Arthurian and Carolingian Legends

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Of all the legends that flourished in the Middle Ages, the two major cycles clustered around the figures of Arthur and Charlemagne. Both cycles were widely known throughout Western Christendom, and their literary influence has extended even into modern times. Arthur and Charlemagne were historical personages, though Arthur is known almost exclusively through the legendary material. Reliable historical sources tell us much more about charlemagne (742814), his conquests, his interests in education and government and the revival of learning he fostered in an age of barbarism. The legends of Arthur and Charlemagne, in the course of time, followed paths of development so different that in spirit they seem to have little in common. The romances about Arthur and his knights of the Round Table deal with a world of chivalry, love, and adventure, in which marvels occur with astonishing frequency. The chansons de geste about Charlemagne and his paladins, on the other hand, exalt French nationalism in the struggle against the infidel and stress the conflicts arising between feudal obligations to the suzerain and personal concepts of honor.


Historically, Arthur is the earlier figure. During the Saxon invasions of Britain in the late 5th century, Arthur led the British forces in a series of battles that ended with a decisive victory at Mt. Badon, somewhere in southern England, about a.d. 500. Despite the eventual triumph of the Saxons, Arthur's fame lived long in the memory of the defeated British and their descendants. St. gildas, a Briton, writes (c. 540) about the battle of Mt. Badon as a British victory that halted the advance of the Saxons and initiated a period of peace, although he does not mention Arthur. The earliest extant reference to Arthur by name occurs in a Welsh poem, The Gododdin (c. 600), which extols the valor of a fallen warrior by comparing him with Arthur. About 800, the Welsh priest nennius, in the Historia Britonum, lists Arthur's 12 victories over the Saxons, concluding with that at Mt. Badon, and in an account of the natural wonders of Britain, he records two local legends connected with Arthur. The Annales Cambriae, another Latin compilation of Welsh origin (c. 950), also mentions the victory at Badon and another battle at Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut (Modred) fell.

Early Welsh literature independent of the chronicles and historical annals presents Arthur as the hero of adventures derived from Celtic myth and the leader of a company endowed with preternatural powers. In a Welsh poem of the 10th century, The Spoils of Annwn, Arthur sets out with three shiploads of men to capture the magic cauldron of Annwn, the Celtic Otherworld. Although the vessel is taken, only seven men, including Arthur, return from the disastrous raid. In another early Welsh poem, a fragmentary dialogue between Arthur and a gatekeeper, Arthur lists among his companions not only Kay and Bedivere but also many figures derived from Welsh myth, with references to their accomplishments as slayers of monsters. The Welsh prose romance Kulhwch and Olwen (c. 1100) includes a rationalized version of Arthur's raid upon the Otherworld and recounts his hunting of a preternatural boar.

Origin and Diffusion. The legend of Arthur, according to the earliest documents, originated in Wales, where the memory of the historic military leader was preserved and later drawn into the orbit of native Welsh mythological tradition. Arthur's fame was cultivated also among the Cornish and the Bretons, linguistically and culturally allied with the Welsh. Traditions of Arthur's birth and death were localized in Cornwall, and the Cornish, like the Bretons, believed in the survival of Arthur and his inevitable return to his people. The wide diffusion of the Arthurian legends on the Continent, beginning in the 11th century, was chiefly the work of the Bretons, whose fluency in French and whose professional skill in exploiting their Celtic heritage of legend to entertain French-speaking patrons spread the stories wherever the language was understoodnot only in France, but also in England, Italy, and the crusader states.

Another major contribution to Arthur's international fame was the appearance about 1136 of geoffrey of monmouth's Latin Historia Regum Britanniae, a work intended to give the British a full-scale history like those

of the Normans, the Saxons, and the French. Geoffrey purports to be merely a translator of an ancient book in the British tongue, but no trace of such a source has ever been discovered. Geoffrey's book is primarily his own invention, based upon material derived from Nennius, Welsh genealogies, and the usual historical sources accessible to a cleric. Geoffrey's history begins with the first king of Britain, Brutus, who, as a descendant of Aeneas, links Britain with Rome. Among the early figures are King Lear, Cymbeline, and Sabrina, whose legends later influenced Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton.

