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13.06.24, Echard, ed., The Arthur of Medieval Latin Literature

13.06.24, Echard, ed., The Arthur of Medieval Latin Literature

This sixth collection of essays in the series Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages was preceded by volumes on the Arthur of the Welsh, the English, the Germans, the French and the North. As is established practice in the series, the work's editor is a leading authority in the field--Siân Echard is the author of one of the very few monographs specifically addressing Latin Arthurian literature--as are the individual authors of the respective essays. The collection provides a much-needed overview of its subject, while presenting challenging perspectives on a range of texts and between the lines indicating a variety of promising areas for further research. Displaying a wide chronological scope, the collection's title has laudably not precluded the inclusion of an essay concerning post-medieval Latin Arthurian texts, nor do the various authors limit themselves to the person of Arthur himself. One of the important insights offered by this book is the acknowledgement that for a full understanding of the dissemination of Arthurian narrative in the Middle Ages, one needs to widen one's scope to also include not only the knights of the Round Table and Merlin, but also such important historiographical characters as Brutus, Corineus, the giants of Albion, Belinus and Brennus and Cadwallader. This is very clear for the study of the historiographical tradition, based on Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, but equally important for a better understanding of those strands of Arthurian literature which developed seemingly at a greater distance from the Galfridian historiographical tradition.

Following the series preface and general introduction, the collection is divided into four sections, each introduced by a useful brief introduction by the editor: the first accounting for the 'origins' of the Arthur story; the second treating Geoffrey of Monmouth's history and the prophecies of Merlin; the third dealing with the later medieval Latin chronicles and romances; and the final section presenting post-medieval Latin Arthurian historiography.

In section one, Nick Higham presents an overview and analysis of mentions of Arthur in chronicles predating Geoffrey of Monmouth, showing how already in this early period, authors employed Arthur for their own contingent ends. Andrew Breeze focuses on the figure of Arthur in saints' lives. Usefully, the discussion of the relevant scholarship here includes thorough treatment of publications in Welsh and Spanish as well as English.

In the second section, Siân Echard allots herself the unenviable task of providing an analysis of Geoffrey of Monmouth's history--perhaps the most contentious source in a corpus of notoriously contentious texts. Her paper serves as an important reminder that a thorough understanding of Arthurian literature should include the many other elements comprising Galfridian history. This point is further illustrated by Julia Crick, who focuses not on Arthur but on Merlin, whose prophecies were included in Geoffrey's history but were also circulated (and commented on) independently.

In section three, Ad Putter provides an account of the historiographical tradition after Geoffrey of Monmouth, concluding with a passionate plea for further research, and justified criticism that such research has been hampered by "our own anachronistic expectations of what good 'histories' should be" (102). Edward Donald Kennedy, in his treatment of the relations between Glastonbury and the Arthurian story, brings together many of the important strands present in several of the other papers: employing a range of manuscript evidence, he illustrates the complicated relationships between Latin and vernacular literatures, while carrying his argument from the twelfth all the way into the sixteenth century. Elizabeth Archibald further challenges preconceived notions concerning the relation between Latin and vernacular literature in her treatment of Latin Arthurian romance. The fourth section, finally, is composed of a single chapter by James P. Carley concerning the sixteenth-century discussion of Arthur by antiquarian historians. While this final section is in the general introduction referred to as an account of "Arthur's afterlife in the early modern world" (3), thereby stressing the divide between the Middle Ages and the early modern period, its author importantly challenges this very view by making the point that "the Latin Arthurian tradition remained influential, and engrossing." Indeed, one could add that it was not merely "antiquaries and poets" (151) who engaged with Arthurian lore; even a great humanist like Erasmus once handily showed his erudition in the genre in an admittedly dismissive quip. And in fact, while the final essay concludes in the late sixteenth century, the continuing urgency of discussions about Arthur and Merlin in Latin even after this time is attested, for example, by John Lynch's Cambrensis eversus (The Welshman [i.e., Gerald of Wales] Overthrown) of 1662.

Obviously, in a work of this nature, there will always be issues one reader or another will feel are wanting; I, for example, would have liked to see more thinking about William of Malmesbury's pre-Galfridian account of Arthur, which provides important evidence for a vibrant discussion of Arthur before Geoffrey of Monmouth (and which formed one of the pretexts for Geoffrey's history), and is here only mentioned in later contexts, and even there only in passing. More fundamentally, however, in several of the essays I felt the focus was overly insular, while some important and well-known continental works of importance to the Latin Arthurian tradition remained undiscussed (one pre-Galfridian mention of Arthur on the European continent which in my mind would have merited a notice is that in the Liber floridus of Lambert of St Omer, c. 1121) or underexplored (Jacob van Maerlant provides crucial evidence for the reception of Arthurian historiography on the European continent as he in fact had not "translated Vincent [of Beauvais]'s account of Arthur" in his translation of the Speculum historiale [105, n. 38], but replaced it with one largely following Geoffrey of Monmouth). As Julia Crick has shown in her previous work on the manuscripts of Geoffrey of Monmouth, his history spread throughout Europe and appears there also in a wide variety of contexts; it would have been good to see this geographical spread and diversity better recognized throughout this volume.

I encountered very few typos, but one typographical irritant: when the printer is evidently capable of producing yoghs in citations (e.g., 113) it is odd to see the same reproduced as a 3 (occasionally in italic) in the name of the author of the "first adaptation of an Arthurian chronicle into English" (113), Laȝamon.

Undergraduate and postgraduate students are among the book's intended beneficiaries, and for this reason it is particularly appropriate that rather than presenting straightforward overviews of their respective subjects, the various authors each opted for their own disciplinary approaches; this makes for a captivating mix, and provides students with an inspiring range of different possibilities for engaging with Arthurian materials and scholarly debates. Where, for example, the reader of chapter one may receive the impression that the field of early Arthurian literature studies is consensual and harmonious, its author choosing to present even some of the most contentious issues as settled, this impression is quickly corrected in chapter two, where the disagreements between previous scholars in the field almost overshadow the treatment of the primary sources; obviously, each approach has its own merits and the contrast makes for a fascinating read. Similarly, some of the essays give a particularly interesting account of the manuscript evidence (Julia Crick's contribution is exemplary in its employment of rich detail to serve larger arguments), others focus on literary criticism (Elizabeth Archibald, who admirably deals with her sources' uncertain provenance) or on historical contextualization (James Carley's excellent account makes one wonder if the real divide between the Middle Ages and the early modern period lies in the increased precision with which one is able contextualize the literature of the later era). One point where all of the authors seem to agree is the dismissal of Arthur as a historical person (or at least the insistence that none of the sources under discussion can be employed as evidence for the existence of such as person); perhaps this position is now all but unchallengeable, but I have witnessed conference sessions where alternative readings were offered, and it could have added to the already interesting mix if a discordant voice could have been found. That said, the editor deserves particular praise for her accomplishment in ensuring the complementary nature of the various chapters; there is very little overlap between them in both subject matter and individual methodology. Because of these editorial decisions and because of the excellence of the individual contributions, this is an important book which far exceeds the stated aims of the series: it is of interest not just for students and scholars interested in Arthurian studies but for anyone with an interest in medieval literary and historical (as well as prophetic) culture, calling attention to the richness and vibrancy of medieval Latin literature, while challenging many commonly held beliefs concerning such issues as generic divisions, notions of truth in medieval historiography, distinctions between 'history' and 'fiction' in modern literary criticism, the relations between Latin and vernacular languages and literatures, and finally the division between what we call the Middle Ages and the early modern period.