James D. Johnson

title.none: Moll, Before Malory (James D. Johnson)

identifier.other: baj9928.0412.020 04.12.20

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: James D. Johnson, Humboldt State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Moll, Richard J. Before Malory: Reading Arthur in Later Medieval England. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. Pp. ix, 368. $60.00 0-8020-3722-4. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.12.20

Moll, Richard J. Before Malory: Reading Arthur in Later Medieval England. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. Pp. ix, 368. $60.00 0-8020-3722-4. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

James D. Johnson
Humboldt State University

In Before Malory, Richard J. Moll focuses on the conflict and interplay between Arthurian narrative traditions, the "true" chronicles and the "fictive" romances, and on the culture that facilitated their development. He is especially drawn to neglected works whose knowledgeable authors provide evidence concerning the context in which these Arthurian narratives were produced.

The opening chapter, "The Years of Romance," is concerned with the intrusion of "false" romance elements into the "true" chronicle accounts of King Arthur's reign. Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae, the standard historical account of King Arthur, contains two long intervals of peace: twelve years following Arthur's conquest of Britain and Ireland and nine years after he defeats Frollo. When Wace translated Geoffrey's work in the Roman de Brut,, he resisted filling these peaceful periods with questionable events and expressed his doubts about the veracity of the growing number of Arthurian stories. Wace's comments created open spaces within the chronicle tradition that led later adapters and scribes to fill them with romance materials that were abundant by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, especially in the French prose Vulgate cycle. Unlike their continental counterparts, insular chroniclers were careful to distinguish historical from non- historical materials, but the two periods of peace soon filled with romance elements that so altered Geoffrey's narrative that by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries English chroniclers were confronted with the tasks of separating history from fable and considering the ramifications of the conflicting narratives. Moll views Robert Mannying as the epitome of the chroniclers who resisted the intrusion of "false" elements. In his Chronicle,, Mannyng expanded Wace's distinction between history and romance and favored written sources he could verify over doubtful oral sources. Whenever Mannyng included romance elements, he qualified them by stating his lack of an authority, but other writers utilized romance narratives without concern for their accuracy. Surprisingly, Mannyng's integrity prevailed and most fourteenth- and fifteenth-century chroniclers distinguished between chronicle and romance and restricted the romance materials to the two periods of peace.

Moll's second chapter, "The Scalacronica of Sir Thomas Gray of Heton," closely examines this Anglo-Norman work by an English knight writing for a courtly audience familiar with French romances. Gray's title came to him in a dream in which the prophetic Sibyl guided his construction of the scalacronic, or ladder of history, and directed him to his sources. King Arthur is on the fourth rung, where Gray's main source was Ranulf Higden's Polychronicon. Gray's dissatisfaction with Higden's treatment of Arthur, however, impelled him to create a composite account of Arthur from other sources, mainly Wace, Geoffrey, and the Vulgate. Gray either carefully restricted his non-historical Arthurian additions to material that did not conflict with the Brut tradition or else changed his material to bring it into line with the Brut. He also distinguished "false" material from "true" historical material by attributing it to "some chroniclers," letting the vagueness of the source imply unreliability. In this way, Gray introduced a number of romance elements, such as the sword in the stone and the establishment of the Round Table. His additions from the prose romances elevated the status of Gawain and Yvain as exemplars of chivalry, emphasized the importance of Excalibur as a symbol of sovereignty, and generally enhanced the chivalric mood, thereby advancing his own agenda. Even though Gray added romance elements to his chronicle, like Mannyng he preserved the integrity of the Brut tradition by not granting these fictions historical authenticity.

In Chapter three, "Defending Arthur," Moll turns from the infiltration of romance into chronicles to the growing doubts about the historicity of the Brut tradition itself. After surveying the main skeptics, Moll concentrates on Thomas Gray and John Trevisa. In his Scalacronica, Gray defended the Brut tradition by refuting several charges against Arthur. One concern was that Bede did not include Arthur in his Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. Gray responded that most chroniclers did mention Arthur, that Bede was concerned only with Saxons and was unable to read Celtic sources, and that Saxon and British chroniclers simply did not mention each other, a situation that Gray saw reflected in the histories of his own time. Gray further supported the view that from 449 until the death of Cadwallader in 689 the British and Saxons coexisted. The British were overlords of the Saxons, he maintained, who held only sub-kingdoms and thus were never mentioned by British chroniclers. To the charge that neither the Emperor Lucius nor King Frollo existed, Gray responded that they may have been known by other names. In his translation of Ranulf Higden's Polychronicon in the fourteenth century, John Trevisa added his own defense of the Brut tradition. Trevisa questioned Higden's reasoning at times, but he also appealed to scriptural parallels to support his view that negative comments about Arthur did not disprove Geoffrey's version. Trevisa also used Gray's argument that Lucius and Frollo may have gone by other names, and he further argued that Geoffrey's British book confirmed his version, which was not disproved by later writers without access to that source. Finally, Trevisa cited Arthurian narratives in other countries as evidence of Arthur's existence. While the motivation for Trevisa's defense is uncertain, Moll suggests that primarily he was intent upon fulfilling his role as an historian. Gray and Trevisa, Moll believes, represent the learned culture of the times, and, despite some flaws, both should be recognized for their critical examination of the evidence for the historicity of Arthur.

