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Matter of Britain

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The Matter of Britain (French: matière de Bretagne) is the body of medieval literature and legendary material associated with Great Britain and Brittany and the legendary kings and heroes associated with it, particularly King Arthur. The 12th-century Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), widely popular in its day, is a central component of the Matter of Britain.

It was one of the three great Western story cycles recalled repeatedly in medieval literature, together with the Matter of France, which concerned the legends of Charlemagne, and the Matter of Rome, which included material derived from or inspired by classical mythology and classical history.[1] Its pseudo-chronicle and chivalric romance works, written both in prose and verse, flourished from the 12th to the 16th century.


The three "matters" were first described in the 12th century by French poet Jean Bodel, whose epic Chanson des Saisnes [fr] ("Song of the Saxons") contains the lines:

The name distinguishes and relates the Matter of Britain from the mythological themes taken from classical antiquity, the "Matter of Rome", and the tales of the Paladins of Charlemagne and their wars with the Moors and Saracens, which constituted the "Matter of France".

Themes and subjects[edit]

King Arthur is the chief subject of the Matter of Britain, along with stories related to the legendary kings of Britain, as well as lesser-known topics related to the history of Great Britain and Brittany, such as the stories of Brutus of Troy, Coel Hen, Leir of Britain (King Lear), and Gogmagog.

Legendary history[edit]

The legendary history of Britain was created partly to form a body of patriotic myth for the country. Several agendas thus can be seen in this body of literature. According to John J. Davenport, the question of Britain's identity and significance in the world "was a theme of special importance for writers trying to find unity in the mixture of their land's Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Roman and Norse inheritance."[3]

Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae is a central component of the Matter of Britain. Geoffrey drew on a number of ancient British texts, including the ninth century Historia Brittonum. The Historia Brittonum is the earliest known source of the story of Brutus of Troy. Traditionally attributed to Nennius, its actual compiler is unknown; it exists in several recensions. This tale went on to achieve greater currency because its inventor linked Brutus to the diaspora of heroes that followed the Trojan War.[3] As such, this material could be used for patriotic myth-making just as Virgil linked the founding of Rome to the Trojan War in The Æneid. Geoffrey lists Coel Hen as a King of the Britons,[4] whose daughter, Helena marries Constantius Chlorus and gives birth to a son who becomes the Emperor Constantine the Great, tracing the Roman imperial line to British ancestors.

It has been suggested that Leir of Britain, who later became King Lear, was originally the Welsh sea-god Llŷr, related to the Irish Ler.[citation needed] Various Celtic deities have been identified with characters from Arthurian literature as well: for example Morgan le Fay was often thought to have originally been the Welsh goddess Modron or Irish the Morrígan. Many of these identifications come from the speculative comparative religion of the late 19th century and have been questioned in more recent years.

William Shakespeare was interested in the legendary history of Britain, and was familiar with some of its more obscure byways. Shakespeare's plays contain several tales relating to these legendary kings, such as King Lear and Cymbeline. It has been suggested that Shakespeare's Welsh schoolmaster Thomas Jenkins introduced him to this material. These tales also figure in Raphael Holinshed's The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, which also appears in Shakespeare's sources for Macbeth.

Other early authors also drew from the early Arthurian and pseudo-historical sources of the Matter of Britain. The Scots, for instance, formulated a mythical history in the Pictish and the Dál Riata royal lines. While they do eventually become factual lines, unlike those of Geoffrey, their origins are vague and often incorporate both aspects of mythical British history and mythical Irish history. The story of Gabrán mac Domangairt especially incorporates elements of both those histories.

Arthurian cycle[edit]

The Arthurian literary cycle is the best-known part of the Matter of Britain. It has succeeded largely because it tells two interlocking stories that have intrigued many later authors. One concerns Camelot, usually envisioned as a doomed utopia of chivalric virtue, undone by the fatal flaws of the heroes like Arthur, Gawain and Lancelot. The other concerns the quests of the various knights to achieve the Holy Grail; some succeed (Galahad, Percival), and others fail.

The Arthurian tales have been changed throughout time, and other characters have been added to add backstory and expand on other Knights of the Round Table. The medieval legend of Arthur and his knights is full of Christian themes; those themes involve the destruction of human plans for virtue by the moral failures of their characters, and the quest for an important Christian relic. Finally, the relationships between the characters invited treatment in the tradition of courtly love, such as Lancelot and Guinevere, or Tristan and Iseult.

