Globalization in Modern English Literature and its Medieval Roots: A Comparative Literature Approach


“Britain is proud of its tradition of providing a safe haven for people fleeting [sic] persecution and conflict,” reads the opening quote of Chris Cleave’s novel, Little Bee (or, The Other Hand, depending on which side of the Atlantic you reside).[1] The quote comes from Life in the United Kingdom, the textbook used by immigrants in preparation for their citizenship test, which is riddled with typos, grammar errors, and overall incorrect information, tellingly evincing the lack of concern for precisely those it purports to protect. As Cleave’s novel brings to light the injustices suffered by asylum seekers in refugee detainment camps, it also underscores the power of literature to comment on current affairs by entering conversations with past literary traditions. It is no coincidence that Little Bee, the protagonist who must contend with the aftermath of British colonialism, happens to be Nigerian, harkening back to both Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus[2] and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.[3] Further, Achebe drew inspiration from William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,”[4] that is concerned with another form of British imperialism post-World War I in Ireland. This perhaps dizzying and constant referential cycle is not just observed by the astute and well-versed lay reader but has for decades fueled the discourse in academic literary departments.

One recent trend in comparative literature as a discipline is to move beyond the emphasis on nation-states and national borders. This movement has largely been led by scholars of global and post-colonial literature. However, yet another means of approaching comparative literature comes from René Etiemble’s The Crisis in Comparative Literature, in which, among other things, he defines the field as “a return to a medieval way of thought.”[5] Arguably, the appeal of medieval studies is its broad interdisciplinary approach. Consequently, as comparative literature looks towards creating a discourse on cross-nationalism and cross-linguistics from a historical perspective, it is precisely the Middle Ages where evidence for such practices can be found.[6] While literature, medieval or otherwise, may not provide a solution to prevailing problems, by acknowledging this literary contribution the conversation and subsequent cycle of references for modern texts can increase our understanding of Britain’s historical relationship with foreigners and the globalized interactions it has attempted to suppress.


Cultural Fluidity of National Origins

Medieval genealogies rose out of the need to elevate one branch of a population at the expense of suppressing another.[7]Their contents were, for all intents and purposes, deemed factual historical documents. Conversely, fictional literature, such as Middle English romances operated under no such pretenses and incorporated parts of the genealogical genre to draw attention to the very act of erasure that it perpetuated. In so doing, literary works, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Canterbury Tales, the Book of the Duchess, and the Sowdone of Babylone, among others, highlighted the multi-national and multi-cultural diversity inherent in the British identity because, contrary to long held and erroneous beliefs, the Middle Ages was not the caldron from which nationality, in some uniform sense, was cast.[8]

The narrative with which Sir Gawain and the Green Knight begins is far removed from Arthur’s court and enumerates the various Trojan heroes who left the burning city in the aftermath of the war to found diverse European territories, culminating with Brutus who “set Britain, on bluffs abundant and broad.”[9] The end echoes this monumental moment for the “bold baron, Brutus,”[10] from which the reader, much like the lords and ladies in King Arthur’s court, must learn a lesson from the past, and henceforth avoid the “cowardice and covetousness”[11] that they inherited not from Brutus, but through his Trojan kin, from Paris. In other words, genealogy here functions contrary to its traditional use, and instead of glorifying the initial ancestry of the British people, it emphasizes their need to celebrate how far they have come. Thus, these notable bookends to Gawain’s adventure serve as a genealogy that foregrounds the British identity as an amalgam of Trojan, Norman, Welsh, and Anglo-Saxon heritage through recalling Britain’s history of continued conquest by a variety of peoples, producing a potent reflection of the society for which the tale was written.

