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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.
The three "Matters" were first described in the 12th century by French poet Jean Bodel, whose epic La Chanson des Saisnes("Song of the Saxons") contains the line:
Ne sont que III matières à nul homme atandant,
Not but with three matters no man should attend:
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".
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.
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."
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.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,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.
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.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.
|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|
|Hartmann von Aue||12th||Erec , Iwein|
|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 (...)|
|Robert de Boron||12th||Merlin|
|Taliesin||6th||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 Maisières||12-13th||La Mule sans frein|
|Raoul de Houdenc||13th||La Vengeance Raguidel|
|Rustichello da Pisa||13th||Roman de Roi Artus, Guiron le Courtois, Meliodus|
|Ulrich von Zatzikhoven||13th||Lanzelet|
|Alliterative Morte Arthure||14th–15th|
|The Awntyrs off Arthure||14th–15th|
|Le Chevalier au papegau|
|Floriant et Florete||13th|
|Folie Tristan d'Oxford||12th|
|De Ortu Waluuanii||12–13th|
|The Knight with the Sword||13th|
|The Knightly Tale of Gologras and Gawain|
|Life of Caradoc|
|The Marvels of Rigomer||13th|
|Of Arthour and of Merlin||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|
Camelot is a castle and court associated with the legendary King Arthur. Absent in the early Arthurian material, Camelot first appeared in 12th-century French romances and, since the Lancelot-Grail cycle, eventually came to be described as the fantastic capital of Arthur's realm and a symbol of the Arthurian world.
Excalibur is the legendary sword of King Arthur, sometimes also attributed with magical powers or associated with the rightful sovereignty of Britain. It was associated with the Arthurian legend very early on. Excalibur and the Sword in the Stone are not the same weapon, though in some modern incarnations they are either the same or at least share their name. In Welsh, it is called Caledfwlch; in Cornish, Calesvol ; in Breton, Kaledvoulc'h; and in Latin, Caliburnus. Several similar swords and other weapons also appear in this and other legends.
King Arthur is a legendary king of Britain, and a central figure in the medieval literary tradition known as the Matter of Britain.
Merlin is a mythical figure prominently featured in the legend of King Arthur and best known as a mage, with several other main roles. His usual depiction, based on an amalgamation of historic and legendary figures, was introduced by the 12th-century British author Geoffrey of Monmouth. It is believed that Geoffrey combined earlier tales of Myrddin and Ambrosius, two legendary Briton prophets with no connection to Arthur, to form the composite figure called Merlinus Ambrosius . Geoffrey's rendering of the character became immediately popular, especially in Wales. Later writers in France and elsewhere expanded the account to produce a fuller image, creating one of the most important figures in the imagination and literature of the Middle Ages.
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.
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.
Geoffrey of Monmouth was a cleric from Monmouth, Wales, and one of the major figures in the development of British historiography and the popularity of tales of King Arthur. He is best known for his chronicle The History of the Kings of Britain which was widely popular in its day, being translated into other languages from its original Latin. It was given historical credence well into the 16th century, but is now considered historically unreliable.
Guinevere, also often written in Modern English as Guenevere or Guenever, was, according to Arthurian legend, an early-medieval queen of Great Britain and the wife of King Arthur. First mentioned in popular literature in the early 12th century, nearly 700 years after the purported times of Arthur, Guinevere has since been portrayed as everything from a villainous and opportunistic traitor to a fatally flawed but noble and virtuous lady. Many records of the legend also feature the variably recounted story of her abduction and rescue as a major part of the tale.
Gawain, also known in many other forms and spellings, is a character in Arthurian legend, in which he is King Arthur's nephew and a Knight of the Round Table. The prototype of Gawain is mentioned under the name Gwalchmei in the earliest Welsh sources. He has subsequently appeared in many Arthurian stories in Welsh, Latin, French, English, Scottish, Dutch, German, Spanish, and Italian, notably as the protagonist of the famous Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Other tales featuring Gawain as the central character include De Ortu Waluuanii, Diu Crône, Ywain and Gawain, Golagros and Gawane, Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle, L'âtre périlleux, La Mule sans frein, La Vengeance Raguidel, Le Chevalier à l'épée, The Awntyrs off Arthure, The Greene Knight, and The Weddynge of Syr Gawen and Dame Ragnell.
