By James Turner
In the previous two installments of this series we have looked at how successive kings of England sort to reap political capital from the endorsement and exploitation of the themes and imagery of Arthurian Romance literature. By the time Edward III’s expansionary dynastic wars in France were reaching their feverish peak, Arthurian romances and chivalric literature in general were deep into a golden age, just cusping the summit of their popularity and influence over European aristocratic culture.
This high point in chivalric culture then seems like an appropriate juncture to explore the content and form of Arthur’s legends within contemporary popular culture before the Black Death catalyzed certain developing societal and demographic trends while sending others corkscrewing off in hitherto undreamed of directions. Arthurian romance literature enjoyed a long, glorious summer, representing as it did a multi-generational phenomenon largely untethered by regional affiliation.
Both Edward III, his grandfather Edward I and, as we shall see in due course, the Victorians recognized the potential for propaganda inherent in the representation of a glorious pedigree for their polity, the rose-tinted mirage of an imagined past laid across the contemporary political landscape. Of course, this strategery of carefully cultivated association was only viable because of the immense and enduring popularity of romance literature amongst a wider and more universally experienced European aristocratic culture. While Arthur, a Welsh warlord turned English king could be made to function as an instrument of soft power imperialism within the British Isles he and his legends attained fame not as the bearer an English destiny but as a paragon of chivalry.
Medieval romance literature, of which the Arthurian cycles and their cascading additions formed a central pillar, thrived because they presented a vision of a world in which contemporary codes of conduct were realized and manifest in an idealized form. The men and women that inhabited these romances were free to act in accordance with the virtues of chivalric society, gloriously unburdened by the limitations and demands of political necessity, their personal shortcomings or the humdrum banality of life. In a manner similar to much of today’s popular culture, romance literature allowed its audience to vicariously experience a highly exaggerated and glamourized version of their own reality and modes of behavior. The innate appeal of these stories to the aristocracy of medieval Europe drove an insatiable centuries-long demand for the entwined tales of courtly and chivalric exploits. This was as true within the court of Edward III as it was in the splendid and highly cultured continental court of his great-great-great grandmother Elanor of Aquitaine in the mid-twelfth century when the glossy chivalry infused version of Arthurian first began their explosive rise to popularity.
The central repeating theme of this series is that no legend or story is truly inviolate or sacrosanct – instead, their forms and meanings warp over time to better meet and reflect the needs and customs of the societies that celebrate them. While the chivalric, courtly ethos of romance literature remained at its core largely consistent throughout the medieval period, innovations in its presentation were both inevitable and numerous. Just as Chrétien de Troyes and his contemporaries reworked the Welsh poems and pseudo-historical traditions to appeal to the tastes and aspirations of contemporary audiences, so too did their fourteenth-century descendants. In order to meet the ravenous demand for chivalric literature, while earning the support and favor of their patrons, later generations of writers crafted a host of new stories and characters that were subsumed into the amorphous protean body of Arthurian literature. A particularly crude modern analogue for this often-collaborative shared mythology looming within contemporary entertainment and popular culture would be a slightly less organized version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or a more prolific and popular DC Extended Universe.
These supplementary cycles and stories introduced a degree of stylistic variance while also altering the tone and emphasis of the romances. As authors and troubadours introduced additional heroes of their own devising or reworked existing knights, Arthur became increasingly tangential to the genre. While this young generation of enthusiastic and puissant knights quested across the land, earning glory and the admiration of the court’s lady, the character of Arthur increasingly became a framing device. Often the king would sound the initial call to adventure before inevitably appearing at the end to mark and reward the quest’s completion through the distribution of largesse. Rewarding loyalty and valor was after all one of the fundamental functions of kingship while the audience was primarily interested in the content of the knight’s adventures, their battles and love affairs not its context.
This was very similar to the portrayal of the Romance genre’s archetypical “Good King” Charlamagne in the Matter of France. A font of unquestionable but largely sedentary authority and wisdom, both Charlamagne and Arthur contrast with and facilitate the young blades of their respective courts, the very figures that the intended audience are most likely to emulate. As noted previously in this series, even Edward III keenly aware of his royal heritage and privileges grew up identifying not with Arthur but Sir Lionel, a later character grafted onto the family tree of the increasingly central Lancelot.
