Facts and fictions: Chronicle, Romance and Arthurian narrative in England, 1300-1470
By Richard J. Moll
PhD Dissertation, University of Toronto, 1999
Abstract: This dissertation examines the relationship between chronicle and romance traditions of Arthurian narrative in England and Scotland in the late Middle Ages. Before Thomas Malory made large portions of the French Vulgate cycle of romances available to an English-speaking audience, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘ Historia Regum Britannie‘, mediated through various translations and adaptations, was the major source of information regarding the Arthurian past. This narrative, which was generally considered to be an historically accurate record of events, interacted with romance traditions in a number of ways. It is therefore possible to examine late medieval attitudes towards the historicity of Arthur, and the relationship between facts and fictions in historical writing.
A variety of chronicle and historical narratives are examined, such as Robert Manning’s ‘Chronicle‘. John Trevisa’s translation of the ‘Polychronicon‘, and Andrew Wyntoun’s ‘Original Chronicle of Scotland‘. Complete chapters are devoted to Sir Thomas Gray’s ‘Scalacronica‘ (c. 1355), the alliterative ‘ Morte Arthure‘, and John Hardyng’s ‘Chronicle‘ (c. 1450-1463). By examining texts which seek to present a factual account of Arthur’s reign, it becomes clear that a sharp distinction was drawn between the narrative found in the Galfridian tradition, and that which emerged from French romances.
Chroniclers were careful to distance romance material from their historical narratives, but some attempted to employ romances in order to enrich the thematic concerns of their works. Transcriptions of the Arthurian portions of Thomas Gray’s ‘Scalacronica‘ and the first version of John Hardyng’s ‘Chronicle‘ are included. Two romance texts are also explored, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight‘ and ‘The Awntyrs off Arthure‘. These accounts of ficticious adventures do not claim to be accurate accounts of real events, but by using the chronicle account as the setting for romance narratives the poets utilized the themes of Arthurian history, and implied that their respective adventures have implications for the understanding of the British past. We see throughout these texts an early attempt to apply methods of critical scholarship to the distant past, and to distinguish between the fables which had accumulated around Arthur’s court and what passed for the truth concerning Britain’s greatest king.