Academic journal article Arthuriana

Dating De Ortu Waluuanii from Twelfth-Century Ship Design

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Dating De Ortu Waluuanii from Twelfth-Century Ship Design

Article excerpt

The significance of the Latin De ortu Waluuanii nepotis Arturi in the development of the Arthurian legend depends upon when it was written. While the surviving manuscript dates from the fourteenth century, different dates of composition have been suggested from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. John Bale, in his catalogue, assigns it to Robert de Torigni, abbot of Mont St Michel, 1134-1186. ipropose that composition in the twelfth century is reinforced in the text by ship design. (MLD)

Establishing a date for the romance begins with the surviving manuscripts. De ortu Waluuanii nepotis Arturi {The Rise ofGawain, Nephew of Arthur) and its companion by the same author Historia Meriadoci Regis Cambrie ( The Story ofMeriadoc, King of Cambria) are preserved in British Library Cotton Faustina B VI, fols. 2r-38r. The script is gothic textura in a fourteenth-century hand, probably French. A second copy of Historia Meriadoci, Oxford Bodleian Rawlinson B 149, pp. 99-132, is written in an English bastard secretary. This copy is variously dated from late fourteenth century to early fifteenth.

Composed in Latin, unsigned except for the initial 'R,' the romances recorded in these manuscripts present a challenge to scholarship for provenance and date of origin.1 De ortu Waluuanii provides a few indications for the period when it was composed. Costume is one. Gawain wears a crimson surcoat over his armor. The author explains that this is a new fashion, and it becomes Gawain's identity as 'miles cum tunica armature,' (Knight of the Surcoat).2The surcoat becomes a part of a knight's equipment during the crusades in the twelfth century and is still in general use in the thirteenth. The nasal on Gawain's helmet protects him from a fatal blow during the battle on the Greek island.3 The nasal is characteristic of twelfth-century helmets.

While other scholars have attempted to date the text from evidence of costume, a clearer case can be made from the ship construction. The function of the ships in De ortu Waluuanii suggests composition in the twelfth century. Perhaps a hundred ships are mentioned in the text, some in detail. The descriptions of these ships are essential to the plot of the story. First, the ships that figure from Western Europe to Narbonne and from Rome to the island of Melos are all beached at some point, which indicates that they have shallow draft and do not require docks. Second, Gawain's ship at the Greek island has a sterncastle added as post-construction modification. The sterncastle as original construction is not common until thirteenth century and later. Third, Gawain must defend his ship against Greek fire, incendiary weapon of the twelfth century. As John Haldon explains in 'Greek Fire Revisited,' "'Liquid fire" was a relatively short-lived experiment in incendiary weaponry. Its use required adequate supplies of crude oil, and this condition could no longer be secured after the later twelfth century '4 The ships of De ortu Waluuanii are ships of the Mediterranean Sea of the twelfth century.

The significance of De ortu Waluuanii and Historia Meriadoci in the development of the Arthurian legend depends upon when they were written, and a wide range of dates have been proposed. The first published notice of the manuscript is by Sir Frederick Madden, Syr Gawayne, 1839. Madden, then Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum, refers to De ortu Waluuanii as one of'five Latin romances still existing in manuscript.' He notes, ' [t] his composition may be assigned to the early part of the fourteenth century and is written in Latin, but whether derived "from floating Celtic traditions" or from an Anglo-Norman original, must be left to conjecture.'4 Other brief mentions in the nineteenth century are by San Marte, Gaston Paris, and H.L.D. Ward.5

James Douglas Bruce, University of Tennessee, made the Latin romances accessible, presenting the full Latin text and translation of De ortu Waluuanii in PMLA in 1898, followed by Historia Meriadoc in 1900. …

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