The novelty and escapism of the supernatural, safely filtered through the virtues and sensibilities of the chivalric cult, had always been a major part of Arthurian romance literature’s appeal to the nobility of medieval Europe. The magical and fantastical elements of the Arthurian legends became increasingly prominent towards the apex of their popularity in this period. A good example of this trend can be found within the figure of Sir Gawain, of Green Knight fame. As one of the survivors of the Welsh tradition, Gawain’s character, story function and origins change drastically between the different interactions and retellings of the Arthurian legends. While many portrayals of the character are relatively grounded, drawing implicit links between Gawain’s high level of martial ability and his exceptional virtue and piety, in some later stories he explicitly possesses superhuman strength, the variable degree of which was tied to a day and night cycle. As far as Arthurian literature was concerned then, the fourteenth century was a time of spinoffs and magic, of original characters and adventure; and the greatest of these tales was Perceforest.
Written in Hainault sometime during the 1330’s or 1340’s, Perceforest is a grandly ambitious and epic prequel to the Arthurian legends, charting a familiar cycle of conquest, glory, decay, and tragedy. The work initially goes to some pains to present and frame itself as part of the same pseudo-historical tradition as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain or writings of the Venerable Bede which played a formative role inspiring and shaping the first Arthurian romances. In addition to closely and conspicuously aligning itself with the foundational texts of Arthurian Romances literature, Perceforest acts as a thematic and chronological bridge between the Matter of Britain, the legends of Arthur and another great subgenre of the Romance literature, the Matter of Rome which contained stories derived from and concerning antiquity.
Typically, medieval intellectual and artistic tradition envisaged the ancient Roman and Greek past as being materially and culturally very similar to their own. The great generals of antiquity as well as the heroes of classical mythology were depicted as knights who engaged in the chivalric ethos while attired in a manner nearly identical to the author’s contemporaries. The nine worthies of chivalry, a tradition starting in the fourteenth century that recognized and codified the nine individuals who most wholly embodied and epitomized chivalric virtue, was organized into three sets of three. The first of these representing the heroes of the classical era while another is composed of the great warrior figures of the bible. The final triad representing the paragons of the common era, contains both Arthur and Charlemagne, the nominal protagonist of the Matter of Britain and the Matter of France respectively. Perecforest prefigures and foreshadows the rise of Arthur and is part of the Matter of Britain, slotting in between the foundation of Britain by Trojan refuges and the arrival of their Roman cousins. Yet both Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, two of the classically derived worthies are important supporting characters within the sprawling Perceforest. This connection and bridging of sub-genres, then, would have been intuitively understood and appreciated by the work’s intended audience as well as going some way to lend prestige and gravitas, not only to the work itself, but to contemporary figures associated with the story’s heroes.
In a near Odyssean display of bafflingly inept seamanship, Alexander the Great discovers the British Isles after being blown of course on his way to India. Alexander finds a strangely warped and darkly melodramatic Britain, its human inhabitants, who under the leadership of Brutus overthrew the giants, have essentially gone native, living amongst the enchanted forests which swathes the islands alongside all sorts of strange creatures. The Macedonian king swiftly departed Britain, returning to his eastern conquests, but not before charging one of his generals, the titular Perceforest, with the pacification of the region. After many trials and tribulations Perceforest, aided by his family, a cadre of elite Macedonian knights and an angel masquerading as a dwarf succeeds in overthrowing Darnant the wicked sorcerer-king of Britain. Perceforest claims the kingship of or rather creates England while his younger brother Gadifer becomes the first king of Scotland. Wales and Ireland are, in a display of blatant and shameless Anglocentrism, completely erased.
Closely mimicking the form of the core cycles of contemporary Arthurian Romance literature, Perceforest relays in lavish and vibrant detail how its hero established an order of chivalry that meets around a circular table, receives divine endorsement and brings about a golden age. This shadowing of Arthur’s rise and fall, as conceived within fourteenth century aristocratic culture, continues as subsequent chapters trace the fantastical, high concept, adventures of the court’s younger generation. Yet in the end, internal rivalry and personal tragedy conspire to fatally weaken the kingdom which is destroyed by foreign invasion. In the case of Perceforest this outside doom is brought about not by the Saxons who lurk menacing further down the path of Britain’s future but none other than Julius Caesar himself.
