In Diane Speed’s , “The Saracens of King Horn”, she attempts to determine the identity of the Saracens who invade Suddene and kill King Murry, ousting Horn from his promised throne, and exiling the Queen. Speed’s primary argument is that Saracens are not figures from real life, but are instead literary figures, taken from Norman, Greek and Latin texts, that are representative of an unidentified heathen population. Previous research assumed the Saracens were Vikings, or Danes, but the details surrounding their homeland, religion (Saracens are generally identified as Islamic), and language are vague, at best, and there is no description or characteristic of King Horn’s Saracens that would indubitably connect them to a real group of Saracen invaders. There is also little evidence to connect the Saracens to a Viking invasion. Instead, Speed believes that King Horn is adopting a common trope in heroic epic that conflates enemy invasions and violence with a historic enemy in literature, the Saracen.
Speed comes to this conclusion after exhaustive analysis of chansons de geste, which regularly uses Saracen to denote an enemy. The Saracen trope was common, and Saracen, a term used to denote a Islamic or pagan middle eastern group, was soon representative of barbarism, paganism, heathenism, and violence. Speed argues that the Saracen trope was adopted from French (Norman) literary traditions. The primary evidence that the text uses to argue that Saracen is reference to a trope, and not a historical invasion, is the reference to the Saracen homeland as paynyme or pagandom, referring to the Saracen leader as an Admiral, which is a French and Latin rooted word, and the reference to them as being “black” or “dark” (Speed 580). Finally, the trope of Islamist groups and Christian groups warring over land rights, and religious conversion is a common trope in chansons de geste (Speed 588). The description of Saracens in chanson de geste tradition and King Horn are nearly identical, and, according to Speed, disproves theories that try to correlate the Saracen invasion to a historic invasion. Instead, the Saracens from King Horn are French and Latin literary tropes that are adopted by the Anglo-Normans in the Middle Ages.
Speed generates most of her evidence for this literary trope through evaluation of Norman texts, lyrics, and epics, an interesting choice considering Anglo-Saxon England also had a literary tradition involving Saracens, and the demonization of Saracens. It is also mildly suspect that Speed does not delve into the etymology of Saracen, which evolved from the Semitic root Saraceni meaning to steal, rob, plunder and the Arabic root Sariq meaning thief, marauder or plunderer (Beckett 19). The word Saracen evolved to mean nomad and was typically used as a literary trope to familiarize or identify the other (Beckett 19). The final missing piece of evidence is Bede, who used the term Saracen to differentiate descendants of Abraham’s wife Sarah, rather than Hagar (Beckett 18). This distinction rendered Saracen’s religiously illegitimate and stained future descendants with their lineage from a slave-woman. I think that in focusing on literary inspiration, and lineage, Speed’s choices are interesting, and stem from an obvious desire to promote a Norman literary lineage. Yet, disregarding major Latin and Anglo-Saxon texts that deal with Saracens, as well as Anglo-Saxon definition of Saracen is a suspect choice if literary influence is the conclusion of the article. Perhaps, awareness of this literary tradition is new, and I also want to note that Speed’s article was written decades before Anglo-Saxon Perceptions of the Islamic World. Overall, Speed’s article was compelling, although could potentially have done away with the section on giants in the text. Although interesting, it was not as important to her argument as her other sections.
Beckett, Katharine Scarfe. Anglo-Saxon Perceptions of the Islamic World. Cambridge University Press. 2003.
Speed, Dianne. “The Saracens of King Horn.” Speculum, vol. 65, no. 3, 1990, pp. 564-595.