National-Ethnic Narratives in Eleventh-Century Literary Representations of Cnut
By Jacob Hobson
Anglo-Saxon England, Vol. 43 (2014)
Abstract: This article takes literary representations of Cnut, the Danish conqueror of England, as a case study of the construction of English identity in the eleventh century. It traces representations of Cnut in four literary texts composed over the course of the century: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Knútsdrápur, the Encomium Emmae Reginae, and Osbern of Canterbury’s Translatio Sancti Ælfegi. Each of these texts constructs a politically useful national–ethnic identity through the figure of Cnut, using the mechanisms of kingship, piety and devotion, language, place and literary tradition to work through the particular exigencies faced by the audiences that they seek to address.
Introduction: The problems of nationhood and identity are among the most pressing in contemporary Anglo-Saxon studies, and no figure offers a better case study of the issues involved than Cnut, the Danish king who acceded to the English throne in December of 1016. Depicted alternately – and simultaneously – in eleventh-century texts as an outstanding English king and as a marauding Viking, Cnut eludes easy characterization. As a Viking king of England, Cnut had to navigate a complicated and rapidly changing political situation, and later writers used Cnut over the course of the century to navigate their own complicated and rapidly changing political situations.
This article argues that the changes in and manipulations of Cnut’s image in such texts demonstrate more than his ‘posturing.’ Rather, they represent larger political shifts in eleventh-century England from an Anglo-Danish rule to an Anglo-Norman one. This article will examine how a group of texts reconciles the dual Viking and English elements of Cnut’s kingship within the unifying context of English identity. Cnut had no Asser or Snorri to write a detailed biography, but he is represented more or less prominently throughout the eleventh century in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Knútsdrápur, the Encomium Emmae Reginae and Osbern of Canterbury’s Translatio Sancti Ælfegi Cantuariensis archiepiscopi et martiris. These texts represent Cnut at three different, politically charged moments in time and in vastly different political circumstances. Unlike other kinds of literary evidence such as charters, laws, or homilies, these texts are all very much concerned with the narration of Cnut’s reign.
At the same time, their variety allows us to think across a number of modern scholarly disciplines that – whether because of linguistic limitations or respect for traditional boundaries of historical periodization – communicate all too infrequently despite their shared focus in eleventh-century England. Collectively, these texts comprise a series of flashpoints illuminating late Anglo-Saxon identity, shedding light on its development in a way that a single text or a single tradition simply cannot. What emerges from them is an attempt to deal with the tempestuous political currents of eleventh-century England through literary means, an attempt that constantly redefines what it means to be English in order to navigate these currents.