Matter of Britain

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The Matter of Britain is the body of medieval literature and legendary material associated with Great Britain and Brittany and the legendary kings and heroes associated with it, particularly King Arthur. It was one of the three great Western story cycles recalled repeatedly in medieval literature, together with the Matter of France, which concerned the legends of Charlemagne, and the Matter of Rome, which included material derived from or inspired by classical mythology. [1]



The three "Matters" were first described in the 12th century by French poet Jean Bodel, whose epic La Chanson des Saisnes  [ fr ] ("Song of the Saxons") contains the line:

The name distinguishes and relates the Matter of Britain from the mythological themes taken from classical antiquity, the "Matter of Rome", and the tales of the Paladins of Charlemagne and their wars with the Moors and Saracens, which constituted the "Matter of France".

Themes and subjects

King Arthur is the chief subject of the Matter of Britain, along with stories related to the legendary kings of Britain, as well as lesser-known topics related to the history of Great Britain and Brittany, such as the stories of Brutus of Troy, Coel Hen, Leir of Britain (King Lear), and Gogmagog.

Legendary history

The legendary history of Britain was created partly to form a body of patriotic myth for the country. Several agendas thus can be seen in this body of literature. According to John J. Davenport, the question of Britain's identity and significance in the world "was a theme of special importance for writers trying to find unity in the mixture of their land's Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Roman and Norse inheritance." [2]

Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae is a central component of the Matter of Britain. Geoffrey drew on a number of ancient British texts, including the ninth century Historia Brittonum . The Historia Brittonum is the earliest known source of the story of Brutus of Troy. Traditionally attributed to Nennius, its actual compiler is unknown; it exists in several recensions. This tale went on to achieve greater currency because its inventor linked Brutus to the diaspora of heroes that followed the Trojan War. [2] As such, this material could be used for patriotic myth-making just as Virgil linked the founding of Rome to the Trojan War in The Æneid .

Geoffrey lists Coel Hen as a King of the Britons, [3] whose daughter, Helena marries Constantius Chlorus and gives birth to a son who becomes the Emperor Constantine the Great, tracing the Roman imperial line to British ancestors.

It has been suggested that Leir of Britain, who later became King Lear, was originally the Welsh sea-god Llŷr, related to the Irish Ler. Various Celtic deities have been identified with characters from Arthurian literature as well: for example Morgan le Fay was often thought to have originally been the Welsh goddess Modron or Irish the Morrígan. Many of these identifications come from the speculative comparative religion of the late 19th century and have been questioned in more recent years.

William Shakespeare was interested in the legendary history of Britain, and was familiar with some of its more obscure byways. Shakespeare's plays contain several tales relating to these legendary kings, such as King Lear and Cymbeline . It has been suggested that Shakespeare's Welsh schoolmaster Thomas Jenkins introduced him to this material. These tales also figure in Raphael Holinshed's The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, which also appears in Shakespeare's sources for Macbeth .

Other early authors also drew from the early Arthurian and pseudo-historical sources of the Matter of Britain. The Scots, for instance, formulated a mythical history in the Pictish and the Dál Riata royal lines. While they do eventually become factual lines, unlike those of Geoffrey, their origins are vague and often incorporate both aspects of mythical British history and mythical Irish history. The story of Gabrán mac Domangairt especially incorporates elements of both those histories.

Arthurian cycle

The Arthurian literary cycle is the best-known part of the Matter of Britain. It has succeeded largely because it tells two interlocking stories that have intrigued many later authors. One concerns Camelot, usually envisioned as a doomed utopia of chivalric virtue, undone by the fatal flaws of the heroes like Arthur, Gawain and Lancelot. The other concerns the quests of the various knights to achieve the Holy Grail; some succeed (Galahad, Percival), and others fail.

The Arthurian tales have been changed throughout time, and other characters have been added to add backstory and expand on other Knights of the Round Table. The medieval legend of Arthur and his knights is full of Christian themes; those themes involve the destruction of human plans for virtue by the moral failures of their characters, and the quest for an important Christian relic. Finally, the relationships between the characters invited treatment in the tradition of courtly love, such as Lancelot and Guinevere, or Tristan and Iseult.

In more recent years, the trend has been to attempt to link the tales of King Arthur and his knights with Celtic mythology, usually in highly romanticized, 20th-century reconstructed versions. The work of Jessie Weston, in particular From Ritual to Romance , traced Arthurian imagery through Christianity to roots in early nature worship and vegetation rites, though this interpretation is no longer fashionable. [4] It is also possible to read the Arthurian literature, particularly the Grail tradition, as an allegory of human development and spiritual growth, a theme explored by mythologist Joseph Campbell amongst others. [5]

