Wales and Welshness in Middle English Romances

  • Tony Davenport
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


On the face of it Wales would seem to be a perfectly suitable and available setting for medieval romance. In the late twelfth century, when romance first seems to have developed distinct forms, there were existing literary images of Wales that might have acted as background to stories of adventure and quest. One of these is the strand of supposed British history found in Geoffrey of Monmouth, which identified Wales mainly with the past. Geoffrey closes his chronicling of the kings of Britain with the dominance of the Saxon invaders, who …landed in parts of Northumbria and occupied the waste lands from Albany to Cornwall. There was no inhabitant left alive to stop them, except for a few little pockets of Britons who had stayed behind, living precariously in Wales, in the remote recesses of the woods … As the foreign element around them became more and more powerful, they were given the name of Welsh instead of Britons: this word deriving either from their leader Gualo, or their queen Galaes, or else from their being so barbarous.1


Twelfth Century Welsh Language English Poem Early Fourteenth Century Medieval Romance 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966), 282–84.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Vita Merlini, trans. John Jay Parry, first published 1925 (University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature), repr. in The Romance of Merlin: An Anthology, ed. Peter Goodrich (New York and London: Garland, 1990), Chap. 4, at 83.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See Corinne Saunders, The Forest of Medieval Romance (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Geraldi Cambrensis, Itinerarium Kambriae and Descriptio Kambriae, ed. James F. Dimock, in Giraldi Cambrensis: Opera, ed. J. S.Brewer, J. F. Dimock, and G. F. Warner, 8 vols., RS 21 (London, 1861–91), 6: 3–152 and 155–227; trans. Lewis Thorpe as The Journey through Wales and The Description of Wales (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978).Google Scholar
  5. 11.
    The Lais of Marie de France, trans. and ed. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), 13.Google Scholar
  6. 12.
    Though one has to note that “Galles” included Strathclyde; hence Chrétien’s Yvain begins at Arthur’s court at Carlisle “in Galles,” which becomes “Kerdyf” [Cardiff] in Ywain and Gawain, though later in the English romance the court has moved to Chester, and in any case the hero’s actions occur in unnamed settings in forest, castle, and so on.Google Scholar
  7. 13.
    Rupert T. Pickens, The Welsh Knight: Paradoxicality in Chrétiens Conte del Graal (Lexington, Ky.: French Forum Publishers, 1977), 113–17.Google Scholar
  8. 14.
    See David C. Fowler, “Le Conte del Graal and Sir Perceval of Galles,” Comparative Literature Studies 12 (1975): 5–20.Google Scholar
  9. 15.
    Keith Busby, “Sir Perceval de Galles, Le Conte du Graal and La Continuation-Gauvain: The Methods of an English Adaptor,” Études Anglaises 31 (1978): 198–202, points out some other correspondences: “The corresponding part of the Welsh Peredur, however, is tinged with the kind of physical humour … that we find in the English poem” (200).Google Scholar
  10. 16.
    Sir Cleges, in Middle English Humorous Tales in Verse, ed. G. H. McKnight (Boston; London: D. C. Heath, 1913), 38–59, with notes at 71–80; quotations are from this text. The text of the poem in The Middle English Breton Lays, ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo, Mich.: TEAMS, Medieval Texts, 1995), 367–407, has no significant differences in these passages.Google Scholar
  11. 17.
    As, for example, the story of Saint Gerard who produced cherries for a sick man in January. This and other miraculous appearances of fruit out of season were identified by Loomis; see C. Grant Loomis, “Sir Cleges and Unseasonable Growth in Hagiology,” Modern Language Notes 53 (1938): 591–94.Google Scholar
  12. 20.
    Despite this, Patricia Clare Ingham, “‘In Contrayez Straunge’: Colonial Relations, British Identity and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” New Medieval Literatures 4 (2000): 61–93, later adapted as Chap. 4 of her book Sovereign Fantasies: Arthurian Romance and the Making of Britain (Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), argues that “the poet’s interest in Wales and a history of conquest” and “the otherness of Wales” (116–17) play a significant role in the poem.Google Scholar
  13. 21.
    “E ele lui respoundi en Sessoneys, qe fu la langage Elda, come cele questoit aprise en diverses laungages. …”; see W. F. Bryan and Germaine Dempster, Sources and Analogues of Chaucers Canterbury Tales (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941), 165–81, at 168.Google Scholar
  14. 22.
    John Burrow, “A Maner Latyn Corrupt,” Medium Aevum 30 (1961): 33–37.Google Scholar
  15. 23.
    The idea was first suggested by Mary Dominica Legge, “The Influence of Patronage on Form in Medieval French Literature,” in Stil-und-Formprobleme in der Literatur, ed. Paul Böchmann (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1959), 136–41, but developed further by Judith Weiss, “Thomas and the Earl: Literary and Historical Contexts for the Romance of Horn,” in Tradition and Transformation in Medieval Romance, ed. Rosalind Field (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999), 1–13, esp. 2–7.Google Scholar
  16. 24.
    Robert Bartlett, Gerald of Wales, 1146–1223 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), 14.Google Scholar
  17. 26.
    See Diane Speed, “The Saracens of King Horn,” Speculum 65 (1990): 564–95.Google Scholar
  18. 29.
    Robert Rouse, “English Identity and the Law in Havelok the Dane, Horn Childe and Maiden Rimnild and Bevis of Hamtoun,” in Cultural Encounters in the Romance of Medieval England, ed. Corinne Saunders (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2005), 69–83, at 79.Google Scholar
  19. 35.
    George P. McNeill, ed., Sir Tristrem: A Scottish Metrical Romance, Scottish Text Society (Edinburgh, 1886).Google Scholar
  20. 38.
    Lybeaus Desconus, ed. Maldwyn Mills, EETS os 261 (London: Oxford University Press, 1969).Google Scholar
  21. 39.
    Roger Sherman Loomis, “From Segontium to Sinadon—The Legends of a Cité Gaste,” Speculum 22 (1947): 520–33.Google Scholar
  22. 41.
    See Maldwyn Mills, “The Compositional Style of the ‘Southern’ Octavian, Sir Launfal and Lybeaus Desconus,” Medium Aevum 31 (1962): 88–109.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Ruth Kennedy and Simon Meecham-Jones 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tony Davenport

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations