Arthurianism in Early Plantagenet England

My friend Chris Berard is interviewed for Boydell’s Medieval Herald about his new book:

What would you most like readers to take from your book? 

I want my readers to see that the legend of King Arthur, as written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, encapsulates the ‘medieval cultural synthesis’ of the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, and Celtic-Teutonic traditions. I describe Arthur in my book as a composite figure, a “best of” kings compilation. In Arthur one finds dimensions of King David, Alexander the Great, King Æthelstan, King Canute, Charlemagne, and the early Norman kings of England. Geoffrey’s Arthur can be understood as a patriotic resistance fighter and as a champion of established institutional authority. Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain was to the post-Conquest kings of England what Virgil’s Aeneid was to Caesar Augustus. In the History of the Kings of Britain, we find a divinely-ordained, manifest destiny of imperial attainment; recurrent patterns of history that provide an intoxicating blend of mystery and meaning to the past, present and future; instruction on good kingship and good vassalage; and hope for an idyllic future, which can be described as a more perfect version of an already idealized past. The breadth of sources and traditions that Geoffrey drew upon when constructing Arthur combined with his tailoring of the figure to appeal to the particular imperial ambitions of England’s monarchs was the key to Arthur’s enduring appeal. Arthur is a king for all seasons. I seek to situate the medieval Arthurian tradition within the broader context and patterns of Western Civilization, and my hope is that my work will contribute to the recognition of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain as an integral part of the western canon.

More at the link.

Henry V

My wife and I enjoyed seeing Henry V at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse in Atlanta this evening. I was amused to see so many women actors on stage playing male parts, as though the director was saying, well, in Elizabethan times men played women, so now we’re going to reverse it.

But I was less amused to see King Henry V bearing a shield that looked like this:

Wikipedia.

As king, of course, Henry should have borne a shield that looked like this:

Arms of Henry IV from 1406, arms of Henry V. Wikipedia.

Edward III, back in 1340, was the first English king to quarter the arms of France with the arms of England, by means of illustrating his claim to the throne of France. At the time France was represented by Azure, semé de lys Or – that is, a blue field strewn with an indeterminate number of fleur de lys – “France Ancient” in the lingo.

Arms of Edward III from 1340, arms of Richard II, arms of Henry IV to 1406. Wikipedia.

In 1376, King Charles V of France reduced the number of fleur de lys in the French royal arms to three (“France Modern”) and King Henry IV of England followed suit with own his coat of arms in 1406 or so. Henry V inherited this coat of arms, along with the throne, in 1413.

So where does the coat of arms France Ancient quartering England with a label of five points per pale Ermine and France come from? Apparently it was borne by Henry V’s father Henry IV, before he became king, for a brief period in 1399, when he was both Duke of Hereford and Duke of Lancaster. The label was reused by Henry V’s brother John, Duke of Bedford, who served as his regent for France, but the first and fourth quarters of his coat of arms were France Modern, not France Ancient.

Arms of John, Duke of Bedford (d. 1435). Wikipedia.

I realize that few people care about heraldry as I do – and that critiquing an entire production of a Shakespearean play based on a single anachronism is pedantic and philistine! But I still think that with a little extra effort, you can get such details right. The Shakespeare Tavern is proud to claim that it’s an Original Practice playhouse; I can assure you that Shakespeare’s audience would have noticed this.

Or was it intentional? This is always the question when faced with apparently problematic details. Richard II had exiled the future Henry IV in 1397, and upon the death of Henry’s father John of Gaunt in 1399, seized the Duchy of Lancaster. Henry’s return to England reclaim his rightful inheritance gathered so much support that it turned into a revolution, deposing Richard and installing Henry as king. By using the arms of his father “coming to reclaim his inheritance,” is the play suggesting that Henry V’s French expedition is somehow parallel to the Lancastrian Revolution – that Henry V is attempting to live up to the example of his father, who did the same thing in 1399?

Perhaps. Personally I don’t like having to make the “fanboy save,” as I heard it described once.

UPDATE: The Shakespeare Tavern responds:

Unfortunately, I think it wasn’t as much an artistic decision as a practical one. We didn’t have the correct shield already “in stock” as it were, and just used the shield that we already had available. As artistic director Jeff Watkins likes to say: “We don’t do history, we tell stories.”

Avicenna in Ireland

From Atlas Obscura:

Found: A Medical Manual Linking Medieval Ireland to the Islamic World

Knowledge transcends borders.

AN EXCITING LINK BETWEEN MEDIEVAL Ireland and the Islamic world has been discovered on two sheets of calfskin vellum lodged into the binding of a book from the 1500s. The sheets hold a rare 15th-century Irish translation of an 11th-century Persian medical encyclopedia. For 500 years, they sat in a family home in Cornwall with no one the wiser to their origins.

