Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Drinking of Blood, Burning of Women

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Drinking of Blood, Burning of Women

Article excerpt

Among many lurid aspects of the Brut are two that critics have misunderstood. The first is the drinking of human blood; the second is the burning of women traitors. Both relate to Arthur.

First, the drinking of blood, which occurs in a prophecy of Arthur's fame:1

of him scullen gleomenr godliche singen,

of his breosten scullen ætenr adele scopes,

scullen of his blöder beornes beon drunke ...

(11. 9410-12)

[Minstrels shall sing of him devoutly, noble poets shall eat of his breast, warriors shall be drunk with his blood.]

In his essay "The Genesis of a Medieval Book", C.S. Lewis praised these lines and translated them "Of him shall minstrels sing finely; of his breast noble poets shall eat; on his blood, heroes be drunk". He thought it was "certainly difficult" not to suppose that Welsh poetry lay behind the lines, adding that "Geoffrey, doubtless from the same source, had said 'His deeds will be meat to their tellers', but llamón gives more".2 Others follow Lewis on this point, though taking the passage from Lawman figuratively. Arthur's body will feed poets through its deeds: his blood will inspire warriors to fight for his and their kingdom. The Christ-like aspects of this are obvious. But since Arthur is alive as this feeding takes place, "the images of cannibalism reinforce the strength and immediacy of this passage".3

However, Lewis was surely wrong. Knowing nothing of Welsh literature, he was unaware that the motifs of heroic cannibalism and warriors drunk on their lord's blood never occur there. Let us look at the relevant passages in Geoffrey. There are two of them, both in vii.3. The first is "Actus ejus cibus erit narrantibus" ("The deeds [of the Boar] will be as meat and drink to those who tell tales"). This lies behind Lawman 11. 11494-97. The second is of the Boar of Commerce: "Pectus eius cibus erit egentibus et lingua eius sedabit reuocabit. Ex ore ipsius procèdent flumina que arentes hominum fauces rigabunt". ("Its breast will be as food to the hungry and its tongue will assuage the thirst of those who are dry. From its mouth shall flow forth rivers which will water the parched gullets of men.")4 This latter prompts the lines admired by Lewis, where Lawman changes the "rivers" of the original to "blood". But, if we turn to Welsh commentaries on Geoffrey, we find no equivalent of Lawman's words; which is remarkable, if the motif were of Welsh origin. Native commentators say merely as regards the former that Arthur's deeds will be an "unfailing source" for story-tellers, "that they may delight those who hear them". With the latter flumina is translated literally as auonoed "rivers". So, no mention here of blood.5

Yet if Welsh literature fails us, Irish literature perhaps does not. This need not surprise us. The Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169 stimulated English interest in the Gaelic world, as Lawman himself shows with the name of King Constance's Pictish assassin, Gille Callet, a form unknown to Geoffrey of Monmouth or Wace. It is from Gaelic gilla "servant" and calad "hard; cruel, severe, strong", a good name for a murderer; the alternative explanation from the rare word callait "cunning, astute" is unlikely.6 As for drinking of blood, the germ of the idea may figure in the Irish saga "Tidings of Mace Da Thó's Pig" of about AD 800. It describes a battie at a banqueting hall, where "a good drinking-bout (soimól) broke out in the courtyard, with everyone striking his neighbour". The phrase "good drinking-bout" is sardonic: it means a mutual killing of guests.7

Stronger evidence comes from Spenser's A View of the Present State of Ireland of c. 1596, in which Irenius claims that, while the Gauls drank the blood of their enemies, the Irish drink the blood of their friends. When Spenser attended the execution at Limerick in 1577 of an Irish rebel, Murrogh O'Brien, he saw Murrogh's aged foster-mother "take up his heade whilst he was quartered and sucked up all the blodd runninge thearout Sayine that the earthe was not worthie to drinke it and thearwith aliso steped her face, and breste and torne heare Cryinge and shrikinge out moste terrible". …

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