Walter Map and the Matter of Britain

Walter Map and the Matter of Britain

Walter Map and the Matter of Britain

Walter Map and the Matter of Britain

Synopsis

Why would the sprawling thirteenth-century French prose Lancelot-Grail Cycle have been attributed to Walter Map, a twelfth-century writer from the Anglo-Welsh borderlands known for his stinging satire, religious skepticism, ghost stories, and irrepressible wit? And why, though the attribution is spurious, is it not, in some ways, implausible?

Joshua Byron Smith sets out to answer these and other questions in the first English-language monograph on Walter Map--and in so doing, he offers a new explanation for how narratives about the pre-Saxon inhabitants of Britain, including King Arthur and his knights, first circulated in England. Smith contends that it was inventive clerics like Walter, and not traveling minstrels or professional translators, who popularized these stories. Smith examines Walter's only surviving work, the De nugis curialium, to demonstrate that it is not the disheveled text that scholars have imagined but rather five separate works in various stages of completion. This in turn provides new evidence to support his larger contention, that ecclesiastical networks of textual exchange played a major role in exporting Welsh literary material into England.

Medieval readers incorrectly envisioned Walter withdrawing ancient Latin documents about the Holy Grail from a monastery and compiling them in order to compose the Lancelot-Grail Cycle. In this detail they were wrong, Smith acknowledges, but a model of literary transmission that is not vernacular and popular but Latinate and ecclesiastical demands our serious consideration.

Excerpt

In either 1209 or 1210, Walter Map, a British churchman, courtier, and writer, died. While the year of his death remains in doubt, the month and day are clearly recorded: April 1. of course, the association of this date with practical jokes had not yet arisen when Walter passed away, but enough of his mischievous personality comes through in his work to suggest that he would surely appreciate the serendipitous alignment of his obituary with a day devoted to hoaxes. He had a wry sense of humor, and, fittingly, much of his literary career can be summed up as a series of hoaxes—some intentional, some not. Walter has been mistaken for St. Jerome, an ancient Roman, a Welshman, a precocious Greek translator, a vicious satirical poet, and the son of a Welsh princess and Norman lord. Indeed, a significant portion of scholarship on Walter Map has been devoted to sifting the real Walter out of this preponderance of fake Walters. This book seeks to understand another of Walter’s mistaken identities: his role as author of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, a sprawling thirteenth-century French prose narrative and one of the highlights of medieval Arthurian literature. Why did Walter Map, who apparently did not write in French and who had seemingly no interest in Arthurian material, become attached to the Lancelot-Grail Cycle?

In unraveling this question, this book makes two larger arguments concerning the literary history of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. the first is that Walter Map’s De nugis curialium is not the disheveled and disorganized text that scholars have imagined—or, at least, its disorganization is of a completely different nature than has been realized. This better understanding of Walter’s work in turn provides new evidence in support of a second, larger argument. I show that ecclesiastical networks of textual exchange played a major role in exporting Welsh literary material into England in the twelfth century. Overall, this book attempts to rewrite the history of how narratives about the pre-Saxon inhabitants of Britain, including King Arthur and his knights, first circulated in England. It contends that inventive clerics like . . .

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