Greg Waite

title.none: Biddle, King Authur's Round Table (Greg Waite)

identifier.other: baj9928.0203.024 02.03.24

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Greg Waite, University of Otago,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Biddle, Martin. King Authur's Round Table: An Archaeological Investigation. New York: Boydell Press, 2001. Pp. v, 533. 55.00. ISBN: 0-851-15626-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.03.24

Biddle, Martin. King Authur's Round Table: An Archaeological Investigation. New York: Boydell Press, 2001. Pp. v, 533. 55.00. ISBN: 0-851-15626-6.

Reviewed by:

Greg Waite
University of Otago

The Round Table of Arthur (reputedly, and declaring itself as such), hanging on the west wall of the Great Hall in Winchester Castle, has long been a famous relic attracting popular curiosity as well as scholarly inquiry. John Hardyng's Chronicle provides testimony that it has hung in the Hall since at least the late 15th century, but the circumstances under which it was created, and was subsequently decorated and modified, remained obscure.

In 1976, during refurbishment of the Great Hall following cessation of its use as court rooms, the opportunity arose to take the table down from the wall-mounting, where it had remained undisturbed since being moved there from the opposite wall in 1873, during an earlier 'restoration' of the Hall. This book provides an account of the physical investigation and conservation of the table in 1976-9, and the subsequent research over more than two decades to interpret the scientific data and to investigate architectural, documentary, literary and art-historical evidence that might shed light on the table's contexts of creation, modification, and continued usage.

The book has already proved a minor bestseller, and it is to the credit of Martin Biddle that he has succeeded not only in providing a meticulously detailed and accurate archaeological analysis (and 'archaeological' somewhat understates the range of investigation), but also in creating a highly accessible and readable account. The book takes the lay reader through complex technical and intellectual issues such as medieval techniques of carpentry, modern dendrochronology, radiocarbon dating, and Tudor politics, to name but a few, with admirable clarity. Biddle skilfully integrates the substantial contributions of seventeen other expert contributors. The discussion is fully illustrated, with numerous tables, 169 black-and-white photographs or drawings, and 28 colour plates.

Biddle divides the book into fourteen chapters in five sections. The first section examines 'Problem and Context'. John Fleming discusses the idea of the Round Table in literature and legend, moving from its earliest mention in Wace's translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth, to its eventual status as a sacral symbol, embodying associations with the table of the Last Supper, and the table of the Grail, as well as symbolising Arthur's political and social ideals. Much as it would be agreeable to discover that in Winchester, where the sensational discovery of a manuscript of Malory's Le Morte Darthur was made in 1934, the Round Table should reflect Malory as the chief inspiration of its inscriptions and decoration, it seems that his work was only one of several sources of information for those who decorated and inscribed the table in the early sixteenth century. Simon Jervis examines the Round Table as furniture, demonstrating that the shape is highly unusual, if not unique, for a large functional medieval dining table. Where hierarchy and precedence where so important, the idea of a round table instead of an oblong one is practically subversive. Biddle, Beatrice Clayre and Michael Morris round off the section with an account of Winchester Castle and the Great Hall. This is most important, as we shall see, because the table was manufactured and then assembled within the Great Hall, and has never left it.

As soon as the table was taken from the wall, Cecil Hewett brought his knowledge of medieval carpentry to bear upon its construction, and quickly concluded that it reflected practices of the period 1250 to 1350. The first chapter of part 2, by Biddle and Hewett, with further contributions by G.R. Coleman, Susan Read, and Brian Heard, outlines how the table was built by someone conversant with the clasp-arm wheel assembly used for large, axled mill wheels. The standards of carpentry are high, and it is clear that once assembled and planed, the table was never again disassembled. The following two chapters on tree-ring dating and radiocarbon dating are lengthy and complex, but necessarily so. A.C. Barefoot's original work on tree rings from this area of England was pioneering, and it is a tribute to his skill that subsequent discoveries and data vindicate his analysis of the late seventies. David Haddon-Reece, in a reanalysis of the data in 1990, shifted the original datings (the oak timbers in the table are from trees felled at different times) by only around four years. Felling dates for the timber are placed in the early 13th century and a construction date, after a period of wood seasoning, perhaps in the period 1250 to 1300. Somewhat puzzlingly, the radiocarbon datings for the timbers tend to be almost a century later, in the early to mid-14th century; and subsequent reanalysis of the data has not significantly corrected the earlier conclusions. Biddle concludes that historical and other evidence tends to square with the dendrochronology rather than the radiochronology.

Part 3 provides chapters on the painting of the table. Radiography and other analyses of the paint show that the table was bare until painted in the early sixteenth century. Subsequent examinations of the inscriptions by Biddle and Sally Badham, and of the iconography by Pamela Tudor-Craig, further support this date. The heraldic and iconographic program of the table is convincingly dated to the second or third decade of the sixteenth century, and indeed it is evident that the portrait of Arthur is in fact of King Henry VIII, and the regalia he bears reflect the latter king's imperial pretensions.

It remains in part 4 for Biddle to synthesize the technical information and place it within appropriate social and political contexts. In the three chapters here he reaches the following main conclusions. The table was probably built for the occasion of Edward I's Arthurian-themed tournament at Winchester in 1290. This conclusion arises from extensive historical research, and brings into light this important political event, overlooked by tournament-historians prior to its discovery by Arnold Taylor. When the Hall was refurbished in 1348-9, probably, the table's legs were removed, and the top was shifted from the floor to be hung on the East Wall. At this time, Biddle suggests, some pictorial covering was probably placed on the table, either cloth or painted leather, perhaps with a design similar in many respects to the present one, with a radial patterning and the names of knights inscribed around the edges. The surviving physical evidence for such covering is slight, but descriptions of the table prior to 1516 suggest that it was not undecorated. The table was repaired and painted in 1516 for the occasion of Charles V's state visit, and has largely preserved the details placed on it at that time, despite damage caused by Cromwell's soldiers shooting at it for target practice, and the extensive repainting undertaken in the eighteenth century. As Biddle demonstrates in his conclusion, the decorated Round Table "fits into a pattern of English display in meetings with the Empire" in the 1510s and 20s, and takes on yet another of its changing roles over the centuries. The epilogue chapters of part 5 trace some of this changing functionality and the responses of visitors to the table.

Every Arthurian scholar will wish to have a copy of this book close to hand. It does great credit to the authors and the publishers.