Perhaps a little strangely, Perceforest, as ambitious as it is imaginative, has the audacity to repeat this plot element twice. While the Caesar of the story subjugates Britain, Perceforest’s descendants escape, embodying the promise of a better future and glory yet to come, one of whom Gallafur marries a granddaughter of Alexander the Great. Then, inexplicably they simply assassinate Julius Caesar and re-found the kingdom only for it to be destroyed again shortly afterwards in a subsequent invasion. Gallafur rounds off the story by preparing for the next turning of the cycle, sending his children, the ancestors of Arthur, into hiding and burying his crown before plunging his ancestral sword into a stone to await a king worthy enough to take it up and with it his dreams of a resurgent and triumphant realm.
Perceforest is a heady addition to the catalogue of Arthurian Romance Literature, it somewhat bizarrely but nevertheless effectively, consciously replicates and amalgamates the sweeping arc of the legends and long developing stylistic trends of the genre. Positioning itself as a new chapter in the cycle of re-founding and renewals found within the pseudo-historical chronicler tradition from which the Arthurian Romances drew much of their source material. Perceforest’s similarities as a character and narrative devices to his reputed descendant Arthur are as deliberate as they are unsubtle and not something a fourteenth-century noble audience steeped in romance literature could conceivably have missed. Arguably at its most engaging and imaginative when freed from the framework of predestination and allowed to indulge in the then fashionable stories of adventuring knightly youth which includes amongst other gems, the first known version of Sleeping Beauty and a story in which Perceforest’s son engages in ritualized combat with the knightly champions of a species of grass eating sapient fishmen.
This studied repetition of the form and character of contemporary Arthurian Romance literature was in some ways inherently politically charged. Recasting the recognizable polities and dynastic affiliations of fourteenth-century Europe as the direct inheritors of an ancient, glorious and in some cases divinely ordained legacy. On the instructions of their liege, Alexander the Great, Perceforest and his brother Gadifer found the kingdoms of England and Scotland respectively; providing a chivalric and prestigious origin story for the British Isles nominal political arrangement in the fourteenth century.
This portrayal implicitly supported English pretensions to hegemony over the British Isles. Gadifer, and therefore his kingdom whose resurgent fourteenth-century descendant was still shaking itself free from a series of wars and proxy conflicts with England, is presented as a subordinate of his brother who plays a far more decisive role in their initial conquest. Even though the whole of Britain is covered in enchanted woods and monster-filled wilderness, throughout Perceforest Scotland is portrayed as the wilder and more lawless of the two kingdoms, quickly developing narratively into a source of tragedy and vexation. Despite his magnificent coronation and highly advantageous marriage to a magical Fairy Queen, Gadifer is injured on a hunting trip, suffering a wound to his thigh or groin which leaves him all but incapacitated and unable to rule effectively. This, of course, strongly mirrors the story of the Fisher King in contemporary Arthurian romance literature who suffers from a near-identical wound that represents his land’s barrenness and bleakness.
Wales, the original source of the Arthurian mythos, is conspicuously absent, its existence overshadowed and consumed by the need to prevent its real-life history from confusing England’s claim to be the natural inheritor of an Arthurian and antique past. Finally, this idea of continuity with a still-unfolding English destiny is reinforced in the minds of the intended fourteenth-century aristocratic audience with the revelation that the titular king and founder of England not only thematically prefigured Arthur as a great chivalric king but was his ancestor.
The deployment of these hegemonic and political themes at significant junctures within Perceforest’s narrative are unsurprising given its real-world context. While the original author or possible authors of Perceforest are sadly unknown to us, the book’s framing device reveals that it was written under the patronage of Count William of Hainaut, Holland and Zeeland. William’s large strategically Low Countries hegemony had, through the wool trade, very closely connected economic interests with England that had naturally resulted in a political affiliation. Indeed, Edward III had married William’s daughter Phillipa in 1328. When Edward first began his grand French adventure, Hainault, a significant regional power with close dynastic and commercial links in the Holy Roman Empire, was a natural and important ally. Composed at William’s behest during the war, Perceforest was surely intended in part as a gift to his son-in-law, a source of thrilling romance and adventure in accordance with both Edward’s personal taste in entertainment and contemporary trends while simultaneously promoting the King’s carefully cultivated chivalric pedigree. The reality-bending verisimilitudinous postscript of Perceforest‘s claims that the information contained within was discovered by Count William alongside an ancient but splendid crown which he presented to Edward III upon recognizing its provenance and the providence of its timely discovery.
