Rivers and Literary Geography in Twelfth-Century Historiography (19th February 2020)

Map of the course of the River Severn from Gloucester to Cardiff, 1595 (London, British Library, Cotton MS Augustus I.ii.17) 

Sources of both abundance and destruction, life and death, rivers have always had a powerful hold over humankind. They run through every human landscape, whether mythical or actual. In the Book of Genesis, the geography of humanity’s first home is defined by a river that flowed through Eden and separates the into four headwaters, creating the Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates rivers. According to classical mythology, the boundaries of the underworld are likewise demarcated by rivers: the Acheron, Cocytus, Phelgethon, Lethe, Ariadanos, and of course the Styx. Even the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100 BCE) tells of a catastrophic river flood sent by angry deities to destroy all life.[1]

Next meeting: Wednesday 21st February / Room 3.66 / 3-5pm

This month we are reading a selection of twelfth-century historical texts by Geoffrey of Monmouth, William of Malmesbury, and Gerald of Wales. We will approach these texts using the critical theory of literary geography, which is outlined in a short essay by Neal Alexander. We will examine the real and imagined geographies in these texts, focusing on rivers and their function as borders. In particular, we will analyse the representation of River Severn and the River Usk and the border towns of Gloucester and Caerleon.

Rivers as Borders

The Wales-England Border, which was officially established by the Acts of Union in 1535 and 1542, is demarcated by two rivers: the River Dee to the north and the River Severn to the south. However, rivers were used as borders in Wales long before the sixteenth century. Della Hooke and Maren Clegg Hyer note that ‘rivers and watercourses were often taken to mark territorial boundaries from an early date. Early Welsh laws regard a major river as one of the “stays” of a boundary, a “stay” denoting a limiting feature’.[2] The River Severn, which runs through the counties of Shropshire, Worcestershire, and Gloucestershire, is a natural, political, and symbolic border between England and Wales.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae, rivers function as one of the primary divisions of the landscape. Geoffrey describes the ‘three noble rivers’ of Britain, including the Thames, the Severn, and the Humber. The Thames divides the south of Britain, and flows through the main locus of power, London (or Troia Nova); it also forms a major trade route between Britain and the continent. The Humber divides the south of Britain from the north (including Scotland), and the Severn divides England from Wales. Geoffrey recounts the division of Britain between Brutus’ sons, Locrinus, Albanactus, and Kamber. He notes that Kamber ‘received the region [of Britain] across the river Severn, now known as Wales’ (HRB, 23). Geoffrey also describes how the archbishopric of Caerleon was ‘separated from the two former diocseses [York and Canterbury] by the Severn’ (HRB, 72). For Geoffrey, then, the Severn is a national border and an ecclesiastical boundary.

Geoffrey also comments on the etymological origins of the River Severn. In Book II of the Historia, he recounts the story of Habren, the illegitimate daughter of Locrinus and Estrildis. Erin Murphy notes that ‘[a]s a bastard, Sabrina [Habren] represents the excess and instability of reproduction and figures a threat to dynastic lineage’.[3] Maddan, the son of Locrinus and Guendolena, is the rightful heir of Britain: he symbolises the union between England and Cornwall as his mother, Guendolena, is the daughter of Corineus, the king of Cornwall. After Locrinus’ death, Guendolena takes revenge and orders

Estrildis and her daughter Habren to be thrown into the river now called the Severn [Sabrina], and issued instructions throughout Britain that the river should be named after the girl; she wanted Habren to enjoy immortality since her own husband had been the girl’s father. Hence the river is called Habren in British even today, although in the other tongue this has been corrupted to Severn [Sabrina]. (HRB, 25)

The story of Habren is memorialised through the name of the river Severn. Etymologies are a recurrent motif throughout the Historia, and Monika Otter suggests that ‘the many uses of place names, topography, and space in the Historia form a resonant, coherent, motif pattern that is key to Geoffrey’s poetics’.[4] Geoffrey uses his invented etymologies to emphasise the instability and mutability of language. In the story of Habren, he states that the river is called ‘Habren’ in British, but also notes that it has been ‘corrupted’ to ‘Severn’ in English. Geoffrey resists directly naming the English language – which he refers to as the ‘other tongue [alia lingua]’ – but the substitution of ‘Habren’ with ‘Sabrina’ emphasises the loss of British sovereignty and erases the connection between people and place.

Borders are both real and imagined. Although Geoffrey claimed the Severn marked border between England and Wales, the river ‘passes from Wales into England without at any point marking the division between the nations’.[5] Philip Schwyzer points out that

Geoffrey’s claim that the Severn marked the original – and, by implication, essential and inalienable – border between England and Wales remained current for centuries. Even after the domains of the old Marcher Lords had been extinguished forever by the Union of England and Wales under Henry VIII, chroniclers and chorographers continued to take the old claim seriously.[6]

The River Wye, which originates from the same source as the Severn and runs through the border towns of Hereford, Chepstow, and Monmouth, more accurately represents the border. Geoffrey’s near contemporary, Gerald of Wales, recognised the Wye as the ‘modern boundary between England and Wales’ (Descriptio, p. 226). However, he did note that the Severn was a historical border, and that ‘[f]or many years this river formed the boundary between Cambria and Loergia, or Wales and southern England’ (Descripto, p. 225). By the twelfth century, the Wye represented the real, contemporary border, while the Severn represented an imagined and symbolic border.