For centuries leading up to the creation of the Green Knight, due to the numerous changes in the ethnic make-up of those in power, loyalties were not restricted by national borders. Furthermore, women, who generally married outside of their home territories, were inherently ambassadors of culture, bringing with them traditions from a variety of milieux.[12]Such exchanges created a globalized European world in which the intertwined nation-states that depended upon each other for continued success constantly borrowed from each other socially and linguistically.[13] In England, the post Norman Conquest language of cultural and political power was French.[14] Only a hundred years after the Conquest, Marie de France’s “familiarity with Anglo-Saxon as well as Breton indicates her awareness that the new ‘English’ kingdom does not consist of a universal homogeneous gens or race but is and has always been a synthetic political entity: a collection of peoples, each with its own linguistic identity.”[15] By the fourteenth century, English authors had to contend with a waning, yet still very present Anglo-Saxon culture, the persistence of Latin as a lingua franca, the presence of French in political circles, along with the growth of the English language among the literate classes. The hybridity bred throughout England from its earliest days continued and was reflected in the literatures that relied on cultural memory.[16]


The Literary Hierarchy, Translation and Shifting Identities

Nevertheless, despite this hybridity, languages and people in England did not always coexist harmoniously. Literarily, “the great foundation text of the European Middle Ages, the secular tree of Jesse upon which all illustrious poets sit,” was the Roman de la Rose.[17] It was the work Chaucer received much acclaim for translating,[18] but it also showed the relationship between English and French, in which the former obtained praise only so long as it reflected the latter, and original English texts had yet no place in the larger European world of literature. However, as Pascale Casanova asserts, the prestige held by a single author can heighten the value of an entire language as it becomes associated with that author’s works.[19] This is precisely what Chaucer did through translation as he elevated the esteem of English from the language of commoners to that of the literate elite. Yet, following this triumph, Chaucer distanced himself from the matter of France. While the Roman is mentioned in Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, the famous work is reduced to decoration for the dreamer’s walls where “with colouris fine / Were peynted, bothe text and glose, / Of al the Romaunce of the Rose.”[20] It is to be admired, but through its placement on the walls as opposed to a bookshelf it signals that it has perhaps worn out its literary use. Consequently, as the narrator embarks on his journey, he must leave the Roman behind and go forth to create his own story. In a parallel fashion Chaucer reconfigured his relationship with translation, and in creating his masterpiece, the Canterbury Tales, he broadened the boundaries from which he borrowed texts to incorporate stories from the array of diverse backgrounds that populated England.[21]

The premise for the Tales is a short trek from Southwark to Canterbury, but the stories that unfold take the reader on a global literary exploration. As Candace Barrington and Jonathan Hsy have already noted, “the Prioress sets her tale in Asia, the Merchant his tale in Lombardy; the Man of Law and the Squire launch their tales in Syria and Tartary, respectively.”[22] Moreover, even those tales set within the confines of England incorporate sources well beyond its borders from as far as Egypt and the Middle East.[23] These tales reimagined foreignness beyond the known world and complicated the British identity by broadcasting its complex relationship with a multitude of foreign influences,[24] such as Saracens, whose representation in literature was a testament to their physical and psychological presence in England.


Literary Contact Zones

Contact with Saracens had long been a topic of literature by the time Chaucer incorporated it into his Man of Law’s Tale, yet in his version Saracens no longer possessed a communal identity, but rather exemplified individual desires, predilections, and agency. Even though Christian conversion remains the aim of the narrative, in line with medieval literary tradition that relished in the fantasy of Christian domination, the central theme is equally concerned with men’s love of the Emperor of Rome’s daughter, Custance. As the Saracen Sultan asserts that “I moot been hires, I may noon oother chese […] for in this wo I may nat longe endure,”[25] the conversion sequence that ensues serves as a secondary side effect of courtly love; the Sultan’s language places him into the context of the courtly lover, experiencing devastating lovesickness on par with Palamon, Arcite, Troilus, and countless other characters with which the audience could identify. I appreciate Susan Schibanoff’s argument that such portrayals rely on a “rhetoric of proximity” by which it becomes easier to cast judgement against someone who is familiar, leading authors to collapse differences between natives and others.[26] However, while that may well have been the purpose of such stories, I believe the unintentional consequences of these depictions cannot be ignored. The second half of Chaucer’s tale repeats the narrative, with both parts sharing in the common thread of lovers thwarted by outside forces, which in this case happen to be a pair of angry mothers who do not approve of their sons’ choice in marriage partners. The fact that they were Saracens seems almost incidental to their universal plight.