Avalon is a mythical island featured in the Arthurian legend. It first appeared in Geoffrey of Monmouth's influential 1136 Historia Regum Britanniae as a place of magic where King Arthur's sword Excalibur was made and later where Arthur was taken to recover from being gravely wounded at the Battle of Camlann. Since then, the island has become a symbol of Arthurian mythology, similar to Arthur's castle of Camelot.
Mordred or Modred is a figure who is variously portrayed in the legend of King Arthur. The earliest known mention of a possibly historical Medraut is in the Welsh chronicle Annales Cambriae, wherein he and Arthur are ambiguously associated with the Battle of Camlann in a brief entry for the year 537. Medraut's figure seemed to have been regarded positively in the early Welsh tradition and may have been related to that of Arthur's son.
Brutus, also called Brute of Troy, is a legendary descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas, known in medieval British legend as the eponymous founder and first king of Britain. This legend first appears in the Historia Brittonum, an anonymous 9th-century historical compilation to which commentary was added by Nennius, but is best known from the account given by the 12th-century chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae.
Coel, also called Coel Hen and King Cole, is a figure prominent in Welsh literature and legend since the Middle Ages. Early Welsh tradition knew of a Coel Hen, a c. 4th-century leader in Roman or Sub-Roman Britain and the progenitor of several kingly lines in Yr Hen Ogledd, the Brittonic-speaking part of what is now northern England and southern Scotland.
King Lot, also spelled Loth or Lott, is a British monarch in Arthurian legend. He was introduced in Geoffrey of Monmouth's influential chronicle Historia Regum Britanniae that portrayed him as King Arthur's brother-in-law and under-king, who serves as regent of Britain during the time between the reigns of Uther and Arthur. In the wake of Geoffrey, Lot has appeared regularly in the works of chivalric romance, alternating between the roles of Arthur's enemy and ally. He chiefly figures as ruler of the northern realm of Lothian and sometimes Norway; in other texts he rules Great Britain's northernmost Orkney isles. He is generally depicted as the husband of Arthur's sister or half-sister, often known as Anna or Morgause. The names and number of their children vary depending on the source, but the later romance tradition has given him the sons Gawain, Agravain, Gaheris, Gareth, and Mordred. Lot's literary character is likely connected to the hagiographical material concerning Saint Kentigern, which feature Leudonus as king of Leudonia and father of Saint Teneu.
The Battle of Camlann is the legendary final battle of King Arthur, in which Arthur either died or was fatally wounded while fighting either with or against Mordred, who also perished. The original legend of Camlann, inspired by a purportedly historical event said to have taken place in the early 6th-century Britain, appears only in vague mentions found in several medieval Welsh texts dating since around the 10th century. The battle's much more detailed depictions have emerged since the 12th century, generally based on that of a catastrophic conflict described in the pseudo-chronicle Historia Regum Britanniae. The further greatly embellished variants originate from the later French chivalric romance tradition, in which it became known as the Battle of Salisbury, and include the 15th-century telling in Le Morte d'Arthur that remains popular today.
Historia regum Britanniae, originally called De gestis Britonum, is a pseudohistorical account of British history, written around 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth. It chronicles the lives of the kings of the Britons over the course of two thousand years, beginning with the Trojans founding the British nation and continuing until the Anglo-Saxons assumed control of much of Britain around the 7th century. It is one of the central pieces of the Matter of Britain.
King Arthur's family grew throughout the centuries with King Arthur's legend. Many of the legendary members of this mythical king's family became leading characters of mythical tales in their own right.
The nine sorceresses or nine sisters are a recurring element in Arthurian legend in variants of the popular nine maidens theme from world mythologies. Their most important appearances are in Geoffrey of Monmouth's introduction of Avalon and the character that would later become Morgan le Fay, and as the central motif of Peredur's story in the Peredur son of Efrawg part of the Mabinogion.
The Land of Maidens is a motif in Irish mythology and medieval literature, especially in the chivalric romance genre. The latter often also features a castle instead of an island, sometimes known as the Castle of Maidens.