Albion: Change, Rebirth and Stagnancy in The Middle English Prose Brut Chronicle

Albion. Today that word conjures impressions of a lost, utopian version of Britain – but the version of Albion as it was represented in the middle ages is anything but beautiful. Madeleine Smart (University of Liverpool) tells the story of the Brut chronicle, featuring a land of giants, devils and conquering men and women. This podcast was recorded during our series Late Summer Lectures 2017.

The ‘Albina’ prologue has been attached to the Middle English Prose Brut Chronicle since its first appearance in the vernacular, providing an explanation for the island being named Albion and the origin of the race of giants dwelling there. These two hitherto unaddressed mysteries were expanded upon and formed into a short but complex pre-foundation narrative that became permanently attached to the Brut in its Anglo-Norman, Latin and Middle English forms.

The Prose Brut (Chronicle of England), England, 2nd or 2rd quarter of the 15th century, British Library Harley MS 24, f. 1r [Public domain]

The prologue presents the daughters of a great King, who plot to kill their husbands, are banished in boats and wash ashore a barren island, where they found a nation, naming it Albion, after the eldest sister Albina. Short on men, the sisters then propagate with devils and spawn the race of giants that Brutus conquers on founding Britain, after his own voyage at sea. Beginning and ending with long sea voyages, steeped in biblical and classical symbolism of rebirth, the nation of Albion is a second chance for Albina and her sisters. They are given an opportunity to change and redeem themselves of their former wickedness in their new and untainted land. Yet, the arrival of Brutus at the end of the text, having been reborn at sea himself, makes it clear that the second chance Albion offered has been wasted; nothing has changed and the nation has failed and Brutus is required to re-baptise the land, naming it Britain, after his own name. But why do the sisters not use this second chance and change? Why do they allow their nation to become stuck in a primal and monstrous state?

Madeleine explores the stagnant and uncivilised Albion in contrast to the civilised and celebrated nations of Dioclician’s Syria and Brutus’ Britain that precede and follow it, and discusses ideas of change, rebirth and stagnancy.

This podcast was recorded during the series Late Summer Lectures in 2017. Listen to other lectures from the series here:

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