King Arthur and Glastonbury (18th April)

Next Meeting: 18th April 2018 / Room 3.62 / 3-5pm

Glastonbury is a village situated in a secluded spot in the marshes, though it can be reached both on horseback and on foot. It affords pleasure neither by its situation nor by its beauty.[1]

Located in Somerset, Glastonbury Abbey is a site of popular myth and legend. In the Middle Ages, the Abbey claimed to have been founded by Joseph of Arimathea, and it is also the legendary burial site of King Arthur.

Hagiography and Historiography

In the 1129, the monks at Glastonbury commissioned William of Malmesbury to write the official history of the Abbey, as well as the life of Saint Dunstan, who was the first abbot of Glastonbury (and later became the Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London, and Archbishop of Canterbury).

William’s original version of De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesie has not survived. The text is extant in two thirteenth-century manuscripts. Both manuscripts include several interpolations relating to the legend of Joseph of Arimathea, the relics of Saint Patrick and Saint Dunstan, and the exhumation of the bodies of Arthur and Guinevere. These interpolations were introduced into the text between 1171 and 1247.

In the 1130s, the Welsh cleric Caradoc of Llancarfan, who was a contemporary of Geoffrey of Monmouth, composed the Vitae Gildae for the Glastonbury monks. Caradoc claims that the sixth-century British monk ‘Gildas Sapiens’ – or ‘Gildas the Wise’ – wrote De excidio et conquestu Britanniae while at Glastonbury. Caradoc was also the first writer to associate King Arthur with Glastonbury, and the Vitae Gildae includes the earliest version of the story of the abduction of Guinevere.

The Exhumation of King Arthur

By the late twelfth century, Glastonbury Abbey ‘was in a state of financial and ecclesiastical crisis’.[2] In 1184, a great fire at Glastonbury destroyed the monastic buildings. Reconstruction began almost immediately, and the Lady Chapel was consecrated in 1186 or 1187; however, work on the abbey was postponed by the death of Henry II (1189), which ended financial support and royal patronage.

In order to raise funds, the monks of the abbey commenced a series of propaganda exercises, and used holy relics and the bodies of saints to promote Glastonbury as place of pilgrimage. The bodies of Arthur and Guinevere were discovered in the cemetery at Glastonbury in 1190 or 1191. In both of his accounts of the exhumation, Gerald of Wales recalls how a Welsh bard had told Henry II about the location of Arthur and Guinevere’s bodies. Gerald was the first to explicitly identify Avalon – the resting place of Arthur – with Glastonbury.

Arthur and Guinevere’s bodies were re-exhumed in 1278. At Easter, Edward I visited the Glastonbury with his wife, Eleanor of Castile, and on the 19th April he instructed the bodies to be moved to the high altar. The exhumation asserted that Edward I ‘was a legitimate successor to the Arthurian imperium’.[3] Following the conquest of Wales in 1282, Edward took possession of Arthur’s crown in 1283, and held a Round Table at Winchester in 1284. His grandson, Edward III, also visited Arthur’s tomb with his wife, Philippa of Hainault, in 1331. 

The Legend of Joseph of Arimathea

The legend of Joseph of Arimathea was popularised in thirteenth-century French Arthurian romance. In the first part of his trilogy of Arthurian romances, Robert de Boron describes how Joseph of Arimathea used the Holy Grail to catch the last drops of blood from Christ as he hung on the cross. Robert also claims that the descendants of Joseph brought the Grail to Britain.

In the mid-thirteenth century, the story of Joseph of Arimathea was interpolated into William of Malmesbury’s De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesie. These revisions asserted that Joseph was the original founder of Glastonbury, which subsequently bolstered the reputation of the abbey. John of Glastonbury also expanded the story of Joseph in his Cronica sive antiquitates Glastoniensis ecclesie, using the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus – also known as The Acts of Pilate – and the first part of the Lancelot-Grail cycle, L’estoire du Graal, as his main sources for the apostle’s life.

The legend of Joseph of Arimathea also survived into the later middle ages. In the fifteenth century, John Hardyng included the story of Joseph of Arimathea in the two versions of his Chronicle (1457 and 1464). As Edward Donald Kennedy points out, ‘[t]he account of Joseph afforded Hardyng an ideal story to use to counter Scotland’s claims to preeminence as a Christian nation’.[4] Hardyng’s Chronicle also contains a grail quest – which is unprecedented in the chronicle tradition – and Galahad’s achievement of the Grail occurs before Arthur’s war against Rome and the final battle between Arthur and Modred.


Gerald of Wales

Gerald wrote two accounts of the exhumation of King Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury. The first account is contained in De principis instructione (c. 1193), while the second – and more detailed – account is included in Speculum ecclesiae (c. 1216). Gerald claims that he was an eyewitness of the exhumation, but Richard Barber has challenged his claim to authority.

Ralph of Coggeshall

Ralph was abbot of Coggeshall, near Colchester in Essex. He wrote his Chronicon Anglicanum in around 1223, and the entry for 1191 includes an account of the exhumation of Arthur and Guinevere.

Adam of Damerham

Adam was a monk of Glastonbury Abbey in the thirteenth century. He wrote a history of the abbey entitled Historia de Rebus gestis Glastoniensibus, which is a continuation of William of Malmesbury’s De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesie from 1126 to 1291. Adam was also an eyewitness of Edward I’s visit to Glastonbury in 1278 when the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere was opened and their bones were moved to the high altar.

(NB: Adam’s account of the second exhumation in 1278 is taken from John of Glastonbury’s Cronica)

Vera historia de morte Arthuri (c. 1200)

Written around 1200, the Vera historia de morte Arthuri is extant in four manuscripts. Two manuscripts – London, British Library, Cotton Titus A. xix and Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby 186 – include materials relevant to Glastonbury, such as excerpts from the works of William of Malmesbury and John of Glastonbury. In Paris Biblioteque de l’Arsenal, 983, the Vera historia is interpolated between chapters 178 and 179 of the First Variant version of the Historia regum Britanniae. Richard Barber and Michael Lapidge have suggested that the Vera historia was originally composed in Wales.

John of Glastonbury, Cronica sive antiquitates Glastoniensis ecclesie (1350s)

The Cronia survives as a complete text in seven manuscripts. The main sources for John’s Cronica are William of Malmesbury’s De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesie and Adam of Damerham’s Historia de Rebus gestis Glastoniensibus. John’s Cronia is ‘highly derivative’,[5] and he uses a selection of chronicles, hagiography, and romance to construct a history of Glastonbury Abbey.

Questions for discussion

  • What are the motivations for the exhumation in the accounts by Gerald of Wales, Ralph of Coggeshall, and Adam of Damerham?
  • What is the significance of royal and ecclesiastical authority in the different accounts of the exhumation of Arthur and Guinevere?
  • How does Arthur’s tomb function as a site of public memory?
  • Philip Schwyzer classifies the exhumation of Arthur as a sub-genre of the inventio topos that participates in an act of ‘colonial archaeology’.[6] How are the materials and artefacts of British history appropriated in these texts?
  • Catherine Clarke argues that local landscapes are ‘central to the fashioning of monastic identity and its connection to images of the nation’.[7] How is the landscape of Glastonbury represented in these texts?
  • Why does Gerald of Wales undermine of the myth of Arthur’s return?
  • How do the texts – particularly the Vera historia and John of Glastonbury’s Cronica – engage with models of Arthurian history in chronicle and romance?
  • How do Gerald of Wales and John of Glastonbury align the story of Arthur’s death by Geoffrey of Monmouth with Glastonbury?
  • Can the relocation of Arthur’s resting place to Gwynedd in the Vera historia be read as a response to the growth of Glastonbury legends in the 1190s?

Useful links

Glastonbury Abbey

Digital reconstruction of Arthur’s tomb

Glastonbury in the news

Recent excavations at Glastonbury

[1] William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum: Volume One: Text and Translation, ed. and trans. by M. Winterbottom with the assistance of R. M. Thomson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), 2.91.1.

[2] Valerie M. Lagorio, ‘The Evolving Legend of St Joseph of Glastonbury’, Speculum, 46 (1971), 209-31 (p. 210).

[3] John Carmi Parsons, ‘The Second Exhumation of King Arthur’s Remains at Glastonbury, 19 April 1278’, Arthurian Literature, 12 (1993), 173-77 (p. 176).

[4] Edward Donald Kennedy, ‘John Hardyng and the Holy Grail’, Arthurian Literature, 8 (1989), 185-206 (p. 197).

[5] James P. Carley, ‘Introduction’, in The Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey: An Edition, Translation and Study of John of Glastonbury’s Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1985), pp. xi-lxii (p. xi).

[6] Philip Scwhzyer, Archaeologies of English Renaissance Literature (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 55.

[7] Catherine A. M. Clarke, Literary Landscapes and the Idea of England, 700-1400 (Cambridge: Brewer, 2006), p. 68.


Queens and Queenship in Shakespeare’s First Tetralogy (9th August)


The Darnley Portrait (c. 1575)

Next meeting: 9th August / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

In 1592, the pamphleteer, poet and playwright Thomas Nashe wrote that the Elizabethan plays which drew their subject matter from English Chronicles should be celebrated because, through them:

our fore-fathers valiant actes (that have lyne long buried in rustie brasse and worme-eaten bookes) are revived, and they them selves raysed from the Grave of Oblivion, and brought to pleade their aged Honours in open presence: which, what can bee a sharper reproofe, to these degenerate effeminate dayes of oures?[1]

Nashe was referring to those plays which we now call the ‘English history plays’, which enjoyed enormous popularity in the 1590s. Whether a result of nationalistic pride, anxieties about the country’s future, or otherwise, the last decade of Elizabeth I’s reign, in particular, saw a proliferation of plays produced which dramatised events of the country’s ‘glorious’ and often bloody past. These plays were well-attended, making these iterations of history accessible to a vast number of theatre-goers. Nashe articulates a notion that dramatising English history was laudable not only for its celebratory patriotism and memorialisation of the past, but also because such plays could have a particular utility: to help to recall and revitalise traditional chivalric values, and to revive a ‘valiant’ national history for the public eye and imagination.

An additional merit of such dramatic renderings of history, Nashe suggests, derives from the fact that they could provide ‘sharp reproof’ of the more indulgent, less masculine Elizabethan days of the early 1590s. In this view, the valour demonstrated in history plays was made all the more vivid by their contrast to the supposedly ‘effeminate’ contemporary moment of their dramatic construction and production. Carol Banks titles an article after Nashe’s words, and provides some discussion of the broader, sixteenth-century connotations of the term ‘effeminate’.[2] According to Banks, Nashe uses the word ‘effeminate’ to mean not only ‘womanish’ – or, perhaps, ‘unmanly’ – but employs its wider definition as ‘a virtual antonym to military valour and honour’. Indeed, there are numerous moments of nostalgia for this apparently dead or dying chivalric code throughout the first tetralogy (perhaps most notably, but not exclusively, through the person of Talbot in 1 Henry VI).

At almost the same moment that Nashe was writing these words, William Shakespeare (possibly with collaborators, and perhaps even with Nashe himself) was writing some of his earliest plays and contributing to the increasingly popular history play genre. In 1591 to 1592, Shakespeare wrote his ‘first tetralogy’ of history plays. He probably began with The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster (more commonly known as The Second Part of Henry VI, or simply 2 Henry VI), then Richard Duke of York (The Third Part of Henry VI, or 3 Henry VI), before returning to First Part of Henry VI (or 1 Henry VI). Though usually performed in isolation, The Tragedy of King Richard III (more commonly just Richard III) follows on from events of the Henry VI plays to complete the tetralogy; this play was also likely to have been written last of the four.[3] The first tetralogy dramatises a telescopic version of the ‘Wars of the Roses’, the period of civil unrest that followed the death of the great English martial king, Henry V. Shakespeare begins with the coronation of Henry VI, depicts the ongoing battles against the French, shows the emergence of a Yorkist line of claimants to the throne and the battles that result from these factionalist divisions, dramatises Richard III’s machinations against his own family, and ultimately concludes with his defeat and the ‘healing’ of ‘civil wounds’ with the union of the Houses of Lancaster and York that is symbolised by the marriage of Henry Tudor (the new King Henry VII) and Elizabeth of York.

