Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Morte Arthure, the Montagus, and Milan

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Morte Arthure, the Montagus, and Milan

Article excerpt

It is generally agreed that the alliterative Morte Arthure (hereafter aMA) reflects more of the affairs of the time in which it was written than most Arthurian romances - if that is its genre.1 The date of aMA, however, has been much disputed, and the events on which it was thought to throw light have shifted with the dating. Two generations ago, it was seen as deeply influenced by Edward Ill's wars in France, and, as a result, was generally believed to have been written about 1365.2 Later, however, an influential essay by Larry Benson, broadly followed by Mary Hamel's magisterial edition, argued for a date about 1400,3 and that has been widely accepted.4 Hamel derived a terminus a quo from three factors, despite a fourth that is at odds with them; and a terminus ad quern from two others. Benson and Hamel's case can be summarized as follows:

Terminus a quo:

1. References to the Roman emperor's dragon standard are based on The Siege of Jerusalem, which can be dated to 1385 or later.

2. 'The Montagus' among Mordred's supporters identifies John Montagu, third Earl of Salisbury, as a Lollard and traitor: his treason began in 1399.

3. The Lord of Milan offers Arthur tribute for Pisa, which Milan acquired in 1399.

4. The alet ('ailette', line 2565, a component of shoulder-armour) seems to have gone out of use by 1330. This is incompatible with the rest of the evidence, and must be taken as deliberate archaism.5

Terminus ad quem

5. The Giant of Mont Saint-Michel's principal victim, anonymous in the sources, is the Duchess of Brittany. That would have been inappropriate after Henry IV of England married Joan, widow of John IV, Duke of Brittany, in 1402.

6. Thomas, son of John Montagu (see 2 above), grew up loyal and orthodox. Once he was a national figure (summoned to parliament as fourth Earl of Salisbury 1409, Knight of the Garter 141 4), satirical references to his family would have been out of place.

In this form, Hamel's case might raise eyebrows. It would imply that the 4,346 masterful and deeply meditated lines of aMA were written between late 1399, when it might first have been suspected that John Montagu was trying to depose King Henry IV, and 3 April 1402, the date when, to the surprise of his subjects, Henry married the Duchess of Brittany.6 Hamel herself, however, argued that aMA underwent a number of revisions, a contention that is entirely in accordance with earlier scholarly discoveries about the poem. Gordon and Vinaver suggested long ago that the only surviving text of aMA, in the Thornton manuscript, had lost many lines, some of which could be recovered from the Roman War story in the then newly discovered Winchester manuscript of Malory's Morte Darthur? More recendy, Angus Mcintosh demonstrated that the Thornton text showed evidence of at least three levels of dialect,8 each of which would have provided an opportunity for alterations to the poem's wording. It is difficult to date an unstable text, but Hamel concluded that it could be said 'with some confidence' that aMA as we have it was completed between 1396 and 1403 at the outside, and 'most likely between 1400 and 1402'.9 The evidence, however, presents problems that neither Hamel nor Benson fully appreciated, which suggest a re-evaluation is overdue.

The fundamental proviso of a re-evaluation has to be that interpolations must not be postulated without necessity. That said, we may begin with the terminus ad quern, which is relatively straightforward. An outer limit is set by the copying of the Thornton manuscript at some time in the years 1420-50, probably in the 1430S.10 Echoes of aMA in The Awntyrs of Arthur push that date back if, as now seems likely, the latter poem can be dated to 1424/5.11 Hamel's argument from the effect of Henry IVs marriage might move it further still, but it assumes a questionable degree of sensitivity in fourteenth-century authors and authences to implicit correspondences with the present in works of fiction set in a distant past. …

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