Arthur as Central Interest. The Arthurian story is naturally the center of interest. Arthur in his youth was supervised and protected by the wizard Merlin. After his coronation and marriage, he subjugated not only the Saxons but other Continental peoples and established his empire even over Gaul. When the Roman emperor challenged him, he set out to conquer Rome, leaving his kingdom in charge of his nephew Modred. Modred's attempt to usurp the throne and to seize Arthur's queen brought the king home before he could complete the conquest. At a battle on the River Camel in Cornwall, Modred was slain and Arthur, though mortally wounded, was borne to the isle of Avalon to be healed. After the reign of Arthur, the British kingdom declined until it was finally overwhelmed by the Saxons in the 7th century.

Geoffrey presents Arthur as a 12th-century king presiding over a magnificent court and accepting the homage of royal vassals. The emphasis upon the theme of empire and the independence of Britain agrees with the political aspirations of the Anglo-Norman kings of the time. Although some of Geoffrey's contemporaries doubted his veracity, the Historia was generally accepted as the standard history of early Britain until the 16th century, when historical scholarship revealed it to be largely fiction.

In 1155 the Historia was translated into French as Le Roman de Brut by the Norman poet Wace, evidently in response to a demand from courtly patrons. Wace follows his original faithfully and adapts the story to courtly interests chiefly by expanding descriptive passages. His most significant addition is the story of Arthur's Round Table, of which, he writes, Bretons tell many tales, and which was founded to prevent quarrels over precedence. About 1200, the first English version was composed by a parish priest in Worcestershire named Layamon. Although an expanded paraphrase of Wace, Layamon's Brut is a recreation of the story in the alliterative meter and style typical of the Old English epic, ironically the literary style of Arthur's historic foes, the Saxons.

The account of Arthur's career in Geoffrey's Historia remains substantially unchanged in these and later versions, but its influence is negligible on the French Arthurian romances that began to appear in the second half of the 12th century. These stories were derived from the oral legends circulated by Breton storytellers, and they deal with a variety of heroes unknown in the pseudohistorical tradition of Geoffrey. Many of these tales, though originally independent, were absorbed into the Arthurian legend because of the great king's prestige. Sometimes the process began before the story reached the Continent. When the Tristan legend, for example, migrated from northern Scotland to Wales, the Welsh linked Arthur to the originally Pictish hero, and in some Continental versions of the Tristan legend, Arthur plays a minor role that is evidently derived from this tradition.

Heroes other than Arthur; the Grail. In general, Arthur and his court become in the French romances of the 12th century the background for the adventures of the hero of the story. In the four romances of Chrétien de Troyes that are based on traditional sources, the interest is centered not on Arthur himself but on the individual heroesErec, Yvain, Lancelot, and Percevaland the role of Arthur varies according to the story. In Erec and Yvain, in which Chrétien delicately balances the claims of love and chivalry, the hero's adventures begin at Arthur's court and the happy outcome of his trials and suffering in each romance is explicitly connected with Arthur and his knights. In the unfinished Lancelot, on the contrary, Arthur's role is ignominious: he allows his queen to be abducted, and her rescue is accomplished by her devoted but adulterous lover Lancelot. In the story of Perceval (Li Contes del Graal ), which Chrétien also left unfinished, the hero is at first an uncouth lad whose gradual education in chivalry prepares him for the adventures of the Grail; Arthur's court clearly represents the standards of chivalry that test the hero's worth, although the king himself suffers without resistance a humiliating insult that is avenged by the young Perceval.

Other French romancers attempted to continue Chrétien's unfinished works, especially the Graal; and his influence

penetrated fruitfully into Germany, where Hartmann von Aue adapted Erec and Yvain, and where Wolfram von Eschenbach composed Parzival, a profoundly spiritual yet realistic reworking and expansion of Chrétien's story, stressing humility and compassion as the noblest virtues of chivalry.

Prose Cycles. Although the Grail stories were derived from the same reservoir of Celtic tradition as other parts of the Arthurian legend, the mysterious vessel called the Grail inevitably suggested Christian interpretation, which became a prominent feature of 13th-century versions (see holy grail, the). Two other major trends distinguish the development of the French Arthurian legends in the 13th century: the use of prose rather than verse and the effort to assemble all the legends into one immense compilation. The so-called Vulgate prose cycle consists of five long romances, written at various times and by different authors whose identity remains unknown. The earliest part, composed between 1215 and

1230, is the trilogy of the prose Lancelot, La Queste del Saint Graal, and La Mort Artu. The prose Lancelot is a long biographical romance about Lancelot, his devotion to the Queen, his supremacy as a knight, and his begetting of Galahad, the destined Grail hero. The Queste is a religious allegory, the work of a Cistercian, the hero of which is the sinless Galahad, who achieves the perfect mystical vision of the Grail denied to his father Lancelot because of adultery with Guenevere. Inexorable doom dominates the Mort Artu, causing the sequence of disasters resulting from that sin: Arthur's discovery of his queen's infidelity with Lancelot, the feud between Gawain and Lancelot, and the final battle between Arthur and his incestuously begotten son Modred. To this trilogy two other romances were added: the Estoire del Saint Graal, a prelude relating the early history of the Grail and its role in the evangelization of Britain, and the prose Merlin, which carries the narrative through the period of the pre-Arthurian kings to the coronation of Arthur, the establishment of the Round Table, and the Saxon wars.

The Vulgate cycle spread the concept of chivalry as a noble, ideal way of life through its powerful influence upon later romances in France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Ireland, Wales, and England. It was the principal source of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (146970). Although Malory used other sources, French and English, he followed the Vulgate in presenting Lancelot as the embodiment of chivalry and the hero of the Arthuriad. Malory condensed and abridged freely; and he deliberately unraveled stories that were carefully interwoven in his French sources, narrating them as self-contained units. Caxton edited and printed (1485) Malory's work and gave it the title by which it is generally known.

In the English Renaissance, the Arthurian legend became the center of political controversy over the authenticity of Geoffrey's Historia, which was used to support Tudor claims to the throne; and moralists like Roger Ascham condemned Malory's tales for their bawdry and manslaughter. Yet Caxton's edition of Malory was reprinted five times before the 18th century, and such poets as Spenser and Milton were attracted to the legends. As a result of the renewed interest in medieval legends during the Romantic revival, Arthurian themes became important in the 19th century. The most notable achievements are Tennyson's Idylls of the King and Richard wagner's music dramas Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal.


If the romance is the characteristic genre of the Arthurian legend, the epic, or chanson de geste, is the natural form for the legends about Charlemagne. Unlike Arthur, there was never any question about Charlemagne's historicity, and his conquests of most of western Europe were real, not fictional. The actual Charlemagne was a Frank, whose native language was German, and whose principal residence was Aix-la-Chapelle, the German Aachen. Yet he became the national hero of the French, who developed the earliest epics about his exploits.

Legends about Charlemagne seem to have circulated even in his lifetime. Court poets composed Latin panegyrics about him in a rhetorical style that made him a majestic, almost superhuman figure, and even einhard's generally trustworthy biography, modeled upon Suetonius's life of Augustus, contributed to this idealization by associating him with the great Roman emperor and by recording the preternatural portents that preceded his death. Oral traditions about Charlemagne were compiled by a monk of St. Gall about 885, for example, the anecdote about King Desiderius of Lombardy and Otker the Frank awaiting Charles's arrival at Pavia, and Otker's swoon at the awesome sight of the Iron Emperor. Charlemagne's glorious memory was fostered by the clergy partly because from the beginning he was regarded as the defender of Christendom against its enemies and partly because of his benefactions to numerous churches. There can be little doubt that the clerical tradition encouraged the spread of the Carolingian legends along the great pilgrimage routes of the Middle Ages, but there is also evidence of a vigorous vernacular tradition of songs and tales about Charlemagne that prepared the way for the later epics.

