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.


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.


  • 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.


[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).

Revisiting Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain (11 December 2019)

Yvain image
[Image:  after BNF Français 343 Queste del Saint Graal / Tristan de Léonois; f 27v at https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b84584343/f58.highres%5D
Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain (c. 1177), is often discussed as the perfect courtly romance – an archetypal expression of the young knight in search of land, love and aventure. It is often described as Chrétien’s ‘masterpiece’,[1] ‘one of the best constructed, most captivating tales in medieval literature’,[2] and has been long-considered ‘the perfect paradigm of romance’.[3] While Yvain was not the subject of later romance cycles in the manner of Lancelot, Tristan and Perceval, the appeal of his story seems to have been felt from the outset: it certainly proved influential on later writers, with translations and adaptations being made in France, Wales, England, Scandinavia and Germany – as late as the sixteenth century.

Yet despite its status as the archetypal single-hero romance, it remains a tremendously elusive text. Its combination of parody and sincerity, optimism and profound pessimism, its structural emphasis on replication and mischievous delight in oppositions, its sense of narrative urgency and frequent digressions into scholarly rhetorical asides, often seem to inflame a desire among some critics to resolve the text’s contradictions, and to find solutions to this problem-filled romance. And yet, as Tony Hunt writes:

It should be said at once that no such essay would come near to doing justice to Yvain if it were to offer firm, ostensibly authoritative conclusions about the work’s ‘meaning’ and function, for Chrétien’s ludic, theatrical, interrogatory tone makes it clear that almost everything in Yvain is debateable, deliberately so, and that it is a deeply paradoxical work, which tests its readers’ intelligence and alertness at every turn.[4]

Chrétien’s verse is sophisticated and highly literary – a powerful example and expression of that intense writerly renaissance of the second half of the twelfth century. That said, it is notably speech-like in its expression and, usually, language. It would have been read aloud very effectively.[5] The text’s concern with the marvellous, its surprising set pieces, and narrative are all likely to have inspired discussion and debate.

Though the subject of an enormous amount of scholarly speculation, little is knowable about Chrétien’s life. He was the author of five Arthurian romances – the first of their type. First, seemingly, came Erec et Enide, followed by Cliges, Lancelot and Yvain. Sometime later he wrote Perceval, the earliest extant – and likely first – story of the grail. In his prologue to Cliges he also claims to have written a number of other texts: translations from Ovid’s Commandments and the Art of Love, as well as the tales of Philomela and Pelops from the Metamorphoses, as well as the story of Mark and Iseut la Blonde. All these translations have been lost, save possibly the tale of Philomela; no trace of the Tristan survives, although echoes of that story are present throughout many of Chrétien’s extant Arthurian romances. Two short love lyrics are also attributed to him: ‘Amors tençon et bataille’ (‘Love, Strife and Battle’) and ‘D’Amors, qui m’a tolu a moi’ (Of Love, Who Took Me from Myself’), which demonstrate clear influence of the southern French troubadour poets. Troyes, from where Chrétien hailed, or at least worked, was a major mercantile centre, a crossroads amid the merchant roads of France, southeast of Paris. It was also the residence of the count and countess of Champagne, two of the most important cultural patrons of that age. Chrétien in his famous prologue to Lancelot – the companion piece to Yvain – ascribes the text’s matière and sens to Marie’s direction and patronage. Their court attracted numerous other writers, including Andreas Capellanus, author of The Art of Courtly Love, Conon de Béthun, Gautier d’Arras, Villehardouin and Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube. At some point, possibly following the death of the count of Champagne, Chrétien was connected to the court of Phillippe d’Alsace, Count of Flanders, to whom he dedicated his final, incomplete work, Perceval.

For the last MEMORI reading group of 2019, we’re reading Yvain in the prose translation made by William Kibler.[6] Like most of Chrétien’s romances, Yvain is roughly 7,000 lines in length (6,818 to be precise) and, like all of Chrétien’s extant romances, is written in octosyllabic rhyming couplets. Few would attempt to imitate the metre and rhyme in modern English – fewer would wish to read such an attempt.

Rob Gossedge


Topics for discussion

  • Chrétien’s romances are often discussed in terms of its structure of doubling (scenes, motifs, figures, episodes). What is the significance of such a structural focus – in terms of aesthetics, the readerly experience (and interpellation), social meaning, etc.?


  • What strikes you as interesting about the opening of Chrétien’s romance (up until Yvain sets forth)?


  • Examine the Calogrenant’s encounter giant herdsman (the giant churl): what is his significance – how does it relate to other non-aristocratic figures in the text (particularly the townspeople)


  • Is this a text about wish fulfilment?


  • Can the text be seen to shape the values of a new chivalric class? To what extent and in what ways can we read this text’s ideological practices


  • Make notes on what you find interesting in the theme of marriage as it is discussed in Yvain


  • What do you see as the significance of Lunete (and helpful maidens more generally) in the narrative?


  • Many have described Yvain as a problem romance (a text which has a thorny issue at its heart). What might be this central, governing issue and how is it resolved?


  • For those of you who have read Auerback’s Mimesis (and, particularly its chapter on Chrétien): to what extent do you find Auerbach’s reading of Yvain convincing? Is it a methodology you find worthwhile pursuing?


[1] Burton Raffel, ‘Translator’s Preface’, Yvain: the Knight of the Lion, trans. by Raffel (New Haven: Yale UP, 1987), p. xii.

[2] Ruth Harwood Cline, ‘Introduction’, Yvain; or, the Knight with the Lion, trans. by Cline (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1975), p. xii.

[3] Tony Hunt, ‘Le chevalier au lion : Yvain Lionheart’, in A Companion to Chrétien de Troyes, ed. by Lacy, Grimbert (Cambridge : Brewer, 2005), pp.156-68 (p. 156).

[4] Hunt, p. 157.

[5] How well the romances’ plots could have been followed aurally in the absence of the sorts of markers that traditionally anchor audiences to the story – for instance the protagonist of Perceval is not named for several thousand lines – remains (to me at least) a puzzle. Perhaps the court of Champagne were possessed of aural skills of comprehension that we can only begin to imagine.

[6] Chrétien de Troyes, Arthurian Romances, trans. William W. Kibler, with Carleton W. Carroll (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991), pp. 295-380.

Middle English Ariadne – a Chaucerian Heroide (20th November 2019)

Theseus and Ariadne
Theseus abandons the sleeping Ariadne. The goddess Athene watches, while Hypnos drops water from the River Lethe across Ariadne’s brow. Source: Red Apulian Greek vase (ca. 400 – 390 B.C) held the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Link.

Next meeting: Wednesday 20 November, 15.10 – 17.00, in Room 1.02 of the John Percival Building.

Ariadne – daughter of King Minos of Crete and half-sister to the Minotaur – is known for her long symbolic association with the labyrinth and spools of thread, and for her decision to help the iconic hero, Theseus, escape the former using the latter. After being famously deserted by Theseus, she became the wife of the god, Dionysus, who immortalised her in the stars. As a princess of Crete and granddaughter of the sun god, Helios, Ariadne is also part of a family of complex female characters, all of whom are powerful and unafraid to transgress the bounds of nature – most notably, her mother Pasiphae, whose desire resulted in the conception of the Minotaur. Other female relatives include her sister, Phaedra; her aunt, Circe; and her cousin, Medea.

It is difficult to date the Heroides exactly due to Ovid’s habit of returning to and revising his texts, but it is thought to represent some of his earliest work, estimated as between 25-16BCE. Sequentially, the epistolary collection is thought to come after the Ars Amatoria. In the Heroides, Ovid gives the women control of writing their own stories at a crucial juncture in their narratives, providing insight into the psychological trauma each of the women are experiencing at that moment. The letter from Ariadne to Theseus is the tenth included in the Heroides. It focuses on one specific moment in the Ariadne myth, that when Ariadne awakens to find herself abandoned on Naxos and her subsequent lament as she watches Theseus’ ship depart. The epistle in the Heroides is not the only time Ovid tells the Ariadne myth, but it is the longest version. The profound intertextuality of the Heroides is demonstrated in the manner the Ariadne story in the Ars Amatoria is split: it begins with the introduction of Ariadne and narration of her desertion on Naxos by Theseus (Ars, ll. 1.527-36); an interruption follows, describing Silenus and the Maenad, and introducing the god, Dionysus (Ars, ll. 1.537-48). The myth concludes with Dionysus’ appearance to the abandoned Ariadne and the offer of marriage that saves her (Ars, ll. 1.549-64).[1] Notably, it is from the moment Ovid leaves Ariadne weeping in Heroides X that he recommences with her story in the Ars Amatoria, creating a clear narrative link between the two. Ovid also briefly recounts the Ariadne myth in theMetamorphoses, where she bridges the gap in Book VIII between the longer tales of Minos and Scylla, and of Dedalus and Icarus (Met., Bk. VIII, ll. 169-182).

The Heroides has long been considered the major source for Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women (c. 1380-87), an assessment apparently supported by the poet-narrator of the Legend when he identifies the ‘epistel of Ovyde / Of trewe wyves’ (TLOGW G-Prologue, ll. 305-6) as a primary source of auctoritas. This is reinforced again in the ‘Legend of Ariadne’, readers are again directed to Ovid’s versions of women, ‘In hire Epistel Naso telleth al’ (TLGOW, l. 2220). Nonetheless, while all but one of the women in the Legend are found in Ovid, four of them are not in the Heroides – demonstrating that the Heroides are just one of a number of sources Chaucer draws upon in crafting his own versions of the legends of classical women. In the same way the Legend constructs itself as a response to the anti-feminism of Chaucer’s earlier Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1381-86), the Heroides were viewed in the Middle Ages as a response to Ovid’s ‘arguably anti-feminist’ Ars Amatoria.[2] Both texts have been considered among the less impressive works of their respective authors.

Due to its many paradoxes and difficulties, Chaucer’s Ariadne has been on the receiving end of more dedicated criticism than any of the other women in the Legend. Observing that the sole reason for Ariadne’s inclusion in the Legend is because she has been abandoned, Simon Meecham-Jones writes, ‘It is curious, then, that the woman whose conduct, albeit fortuitously, adheres most closely to medieval and Christian models of female patience has been so roundly condemned by critics.’[3] Unlike other figures in the Legend (such as Medea or the sisters, Philomela and Procne, who violently enact revenge upon their male abusers) Ariadne’s reaction to her abandonment is limited to her lament. Perhaps this is because she is confined to the island, or perhaps it is because she will shortly be rescued by the wine god, Dionysus. Regardless, her inaction has not protected her character – R. W. Frank viewed Chaucer’s Ariadne as a ‘grotesque’, and twenty years later, Sheila Delany reinforced that notion in her description of Ariadne’s exaggerated physical reaction as ‘more appropriate to a village girl than to a princess’.[4] The critical condemnation and neglect suffered by the Chaucerian Ariadne is not dissimilar to the decline suffered by her character in the Middle English period. In contrast to her influential Latin predecessors, the Middle English Ariadne is a minor character, leaving Chaucer’s Ariadne (for all the challenges it presents) as her most pronounced appearance.

Topics/questions for discussion:

  1. What is the purpose of the extended opening of Chaucer’s ‘Legend of Ariadne’ that focuses on Minos?
  2. What genre is the ‘Legend of Ariadne’? Is it hagiographical? Romance? Dream vision?
  3. Is Phaedra’s speech in the Legend a surprise? What difference does it make to our idea of the typical version of the Ariadne myth to have Phaedra be the one to come up with the plan to free Theseus?
  4. What do we think of the poet-narrator?
  5. What is the role/purpose of the gaoler?
  6. One of the criticisms that has been often levelled against The Legend of Good Women is that it just is not good. Does this criticism stand up either:
    1. As poetry?
    2. As a version of the Ariadne myth?
    3. As a retelling of the Heroides?
  7. Consider Ariadne waking up in the Legend Ariadne waking up in the Heroides – Sheila Delany describes the Ovidian version in the Heroides as ‘little short of farcical’ and suggests Chaucer successfully captures and reproduces the comic effect Ovid intended.[5] Is it comical, or something else?

[1] Despina Keramida, ‘Heroides 10 and Ars Amatoria 1.527-64: Ariadne crossing the boundaries between texts’, (2010), p. 50.

[2] Florence Percival, Chaucer’s Legendary Good Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 173.

[3] Simon Meecham-Jones, ‘Intention, Integrity and ‘Renoun’: The Public Virtue of Chaucer’s Good Women’, The Legend of Good Women: Context and Reception, ed. Carolyn P. Collette (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2006), p. 145.

