Letters from the Otherworld: Arthur and Henry II in Stephen of Rouen’s Draco Normannicus

Letters from the Otherworld: Arthur and Henry II in Stephen of Rouen’s Draco Normannicus

By Francesco Marzella

Tabularia (2017)

Henry II and Arthur, both depicted by Matthew Paris in the 13th century.

Abstract: The poem Draco Normannicus includes a correspondence between King Arthur, now ruler of the Antipodes, and Henry II. Arthur reminds Henry of his deeds to discourage him from conquering Brittany. Henry first laughs at Arthur’s letter, but then, urged by the news of his mother’s death, he replies suggesting that he will hold Brittany under Arthur’s suzerainty.

This paper analyses these fictional letters, focusing on two main aspects, closely related to each other. 1) Intertextuality on different levels: Arthur’s letter is modeled on Lucius Tiberius’ letter in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae; Henry suggests a comparison between this correspondence and the one between Darius and Alexander; Arthur claims that the deeds he mentions are true because already told by Gildas and Geoffrey of Monmouth. 2) Political ideology: humour is not the only key to interpret the text, the purpose of the poem is not only to mock the ‘Breton hope’, but also to celebrate Henry II as a glorious monarch, legitimately ruling over his ‘empire’.

Introduction: In the 15th century manuscript 3081 of the collection that belonged to Cardinal Ottobuoni, now in the Vatican Library (ms Reg. 3081), there survives a curious 12th century poem entitled Draco Normannicus. More than 4000 lines of elegiac couplets, this poem was convincingly attributed by one of its editors, Richard Howlett, to Stephen of Rouen, a monk of Bec-Hellouin, on the basis of some lines also appearing in a collection of Stephen’s minor poems, preserved in a 12th century manuscript kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

Not much is known about Stephen. He probably came from a noble family – his uncle being Bernard, abbot of Mont St. Michel – and entered Bec in the 1140s, later becoming deacon. The Draco Normannicus is doubtless his most significant literary achievement. Relying on a number of different historical sources5 and also adding some original information, Stephen narrated events occurred from 11th century to 1169, celebrating the deeds of the Normans from Rollo to King Henry II, who is the declared main subject of the poem.

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