I have recently become a resident of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The history of the town — its name, its buildings, its monuments, the cultural discussions, the archives — is a tangible part of daily life. New Mexico is a prime example of the ways that the borders change and shift right under our feet. I stand in Indigenous land, in Mexican land, in New Mexican land, in the United Sates. Our borders shift, we make them up, and we uphold them even as we might want them gone, even as we fight our own worst impulses (Albuquerque and New Mexico have adopted several “freedom city policies”).
For a couple of years now I have been talking and writing about borders, but I began my research with an interest in literary migration. My research uses a decentered model to study the Global North Atlantic — Britain, the Iberian Peninsula, and Scandinavia — with the intent of demonstrating the complicated patterns of transmission of Arthuriana, and the ways that the material was reshaped and transformed for new audiences (see Otaño Gracia, 2016, 2018).
I began with the understanding that “North Atlantic” Arthurian texts were “pan-European,” moving beyond linguistic, commercial, political, and geographical boundaries, demonstrating how the texts conceived of both local and global spaces, and how these spaces included movement from within Europe and out to the Peninsula, Africa, and the East (For similar models see Amer 2015, 368; Kinoshita 2009, 601–02; Silko 1981, 54–72).
Although my research began on a positive note, I was also able to see that movement in these stories was one-sided, that movement was being restricted in the literature. I also began to discover in my research that the texts were attempting to create borders — the borders of the Arthurian realm, the borders of Europe, the borders of the various Christian courts — and using these borders to further advance medieval nationalisms, conquest and crusade, and medieval colonization (See Heng 2003).
The borders of Europe were not static but rather constructions (no pun intended) and in Arthurian texts they were created to promulgate Christian expansion and to rationalize religious and racial exclusion (I am finishing my monograph on the subject tentatively titled The Other Faces of Arthur: Medieval Arthurian Texts from the Global North Atlantic). These Arthurian constructed borders are one-sided; they are only one-side of the story. The destabilizing nature of Medieval Romance tells me that as much as these texts are about the movement of exclusion, they cannot help but show that movement is inevitable and the texts were trying to control it. Medieval Romance shows how afraid the writers and their patrons were of their reality. Europe was not the center, that Christianity was not the center, that their literature was not the center, that Europe was not even these things because Europe was Jewish, Europe was Muslim, Europe was multiracial (Heng 2011a, 2011b, 2019; Keita 2006, 70–72).
I would like to change directions, take a step back, and say that now more than ever I am convinced that we must include the Iberian Peninsula and the North of Africa in assessments of the North Atlantic, which can include studies of the British Isles, Iceland, Scandinavia, the English Channel, and the Low Countries. This understanding has propelled my work on Arthuriana; it has uplifted me as I think about borders, and has spun a new research project on the representation of Africa and Iberia within the North Atlantic imaginary. I have found that North Atlantic literature tends to highlight similar features about Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, namely commodity and trade, the Pilgrimage routes to Alexandria and Santiago de Compostela, crusading in Africa or Iberia, Africa and the Peninsula as Muslim territories, and Africa and Iberia as the borderlands of Europe. This new project will consume the next couple of years of my life, but I am still stuck with the creation of borders.
I would like to talk about one of the most canonical authors of English literature, Geoffrey Chaucer, and his most studied text, The Canterbury Tales. I would like to show you that Chaucer also participated in constructing the borders of Europe and that his borders also show his fears, his ambivalence, the instability of such a project. I would like to start and end where Chaucer begins, in the Prologue.
Specifically, I would like to take a look at the knight’s military campaigns. The knight’s long list of campaigns, as far as I can tell, have been described as an idealized list, and their exact geographical locations have been of little interest to scholars. The General Prologue reads:
At Alisaundre he was whan it was wonne;
Ful ofte tyme he hadde the bord bigonne
Aboven alle naciouns in Pruce.
In Lettow hadde he reysed and in Ruce,
No Cristen man so ofte of his degree.
In Gernade at the sege eek hadde he be.
