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]

Contents

Name

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

Medieval

AuthorCenturyŒuvres
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

Anonymous

ŒuvresCentury
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 ]
Jaufre
The Knight with the Sword 13th
The Knightly Tale of Gologras and Gawain
Lancelot-Grail Cycle 13th
Life of Caradoc
Mabinogion
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

Modern

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Camelot</span> 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Excalibur</span> 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 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.

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

King Arthur is a legendary king of Britain, and a central figure in the medieval literary tradition known as the Matter of Britain.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Merlin</span> Legendary Welsh wizard

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.

<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

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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Guinevere</span> Arthurian legend character

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.

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

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.

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

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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mordred</span> Arthurian legend character

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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Brutus of Troy</span> Legendary first king of Britain

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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Coel Hen</span> Sub-Roman king in Northern Britain

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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">King Lot</span> Legendary Arthurian king

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.

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

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.

<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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">King Arthur's family</span> 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Land of Maidens</span> 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.

References

Citations

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.