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 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 ("Song of the Saxons") contains the line:

Ne sont que III matières à nul homme atandant,
De France et de Bretaigne, et de Rome la grant.

"Not but with three matters no man should attend:
Of France, and of Britain, and of Rome the grand."

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.

Themes and subjects

Legendary history of Britain

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 Professor 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 Mater 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 .

Medievalist Joshua Byron Smith contends that clerics with access to Welsh-Latin documents that circulated throughout a monastic network in southern Wales and western England and not traveling minstrels or professional translators, were responsible for popularizing these stories about ancient Britain. [3] Geoffrey lists Coel Hen as a King of the Britons, [4] 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 tale 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. [5] It is also possible to read the Arthurian literature in general, and that concerned with the Grail tradition in particular, as an allegory of human development and spiritual growth, a theme explored by mythologist Joseph Campbell amongst others.[ citation needed ]

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
Geoffrey of Monmouth 12th Historia Regum Britanniae
Gottfried von Strassburg 13thTristan
Hartmann von Aue 12th Erec , Iwein
Layamon 13th Brut
Thomas Malory 15th Le Morte d'Arthur
Marie de France 12th The 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 and Iseult
Wace 12th Roman de Brut , Roman de Rou
Wolfram von Eschenbach 12th Parzival
Raoul de Houdenc 12th Meraugis de Portlesguez
Païen de Maisières13th La Mule sans frein
Rustichello da Pisa 13thRoman de Roi Artus, Gyron le courtois , Meliodus
Ulrich von Zatzikhoven 13th Lanzelet


Alliterative Morte Arthure 14th–15th
L'âtre périlleux 13th
Blandin de Cornouaille 14th
Le Chevalier à l'Épée
Le Chevalier au Papegau
La Demoiselle à la Mule 12th
Folie Tristan d'Oxford 12th
Le Roman de Jaufré
The Lancelot-Grail Cycle 13th
Life of Caradoc
The Mabinogion
Les Merveilles de Rigomer 13th
Of Arthour and of Merlin 13th
Perlesvaus 13th
The Post-Vulgate Cycle 13th
Prose Tristan
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 14th
Stanzaic Morte Arthur 14th


See also

Related Research Articles

Camelot Castle and court associated with King Arthur

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 Legendary sword of King Arthur

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 in some versions said to be different, though in most incarnations they are the same. In Welsh, it is called Caledfwlch; in Cornish, Calesvol ; in Breton, Kaledvoulc'h; and in Latin, Caliburnus.

King Arthur Legendary British leader of the late 5th and early 6th centuries

King Arthur was a legendary British leader who, according to medieval histories and romances, led the defence of Britain against Saxon invaders in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. The details of Arthur's story are mainly composed of Welsh and English folklore and literary invention, and modern historians generally agree that he is unhistorical. The sparse historical background of Arthur is gleaned from various sources, including the Annales Cambriae, the Historia Brittonum, and the writings of Gildas. Arthur's name also occurs in early poetic sources such as Y Gododdin.

Merlin Legendary British figure

Merlin is a mythological figure prominently featured in the legend of King Arthur and best known as an enchanter or wizard. His usual depiction, based on an amalgamation of historical and legendary figures, was introduced by the 12th-century British author Geoffrey of Monmouth and the translator John of Cornwall. Geoffrey appears to have combined existing stories of Myrddin Wyllt, a North Brythonic prophet and madman with no connection to Arthur, with tales of the Romano-British war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus 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.

Round Table 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. 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

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.

Guinevere Arthurian legend character

Guinevere, also often written as Guenevere or Guenever, is the legendary queen and wife of King Arthur. First recorded in Welsh literature in the early 12th century, she has been portrayed as everything from a villainous and opportunistic traitor to a fatally flawed but noble and virtuous lady. A notably recurring theme in many Arthurian tales is that of her abduction.

Gawain A knight in Arthurian legends

Gawain, also known as Gawaine or Gauwaine, among various other forms and spellings, is King Arthur's nephew and a Knight of the Round Table in the Arthurian legend. Under the name Gwalchmei, he is introduced very early in the legend's literature, being mentioned in some of the earliest Welsh Arthurian sources. As Gawain and related variants, he appears in Latin, French, English, Dutch, German, Spanish and Italian texts, notably as the protagonist of the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Other tales of Gawain include Historia Regum Britanniae, Roman de Brut, De Ortu Waluuanii, Diu Crône, The Awntyrs off Arthure, Ywain and Gawain, Golagros and Gawane, L'âtre périlleux, Le Chevalier à l'épée, and The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, as well as the works of Chrétien de Troyes and the prose cycle Lancelot-Grail.

Mordred Arthurian legend character

Mordred or Modred is a figure who is variously portrayed in the British tradition. 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. His figure seemed to have been regarded positively in the early Welsh tradition and may have been related to that of Arthur's son.

Brutus of Troy Legendary descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas

Brutus, or Brute of Troy, is a legendary descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas, known in medieval British history 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 Hen

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

Lot, Loth or Lothus is the king of Lothian, the realm of the Picts in the Arthurian legend. Such a ruler first appeared late in the 1st millennium's hagiographical material concerning Saint Kentigern, which feature a Leudonus, king of Leudonia, a Latin name for Lothian. In the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth adapted this to Lot, king of Lothian, in his influential chronicle Historia Regum Britanniae, portraying him as King Arthur's brother-in-law and ally. In the wake of Geoffrey's writings, Lot appeared regularly in later works of chivalric romance.

Battle of Camlann Legendary conflict

The Battle of Camlann is a 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 Britain in 537, 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, and their further greatly embellished variants from the later French chivalric romance tradition include the telling in Le Morte d'Arthur that remains popular today.

Fisher King character in Arthurian legend

In Arthurian legend, the Fisher King, also known as the Wounded King or Maimed King, is the last in a long bloodline charged with keeping the Holy Grail. Versions of the original story vary widely, but he is always wounded in the legs or groin and incapable of standing. All he is able to do is fish in a small boat on the river near his castle, Corbenic, and wait for some noble who might be able to heal him by asking a certain question. In later versions, knights travel from many lands to try to heal the Fisher King, but only the chosen can accomplish the feat. This is achieved by Percival alone in the earlier stories; he is joined by Galahad and Bors in the later ones.

<i>Historia Regum Britanniae</i> pseudohistorical account of British history (c.1136)

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 Arthurs family Family

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.

Land of Maidens Motif in Irish mythology and medieval chivalric romance literature

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.



  1. Evans, Barry. "King Arthur, Part 1: The Matter of Britain", North Coast Journal, October 25, 2012
  2. 1 2 3 Davenport, John J., "The Matter of Britain: The Mythological and Philosophical Significance of the British Legends", 2004
  3. Smith, Joshua Byron. Walter Map and the Matter of Britain, University of Pennsyvania Press. 2017 ISBN   9780812249323
  4. Geoffrey of Monmouth (1966). The History of the Kings of Britain. (Lewis Thorpe,ed.). Penguin ISBN   0-14-044170-0
  5. 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.
  6. Flieger, Verlyn. "J.R.R. Tolkien and the Matter of Britain", Mythlore"", vol.23, No.1, article 5, October 15, 2000


  • Pearsall, Derek (2005). Arthurian Romance: a short introduction. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN   9780631233206
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