The Arthur of the chronicles

The Arthur of the chronicles

The Arthur of the chronicles

Peter Damian-Grint and Françoise Le Saux

‘The Arthur of the French: the Arthurian legend in medieval French and Occitan literature’, (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2006), pp. 93–111


Geoffrey of Monmouth

It is established usage when discussing medieval Arthurian texts to distinguishbetween a ‘romance’tradition,the best-known examples ofwhich are the worksofChrétien de Troyes,and a pseudo-historical tradition,originating withGeoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. This distinction is based on obvious structural and narrative differences:the romances typically are episodic in nature and focus on the personal adventures of one or several heroes connected with Arthur’s court,whereas the pseudo-histories cover the entirety of the history of Celtic Britain,thus placing Arthur within a wider pattern of dynastic succession.They also have a marked annalistic flavour,thanks to the time rubrics that punctuate the narrative,hence the term ‘Arthurian (pseudo-) chronicles’ commonly used to refer to these works.By present-day standards, the chronicle strand of the Arthurian tradition is not ‘real’ history,in the sense that much of the material sprung on an unsuspecting and delighted world by Geoffrey of Monmouth is pure fiction,but it was accepted by most ofGeoffrey’s contemporaries as a convincing and authoritative historical narrative.

There are a number of reasons for the ease with which the Historia was granted the authoritative status it so quickly achieved. First, Geoffrey of Monmouth himself was not without credentials. He was a cleric,probably an Augustinian canon active in Oxford between 1129 and 1151,and acquainted with Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford. Indeed,Geoffrey maintains in his preface that it was Walter himself who provided the source of the Historia, a ‘very ancient book written in the British language’. Geoffrey was made Bishop Elect of St Asaph in Flintshire in 1151,ordained and consecrated in 1152,and in 1153 was one of the bishops witnessing the Treaty of Westminster between King Stephen and Henry, son of the Empress Matilda. He is thought to have died in 1155. We are therefore dealing with a genuine scholar,who enjoyed a good network of ecclesiastical and political connections and whose Welsh origins lent credibility to his claim that he translated Walter’s ancient book into Latin. The discovery of the book itself would not have been perceived as implausible,as the existence of a long written tradition in the Celtic languages was known and accepted.

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