[4] R. W. Frank, Chaucer and the Legend of Good Women (Harvard University Press, 1974), p. 122; Sheila Delany, The Naked Text (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 209.

[5] Sheila Delany, The Naked Text (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 209.


Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin – 16 October 2019


Image result for medieval merlin manuscript

Merlin dictating his prophecies, taken from a c. 1400 French manuscript of Robert de Boron’s prose Merlin

Next meeting: Wednesday 16 October, 15.00 – 17.00, in Room 2.47 of the John Percival Building

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin) was written around 1150, some fourteen years after he finished his earlier – and more famous – Historia regum Britanniae (c. 1136). Geoffrey had already written the prophet once in his Prophetiae Merlini (Prophecies of Merlin), which, in addition to comprising Book Seven of the Historia, enjoyed wide independent circulation and was regularly interpolated into other texts and their marginalia.

In his Life of Merlin, Geoffrey returned to flesh out the narrative begun in his earlier text, blending the Historia’s fifth-century ‘Merlin Ambrosius’ with ‘Merlin Silvester’, a sixth-century wild-man-of-the-woods figure, to tell the story of Merlin’s life, from warrior king to prophetic madman. In the process, Geoffrey frequently builds upon, reworks and reinterprets material from his earlier Historia. Although critics have argued that the discovery of new Welsh and Scottish folkloric materials on Myrddin and Lailoken inspired Geoffrey to return to his earlier figure, there is little evidence to support this view.

In contrast to the more prosaic style of the Historia, Geoffrey’s Vita is a technically accomplished piece of narrative verse, written in elaborate Latin hexameters. While some scholars have preferred to stress the folkloric nature of the text, it is also profoundly influenced by the new learning of the twelfth-century renaissance and draws on a wide variety of textual sources and traditions, from romance to historiography; Welsh poetry to Ovidian mythology; and from Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies to Arabic astrology.

The kaleidoscopic nature of the references and allusions add to what has often been described as a frantic, frenetic text that eludes easy categorisation or definition. Just as Geoffrey’s Prophecies have been interpreted both as non-Christian and ‘legitimated by religious and biblical tradition’, the Vita has similarly been subject to conflicting and contradictory critical interpretations.[1] Neil Thomas argues that Merlin ‘reemerges, in Geoffrey’s treatment, as a saint and natural sage whose spiritual eminence acts as a magnet to another legendary saint of the early Celtic Church’;[2] Christine Chism argues that the Vita critiques the colonial emphases of the Historia by ‘explor[ing] the local, the natural and the geographically and emotionally connective’;[3] and Alan S. Montroso, drawing on modern eco-theories, has argued that the Vita ‘relate[s] the matter of British sovereignty to the problem of ecological sovereignty, or the right to capture, control, and represent the natural world’.[4] Nor is this multiplicity of readings confined to modern critics. Even in the twelfth century, the Vita was considered something of a curiosity and contemporaries, including Gerald of Wales, noted with some frustration that attempts to reconcile Merlin Ambrosius and Merlin Silvester were futile.

Whilst the Vita did not achieve the levels of popularity enjoyed by Geoffrey’s earlier texts, it nevertheless enjoyed moderate success and is extant, today, in one complete manuscript, and six thirteenth-century fragments. The continued success of the Prophecies, combined with the popularity of Robert de Boron’s Old French Merlin (c. 1200), may explain why the Vita Merlini received a somewhat limited readership and afterlife.


Topics/questions for discussion:

  1. How does the text construct a) madness and b) prophecy?
  2. What types of knowledge and authority are at work in this text? How do they intersect and to what effect?
  3. How does the Merlin of the Vita compare to other medieval Merlins?
  4. In what ways does the Vita Merlini play with genre and other textual traditions?
  5. How is the relationship between Merlin and Taliesin configured?
  6. How does prophetic discourse interact and intersect with questions of:
    1. History
    2. Authority
    3. Gender
    4. Religion
  7. How is religion constructed in this text?
  8. Close read:
    1. pp. 246-48 (Merlin’s first madness and rehabilitation)
    2. pp. 255-58 (Merlin’s miniature retelling of national history)
    3. pp.  274-76 (the ending)


[1] R. J. Stewart and John Matthews, ‘“The Prophecies of Merlin” by Geoffrey of   Monmouth (Extracts)’ in Merlin Through the Ages: A Chronological Anthology and Source Book, ed. R. J. Stewart and John Matthews (London: Blandford, 1995), pp. 46-51; Helen Fulton, ‘History and Myth: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae’, in A Companion to Arthurian Literature, ed. by Helen Fulton (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009), 44-57 (p. 45).

