The Medieval Development of Arthurian Literature
Created | Updated Jan 7, 2012
The Early Middle Ages
Once Arthur had passed into legend, becoming a mythic figure instead of an ostensibly historical one, the range of literature about him and his court became much greater, springing forth from its nebulous roots. This coincided with the great leaps made in the field of literature at this time, particularly in France. The prosperity of the French court meant that the nobles wanted to hear tales of aristocratic heroes, great adventure, and above all, chivalry.
Chivalry was the key factor in the usage of Arthur as an emblematic hero; its tenets of religious purity and faith as well as secular glory and prowess found an ideal subject in the myths already associated with this British king. The themes of romanticised and formalised Courtly Love and the Quest were also highly important, as such works as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight demonstrate.
In the mid-12th Century, the French poet Wace translated Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniæ, creating a new work, Brut, so named because Geoffrey's history asserts that Britain was founded as a nation by a Trojan exile named Brutus. The mention of Arthur was carried over into the French, and must have made quite an impression on Gallic bards and poets, as Arthur became intensely popular in the French court, which was probably the most powerful in Europe at the time. The fact that Arthur was a Briton meant the French felt a kinship for him; a fellow Celt defending his land and his people against invading Saxons was a theme the French warmed to instantly.
The influence of the French Court and poetry upon the Arthurian legends is most pronounced in the works of Chrétien de Troyes. This poet wrote the most influential treatment of the Arthurian court, knights and myths in the 1160s and '70s, which would be the starting point for almost all future versions of the Arthurian tales. His principal works that dealt with Arthur are Cligés, Lancelot, Yvain, and Erec.
Layamon, an English poet, adapted Wace's French version of the 'historical' Arthur back into alliterative1 English verse in the late 12th Century. This was a key moment in the populist understanding of Arthur and his importance to the British nation, as it was written in the vernacular tongue of Britain - English - as opposed to the aristocratic and elitist French, and it was one of the first works that used Arthur as a patriotic symbol.
De Troyes wrote Perceval in c.1190, which was another 'spin-off' from the tales of the knights of Camelot, but one that had a distinctly populist feel in itself, as Perceval was the ignoble bastard son of a knight, yet became one of the greatest examples of knighthood, in terms of both fighting ability and chivalrous virtue. Perceval was also the basis for Wolfram von Essenbach's work Parzifal, which is the most notable example of medieval romantic poetry in German.
The Introduction of Further Details
In the early 13th Century, the Arthurian mythos was expanded greatly. The myths of Arthur and his knights were now so widely recognised and feted that poets and writers began to incorporate extremely topical issues into the myths. Robert de Boron wrote Joseph d'Aramathie, which detailed the 'history' of the Holy Grail2 and its movement from the Holy Land to Western Europe, carried by Joseph of Arimathea. This work tied into the Arthurian legend, as Joseph was supposed to have taken the Grail to Glastonbury, bringing with him the Christian gospel. Glastonbury became a key site in Arthurian legend, as monks at the abbey there claimed to have discovered the High King's mortal remains in 1190.
The notion of a link to the Holy Land was also a result of the Crusades, which were ostensibly a divinely sanctioned purge of the 'heathen occupation' of Jerusalem and other such Christian sites. If the Grail had been rescued centuries earlier, and had inspired the greatest of knights into a quest to recover it, then it was a perfect way to justify the Crusades, which were also seen as a God-given quest to preserve Christianity from those that threatened it. The link to the Grail also made explicit the Christian nature of the Arthurian myth. No longer was he merely a Celtic warlord, but had adapted with the mood of the time to become the figurehead of noble courtly Christianity.
However, de Boron also wrote the Roman de Merlin, which tied Merlin more explicitly into the tale. The enigmatic wizard had been barely developed from the pagan myths of the literary roots of Arthur until this point, but de Boron made him a key figure in the legend. Merlin came to symbolise the mysticism of the tales; he was a wizard, possibly even the offspring of the devil himself, and so became the ideal representation of unworldly and unholy occurrence. Although the audiences of these tales would have been Christian, old superstitions would have died hard, and having a wizard for a mentor would have indicated that Arthur was linked to both pagan and Christian heritage.
