“That country beyond the Humber”: the English North, regionalism, and the negotiation of nation in medieval English literature
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My dissertation examines the presence of the “North of England” in medieval texts, a presence that complicates the recent work of critics who focus upon an emergent nationalism in the Middle Ages. Far removed from the ideological center of the realm in London and derided as a backwards frontier, the North nevertheless maintains a distinctly generative intimacy within the larger realm as the seat of English history—the home of the monk Bede, the “Father of English History”—and as a frontline of defense against Scottish invasion. This often convoluted dynamic of intimacy, I assert, is played out in those literary conversations in which the South derides the North and vice versa—in, for example, the curt admonition of one shepherd that the sheep-stealer Mak in the Wakefield Master’s Second Shepherd’s Play stop speaking in a southern tongue: that he “take out his southern tooth and insert a turd.” The North functioned as a contested geography, a literary character, and a spectral presence in the negotiation of a national identity in both canonical and non-canonical texts including Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, William of Malmesbury’s Latin histories, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and the Robin Hood ballads of the late Middle Ages. We see this contest, further, in the medieval universities wherein students segregated by their “nacion,” northern or southern, engaged in bloody clashes that, while local, nevertheless resonated at the national level. I argue that the outlying North actually operates as a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the processes of imagining nation; that regionalism is both contained within and constitutive of its apparent opposite, nationalism. My longue durée historicist approach to texts concerned with the North—either through narrative setting, character, author or textual provenance—ultimately uncovers the emerging dialectic of region and nation within the medieval North-South divide and reveals how England’s nationalist impulse found its greatest expression when it was threatened from within by the uncanny figure of the North.