Many of Shakespeare’s formative years as a dramatist, then, were spent writing these ‘intensely nationalistic’ (English) history plays.[4] By depicting the rise and eventual victory of the first Tudor king at the beginning of his career, Shakespeare’s earliest plays seem, ultimately, to contribute to the genre’s politically expedient, propagandist aims to contribute to the so-called ‘Tudor myth’ and ‘support the right of the Tudors to the throne’.[5] However, the first tetralogy does not simply serve to straightforwardly glorify the Tudors, aggrandise the past, or offer simple ‘reproof’ to an ‘effeminate’ present in a manner Nashe seems to deem commendable. Rather, these plays explore a number of complex issues that Shakespeare would continue to address throughout his career, for example: what is the nature of divine providence and what happens when it is meddled with? What makes a ruler (a king?) effectual or ineffectual, just or unjust? What role do (and should) women play in political and social action?

Indeed, though the first tetralogy’s primary focus is, as suggested by the plays’ usual titles, on the martial conflicts and political machinations of the kings and key male players of the Wars of the Roses, significant space and importance is also afforded to women: the wives of influential nobleman and the kings’ queen consorts. These figures occupy different and intriguing spaces in a group of plays which dramatise, primarily, a masculine, masculinised conflict. History playwrights ‘remained [largely] committed to a notion of historical truth and are bound by the received record concerning the major events of the past’,[6] ‘records’ referring to (chronicle) accounts by the likes of Thomas More (c. 1519), Edward Hall (1548), and Raphael Holinshed (1577 and 1587) among others. Nonetheless, embellishment of the historical ‘fact’ and/or emphasis on moments the playwright deemed important or interesting was common practice. When Shakespeare writes compelling female characters and addresses the matter of queenship and female rule in the first tetralogy (and in his history plays more generally), therefore, it is difficult to divorce such depictions from the knowledge that they were rendered in a moment of longstanding, independent female sovereignty, of a true Queen Regnant whose (even recent, direct) ancestors were depicted in these plays and their sources.

At the beginning of the 1590s, when Shakespeare was writing his earliest (history) plays, England had been under the rule of a female sovereign for around four decades. Though this was a lifetime for many and, indeed, a lifetime for Shakespeare himself (born in 1564, eleven years after Mary Tudor’s coronation and half a decade into what would become Elizabeth Tudor’s forty-five years on the throne), the question of female rule was no less contentious. When John Knox wrote that ‘to promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature’ in his 1558 pamphlet The first blast of the trumpet against the monstruous regiment of women, he was contributing to a familiar, longstanding discourse about the (in)appropriateness of female power and authority. By dramatising the actions and voices of the women who sat on the throne of England before the Tudor queens so thoroughly, Shakespeare’s first tetralogy appears to contribute to these (continued) questions about the rights and roles of women, and encourages audiences to interrogate the actions and individuals traditionally valued in our historical accounts.

Questions for discussion

  1. Are there any significant or particularly interesting departures from, or ‘faithful’ similarities to, Hall’s Chronicle in the Shakespeare extracts?
  2. How relevant are Chronicle texts and other sources to the writing of (these) history plays? Is there a sense that Shakespeare is not just striving to represent history, but also to re-present history? If so, why?
  3. Is it appropriate to consider the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III as a cogent ‘tetralogy’? Do the portrayals of Margaret and Elizabeth vary between these plays or even between these scenes?
  4. Can we identify an aesthetic of queenship in these texts? Or, what makes a queen a queen?
  5. Are queens represented positively, negatively, or otherwise in these extracts? Does our reading change/depend on the plays’ late Elizabethan context?
  6. A lot of these scenes focus on (women’s) speech and language as a means of accessing power. Why do you think this is? Is it effective?
  7. How is marriage presented in these texts? What about love and lust?
  8. How do Margaret and Elizabeth respond to the men who proposition, befriend or antagonise them? How do these men respond to them? How are their bodies used (by themselves, or by others)?
  9. The queen’s primary responsibility was often considered to be to produce a legitimate (and preferably male) heir to the throne. How do these scenes represent the queen (as) mother or queen regents?
  10. And finally, what’s up with John Knox?


[1] Thomas Nashe, Pierce Penniless, His Supplication to the Divell (1592).

[2] Carol Banks, ‘Warlike women: ‘reproofe to these degenerate effeminate dayes’?’, in Shakespeare’s histories and counter-histories, ed. by Dermot Cavanagh, Stuart Hampton-Reeves and Stephen Longstaffe (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2006), pp. 169-181 (p. 170).

[3] Jean E. Howard’s ‘Introduction to The First Part of Henry the Sixth’ gives a good, concise overview of the first tetralogy’s compositional dates. The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd edn, ed. by Stephen Greenblatt et al (New York: Norton, 2008), pp. 465-474.

[4] Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (London and New York: Routledge, 1965), p. 2.

[5] Ribner, The English History Play, p. 2.

[6] Jesse M. Lander, ‘William Shakespeare: The History Plays’, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, Volume 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 489-494 (p. 490).

East meets West: Medieval European Travellers and the Great Khans of Mongolia (8th March 2017)


Marco, Niccolò, and Maffeo Polo presenting the Papal Letters to Kublai Khan, MS Bodl. 264, Part III, f. 220 r.

Next meeting: 8th March 2017 / Room 2.04 / 3-5pm

Genghis Khan and The Mongol Empire

Genghis Khan (b. 1162, d. 1227), born Temüjin, was the founder and first Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, which was the largest contiguous land empire in history. Originating in the steppes of Central Asia, the Mongol Empire eventually stretched from Central Europe to the Sea of Japan, extending northwards into Siberia, eastwards and southwards into the Indian subcontinent, Indochina, and the Iranian plateau, and westwards as far as the Levant and Arabia.

