Alphabetizing the Nation: Medieval British Origins in Thomas Elyot's Dictionary

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Abstract

Reading Thomas Elyot's Dictionary, this essay examines the legacy of medieval chronicle and fable for the early modern period. Elyot's influential work, here considered in its 1542 edition as Bibliotheca Eliotae, contains entries for both “Albion” and “Britannia,” topics which plunged the work straight into the problematic inheritance of Galfridian history, recently discredited at Henry VIII's court by the Italian humanist Polydore Vergil. Elyot presents, only to dismiss, medieval legendary origins for Albion and Britain, using what he calls similitudo to find alternative explanations. His dictionary thereby transforms misleading medieval fables into something more “fitting” for England in the early days of the Reformation. Yet similitude remains problematic for Elyot; replacing the medieval Brutus legend with a story that privileges the humanist reconstruction of the illegible fragments of the past, Elyot does not avoid uncomfortable reminiscences of the senseless destruction of past cultural objects.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)305-26
JournalJournal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies
Volume47
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - May 2017