Chapter four, "History curiously dytit," takes up the alliterative Morte Arthure, whose critics, Moll believes, have failed to recognize the full implications of its chronicle sources. He also maintains that the "literary community" in which the poem participated is an aid to understanding the poet's treatment of historical narrative. Although an historical poem, the alliterative Morte Arthure contains a number of additions from romances that the poet skillfully melded with the Brut material in order to place Arthur within the pattern of British history and highlight his sovereignty and the chivalry of his knights. The collapse of the Round Table is seen to be caused not by Arthur's sin but by Fortune.

Chapter five, "Adventures in History," reverses Chapter four to examine how chronicles influenced Arthurian romances. Most romances concern individual knights, but it is often uncertain which tradition-chronicle or romance-forms the background. As examples, Moll looks at two romances that have a Brut background, The Awntyrs off Arthure and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Awntyrs off Arthure describes a visit from Guenevere's dead mother, who foretells the fall of the Round Table by reciting a chronicle account of Arthur that blames his downfall on Fortune. This concern with Fortune continues in the second episode, where Arthur is subject to the cycles of history and again falls through Fortune, though the fault is his own. Critics have usually connected Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with the Vulgate cycle, but Moll argues that the poem is also set within an historical context that guides our reaction to it. Events in the poem--Arthur is married, the Round Table established--place it within the Galfridian twelve years of peace and establish its chronicle connections. Of more importance are the Trojan references that place the poem within the context of British history by invoking the cycle of rise and fall, a pattern that extends into the Arthurian period. This pattern is reinforced by images of mutability--Gawain's beheading adventure, the changing seasons, and the descriptions of the young and old ladies in Bertilak's castle. Implicit in this pattern is not only the failure of Gawain but the downfall of the Round Table through its own weaknesses.

Moll's sixth chapter is "Making History: John Hardyng's Metrical Chronicle." This mid-fifteenth century work by a former soldier on the Scottish border was written to promote the rule of England over Scotland. Two versions exist, one pro-Lancastrian, the other pro-Yorkist. The first version survives in only a single manuscript, but the influential second version is extant in several copies and was used by Holinshed, Shakespeare, Malory, and others. Hardyng drew upon chronicles and romances, as well as his own forged documents, to present Arthur's reign as a precedent for England's authority over Scotland by portraying the Arthurian world as the ancestor of contemporary chivalry and society. To do so, he countered the Scots chroniclers by making several changes. He defended Arthur's birth as legitimate, denied that he was a cruel conqueror who ruled Scotland by force rather than by law, and dismissed Mordred as Arthur's heir, replacing him with his half-brother Cador, whose son Constantine succeeded Arthur and kept his line intact. Hardyng also incorporated into his chronicle romance materials from the "Saynte Grale" that glorify Arthur and support the cause of British unity. Through such inclusions, Hardyng sought to inspire chivalry in the young knights of his own time. Hardyng's second version excluded references to individual tales and knights to concentrate on the rules of courtly behavior, again advocating Arthurian tales as models of chivalry for young knights. Hardyng was unique among chroniclers in promoting his romance interpolations as genuine in order to revive chivalry, and he made a strong effort to render these materials authentic. In the first version he explained how the quest still survived, altered manuscripts, and, apparently, forged his own supporting evidence. In the second version he cited as his authority a British chronicler named Mewyn, whose identity, indeed existence, still remains in doubt. Hardyng's alterations of the Brut tradition presented Arthur in an entirely positive light. His death resulted not from personal fault but from the capriciousness of Fortune, which is further responsible for the subsequent collapse of the united Britain that Arthur had created. Only by returning to the original ideals of chivalry, Hardyng urged, could Britain be reunited in his day.

