18.01.03, Smith, Walter Map and the Matter of Britain

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Leah Tether

The Medieval Review 18.01.03

Smith, Joshua Byron. Walter Map and the Matter of Britain. Philadelphia PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. pp. xi, 254. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4932-3. (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Leah Tether
University of Bristol
leah.tether@bristol.ac.uk

This book attempts a dramatic rehabilitation of Walter Map, a cleric and writer who died in 1209/10, and who has often been subject to rather unsympathetic representation. Walter and the various works attributed to him, some pseudonymically, have been the subject of considerable scholarship over the years, and where Walter's authorship has been assured (particularly in the case of his De nugis curialium), there has been a tendency to see him as a rather disorganised thinker and writer. Drawing upon an interdisciplinary methodological framework, Smith undertakes a detailed analysis of Walter's life and known work (including works claiming, probably erroneously, to have been authored by him) in order to evidence the need for a firm rebuttal of this scholarly status quo. In large part, Smith's endeavour is successful.

Chapter 1 sees Smith explain Walter's connections to Wales and to romance. By taking his reader through several examples of romances contained within Distinctio 3 of De nugis curialium, Smith convincingly demonstrates Walter's aptitude as a writer of romance, albeit in Latin rather than French. Furthermore, even though Walter was not writing in French, Smith argues that he was clearly widely read in French literature, and that his demonstrable interest in Wales contextualises him as someone au fait with the Matter of Britain. In many ways, this is a persuasive and helpful start to the book, though a discussion of the state of plurilingualism in England during this period, so brilliantly brought to prominence by the work of Jocelyn Wogan-Browne and others, seems oddly absent here. Smith says he wishes to show Walter to be a credible type of candidate for authoring the likes of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, that work so famously attributed to him, but which he, it is believed, could not have written owing to his death preceding the accepted terminus ante quem of the Prose Lancelot's composition; this would seem, therefore, a good moment at which to acknowledge that Walter was probably highly competent not only in reading French but also in writing it, especially given his many professional connections across the Channel. Unfortunately, however, this aspect of Walter's probable skillset is left out here, giving us--at the outset of the book--a slightly two-dimensional view of Walter's likely highly developed ability in continental vernacular languages, as well as, and alongside, Latin.

Chapter 2 argues for Walter as a diligent and capable reviser of his work. This is a fluid and cogent chapter, which uses a meticulous close reading of doublets in De nugis curialium to show that Walter, in his later works, reused and revised his own earlier material. Smith's central hypothesis here is that some of Walter's extant work was never actually completed, but remains in draft form and, moreover, may never have been intended to be read as a larger textual unit: that is, Smith argues, there are five separate works (some of them incomplete) that were pulled together after Walter's death to create what we now know as De nugis curialium. Smith thus posits a possible, and temptingly plausible, explanation for the apparent disorganisation of Walter's work. This chapter works very neatly in tandem with Chapter 3, which sets out evidence that some of the textual features used in the past to paint Walter as a poor writer may actually have been the result of scribal infelicities. The combination of these two chapters makes Smith's point very well, and the clear demonstration of Walter's having been "done wrong" in scholarship makes for a particularly satisfying moment in Smith's study.

Chapter 4 feels slightly less successful. Here, Smith attempts to use the tale of King Herla as an index of the particular freedom that Walter felt in reworking tales so as to fit into the Matter of Britain. In this, Smith makes a good and valid point. The reason this chapter jars with the reader is less to do with concept, I believe, than with its placement within the book: it demands a little too much knowledge on the part of the reader in respect of Walter's likely sources. The chapter that is needed to remedy this is, in fact, that which follows--Chapter 5. As a crucial provider of context, the analysis and exposition of Walter's Latin-Welsh sources presented here is indispensable; it just needed to come sooner. We get, for instance, more of a sense of the plurilingualism to which I referred above, the interwoven network of language and text. Indeed, Smith's argument that the transmission of Celtic motifs into French literature may have been facilitated by Latin literature's serving as a kind of intermediary is interesting and persuasive. This discussion deserved foregrounding earlier, especially since it is a key premise upon which the book in its entirety is based.

The book's final chapter looks at the reception of Walter in the thirteenth century through his connection to works such as the Lancelot-Grail. Smith is clear in his belief that Walter was precisely the sort of person who could have written this text, hence the reason for Walter's connection to it in the first place, but Smith never actually entertains the possibility, however small, that Walter may actually have been involved after all. Roger Middleton, for instance, has argued plausibly that there is enough flux in our dating of the text's composition to allow for the (small) possibility that Walter could have had some kind of a hand in the text's composition, even if only through having written a precursor narrative; there is also Alison Stones' (1977) particularly early dating of Rennes, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 255 to c. 1220, which, if accepted, requires a revision of the supposed composition dates of some of the Cycle's texts to a period close enough to Walter's lifetime to give us--at least--some pause. Even if Smith does not believe that Walter had any part in the writing of the Lancelot-Grail (and, for the record, I am not sure I do either), it would have been helpful to have seen a discussion of what evidence there is that he might have had. If anything, this would have served to support Smith's notion of Walter as precisely the right type of candidate to have authored the text. This chapter also sees the notion of Walter's capability in French being raised (in relation to jottings written both about and to Walter, such as those by his friend, Gerald of Wales), and Smith uses it as a means of showing why Walter is unlikely to have written formal texts in French. This may well be true, and it is certainly pertinent, but its appearance in the book's final chapter makes it feel like more of an afterthought; and this underlines once again that a more robust discussion of Walter's linguistic ability in the vernacular(s) could have been more helpfully broached somewhat sooner, since to some degree it underpins precisely what kinds of activities we can fairly ascribe to/expect of someone like Walter Map.

Throughout his book, Smith provides the reader with a helpful, and often quite detailed, synopsis at the end of each chapter. These summaries' length in some ways make the book appear to bear the hallmarks of a thesis-turned-into-a-book, but it is hard to deny that they are useful for quick reference purposes. A further minor and admittedly personal point of contention relates to an editorial choice, though this is probably more to do with the publisher's style preference than that of the author, and that is the decision to use endnotes rather than footnotes. I cannot help but feel frustrated that when the author points to a fascinating source of some kind or another (and Smith often does), I then spend time tracking down the associated note in the back of the book. By the time I have done so and returned to the main text, I have often lost the narrative thread and have to re-read the preceding paragraph. As I say, though, I am aware that this is a personal preference and says comparatively little about the qualities of this book, and there are many.

Indeed, the great virtue of this book for this reviewer is in its sheer readability: the style is lively and engaging, and at times the reader has to remind him/herself that s/he is not reading a trade biography of a historical "personality." (In fact, the quibble I had about endnotes above is probably not an insignificant factor in the creation of this impression.) Smith is a self-aware and careful critic; he introduces us to Map's craft--his wit, his intelligence, his professionalism--with marked dexterity and a distinct fondness for his subject. I suggested above that Walter needed more multi-dimensional treatment in respect of his probable linguistic competencies, but this is not at all to say that Smith presents a wholly two-dimensional view of Walter Map. In actual fact, we glean a very rounded picture of the man. This is perhaps Smith's most important achievement: his demonstration of just how incisive and insightful an interdisciplinary approach can be in teasing out biographical detail. Indeed, we are all too used to knowing very little about the medieval individuals whose writings we pore over in such detail. Smith shows that it is, in some cases, perfectly possible to discern more.

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