Fables of King Arthur. Aelred of Rievaulx and Secular Pastimes

Fables of King Arthur. Aelred of Rievaulx and Secular Pastimes

Tahkokallio, Jaakko (University of Helsinki)

Mirator, Vol. 9:1 (2008)

Abstract: This article examines the puzzling reference that Aelred of Rievaulx (c. 1110– 1167) made to King Arthur in his Speculum Caritatis, and argues that the reference is best interpreted as an allusion to orally circulated stories, not to the Latin history of Geoffrey of Monmouth. This interpretation is based primarily on a close examination of the textual context of this passage, but it is also suggested that what Aelred elsewhere writes about fables and secular entertainments is relevant for a proper appreciation of the Arthurian allusion.

This article sets out to contextualise the famous Arthurian anecdote found in the Speculum Caritatis by Aelred of Rievaulx (c. 1110–1167) on two different levels. Firstly, I shall offer an analysis of the immediate textual context of this controversial passage, by which I wish to demonstrate that it is best interpreted as a reference to orally circulated stories, not to the Latin history of Geoffrey of Monmouth, as has often been argued. Secondly, I explore the ways in which Aelred speaks of storytelling and other secular pastimes elsewhere in his works, since I understand that his more general views on these topics provide important contextual information for the interpretation of the Arthurian anecdote. Doing this, I wish to emphasise how the anecdote is related to communication with monks who were probably strongly associated with lay aristocratic culture, and how, in consequence, the passage is all the more likely to refer to forms of vernacular storytelling pertaining to the settings of secular life.

Furthermore, I shall address the issue of how Aelred, contrasting monastic and secular ways of life, invoked the views of St. Augustine on pagan theatre, entertainers, and poetry. I shall briefly examine the relationship between the ideas of these two writers, and argue that Aelred used St. Augustine’s ideas not only because they were topoi of a literary tradition in which he was writing, but because he found them useful in his analysis of contemporaneous cultural phenomena, even though these were certainly very different from those St. Augustine originally referred to. This examination, I hope, sheds further light on how high-medieval ecclesiastical writers used the patristic tradition to analyse their own immediate cultural surroundings.

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