In more recent years, the trend has been to attempt to link the tales of King Arthur and his knights with Celtic mythology, usually in highly romanticized, 20th-century reconstructed versions. The work of Jessie Weston, in particular From Ritual to Romance, traced Arthurian imagery through Christianity to roots in early nature worship and vegetation rites, though this interpretation is no longer fashionable.[5] It is also possible to read the Arthurian literature, particularly the Grail tradition, as an allegory of human development and spiritual growth, a theme explored by mythologist Joseph Campbell amongst others.[6]

Noteworthy authors[edit]


Author Century Language Œuvres
Béroul 12th Old Norman Tristan
Chrétien de Troyes 12th Old French Erec and Enide, Cligès, Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, Perceval, the Story of the Grail
Geoffrey Chaucer 14th Middle English The Canterbury Tales
Thomas Chestre 14th Middle English Sir Launfal, Libeaus Desconus
Geoffrey of Monmouth 12th Latin Historia Regum Britanniae, Vita Merlini
Gottfried von Strassburg 13th Middle High German Tristan [de]
Hartmann von Aue 12th Middle High German Erec, Iwein
Layamon 13th Middle English Brut
Thomas Malory 15th Middle English Le Morte d'Arthur
Marie de France 12th Anglo-Norman Lais of Marie de France: Lai de Yonec, Lai de Frêne, Lai de Lanval (...)
Nennius 9th Latin Historia Brittonum
Robert de Boron 12th Old French Merlin
Taliesin 6th Middle Welsh Book of Taliesin
Thomas of Britain 12th Old French Tristan
Wace 12th Old Norman Roman de Brut, Roman de Rou
Wolfram von Eschenbach 12th Middle High German Parzival
Raoul de Houdenc 12th Old French Meraugis de Portlesguez
Païen de Maisières 12–13th Old French La Mule sans frein
Raoul de Houdenc 13th Old French La Vengeance Raguidel
Rustichello da Pisa 13th Franco-Italian Roman de Roi Artus, Guiron le Courtois, Meliodus
Ulrich von Zatzikhoven 13th Middle High German Lanzelet


Œuvres Century Language
Alliterative Morte Arthure 14th–15th Middle English
The Awntyrs off Arthure 14th–15th Middle English
L'âtre périlleux 13th Old French
Le Chevalier au papegau [fr] 14th–15th Middle French
Elucidation 13th Old French
Floriant et Florete [fr] 13th Old French
Folie Tristan d'Oxford 12th Anglo-Norman
De Ortu Waluuanii 12–13th Latin
Gliglois [fr] 13th Old French
Hunbaut [fr] 13th Old French
Jaufre 13th Old Occitan
The Knight with the Sword 13th Old French
The Knightly Tale of Gologras and Gawain 15th Middle Scots
Lancelot-Grail Cycle 13th Old French
Life of Caradoc 12th Old French
Mabinogion 11th–13th Middle Welsh
The Marvels of Rigomer [fr] 13th Old French
Meliadus 13th Old French
Of Arthour and of Merlin 13th Middle English
Palamedes 13th Old French
Perceforest 14th Middle French
Perceval Continuations 13th Old French
Perlesvaus 13th Old French
Post-Vulgate Cycle 13th Old French
Prose Tristan 13th Old French
Roman de Fergus 13th Old French
Romanz du reis Yder 13th Anglo-Norman
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 14th Middle English
Stanzaic Morte Arthur 14th Middle English
La Tavola Ritonda 15th Tuscan
Vera historia de morte Arthuri 12th/13th Latin

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Evans (2012)
  2. ^ Bodel, Jean; Stengel, Edmund; Menzel, Fritz (1906). Jean Bodels Saxenlied. Teil I. Unter Zugrundlegung der Turiner Handschrift von neuem herausgegeben von F. Menzel und E. Stengel (in German). Marburg: Elwert'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung.
  3. ^ a b Davenport (2004)
  4. ^ Geoffrey of Monmouth (1966)
  5. ^ Surette (1988)
  6. ^ Campbell & Moyers (1991)

Cited works[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Dover, Carol, ed. (2005). A Companion to the Lancelot-Grail Cycle. Boydell & Brewer. ISBN 978-1843842453.
  • Green, D.H. (2005). The Beginnings of Medieval Romance: Fact and fiction, 1150–1220. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521049566.
  • Pearsall, Derek (2005). Arthurian Romance: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 978-0631233206.

External links[edit]