The Arthurian legends conjure up images of fairy tales, brave knights, wizardry, legendary beasts, and the classic image of the medieval king. As a result, our first thought is about the many novels and stories which are the basis of the legends we know. In reality, literature is just one of the many ways in which Arthurian lore became popular. In the following article, we will take a look at other forms through which Arthurian legends have manifested their popularity.
Literature and the Arthurian Legends
Literature is the main form of expression of Arthurian lore. The first mentions of Arthur appear in early poems, such as the Y Goddodin and early chronicles. After, he appeared mostly in fiction, stepping from history into myth. Due to this evolution, we can speak of two versions of the legendary king. The first one is a warrior king of the post-roman period, in the early 5th century CE. The second Arthur is the classical hero of the medieval period, an entity that encompasses medieval values and the image of a medieval king.
The first appearance of the Celtic warlord Arthur, a “dux bellorum” is in the Historia Brittonnum, written in the 9th century by Nennius. He based his text on earlier Latin authors, such as Gildas and Bede. Here, Arthur wins twelve battles against the Saxons with the help of other local warlords. Gildas, while not mentioning Arthur directly, describes the Battle of Badon, fought by the Britons against the Saxons. Comparable to Waterloo or Trafalgar, the Battle of Badon is significant because it paused the Saxon invasion for almost a generation. Other texts link Arthur to this battle, such as the Welsh Annals. The entry for the year 516 CE mentions Arthur’s involvement.
The transition from dux (duke) to rex (king) was made by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his book about the history of English kings, the Historia Regum Britanniae. Here we can find the first pieces of classical Arthurian lore. The book is an account of early British kings starting with Brutus, who brings the roman way of life to Britannia. From here, the text chronicles every dux up to king Uther Pendragon. With the help of the wizard Merlin, he takes the shape of King Gorlois of Cornwall and spends a night with Ygerna, the duke’s wife. The result of this affair was Arthur.
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Following the steps of Geoffrey of Monmouth, other medieval authors took the legend and added more elements, some of which are now core parts of the Arthurian Lore. Robert Wace, the author of Roman le Brut, added the idea of the Round Table, the notion of equality among its knights, and a description of Arthur’s court that has appeared in every incarnation since then. The French author, Chretien de Troyes, created Lancelot and introduced Camelot and the first Grail stories. Finally, Thomas Malory wrote the most recognizable version of the legend we know, by combining both old and contemporary elements into one narrative.
Arthurian legends came one step closer to reality through live festivities held throughout Europe. In the 14th century, Arthurian festivities took place in cities along the Rhine Valley, from the Netherlands to northern France. In Koln, Liege, Tournai, Bruges, Lille, Valenciennes, and Arras. Towards the middle of the 14th century, similar events took place in Spain and Italy. In Britain, nobles organized roundtable reenactments of important Arthurian stories during special occasions in which participants would imitate and take the names of Arthur and his knights. But, we may ask ourselves, why was the round table so important?
The Round Table has three different meanings. First, the Table represents the idea of a knightly brotherhood. In Roman le Brut, the Knights of the Round Table are the closest men to the English King, bound by honor to his service. These characters embody the values of courtly life, courage, and order, and were praised worldwide. Starting with Wace, other authors based the relationship between Arthur and his knights on the principle of equality.
Secondly, it refers to the actual physical table. According to legend, Merlin built the Table for Uther Pendragon, or it was built by a carpenter, from Cornwall. Other tales link the Table to Leodogrance, Guinevere’s father, who gifted the table to Arthur as a wedding gift.
Third, it denotes festivities organized by Arthur for a special event or Christian holiday. These events are remarkable due to their way of incorporating elements of Arthurian Lore. Nobles exchanged gifts, and there was a lot of food and entertainment for the guests to enjoy. Such extravagance represented a tribute to Arthur as a generous host. Furthermore, in the spirit of Arthurian equality, everyone shared the same food, drinks, and places. Men participated actively in these events, while women had a role in being their partners.
Another particularity worthy of mentioning is the practice of telling great tales before serving food. It is another element taken from the lore in which Arthur would refuse to start any feast if none of his knights would tell him a story of a great deed of arms. In France, a chronicle describes that participants would adopt a coat of arms inspired by Arthurian lore during jousts and reenactments.
Another occurrence that happens even today is naming children after popular fictional characters, Arthurian characters in this case. A significant practice because it took place around the eleventh century, way before the boom in Arthurian popularity. It mainly took place in western France during the reign of the Plantagenet kings. Later, individuals with Arthurian names appear in the rest of England and the Flemish and Bavarian regions. Examples include Gawain, Tristan, Lancelot, Perceval, and Bohort.
Initially, historians believed these names to be only temporary, adopted during special events. However, by analyzing certain chronicles, we may find individuals with permanent Arthurian names, such as Petrus dictus Lancelot or Jean de Perceval. Furthermore, these names also had specific functions depending on the social category of the person. Nobles adopted such names due to the prestige they carried, and the middle classes used them as a means of proving their own valour and cultural knowledge.
This practice marked the beginning of a transition from a patrimonial system of naming to a liberal one in which the parents could choose their children’s names based on tastes, culture, religion, or other significance. Moreover, this practice attests to the growing popularity of Arthurian lore in medieval Europe.
Politics and the Arthurian Legends
During the reign of the Plantagenet dynasty and after, English kings used Arthurian lore to promote their rule in two ways. They legitimized their reign by creating genealogies that began with Arthur and they tried to imitate the values that Arthur represented during the middles ages. Some went so far as to create knightly orders based on the Knights of the Round Table.
This started with Henry I Plantagenet, who was the patron of Geoffrey of Monmouth, the author of historia regum britanniae. Henry II linked his genealogy to Arthur and adopted Tristan’s coat of arms, and during his reign, Arthur’s alleged tomb was discovered at Glastonbury.
Richard I, might have come into the possession of Excalibur, according to some sources. This story is part of a medieval tradition and a belief that if someone comes into contact with the weapon of a hero, he or she will acquire the same strengths and characteristics as the original wielder. In any case, Richard might have received a sword from his grandfather, Geoffrey, who got it from Henry in 1127. Robert Howden wrote about this episode in his chronicle and added how Richard sold the sword for twenty ships.
Edward I was a great Arthurian enthusiast. Unlike previous kings, he owned several texts such as Roman le Brut, Tristan, and Historia Regum Britanniae. In 1278, he and his wife visited Glastonbury to see the alleged tomb of Arthur and to pay respects. Another of the king’s pastime activities, jousting, was also tied to Arthurian lore. He organized several roundtable reenactments to celebrate birthdays and victories in war (in 1279 and 1284).
During his reign, the Round Table of Winchester was built. It is a large wooden (oak) disk with a diameter of 5.5 meters and weighs almost a ton. Analysis dates the artifact to the second half of the 13th century, but scholars agree it was built in 1290 for the two-day jousting tourney he organized to celebrate the marriage of one of his daughters. Today, the table resides in the Grand Hall of Winchester.
Finally, Edward III was also inspired by Arthurian lore, and by Richard the Lionheart, when he created the Order of the Garter.