Arthur, Emperors, and Antichrists: The Formation of the Arthurian Biography

  • Judith Weiss
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)

Abstract

The Arthurian “biography” was concocted by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Return Britanniae in the late 1130s. For the first time, some of the scattered legends about Arthur, which we nowadays encounter in Welsh histories, literature and saints’ lives, were used and embroidered into a coherent whole, which recast the king as an international figure when he moves beyond the bounds of his own land to confront and defeat the emperor of Rome and appropriate his empire. This and other elements of the biography invented by Geoffrey can, I believe, be significantly linked to certain historical and cultural attitudes and beliefs current in the twelfth century: views on empire and imperial pretensions on the one hand, and beliefs conditioned by prophetic and eschatological writing on the other. Such attitudes and beliefs are, of course, not confined to the twelfth century: they continue well beyond it and so also influence Geoffrey’s chronicler successors. I describe these in this chapter after a brief recall of some of the most striking elements Geoffrey added to the Arthurian legend.1

Keywords

Europe Syria Verse Prose Briton 

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regutn Britanniae, trans. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966).Google Scholar
  2. 8.
    Orderic Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History, 10, pp. 197, 201; William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regutn Anglorum, ed. and trans. R. A. B. Mynors, completed R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom, Oxford Medieval Texts, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998–99), Book 3: 266, 288; Book 5: 420. The fourteenth-century Anglo-Norman Mohun Chronicle even depicts Henry V as poisoning his father. I am grateful to John Spence for this information from his transcript of the manuscript.Google Scholar
  3. 9.
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    J. S. P. Tatlock, “The Dragons of Wessex and Wales,” Speculum 8 (1933): 223–25 (Tatlock points out that the Welsh use of the dragon is late), and Michael Curley, “Animal Symbolism in the Prophecies of Merlin,” Beasts and Birds of the Middle Ages, ed. W. B. Clark and M. T. McMun (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989), pp. 151–62, at 156, 158–59: Gildas, playing on the Welsh draig (= dragon, warleader), reproaches the tyrant Maelgwyn of Gwynedd with the terms insularis draco; Ammnianus explicitly identifies the dragon as imperial signum when describing Julianus Caesar’s campaign against the Alamanni in 357. Curley points out that the two dragons in the Prophecies of Merlin in the Historia are used to suggest rancor and divisive-ness within the Anglo-Norman ruling aristocracy (Michael J. Curley, Geoffrey of Monmouth (Twayne, N.Y.: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1994), p. 63).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Geffrei Gaimar, L’ Estoire des Engleis, ed. Alexander Bell, Anglo-Norman Text Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 1960), lines 408–15. The later Lai d’ Haveloc makes the picture still bleaker.Google Scholar
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    H. Omont, Le Dragon Normand et autres poèmes d’ Etienne de Rouen (Rouen: Ch. Métérie, 884), pp. 105–16. See J. S. P. Tatlock, “Geoffrey and King Arthur in Normannicus Draco,” Modern Philology 31 (1933): 1–18, 113–25; Mildred Leake Day, “The Letter from King Arthur to Henry II: Political Use of the Arthurian Legend in Draco Normannicus,” The Spirit of the Court, 4th Congress of the International Courtly Literature Society, ed. Glyn S. Burgess and Robert A. Taylor (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer, 1985), pp. 153–57; Siân Echard, Arthurian Narrative in the Latin Tradition (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer, 1998), pp. 85–92.Google Scholar

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© Ruth Kennedy and Simon Meecham-Jones 2006

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  • Judith Weiss

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