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The Old Religion of Britain weird tales from the Middle Ages



We can be reasonably certain that the Indo-European settlers, or influencers, of Europe three thousand years ago were patriarchal, that is, fathers dominated households and a king traced his kingship back to an illustrious male ancestor. Not only is there linguistic evidence for this, as we have seen, but genealogical evidence also. All historical European monarchies have been predominantly male. In the ninth century Historia Brittonum attributed to the monk Nennius, for example, the kings of Kent traced their ancestry down through a male line, thus: 'Hengest begat Octa, who begat Ossa, who begat Eormenric, who begat Ethelbert...'. No less than three kingdoms, Bernicia, Mercia and Deiria, traced a male line back to the male ancestor Woden. Thus, for Mercia: 'Woden begat Guedolgeat, who begat Gueagon...'. The ancient Greeks passed control of a kingdom, wherever monarchy was practised, from father to son. The Greek historian Herodotus of the fifth century BC, for example, writes: 'Anaxandrides, son of Leon, had died and his son Cleomenes had succeeded him as king of Sparta; not by virtue of any distinction, it must be said, but purely because he was his son.' Hesiod gives an account of the Greek gods of the eighth century BC over which Zeus is firmly established as the all-powerful father. During the Roman Republic, the annually elected consuls were always male.

We have seen, however, that this was not necessarily the case in the Bronze Age; and the Picts appear to have followed a different method of government, one in which, in the words of the eighth century English monk, scholar and historian Bede, they 'elect their kings from the female royal line rather than the male,' and it is widely assumed that they inherited this from the pre-Pictish, that is, the pre-Indo-European culture of northern Britain.

Curiously, along with the presence of giants in Arthurian legend and Medieval romance, there is a constant underlying theme of matriarchy.

In the version of the Arthurian story by Sir Thomas Malory, for example, when King Arthur had overcome the opposition to his kingship and gained the acceptance of his people, his noblemen urged that he should seek a wife. Merlin was consulted and he asked the King if there was any woman whom he loved. Arthur revealed that for a long time he had loved Guinevere, the daughter of King Lodegrean of 'Camylerde'.

King Lodegrean possesses the Round Table, which therefore, presumably, resides in 'Camylerde'. It has seats for a hundred and fifty knights, recalling the 'three fifties' of warriors often invoked in Irish myths and legends set in pagan antiquity (In a volume of early Irish tales translated into English by Geoffrey Gantz, for example, there are more than twenty instances in which the term 'three fifties' appears. And perhaps this is not the only Medieval borrowing from pagan Irish tales. One hesitates to reveal that in the 13th century Old French romance Octavian, the boy Florent is supposed to be only seven years old when he dons the arms of his adopted father and fights with a giant – hesitates, that is, until one reads The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulaind: 'When they wrestled, he overthrew three fifties of boys by himself... "The man who did this in his seventh year [the wrestling and the head-taking]," said Fíachu son of Fer Febe, "no wonder should he prevail..."').

Merlin (like a true druid) sees, with his prophetic insight, the adulterous love affair that will ignite between Guinevere and Lancelot, but the wedding is arranged nonetheless and the marriage takes place in London. Guinevere brings with her the Round Table and one hundred knights to sit at it. King Arthur sends men to scour his realm for knights to fill the remaining places, but 'after a little while, Merlin could come up with only twenty-eight knights and could find no more.'

This is intriguing. Guinevere, it seems, has provided the majority of the knights of the Round Table. And furthermore, King Arthur is unable to fill even the remaining places. It seems almost as though Arthur has married into Guinevere's inheritance, and not the other way around.

At the other end of the Arthurian epic, in the thirteenth century Old French La Mort le Roi Artu (Death of King Arthur), when Mordred has arranged for Queen Guinevere to be (falsely) told of King Arthur's death while fighting in Gaul, she refuses to consider taking a new husband. But her barons insist upon it. Who else can defend the kingdom, they argue. And they elect Mordred to marry her and be king. The election of Mordred resonates with the Celtic Iron Age. But the clear implication is that he must marry Guinevere to legitimise his kingship. It is she who holds the royal power. The title to rule is through her.

