The Grail Code 
Geoffrey and the Breton Minstrels

However Geoffrey got his stories, his book was an instant hit. And one measure of how large the secular audience for books had become is the fact that Geoffrey was soon translated from Latin into vernacular languages—even Welsh. (A tiny minority of scholars outside the mainstream believe that this Welsh translation was not a translation but the source: that it was, in fact, Geoffrey’s “very ancient book written in the British language.”)

“Translating” in the Middle Ages was a much freer art than it is today. Translators didn’t mind adapting, summarizing, or expanding the original as they saw fit. The two most famous translations of Geoffrey—by Wace into Norman French rhyme and by Layamon into early Middle English—both add some details not found in Geoffrey’s account. In fact, they seem to bridge the gap between Geoffrey’s book and the later flourishing genre of Arthurian romance.

In this great peace of long ago

(Whether you’ve heard it I don’t know)

Were marvels strange to tell about,

And great adventures were sought out,

Which Arthur’s tales are riddled with

So much that they have turned to myth:

Not quite all truth, not quite all lies;

Neither all foolish nor all wise.

Such legends writers did unfold,

Such wild tales the romancers told

To pad their books where they were able

That everything seems turned to fable.

These lines from Wace’s Roman de Brut sound like the words of someone who’s heard a lot of Arthurian stories. Yet they come from the pen of the Norman poet Wace, who stuck them in the middle of his translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth—a translation produced not too long after Geoffrey’s original work, and before any of the other Arthurian romances that we know of had been written. So where did Wace hear all those wild tales?

Perhaps he heard them from the Bretons.

Imagine any of the hundreds or thousands of feudal courts scattered across western Europe. Something big is going on. Everyone who could find an excuse to be present for tonight’s entertainment is crammed into the castle. All afternoon the ladies have been chattering excitedly among themselves. Small clots of lords and lordlings have been hiding their own excitement by good-naturedly mocking the ladies. Meanwhile, the servants have been busy preparing a banquet for hundreds.

And what caused all this excitement? Simply the news that a few minstrels had straggled into town earlier in the day. In a world without regular theaters, this was as close as people ever got to an opening night on Broadway.

Now at last the time has come, and the great hall is filled to capacity. One of the minstrels who drifted in this morning picks up his lute, and we can hear the low murmur of approval when he announces that tonight he will sing a tale of Arthur’s time.

Somewhere near the front of the audience, perhaps, is our man Wace.

Minstrels wandered freely from one court to another, and they could usually count on a warm welcome wherever they stopped. The ones from Provence were famous for their exquisite love songs, expressing the most delicate shades of feeling in elegantly worked-out verses. But it was the Bretons who had the best stories—stories of a world where magic was always just around the corner, and where another world, beautiful or terrifying or both, might break in on us at any moment.

We recognize this world, of course. It’s the world of ancient Celtic folklore. And because the Bretons were descendants of British refugees who fled from the English invasions, some of their favorite stories were tales of Arthur’s time.

These Breton minstrels might well have been the ones who spun those “wild tales” Wace remembered, full of “marvels strange to tell about.” There’s good evidence that they were all over Europe. In the prosperous northern Italian city of Modena, the cathedral has a startling scene carved over the north portal: mounted horsemen charging, apparently to rescue a lady imprisoned in a lofty tower. What is startling is not so much the subject, but the names of the characters, helpfully written in stone beside them. One of the charging horsemen is Artus de Bretania; the lady in the tower is Winlogee. A man named Mardoc, also in the tower, is apparently holding her captive. Among the other characters in the scene are Galvagin and Che.

These look like familiar names: Arthur, Guinevere, Mordred, Gawain, and Kay. According to students of Celtic languages, they seem to be Breton forms of those names, filtered through early Italian spelling.

Finding Arthurian stories chiseled into a cathedral is startling enough, but what is even more startling is that almost every attempt to date the sculpture places it either before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain or at about the same time. The date, and the Breton spellings of the names, strongly suggest that the sculpture was made by and for people who had heard the stories, not from Geoffrey, but from Breton minstrels—and that, in turn, strongly suggests that the Bretons had been bringing tales of Arthur to courts all over Europe (Modena is a long way from Brittany) well before Geoffrey’s book came into circulation.

We might just have stumbled on the answer to a question we couldn’t answer before: Why was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain such an instant blockbuster hit? Perhaps the reason had little to do with the inherent qualities of the book itself. Perhaps it was just the right book at the right time, the book all Europe had been waiting for: the real story of those famous heroes already made so popular by the Breton minstrels.

3 Responses to “Geoffrey and the Breton Minstrels”

  1. The Grail Code» Blog Archive » Round Table in the news Says:

    [...] The Round Table is in the news: in fact, it’s being called “one of our most significant ever archaeological finds.” Of course, it’s not quite Arthur’s Round Table, and it didn’t quite start the legends of Arthur’s Round Table (Wace preceded Edward III by a couple of centuries).  But still what makes it news is not Edward III, fascinating character though he is, but Arthur. [...]

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