Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

La3amon's Ursula and the Influence of Roman Epic

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

La3amon's Ursula and the Influence of Roman Epic

Article excerpt

This essay examines some of the ways in which La3amon's poem might be thought of as an "epic" work - specifically in relation to the question of how far his poetics might have been shaped by his reading of Roman epics such as Virgil's Aeneid, Statius's Thebaid and Ovid's Metamorphosesd It argues that La3amon's consciousness of these Roman models extends very much further than the stylistic indebtedness that has been perceived in his penchant for the use of animal-imagery to describe warriors in battle. Especially in the Arthurian section of his poem these descriptions sometimes develop into extended similes that have been judged to be comparable, in scale and sophistication, with Virgil's own. Tatiock, for example, describes La3amon's use of such devices as "very beautiful and more high-mettled than most of Virgil's"; and he also suggests that "possibly Lawman may have remembered from long ago the impressiveness of some Virgilian similes". Yet he goes on to argue that "neither Madden nor anyone else has detected any direct reminiscence of any classical writer or insight into antiquity; Lawman is a complete outsider".2 More recendy, Ray Barron has also suggested that La3amon and his audience are very likely to have been familiar with Virgil "from their school-room grammars"; and he goes further than Tatlock in suggesting that La3amon might also have known "other late Latin epic poets and their medieval imitators, such as ... Joseph of Exeter and Walter of Châtillon".3 Yet in the end he too suggests that the impact of these writers on the Brut did not extend beyond the level of style.

On the face of it, it actually seems rather improbable that La3amon should have been so deeply inspired by Virgil's Aeneid and its successors that he deliberately imitated aspects of their style, without at the same time being influenced by them in other ways. Identifying the influence of Roman epic on La3amon's poetry (above and beyond his use of certain kinds of distinctly epic patterns of simile) is rendered more difficult by the fact that his reading of British legendary history is always filtered by that of his sources, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace.4 In order to be able to separate the epic dimensions of their work from La3amon's, I am going to focus on one particular episode from near the centre of the Brut - the ill-fated voyage of the British princess Vrsele, who is sent to Brittany along with thousands of female companions in order to help in the process of that land's settlement, only to be diverted by a storm into the hands of brutal Scandinavian pirates led by the villainous Melga and Wanis (11. 5941-6437). La3amon's treatment of this episode provides a good illustration of his dialectical relationship, not just with his two medieval predecessors, but also with the imaginative precedents set by Roman epic.

In Geoffrey's version of the story, the unfortunate British princess remains unnamed in nearly all the extant manuscripts of the Historia;5 but we are nevertheless invited to identify her with St Ursula - the virginsaint who was supposed to have been martyred at Cologne along with no fewer than 11,000 female companions.6 According to Geoffrey, this princess is the daughter of a man called Dionotus, a name that clearly corresponds with "Deonotus", the name of the saint's father in what seems to have been the most widely current version of the Ursulalegend; and 11,000 is also, significantly, the number of well-born women that Geoffrey tells us accompanied the Princess to Brittany. Yet the fit between the two stories is by no means exact - Geoffrey's tale suppresses the role of the Anglian prince to whom Ursula is betrothed; he adds to Ursula's host another 60,000 women who are not of noble birth; and the British women are murdered, not at Cologne, but on the sea-shore where the barbarians find them. Even so, Tadock insists that "there is no possible doubt that the story is [derived] from a fully developed form of the story of Ursula" - even though he readily admits that it contains "nothing miraculous, littie sainthood, no real martyrdom". …

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