In around 1215 - 1230, an unknown author wrote the prose Vulgate Cycle of the Arthurian tales. This cycle was a canonical French treatment of the myths, which was both comprehensive and well written, and became the key textual source for all the later poets and authors of the period. It was in three parts originally - Lancelot du Lac, Queste del Saint Graal and the Mort Artu. These parts laid out the basic framework of the tale, tying in all the subsidiary threads. Adaptations of the two de Boron tales were added later to the start of the cycle.
The Late Middle Ages
The late 14th Century saw the adaptation of the Arthurian mythos to fit contemporary and localised issues and poetic styles, especially in regional Britain. Derived largely from such sources as the Vulgate Cycle and de Troyes' works, poems such as the alliterative Morte D'Arthur, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight demonstrated how local styles, like the alliterative one peculiar to the north of England, could be employed to give Arthur a regional feel. The Arthurian canon was now so broad that relatively minor characters were now being given tales and adventures of their own.
The adaptation of Arthur to more vernacular languages and settings meant that it became less of a romance, which had been a criticism made by Chaucer in the 'Nun's Priest's Tale' in the Canterbury Tales about poems and stories featuring Lancelot, which he wryly observed were the sort of medieval equivalent of Mills and Boon for soppy court ladies to swoon over.
Malory's Morte D'Arthur
Sir Thomas Malory was something of a rogue. In fact, 'something of a rogue' is an understatement. He was arrested and charged at various points with such crimes as cattle rustling, ambushing with intent to murder, stealing valuables from an abbey, rape, extortion and insulting an abbot. Still, it is to Malory that all subsequent chroniclers and authors of works about Arthur owe a great debt. He wrote the Morte D'Arthur, the single most important collection of Arthurian myth in the English language, during his final and most lengthy imprisonment.
Based on all the available sources Malory could muster, principally the French prose Vulgate Cycle, this work set out to reclaim Arthur as an English monarch and legend, not merely an amusement for French nobility. Hence the definite placement of the mythical Arthurian kingdom of Logres to Britain, and the dominance of patriotism over chivalry. For instance, in a scene where Arthur's life is threatened by one of his own knights who has been ensorceled by Morgan le Fay, Malory plays up the fact that this knight is a traitor rather than a poor bewitched wretch.
Malory's particular genius lay not in creativity or great mastery of the language, neither of which he displays in any great quantity, but in his editorial skills, as his publisher William Caxton draws attention to:
I have, after the symple connynge that God hath sente to me, under the favour and correctyon of al noble lordes and gentylmen, enprysed to enprynte a book of the noble hystoryes of the sayd Kynge Arthur and of certeyn of his knyghtes, after a copye unto me delyverd, whyche copye Syr Thomas Malorye dyd take oute of certeyn bookes of Frensshe and reduced it into Englysshe.
Malory took the bloated corpus of available material and ruthlessly excised bits he felt unnecessary or overblown. In Malory's opinion, this included superfluous dialogue and romanticism. He filleted a great deal of the introspection of Lancelot's soul-searching, and concentrated on the bits that interested him most: battle and bloodshed. Being a typical roguish chap, and apparently himself no slouch with sword, dagger or polearm, he delights in gore:
Whan Brastias behelde Lucas the Butler that lay lyke a dede man undir the horse feete - and ever sir Gryflet dud mercyfully for to reskow hym, and there were allwayes fourtene knyghtes upon sir Lucas - and than sir Brastias smote one of them on the helme, that hit wente unto his tethe; and he rode unto another and smote hym, that hys arme flowe into the felde; than he wente to the thirde and smote hym on the shulder, that sholdir and arme flow into the felde.
However, the Morte D'Arthur was the last great work of Arthurian literature in the Middle Ages. The post-medieval development of Arthuriana was far less interested in the glamour of the myth. This was, in a strange way, thanks to Malory and Caxton, as the Morte D'Arthur had been printed in vernacular prose, which made it widely available to the general populace of Britain, and as it was such a comprehensive work, it meant that the legends' development stagnated. It became the standard text, and therefore nobody bothered to write anything serious on the subject for a long time afterwards. Because relations with France were strained at best during the late Middle Ages, the last subject French poets would want to dwell upon would be a noble and martially successful English king. Popular and political favour had turned against chivalric groups like the Templars, who had been charged with heresy, and so bodies of knights were viewed with suspicion. Finally, romantic tales were becoming passé on the Continent due to the emergence of a new artistic and literary movement: the Renaissance.