Today, our notes focus on how King Arthur was received in the Latin tradition and what contributions those texts have given to the Arthurian mythos.
- Firstly, though we know the Arthur-figure today as a ‘king’ he, in fact, was not a king. During his lifetime he would have been called a Duke’s ‘ballorum,’ or ‘war leader.’ Additionally, he might not have even been named Arthur.
- Gildas’s sixth-century text On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, though an unlikely source at first glance, may have recorded Arthurian events within its pages as the history was written for a still-living audience and would have been produced around the same time as Arthur’s life. It is this history that we hear, possibly for the first time, of the Battle of Mt. Baden, where the Anglo-Saxons were defeated; archaeology attests to this fact by revealing evidence that suggests in certain places, the Germanic forces even had to retreat across the channel. The Celtic-Romano leader who led the native Britains’ was not likely to be the Ambrosius figure who had previously defeated the Anglo-Saxons (the man who held the ‘supreme-leader title talked of a couple lectures ago), instead, the oppositional force was likely either his son or a close, younger advisor; in any case, this younger leader, perhaps Arthur, probably utilized and adapted the tactics of Ambrosisus and extended them to the current needs.
- Latin scholar Nenus asserts, in his History of the Britains, that the battle at Mt. Baden had been won by Arthur. However, this history, being written several centuries after the fact (around 800 A.D), is contested; even so, Nenus did come from the Welsh tradition, and so the content of the book was likely initially preserved in the form of oral histories before being able to be recorded. Provocatively, however, Nenus claims that Arthur won twelve battles, slew hundreds of foes by himself, and united several English kings under his banner to face the Anglo-Saxon threat. Though a daring claim at first, if we take the kill count as to mean Arthur’s war band, and not Arthur himself, and we understand the twelve battles to be twelve indications of Arthur’s best military victories, while remembering that references to magical elements were a common trope for the period, then Nenus’s history becomes more believable, even if some creativity must be applied to it beforehand.
- In another Latin text, The Annuals of Cambria, author unknown, the battle at Mt. Badden is dated as to have transpired in 518. It also asserts that in 539 Arthur was killed, while Medroute, another Arthurian figure who is something depicted as Arthur’s ally and at other times his foes, is wounded. However, this text asserts the possibility that Arthur and Medroute fought on the same side; such a reading is bolstered since in the Welsh and Scottish renditions of the Arthurian legend, Arthur and Medroute are often allies, with Medroute being a righteous king whose name was slandered. This tradition goes against much of the other incarnations of the Arthurian legend but continues right up to the Renaissance.
- When considering the transmission of the Arthur legend, the sequence “1.6.23” is important. It means that whatever takes you twenty-three days to get by foot, will only take six by a horse, and wherever takes you six days by a horse, will take you one day by boat. By this time, it was not uncommon for those living in England to have fled across the channel to what is now called Brittany. Because all though sea travel was dangerous, it would have been far faster to reach Brittany via ship than it would have to London from Wales by foot.
- We see possible evidence for this transmission importance later in the text The Life of Saint Gnovius. In it, we see Arthur beat back the Anglo-Saxon invasion as led by Hengest and Horsa, while dying shortly thereafter; however, what makes this text interesting is its exaggeration of Arthur’s personage—for the first time, we see him directly referenced as not only a ‘king’ by a king who is leader of all of the Celtic-Romano peoples.
- Because of the technological limitations of the time and the desperation of the people in needing a hero, it is unsurprising that from this moment on we see a gradual increase in the personification of the Arthur-figure. Around the 12th century, in Deeds of the English Kings, this personification is boosted by both flowery passages lauding Arthur’s greatness but also of a comparison to Jesus Christ by virtue of how Arthur is wounded and taken back to Avalon to heal. Written by William of Monsberry, this text also introduces us to Gawain, the greatest of Arthur’s knights, for the first time. By the end of the 12th century, though, Gaerald of Wales, in On the Instruction of Princes, contributes even more to the Arthur mythos by depicting Arthur has a protector of the land, connected to it by an intimacy which few others have. Additionally, it is in Gerlad’s text that Morgan Lefay, Arthur’s sister or sometimes half-sister, is introduced into the canon.
- By the end of the 12th century, most of the major Arthurian elements are in place. What is interesting to note, however, is that the authors writing these narratives, though writing in Latin, the shared language of the learned, each author comes from radically different cultural traditions where Latin is the second tongue. Accordingly, there is the possibility of linguistic miscommunication and error, but also, and perhaps even more importantly, though Latin as a shared academic language is an inclusivity act, it also excludes: with only the monastic and intellectual strata able to partake in the creation and dissemination of knowledge, there may have been crucial pieces to the Arthurian legend which simply never were able to be recorded for lack of an education.