Think of King Arthur and the medieval romance and a huge number of images and tropes and clichés spring to mind: knights in shining armour and damsels in distress, castles and chivalry and courtly love, heroic quests and fierce dragons. Camelot, Merlin, the Knights of the Round Table, the Holy Grail, and on, and on.
Where does all this come from?
On this week’s episode I explore the history of the medieval romance, and the Athurian romance in particular, with Dr Usha Vishnuvajjala. How far back can we trace these tales? Why have they remained so popular? And how, if you are so inclined, can you channel your inner medieval goddess for the purposes of a yoga session?
Dr Usha Vishnuvajjala is a lecturer in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University, where she studies and teaches late medieval literature, especially Arthurian romance, and its afterlives, with a particular focus on gender, emotions, and friendship. Some of her recent publications include:
“‘Me rewes sore:’ Women’s Friendship, Affect, and Manuscript Images in Ywain and Gawain,” Arthurian Literature XXXV (2020)
“Women’s Communities and the Possibility of Friendship in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur” forthcoming in Women’s Friendship in Medieval Literature, Ohio State U Press, 2022, edited by Vishnuvajjala and Karma Lochrie
“Adversary, Sister, Scapegoat: Morgan le Fay on Film” Medieval Women on Film: Essays on Gender, Cinema and History, ed. Kevin J. Harty, McFarland (2020)
“Loyalty and Horizontal Cosmopolitanism in Chrétien de Troyes’ Cligés,” Arthuriana 24.1
You can read her full bio here
Works Mentioned & Referenced
Beowulf (the short snippet was read by Peter S Baker, and available here)
Anon: “Pangur Bán”
Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales (the short snippet was from the prologue and can be found here)
Chrétien de Troyes: various Arthurian romances
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Geoffrey of Monmouth: Historia Regum Britanniae
Thomas Mallory: Le Morte d’Arthur
Mark Twain: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
T.H. White: The Once and Future King
David Lowery: The Green Knight (film)
Tracy Deonn: Legend Born
Meg Cabot: Avalon High
The clips used in the opening montage were from
Camelot Season 1 Trailer
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
History Channel Documentary Clip (What is the Holy Grail?):
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This episode pairs particularly well with the last one, on dragons
Or for romances of a different kind, try this episode
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Transcripts: Arthurian Romance
S2 Ep2 (King Arthur) Script
I’m Conor Reid, with Words To That Effect
Stories of the fiction that shapes popular culture
Knights in shining armour, damsels in distress, castles, chivalry and courtly love, heroic quests, dragons
King Arthur, Camelot, Merlin, the Knights of the Round Table, the Holy Grail
Think of King Arthur and the medieval romance and a huge number of images and tropes and cliches spring to mind.
Where does all this come from?
I’m Usha Vishnuvajalla. I’m currently a lecturer at Cardiff University in English literature. And my research is really on two main areas. So, I work on late mediaeval literature, especially Arthurian literature, mostly in Middle English. And then I also work quite a bit on medievalism. So that post mediaeval reception and adaptation and engagement with mediaeval literature and culture, and the main area where these two come together is very much for me Arthurian literature.
So, the problem with talking about “the medieval period” or “medieval literature” is that it’s an incredibly long period of time – we’re talking about a thousand years, from around 450 to 1450C, which is very easily conflated in the popular imagination.
So, before you even start talking about “English literature” in this period, you’ve got to understand what we even mean by “English”.
So, just in case you’ve forgotten, here it is, in under 4 minutes
Back in the 5th century, in Britain, you had Celtic people speaking the language that is the ancestor of today’s Welsh, and also related to Irish, Scottish Gaelic other Celtic languages.
Messe ocus Pangur Bán,
cechtar nathar fria saindán;
bíth a menma-sam fri seilgg,
mu menma céin im saincheirdd
Latin was also spoken, because the area had been under Roman control since the time of Julius Caesar.[Latin, from Ovid Metamorphoses]
But none of these languages would ultimately affect how English initially developed. That was down to various Germanic tribes that invaded from modern-day Denmark and Germany – Jutes, Angles, Saxons.
They all spoke similar Germanic languages, and they fought the established Celts out of large parts of Britain. Eventually the Angles become the dominant group and their nation became the land of the Angles, Anglaland, and what they spoke became Englisc, which slowly began to differ from what was being spoken over on the mainland, as languages tend to do when they are cut off from each other.
