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I’m in the midst of preparing a lecture on the use (and abuse) of King Arthur by twelfth- and thirteenth-century historians in Britain. This has been a real privilege, since a desire to study the ‘history’ behind the myth was one of the reasons I chose my particular undergraduate degree and institution, more years ago than is generally mentioned in polite society. As a bright-eyed eighteen year old, I envisaged my future as revolutionizing the understanding of this murky figure. Ah, the naïvety of youth! Somehow, despite being older and considerably more cynical now (if not necessarily very much wiser), being invited to take on this task feels like ‘arriving’, or at the very least, achieving a long-forgotten goal. It’s been a fair while since I considered the literature on this topic, so I thought a compilation here of what I see as the most pertinent and recent arguments would be a useful exercise for me, if not of gripping relevance to the rest of you. You have my permission to look away if you so desire.

Speaking of the abuse of history, this is *not* the King Arthur I’m going to be discussing…

My task in this guest lecture is to fill in “what happens to Arthur in (medieval) historians’ work after Geoffrey of Monmouth”, and I’m planning to adopt an essentially chronological structure on the day. In this forum, however, I’m going to begin from the other end with where Arthur and Arthurian history ended up in Edwardian times, since we’re all about the thirteenth century here.

…nor, for that matter, is this…

The pendulum of opinion concerning Edward I’s identification with Arthur has swung between two poles since the early 20th century: what we might call the romantic and pragmatic. R.S. Loomis, himself a noted Arthurian devotee, long ago took issue with what he saw as Sir Maurice Powicke’s excessively political reading of Edward’s understanding of Arthur.[1] Powicke had commented, as if in passing, that Edward’s procession to Glastonbury and the pageantry that attended his, and Queen Eleanor’s, ceremonial disinterment and reburial of the remains of Arthur and Guinevere was intended as a demonstration of the subjugation of Wales. Loomis argued that, instead, Edward was genuinely a devotee of Arthurian literature, and that, at the very least, “sentiment too was involved”.[2] I think it would be fair to call this the minority view. Rather more recently, Michael Prestwich assembled the evidence for Edward’s association with Arthur and found it to be unexceptional and unfocused: part of his general embeddedness in the culture of chivalry, but not constituting a particular dedication to an Arthurian cult.[3] Rather curiously, however, Prestwich went on to declare that it was “not clear what [Edward’s] purpose was” in going to Glastonbury in 1278.[4] Read the rest of this entry »

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I teach and research at the Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies in the School of Philosophical, Historial and International Studies, Monash University (Australia). Views expressed here are my own and not representative of the CMRS, SOPHIS or Monash.

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