Medieval England's view of its relationship with the East and the comparison with the 21st-century relationship between the West and Islam is a key strand of a new joint-research project between the University of Reading and the University of Bristol.
The first major research into medieval texts known as the English Charlemagne Romances aims to investigate parallels between late-medieval England and modern-day Britain, with particular reference to ideas of national identity then and now and views of cultural/religious differences seven centuries apart.
Phillipa Hardman, Department of English at the University of Reading, said: "We are interested in exploring the medieval parallels with contemporary Britain, the West and Islam. The depiction of Muslims in the Charlemagne Romances links into modern-day attitudes of nationhood and the west's view of the east. The texts relate to the way people define themselves and their own personal identity in relation to others, as well as their allegiances, through the languages they spoke, their religion or the country of their forebears. These same debates and views about oneself and 'others' in the east exist nowadays."
Fourteenth-century England was fascinated by legendary stories of the eighth-century conflict between Charlemagne's Christians and Saracens, with special focus on the figure of the Muslim 'chivalrous Saracen', as depicted in the contemporary Charlemagne Romances.
Dr Marianne Ailes, Department of French at the University of Bristol, explains: "England's view of the east in Medieval times, just as today, is complex. Through their portrayal of the 'Chivalrous Saracen' character, depicted as human and noble, the texts express a desire for engagement with the east. The Saracen enemy is only seen as lacking in being non-Christian. Both the Chivalrous Saracen and the later 'Monstrous Muslim' stereotype feature in the Charlemagne Romances."
The Charlemagne Romances are Middle English and Anglo-Norman texts based around the deeds of the 8th-century Emperor Charlemagne, celebrated as a French hero. The texts, originally written in French, were disseminated and adapted in England in the 14th and 15th century during the Hundred Years War with France.
The central conflict represented in the texts is that of eighth-century battles between Christians and Saracens and they reflect parallels with international crusading interests of the earlier Anglo-Norman period (late 11th and 12th century) and the 14th and 15th century perceived threat of the Ottoman Turks.
Listen to an interview with members of the research team about the English Charlemagne Romances (mp3 - 6.64MB)