Finding Time for Romance: Medieval Arthurian Literary History

By Putter, Ad | Medium Aevum, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Finding Time for Romance: Medieval Arthurian Literary History


Putter, Ad, Medium Aevum


Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae may have scandalized a circle of fellow-historians, but the work quickly established itself as the authoritative account of the Arthurian past. As Christopher Dean has shown, its status as respectable history was never in serious danger until Polydore Vergil debunked the legend of Arthur in his early sixteenth-century Anglica historia.(1) To be sure, Ranulf Higden had earlier cast doubts on the reliability of the Arthurian section in the Historia, but his scepticism was not shared by monastic chroniclers, and was effectively countered by Trevisa's defence of its historicity in his English translation of Higden's Polychronicon.(2) Moreover, Higden's doubts left no traces in the immensely popular English and French prose versions of the Brut of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, which faithfully retold the story of Arthur along the lines of Geoffrey's Historia, and became the closest thing to an |official' history of England that mediaeval England possessed.(3) So uncontroversial was Geoffrey's Historia that the Plantagenets frequently claimed Arthur as their forefather, and referred to his alleged conquest of the British Isles to legitimize their territorial claims to Scotland and Wales.(4)

Historians of Arthurian literature cannot afford to ignore the long-lasting authority of Geoffrey's Historia. Having insinuated itself as national history, it continued to dictate the possibilities and limits of Arthurian literature in the mediaeval period. Malory's Morte Darthur is perhaps not quite the first English work to have liberated Arthur from |history' and released him into the world of romance, as Felicity Riddy suggests, but she is surely right to emphasize the strength of Geoffrey of Monmouth's control on what could and could not be said about Arthur, even in the fifteenth century.(5) When we realize that, in England, the great majority of Arthurian texts merely reproduces the Historia's standard account of Arthur's reign, we can appreciate how heavily the authority of Geoffrey's chronicle must have weighed on later writers.

The chronicle version did not, of course, remain unchallenged. An alternative oral tradition probably pre-existed the Historia, and Geoffrey's history did not entirely supplant it. From the late twelfth century, French verse romances served up Arthurian fictions in written form. And while, by contrast to the chronicles, their fantastic stories were frequently dismissed as lies, in popularity they soon matched Arthurian historiography.(6) It was perhaps due to the association of prose with truth, and verse with fiction, that many Arthurian romancers of the thirteenth century adopted prose.(7) The different medium seems to have convinced some of the veracity of prose romances; witness the reference to a prose Lancelot in London, British Library, MS Add. 21212:

Issi vos en fere le conte Non pas rime, qui an droit conte, Si con li livres Lancelot Ou il n'a de rime un seul mot Por mielz dire la verite Et por tretier saunz fausete.(8)

To others, and most notably Dante, Arthurian prose romances belonged, like those in verse, to the realm of the imagination; his Paolo and Francesca pay a heavy price for living out the seductive fictions of the Lancelot in reality.(9)

Literary histories, such as the seminal collection Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, have done much to chart the developments of Arthurian chronicle and romance,(10) but because they represent these as changes that occurred over time, we sometimes need reminding that texts can speak across time. For that is what the Historia regum Britanniae did. It passed on to posterity a story which many of its disseminators took to be the definitive word on Arthurian history, and which left those who did not the task of turning its weaknesses and omissions into opportunities or justifications for saying more. For writers after Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arthurian history was no longer a tabula rasa but a story whose chronology had been fixed by Geoffrey's Historia. …

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