“I suppose [the owners] just took a notion to photograph it with their phone and they sent the photograph to one of the universities in England, who sent it to another university, and eventually it got to me,” says Pádraig Ó Macháin, who has spent his life with medieval Gaelic manuscripts and leads the modern Irish department at University College Cork. For him, identifying it as a medieval Irish medical text was a cinch, but he needed a little help to determine its source.

Ó Macháin, founder of Irish Script on Screen, Ireland’s first deep digitization project, where the manuscript and many more old Irish texts can be seen, shared the fragment with Aoibheann Nic Dhonnchadha, a specialist in Irish medical texts at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. She identified it as a passage from the first book of the seminal five-volume The Canon of Medicine.Written by 11th-century Persian physician and polymath Ibn Sina, also known as Avicenna, the work is considered the foundational textbook of early modern medicine. While many references to Ibn Sina and his work pop up in old Irish medical texts, this is the only known evidence of a full translation of his encyclopedia. He originally wrote in Arabic, and the Irish rendition is likely translated from a 13th-century Latin version by the prolific Gerard of Cremona. “This is one of the most influential medical books ever written,” says Nic Dhonnchadha. “So the fact that it was being studied in Ireland in the 15th century was certainly a link to the Islamic world.”

More at the link.

Arthuriana

• My friend Christopher Berard’s book Arthurianism in Early Plantagenet England from Henry II to Edward I was published yesterday by the Boydell Press. It represents the “first full-scale account of the use of the Arthurian legend in the long twelfth century.”

The precedent of empire and the promise of return lay at the heart of King Arthur’s appeal in the Middle Ages. Both ideas found fullness of expression in the twelfth century: monarchs and magnates sought to recreate an Arthurian golden age that was as wondrous as the biblical and classical worlds, but less remote. Arthurianism, the practice of invoking and emulating the legendary Arthur of post-Roman Britain, was thus an instance of medieval medievalism.

This book provides a comprehensive history of the first 150 years of Arthurianism, from its beginnings under Henry II of England to a highpoint under Edward I. It contends that the Plantagenet kings of England mockingly ascribed a literal understanding of the myth of King Arthur’s return to the Brittonic Celts whilst adopting for themselves a figurative and typological interpretation of the myth. A central figure in this work is Arthur of Brittany (1187-1203), who, for more than a generation, was the focus of Arthurian hopes and their disappointment.

• At Medievally Speaking, Kevin Harty interprets the movie Aquaman as an Arthurian tale:

The Arthurian elements are established by the title character’s first name, and by a variation on the traditionally problematic or unusual Arthurian parentage: for Ygraine and Uther read Atlanna and Thomas.  Aquaman, like Perceval in multiple versions of the Arthurian legend, initially defeats a knight in red armor—here, of course, a sea knight. While King Arthur’s last battle is usually with his illegitimate son Mordred, Aquaman’s last battle with his half-brother Orm is a close enough parallel.  Mera is part Guinevere, part good Morgan le Fay.  Vulko serves as Aquaman’s Merlin, and the Trident is, of course, the film’s Excalibur.  Malory has it that “whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise king born.”  In Aquaman, the ability to retrieve the Trident similarly guarantees who is “rightwise king born” of Atlantis. Aquaman’s interrogation by the Karathen at times recalls that of Arthur and his knights by Mighty Tim in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  In John Boorman’s Excalibur, Arthur learns that the secret of the Grail is that the land and the king are one.  In Aquaman, the title character declares that the land and the sea are one.

Vegetation

A couple of interesting BBC links:

1. Alastair Sooke investigates the so-called “Green Man”:

A mask-like face engulfed in undergrowth, leaves sprouting eerily from his wretched mouth. Sometimes beautiful, often sinister, this mysterious figure – so common in medieval sculpture – is known as ‘the Green Man’.

In his heyday, the Green Man could be found glaring in churches across Europe. Since then, he has permeated folklore, popular culture and literature.

But who is he? And where did he come from? Is he a positive symbol of springtime renewal? Or an image of dereliction and decay – a dark reminder of man’s mortality?

Find out more at the link. The video references a 1978 book on the topic by Kathleen Basford, which is still in print.

2. News from Somerset:

Bath’s Sydney Gardens to be restored

Georgian pleasure gardens which were loved by Jane Austen are among six parks to have been awarded a total of £13.8m in lottery cash.

Sydney Gardens in Bath, which have fallen into decline, have been given £2.74m to help with restoration.

The novelist lived near the park when she moved to the city in 1801.

Other parks to get cash include South Cliff Gardens in Scarborough, Castle Park in Bishop’s Stortford and Ellington Park in Ramsgate.

