reading I hope to push a bit further in class on Wednesday.

What have you done with these stanzas? What has been done that I’m missing? And, if you’ve picked up anything from this discussion, what would you do with them now? Edit: And, if it strikes you, how could I engage such a reading with gender?

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