Transformation of the Historical Figure. The legendary Charlemagne differs, of course, from the historic original. Although the historic Charlemagne waged long and successful wars against the Saxons, the Slavs, the Huns, and the Danes, legend made his chief enemy the Saracens, transforming a minor engagement in Spain into a major threat to Christian civilization. Another legend recounts his journey to Jerusalem and Constantinople and his return with relics of Christ's Passion. Although Charlemagne never visited the Orient, his friendly relations with Harun al-Rashid (764?809), the Caliph of Baghdad, with whom he exchanged gifts, and with the Greek emperors of Constantinople may well have inspired the invention of such a legend. Since no historical records survive of Charlemagne's childhood and youth, a legend was invented to fill the gap, relating his exile in Spain to escape from his two evil bastard brothers. Under the assumed name of Mainet, he offers his services to the Saracen king and delivers him from a dangerous foe. The king's daughter falls in love with him, becomes a Christian, and marries him after Charlemagne regains his throne and punishes the wicked brothers. Although Charlemagne is a youth in this story, he is usually depicted as an aged man with a flowing white beard, yet vigorous and commandinga majestic, patriarchal figure.

Defender of Christendom. So he is presented in the stories dealing with the wars against the infidel. In this cycle he is the leader of France, the people chosen by God to defend all of Christendom. The mutation of history into legend can be observed in the Song of Roland (c. 1100), the earliest, the best, and the most famous of these epics. Earlier versions seem to have been reshaped under the powerful impetus of the Crusades to emphasize the urgency of military action against the infidel and the spiritual rewards awaiting those martyred for the faith.

The only defeat of Charlemagne recorded by Einhard was the result of a surprise attack by Basques in a pass of the Pyrenees on the rearguard of Charlemagne's army, an assault that destroyed all the men, among them Roland, Count of Brittany. The Basques plundered the baggage train and fled under cover of nightfall. Their dispersal, we are told, made immediate vengeance impossible. The event, dated in 778, was an interruption of the Saxon wars that Charlemagne undertook to assist Saracen princes in Spain who had appealed for his aid against foes of their faith. The defeat occurred after Charlemagne's recall from Spain to meet a renewed attack by the Saxons.

At the time Charlemagne was 38, but in the Song of Roland he is 200 years old; the Basques are metamorphosed into a horde of treacherous Saracens, greatly outnumbering the French rearguard; and Charlemagne exacts a mighty vengeance (although the historical sources are careful to explain why he could not do so). The ambush in the poem is initiated by a conspiracy between Roland's stepfather Ganelon and the Saracens in order to destroy Roland, who is here represented as Charlemagne's nephew and the mightiest of the 12 peers. The central episode is the heroic defense led by Roland and the peers in the Battle of Roncevaux, ending in death for them and the 20,000 who would never again see France. Charlemagne himself is the hero of the rest of the poem, destroying the infidels, leveling Saragossa, and converting the queen to Christianity. Ganelon's fate is decided not by Charlemagne but by God in a judicial combat. His terrible punishment for his treason follows, and the poem ends, not with a celebration of victory but with Charlemagne's weary acceptance of the angel Gabriel's summons to yet another war in defense of Christendom.

The wars in Spain became the center of the early Carolingian legend since they presented Charlemagne as the divinely ordained defender of Christianity against the infidel and as a king of justice and piety. A far smaller number of chansons de geste deal with Charlemagne's wars against foes in Italy and against the Saxons, though historically these conquests were more significant than the Spanish expedition. Later, other legends developed about his relationship with his vassals and these offer a less idealized image of Charlemagne. Since the narrator's sympathy is usually with the rebellious vassal, Charlemagne is often presented as harsh, vindictive, and cruel in stories that probably reflect the struggles in the 9th and 10th centuries between the ruling monarchs who succeeded Charlemagne and their recalcitrant but powerful vassals. Even in the Song of Roland there is a hint of this theme in the hostile attitudes and actions of Ganelon, which, though directed against Roland rather than Charlemagne, nevertheless endanger the emperor's cause. Such chansons de geste as Ogier the Dane, The Four Sons of Aimon, and Doon de Mayence relate at great length the feuds between the rebel vassals, aided by their families and allies, against the authority of Charlemagne. There were intermittent reconciliations and renewals of hostilities, but the foes generally united if Christendom was threatened.