In his introduction to Mapping Medieval Geographies: Geographical Encounters in the Latin West and Beyond, 300-1600 (2013), Keith D. Lilley distinguishes between medieval geographical traditions and geographical imaginations.[7] Traditions represent forms of geographical thought and knowledge, while imaginations refers to the geographies of texts and images. But traditions and imaginations are often intimately connected. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s claim that the Severn was the national border between England and Wales demonstrates how an imagined geography become a geographical tradition.

Texts

Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia regum Britanniae
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae (‘The History of the Kings of Britain, c. 1138) is a complete history of the British kings from Brutus of Troy to Cadwaladr. We are reading three short extracts from the Historia, including the description of Britain; the divison of Britian and the naming of the Severn; and the description of Caerleon. Geoffrey’s description of Britain demonstrates the influence of other insular writers such as Gildas, Nennius, Bede, and Henry of Huntingdon. The tripartite division of Britain in the Historia was often used to legitimise British sovereignty (especially over Scotland).

William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum
William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (‘The Deeds of the English Bishops’, c. 1125) is a survey of the bishops in all the dioceses of England from Augustine’s arrival in Canterbury in 597 down to the 1120s when the work was being written. For the period after Bede’s death in 730 it is the most single important source of English church history. William’s Gesta is an early example of chorography, and we are reading a short chapter on the diocese of Worcester, which includes a description of the city of Gloucester on the River Severn.

Gerald of Wales, Itinerarium Kambriae and Descriptio Kambriae
Gerald of Wales was a Cambro-Norman writer. The Itinerarium Kambriae (‘The Journey Through Wales’, c. 1191) records Gerald’s travels around Wales with Archbishop Baldwin in 1188 to preach the Third Crusade. Meanwhile, the Descriptio Kambriae (‘The Description of Wales, c. 1194) is an ethnography the Welsh people which constructs them as ‘objects of study and interest rather than as subjects of history’.[8] We are reading a couple of chapters from the Descriptio on the rivers of Wales, as well as Gerald’s account of his travels through Caerleon, Newport, and Cardiff.

Brut y Tywysogyon (Peniarth MS 20)
The Brut y Tywysogyon (‘Chronicle of the Princes’) is the Welsh language continuation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae. This version of the Welsh Brut in Peniarth MS 20 begins in 682 with the death of Cadwaladr and ends in 1332. We are reading the entries for 1171-5. The entry for 1171 records the submission of Rhys ap Gruffydd – the Lord Rhys, Prince of Deheubarth (South Wales) – to Henry II at Newnham on Severn, as well as the burning of Caerleon by Iorweth ab Owain and his sons, Owain and Hywel. After the murder of Owain, Iorweth and Hywel repeatedly attacked Caerleon until Henry yielded the city in 1175.

Questions

  • How can we use the critical theory of literary geography to approach these texts?
  • What types of geographies are described in these texts? (i.e. real, imagined, national, regional, local, institutional)
  • How do these descriptions utilise the locus amoenus topos?
  • How do rivers function as borders and boundaries?
  • What do you think of Geoffrey’s story of Habren and the etymology of the River Severn?
  • What is the significance of the border towns of Caerleon and Gloucester?
  • How can we compare the descriptions of Caerleon by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Gerald of Wales?
  • Antonia Gransden has commented that ‘[t]he twelfth century was, until the literary developments of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, pre-eminent for descriptive writing’.[9] Have you read any other texts produced in the twelfth century that demonstrate a similar interest in descriptive detail?
  • To what extent does genre influence the representation of the river? Consider the differences between history, description, chorography (the study of provinces, regions or cities), itinerary (travel writing), and ethnography.

References

[1] Christof Mauch and Thomas Zeller, ‘Rivers in History and Historiography: An Introduction’, Rivers in History: Perspectives on Waterways in Europe and North America, ed. by Christof Mauch and Thomas Zeller (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008), pp. 1-10 (p. 1).

[2] Della Hooke and Maren Clegg Hyer, ‘Introduction’, in Water and the Environment in the Anglo-Saxon World, ed. by Maren Clegg Hyer and Della Hooke (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017), pp. 1-14 (p. 3).

[3] Erin Murphy, ‘Sabrina and the Making of English History in Poly-Olbion and A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle’, Studies in English Literature, 51.1 (2011), 87-110 (p. 91).

[4] Monika Otter, Inventiones: Fiction and Referentiality in Twelfth-Century English Historical Writing (Chapel Hill, NC and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), p. 69.

[5] Philip Schwyzer, ‘Purity and Danger on the West Bank of the Severn: The Cultural Geography of A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634’, Representations, 60 (1997), 22-48 (p. 24).

[6] Philip Schwyzer, ‘A map of Greater Cambria’, in Literature, Mapping, and the Politics of Space in Early Modern Britain, ed. by Andrew Gordon and Bernhard Klein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 35-44 (p. 35)

[7] Michael A. Faletra, Wales and the Medieval Colonial Imagination: The Matters of Britain in the Twelfth Century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p. 156.

[8] Keith D. Lilley, ‘Introduction: mapping medieval geographies’, in Mapping Medieval Geographies: Geographical Encounters in the Latin West and Beyond, 300-1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 1-20.

[9] Antonia Gransden, ‘Realistic Observation in Twelfth-Century England’, in Legends, Traditions and History in Medieval England, ed. by Antonia Gransden (London and Rio Grande: The Hambledon Press, 1992), pp. 175-99 (p. 176).

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