By Beverly Headley Hoke
PhD Dissertation, Texas Tech University, 2012
Abstract: At the end of the thirteenth-century appeared a manuscript classified as Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 108, a devotional text containing an acephalous poem entitled “The Ministry and Passion of Christ”; an apocryphal text recounting the pre-gospel childhood of Christ known as “Infancy of Jesus Christ”; a collection of saints lives entitled “Early South English Legendary”; three short religious poems known as “The Sayings of St. Bernard,” “The Vision of St. Paul,” and “Dispute Between the Body and the Soul”; two early Middle English romances “King Horn” and “Havelok the Dane”; an alliterative poem entitled “Somer Soneday,” and three short verses on the flyleaf. What distinguishes the Laud 108 is that it is the oldest extant manuscript written entirely in Middle English at a time when Latin and French were the languages of power. This project evaluates this manuscript through a post-colonial lens. Produced almost 250 years after first contact with the Norman colonizer, the exclusive use of Middle English was a subversive choice that challenged the Norman claim to power and criticized the post-Conquest kings of Norman descent while working to re-make and re-claim an “English” identity.
Because William the Conqueror’s line was firmly established as the royal family of England by the time of the manuscript’s compilation, politically any criticism or resistance would need to be subtle. Woven through the manuscript are threads of subtle resistance to this ruling family. One such thread is the manuscript’s inclusion and presentation of several pre-Conquest kings of Anglo-Saxon England as ideal kings whose interests and devotions are to God, the Church, England, and her people. These Anglo-Saxon kings function as foils to the post-Conquest kings who, according to the manuscript, do not share these same devotions. While the manuscript places the Anglo-Saxon kings as polar opposites of the post-Conquest kings, it also aligns the post-Conquest kings with iconic villains, the quintessential evil pagan emperors from the early Christian period. The manuscript also subversively employs hagiography as a vantage point from which to re-tell the Conquest story from the English viewpoint and to provide its audience with models not only of piety, but of political dissent as well. The last subtle thread is the manuscript’s presentation of the post-Conquest English clergy, represented by SS Wulfstan, Becket, and Edmund of Abingdon. The manuscript constructs them as models of devotion to God, champions of the English people, and models of courageous resistance to kings who unrightfully occupy the English throne. These subtle threads of resistance implicitly invite the late thirteenth-century English-speaking audience of the Laud 108 to question the legitimacy and quality of their own post-Conquest “English” king.