In his final chapter, "Fifteenth-Century Scribes," Moll demonstrates that not all scribes were simple copyists. Some of them drew upon their knowledge of romances to augment the texts they were reproducing. Like the chroniclers, these scribes adhered to the established convention of identifying fictional additions as such and confining them to the two intervals of peace. For examples of these scribal additions, Moll turns to the manuscripts of two works. In the mid-fifteenth-century copy of Robert of Gloucester's Metrical Chronicle, Arundel MS 58, the scribe drew from both chronicles and romances to expand accounts such as Merlin's prophecies and Arthur's drawing the sword from the stone. Similar additions are found in two related manuscripts of the prose Brut, the Trinity/Cleveland Abbreviation and Lambeth Palace Library, MS 84. Both manuscripts descend from the same text, though the Trinity manuscript's account of Arthur contains more romance materials. Moll considers these scribal additions remarkable for their consistent placement in the periods of peace. More importantly, they confirm that in the fifteenth century there existed a community of authors, scribes, and readers critically engaged with Arthurian narrative and observant of the relationship between history and romance.

In his "Conclusion: Reading about Arthur," Moll observes that medieval authors and scribes shared not only the Arthurian narrative but also interpretations of it. They considered Arthur's story an exemplum of mutability but also recognized Arthur's central position in Britain's chivalric past, and some thought him a model for contemporary knights. Their common interpretations also extended to the attitude toward the relationship of chronicle and romance. Chroniclers either ignored or cast doubt on fictional accounts, and when they did include such materials they were careful to distinguish them from history. Conversely, romance writers, such as the Gawain-poet, used chronicles in the service of fiction, prompting readers to reevaluate history. These similarities of response again indicate the presence of a literary community familiar with the same chronicle and romance texts. Moll suggests that Sir Thomas Malory was able to obtain the Arthurian works he used in writing Le Morte D'Arthur through his membership in just such a circle of readers and writers who freely shared texts. The evidence for these literary circles is to be found now only in written records. Additions and corrections in historical manuscripts show that the scribes possessed a wide-ranging knowledge of both the historical and fictive Arthurian traditions. Glosses and marginalia further support the existence of literary circles by showing that readers' reactions to the texts were based on their knowledge of other works. Furthermore, Malory's first publisher displays a broad knowledge of Arthurian works. William Caxton's prologue to the Morte D'Arthur conveys his concern with accuracy and with distinguishing between history and romance. After questioning Arthur's existence, Caxton leaves the final answer up to his readers, implying the existence of a knowledgeable literary community. Like Caxton, medieval authors of chronicles and adventures also relied upon their readers to recognize the interchanges between these two types of narratives as they created an Arthur who was both an imperialistic monarch and an exemplar of chivalry.

Moll's dense and detailed book not only increases our understanding of the development of Arthurian narratives in their formative centuries but also serves the larger function of providing an historical, literary, and social context in which to read and interpret Malory's Morte D'Arthur and other works. It is a valuable addition to Arthurian studies, though not without a few faults. Moll's reading of the lesser-known chronicles and their placement within the Arthurian context and the literary culture of their times is the most important aspect of this work. His treatment of the better-known literary works seems less successful. The placement of such works in their historical context is valuable, but at times Moll wanders from the main track. In his discussion of The Awntyrs off Arthure, for instance, he traces the origins of the ghastly ghost of Guenevere's mother to transi-tomb sculptures and the legend of the talking dead. While of interest, this discussion has limited relevance to the matter at hand. Likewise, Moll's assessment of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight offers a fresh insight into the poem, but at times seems padded. For instance, Moll includes a long summary, with supporting quotations, of Gawain's adventures in Bertilak's castle that most readers will find unnecessary. Moll's book is based on his University of Toronto doctoral dissertation and displays signs of its origins. Documentation, for example, is heavy: notes and bibliography together occupy nearly a third of the book. Moll's translations from foreign languages are helpful, as are the key phrases included with the page numbers in the index, but, unfortunately, names of scholars and critics are not indexed. There are also occasional mistakes in punctuation and spelling, as well as several typographical errors. But these are all minor blemishes on a work that displays an impressive familiarity with the Arthurian works that preceded Malory. Moll's book is an intelligent and perceptive account of the prevalent attitudes toward chronicle and romance and of the relationships between these two types of narrative in the centuries leading up to the Morte D'Arthur and is a welcome addition to Arthurian studies.