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An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (4) King Arthur, Pt 3: Medieval Warrior Culture

Arthurian Knights: "Parsifal vor der Gralsburg" (Hans Werner Schmidt, 1928)

Arthurian Knights: “Parsifal vor der Gralsburg” (Hans Werner Schmidt, 1928)

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (4) King Arthur, Pt 3: Medieval Warrior Culture

Enduring Popularity- Arthur & Knights of Round Table (%22Merlin%22 t.v. series, BBC)

Enduring Popularity- Arthur & Knights of Round Table (%22Merlin%22 t.v. series, BBC)

Good Morning, Everybody!

Last time I reviewed some popular expressions of the Arthurian legend, and I could probably continue on that topic for a couple more blogs, but the point’s made:  when we look at the wide array of fantasy offerings in the entertainment industry, the Arthurian legend is one of the most influential mythologies for media as diverse as literature, film, theater, gaming, and television.

Enduring Popularity- Arthur & Knights of Round Table (%22Merlin%22 t.v. series, BBC)

Enduring Popularity- Arthur & Knights of Round Table (%22Merlin%22 t.v. series, BBC)

No surprise there, because King Arthur’s legacy has lasted for over 1,200 years because of the vivacity of themes that inspire creators who draw from the following still-relevant medieval themes.

Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, %22The Germania%22 (c. 98)

Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (56-120 A.D.)

First among such themes is the legend’s evocation of a medieval warrior culture.  Whether depicted as a schoolboy-aged Wart, or mature king ruling from Camelot, Arthur’s role as a medieval military leader remains consistent throughout all stories. Besides emphasizing his personal athletic and martial prowess, Arthurian tales essentially depict the king as a variation on the war-chieftan of an early-medieval comitatus, or “war-band,” whose existence the Roman historian Tacitus first noted in his Germania of the 1st Century A.D.

6th Century Britain (c. 540 A.D.)

6th Century Britain (c. 540 A.D.)

Indeed, most of the “historical” attempts to fix Arthur in Late Antiquity or the Early Middle Ages — primarily via the mystery-shrouded figure of “Aurelius Ambrosius” in the account of Gildas the Wise (c. 500-570), and the “Battle of Mons Badon” that appear in the Annales Cambriae or the Historia Brittonum attributed to Nennius (c. 800) — frame the man along the lines that as a Welsh war-chieftain who defends Britain against West Saxon invaders near the Middle Thames River. Even recent archaeological work that perhaps situates an Arthur closer to Hadrian’s Wall (which evidence shows reconstructed in places c. 500) still leave inconclusive any positive identification.

Arthurian Knights: "Sir Galahad at the Ruined Chapel" (Dante Gabriel Rosseti, watercolor, ca. 1828)

Arthurian Knights: “Sir Galahad at the Ruined Chapel” (Dante Gabriel Rosseti, watercolor, ca. 1828)

"Arthur Slays Flollo the Roman Governor" (G.H. Thomas 1862)

“Arthur Slays Flollo the Roman Governor” (G.H. Thomas 1862)

For all that, however, any historical Arthur that existed c. 500-700 would have had the attributes of a comitatus war-leader, cultural & social attributes that include the following traits:
(1) mutual loyalty during near-constant warfare: a chieftain followed by a band of followers who fight loyally in exchange for
(2) provision of material needs besides earning food, shelter, horses, weapons and plunder, the companions/followers of the chieftain share a membership in the chieftain’s community

Tacitus, "The Agricola and The Germania" (Penguin Books)

Tacitus, “The Agricola and The Germania” (Penguin Books)

In The Germania (98 A.D.), Tacitus described the comitatus thusly:

[from Section 7]: ” … They chose their kings for their noble birth, their commanders for their valour. The power even of the kings is not absolute or arbitrary. The commanders rely on example rather than authority of their rank — on the admiration they win by showing conspicuous energy and courage and by pressing forward in front of their own troops …”

and

Arthurian Knights: Sir Galahad (G.F. Watts,  d. 1904)