Are there any other instances in Arthurian legend of a man gaining title through marriage? In fact there are many. In Chrétien de Troyes' Arthurian verse romance, the Knight of the Lion', which is retold in the Mabinogion tale Owein, or the Countess of the Fountain, Owein journeys to a place that lies in the 'distant realms and uninhabited highlands of the world.' Here there stands a tree beside which is a fountain, or a natural spring, a bowl and a stone. By pouring water from the spring onto the stone, Owein causes great atmospheric turmoil; rain descends in torrents, the winds howl. Then a Black Knight appears whom he must fight. Owein kills this knight, who is the husband of the Countess of the Fountain, and the outcome of it all is that Owein himself becomes the new defender of the Fountain by marrying the Countess. It is she who holds the title to rule. And in Chrétien de Troyes' version of the story, Owein, who is Yvain, goes on to help the lady of Norison, who, had Yvain agreed to take her as mistress or wife, 'would have conferred upon him the lordship of all she possessed.' Later in the story, two sisters squabble over the title to rule a kingdom. Later still, Yvain comes to the castle of a lord whose only child is a beautiful fifteen-year-old daughter. 'If you can defeat two powerful warriors and bring them to their deaths,' he tells Yvain, 'my daughter would like to marry you, and then this town and everything in it will be yours.'

This is absolutely typical of almost every Medieval romance there is. It is little short of astounding how many daughters of kings are an only child in these legends. And it is almost a cliché that a young knight, often, like Yvain, the son of a king, must go away to fight in a contest for the hand of a princess in order to gain a kingdom of his own. Parzival's father Gahmuret does so in Wolfram von Eschenbach's grail romance Parzival, winning a tournament that confers the binding obligation – for he is reluctant at first – to marry the maiden princess and rule her lands. Guy of Warwick does so in the thirteenth century romance bearing his name , but unlike Gahmuret, is able to forego his prize. Sir Eglamour of Artois, Sir Amis, Sir Gowther, Sir William in the romance William and the Werewolf, Sir Degaré and Sir Amadace – to name but a few – all marry an only daughter and inherit a kingdom, a duchy or an earldom, often winning the hand of the damsel in a tournament. Monty Python parodied this cliché in Walter's efforts to win the hand of a princess with wooden teeth. But beneath this sport may lie something more sinister.

The Mabinogion tale Culhwch and Olwen has already shown us how, before entering the land of the Chief Giant Ysbaddaden, Culhwch had to arrive as 'a body drifting in with the waves.' He has come to ask for the hand of Olwen, Chief Giant Ysbaddaden's only child – another only daughter. But it seems that Ysbaddaden will die if his daughter marries, so he sets Culhwch a list of impossible tasks which, with the help of King Arthur, and against all the odds, Culhwch finally accomplishes. Arriving back at Ysbaddaden's palace with a large collection of trophies, including a shaving kit, Culhwch's retainers step forward to shave off the giant's beard, 'skin, flesh and ears right down to the bone.' Culhwch asks Ysbaddaden if Olwen is now his. Ysbaddaden replies that she is, and 'the time has come now,' he says, 'for you to end my life.' Ysbaddaden is seized by the hair by two of Culhwch's retainers and dragged to a rubbish tip where his head is cut off and stuck on a pole in the wall.

In the fourteenth century romance Sir Eglamour of Artois, Sir Eglamour is given three impossible tasks to perform by a damsel's father in order to win his daughter's hand in marriage and control of all his lands. Two of these tasks, one directly, the other indirectly, lead to a battle with a giant.

Lancelot attended a contest, as we have seen, in Chrétien de Troyes' The Knight of the Cart – remember he was held captive in the land from which nobody returns, having secured the release of Guinevere. But he did return, in disguise, and unrecognised by anybody except for Queen Guinevere herself, in the armour of his captor. As Lancelot swept all before him in the jousting, 'the young ladies who were present complained that he was harming any chance they had of marrying; for no advantage would accrue to them, they felt, since they had no doubt that such a brilliant knight as this would not stoop so low as to contemplate marriage with any of them. However, a number of these girls vowed that if they did not marry this knight, they would marry no other man that year.'

This curious passage throws up a lot of intriguing questions, but leaving aside any implication that the girls were seeking a husband for one year only, they were definitely there to choose a husband of some sort, and the winner of the tournament seems to have been the prize choice.

In one style of matriarchal monarchy, the queen's daughter becomes the heir apparent and her chosen husband will become king. One of her own daughters will eventually succeed to the kingdom in her turn, and this daughter's chosen husband will then become king. In a land with a strict and rather harsh political constitution, the king's death at or shortly after the marriage of his daughter might be the logical outcome, since this grisly necessity would allow the new husband to become king. This could account for why so many fathers conveniently die so shortly after an only daughter's marriage, in these romances; although usually, unlike Ysbaddadon, it is through natural causes.