In the 13th century the Carolingian legends, like the Arthurian, were combined into cycles, but there was no influential re-creation of the stories comparable to the Arthurian Vulgate. Such Carolingian compilations as those of Philippe Mouskés and the monk Alberic of Trois-Fontaines are valuable because they preserve legendary material that has since disappeared from the extant versions; and the Old Norse prose Karlamagnús saga is important because its compilers had access to texts that are often superior to those that have survived.

Spread of the Legends. The legendary fame of Charlemagne spread into Germany, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, England, Italy, and Spain. Knowledge of Carolingian legends can be documented in England over a long period. One of the earliest allusions tells of the minstrel Taillefer at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 who sang of Charlemagne, Roland, and those who died at Roncevaux. Though his song could not have been the extant epic, it is significant that the earliest MS was written in Anglo-Norman about 1170 and that it was preserved at Oxford. The Carolingian legends in Middle English are late and inferior versions, but in the 15th century interest was still strong enough to persuade Caxton to publish Charles the Great in 1485 and four years later The Four Sons of Aymon.

In the Italian Renaissance, the Carolingian legends experienced a literary rebirth in the narrative poems of L. Pulci (143284), M. Boiardo (144194), and Ariosto. The work of their 14th-century predecessors, the Franco-Italian compilations and the Italian prose Reali di Francia (c. 1400), by Andrea da Barberino (c. 1370c. 1432), had already established the distinctive features of the Italian tradition: the reduction of the complicated relationships into a feud between two great families, the houses of Clermont and Mayence. Charlemagne became a background figure, and the heroes of Clermont were Roland (Orlando) and Renaud de Montauban (Rinaldo). The head of the enemy house, of course, was Ganelon.

Professional minstrels popularized these stories orally in the streets of Italian cities and along the pilgrimage routes to Rome. They reached literary eminence when Pulci, poet of the household of Lorenzo de Medici, used them as the basis of his comic epic Il Morgante Maggiore (1482). Boiardo's Orland Innamorato (1494) inaugurated a new phase with the introduction into the Carolingian epic of chivalric and romantic themes derived from the Arthurian cycle. The invincible Roland of earlier tradition becomes Orlando, vanquished by love for a pagan princess who plans to destroy Christendom by seducing Charlemagne's paladins. In this romantic epic, Boiardo invents a world of knight-errantry, surprises, enchantments, and magic, blended with the wars of Christian against Saracen. With a spirit of ironic detachment, Ariosto continued Boiardo's unfinished poem in Orlando Furioso, the central theme of which is Orlando's madness induced by love and jealousy. Thus transformed, the old Carolingian tradition contributed to one of the most brillant and polished narrative poems of the Italian Renaissance.

Except for the influence of Ariosto's masterpiece on Spenser's Faerie Queen in the 16th century in England and Byron's delighted discovery of Pulci in the 19th, the Carolingian legends have been less important in modern times than the Arthurian. In different ways, however, the two cycles of legends have significantly enriched the culture of western Europe.

Bibliography: r. s. loomis, ed., Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages (Oxford 1959); The Development of Arthurian Romance (London 1963); The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol (New York 1963). j. s. p. tatlock, The Legendary History of Britain: Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae and Its Early Vernacular Versions (Berkeley 1950). j. frappier, Chrétien de Troyes: L'Homme et l'oeuvre (Paris 1957); Étude sur La Mort le Roi Artu (2d ed. Paris 1961). t. malory, Works, ed. e. vinaver, 3 v. (Oxford 1947). j. a. bennett, ed., Essays on Malory (Oxford 1963). r. s. and l. a. h. loomis, Arthurian Legends in Medieval Art (New York 1938). g. paris, Histoire poétique de Charlemagne, ed. p. meyer (new ed. Paris 1905). j. bÉdier, Les Légendes épiques, 4 v. (2d ed. Paris 191421). h. g. leach, Angevin Britain and Scandinavia (Cambridge, Mass. 1921). j. e. wells, A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 10501400 (New Haven 1916; 9 suppl. 191952). j. b. fletcher, Literature of the Italian Renaissance (New York 1934). l. a. h. loomis, Adventures in the Middle Ages (New York 1962).

[h. newstead]

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Arthurian and Carolingian Legends

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