Curious interpretations

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Anne Berthelot
King Arthur: Chivalry and Legend
Arthur et la Table ronde: La force d’une legende  translated by Ruth Sharman
Thames and Hudson 1997 (1996)

First published by Gallimard in 1996, this English version is part of Thames and Hudson’s New Horizons series and follows a similar format: a well-illustrated chronological survey of the chosen subject, followed by extracts from select documents, bibliography, credits and index. The author was Professor of Medieval French Literature — and now of French & Medieval Studies — at the University of Connecticut (does that make her a Connecticut Frank at the court of King Arthur, perhaps?) and so her discussion of developments in Arthurian literature, from Wace and Layamon up to 20th-century cinema, is authoritative and thought-provoking. For instance, she clearly charts how the Matter of Britain moved from chronicle format to poetry(eg Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace’s Brut) and then back to chronicle style, and how this reflected shifts in taste from pseudohistory to the flowering of chivalry and courtly love and then returning to the burgeoning nationalistic stance in England, as evidenced by Malory.

It is when she deals with the historical context of the legend, however, that we get some curious interpretations. For example, did you know the inhabitants of Pictland during the Roman occupation were called Scots? Even though ‘Scot’ was a derogatory term for 4th-century Irish adventurers on the west coast? That there were Sarmatian legions in Britain and that this irrefutably accounts for similarities between Arthurian legend and Sarmatian myths, even if the evidence is questionable? That the Picts were apparently of Germanic origin? Were you aware of an ancient region called West Anglia? Of a Badon Hill (sic) north of Salisbury (this is actually Baydon, the ‘ay’ pronounced differently from the short ‘a’ in Badon)? Of Dorset’s Maiden Castle as an ancient castle in Logres (this Iron Age hillfort is unconnected with the Castle of Maidens of medieval literature)? Or of Old Sarum as “one of the oldest Christian sites in southern Britain” when it is very, very low down a very, very long — and growing — list?

Which edition of the Welsh Annals was Professor Berthelot looking at when she declares that Arthur’s victory at Mount Badon was due to a twenty-four hour penance “reproducing the stages of Christ’s Passion”? Certainly not an early one: the so-called Sawley Glosses attached to one version of the Historia Brittonum, which date not from the Dark Ages but from the late 12th or early 13th century, propose that it was actually for “three continuous days” and not just 24 hours that Arthur “fasted and kept vigil and prayed in the presence of the Lord’s cross”. And which edition of the Historia Brittonum concentrates in particular on the battle of Camlann? (Answer: none. Though the battle is mentioned in the 10th-century Welsh Annals.) Are these erroneous assertions to be laid at the door of the translator? No, because a comparison with the original Gallimard edition Arthur et la Table ronde confirms the English translation’s accuracy.

The first chapter, then, should carry a health warning for those Arthurians who are liable to suffer apoplectic fits. Nevertheless, these and a few other reservations aside (the short list for further reading is a curious concoction) this title is good value for the colour illustrations alone. When we come to the remaining four chapters Berthelot comes into her own and we are on much firmer ground with the medieval heyday of the legends up to and including Spencer’s The Fairie Queene and Purcell’s “dramatick opera” King Arthur. Nearly a third of this small format 160-page title is taking up with documentary evidence; there are translated quotes from medieval texts, Victorian poems and 20th-century novels, and two sections respectively on sites to visit and films to see (just four short representative topics each). As a pictorial introduction to the Arthurian legend this book then is as good as any; but just don’t rely on it for authoritative statements on the historical context of the origins of the legends.

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6 thoughts on “Curious interpretations

  1. And that is why post-Roman historians generally steer clear of the more modern materials and vice versa should be true. Too much material, too difficult to keep up on all the critical analysis from various experts (Latin scholarship, British archeologists, Welsh literary experts, geneologists, and a basic knowledge of the English history is just a start with the historical King Arthur for instance). It sounds, though like if she were to write a history of Arthurian literature from perhaps 1136 through Sir Thomas Malory it would be a very useful edition.

    1. If she’d only effectively cut out chapter one, substituting a brief caveat saying there was little or no reliable evidence for an historical Arthur, and that the medieval legend was effectively kickstarted by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

  2. One does wish people would not launch into print – or would do so sparingly indeed – on subjects they have not researched adequately or where they have not had a sufficiently alert editor doing a meticulous check.

    1. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it, that at no point in the editing process — in France or then Britain — did anybody pick up on the, uh, infelicities that a rank amateur like me could spot a mile off. Shame on both Gallimard and Thames & Hudson.

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