So this was all happening around the 7th century. And this language is what we now call Old English. If you look at it on a page you can see that there are clearly lots of words that look a bit like modern English, but it’s still very different. And it is obviously much harder to understand if spoken. Kind of like it you listened to someone speaking German, without knowing the language – you’d catch a few words here or there but that would be it. So it sounded something like this:[Old English snippet: Beowulf
Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
In the last episode on dragons, I was talking about Beowulf slaying a dragon. What you just heard is the opening of that poem.
So the words in Old English we use today are the really fundamental ones, stuff like: live, love, fight, food, drink, day, night, that kind of thing.
At this point, then, a few other languages were added to the mix – you still had Latin being used by the church and the educated elites. There were Viking invasions in the 8th and 9th century, so you can throw in some Old Norse there as well.
And then, in 1066, the Normans arrived and brought their language with them, which was kind of French – it was Norman French, not the same as the French of Paris. But the important thing is that it was a Romance language, not a Germanic one. So, you suddenly had a ruling elite speaking Anglo-Norman French. This class of society would all have used Latin too, as would the church. And then the lower classes, i.e. the vast, vast majority of the country, continued about their business in the same language they had been speaking before the Normans arrived.
Eventually, though, the people and the languages mixed. And this mix is what we now call Middle English. It’s the language of Chaucer[Chaucer snippet:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Sound a little strange, but it’s much, much closer to our English today. Essentially all the foundational, basic words remained Germanic, and what we might consider the formal or sophisticated or literary words were all French-based. The poor people kept the animals: sheep, cow, calf (Germanic words). The rich people ate the animals: mutton, beef, pork (French words)
By the late medieval period, even if the more educated could also speak French and Latin, everyone spoke English.
Chaucer wrote the Canterbury tales in the 1380s and lots of the stories you’ll hear about in this episode, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, are from around this time too.
And then the language continued to change and develop until, by Shakespeare’s time, it was what we now call Early Modern English. And really by that point, with a little bit of practice, any modern English speaker can read it.
And that is the history of English, vastly oversimplified, in under 4 minutes
So where were we? Yes, Dr Vishnuvajalla works mostly on texts from the later medieval period:
So, some of the 12th century texts I study are in Old French, and in Anglo Norman, which is the kind of English dialect of French, I guess we might say. I work mostly on kind of what we might think of as the tail end of the mediaeval period. So, the 14th, and a little bit into the 15th centuries. And what we might call late Middle English, so not different from Shakespeare’s English, but that’s still different enough to warrant having a different name
So what I want to talk on this episode is the medieval romance. And, as we heard at the beginning of the episode, we have so many images and tropes in popular culture around this type of tale: knights in shining armour, fierce dragons and damsels in distress, King Arthur and Sir Lancelot, heroic quests and courtly love, and on and on.
The word “romance”, which we now use in connection with “love”, comes from these stories, which were “romances”, because they were written in a romance language, i.e. French.
We’ve been reading these stories for not far off a thousand years now. How did they first emerge?
I think most scholars would agree on the origin of mediaeval romance is kind of the late 12th century. And it does start as a French genre of literature and romance, at the time just meant romance language, specifically meant French as opposed to Latin. So, it was a vernacular genre. And that was important because it meant different kinds of writing different kinds of audiences. different topics were sort of acceptable.
And some of the things that we think of as cliches now do appear very early on. So, kind of knights and ladies and what we might call, with a small ‘r’, romantic love. Things that also appear in the 12th century Chrétien de Troyes romances. He’s often kind of treated as the originator of Romans include a very early mention of the Holy Grail, although it’s not holy, it’s just a grail. And no one is sure what it is, it’s a serving platter of some kind at the time, not yet associated with the blood of Christ at all, or anything like that. And the roundtable appears in the 12th century, certainly the idea of knights going on quests and kind of having battles and things.
We typically think of the romances as well as being solely concerned with the upper echelons of society: wealthy kings in huge castles, splendidly dressed women, luxurious banquets attended by knights and lords, and so on. But this was not the case in the later Middle Ages, because at this point everyone was consuming these tales:
So people of very different kind of classes are reading it, we still get some of those types of depictions. I mean, you can see in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, the descriptions of this beautiful feast and the beautiful clothes and jewels and all this kind of stuff. But we also get more romances towards the end of the Middle Ages that depict something closer to what we might think of as regular people, a bit more kind of depiction of daily life, even occasionally, financial struggle. So, there’s a lot more kind of divergence towards the end of the Middle Ages, which I think is just a feature of the fact that it’s a genre that had wide appeal and wide readership and started out as something very concerned with the very rarefied kind of environment of the court.
So the romance had a huge, widespread appeal. But there is one story above all others that stands out when we think of this period, and that is, of course, the Arthurian Romance. The tale of King Arthur and the many, many variations and spin-offs based around the legendary king have been continuously told and retold century after century right up to the present day.
Historical records for an actual King Arthur around the end of the 5th century are pretty sketchy. He may or may not have been a heroic Welsh defender of Britain from the invading Saxons, he may be an amalgamation of several leaders from the period, or he may be entirely invented. For the purposes of the literature though, this doesn’t really matter. King Arthur, as we know him, and all of the events and people around him – Excalibur, Merlin, Camelot, the round table – these are literary inventions. And they began around the 12th century:
Arthur is mentioned in some earlier texts. But as the literary kind of body, it really takes off in the 12th century. And so to whatever extent it may be inspired by a historical figure from the sixth century or the fifth century, that is largely actually, I would say, not really relevant to what takes off in the 12th century, which I would argue is very much about what’s going on in the 12th century, and kind of the concerns that people have political and social and otherwise, and the way that this figure kind of becomes a cornerstone for narratives that engage with these questions of the legitimacy of political rule, and these kinds of things.
So Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia [Historia Regum Britanniae] History of the Kings of Britain, from the 1130s is, in some ways, may be kind of the urtext for most mediaeval Arthurian literature, and it really is about kind of the long fictional history of British monarchs and their rule, but what people take away from that is, we have this story of this, you know, contested figure who is a monarch who briefly kind of holds violence at bay and unites this island. And that becomes the sort of background against which all of these interesting stories can be told. And questions can be raised about how we assess the legitimacy of someone’s political role and what it means for his nephews to be holding their own lands and challenging him and all this kind of stuff.
So to the extent that there is a kind of origin point for these narratives, I would say it’s both that text, but then also kind of this period of political instability that’s happening when Geoffrey’s writing
So if we’ve got our Essential Elements of the King Arthur Tale checklist, how much of them are here in this early period?
So a few things are there I mean, certainly the idea of Arthur’s weird conception, which is weird only in that it has this kind of weird magical element to it, and his parents or his mother is married to someone else and is, you know, depending on the text, tricked or coerced into sleeping with his father to conceive him.
I think what is recognisable? There is really Arthur is this kind of young monarch who then gets known for it is known for his sort of battle prowess. And that continues even as these other things spring up later on, and the kind of courtliness and the Knights and the all of that. We do see the beginnings of some characters who will get developed as knights later on. So Parador who’s named Perador in the Welsh romance but becomes Percival in French and English later on and German as well. We see Arthur having a kind of magical sword, the beginning of that I think we see the kind of beginning of Arthur creating what we might call an international coalition as well. So certainly elements that are recognised. And that we do see in the later texts, but maybe not what you would expect to see if you’re thinking about knights and ladies and horses and all that kind of stuff,
But while Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his tale in Britain, this story of a legendary British King wasn’t really that popular locally at the time, that would come later. It was actually far more popular in continental Europe:
I would argue that it doesn’t really become an English story until after it becomes a European story. So Geoffrey is writing in Latin and as best as we know, he’s associated with Monmouth, so kind of on the border of England and Wales. And Arthur is still there. He’s a British monarch, but British in the sense, the kind of older sense of meaning, what, Welsh essentially.
And then it gets picked up by two writers almost immediately, Wace and Lawman and was writing in very early Middle English. So that is an English text, and was writing in a dialect of Old French, and he provides a source for Chrétien de Troyes, who’s writing in France. So in French, but not in the kind of French of England. And it’s really other than, you know, other than a couple of texts, including Lawman, it doesn’t really take off as an English genre until after Chrétien until really until the 14th century, when we get this explosion of Arthurian romances in English, and by then we’ve had a lot of French texts, including Chrétien and continuations of Chrétien’s, because Chrétien’s story of the grail is unfinished. So, of course people immediately pick it up and then start to complete it in different ways
So in a way, it really takes off kind of all over Western Europe before it becomes a major part of English literature. And we do see Arthur get kind of, you know, Anglicised or English eyes to more and more in the 14th and 15th centuries where his Welshness increasingly is kind of erased, and he gets more and more described, you know, first, he’s a British king, and then he starts to actually kind of get described as like an English King towards the end of the Middle Ages.
