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Imagining Dark Age Britain. The Birth of Literature from the Darkness of History

Subproject 4

Prof. Dr. Andrew James Johnston
Institut für Englische Philologie, Freie Universität Berlin

Prof. Dr. Wolfram Keller
Institut für Englische Philologie, Freie Universität Berlin

Jan-Peer Hartmann
Institut für Englische Philologie, Freie Universität Berlin

The project examines a paradoxical literary-historical configuration: the past before the past as it becomes manifest in English literature in the concept of the dark ages. Our main thesis is that the meta-poetic reflection of the patchiness and contradictions of the “historical” knowledge transported in myths of origin leads to the development of implicit or performative concepts of literariness. The limitations of the texts’ knowledge of the past is thus used creatively to generate a concept of literature that endorses fiction as a means of making possible new discourses. Hence, aetiology would not primarily serve to establish coherence or offer historical explanations but to utilize the obscurity and alterity of the pre-past on a meta-literary level and thereby to enhance its aesthetic value.

We will focus on exemplary texts from four historical constellations, 1000, 1400, 1600 and 2000 CE. Comparison between these constellations is made possible by the similarity between the motifs and traditions emerging in the literature of these times as well as by concurrent re-negotiations of English identity in the context of its relationship to other nations in the British Isles, which is reflected, amongst other things, in an engagement with a pre-past during which the relations between different ethnic groups in Britain had been fluid.