Introduction: In Medias Res

  • Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


When contemplating the many peoples who had inhabited their island’s expanses, writers in twelfth-century Britain found themselves pulled in two divergent directions. Living in the difficult aftermath of conquest, they were powerfully attracted to a stark vision of past and present in which collective identities remained constant, retaining their elemental differences. The triumphant arrival of a new people (the Romans in the days of Caesar, the English in the fifth century, the Normans at Hastings) had led, they supposed, to a transfer of dominion, a change in power that strengthened the boundaries between communities rather than eroded them. This idea of a keenly distinct past for each insular people had been bequeathed to the twelfth century by predecessors like Gildas and Bede. One a polemicist for the native Britons and the other a partisan of the parvenu Angles, these writers arrived from opposite sides of a bitter struggle for British hegemony. Both composed narratives stressing the separateness of the peoples with whom they identified. Neither allowed some middle space to exist where the two might ally, mingle, even combine. Like the classical and patristic authors in whom they had been trained, Gildas and Bede assumed the enduring distinctiveness of the earth’s populations.


Collective Identity Twelfth Century Single Race Divergent Direction Middle Space 
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© Jeffrey Jerome Cohen 2006

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  • Jeffrey Jerome Cohen

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