So we have this explosion in popularity of the tale in Britain from the 14th century, and one of its recurring features, as Dr Vishnuvajjala mentions, was the Holy (or maybe not so Holy) Grail.
This is one part of the Arthurian legend that is nicely illustrative of the ways different meanings get attached to different elements of the story, depending on the historical context. The grail is, variously, a cup or chalice, or a stone, or a dish or platter. It may contain magical powers, or hold the blood of Christ, or it may be just a medieval McGuffin for all those heroic knights to quest after.
So there’s a lot of room for kind of people to do what they want with it, which they they very much do. But it’s just a kind of a dish or serving platter, that’s part of this weird, magical procession, that the night, Percival is watching with no idea what’s going on, he only knows that there’s like magic, and it’s very strange. And there’s also bleeding Lance in this procession.
And then it really is the a body of text called the Lancelot Grail cycle sometimes, or the Vulgate cycle, that are these continuations of Chrétien written in the early 13th century by a group of very religious writers, including Cistercian monks, who turn it into this very holy Christian object and write this long backstory for it and kind of tie it to, to kind of biblical narratives. And so that’s where we get a version of what people might recognise today, as you know, the cup that holds the blood of Christ, but in its original iteration, it’s not that at all.
In Thomas Mallory’s LeMorte d’Arthur in the 15th century, which is probably the most influential still, mediaeval English Arthurian text, there’s a long section in that where whether searching for the Grail, the Knights are searching for the Grail, and they do find it or achieve it. But the Grail itself as an object there becomes, I think, considerably less important than the idea of the quest, and how that becomes a defining feature of this community. So, in that sense, we see between the 12th and 15th centuries, like a huge shift in the significance of what a single kind of object from this sectional world means.
Other aspects, too, take on different significances at different points in time. There’s the political, dynastic element to Arthur, of interest in Elizabethan times:
And it becomes interesting kind of politically at the very end of the 16th century, when there are these debates about who’s going to succeed Elizabeth, because she’s getting old and she has no heirs. People get interested actually in Geoffrey of Monmouth, again, in the idea of James as a sort of Arthurian figure. And so it comes up certainly again and again.
But let’s skip a century or two and bring things a little more up to date.
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By the 19th century the King Arthur story was well established, with most if not all of the common features we know today. And the interest in the story at this time was for a variety of reasons:
I would say probably the resurgence has to do with a few different things that are going on. One is a kind of antiquarianism in history. And old things, including old books.
One is the development of English literary studies and mediaeval studies, as academic disciplines in this period.
And then I think, one is also nationalism. And we see interest in Arthur certainly to do with English nationalism. And, actually, also German nationalism, but we also see interest in it in American nationalism. And so for Twain, you know, there’s kind of this sense of his contemporary American character, like going back in time, and then being really superior to King Arthur, and all his knights.
This is Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a kind of early time travel tale in which the protagonist, an engineer from contemporary Connecticut, gets banged on the head and wakes up to find himself in Arthurian times. He becomes involved in all sorts of adventures, using his knowledge of 19th century engineering and science to the horror and amazement of the local people.
Jump forward to the 20th century and you have T.H. White, author of The Sword in the Stone, and other Arthurian tales collected together as The Once and Future King
So I mean, it’s, I think, 40 years from Twain to TH White, who’s deeply, deeply critical of different kinds of nationalism and of war. And he’s a conscientious objector to World War Two, which is really kind of a stance to take. And he writes this kind of epic Arthurian novel that is all about critiquing nationalism. It’s about other things as well.
But that’s what’s most interesting to me. So, you know, I think we see Arthurian text popping up throughout that kind of 500-year stretch. But there are certain points at which it there’s a, I think, a big glut of them. And those are maybe two of them, the kind of 19th century and maybe the interwar period and the beginning of World War Two, and then again in the 1980s. And then I would say actually, again, kind of now in the last 20 years or so.
The great thing about the Arthurian romance is it has its basis in myth and legend, and so it can be adapted and retold in any number of ways. It’s also set within its own fully developed world with a well-established set of characters: Percival, Gawain, Lancelot, Merlin, The Fisher King, Morgan Le Fay, Guinevere, and so on. They can be given their own plotlines, lesser characters can be given new backstories or entirely new characters can be introduced. There just has to be enough of the not-always-tangible “Arthurian” elements for it to remain in the canon. And, as with any franchise, or imaginary world, ancient or contemporary, there are plenty of benefits to being associated with a well-known brand.