Fairhaven Lake and Gardens on the Fylde coast and Stevens Park in Quarry Bank, Dudley, have also received Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) money.

The Grade II registered Sydney Gardens were designed in the late 18th Century, and became Austen’s local park when she moved to the city.

More at the link.

Goths

A laff from Facebook:

I’ve always found the evolution of the word “Gothic” to be most interesting. It originally meant what the second paragraph in the graphic refers to: an eastern Germanic language spoken by a large group of people who invaded the Western Roman Empire in the fourth century, eventually carving out kingdoms for themselves in Spain and Italy (like the names of most languages, it came to describe the people who spoke it, thus the Gothic people or simply “Goths”). Renaissance humanists resurrected the name to describe the style of ecclesiastical architecture prevalent in the thirteenth century, characterized by pointed arches, flying buttresses, and rose windows. To them, of course, such architecture was just awful, given that the Romans would never have built buildings that looked like that, most importantly because such buildings lacked all sense of proportion. Even though they were quite sophisticated in their way, and quite beyond the capabilities of the actual Goths to build, the humanists denigrated them as “gothic,” a name that has stuck.

The name got a third life in the eighteenth century when it was used as an adjective to describe literature that “combines fiction and horror, death, and at times romance.” Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Ortranto (1764), originated the genre, which perhaps derived its name from Walpole’s revival of gothic architecture at Strawberry Hill, a house he had built for himself. From this Romantic, melancholic association, “gothic” then came to designate the subculture it’s identified with today, which:

began in England during the early 1980s, where it developed from the audience of gothic rock, an offshoot of the post-punk genre. The name, goth subculture, derived directly from the music genre. Seminal post-punk and gothic rock artists that helped develop and shape the subculture include Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Joy Division, and Bauhaus. The goth subculture has survived much longer than others of the same era, and has continued to diversify and spread throughout the world…

Gothic fashion is marked by conspicuously dark, antiquated and homogeneous features. It is stereotyped as eerie, mysterious, complex and exotic. A dark, sometimes morbid fashion and style of dress, typical gothic fashion includes a pale complexion with colored black hair and black period-styled clothing. Both male and female goths can wear dark eyeliner and dark fingernail polish, most especially black. Styles are often borrowed from punk fashion and − more currently − from the Victorian and Elizabethan periods. It also frequently expresses pagan, occult or other religious imagery. Gothic fashion and styling may also feature silver jewelry and piercings.

Goths!

Lady Godiva

Was pleased to receive a Christmas treat from a college friend of mine: a box of Godiva chocolates. The company’s well-known logo features Lady Godiva riding naked on a horse.

Wikipedia.

The Godiva episode is one of the more popular medieval legends, even outside of England, where it is alleged to have taken place (the company was founded in Belgium in 1926). The idea is that Leofric, earl of Mercia (d. 1057), oppressed his subjects with heavy taxation. His wife Godgifu (Godiva) repeatedly besought Leofric to change his mind, to no avail. Finally, an exasperated Leofric said that he would grant relief, if Godgifu  rode naked through the streets of Coventry. His request was seemingly impossible by the standards of aristocratic feminine behavior, but Godgifu took him up on it and rode through the town clothed in nothing but her long hair (although she ordered everyone to stay indoors first; only a certain “Peeping Tom” violated the edict).

Leofric and Godgifu were real people. Godgifu died between 1066 and 1086, i.e. some time after the Norman Conquest; unlike most Anglo-Saxons, she retained her lands and position in the face of the regime change. The legend of her naked ride started to be told in the thirteenth century, so this is an interesting example of medieval medievalism. A good book on the phenomenon is Daniel Donahue, Lady Godiva: A Literary History of the Legend (2002), which details the erotic, aristocratic, and decadent strands of the legend that made it so appealing as the name of maker of fine chocolates.

Rowan Williams on King Arthur

The former Archbishop of Canterbury writes in the New Statesman (hat tip: Chris Berard):

Our once and future king

No indisputable evidence exists for a “real” King Arthur, but, fictional or not, Britain has always needed him.

BY ROWAN WILLIAMS

Does anyone now read the historical novels of Henry Treece? A minor poet associated with the postwar “New Apocalyptic” group, he produced in the 1950s and 1960s a steady stream of fiction for the adult and young adult market, set mostly in early Britain and in the Viking age. The books are characterised by vivid, simple and sometimes repetitive plotting, ample bloodshed, a well-judged mixture of the cynical and the romantic, and plenty of gloomy Celtic and Nordic atmospherics. Several of the novels feature an “historical” King Arthur – a sixth-century warlord, co-ordinating resistance to the invading Saxons. Treece portrays with some skill the ways in which such a figure might have manipulated vague memories of Roman power and cultural identity to shore up his dominance in a chaotic post-Roman Britain.

