A treasure chest of relics

By Christophe.Finot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
Round Table in the Grand Hall, Winchester, by Christophe Finot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Robert Rouse, Cory Rushton
The Medieval Quest for Arthur
The History Press 2005

Nowadays, a book possibly entitled The Invention of King Arthur might imply subterfuge and forgery. Several centuries ago, when “to invent” would simply mean “to chance upon”, it would instead imply a re-discovery of what already existed. Nowadays we are rightly wary of Arthurian relics such as Arthur’s Tomb at Glastonbury, Arthur’s Seal, Gawain’s skull, Lancelot’s sword and the Winchester Round Table, as objects more likely to be “invented” in the modern sense of “made up” rather than pre-existing. In Caxton’s 15th century, with fewer critical tools at their disposal, people were more inclined to accept such chanced-upon unprovenanced evidence at face value (though then as now there were always doubters and detractors, as the wholesale destruction of saintly relics in the English Reformation was to demonstrate); however, I am of course aware that weeping stuatues and their ilk still excite the credulous in our own time.

The Medieval Quest for Arthur is a wide-ranging catalogue of medieval Arthurian souvenirs which also puts the relics and attitudes into historical context. As well as the objects on Caxton’s list noted above, we view both Excalibur and Tristan’s sword, Arthur’s Shield and Crown, Isolde’s Robe, Caradoc’s Mantle and Arthur’s Slate. Along the way we touch on universities, knightly orders, heraldry, hagiography and topography.

This otherwise valuable book is not without its faults: for example, the authors still repeat the common misconception that Chrétien de Troyes’ 12th-century Perceval didn’t “clearly” define the Grail as the cup of the Last Supper (Chrétien never even hints that his graal has links with any Biblical object, let alone this one). Such assertions aside, where else but in this spendidly readable work do you have all these relics united in one place? A real treasure chest, then, for Arthurians such as myself as well as for students of gullibility, charlatanism, cynical money-making enterprises and, yes, sheer inventiveness.

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2 thoughts on “A treasure chest of relics

  1. Sounds wonderful…love your round table. I went to see that at Winchester, complete with King Henry painted on it. We’ve always loved our Arthurian traditions, haven’t we? The fascination is by no means modern.

  2. Martin Biddle’s King Arthur’s Round Table: An Archaeological Investigation, though out of print in paperback, is a good summary of the 1970s evaluation of this piece of furniture; wish I kept a copy of it. Winchester is lucky in that it has associations with two kings, the historical Alfred (iconic statue, isn’t it?) and the legendary Arthur, which I’m sure the city plays up to. Some great architecture too: I was particularly impressed by St Cross when I attended both a wedding and, sadly, a funeral there.

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