The literary trend to dilute the good/bad dichotomy between ethnicities continues beyond Chaucer, with the Sowdone of Babylone, that recalls the Canterbury Tales while tracing the exploits of Charlemagne. As the conversion by marriage trope once again becomes a secondary focus of the storyline, following in the footsteps of multiple other similar medieval tales from England and the continent, such as the King of Tars, Bevis of Hampton, or Floire et Blancheflor,[27] it simultaneously evinces the emergence of another prominent premise—an optimistic gaze towards the future through a representation of the younger generation constructing their own paths contrary to their parents’ desires, without the negative results experienced in the aforementioned version of the Custance narrative.[28] Arguably, the disparity in the texts can be attributed to the distinction between Christian and Saracen daughters who use marriage as a means of either converting their husbands or converting themselves to Christianity, but such a reading is disrupted by Sowdone of Babylone’s Ferumbras, who, unlike his sister, Floripas, has no marital stakes in his decision, but is nevertheless able to forge friendships and successfully navigate his new society. This depiction is not unlike Cleave’s portrayal of Little Bee, whose relationship with Sarah offers insight into the choices and connections one makes in a new land. While the intricacies of the ever popular and quite problematic medieval conversion narrative are beyond the scope of this article, and deserve significantly more attention, the above tales also tellingly speak to the complexities of medieval English society’s understanding of identity, its fluidity, and its dependence upon various interactions for definition. Contact between diverse peoples in England has always been fraught with conflict, and its recreation across the literary landscape over time is valuable for understanding the trajectory of modern practices.



Without attempting to project modern anxieties or assert overtly progressive attitudes onto a time and culture in which they simply did not exist, the narratives discussed here demonstrate that medieval English literature was undoubtably experiencing a shift in its representation of others, and consequently its perception of English identity. Literature functioned as a contact zone for such exchanges as it drew attention to the inequalities and conflicts perpetuated in society—a role that it plays today, arguably with more aplomb and conscious intention. Thus, moving forward, comparative literature can assume the role of interrogating what it means to be English by relying on an interdisciplinary approach to bring in historical and cultural information. Further, the comparatist can work with sources in a variety of languages that are often left outside the purview of traditional English departments since, after all, multilingualism is one of the cornerstones of comparative literature, in much the same way it was for medieval English authors. In short, if the discipline is truly to be thought of as “a return to a medieval way of thought,” then the field must take the study of texts into a new direction, using the multiple skills inherent in comparative literature to broaden the conversation on what constitutes a national literature and identity, in terms of the Middle Ages, to be sure, but more importantly, also today, before the center collapses from the weight of the oft ignored literary past and things fall apart.


Christene d’Anca is a medievalist, and her research centers on twelfth to fifteenth century European literature and culture, with an emphasis on power structures, patronage, and funerary arts.



[1] Chris Cleave, Little Bee (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008).

[2] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2003).

[3] Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (London: Penguin, 1994, rpt. 1958).

[4] The poem has been widely anthologized and can be read online at the Poetry Foundation website: Accessed September 24, 2021.

[5] René Etiemble, The Crisis in Comparative Literature, trans. Herbert Weisinger and George Joyaux (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1966), viii.

[6] Ian Wood, “Literary Composition and the Early Medieval Historian in the Nineteenth Century,” in The Making of Medieval History, ed. Graham Loud and Martial Staub (York: York Medieval Press, 2017), 37-53; Michael Borgolte, “A Crisis of the Middle Ages? Deconstructing and Constructing European Identities in a Globalized World,” in The Making of Medieval History, ed. Graham Loud and Martial Staub (York: York Medieval Press, 2017), 70-84; Robert I. Moore, “A Global Middle Ages?” in The Prospect of Global History, ed. James Belich, John Darwin, Margret Frenz, and Chris Wickham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 80-92; Catherine Holmes and Naomi Standen, eds. The Global Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[7] Léopold Genicot, Les Généalogies, Typologie des sources du Moyen Age (Turnhout: Brepols, 1975).

[8] Patrick Geary explores the way in which medievalists have historically been tasked with defining nationality for European nations. The nationalism that didn’t exist then was actually bred in the history books created today. See The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[9] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. Brian Stone (London: Penguin Classics, 1959), 23.

[10] Green Knight, 125.

[11] Green Knight, 124.

[12] Susan Groag Bell, “Medieval Women Book Owners: Arbiters of Lay Piety and Ambassadors of Culture” Signs 7.4 (1982).

[13] Ardis Butterfield, The Familiar Enemy: Chaucer, Language, and Nation in the Hundred Years War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Robert Bartlett, “Medieval and modern concepts of race and ethnicity,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31.1 (2001): 44.

[14] Susan Crane, “Anglo-Norman Cultures in England, 1066-1460,” in The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, ed. David Wallace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 44; Liah Greenfeld, Nationalism: A Short History(Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2019), 15-16; Michel Bouchard and Gheorghe Bogdan, “From Barbarian other to chosen people: the etymology, ideology and evolution of ‘nation’ at the shifting edge of medieval Western Christendom,” National Identities 17.1 (2015): 3-5; Serge Lusignan, Essai d’histoire sociolinguistique: Le français picard au Moyen Âge (Paris: Garnier, 2012), 204-213; Ugo Tucci, “Il documento del Mercante” in Civiltà Comunale: Libro, Scrittura, Documento (Genova: Società Ligure di Storia Patria, 1988), 544-545; Paul Cohen, “Fashioning a Useable Linguistic Past: The French of Medieval England and the Invention of a National Vernacular in Early Modern France,” in The French of Medieval England: Essays in Honor of Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, ed. Thelma Fenster and Carolyn P. Collette (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2017), 236.

[15] Stephen G. Nichols, “Writing the New Middle Ages” PMLA 120.2 (2005): 431.

[16] R. Howard Bloch, The Anonymous Marie de France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 40-41.

[17] David Wallace, “Chaucer and the European Rose” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 1 (1984): 67.

[18] Eustache Deschamps, “Ballade 285: Autre Ballade,” in Oeuvres Complètes de Eustache Deschamps, ed. Le Marquis de Queux de Saint-Hilaire and G. Raynaud, 11 Volumes (Paris: Société des Anciens Textes Français 1880), Vol. 2, 138.

[19] Pascale Casanova, “Consecration and Accumulation of Literary Capital: Translation as Unequal Exchange,” in Critical Readings in Translation Studies, ed. Mona Baker (New York: Routledge, 2010), 285-302.

[20] Geoffrey Chaucer, Book of the Duchess in The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. John H. Fisher (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977), 548.

[21] For discussions on the diversity within England, and more specifically London, see Jonathan Hsy, Trading Tongues: Merchants, Multilingualism, and Medieval Literature (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2013), 19; Ardis Butterfield, “Chaucer and the Detritus of the City,” in Chaucer and the City, ed. Butterfield (D. S. Brewer, 2006), 18-19; Christopher Cannon, “Chaucer and the Language of London,” in Chaucer and the City, ed.  Ardis Butterfield (London: D. S. Brewer, 2006), 80.

[22] Candace Barrington and Jonathan Hsy, “Editor’s Introduction: Chaucer’s Global Orbits and Global Communities,” Literature Compass (2008) 2.

[23] John Ganim and Shayne Legassie, ed., Cosmopolitanism and the Middle Ages (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Susan Nakley, Living in the Future: Sovereignty and Internationalism in the Canterbury Tales (Lansing: University of Michigan Press, 2017).

[24] Carol Heffernan, The Orient in Chaucer and Medieval Romance (London: D.S. Brewer, 2003); Kathryn L. Lynch, ed., Chaucer’s Cultural Geography (London: Routledge, 2002).

[25] Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Man of Law’s Tale” in The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. John H. Fisher (New York: Hold, Rinehart and Winston, 1977), 86.

[26] Susan Schibanoff, “Worlds Apart: Orientalism, Antifeminism, and Heresy in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale,” Exemplaria 8.1 (1996): 62-64.

[27] Amy Bruges identifies 42 such tales in England alone, while also referencing those abroad. See, Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

[28] The narrative also appeared in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis; see Volume 1, ed. Russell A. Peck, (Middle English Texts Series, 2006).



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