[2] Neil Thomas, ‘The Celtic Wild Man Tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini: Madness or Contemptus Mundi?’, Arthuriana, 10 (2000), 27-42 (p. 39).

[3] Christine Chism, ‘“Ain’t gonna study war no more”: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae and Vita Merlini’, Chaucer Review, 48 (2014), 458-79 (p. 458).

[4] Alan S. Montroso, ‘From Fantasies of Wilderness to Ecological Sovereignty: An Ecocritical Reading of the Vita Merlini’, Arthuriana, 28 (2018), 38-55 (p. 39).

David Jones: Examining Constructions of Empire in ‘The Roman Dinner Conversation’

David Jones, Portrait of a Maker, 1932, oil on canvas, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.

Next Meeting: Friday 19th July, 15:00-17:00, in Room 1.45 of the John Percival Building

David Jones (1895-1974) was an Anglo-Welsh modernist artist and poet. Born in London to Alice and James Jones, Jones began expressing a strong affinity with his father’s Welsh heritage from a very young age. Indeed, in his biography of Jones, Thomas Dilworth recounts a school-trip Jones took to the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey, ‘where, at the age of twelve (careful that no one was looking), he spat on the tomb of Edward I, the conqueror of Wales.’[1]

With the outbreak of World War One, Jones enlisted with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. It was whilst he was serving with the 38th (Welsh) Division that he stumbled upon the curious sight of a priest performing Mass in an abandoned outhouse in the wastelands of the Western Front. Soon after, in 1921, Jones wrote a letter home in which he announced his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church. His conversion to Roman Catholicism elicited mixed reactions from his parents; whereas James responded with an impassioned diatribe against the Catholic Church, Alice, who herself had learned the purest Catholic doctrine as a young girl, expressed far more ambivalent feelings towards her son’s conversion.

These disparate strands of Jones’ Welsh inheritance, his Roman Catholic theology, and his brutal experiences of the Great War became intertwined in his first publication, In Parenthesis (1937). Written as an attempt to articulate and understand his own experiences of the war, In Parenthesis was received with great critical acclaim, and remains the work for which Jones is most well-known to this day.

This month’s reading, however, is extracted from Jones’ lesser-known and more recently published manuscripts. Taken from Thomas Goldpaugh and Jamie Callison’s David Jones’s The Grail Mass and Other Works (2019), Jones’ ‘The Roman Dinner Conversation’ boasts a complicated compositional history. Initially, Jones planned for ‘The Roman Dinner Conversation’ to form a small part of a bigger writing project that was to encompass the majority of his writings from the late 1930s to the early 1940s. This large-scale project, however, failed to come to fruition. Through a process of re-arranging and revising the manuscripts he had already written in the ’30s and ’40s, Jones quarried material from this incomplete project to instead form much of his second epic-length publication, The Anathemata (1952).

It was not until the early ’60s that Jones returned to his unpublished writings of the ’30s and ’40s. Indeed, in a letter to Harman Grisewood, dated 28th May 1962, Jones writes that:

I’m trying to re-write that thing you liked – the dinner party with the old Roman blimp and the girl and the subaltern in Jerusalem at the time of Our Lord’s Passion. I used to feel it was crude and impious, but on re-reading it, I think I can make something of it.

David Jones, Dai Greatcoat: A Self-Portrait of David Jones in His Letters, ed. by René Hague (London: Faber & Faber, 1980), p. 192.

This overview of the history behind ‘The Roman Dinner Conversation’ as a continual process of re-writing and revision thus points to its stages of development, from a fragment intended for a bigger project to a separate text that is worthy of study in its own right.

‘The Roman Dinner Conversation’ is a series of dialogues held between a group of Roman intelligentsia. This group consists of an ‘old Roman blimp’ who is highly experienced in Roman administration, a young and inexperienced subaltern, and a young woman who is deeply interested in religion and the occult. The topic of their conversations range from the imperial expansion of the Roman empire, to the status of the colonised nations, and to the recent arrest of Christ at Gethsemane.

