Medieval Romance
and the Old Religion of Britain

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Hover your mouse over the grey matrix below and to the right, and then click. Do it again if you wish.

Okay, now ask yourself: do these following seven scenes from Medieval romance and Arthurian legend betray a common theme?

This is a theme that occurs over and over again in Medieval romance. There are dozens and dozens of examples to be found.


Exchange of identity

Hidden origins

Here are a few more examples:

The final link may have surprised you. Irish mythology? This theme is truly endemic in Medieval romance and Arthurian legend, but it is also very common in stories recorded in the Medieval period that derive from a much earlier time still.

The same themes appear in many other fields of literature:

Welsh mythology

Irish mythology

Norse legend and saga

Ancient Greek drama for the festival of Dionysus

Ancient Greek literature and mythology

There appears to be some linkage between all these stories. Could some continuity of transmission be at work?

For your amusement, a Pagan Underground has been built beneath the streets of London, to explore how intertwined these different forms of literature are, how they all share a number of themes and motifs, often the same ambience, how they all seem to move in a similar space and share a similar paradigm, to sing from the same hymn book, so to speak. Many notable motifs recur, to a greater or lesser extent, in all of them. Medieval romance and Arthurian legend are there in the mix. Differently shaped spots, but the same animal.

Have a dip in and see for yourself. Take a journey past a few stations at a time. Get to know the network piece by piece. Take an escalator down into tunnels beneath the soil of Britrain and explore the repeated melody that resonates through the tales, poems, art, religion and legends that you find.

Of course, it is important to be able to read the full text of these Medieval stories as well, to get a clearer idea of how important they may be in preserving a pre-Christian tradition. All of the following tales and legends are published in Middle English with commentaries and glossaries by the Medieval Institute or the Early English Text Society, but because not everybody is comfortable reading Middle English, these tales and romances have been bound up into a number of volumes that might have existed once, and have been translated and retold in Modern English prose, because these stories deserve to have a wider audience than Medieval scholars alone. They are really fascinating tales.

Yellow Book of Calbourne

A selection of romances and other Medieval genres, including:

Blue Book of Wellow

A selection of Arthurian tales, romances, saints' lives and the four known works of the Gawain poet, including:

Red Book of Shalfleet

Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, with nothing ommitted, including:

Scot MS Gowther

A selection of romances, Breton lais, Arthurian legends and other works, including:

Scot MS Ragnelle

A selection of romances, Arthurian legends and other works, including:

Some of these Medieval tales and romances may preserve the motifs simply as traditional themes, applied unthinkingly and stereotypically in order to cast the story into a traditional mould. Others may have been penned by writers who understood exactly what they were doing and knew how to construct a compelling myth. It is up to the reader to decide into which category each tale may be placed. Both are useful and informative.

Weird Tales from the Middle Ages

For those of you who like to follow a quest, here are links to an exploration that ranges far and wide to try to explain the meaning of Chertien de Troyes' twelfth century Arthurian romances:

If you have ever stood in the middle of an English forest and felt that the trees know something that you don't, then this quest is for you. Perhaps there was an ancient Bronze Age barrow nearby, an old burial mound containing the cremated remains of someone who may once have thought just like you and who died nearly four thousand years ago. Or perhaps you live on the other side of the world from Britain and feel the same way sometimes in the pine woods or the mountains; a sense of wishing to peel back the perplexing Christianity that has puzzled you since you were an adolescent and to rediscover a truth that may once have lain at the very heart of Christianity. A magic which seems to hide itself near the banks of a woodland lake or at the end of a hard climb, but never in the harsh echoes and soft carpeted aisles of a church.

Perhaps the landscape of the British Isles remembers an ancient belief; a belief that existed before the birth of Christianity and Islam. But what was that belief? It must be that nearly two thousand years of Christianity have eradicated it completely - right? Can we really try to cast a line across waters muddied by two millennia and reel in a doctrine that British and Gallic druids of the first century BC forbade even to be written down? A belief that was guarded with absolute secrecy and spoken of as 'the mysteries' by ancient Athenians in the fifth century BC? Can we try to reconstruct a system of religious belief whose core values may once, in the European Bronze Age, have stretched from Sicily to Sweden, from Britain to the Balkans? Where can we possibly begin to look?'

In ancient Athens a festival was held every year in celebration of the god Dionysus. The raison d'être underlying this festival may have been understood fully only by those who had been initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, or the mysteries of Dionysus. Its initiates were sworn to secrecy, in the same way that British druids in oak groves on the banks of the River Thames only twelve hundred miles from Eleusis were reluctant to make their core understandings explicit. Pythagoreans in Italy were inclined not to explain their beliefs. But miraculously, clues to the nature of this lingering belief system may exist to this day, in the most unexpected places. The mythology of Ireland and Wales, of course, and stories that look back to pagan times in the Medieval literature of Iceland. But less expectedly, perhaps, in Medieval Christian writings and hagiography. Archaeology. The plays of ancient Athenian dramatists. Hints given by classical authors; more than hints, possibly, as you will see. And then there are the really unexpected places: the Medieval Arthurian literature of England, Wales and France. Breton Lais. Medieval romance in general.

Hannah Scot was burned alive by the Christian Church in 1509 for reading Medieval Romance in her step-father's library and guessing at the truth. A student in a druid College fifteen hundred years before Hannah's birth might have spent up to twenty years in such intensive study, memorising hundreds of tales, allegories and figurative adventures and epics in order to facilitate her understanding.

Could some of these stories still exist?

Featured Medieval stories

'Will ye not come home brother? ye have been long away.
It's April and blossom time, and white is the may;
And bright is the sun, brother, and warm is the rain –
Will ye not come home, brother, home to us again?

from The West Wind, by John Masefield.

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