Narratives of origin are by their nature changeable. Multiple threads cross through them, and we inevitably pick out different strands when we use them to underpin aspects of our identities and values at various stages of our lives. When I was growing up in England, for instance, I used to think of the eleventh-century Norman invasion as imposing a culture from above (the “yoke of the Normans” as it was called) that the “real” spirit of England heroically resisted. Popular versions of the Robin Hood stories shown on television as well as novels such as Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820) reinforced a notion that the old Anglo-Saxon culture lived on in the people, who kept harrying the Norman aristocracy in the centuries after the invasion in stubborn, subversive, and occasionally rebellious ways. Later, when I came to study Chaucer, I understood the most important legacy of the Norman invasion to have been the hybridization of the English language, which made it such an astonishingly rich, nuanced, and subtle medium for literary and other forms of expression. I felt I would have been culturally poorer if the merging of English with French had not taken place all those years ago. Still later, as antipathy toward immigrants and racism became a potent force within Britain, the Norman invasion provided a founding narrative of ethnic as well as linguistic differences being absorbed into British culture across the long reach of history. In this sense, the instance of the Norman invasion became exemplary of the successive merging and incorporation of different cultures within Britain, countering the narratives of “pure” Englishness used to foster and legitimate a political stance that
I wanted to repudiate. Each of these versions of English identity redefi ned the signifi cance of the Norman invasion, engendering a range of stories in the process. Each version also stood in a contradictory-or at least potentially problematic-relation to the others.