‘The Roman Dinner Conversation’, then, is an examination of the issues of empire and imperial expansion, all given from the perspective of the colonisers. Indeed, the voices of the colonised nations are silenced, non-existent within the text, even as their cultures are destroyed under the ruthless expansion of the Roman empire.

Questions/ Discussion Topics:

1)   How are medieval and classical influences used/repurposed by Jones in the text? What can they say (if anything) about discourses on empire in the mid-twentieth century?

2)   What do you make of each individual character? What are their views on empire and imperial expansion? 

  • the ‘old Roman blimp’
  • the subaltern
  • Julia

3)   How are the colonised nations/indigenous cultures constructed by this group of Roman imperial officials?

4)   What effect do you think it has that the colonised people do not speak/have a voice in this text? Why write a text on empire from the sole perspective of the colonisers?

5)   What do you think of:

  • the tone of the text? Are there any changes in the tone throughout the text? If so, where and why?
  • the structure of the text?
  • the aesthetics of the text? I’m particularly thinking of the geometric metaphors – how does Jones use them and to what effect?

6)   Are there any links between this text and any other of Jones’ writings/artworks you may have come across?

Also, if anyone can figure out what the line, ‘the eye and central keep, that the quincuncial fosse and fretted troia cats’ cradle a defence for, by traverse or horse-dance’ means on p. 171, then please do share! Jones is a brilliant writer, but some of his sentences do leave me at my wits’ end.

See you on Friday 19th, and happy reading!

[1]Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), p. 15.

Dramatising King John: Shakespeare and Peele


Though not published until the First Folio of 1623, Shakespeare’s King John is usually dated to around 1596. It was written after the first tetralogy and the first play of the second tetralogy, Richard II, but probably before the ‘Henriad’ (the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V). In addition to the chronicle sources Shakespeare often consulted for a number of his plays (and history plays in particular) – such as Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and Yorke (or simply Hall’s Chronicle, 1548 and 1550) and Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577 and 1587) – Shakespeare used an earlier dramatisation of John’s reign as a source for his own play. The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England was published in two parts in 1591, and was probably written in around 1589-90. The play is now usually attributed to George Peele, thanks largely to work by Brian Vickers that built on a hundred years of critical debate about the play’s authorship to identify stylistic features and thematic interests frequently seen in Peele’s other works. Peele was an Elizabethan dramatist and contemporary of Shakespeare who wrote plays such as The Battle of Alcazar and Edward I. He is also often accepted as Shakespeare’s collaborator on Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare and Peele, then, shared dramatic interests and probably even worked together. The two John plays demonstrate that the two dramatists were certainly aware of one another.

Peele’s Troublesome Reign is perhaps the earliest secular English history play, building on earlier Tudor precedents such as Bale’s Kynge Johan (c. 1538) and Norton and Sackville’s Gorboduc (c. 1561). Peele’s characters are not allegorical but are real, identifiable political figures from English history. Troublesome Reign emerged at the very beginning of a decade in which the history play developed as a recognisable and popular dramatic genre. Although it rarely receives critical attention in its own right, Troublesome Reign also established a number of the conventions we see in many history plays that were written and performed in the 1590s: battles for the English throne; domestic and international conflict; questions of legitimacy, inheritance, and succession; an emphasis on the presence, action, and voices of female characters as potential wives, mothers, and political supporters; and interrogation of authority and historical accuracy.

Shakespeare’s King John also utilises a number of these conventions, but is often criticised for:

A lack of unity and telic design, episodic and faulty plot structure, absence of both a clearly defined protagonist and a governing central theme, inconsistency of style, rejection of “cosmic lore”, flat characterization and “ethical muddles,” and egregious failure to allude to the Magna Charta. [1]

These perceived weaknesses of King John are often ‘blamed’ in Troublesome Reign, itself frequently ‘[v]iewed simply as the crude prelude to Shakespeare’s greater play or even as its inferior derivative’:[2] if Shakespeare’s dramatisation of John’s reign is weak, then it must be because his source is substandard. However, this sort of approach to reading the two plays is reductionist and overlooks a lot of the experimental and interrogative challenges (some of which are mentioned above) posed by both plays and their shared content.