Temüjin rose to power in the late twelfth century. When his wife, Börte, was kidnapped by the Merkit tribe, Temüjin united the rival Mongol tribes under his rule through political manipulation and military might. With the help of Toghrul, Khan of the Keraites, and his childhood friend, Jamukha, Temüjin defeated the Merkit tribe, secured the return of his wife, and went on the defeat the Naimans and Tatars.

Temüjin was elected khan of the Mongols in 1186. In the following year, however, Jamukha attacked Temüjin defeated him at the Battle of Dalan Balzhut. Temujin and his patron Toghrul were subsequently exiled. In 1197, the Jin dynasty initiated an attack against the Tatars, with help from the the Keraites and the Mongols. Temujin commanded part of the attack, and after his victory the Jin restored him to power. In 1201, Jamukha was elected Gür Khan, which caused Temüjin to declare war on him.  After several battles, Jamukha was turned over by his own men, and Temüjin was victorious.

By 1206, Temüjin had managed to unite or subdue the Merkits, Naimans, Mongols, Keraites, Tatars, Uyghurs, and other disparate smaller tribes under his rule. He was acknowledged as Khan of the consolidated tribes and took the new title, ‘Genghis Khan’. The title Khagan – or ‘Great Khan’ – was conferred posthumously by his son and successor, Ögedei, who took the title for himself.

Genghis had four sons by his wife Börte, including Jochi, Chagatai, Ögedei, and Tolui, and he divided his empire among them; however, Genghis did not name his eldest son, Jochi, as his successor as there was widespread doubt over his paternity. Chagatai declared that he would not accept Jochi as his father’s successor and threatened to go to war with his brother. To avoid civil conflict, Genghis named his third son, Ögedei, as his successor.

Three of the descendants of Genghis Khan – Güyük Khan, Möngke Khan, and Kublai Khan – are described in the travel narratives of John of Plano Carpini, William of Rubruck, and Marco Polo. Güyük Khan reigned from 1246 to 1248, and he was the eldest son of Ögedei Khan. Möngke Khan reigned from 1251 to 1259, and he was the eldest son of Tolui Khan. Kublai Khan reigned from 1260 to 1294, and he was the second eldest son of Tolui Khan.

Kublai Khan established the Yuan dynasty, which ruled over present-day Mongolia, China and Korea and he assumed the role of Emperor of China. By 1279, the Mongols had conquered the Song dynasty and Kublai became the first non-native emperor to conquer all of China. By the time of Kublai’s death in 1294, the Mongol Empire had fractured into four separate khanates or empires, each pursuing its own separate interests and objectives: the Golden Horde khanate in the northwest; the Chagatai Khanate in the middle; the Ilkhanate in the southwest; and the Yuan dynasty in the east based in modern-day Beijing

The Travellers and their texts

John of Plano Carpini (c. 1185-1252)
John of Plano Carpini was a Franciscan Friar from Umbria in Italy. Pope Innocent IV sent John to Mongolia and, acting in his official capacity as a papal legate, he delivered a letter written by the Pope on 13th March 1245 to Güyuk Khan that requested the Mongols to stop persecuting Christians.

John’s History of the Mongols exists in two different versions – a longer one and a shorter one – that survive in a number of manuscripts. The best manuscript of the History is Corpus Christi, Cambridge, MS. 181, which contains the longer version of the text along with William of Rubruck’s Itinerary. The History of the Mongols was also included in Vincent of Beauvais’ thirteenth-century encyclopedia, the Speculum Historiale.

William of Rubruck (1220-1293)
William of Rubruck was a Flemish Franciscan missionary. He accompanied King Louis IX of France on the Seventh Crusade in 1248. On 7th May 1253, he set out on from Constantinople on a missionary journey to convert the Tatars to Christianity, and he followed the route of John of Plano Carpini through Asia. William was granted an audience with Möngke Khan, and presented his report to King Louis IX on his return.

William’s Itinerary only survives in eight manuscripts. The three manuscripts at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and the one at the British Library, are the sources of all the extant manuscripts. The Itinerary was partially edited and translated into English by Richard Hakluyt in the late seventeenth century, and the Hakluyt Society published a full translation of the text by William Woodville Rockhill in 1900.

Marco Polo (1254-1324)
Marco Polo was a merchant traveller from Venice. In the 1260s, Marco’s father and uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo Polo, travelled through China and were invited to the court of Kublai Khan, who asked them to deliver a letter to the Pope. Kublai asked the Pope to send him 100 Christian scholars who were familiar with the Seven Liberal Arts and he also requested that an envoy bring him back the oil of the lamp in Jerusalem.

Niccolò and Maffeo returned to Venice in 1269, and Marco met his father for the first time. The death of Pope Clement IV in 1268, and the three-year election of Pope Gregory X, prevented Niccolò and Maffeo from immediately fulfilling Kublai’s request. In 1271, Niccolo and Maffeo set out for China with Marco. Just as they were leaving Acre, the Polos were recalled following the election of the new Pope, who provided them with letters and gifts for the Great Khan. The Polos eventually arrived in China around 1275, and they presented the oil from Jerusalem and the papal letters to Kublai Khan. Marco soon became a favourite of the Great Khan: he was sent as an emissary throughout the empire, and he described each of the territories he visited to Kublai on his return.

The Polos travelled throughout Asia for 24 years, and Marco returned home in 1295. At the time, Venice was at war with the Republic of Genoa, and Marco was captured in a naval battle and imprisoned by the Genoans. While in prison, Marco met the Arthurian romance writer Rustichello da Pisa, and he dictated his travels to Pisa who wrote them down in Italian-French as Livre des Merveilles du Monde. Marco’s account of his travels in Asia was translated into Tuscan, Venetian, German, Latin, and Court French during his lifetime.

