Colonialism presents itself in many ways throughout Medieval British literature from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to Shakespeare’s Othello, yet it’s hardly noticed unless one looks for it. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight illustrates a classic example of colonialism that portrays English dominance over Wales. “SGGK offers a colonial view of the English-Welsh borderland and of Wales, while providing a self-congratulatory perspective on England that ultimately promotes the English conquest of Wales” (Arner). Colonialism appears in Shakespeare’s Othello throughout Acts II – IV and places Othello and Desdemona in an unfamiliar location shifting Othello’s focus to war ever so briefly which allows Iago to begin implementing his plan.
Medieval British Literature
Activity One: Here’s an activity for the review of some of the major works in Medieval British Literature and the role of colonialism.
In groups of three or four decide which of these works from Medieval British Literature have examples of colonialism. Summarize the examples, include the actions of key characters and support your choices with direct quotes.
The Green Knight
The Faerie Queene
The Blazing World
In America, a recent practice to address the lingering issues of colonialism are Land Acknowledgments. Many universities, museums, towns, grocery stores, etc. have written their own. After reading a few, I noticed that they all follow the same basic guidelines. (Guidelines can be found here: https://nativegov.org/news/a-guide-to-indigenous-land-acknowledgment/) The opening sentence acknowledges that the buildings of their organization stand on (or have activities that take place on) the ‘ancestral homelands’ of the native people of the area. The second sentence names the tribe who once owned the land, where they are now, and their modernized tribe name. The third sentence pays ‘honor and respect to their ancestors, past and present’. Finally, the organization will then commit to ‘building a more inclusive and equitable space for all.’ Land Acknowledgments are often read aloud before meetings and public events.
Here are two Land Acknowledgments from Berkshire County, Massachusetts, one from a well-endowed art museum and the other from a local group offering opportunities for teenagers to participate in community-based outdoor improvement projects:
Clark Art Museum
The Clark Art Institute sits on the ancestral homelands of the Mohican people. We acknowledge the tremendous hardship of their forcible removal from these homelands by colonial settlers. A federally-recognized Nation, they now reside in Wisconsin and are known as the Stockbridge-Munsee Community. As we learn, speak, and gather here, we pay honor to their ancestors (past and present) and to future generations by committing to build a more inclusive and equitable space for all.
It is with gratitude and humility that we acknowledge that the land we steward—including April Hill and all of our conservation work sites—is part of the ancestral homelands of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans, the indigenous peoples of this land. Despite tremendous hardship in being forced from here, today their community resides in Wisconsin and is known as the Stockbridge-Munsee Community. We pay honor and respect to their ancestors past and present as we commit to building a more inclusive and equitable space for all.
At Greenagers, we commit to educating young people about indigenous inhabitants of this land and their history and incorporating race and land equity into our curricula and practices. We also commit to paying an annual voluntary land tax to the Stockbridge-Munsee Community.
You may notice how similar the two given examples are, a testament to how these two organizations did their best to produce a Land Acknowledgement, even though they lack dynamic word choice and individuality. Still, it’s a good start. Here’s an activity to help build better, more precise vocabulary to write better land acknowledgements.
Activity Two: The following words are commonly used in land acknowledgments. Define them for yourself and come up with synonyms for each.
Activity Three: Return to Activity One and choose a character from one of the works that included examples of colonialism and using your word bank from Activity Two, write a Land Acknowledgment from the point of view of the offending character (the one who stole land, souls, etc.). A word of caution: This activity should be a reverent one, not to be taken lightly or as farce because of the serious nature of Land Acknowledgments.
Activity Four: Using what you now know about colonialism and Land Acknowledgments, reflect on your favorite plot of land and write a Land Acknowledgment of your own. This acknowledgment would be a personal and perhaps ever-changing solemn tribute to those who occupied the land before it became your favorite plot of land.Conclusion: Colonialism was quite prevalent in Medieval British times which is why ist shows up in its literature. Over time, the thinking about the acquisition of land that belonged to others has changed and evolved into a much more thoughtful and moral place. What went before is now beyond our reach, however Land Acknowledgments connect the past to the present and the present to the future. May we all honor and respect those who were here before us.