Another way of ensuring matriarchal succession to kingship is for a sister's son to be brought up in the king's household as the heir apparent. When the king dies, his nephew inherits the realm and in turn will accept his own sister's son as his foster child and heir. Although not as immediately obvious as the previous method, the effect is the same. A king can then trace his ancestry through his mother and maternal grandmother back through the female line to an ancestral matriarch. In the 'contest for a princess' method, of course, a queen can do exactly the same.

In most Medieval Arthurian stories there is no mention of either a legitimate son or daughter born to King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. Only in the early Welsh poems does there seem to be a son of Arthur, named Llacheu, and in these legends, Arthur is not a king but a supernatural and mythological hero. Of later Medieval storytelling, only in the highly idiosyncratic and aggressively Christian Perlesvaus does Llacheu re-emerge as Arthur's son Loholt. Mordred is an ambiguous character; he is the King's nephew in Geoffrey of Monmouth's history, but evolves into the illegitimate and incestuous offspring of King Arthur and one of his sisters in some of the subsequent tales. But it is certainly true to say that, except at the end of King Arthur's reign, he plays a very minor role in almost all of the Medieval Arthurian romances. There is, however, a very prominent nephew at King Arthur's court in all these tales – Sir Gawain. Sir Gawain is the son of King Arthur's sister, Morgeause and her husband King Lot. Gawain often takes a very active role in Arthurian romance, often more active than the King himself, sometimes a principal role; almost as though he was the heir apparent.

Perhaps we are reaching the very deepest and oldest layers within the Arthurian tradition, layers that successive ages have increasingly held onto, perhaps, as a mark of its antiquity, although its meaning has now been largely lost; layers that are redolent, perhaps, of an aboriginal, even Bronze Age world that survived and was nurtured and celebrated in druidic poetry and belief.

The portrayal in Arthurian legend of motifs that allude to reincarnation, allusions we may already have seen in Malory's tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney and Chrétien de Troyes' tale of the Knight of the Cart, and will see a great deal more of later, may ultimately derive, like those of matriarchy, from a pre-Celtic culture. These ideas and beliefs were absorbed and perpetuated by the Iron Age inhabitants of Britain and Ireland and retained in their stories and legends; stories that, miraculously, may have come down to us via the druid colleges of Britain that were dissolved and suppressed by the Roman Emperor Claudius, down through the Cornish inhabitants of Roman Britain, through Breton minstrels who may have traced ancestry from a Cornish exodus, and finally, to the French Arthurian tales that Sir Thomas Malory reworked and retold and had printed five hundred years ago on William Caxton's printing press at Westminster.

There are other recurrent themes and motifs as well, in Medieval Arthurian tales and romances, themes and incidences that hint at a world which resonates with a Celtic passion for solving armed disputes by single combat, for example, and the taking of human heads.

In an earlier chapter we saw that the Romans were well aware of the Celtic habit of settling large disputes by single combat. One of their commanders had won such a fight. And the same commander, as consul in 340 BC, had forbidden the emulation of his own prowess by other Roman military commanders.

In the thirteenth century French romance La Mort le Roi Artu (Death of King Arthur), when open hostility erupts between Sir Gawain and Sir Lancelot, brought about by the killing of three of Sir Gawain's brothers during Lancelot's rescue of Guinevere from the stake, Sir Bors challenges Gawain to settle the issue in single combat. 'It would be far preferable for us to settle this matter between ourselves alone, than with forty thousand men,' he urges, in true Iron Age Celtic fashion.

In Sir Thomas Malory's tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney, as we have seen, Sir Gareth rides with a damsel to her sister's castle which is being besieged by a large force, and by facing the leader of these hostile forces in single combat and defeating him, he lifts the siege.

We have already seen, also, how in the late-fourteenth century Alliterative Morte Arthure, Sir Cliges challenges any 'earl or other' of the Romans to single combat. And in the Breton lay Eliduc, there was 'an old ruler who had no male heir, but he had a young daughter who did not yet have a husband. Another lord was waging war with him because he would not give this daughter to him in marriage. The old man was besieged in a castle where no one was brave enough to offer single combat or any other form of resistance.'