The Travels survives in 150 manuscripts, but the original manuscripts have been lost. The extant manuscripts are divided into two groups: A and B. The ‘A’ texts are best represented by Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Fr. 1116, a Franco-Italian version that was written in Italy during the fourteenth century. Meanwhile, the ‘B’ texts derive from a lost version that preserved the content, but not the style, of the original text. These texts include the sixteenth-century printed text by Giovanni Battista Ramuiso and the early fifteenth-century Latin manuscript that was discovered in Toledo in 1912.

Questions for discussion

  1. How do these texts negotiate the different genres of itinerary, historiography, ethnography, autobiography, and/or romance?
  2. What is the significance of the first-person narrative?
  3. How is the reader/audience constructed as part of the narrator’s journey?
  4. Do the different roles and/or occupations of the travellers inform their narratives?
  5. How are the different Khans presented in each of the texts?
  6. How are conversion and religious conflict described in the texts?
  7. What is the function of letters, envoys, and interpreters in the texts?
  8. Mary B. Campbell observes that ‘[t]he travel book is a kind of witness: it is generically aimed at the truth’.[1] Are these texts committed to truth, or do they slip into fiction?
  9. Kim M. Phillips argues that the ‘desire for information and for pleasure were two chief impulses guiding late medieval readers’ interest in travel writing on Asia’.[2] How do these texts describe the customs and lifestyle of the Mongols, while also presenting them as a source of wonder for the reader?


[1] Mary B. Campbell, The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing, 400-1600 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 2-3.

[2] Kim M. Phillips, Before Orientialism: Asian Peoples and Cultures in European Travel Writing (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), p. 2.

The auctoritas of Geoffrey of Monmouth

In his Anglica Historia (1534), Polydore Vergil published his scathing comments about Geoffrey of Monmouth, which subsequently ignited a debate over the veracity of the Historia regum Britanniae.[1] Quoting the twelfth-century historian, William of Newburgh, he writes that

there hathe appeared a writer in owre time which, to purse these defaultes of Brittains, feininge of them thinges to be laughed at, hathe extolled them above the nobleness of Romains and Macedonians, enhauncinge them with moste impudent lyeing. This man is cauled Geffray, surnamed Arthure, bie cause that oute of the olde lesings of Brittons, being somewhat augmented bie him, he hathe recited manie things of this King Arthure, taking unto him both the coloure of Latin speech and the honest pretext of an Historie.[2]

Vergil believed the Historia to be largely fictitious: he regarded Brutus to be an invention of the author, and he also suggested that Geoffrey’s portrait of Arthur had been highly embellished. British historians and antiquarians, such as John Leland, John Prise, and Humphrey Llwyd, were not receptive to the Anglica Historia, and they rushed to defend Geoffrey.

Yet Polydore Vergil’s objections about the Historia regum Britanniae were not new. In the twelfth century, Gerald of Wales and – most famously – William of Newburgh had their doubts about the reliability of Geoffrey’s work. Vergil, then, was merely continuing a tradition of skepticism about the Historia that had been popular since the twelfth century, and so his comments were not, necessarily, the product of Renaissance humanist doubt. This short post will consider how medieval and early modern commentators on the Historia regum Britanniae used their scholarly arguments to explore ideas of authority and authorship; in particular, it focuses on how William of Newburgh and John Leland used their evaluative historiographical practices to influence the reputation of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

William of Newburgh

Geoffrey’s most profound early critic was William of Newburgh. His skepticism of the Historia regum Britanniane is well documented in his Historia rerum Anglicarum (‘The History of English Affairs’, c. 1198), a history of the Anglo-Norman kings from William I to Richard I, which focuses in particular on the civil unrest in the reign of King Stephen. In this text, William includes a vicious attack on Geoffrey and the Historia, and the prologue to his text begins with a treatise on history and truth. He upholds Gildas and Bede as the most esteemed writers of ‘British’ history, particularly as they were committed to revealing the truth about the Britons, but he laments that

in our own day a writer [scriptor] of the opposite tendency has emerged. To atone for these faults of the Britons he weaves a laughable [ridicula] web of fiction [figmenta] about them, with shameless vainglory extolling them far above the virtue of the Macedonians and the Romans. This man is called Geoffrey and bears the soubriquet Arthur, because he has taken up the stories about Arthur from the old fictitious [figmentis] accounts of the Britons, has added to them himself, and by embellishing them in the Latin tongue he has cloaked them with the honourable title of history.[3]

In this passage, William’s main objection to the Historia is its basis in fiction [figemnta], rather than fact, and he complains that such an unreliable work has been produced in Latin, the language of authority. The contrast between fact and fiction demonstrates the unreliability of Geoffrey’s work, especially since the deeds of Arthur in the Historia have been over exaggerated. William insists that here is no justification for such ‘wanton and shameless lying’ (I.5), and dismisses Geoffrey as a mediocre historian who has ‘not learned the truth about events’ (I.5).

William’s prologue continues with a brief descriptive of the Saxon invasion by Hengist, and he lists the English kings that ruled after him, including Ethelbert, Aethelfrith, Edwin, and Oswald. According to William, these are historically accurate [historicam veritatem] events as they are accounted for in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica. William then uses Bede’s account to disprove Geoffrey’s version of events, and he claims that

it is clear that Geoffrey’s entire narration about Arthur, his successors, and his predecessors after Vortigern, was invented partly by himself and partly by others. The motive was either an uncontrolled passion for lying, or secondly a desire to please the Britons, most of whom are considered to be so barbaric that they are said to be still awaiting the future coming of Arthur being unwitting to entertain the fact of his death. (I.9)

William’s juxtaposition of these accounts is clearly designed to assert the authority of Bede, rather than Geoffrey. Nevertheless, his assertion that created the Historia ‘partly by himself’, suggests that William also regarded Geoffrey as an auctor who was distinguished from scriptors, compilators, and commentators by their ability to invent their own work.[4] Technically, of course, Geoffrey only fulfills the category of scriptor as he only presents himself as a translator of the ‘British book’, which he claims was given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford. By acknowledging that some of the content of the Historia regum Britanniae was unique – even it was unaccounted for – Geoffrey’s principal critic is also his most important bestower of auctoritas.