Of Algezir, and riden in Belmarye.
At Lyeys was he and at Satalye,
Whan they were wonne; and in the Grete See
At many a noble armee hadde he be.
At mortal battailles hadde he been fiftene,
And foughten for oure feith at Tramissene
In listes thryes, and ay slayn his foo.
This ilke worthy knight hadde been also
Sometyme with the lord of Palatye,
Ageyn another hethen in Turkye;
And everemore he hadde a sovereyn prys (ll. 51–67).
Elizabeth Scala explains that “These locations mark the sites of less-than-prestigious campaigns against ‘heathen’ enemies of Christianity and participate in the Crusading propaganda circulating in western Europe.” They are “far from the sites of battle with the familiar French enemy.” In other words, what is important is not the campaigns mentioned in the prologue, but the ones omitted, specifically the English victories of Crécy (1346), Calais (1347), Poitiers (1356), and Nájera (1367; Jones 1985, 101).
I disagree. The locations mentioned in the prologue are deliberate and are important because they mark Africa, the East, and the Peninsula as the borders of Europe and turn England into an open, borderless, uncontested space within Europe. These locations, far from having little importance in the English imaginary, are evidence, especially to Geoffrey, his contemporaries, and the North Atlantic, of the centrality of England within Europe. These campaigns also exemplify the roles of the Peninsula and Africa in the English imaginary, show the consequences of feudal ideologies of expansion, and expose the shifting borders of Europe in the Middle Ages. These campaigns demonstrate that for Chaucer the borders of Europe included the Mediterranean Sea and the North of Africa.
Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales relies on a model that situates England within Europe, in fact as the borderless end of Europe, and marks Africa and the Iberian Peninsula as the contested borders. The English victories of Crécy, Calais, Poitiers, and Nájera cannot ideologically place England at such an advantage. Instead, they could potentially exclude England from Europe.
Chaucer is continuing a trend from earlier North Atlantic texts that use chivalry and feudalism to imagine the borders of Europe in order to shift, change, and expand those borders (See Otaño Gracia). Ultimately, these types of ideologies were central for the transformation of the Peninsula into a Christian space, and they were being used to imagine a similar enterprise in the North of Africa (Let us not forget that by the thirteenth century the courts of Castile and Catalonia were dividing the north of Africa between themselves). As I have argued elsewhere, the Man of Law’s tale imagines the moment that England becomes European (Otaño Gracia and Armenti 2017). The long list of campaigns continue to imagine England as European, but they also imagine England away from the contested borders of Europe. The Iberian Peninsula and Africa are key if we want to understand how Chaucer built on earlier models to create a Christian, Anglo, white, national England for himself and his contemporaries.
Although I have just begun my research in this area, I think it is safe to say that Chaucer’s work shows that both the Peninsula and Africa were central to European and North Atlantic politics. His stories have a tendency to construct borders in order to create an identity, but it is a broken identity, and an exclusionary identity, an identity that relies on falsehoods — it is an anxiety inducing identity.
So today, as we continue to build a wall to exclude our southern neighbors and we turn the dreams of Dreamers into nightmares, I exhort you to remember that similarly, the borders of this nation are not static and that they can be rewritten; we do not need exclusion and pain to create ourselves. We have other models, indigenous models, inclusive models that can lead us to a better place.
Nahir Otaño Gracia is an Assistant Professor of English. Her theoretical frameworks include translation theory and practice, the global North Atlantic (Brittain, Iberia, and Scandinavia), and critical identity studies. She has published a number of articles on literature from the Global North Atlantic, including “Towards a Decentered Global North Atlantic” (Literature Compass 2019) “Presenting Kin(g)ship in Medieval Irish Literature” (Enarratio 2018), and “Vikings of the Round Table” (Comitatus 2016). She is working on her monograph, The Other Faces of Arthur: Medieval Arthurian Texts from the Global North Atlantic, and her co-edited volume Women’s Lives: Self-Representation, Reception, and Appropriation in the Middle Ages. The latter is under contract with the University of Wales Press.