King Arthur at Oxbridge: Nicholas Cantelupe, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Cambridge's Arthurian Foundation Myth

By Putter, Ad | Medium Aevum, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

King Arthur at Oxbridge: Nicholas Cantelupe, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Cambridge's Arthurian Foundation Myth


Putter, Ad, Medium Aevum


The marvelous logic of the mad ... seems to mock that of the logicians because it resembles it so exactly, or rather because it is exactly the same, and because at the secret heart of madness, at the core of so many of its errors, so many words and gestures without consequence, we discover, finally, the hidden perfection of a language. (Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization)

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Nicholas Cantelupe and his 'Historiola'

Anyone consulting the official archives of Cambridge University in 1510 or indeed a century later would have encountered, as Cambridge's oldest surviving charter, one granted by that most illustrious of British monarchs, King Arthur. (1) The charter, needless to say, is a hoax; and the man responsible for inflicting it on the world was Nicholas Cantelupe, who early in the fifteenth century produced a prodigiously fantastical history of the University of Cambridge, the Historiola de antiquitate et origine almae et immaculatae Universitatis Cantebrigiae. (2) The Historiola contains a remarkable Arthurian episode and offers excellent amusement and curiosity value. It deserves to be rescued from the obscurity into which it has sunk.

This obscurity is now so great that one would look in vain for Nicholas Cantelupe's name in a number of standard reference works--the Arthurian Encyclopedia and Bibliography, the DNB, Antonia Gransden's Historical Writing in England--and so might suspect that, in the spirit of my subject, I have made him up. (3) But Nicholas really did exist, which is more than can be said of Arthur's charter. Our main authority for his life and works is the sixteenth-century antiquarian John Bale, who tells us that Nicholas gained a doctorate in theology at Cambridge before becoming a Carmelite prior in Cambridge, Bristol, Gloucester, and finally Northampton, where he died in 1441. (4) According to Bale, he was a good friend of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (patron of Lydgate, Capgrave, et al.); (5) Bale also ascribes to Nicholas, in addition to the Historiola, five further works, fragments of two of which are extant in Bale's own transcripts: (6) both deal with the 'history' (equally fantastical) of the Carmelite order, which boasted direct descent from the prophet Elijah. And while Bale is not exactly known for his accuracy, on Nicholas Cantelupe he can be trusted--for two reasons: firstly, Bale had himself been a Carmelite prior and was well informed about the order, the history of which interested him greatly; (7) secondly, Bale's information is partly confirmed by a surviving record from the borough of Northampton, in which Nicholas is mentioned as prior of the local Carmelite house in 1423. (8) This date gives us a terminus ad quem for the Historiola, which Nicholas presumably wrote in his earlier Cambridge days.

The last serious attempt to improve Nicholas's public profile was in 1719, when the only printed text of the Historiola appeared in an appendix to Thomas Hearne's edition of Thomas Sprott's Chronicle. Of course, this edition is not scholarly by today's standards: the Latin has been classicized, perhaps in part because Hearne used a late text for his edition. (9) There are, however, at least five fifteenth-century manuscripts, (10) which I hope will one day form the basis of a critical edition. That there must once have been more copies is apparent from a letter to Thomas Hearne by a Cambridge scholar:

   As to your next design, I have nothing material to offer concerning
   the Historiola, which I have always lookt upon as one entire fable,
   and the fruitful Invention of a teeming Monkish brain. We have
   several copies, one at Clare Hall [now Clare College] which by its
   hand seems to be as old as the Author. Another at Caius College,
   copied out an[no] 1464 by John Heryson, Doctor in Sacris Medicinis
   [probably Gonville and Caius, MS 249/277]. Another upon the Black
   Book entred by Dr Buckingham Vice Chancellor an[no] 1509 or ten). … 

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