The Ambiguous Greek in Old French and Middle English Literature
By Emily Reiner
PhD Dissertation, University of Toronto, 2008
Abstract: This dissertation investigates how the Greeks of the Trojan War and Alexander the Great are presented in Old French and Middle English literature. These ancient Greeks are depicted ambiguously: they share some of the characteristics of Jews and Saracens as they are portrayed in medieval literature. The thesis begins with an overview of the frameworks used to define ancient Greek identity. These include the philosophical heritage Greece left to the medieval West; the framework of Jewish identity, encompassing “variable characterization” and the hermeneutics of supersession; and the historical template, seen through the Orosian paradigm of translatio imperii and the Trojan foundation myth.
The first chapter examines the Roman de Troie of Benoît de Sainte-Maure. The Greeks of the Trojan War are noble and valorous, but through their gift of the Trojan horse and sack of Troy, they display the treachery associated with post-Incarnation Jews and the cruelty and violence associated with Saracens. Due to the myth that the Trojans founded the Roman people, through their siege of Troy, the Greeks seem like the movers of imperium, the authority to rule, from Troy to Rome, which will eventually become a Christian empire.
In the second chapter, I turn to the depiction of Alexander in Thomas of Kent’s Roman de toute chevalerie and the Middle English Wars of Alexander. In the Roman de toute chevalerie, Alexander is ambiguous: he is chivalrous, learned, and even a proto-Christian, though he himself assumes some typical Saracen characteristics. Alexander participates in translatio imperii, holding the right to rule in its Orosian succession and providing a model of empire to Rome. The Wars of Alexander witnesses the changes wrought to Alexander’s depiction in the fourteenth century due to revised views of chivalry, eschatology and crusade.
The third chapter investigates the depiction of the Greek Diomede in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, a depiction informed by classical ideas and Chaucer’s depictions of Jews and Saracens in his other works. Diomede is both treacherous and cruel, seen in his seduction of Criseyde, rather than in battle. The ending of the tale posits a proto-Christian identity for Troilus and the Trojans, and suggests that Diomede participates in the supersession of the Greeks by the Trojans. Greeks function as movers of imperium, and are necessary for the beginnings of Christian empire.