Skip to content Skip to navigation

Blogging Kalamazoo 2021: Session 211 - Writing History II

Wednesday, May 12, 2021 - 11:19

I’m going to be a bad, bad scholar here, because I’m only really interested in one paper in this session – the last one – and so I’m not going to take notes on the other ones. Sorry. (And apologies to the other two speakers if, by some unfortunate quirk of online searching, this comes to your attention.)

The Measure of a Man: Patrons, Priors, and Narrative Themes in the Book of the Foundation of Walden Monastery - Stephanie Skenyon, University of Miami

(not blogged)

Pondering the Past: History, Identity, and Community Construction in Fordun's Chronica - Austin M. Setter, Lake Michigan College

(not blogged)

Arthur Who? How the Welsh Conquer Rome—and Geoffrey of Monmouth—in Breudwyt Maxen Wledig - Joseph A. Shack, Harvard University

Despite superficially engaging with Roman-Welsh history, Breuddwyd Maxen Wledig (BMW) doesn’t engage much with the other Welsh texts in this genre. Shack compares its treatment of early history to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version. In this, it acts something as a rebuttal to Geoffrey. Geoffrey describes Arthurs rise and establishment of power over the Saxons, followed by a European empire in France and Rome. But just as Arthur is advancing to Rome, he must return to Britain to deal with Modred, leaving his conquest unfinished and unstable.

BMW begins with a dream-episode where the Roman emperor Maxen dreams of a beautiful woman, Elen, who turns out to be a British princess. Maxen travels to marry her, but then must return to Rome to deal with a rebellion in which he is assisted by Elen’s brothers who help him prevail.

BMW was probably composed in the later 12th century with the earliest manuscript dating to the 13th. This places it very roughly in the same context as Geoffrey’s work, which was a work of Anglo-Norman myth-building, tying the dynasty to mythic British history. This era also say Welsh language adaptations of Geoffrey’s work that reinterpreted the material for a Welsh audience.

Shack suggests that the two brothers of BMW can be read as reflexes of Geoffrey’s Arthur, with the general events and movements seen in parallel. Another parallel is seen in the betrayal of a monarch who is away from home (Arthur-Modred and Maxen-people of Rome). BMW has little focus on Maxen’s successful battles, but more on his unsuccessful siege of Rome, thus highlighting the contributions of the Welsh brothers to that successful siege. The Welsh brothers demonstrate cleverness rather than brute force. The British forces, not Maxen’s, are the victors and Maxen is urged by Elen to petition the brothers to hand control over to him.

Thus we have a dominant theme of Welsh success, contrasting with the political landscape contemporary to the audience, in which the Welsh kingdoms were experiencing defeat at the hands of the English.

Both Geoffrey and BMW also have layers of prophecy with contemporary relevance, Geoffrey predicting the return of Arthur, BMW suggesting the freeing of the Welsh from foreign rule. But Welsh political prophecy does not revolve around an Arthurian return, but rather the rise of a “son of prophecy” not directly associated with a past figure. The “Arthurian return” motif is mostly derided by Norman authors who attribute it to the Welsh, even as it doesn’t appear in that form among the Welsh. The Arthurian-return is treated as misunderstood and misguided similarly to Jewish expectation of the Messiah. In contrast, Welsh prophetic texts, when they assign the expected Son of Prophecy role to a specific figure, it is to Cynan or Cadwaladr, who correspond to the brothers in BMW. Thus the Anglo-Norman focus on undermining Arthur as the expected Welsh hero misses the mark.

But does this mean that BMW was composed as a deliberate response to Geoffrey’s History? The aim of Geoffrey’s work was specifically to uphold Anglo-Norman supremacy in Britain and frames the Welsh as degenerate and deserving of having lost sovereignty over Britain. Welsh texts treat Arthur as a local folk-hero and tribal king, while Geoffrey participate in the “Englishing” of Arthur, coopting him for English identity and sovereignty. BMW omits Arthur entirely, dodging the question of cultural ownership.

Major category: