Tag Archives: Guinevere

The Appeal of King Arthur Across the Centuries

This is an illustrated transcript of The Appeal of King Arthur, a feature I wrote for BBC Radio 3. Broadcast on 24 June 2013. Downloadable as a BBC podcast here.

King Arthur returns his sword in British Library MS Additional 10294.

King Arthur returns his sword in British Library MS Additional 10294.

Picture the scene. Arthur, legendary king of the Britons, glances pensively across the glassy surface of a deep blue lake. The softest of ripples breaks the brooding silence as a glittering sword cuts the surface, flashes reflected sunlight, and thrusts towards heaven held aloft by a slender arm clad in shimmering samite, signifying that Arthur rules by divine providence. ‘Listen!’ interrupts Dennis, a medieval peasant rising from the dirt to mock Arthur’s investiture of Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake, ‘strange women lying in ponds, distributing swords is no basis for a system of government! Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.’

This scene from Monty Python’s award winning Spamalot is part of a musical send up of the Arthurian myth that has appealed to audiences the world over. Its satirical irreverence makes it an odd bedfellow for other Arthuriana in the public imagination like Tolkien’s Fall of Arthur or the BBC’s Merlin, yet each retelling of the myth is testament to its enduring hold across the centuries. What is it that continues to draw us to Arthur’s story and why does it lend itself to such radically different treatments?

Monty Python's Spamalot

Monty Python’s Spamalot

Arthurian fiction has always flourished during periods of social and dynastic collapse. In the twelfth century, the first complete account of Arthur’s reign in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, furnished Britain with a national epic to mitigate a succession crisis. Fast forward eight centuries, to Kennedy’s assassination and we find his presidency idealised as the Camelot era, or, more recently, Merlin, running for five successful series throughout a global recession. In each example Arthur is a touchstone for strong leadership and accord, showing what society could achieve, but never does.

Merlin introduces Galahad to the Round Table. BnF Français 343.

Merlin introduces Galahad to Arthur and the Round Table. BnF MS Français 343, folio 3r.

Beginning of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae

Beginning of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, British Library Arundel 10, f. 2.

While Geoffrey uses the legend to reimagine British history as a series of seamless dynastic successions attuned to the imperialism of his Norman overlords, Merlin espouses a multicultural Britain, free of class distinctions, where magic, not race or social background, is a focal point for prejudice. Magic becomes a moral barometer reflecting popular anxieties and aspirations. While Morgana uses it for personal gain, Merlin’s magic is socially beneficial, helping characters like Arthur and Guinevere, the servant-come-queen, fulfil their potential for common good. As we sympathise with Merlin’s struggle to reconcile personal and public responsibility, his endless vigil for Arthur’s return parallels our contemporary desire for stability in social and economic adversity.

The BBC's popular Merlin series

The BBC’s popular Merlin series

Literature produced during the Wars of the Roses, similarly manifests the concerns of its original fifteenth-century audience. Written when aristocratic factionalism encroached on, and overturned, royal authority, Thomas Malory’s highly influential Morte Darthur depicts the desolation of the Arthurian kingdom as a constitutional crisis reminiscent of the struggle between the houses of Lancaster and York. Remarkably for a medieval romance, it articulates the voice of the lower born men facilitating the noble feud. The silent masses that ordinarily acquiesce to royal power grow weary of war and switch their allegiance to Mordred.

Brother against brother: the Destruction of Arthur's Realm. British Library MS Additional 10294.

Civil War: The Destruction of Arthur’s Realm as depicted in British Library MS Additional 10294.

While Malory leaves us in no doubt that the people are ‘new-fangle’, or inconstant, the text reflects genuine concerns about the role of large groups in maintaining or changing the status quo. Malory’s Arthur prompts its audience to ask persistently relevant questions: where does true power reside, how is it transferred legitimately, and what is the relationship between a leader and his people?

Detail of Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur, British Library MS Additional 59678, f. 35r.

Detail of Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur, British Library MS Additional 59678, f. 35r.

Those questions also underpin Dennis the peasant’s rant in Spamalot, as the satirical collision of royal absolutism and proletarian power opens up serious debate about modern systems of governance under the guise of Arthurian parody.

As a narrative of nation and community exploring the human condition, Arthur’s rise and fall is the story of civilisation itself locked in an endless cycle of beginnings and endings. That is why Arthur has and always will be the once and future king.

Arthur stood on top of the names of all the kingdoms subject to his rule. British Library MS Royal 20 Aii.

Arthur stood on top of the names of all the kingdoms subject to his rule. British Library MS Royal 20 Aii.

Edward Burne-Jones's 'The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon'.

Edward Burne-Jones’s ‘The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon’, one of many popular Victorian depictions of Arthur .