After comparing Geoffrey with Bede, William casts his final judgment over the veracity of the Historia. He interrogates Geoffrey’s account of Arthur’s reign, particularly his foreign conquests, and he remarks

how could the historians of old, who took immense pains to omit from their writings nothing worthy of mention, and who are known to have recorded even modest events, have passed over in silence this man beyond compare and his achievements so notably beyond measure? How, I ask, have they suppressed in silence one more notable than Alexander the Great – this Arthur, monarch of the Britons, and his deeds – or Merlin, prophet of the Britons, one equal to Isaiah, and his utterances? […] So since the historians of old have made not even the slightest mention of these persons, clearly all that Geoffrey has published in his writer about Arthur and Merlin has been invented by liars to feed the curiosity of those less wise. (I.14)

Here, William’s process of evaluation is framed through a series of complex rhetorical questions and juxtapositions focusing on Geoffrey and the ‘historians of old’. The rhetorical questions are designed to reinforce the authority of Gildas and Bede (even if they are not directly mentioned by name), and they imply that it would be unreasonable to doubt the reliability of two writers who recorded every detail of events. William entirely discredits Geoffrey’s attempt to fill the lacuna in insular history, and his conclusion that the stories of Arthur and Merlin Historia must be an invention, especially since they cannot be confirmed by any of the ancient historians, appears to be perfectly valid.

John Leland

The critical attitudes to Geoffrey’s Historia regum Britanniae began to change in the sixteenth century. The English antiquarian John Leland objected to Vergil’s claim that the Historia was an unreliable source, and in his De uiris Illustribus (‘Of Famous Men’, first completed 1535-6 and revised 1543-6), Leland offered a defence of Geoffrey, whom he placed alongside various other writers of ‘British’ history, ranging from the first Druids to Robert Widow. The account in De uiris Illustribus can be considered to be the first biography of Geoffrey, who is described as a man who ‘took great pleasure in reading ancient history’ and who ‘also delighted in scholarly intercourse’.[5] Leland situates Geoffrey within the clerical and academic circles of his time, and he is upheld as model of learning and authority. He praises him for his dedication to ‘British’ history as ‘he stands alone in having rescued a great part of Britain’s antiquity [Britannicae antiquitatis] well and truly from destruction through a diligence [diligentia] which is beyond all praise’ (Leland, p. 308-9). Leland presents Geoffrey as a translator, rather than an author, of his own work, and he writes that

he openly declares that he performed the task [officio] only of an interpreter [interpretis]; in other words, he translated a British history, written in the British language, and brought to him by Walter Map, the archdeacon of Oxford, into Latin. (Leland, p. 310-11)

This remark is essentially an apology for the number of inventions that can be found in the Historia, and it is also designed to counteract the comments of Geoffrey’s critics, who credited him with fabricating many of the events in his work. According to Leland, then, Geoffrey had a limited amount of creative agency, and he simply acted as a cultural mediator by transmitting an ancient account of the ‘British’ past to his twelfth century readers.

Leland’s biography of Geoffrey includes a lengthy scholarly attack on Polydore Vergil. Leland complains that the Italian historian

launches a frenzied attack on Geoffrey, in order to undermine Geoffrey’s authority [autoritatem] and to accumulate weight and force as well as credibility [ueritatem] for his own empty inanities. Then, for much of the earlier part of his history, this most impudent fellow is forced to follow the writer whom he has just torn to pieces with so many harsh words. But one should surely forgive this impertinence when there was practically no other authority [autorem] he could have followed. (p. 310-11)

Here, Leland asserts that Vergil is a hypocrite for discrediting Geoffrey, and then using his account to form the basis of the record of insular history in the Anglica Historia. Leland’s comments also imply that ‘English’ history, from the Saxon period through the Normans to the Plantagenet kings, and the current Tudor monarchy, depends upon early ‘British’ history for its authenticity. Indeed, during the fifteenth century, the idea of cultural inheritance between England and Wales was being more explicitly acknowledged, especially as Henry VII had used his descent from Cadwallader, the last king of the Britons, to legitimate his claim to the throne. According to Leland, then, the Historia still had political currency, and he consistently emphasises the authority of Geoffrey, the ‘good author’, in order to expose Vergil, the ‘foreigner’, as the unreliable fraud.

In De uiris Illustribus, Leland also includes an assessment of Vergil’s sources that he used in the Anglica Historia. Vergil’s account of early insular history relied heavily on Tacitus’ Agricola (c. 98) and Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico (c. 58-49 BCE), both of which had grown in popularity during the Early Modern period. For Vergil, these Latin Caesar and Tacitus were more authoritative than Gildas and Bede, who lived several centuries later than the period they were writing about. Leland, however, remarks that

none of them [the Romans], as far as I know, wrote anything worth mentioning before Caesar. Besides, not everything that Caesar wrote – however much the Dunce [Polydore Vergil] makes of his statements – seems to me to have proceeded from an oracle; the same applies to many other things about the Britons which were later handed down to posterity by Latin authors. (Leland, pp. 310-13)

This assessment of Caesar is also a judgment of Polydore Vergil. Leland implies that it was unreasonable for Vergil to use Roman – and therefore biased – history in order to counteract Geoffrey’s version of ‘British’ history. Moreover, Leland also disregards the authority of Gildas and Bede, especially since the authorship of De Excidio Britanniae was subject to question after its publication in 1525, and the Historia Ecclesiastica included very little information on early ‘British’ history prior to the Saxon conquest. Leland’s detailed evaluation of his these sources interrogates the comparative methodology that Geoffrey’s critics used to disprove his account of insular history, and through his scholarly inquiry, Leland demonstrates that the Historia is the only real authority worth following.

