Academic journal article Arthuriana

A Source for the Middle English Poem Arthur

Academic journal article Arthuriana

A Source for the Middle English Poem Arthur

Article excerpt

In this essay, the authors demonstrate that the little-studied Middle English poem Arthur, embedded in a prose Latin chronicle of England in the Red Book of Bath, uses as its main source the version of the Anglo-Norman Prose Brut chronicle found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Wood empt. 8. The identification of this source provides a foundation for analysis of the poem's methods of adaptation, its style, and its areas of particular interest. (EK, JM)

INTRODUCTION

To the readers of Arthuriana Edward Donald Kennedy is of course best known for his writings on Arthurian literature. But there is another area in which Don has earned a reputation, that of the medieval chronicle. And occasionally these two interests are seen to meet, as in his 2004 contribution to the Festschriftfor Peter Field, 'Sir Thomas Malory's (French) Romance and (English) Chronicle.'1 In the present essay we intend to follow in his footsteps and investigate the source material for the Middle English poem Arthur, which is described by Don himself as a 'verse narrative,...sometimes classified as a romance, sometimes as a chronicle,' and which may be termed, in his words, 'a vernacular verse chronicle.'2 The equivocality of the poem's genre has resulted in its receiving only a brief reference in Don's volume on chronicles in the Manual of the Writings in Middle English, as it had already been dealt with in an earlier volume, that on 'Arthurian Legends' by Helaine Newstead.3

The few critics who have written on the poem Arthur agree that it does not constitute a significant contribution to the English vernacular literature of the Middle Ages. Newstead quotes the verdict of her predecessor John Edwin Wells, who describes the author as having 'little imagination, no sense of proportion, no poetical power.'4 And although medieval Arthurian verse texts generally attract much scholarly attention, this poem has remained in the shadows, so much so that a modern edition appeared only last year.5

Yet the poem is not without interest, not least because of the context in which it is preserved. The only surviving copy is contained in a single parchment manuscript in the library of the Marquess of Bath at Longleat House, Wiltshire, with the shelfmark 'Longleat 55.' It is better known as Liber Rubeus Bathoniae (the Red Book of Bath). The entire manuscript was written between 1412 and 1428 by a single scribe, and judging by its contents it must have been connected with the city of Bath and its officials. Thus the final leaf of the manuscript has an account in Latin of the presentation of a pillory to the city (fol. 68r), with, on the verso, a vow of fidelity in English prose: 'I schal buxun and obedyent be to the mayre of bathe...'. Others are items useful for city magistrates or court officials, such as the Statute of Coroners (fols. 18r-22r), the Charter of the Forest (fols. 25v-27r), and a piece discussing various weights and measures (fols. 28v-29v). Practically all of the texts are in Latin, the most notable exceptions being a Middle English verse 'Life of St Katherine' (of Alexandria) (fols. 55r-65r),6 the city's patron saint, and the poem Arthur (fols. 42v-46r).7 There are two reasons why the term 'chronicle poem' may be used to describe Arthur. In the first place, the narrative follows in the chronicle tradition of Geoffrey of Monmouth and runs from Arthur's conception to his death, emphasizing the greatness of his achievements and the tragedy of his fall. But the poem is also literally embedded in a chronicle, a Latin text covering the history of England from the arrival of its first king, Brutus, to the death of Richard II. The word 'embedded' is perhaps not quite adequate to describe the way in which the English text is sandwiched between its neighboring Latin pages, as the transition from the Latin prose to the English verse is far from smooth. The Latin chronicle has already made a beginning of Arthur's life and reached the creation of the Round Table at the bottom of a recto page. …

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