Noteworthy authors


Béroul 12th Tristan
Chrétien de Troyes 12th Erec and Enide , Cligès , Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart , Yvain, the Knight of the Lion , Perceval, the Story of the Grail
Geoffrey Chaucer 14th The Canterbury Tales
Thomas Chestre 14th Sir Launfal , Libeaus Desconus
Geoffrey of Monmouth 12th Historia Regum Britanniae , Vita Merlini
Gottfried von Strassburg 13th Tristan  [ de ]
Hartmann von Aue 12th Erec , Iwein
Layamon 13th Brut
Thomas Malory 15th Le Morte d'Arthur
Marie de France 12th Lais of Marie de France: Lai de Yonec , Lai de Frêne , Lai de Lanval (...)
Nennius Historia Brittonum
Robert de Boron 12th Merlin
Taliesin Book of Taliesin
Thomas of Britain 12th Tristan
Wace 12th Roman de Brut , Roman de Rou
Wolfram von Eschenbach 12th Parzival
Raoul de Houdenc 12th Meraugis de Portlesguez
Païen de Maisières12-13th La Mule sans frein
Raoul de Houdenc 13th La Vengeance Raguidel
Rustichello da Pisa 13thRoman de Roi Artus, Guiron le Courtois, Meliodus
Ulrich von Zatzikhoven 13th Lanzelet


Alliterative Morte Arthure 14th–15th
The Awntyrs off Arthure 14th–15th
L'âtre périlleux 13th
Le Chevalier au papegau  [ fr ]
Elucidation 13th
Floriant et Florete 13th
Folie Tristan d'Oxford 12th
De Ortu Waluuanii 12–13th
Gliglois  [ fr ]
Hunbaut  [ fr ]
The Knight with the Sword 13th
The Knightly Tale of Gologras and Gawain
Lancelot-Grail Cycle 13th
Life of Caradoc
The Marvels of Rigomer  [ fr ]13th
Meliadus 13th
Of Arthour and of Merlin 13th
Palamedes 13th
Perceforest 14th
Perceval Continuations 13th
Perlesvaus 13th
Post-Vulgate Cycle 13th
Prose Tristan 13th
Roman de Fergus 13th
Romanz du reis Yder 13th
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 14th
Stanzaic Morte Arthur 14th
La Tavola Ritonda 15th


See also

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Excalibur</span> Legendary sword of King Arthur

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">King Arthur</span> Legendary British leader of the late 5th and early 6th centuries

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Round Table</span> Table in the Arthurian legend

The Round Table is King Arthur's famed table in the Arthurian legend, around which he and his knights congregate. As its name suggests, it has no head, implying that everyone who sits there has equal status, unlike conventional rectangular tables where participants order themselves according to rank. The table was first described in 1155 by Wace, who relied on previous depictions of Arthur's fabulous retinue. The symbolism of the Round Table developed over time; by the close of the 12th century it had come to represent the chivalric order associated with Arthur's court, the Knights of the Round Table.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">English mythology</span>

English mythology is the collection of myths that have emerged throughout the history of England, sometimes being elaborated upon by successive generations, and at other times being rejected and replaced by other explanatory narratives. These narratives consist of folk traditions developed in England after the Norman Conquest, integrated with traditions from Anglo-Saxon mythology, Christian mythology, and Celtic mythology. Elements of the Matter of Britain, Welsh mythology and Cornish mythology which relate directly to England are included, such as the foundation myth of Brutus of Troy and the Arthurian legends, but these are combined with narratives from the Matter of England and traditions from English folklore.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geoffrey of Monmouth</span> British cleric and historiographer

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gawain</span> A knight in Arthurian legends

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Avalon</span> Legendary island featured in Arthurian legend

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Battle of Camlann</span> Legendary conflict

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Land of Maidens</span> Motif in Irish mythology and medieval chivalric romance literature

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Cited works

  • Campbell, Joseph; Moyers, Bill (1991). "Sacrifice and Bliss". Power of Myth. Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group. pp. 113–150. ISBN   978-0385418867.
  • Davenport, John J. (2004). "The Matter of Britain: The Mythological and Philosophical Significance of the British Legends" (PDF). Retrieved 24 May 2022.
  • Evans, Barry (25 October 2012). "King Arthur, Part 1: The Matter of Britain". North Coast Journal. Retrieved 24 May 2022.
  • Flieger, Verlyn (15 October 2000). "J.R.R. Tolkien and the Matter of Britain". Mythlore. 23 (1). Retrieved 24 May 2022.
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth (1966). Thorpe, Lewis (ed.). The History of the Kings of Britain. Penguin. ISBN   0-14-044170-0.
  • Surette, Leon (Summer 1988). "The Waste Land and Jessie Weston: A Reassessment". Twentieth Century Literature. 34 (2): 223–244. doi:10.2307/441079. JSTOR   441079.

Other sources

  • Dover, Carol, ed. (2005). A Companion to the Lancelot-Grail Cycle. Boydell & Brewer. ISBN   978-1843842453.
  • Green, D.H. (2005). The Beginnings of Medieval Romance: Fact and fiction, 1150–1220. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN   978-0521049566.
  • Pearsall, Derek (2005). Arthurian Romance: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN   978-0631233206.