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Ysengrimus (Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library)
Harvard University Press, 2013
576 pp., $35.00
Although their populations have mostly forgotten it, and their politicians hate to admit it, most of the nations of Europe are relatively modern creations. Their borders rarely correspond neatly to linguistic or ethnic boundaries, and both ethnic and linguistic categories are arguable anyway. (When does a dialect, like Scots, turn into a language, like Portuguese?) These uncertainties, which have all too often led to shooting wars and which have by no means vanished from the European political scene, led especially in the 19th century to attempts to reinforce many a shaky sense of national identity by centering that identity on a national epic. Such an epic should be as old as possible, should celebrate the virtues which a particular nation would like to ascribe to itself, and so anchor modern identity in medieval language.
The new German state, coming into being all through the 19th century, thus made a fetish of the "doomed-heroes" Nibelungenlied, rediscovered in 1807. The French had their Chanson de Roland, first edited 1836; Spain had El Cid (1779); Finland had above all its nation-creating Kalevala (1835); and so on. Nations, or sub-national groups, were not above faking an epic to suit, as very definitely with the Frisian Oera Linda Boek (1872), and much more furiously denied (its one manuscript has gone missing, thought to have been burned by Napoleon's troops) the Russian "Lay of the Raid of Igor" (1795). Some would say that Longfellow's "Hiawatha" (1855), very clearly modeled on the Kalevala, was an American attempt to assert old identity likewise.
In this welter of claims and denials, one omission was particularly sensitive: there was no evident candidate for the role of national epic of the Low Countries, or the Netherlands, which is to say (but already the terms and boundaries are confused) what English speakers call Holland and Belgium. The need for this was felt especially strongly in Belgium, a country still split between its Flemish-speaking and French-speaking ...