Literary wayfaring in England did not end with the Norman Conquest in 1066. It forked, one fork following the lead of the French conquerors, the other the lead of the English conquered. Both of these were excursions into vulgar territory. As Malone & Baugh have it: “In any age up to the Renaissance, the Latin literature of Europe is the measure of its intellectual life.”[i] The vulgar tongues did not always attract the most learned of men, since they tended to express themselves, when they felt the urge, in vulgar Latin. Three men of Britain are exemplary in this regard: Walter Map, Giraldus Cambrensis and Geoffrey of Monmouth. Map (c. 1140-c. 1209) was a noted wit to whom were attributed “some of the most famous of the Goliardic poems”[ii] (the satirical Latin drinking songs perhaps now most famous for providing the text for Carl Orff’s scurrilous and gloriously vulgar cantata Carmina Burana). Malone & Baugh tell us that “[a] persistent and early tradition credits him with the authorship of the prose Lancelot and other Arthurian romances, a tradition that cannot be accepted in any literal sense.”[iii] His friend Giraldus was an historian, as was Geoffrey of Monmouth. Their names are joined not only because they were all writers of Latin works, nor only because Geoffrey wrote History of the Kings of Britain (1137) and Vita Merlini, a life of Merlin in verse (which are connected, like the prose Lancelot, to the matter of Britain), but because they were all Welsh.[iv] Their path into the new literary world ran through the church, and though they wrote of some of the same matters, they rejected the Welsh bardic tradition.
Contemporary with this trio was Laʒamon,[v] a priest who produced the first Arthurian narrative in English. This was a translation of the Roman de Brut by a Norman poet, Wace, writing in French. The Roman de Brut was, in its turn, “based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, and was probably begun around 1150 and finished in 1155.”[vi] Malone & Baugh say that it is “customary … to assign Laʒamon’s Brut to the year 1205,”[vii] right at the end of Walter Map’s life and 140 years after the Norman Conquest. So Wace creates from a Welshman’s Latin history a Norman-French poem that includes Arthurian legend, and Laʒamon translates that narrative into English, adding some new materials, such as
the gifts which the elves conferred upon Arthur at birth, the description of his armor — its magic properties or fabrication by supernatural smiths — the dream in which he received warning of Mordred’s treason, and added circumstances in the account of the passing of Arthur. But the longest and most interesting addition which Layamon makes is the story of the creation of the Round Table….[viii]
But the most interesting thing to me about Laʒamon’s work is that he uses a version of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse in this poem. Or more precisely, as Malone & Baugh explain it:
He had apparently been brought up on the Old English alliterative verse and his own lines area so clearly in this tradition that about half of them can be scanned by Old English standards. He makes frequent use of rime, however, as an additional ornament. The tradition which he represents is apparently a late one which has left behind some of the older practices and acquired certain new habits in their place [which could be Welsh habits of cynghanedd]. Nevertheless it is still English. His vocabulary is remarkable for the small number of French words in it….[ix]
It would be worth examining the poem in more detail to determine whether there were traces of Welsh meters — but the only text I have access to now is found in Medieval English Verse and Prose in Modernized Versions,[x] which would have smudged the traces, if not obliterated them. It is, however, worth quoting for its other qualities, even in modernized form:
There came to him anon one who was a skilled craftsman, And went to meet the king, and courteously greeted him: “Hail to thee, Arthur, noblest of kings. I am thine own man; I have traversed many a land. I know in woodwork wondrous many devices. I heard beyond the sea men telling new tidings, How thine own knights at thy board did fight On midwinter’s day; many there fell; For their mighty pride they played the death game, And because of his high race each would be on the inside. Now I will make for thee a work most skillful That there may sit at it sixteen hundred and more, All in succession, that none may sit at the end, But without and within, man beside man. Whenever thou wilt ride, with thee thou mayst take it, And set it up where thou wilt after thine own will; And thou needest never dread throughout the wide world That ever any proud knight at thy board stir a fight; For there shall the high be equal to the low. Let me but have timber, and begin that board.” In four weeks’ time that work was completed. On a high day the court was assembled; And Arthur himself went forthwith to that board, And summoned every knight to that table forthright. When they were all set, the knights at their meat, Then spoke each with the other as though it were his brother. All of them sat round about; none had an end seat; A knight of every race had there a good place; They were all side by side, the low and the high; None might there boast of a better beverage, Than had his companions who were at that table.[xi]
So we have this single outlier in the three generations after the Norman Conquest, a lone voice crying alliteration in the wilderness — and then, silence, for another three generations. Now as Malone & Baugh point out, we have other cause to mourn: “This is the first and also for quite a while the last appearance of King Arthur in English. When he again returns to the isle of his birth it will be after a considerable sojourn in France, a sojourn which has profoundly altered his character.”[xii] But, as it also marks the last appearance for that same while of alliterative verse in English, let our mourning be deep and long.
But hold on, I hear you say; surely there is more to come on the alliterative revival?
[i] A literary history of England / edited by Albert C. Baugh. – 2nd ed. – New York : Appleton-Century-Crofts, c1967. From that work’s “Book I, The Middle Ages (to 1500)” by Kemp Malone and Albert C. Baugh, p. 143.
[ii] Ibid, p. 146
[iv] Ibid, pp. 146-7
[v] The ʒ is, according to MS Word’s Symbol table, a “Latin small letter ezh” which, as I recall, was pronounced like the “ch” in Loch Lomond.
[vi] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_de_Brut, accessed 29 February 2012.
[vii] Op. cit., pp. 170-171.
[viii] Ibid., p. 171.
[ix] Ibid., pp. 171-172.
[x] Medieval English Verse and Prose in Modernized Versions / by Roger Sherman Loomis and Rudolph Willard. – New York : Appleton-Century-Crofts, c1948.
[xi] Ibid., p. 25, lines 22,847 through 22,877.
[xii] Op. cit., p. 172.