The picture Treece outlines (a picture that can be found in rather less highly coloured narratives by writers such as Rosemary Sutcliff and Meriol Trevor) is in fact not too far away from what a substantial number of professional historians of the mid-20th century had come to take for granted. The withdrawal of Roman military presence from Britain in the first quarter of the fifth century must have left the native population at the mercy of rapidly increasing swarms of settlers from north-western Europe, who pushed across lowland Britain, sacking Roman settlements and killing a substantial proportion of the population. Archaeology seemed to support this picture: Roman towns had been ruined and abandoned, British hill settlements were reoccupied and refortified. There appeared to be a bit of a hiatus in “Saxon” settlement in the first half of the sixth century, however, and some historians saw this as the result of a concerted campaign of British resistance.

There was an obvious gap for an “Arthurian” figure to fill, a military leader with nationwide authority, leaving a legacy in popular memory strong enough ultimately to generate the familiar legends of a great British hero and king. We are on our way to the Round Table and the Holy Grail and all the other riches of the “Matter of Britain”, as the medieval authors called the jungle of legendary traditions that grew around the name of Arthur.

More at the link.

It’s interesting how some figures who resisted invasion are later appropriated by the invaders themselves. King Arthur is one such; if he ever existed, he would have been a Romanized Briton defending an (unwillingly) independent Britannia from Anglian and Saxon invasion. The Britons lost, of course, and were pushed into Wales and Cornwall, where they consoled themselves that some day Arthur would return and vindicate their claim to their ancestral homeland. Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1095-c. 1155), a man of Welsh background who entered the church and who ended up at Oxford, wrote the History of the Kings of Britain, which included a long chapter on Arthur. From that point on, Arthur ceased to be a Welsh figure and became an English one, since he defended the island from invaders.

“Lazy, Arrogant Cowards”

From the Telegraph (hat tip: Chris Berard):

Lazy, arrogant cowards: how English saw French in 12th century

A twelfth-century poem newly translated into English casts fresh light on the origin of today’s Francophobic stereotypes.

Although it is meant to be an ‘entente cordiale’, the relationship between the English and the French has been anything but neighbourly.

When the two nations have not been clashing on the battlefield or the sporting pitch they have been trading insults from ‘frogs’ to ‘rosbifs’.

Now the translation of the poem has shown just how deep-rooted in history the rivalry and name-calling really is.

Written between 1180 and 1194, a century after the Norman Conquest united England and Normandy against a common enemy in France, the 396-line poem was part of a propaganda war between London and Paris.

Poet Andrew de Coutances, an Anglo-Norman cleric, describes the French as godless, arrogant and lazy dogs. Even more stingingly, he accuses French people of being cowardly, and calls them heretics and rapists.

It has taken David Crouch, a professor of medieval history at Hull University, months to complete the translation of what is one of the earliest examples of anti-French diatribe.

The poem was written at a time when Philip II of France was launching repeated attacks on Normandy, taking advantage of in-fighting within the English royal family.

Prof Crouch says that the poem is of great interest to historians because of its “racial rhetoric”, which was deployed by Anglo-Norman intellectuals in support of their kings’ bitter political and military struggle.

Extracts from the poem may be read at the link. I have enjoyed hearing Prof. Crouch present at Kalamazoo. It’s interesting how this is an example of the antiquity of ethnic animus; it’s not as if it was invented yesterday and then projected onto the past.

World History

From my friend John Terauds, an interesting article on History Today:

Today, it is taken for granted that ‘World History’ exists. Muslims, Jews and Chinese each have their own calendars and celebrate their own New Year’s Day. But for most practical matters, including government, commerce and science, the world employs a single common calendar. Thanks to this, it is possible to readily translate dates from the Chinese calendar, or from the Roman, Greek or Mayan, into the same chronological system that underlies the histories of, say, Vietnam or Australia.

This single global calendar enables us to place events everywhere on a single timeline. Without it, temporal comparisons across cultures and traditions would be impossible. It is no exaggeration to say that this common understanding of time and our common calendar system are the keys to world history.

It was not always the case. Most countries, cultures or religious groups have lived according to their own calendars. Each designated its own starting point for historical time, be it the Creation, Adam and Eve or some later event, such as the biblical Flood. Even when they acknowledged a common point in time, as did both Greeks and Persians with the birth of Alexander the Great, they differed about when that event took place.

More at the link, including the detail that it was the Persian scholar Abu Rayhan Muhammad al-Biruni (973-1039) who first attempted a universal scheme to harmonize all extant dating systems.