Early Arthurian Britain – Peeling the layers

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While Arthurian literature, folklore and myth is mostly fiction, its significance to history cannot be ignored. As said before, the legend is rooted in fact. Each author has layered not only his or her own imagination onto the existing body of work, but they have very often layered on political and religious propaganda and current customs of their lifetime as well.

Returning to The History of the Kings of Britain, it is not known exactly how historically accurate Geoffrey of Monmouth’s sources were, and his work was criticized both in its day and now for its inaccuracies. More recently, it has gained credibility. It is, however, possible to see that his work’s purpose was partially political posturing and partially an ecclesiastical history.

As a Welshman, Geoffrey was proud that the ancient British kings were the ancestors of the Welsh. In his day, British history was mostly unknown. His narrative began to change that, sparking the interest of the recently established Norman kings of Britain. It was a way to ingratiate himself to the descendants of the eleventh century defeaters of Anglo-Saxon England, paralleling Arthur’s defeat of the Saxons, the ancestors of the English. The Plantagenets wanted an “ancestor,” even if adopted, that could compete with that of their French rivals, Charlemagne.

In addition, several dedications to various high-ranking church officials suggest Geoffrey was also trying to achieve a more advantageous position for himself. He portrayed Arthur as a devout Christian warrior, as one might have gone on the Crusades. In one of his battles, Arthur is described as having “across his shoulders a circular shield called Pridwen, on which there was painted a likeness of the Blessed Mary, Mother of God…” It is very possible Arthur was Christian, because the church had taken a solid foothold in Britain by the fifth century. But that he would have had the same degree of fanaticism that had taken hold of the populace by the medieval period, is not necessarily believable. Whether Arthur was in truth so dedicated is, of course, unknown, but it was another way for Geoffrey to please his church overlords.

As Arthur’s story gradually gained in popularity since Geoffrey’s History was published, over time it proliferated. Minstrels in medieval Brittany spread the tales. Authors in France and Germany picked up on them. Customs, both cultural and religious, were added to the characters and the plots. Neither scholarly nor scientific, they had little sense for historical accuracy when it came to descriptions of arms and armor, clothing and architecture. They applied life as they saw it in their own time to Dark Age characters.

Sir Thomas Malory was a knight during the Wars of the Roses (fifteenth century). His book, Le Morte d’Arthur, is a prime example of how the story of the Arthurian era became infused with knights in shining armor and the ideal of “courtly love.” Malory ignored or had no understanding that fifth and sixth century warriors would have worn chain mail armor and thick leather tunics, if they could afford it. Metal plate armor was not manufactured in Dark Age Britain. Knighthood only arrived with the Norman conquest in 1066, five hundred years after Arthur’s parting. Also, it has been contested whether the knight’s practice of courtly love may have even existed. Gothic cathedrals, classic castles of the motte and bailey style, jousting, and the like were of the high Middle Ages, not the fifth century. By “adopting” Arthur, the Anglo-Normans twisted the King of the Britons into being King of England, an historical impossibility and an insult — England did not exist in the fifth century. And even if the Anglo-Saxons were already called the English, how could Arthur possibly be king of those he fought so hard to drive out?

In looking at each piece of Arthurian literature and folklore, it is possible to identify layers upon layers of non-historical propaganda glossing over the historical truth. Interestingly enough, those layers can give clues to the eras in which they were applied, but that’s a whole other story.