Arthurian Knights: Sir Galahad (G.F. Watts, d. 1904)

[from Section 14]: ” …On the field of battle it is a disgrace to a chief to be surpassed in courage by his followers, and to the followers not to equal the courage of their chief. And to leave a battle alive after the chief has fallen means lifelong infamy and shame. To defend and protect him, and to let him get the credit for their own acts of heroism, are the most solemn obligations of their allegiance. The chiefs fight for victory, the followers for their chief…” [End excerpt: Tacitus, Germania, Harold Mattingly, The Agricola and The Germania, NY: Penguin Books, 1970; pp. 107, 113.]

The Idea of Arthur Reflected Each Age's Own Cultural Milieu ("King Arthur and Attendants, acc. nos. 32.130.3a & 47.101.4, from "Nine Heroes Tapestries", c. 1400; Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Idea of Arthur Reflected Each Age’s Own Cultural Milieu (“King Arthur and Attendants, acc. nos. 32.130.3a & 47.101.4, from “Nine Heroes Tapestries”, c. 1400; Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Whatever variations we see in the Arthurian legend that developed in the 12th-14th centuries onwards, the comitatus aspect is ever-present, and one could argue that authors such as , Wolfram von Eschenbach, and Sir Thomas Malory especially preferred to focus on the loyal companions and Knights of the Round Table as the lens through which to view King Arthur himself (i.e., in the stories of Galahad, Lancelot, Gawain, Yvain, Perceval, Tristan et al).

Arthurian Knights: "Tristan and Iseult" (John William Waterhouse, 1916)

Arthurian Knights: “Tristan and Iseult” (John William Waterhouse, 1916)

Arthurian Knights: "Lancelot du Laic" (N.C. Wyeth, 1917)

Arthurian Knights: “Lancelot du Laic” (N.C. Wyeth, 1917)

Add to this the variety of martial descriptions in the Arthurian canon (e.g., constant battles, challenges, quests, castles, travel, descriptions of wounds & recoveries, etc), and it becomes very apparent that the influence of (and description of) a medieval warrior culture is ever on the minds of the writers who created and promoted the Arthurian legend.

Arthurian Knights: "Yvain vs. Gawain" ("Yvain, le Chevalier au Lion," c. 1170s, Garrett MS, no.125, Princeton)

Arthurian Knights: “Yvain vs. Gawain” (“Yvain, le Chevalier au Lion,” c. 1170s, Garrett MS, no.125, Princeton)

Arthurian Knights: "Bors' Dilemma ' [Save the Lady over Brother Lionel] (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris)

Arthurian Knights: “Bors’ Dilemma ‘ [Save the Lady over Brother Lionel] (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris)

Arthurian Knights: "Bedivere Casting Excalibur into Water" (Aubrey Beardsley, 1894)

Arthurian Knights: “Bedivere Casting Excalibur into Water” (Aubrey Beardsley, 1894)

For medievalists and arm-chair historians, the fun part becomes not so much finding all the instances of expressions of “military glory,” but rather what each writer’s narrative reveals about the time, culture, and literary milieu in which he wrote.  From fragmentary early medieval chronicles by Gildas and Bede (both of whom direct us to a mist-shrouded “Ambrosius Aurelianus”), to the fully realized high-medieval narratives of Chrétien de Troyes (Eric et Enide, Lancelot, Yvain), Wolfram von Eschenbach (Parzifal), and Sir Thomas Malory (Le Morte D’Arthur), Arthur and the knights in his retinue were approached in very different storylines and thematic concerns.

What binds all of the tales together, though, is the common assumption that all the characters were actively taking part in a medieval warrior culture that can be traced back to antiquity and Roman times.

Thanks for visiting!
A.J.

Next time: Arthur and the Enduring Medieval Theme of “Supernatural Wonder”

 

 

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Lada Buturovic #

    King Arthur is a legend. A noble  fighter. A strong figure, A  preserver of  stability or  hope for it in difficult times. had, which was a havreNice blog. Thank you

    December 21, 2014

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