Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Geoffrey of Monmouth and King Arthur

 Who was Geoffrey?
   He called himself Galfridus Monemutensis which suggests he was born and brought up in Monmouthsire, (if not in Monmouth itself) possibly near Caerleon which he often mentions. He was a teacher and secular canon in Oxford. Round about 1135 to 1148, he wrote, in Latin, the History of the Kings of Britain or Historia Regum Britannicum. Tradition has it that he composed it sitting in this window at the Priory in Monmouth but this is unproven.
   With its chapter on Arthur of Britain, it popularised the story of this hero, treating him as a factual figure who fought against the invading Saxons - and many other threatening enemies. The work had the impact of a best-seller at the time and took the Norman world by storm.  His account, in general, has been criticised for inaccuracy and confusion, even invention.
   Yet I feel there is at least one very good reason for crediting Arthur with some degree of historical authenticity: in the Middle Ages originality was not valued and an author was revered for having a respected source for his material. Geoffrey states categorically that Walter the Archdeacon gave him "a certain very ancient book written in the Brittanic tongue" to translate into Latin. It is more likely, because of the habits of mind at the time, that he followed this source rather than making up stories, although some of the aspects of the narrative have a legendary feel. No-one has yet successfully identified the source book. Embellishment - yes; confusion and error - yes; creation from scratch - no!

Precursors - and afterwards
   Much earlier Arthur had been connected with prehistoric stones which he could throw for incredible distances but he may have been confused with a Celtic god: in Welsh Arth Fawr means Great Bear. If you slur your words as you say it, you arrive at Arthur and may have noticed the link with the constellation. This term might have been a title rather than a name. Arthur as such emerges around 500 in historical sources as "dux bellorum" or "leader of warfare." Other writers before Geoffrey had dealt with the character of Arthur under different titles:  Gildas, a priest from Wales around 550 who does not name Arthur as such; another probable Welshman who mentions the Battle of Badon and Arthur, called Nennius, around 830; and also the Welsh Annals.
   Yet it was Geoffrey who stirred up what became world-wide interest in him, his knights, the Round Table, the Holy Grail, Guinevere and Merlin although he did not mention some of these.  William of Malmesbury (12th century historian) called Arthur "a man worthy to be celebrated, not by idle fictions, but by authentic history." His story was picked up by: Chrétien de Troyes, a French writer, around 1160-90; the Mabinogian in the 14th century translated in 1846; Sir Thomas Malory, an Englishman, in Le Morte d'Arthur about 1469-70; Dryden and Purcell in an opera based on him in 1691 and Tennyson in his Idylls of the King (partly planned and written in Caerleon) published between 1859 and 1885. Mark Twain and William Morris interested themselves in the narrative and there have been a musical, Camelot, books and films based on the stories. Many of these have been sell-outs as each writer adapted the core to their own epoch.
   King Edward III revived the traditions to support his own image and Henry Tudor claimed descent from Arthur to help to prove his right to the throne. His name is kept alive in the present royal family and the names of characters connected with him are well known. The expression "Holy Grail" is part of modern language.

Geoffrey's account

A knight at the Tewkesbury re-enactment 2016: if you know his name let me know!
  Although a figure such as this charismatic gentleman above is our image of the ideal, it is interesting to see what Geoffrey actually maintained in his text. His version includes: the crowning of Arthur at 15 years of age; his battles against the Saxons and many others, Picts, Scots, Irish and Romans, particularly Lucius Hiberius; rousing speeches; his wonderful sword Caliburn [sic] forged on the Isle of Avalon; his marriage to Guinevere (Welsh Gwenhwyfar), Gawain; his Christianity; the treachery of Mordred and a battle at Camblan [sic] in which he was mortally wounded and taken to Avalon for medical treatment. He does not relate the actual death, although Arthur handed the crown to his cousin, Constantine. The next chapters deal with Merlin, also called Ambrosius.
  The code of  courtly conduct which we associate with Arthur is spoken of as the fame of his "generosity and bravery spread to the very ends of the earth" and aroused awe in faraway kings. His court, placed firmly and possibly erroneously, by Geoffrey at Caerleon-on-Usk, with its meadows and groves, royal palaces and gold-painted gables of roofs, held a festival attended by the great and the good from all over.  At this there was a huge banquet and a tournament with "flirtatious behaviour" although the women would not give their love to any man who had not proved himself 3 times in battle. "In this way the womenfolk became chaste and more virtuous and for their love the knights were ever more daring."
  Yet, it seems to me that this is a small part of a narrative largely concerned with battle, bloodshed and extreme violence. The account and its language are strewn with scenes of death incorporating phrases depicting suffering and the realities of war: Arthur besieged his enemies so that they died of starvation; he spared no-one of the Scots and Picts who fell into his hands - which seems contrary to the code of chivalry as we perceive it; against the Irish he "cut them to pieces mercilessly"; the battles seem disorderly with "a bedlam of shouting" and men "vomiting forth their life with their heart's blood." He and his entourage were particularly partial to hacking down through the helmet and head of the enemy.  

  Geoffrey makes many errors and what we have is probably an amalgamation of several characters. Certain aspects seem legendary even to the casual eye: the numbers of troops appear to me too rounded and neat to be literal as Arthur had in his own legion six thousand, six hundred and sixty-six men whereas in the divisions were five thousand, five hundred and fifty-five - and yet there is detailed military strategy. Arthur encounters the monster of Mont-Saint-Michel and has a magic dream. 
   Readers all over the world seem content with a glorified or fictional image of Arthur: I can easily understand the need in Great Britain to eulogise men and women, who fought courageously against invaders, such as Boudicca, Alfred the Great, and Hereward the Wake (although it is odd that the Normans admired a victorious native hero since the descendants of Britons were now the Welsh who could have read the book as a call to arms). It is even less obvious why other nations have responded with such undying enthusiasm to a British king who may not have existed.
  My theory is that there was a historic and heroic figure named a variant of Arthur living between 400 and 600 who had the potential to attract admiration and fascination because of a combination of simplicity and complexity in the narrative. He himself can be transformed into the ideal king, brave and magnanimous, but he has also a wide group of adherents many of whom have their own story and there is a love interest and a touch of magic. The interface between history and legend adds to the charm. Many people believe that Arthur is not dead and may return: for them he is the "once and future king". All these features have international resonance.
   I have skimmed the surface of the vast amount of material about this figure but I shall return to him because of his many associations with Monmouthshire and the lure of the quest, I shall grasp the nettle in my armoured hand!
Visiting the site
   You can see the window at which Geoffrey may have written his book by walking up left from Agincourt Square in Monmouth, with its Shire Hall and statue of Henry V in a high niche, past the church and turning right into the small paved garden of the Priory. You can take a look at the ruins of Monmouth Castle a bit lower down and off the main street. Then you can take the no 60 bus to Caerleon where Geoffrey placed Arthur's festival and plenary court and see the site of the Roman amphitheatre once called Arthur's Round Table. You could also stop off on the no 60 in Usk and visit its castle.

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