Peele’s play implicitly places a value judgement on John’s reign as it characterises it as ‘troublesome’. It implies something worrying, dangerous, troubling about John’s reign, and seems to participate in the subsequent historical and critical representations and discussions of ‘Bad King John’. Peele actually presents John as self-assured, decisive, and patriotic for much of the play. Perhaps we are being invited to think of the reign as troubling, the historical challenges faced by the troubled king as troublesome.

Shakespeare’s full title does not judge or comment on the quality of John’s reign. The Life and Death of King John instead suggests a more straightforward history play, a linear dramatisation of this king’s reign. As previously suggested, the play does not fulfil its suggestion: it (seemingly-arbitrarily) offers only select details from John’s reign, denying a sense of cohesion in the play (perhaps, itself, a comment on this reign). Walter Cohen characterises King John as a play that is shaped by its ‘skeptical view of traditional authority – ecclesiastical and secular alike’ and its ‘relative inattention to John himself’.[3] Cohen argues that there is thus a ‘vacuum’ in the play that is ‘filled by women and a bastard, personages generally peripheral to dynastic history.’[4] In the play’s second Act, King Philip of France interrupts Queen Eleanor and Constance’s argument, and Austria’s parallel argument with Philip the Bastard and Blanche. He says ‘women and fools, break off your conference’ (2.1.150), effectively drawing attention to the fact that these ‘women and fools’ are seizing rhetorical space and making their voices heard because they do have important things to say.

In the two opening scenes of these plays that we are looking at in this month’s reading group, we see John faced with one of the main ‘troubles’ of his reign. As Holinshed writes, the death of John’s elder brother King Richard I caused political schisms in his French territories, with some places

indeuouring to preferre king Iohn, other labouring rather to be vnder the gouernance of Arthur duke of Britaine, conside|ring that he séemed by most right to be their chéefe lord, forsomuch as he was sonne to Geffrey elder brother to Iohn. And thus began the broile in those quarters, whereof in processe of time insued great inconuenience, and finallie the death of the said Ar|thur, as shall be shewed hereafter.[5]

Both King John and Troublesome Reign show the French ambassador come to England to lay down Arthur’s claim for the English crown. Arthur’s claim depends on the custom of primogeniture, where the eldest sons inherit: as the heir to John’s elder brother, Arthur should come before John in the line of succession. Primogeniture carried authority in the later Middle Ages and also during the late Elizabethan era when these plays were first written and performed, but in their 1199 setting this ‘precedence in blood was not yet clearly established’.[6] Arthur’s claim to the English throne is juxtaposed with the Falconbridge dispute, where a bastard son of Richard I ultimately forfeits his claim to the Falconbridge inheritance in exchange for a knighthood and to be acknowledged as a ‘Plantagenet’. In the first scene of both plays, these two claims are paralleled in order to foreground the plays’ concerns with questions of legality, legitimacy, and lineage.

Topics for discussion:

• How are these two scenes similar and different? Does it matter?
• What sorts of expectations are being set up in the opening scenes of both plays?
• Are there any hints about how and why John’s reign is being characterised as ‘troublesome’ in the opening scene of Troublesome Reign? What about in King John?
• Related to the above: what sort of king is John being presented as?
• What is the role of women, bastards, and ‘fools’ here? How do they feature in the discussions of legitimacy and lineage?
• What is Queen Eleanor’s role? Does it change between the two texts? How?
• How is authority being treated/represented?
• How is family being treated/represented?
• Do you think that the multiplicity of voices serves to complicate the plot? Complicate history?
• How do these scenes correspond with any previous knowledge we have of King John? Of history plays?

[1] Deborah T. Curren-Aquino, ‘Introduction: King John Resurgent’, in King John: New Perspectives, ed. by Curren-Aquino (Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 1989), pp. 11-26 (p. 11). In this introduction, Curren-Aquino details some of the criticisms levelled at King John as a dramatic work, from its lack of ‘governing central theme’ to its ‘inconsistency of style’.

[2] Charles R. Forker, ‘Introduction’, in The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England, ed. by Charles R. Forker (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011), pp. 1-104 (p. 55).

[3] Walter Cohen, ‘Introduction to King John’, in The Norton Shakespeare, pp. 1045-1052 (p. 1047).

[4] Cohen, ‘Introduction to King John’, p. 1047.