Christmas at the Medieval Court

Though Christmas was very different in the Middle Ages, many of the pastimes and activities that we associate with it would have been familiar to medieval people. Feasting, playing games, singing, drinking around a fire, decorating the house with evergreens, and giving gifts, are just some of the traditions enjoyed in the medieval festive season.

The activities depicted at King Arthur’s Christmas court in the famous fourteenth-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight provide a nice insight into the festivities at a late medieval court:

The king was at Camelot at Christmas time, with many a handsome lord, the best of knights, all the noble brotherhood of the Round Table, duly assembled, with revels of fitting splendour and carefree pleasures. There they held tourney on many occasions; these noble knights jousted most gallantly, then rode back to the court to make merry. For there the celebrations went on continuously for fully fifteen days, with all the feasting and merrymaking which could be devised; such sounds of mirth and merriment, glorious to hear, a pleasant uproar by day, dancing at night, nothing but the greatest happiness in halls and chambers among lords and ladies, to their perfect contentment […] While New Year was so young that it had just newly arrived, on the day itself the company was served with redoubled splendour at table. When the king had come with his knights into the hall, the singing of Mass in the chapel having drawn to an end, a loud hubbub was raised there by clerics and others, Christmas was celebrated anew, ‘Noel’ called out again and again. And then nobles came forward to offer good-luck tokens, called aloud ‘New Year gifts’ profffered them in their hands. [translation from W. R. J. Baron’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Manchester University Press]

As this passage illustrates, Christmas in the Middle Ages was a lengthy affair. Preparations and celebrations started well before 25 December, and continued long after. Though peasants returned to work after Epiphany (the twelfth day of Christmas or 6 January), the higher ranks might celebrate for longer, like Arthur’s hosting of tournaments and feasting over fifteen days. Truly extravagant festivities might even extend until Candlemas on 2 February.

A festive feast representing January in the Très Riches Heures of John, duke of Berry (fifteenth century)

A festive feast representing January in the Très Riches Heures of John, duke of Berry (fifteenth century)

The anonymous Gawain-Poet does not describe the individual dishes eaten at Arthur’s feast, but he does evoke the spectacle of a royal banquet, telling us that each course was brought out to ‘the blaring of trumpets’, ‘kettledrums’, and ‘pipes’, and that the dishes contained ‘the richest foods, fresh meat in plenty […] and various stews’; each couple shared ‘twelve dishes, good beer and bright wine’. Food served at a Christmas feast would include roast meats (especially wild boar), fowl, pies, stews, bread, cheese, puddings, ‘sotelties‘ (elaborate decorative dishes designed for entertainment, often with religious or political significance), and mince pies. Unlike the pies familiar to us, medieval mince pies, or shred pies, were bigger, rectangular shaped pastries (known as ‘cofins’), filled with minced meats like pork, eggs, fruit, spices, and fat. No specific recipes for them survive, but the Forme of Cury, a recipe book compiled c. 1390 by Richard II’s master cooks, contains a recipe for ‘chewettes’, which are similar, smaller versions of the medieval mince pie:

Chewettes on Flesch Day. Take the lyre of pork and kerue hit [carve it] al to pecys and hennes therwith and do hit in a panne and frye hit and make a coffyn [pastry] as to a pye smale and do therin and do theruppon yolkes of ayron [eggs] hard, pouder of gyngur and salt, couere hit and fry hit in grece [grease] other bake hit del and serue forth.

Forme of Cury Rylands MS 7

Recipe for Chewettes in The Forme of Cury. Manchester John Rylands Library MS 7

It’s easy to imagine Richard II’s court celebrating Christmas over many days like King Arthur, eating course after course of the dishes described in the Forme of Cury. An account book of 1377 records that twenty-eight oxen and three hundred sheep were eaten at the king’s Christmas feast, and the chronicler John Hardyng, describing the excess of the king’s household in the 1390s, notes that ten thousand people a day attended Richard II’s court and that they were provided with food and drinks by three hundred cooks and servants.

Celebrations in noble and gentry households were much smaller in scale, but nevertheless impressive. A letter from Margaret Paston to her husband John, written on 24 December 1459, includes a list of activities that their neighbour Lady Morley did and did not allow in her household the previous year when she was mourning the loss of her husband:

there were no disguisings [masques], nor harping, nor luting, nor singing, nor no loud pastimes, but playing at the tables [board games], and chess, and cards, such activities she gave her folk leave to play and none other [my translation]

Quieter pursuits, such as board games and cards were clearly suitable for a house in mourning, but louder and more spritely Christmas entertainments, such as singing, playing music and watching masques were not.

Board games from Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264

Board games from Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264

So, as you sit down to eat your Christmas dinner, tuck into a mince pie, sing Christmas carols, or play a board game with your family or friends this year, why not share your knowledge of the medieval Christmas and exchange the medieval Christmas greeting recorded by the Gawain-poet too – ‘Noel!’