And we see this even in some mediaeval texts, where there’s like one mention of Arthur in a whole poem, right. And I teach a couple of texts like that, when I do Arthurian literature, and we often will have a conversation about this, you know, what does this text get out of this, like one mention of King Arthur, that then ties this into this existing genre? And sometimes I think it’s just name recognition. Sometimes I think it’s also the that a text might be picking up on or critiquing elements of the kind of Arthurian you know, Canon, we might say.
I think it’s always a good question to ask, like, what does this text get out of being Arthurian? Often? I mean, something like the Green Knight, the recent film is obviously very, very, very, very deeply Arthurian, but then something like Guy Ritchie’s Legend of the Sword which came out a few years ago. I’ve kind of wondered because it has so many elements of other types of narrative. And it’s kind of set in this weird, you know, there are Vikings and there’s a kind of Moses story and it’s London, but it looks like Rome. I’ve kind of wondered what it gets out of being about King Arthur like, what if it was just about a man who was pulled from a river as a baby and then became a, you know, grew up in a brothel and became a brawler? Now, it’s kind of it’s always interesting to think about, you know, what the text gets out of being Arthurian.
So what about some more contemporary Arthurian texts. What do they get out of being Arthurian? And what do we get out of them?
I think, since the 80s, at least, there’s also been a big interest in kind of feminist Arthurian telling. There have been, you know, there have been so many young adult novels and TV shows and films that appeal to that kind of age range. And that I would describe as more feminist, so I haven’t actually read it. But There’s a novel called Legend Born that a lot of my colleagues have been talking about recently. And there’s a young adult novel called Avalon High, which is set contemporary setting in a high school. And I believe the Arthur character actually is a girl in this novel, and I think it was made into film as well. And I’m kind of getting to the point now, where a lot of my students are of an age where they read it when they were 11 or 12, or 13.
And so there’s, you know, a lot of kind of, I think there’s a lot of room to do Arthurian retellings that are feminist in some way. And that has certainly been a big interest, I think, in adapters recently. And
I would argue, actually, that the Green Knight, the recent film is really interesting in that regard, as well, that it does a lot to kind of bring the women that are in the background of Arthurian texts into the forefront.
I was less familiar, I have to admit, with new age Arthur:
I was researching yoga classes and I came across that like enter three in like our three in priestess, Goddess yoga retreat in Glastonbury, hosted by a teacher whose teaching I was I was very familiar with and he’s American, which is how I came across it. And you know, it’s this kind of very expensive week long yoga retreat but it was tied up in King Arthur New Agey goddess stuff. There’s some sort of ceremony where they’re going to sacrifice something, but it was vegan, so they were gonna sacrifice them like a melon instead of a plant. Cantaloupe instead of an antelope. I guess
So what about a few recommendations then, to get you started?
Yeah, I mean, there are, I would say that certainly Lowery’s The Green Knight, I think is really excellent and provocative. And it raises so many questions, and it’s so smart. And I really, really recommend it.
I really enjoyed the BBC, Merlin. And that was mostly before I really started getting deep into studying this stuff. But I think I think it’s a really smart way of kind of using the framework of King Arthur to tell stories that are, you know, very much interesting to contemporary audiences. And that make you think, and I think the humour, especially in that series is very much in keeping with the Middle English Arthurian tradition, which is often very funny, even though it’s tragic. I think that’s something that a lot of our 13 adaptations kind of, don’t do. They don’t really engage with humour and kind of low humour too. So I really enjoyed that aspect of that series. Hmm, what else do I think is really good?
The medieval romance is over 800 years old, going right back to the earliest point at which English was in a form we can still read today, and the Arthurian romance has been there from the very beginning.
It has been used to amalgamate disparate myths and legends into a unifying narrative, to justify and criticize nationalist politics. It has been attached to and mixed with Pagan legends, Christian myths, and real-life historical characters. And it’s a story that has grown to take in an ever widening number of characters, plots, and concerns over the centuries.
But, of course, ultimately the stories have remained such a central part of popular culture because they are hugely entertaining – there’s magic and romance, wizards and dragons and princesses, heroic quests and fierce battles. What’s not to like?
That’s it for another episode of Words To That Effect, thank you so much for listening
Thanks to Cormac for the old Irish,
James for the Latin
Production assistance from Marisa Brown, artwork by Matt Mahon.
And of course, thanks to Dr Usha Vishnuvajjala . Link on website to all her work
Wttepodcast.com – links, transcripts, social media
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