The possibly late-fifteenth century Middle Scots poem The Knightly Tale of Gologras and Gawain sees King Arthur's nephew Sir Gawain, the principal character in the story, fight a final, and binding, single combat with the lord of a castle whose lands, King Arthur has learned to his horror, are held by Gologras from nobody. Despite the presence of a large armed force on both sides, the outcome of the dispute is settled by these two noble warriors following a series of single combats between a small number of individual knights.

When the forces of Math and Pryderi prove difficult to separate in the Mabinogion tale of Math son of Mathonwy, 'Pryderi feels that Gwydion should face him in single combat and that the two armies should retire.'

And from the Mabinogion story of Pwyll Lord of Dyved: 'A knight spoke up. "Noblemen," he said. "This dispute is between Pwyll and Havgan, in single combat, for both claim lands that are claimed by the other, and so therefore let everybody stand back."'

The taking of heads too, as we saw earlier, was a characteristic of Celtic warfare acknowledged by Roman commentators, and graphically illustrated in the pagan Irish legends.

Cú Chulaind rides his chariot (itself a feature of Iron Age Celtic warfare) fast towards Emuin Machae with swans attached to it and flying overhead, a wild stag tethered behind it and the bleeding heads of the three sons of Nectan stowed securely inside.' Later, he kills two scouts and their chariot drivers sent ahead of Queen Maev's forces during a famous cattle raid, impaling their heads upon a fork of four tines he cuts for the purpose.

'If my brother Anlúan was here,' shouts Cet to Conall of the Victories, 'he would equal you in every blow, and it is a great sadness and humiliation to us that he is not here.'

'Anlúan is here!' shouts Conall, and he pulls the bleeding head of Anlúan from his belt and thrusts it into the face of his brother.

In Malory's strange tale of Balyn and Balan, which we will look at more closely in a little while, the Lady of the Lake appears uninvited at King Arthur's court asking for Balyn's head. '"May you rot in hell!" replies Balyn. "You want my head, and therefore you shall lose yours." And he swiftly drew his sword and cut off her head in front of King Arthur. Then Balyn took up the lady's head and took it with him to his hostelry, and there he met with his squire... and they rode together out of town. '"Now," sayde Balyne, "we muste departe: therefore take thou thys hede and bare hit to my frendis."' 'Now,' said Balyn, 'we must go our separate ways; carry this head with you and take it to my friends.'

In Chrétien de Troyes' story the Knight of the Cart: a girl that Lancelot encounters on his way to the Sword Bridge – yet another girl that he meets as he searches for Guinevere – asks him for the head of a knight he has just defeated. The knight begs for his life, but to no avail. 'Lancelot quickly wielded his sword and the head rolled off across the ground. The girl was happy and content. Lancelot picked up the head by the hair and gave it to her. She was pleased beyond measure...'.

The early-thirteenth century Arthurian prose romance Perlesvaus, a sequal to Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval, the Story of the Graal, abounds with carts full of heads and gratuitous decapitations, and the possibly Benedictine author(s) used a wide knowledge of Welsh and Irish mythology to fashion a Christain allegory set in King Arthur's world. The work alludes to many biblical themes and extols a violent crusading ethic, but curiously, the author(s) chose to set this drama only two generations after the Crucifixion, and claimed the Romano-Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote near the end of the first century AD, as its original author.

In Malory's Book of Sir Tristram de Lyones, a part of his Le Morte d'Arthur, the Lady of the Lake (in the days before her own head was taken by Balyn) cries to King Arthur to stop another lady from escaping. The King catches up with her and cuts off her head: 'And the Lady of the Lake took up the head and hung it at the front of her saddle by the hair.'

Sir Gawain once returned to Camelot with the head of a lady he had slain, hanging around his neck.

In addition to borrowings from Irish and Welsh mythology and a preponderance of human heads in the Perlesvaus, the hero 'frequently disguises himself by other arms,' as if this, too, was something that the author(s) recognised that it would be appropriate to include in the story as a part of the tradition. So let us now turn back to a recurring story motif that we have already found in Sir Thomas Malory's tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney and in Chrétien de Troyes' story of the Knight of the Cart, and indeed, in Geoffrey Chaucer's Arthurian tale from the Wife of Bath, in his Canterbury Tales. It is time to look again at a motif in Medieval Arthurian legend that is truly endemic in the stories.


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