The short biography of Geoffrey of Monmouth in De uirius Illustribus canonised the ‘British’ historian as an auctor – a term that, as A. J. Minnis points out, ‘denoted someone who was at once a writer and an authority, someone not merely to be read but also to be respected and believed’.[6] John Leland’s appraisal of Geoffrey challenged and disproved the objections of the critics of the Historia regum Britanniae, and his work later influenced the Welsh historians John Prise and Humphrey Llwyd, who both wrote defenses of Geoffrey in the latter half of the sixteenth century. These classically educated scholars and intellectuals held the Historia regum Britanniae in great esteem, rescuing its reputation from the likes of William of Newburgh and Polydore Vergil. Through their arguments, Leland, Prise, and Llwyd proved that Geoffrey’s authority and the veracity of his Historia was beyond all doubt.

This is a revised version of a paper given at the International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds (July 2015)

[1] This debate has been previously explored by James P. Carley, who viewed the antagonism between the two historians as prefiguring twentieth-century scholarship on the ‘historical Arthur’ that became increasingly popular among historians and archaeologists following the work of E. K Chambers and Leslie Alcock; see James P. Carley, ‘Polydore Vergil and John Leland on King Arthur: The Battle of the Books’, in King Arthur: A Casebook, ed. Edward Donald Kennedy (New York: Garland, 1996), pp. 185-204.

[2] Polydore Vergil’s English History, from an early translation presented among the MSS. of The Royal Library in the British Museum. Volume 1. Containing the First Eight Books, comprising the period prior to the Norman Conquest, ed. Sir Henry Ellis (London: Printed for the Camden Society, by John Bowyer Nichols and Son, Parliament Street, MDCCCXLVI), p. 29. All further references to Vergil’s Anglia Historia are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.

[3] William of Newburgh, The History of English Affairs, ed. and trans. P. G. Walsh and M. J. Kennedy (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1988), p. 29. All further references to William’s Historia rerum Anglicarum are to this edition and are given in the text.

[4] On the definitions of the auctor, scriptor, commentator, and compiler, see A. J. Minnis, Medieval Theory of Authorship: Scholastic Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages (London: Scolar Press, 1984), p. 94.

[5] John Leland, De uiris Illustribus, ed. and trans. James P. Carley (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies and Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2010), p. 321. All further reference to Leland’s De uiris Illustribus are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text. It should be noted that Leland’s length discussion on Polydore Vergil and King Arthur were later insertions, and the entry on Geoffrey of Monmouth in the first version of De uirius Illustribus was purely concerned with the writer in question.

[6] A. J. Minnis, The Medieval Theory of Authorship, p. 10.

February meeting: King Arthur in Scotland

11th February / Room 2.50 / 3-5pm

This month we are reading a selection of extracts from fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Scottish chronicles that focus on the story of King Arthur, as told by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia regum Britanniae (c. 1136). Some of the nuances in these texts require a sound understanding of Geoffrey’s version of the Arthurian narrative, so do recap his account if you have time. The dates and manuscript context, along with a brief description of the selected texts, are as follows:

Walter Bower’s Scotichronicon (1440s)
John of Fordun is credited with writing the first narrative of Scottish history. In his Chronica Gentis Scotorum, John recorded the history of Scotland from its foundation by the legendary Gaythelos and Scota and ended with the death of King David I in 1153; it was later continued in Walter Bower’s Scotichronicon (1440-7) until the death of James I in 1437. Bower made some small revisions to the Arthurian section in John’s Chronica.

The Scottis Originale (fifteenth and sixteenth centuries)
This chronicle is a condensed and popular version of the Fordun-Bower tradition written in Old Scots. The text survives in three manuscripts: National Archives of Scotland MS Dalhousie GD 45/31/1-II; British Library MS Royal 17.D.xx; and National Library of Scotland MS 165000 (or the Asloan MS). The Dalhousie and Royal manuscripts were produced in the fifteenth century (1460s), while the Asloan manuscript was written in the sixteenth century after the Battle of Flodden (1513).

Hector Boece’s Historia Gentis Scotorum (1527)
Hector Boece published his Historia Gentis Scotorum in 1527 (we are reading a version from 1575). Boece’s Historia recorded the history of Scotland from its foundation to the accession of James III of Scotland in 1460. The Historia is strongly nationalistic and patriotic, and it was designed to counter to work of John Mair – Boece’s contemporary – who advocated union between England and Scotland through royal intermarriage. Boece’s work shows the influence of John of Fordun and Walter Bower, as well as various classical histories. William Stewart later translated the Historia into Scots, and English Renaissance historians, including Polydore Vergil and Raphael Holinshed, made use of Boece in their own works.

Try to think about some answers to the following questions as you read the selection of texts:

  1. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae, Anna is the sister of Arthur and the mother of Gawain and Modred. John of Fordun, however, made Anna into Arthur’s aunt, and this was accepted by his continuators, such as Walter Bower. What do you make of this revision of lineage in the Scottish tradition?
  2. How does the story of the conception of Arthur change and develop across this selection of texts? [Note that Walter Bower was the first chronicler to explicitly denounce Arthur as a bastard]
  3. How is Arthur portrayed in the Scottish tradition? Why is he rejected as king and why is Modred considered to be the rightful heir of Britain?
  4. What is the significance of oaths and treaties in the Scottis Originale and Boece’s Gentis Scotorum?
  5. Boece makes Lot and Modred into Picts rather than Scots: what might be the reason for this change? [Remember that in Geoffrey’s Historia the Picts were often allied with the Saxons, the enemies of the Britons]
  6. What do you think about the pejorative comments that John of Fordun and Hector Boece make about Geoffrey of Monmouth?

Below is some historical context about Anglo-Scottish relations and the political use of the Arthurian legend in the late thirteenth century, which may help you to interpret some of the themes and issues which arise in this selection of texts.

