Remapping Insularity: Geographic Imagination in Medieval English Romance

Broyles, Paul, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Fowler, Elizabeth, Department of English, University of Virginia
Spearing, Anthony, Department of English, University of Virginia
Holsinger, Bruce, Department of English, University of Virginia
McGrady, Deborah, Department of French Language and Literatures, University of Virginia

“Remapping Insularity: Geographic Imagination in Medieval English Romance” argues that Middle English romances generate inventive virtual spaces that imaginatively reshape the world of medieval Britain, imbuing its topography with meanings that can challenge culturally dominant configurations of the island and its people. This project adopts a geocritical approach, examining both the verbal techniques romances use to evoke place and the ways in which textual spaces interact with the solid world. It focuses on romances representing the insular past to challenge the dominance of the English nation in medieval literary studies, arguing that romances both resist the solidification of developing categories like the nation and challenge the modern geographic categories we apply to the medieval past. As freestanding stories outside the frameworks of chronicles and travelogues, romances are uniquely positioned to rewrite the world in ways that challenge the centrality of the developing English nation. Despite their apparent simplicity, romances like King Horn, Bevis of Hampton, and The Awntyrs off Arthure employ inventive forms of spatial representation to imagine the island of Britain as a space that enables new forms of community and history that, surprisingly, are not structured around a centralizing notion of “England,” but produce more sophisticated geographies than our retrospective focus on nationalism has allowed us to see.
While space and geography in medieval narrative have chiefly been understood as a historical problem, this project argues that they must be approached formally, for spatial meaning arises from the literary techniques that generate the spaces. By identifying how lexical and narrative elements like toponyms, structural divisions, and differing levels of spatial detail produce interfaces between texts and the world, this project exposes romance as a key form for geographic imagination, able to process difficult questions about place and belonging precisely because of the qualities (apparent rhetorical simplicity, privileging plot over expression, fantastical elements, disregard for historical accuracy) that made them unappealing objects of study to earlier generations. “Remapping Insularity” excavates the indigenous spatial vocabularies of medieval romances in order to recover lost alternative geographies and demonstrate the importance of their often fantastical stories to the history of spatial thought.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
literature, romance, medieval, geocriticism, insularity, nation, England, medieval romance
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