Perceforest like Arthur is the founder of a kingdom who by creating a legendary order of chivalry ushers in a golden age. With Perceforest’s addition of the Matter of Britain, anyone presenting themselves as Arthur’s heir was now also connected to his ancestor Perceforest and through him an association with the heroes and worthies of antiquity. While the fact that the two characters were presented as founding the same kingdom seems odd, it is in fact of paramount importance for the works political metaphor. For just as Arthur arose to restore Perceforest’s kingdom, whose founding and central institution was ordained by God, Edward and his family could claim to have done the same as the bearer of their joint legacy. That God guides Perceforest, who immediately and unquestioningly abandons his polytheistic beliefs, to a round table about which he is to form an order of knighthood occurs in a work meant for a king engaged in a grand martial and chivalric enterprise who twice attempts to found his own knightly order hardly coincidental. As a prequel then Perceforest infuses the roundtable and the heroes of the pre-existing Arthurian romance tradition with an element of destiny and divine endorsement that carries on through them to the chivalric literate and martial engaged recipient.
While this gloss was no doubt appreciated by Edward III, the conflation of knightly virtue with divine mandate, particularly in the context of popular literature, would have occasioned little comment from the courts of Europe. Indeed, it would be downright popular. It was after all a central element of the genre which seamlessly blended the fantastical and numinous as can be seen in the thirteenth century incorporation of the quest of the holy grail into the Arthurian legends alongside dragons and witches. More than that, the equivalency and compatibility of chivalric virtues and the precepts of a Christian lifestyle had become ingrained in the very ethos of knighthood. If the chain mailed thugs of the eleventh and twelfth century on occasion worried about the apparent incompatibility of the lifestyle of a professional killer, no matter how incompatible with salvation or they ruminate upon the repeated and vociferous efforts of the Church to curb violence, their fourteenth century descendants weren’t necessarily faced with the same problems.
As the paraphernalia and social trappings of knighthood became more intricate so too did its ethos and virtues. While perhaps risqué, the notions of courtly love found within romance literature reflected and even derived from contemporary understanding of Christian morality. The process and rites of dubbing a knight had taken on a distinctively Christian character replete with religious symbolism while even the tournament a chivalric practice once reviled by Europe’s churchmen had gained an aura of respectability. Likewise, much of the romantic and narrative tension of romance literature came from the characters’ attempts to prove their love and devotion in a chaste and acceptable manner which inspired knights to pursue chivalric acts and empowered women as the arbiters of chivalry.
Perceforest’s representation of a divine endorsement of knighthood held significant appeal to the European aristocracy which was quite distinct and divorced from its engagement in regional politics. Likewise, its everything but the kitchen sink approach to fantasy and adventure captured the essence and range of fourteenth-century romance literature bestowing upon it a considerable appeal to a contemporary audience. While obscure today, Perceforest’s quality and enduring popularity within the genre can be seen from the revisions and additions made to it more than a century after its original composition at the behest of Duke Phillipe of Burgundy, a man who while intensely interested in chivalric matters was unlikely to have been particular moved by representations of English exceptionalism. Perceforest cogently mixes political theater with the popular appeal that would make it effective.
Despite its curious chronological dislocation, its co-option of the themes and structure of wider genre makes it a fascinating showcase of Arthurian romance literature’s underlying cultural contexts at the height of its popularity and influence. In many ways in mimicking and condensing the sweeping tragic arc of the Arthurian legends, Perceforest shows the genre at its best and most engaging. Formulated to flatter a king and ennoble his political aspirations it found popularity and acclaim as a dreamscape of high adventure of fantastical exploits. A small egalitarian reminder that while a culture’s history and legends can be exploited to advance the agendas of individuals, they ultimately belong to the many who chose to carry them into the future.
James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.
Top Image: King Arthur shown in the Nine Heroes Tapestries, ca. 1400 – image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
See also: The Medieval Sleeping Beauty