Historical Context

Before the end of the thirteenth century, England had little influence over Scotland. The Scots insisted that they were independent of the English crown, and they resisted the threat of imperial conquest; however, the Scottish Succession crisis and the first interregnum (1290-92), which saw the death of the immediate heirs of King Alexander III of Scotland, provided Edward I with an excuse to attempt to subjugate Scotland to England. John Balliol was initially elected king of Scotland, and Edward, who oversaw the proceedings, managed to get the Scots to swear allegiance to him as overlord. Nevertheless, John Balliol was forced to abdicate in 1296, which began the second interregnum (1296-1306). During the period guardians such as William Wallace and Robert the Bruce ruled Scotland. The absence of a legitimate king prompted Edward to launch a military campaign against Scotland in order to bring it under English control, and so beginning the First War of Scottish Independence (1296-1328).

In 1301, Edward launched his sixth campaign against the Scots. That year, Pope Boniface sent a letter to Edward warning him against conducting his aggressive wars of conquest, but the king ignored his request. Edward responded to Boniface by claiming that he had a rightful claim to sovereignty over the Scots, and he used the Arthurian legend to support his claim:

Item, Arturus rex Britonum princeps famosissimus Scociam sibi rebellem subjectit, et pene totam gentem delevit et postea quemdam nomine Auguselum in regem Scocie prefecit et cum postea idem res Arturus apud civitatem Legionum festum faceret celeberimum, interfuerunt ibidem omnes reges sibi subjecti inter quos Anguselus rex Scocie servicium pro regno Scocie exhibens debitum gladium regis Artuti detulit ante ipsum et successive omnes reges Scocie omnibus regibus Britonum fuere subjecti. Succedentibus autem regibus Anglis in predicta insular et ipsius monarchiam et dominium optinentibus subsequenter Edwardus dictus senior filius Elvredi regi Anglie Scotorum Cumbrorum et Stregwallorum reges sibi tanquam superiori domino subjectos habuit et submissos.

[Again, Arthur, king of the Britons, a prince most renowned, subjected to himself a rebellious Scotland, destroyed almost the whole nation, and afterwards installed as king of Scotland one Angusel by name. Afterwards, when King Arthur held a most famous feast at Caerleon, there were present there all the king subject to him, and among them Angusel, king of Scotland by bearing the sword of King Arthur before him; and in succession all the kings of Scotland have been subject to all the kings of the Britons. Succeeding kings of England enjoyed both monarchy and dominion in the island, and subsequently Edward, known as the elder, son of Alfred, king of England, had subject and subordinate to him, as lord superior, the kings of the Scots, the Cumbrians, and the Strathclyde Welsh].[1]

Edward’s letter borrows events from the Arthurian narrative in the Historia regum Britanniae, most notably Arthur’s conquest of the Scots and his subsequent installation of Augusel, the brother of Lot of Lothian, as king of Scotland. The letter also demonstrates how Geoffrey’s text could be manipulated for political purposes, and the discourse of power utilized in this text supports Edward’s wars of conquest. In his appeal to ‘British’ history, Edward presents himself as Arthur redivivus, with the implication that he too should control Scotland.

Edward’s letter to Boniface is a prime example of the reception of Geoffrey’s Historia regum Britanniae in the early fourteenth century. Edward deployed the story of Arthur for an explicitly political purpose, and his version of Arthur directly antagonized the Scots. The English Arthur was an island overlord, who controlled the whole of Britain, and who conquered those who rebelled against him. This dominant idea of Arthur provoked response primarily from the Scottish chroniclers who rejected Arthur as their king on the grounds that he was illegitimate, and they preferred to believe that Modred, the son of Anna and Lot of Lothian, was the true heir to the British throne. The Scots also disbelieved the idea that Arthur conquered Scotland, and so they managed to maintain their independence.

[1] ‘Sanctissmio Patri Bonifacio, or To the most Holy Father Boniface’, in Anglo-Scottish Relations, 1174-1328: some selected documents, ed. E. L. G. Stones (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), pp. 192-219 (p. 197).

February Meeting

On the 12th February, the reading group met to discuss the stories of Brutus and Troy and Albina and her Sisters in a selection of texts from the Brut tradition.

Surviving in over approximately 240 manuscripts, and having been translated into Anglo-Norman, Latin, and Middle English, the prose Brut is one of the most prolific works of ‘English’ historiography ever produced. The reading group primarily focused on the Middle English version of the text (c. 1380), and supplemented this with selections from two versions in Anglo-Norman, namely the oldest version of the Brut (to 1272), and the Long version (to 1333).

The stories of Brutus and Albina included in these texts explain the origins of Britain and Albion. The Brutus story originates from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae (which he appropriated from Nennius’ Historia Brittonum); it recounts how Brutus – a descendant of Aeneas – was expelled from his homeland, and how he founded the island of Britain after killing off the indigenous giants. The Albina story, which was invented in the thirteenth century and attached to various versions of the prose Brut, acts as a preface to the Brutus story. This alternative origin story explains the ancestry of the giants, and they are revealed to be descended from a group of transgressive sisters who were banished to Albion for inciting rebellion against their father and their husbands.

The group discussed a range of topics, including: the presentation of Albina and the murder plot, as well as the foundation of Albion; the roles of Brutus, his foundation of Britain and New Troy, and the division of Britain between his three sons. The group also considered the origins and etymologies of the geographical locations provided in the text, alongside any discrepancies in the translation from Anglo-Norman to Middle English.

Overall, these two stories of legendary origins were well received by the group. The next meeting is scheduled for the 12th March, and the set reading is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess.


Primary Texts:

The Brut, or the Chronicles of England, ed. Friedrich W. D. Brie (London: Published for the Early English Text Society by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1906), I, 1-15

Marvin, Julia, ‘Albine and Isabelle: Regicidal Queens and the Historical Imagination of the Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Chronicles’, Arthurian Literature XVIII (2001): 143-91 (185-91)

The Oldest Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Chronicle: An Edition and Translation, ed. and trans. Julia Marvin (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2006)

Secondary Sources:

Lister Matheson, The Prose Brut: The Development of a Middle English Chronicle (Arizona, USA: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1998)