[5] Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587, Volume 6, p. 157)

[6] W. L. Warren, King John (Berkeley, LA and London: University of California Press, 1978), p. 48.

Ben Jonson’s The Underwood: A Selection



Next Meeting: Friday 12th April, 15:00-17:00, in Room 2.47 of the John Percival Building

Ben Jonson (1572-1637) was one of the most prominent playwrights, poets, and prose writers of Renaissance London. He is most well known as the author of twenty plays, including Everyman In His Humour (1598) and Volpone (1605), and as one of the most significance masque writers of the early Stuart court, writing thirty-six masques in total. This month, we are looking at a small selection of poems taken from the posthumously published poetry collection entitled The Underwood(1640).

The Underwood was the third collection of poetry to be published under Jonson’s name, following both Epigrams (1612) and The Forest (1616), though the poems contained within Underwood are thought to have been written across Jonson’s career. Jonson wrote, at the start of the collection, that:

‘as the multitude call timber trees promiscuously growing a ‘wood’ or ‘forest’, so am I bold to entitle these lesser poems of later growth by this of ‘underwood’, out of the analogy they hold to The Forest in my former book, and no otherwise’[1]

Though Jonson here seems to imply that the poems contained within Underwood are products of his later life, it seems that he initially wrote a number of them many years earlier. This short preface to the collection does suggest that Jonson had some hand in the preparation and ordering of the volume, though it is unlikely that he prepared the final version for publication given that a number of poems by other writers have managed to slip in, including 39, which we are reading, and which is now believed to have been written by John Donne.

The Underwood came to influence a whole generation of poetic volumes printed in the 1640s, which preserved relics of poets who were dead and gone by the time their works were published’.[2]This led to a ‘cult of resistant nostalgia’, in which dead poets who praise a world which had past and left behind it war and division.[3]Some of this resistant nostalgia is evident in the selection of poems we are reading, and may reflect a Jonson’s view that he was not valued as he once was.

Our primary focus is on An Execration Upon Vulcan, number 43 in the collection. This poem tells of the fire that befell Jonson and destroyed his house in 1623, devouring a number of unpublished and unfinished works of Jonson’s. Jonson rewrote some of the texts he claims were destroyed while others, such as the description of his walk to Scotland and back, would not be rewritten and so were lost to us forever. It appears that Jonson may have written, and circulated this particular poem much earlier than 1640, as Jonson’s neighbour, and devotee, James Howell wrote of a second fire in Jonson’s house that it was ‘the second time that Vulcan hath threatened you. It may be because you spoke ill of his wife, and bin too busy with his hornes.’[4]From the reference to Vulcan, and Vulcan’s wife, it seems likely that Howell had read a version of An Execration Upon Vulcan. It also seems that Jonson had not learned his lesson from the first fire!

Questions/Discussion Topics

  1. How does An Execration Upon Vulcan seem to view different genres? Does a potential hierarchy of literature emerge?
  2. How does the tone shift within An Execration Upon Vulcan? Is it consistent throughout or does it change? How does Jonson construct himself throughout the poem?
  3. Can a discourse of censorship be identified within An Execration Upon Vulcan?
  4. How does Jonson construct death throughout the elegies? Is there a similar discourse of death/loss that runs across the selection?
  5. Is there a noticeable difference between 39, the elegy by Donne, and the other elegies? Is Jonson attempting to mimic Donne’s style?
  6. To what extent are these poems about age and the inability of an aging/dead poet to affect the world around him? Are they nostalgic?
  7. How far is A Speech According to Horaceconcerned with contemporary politics and European affairs?
  8. Do these poems appear to speak to one another in any coherent way, or have they simply fallen where they were dropped?

[1]Ben Jonson, The Underwood, in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson: Volume 7: 1641: Bibliography, ed. By David Bevington, Martin Butler, and Ian Donaldson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 79-295, p. 79.

[2]Colin Burrow, ‘Introduction: The Underwood’ in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson: Volume 7: 1641: Bibliography, ed. By David Bevington, Martin Butler, and Ian Donaldson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 71-6, p. 72.

[3]Burrow, ‘Introduction’, p. 72.

[4]James Howell, Epistalae Ho Elianae. Familiar Letters Domestic and Forren: Partly Historical, Political, Phylosophical(Hum Mosely: London, 1645), Section 5, p. 23.