Sunday 28 January 2024

The Grail and the Alans

“In the summer of 376, a large force of Goths came to the river Danube, the north-eastern boundary of the Roman Empire, and asked for asylum. Two Gothic kings had just died, and another been deposed, as they tried — and failed — to hold in check the expansion of Hunnic tribes into their territories on the northern shores of the Black Sea. Within two years, the Goths had precipitated, in turn, a crisis for the Roman state. On 9 August 378, just outside the city of Hadrianople (modern Edirne in European Turkey), they defeated and killed the Emperor Valens, ruler of the eastern half of the Roman Empire, along with two-thirds of his army.”1


The victory of Fritigern’s Goths at Hadrianopolis (Adrianople), on 9th August AD 378, resulting in the death of the emperor of the east and annihilation of two thirds of his army, unleashed a chain of events which changed the course of European history that many see as the beginning of the end of the Roman empire in the west; just one hundred years following the Goths’ crossing of the Danube saw the fall of the last western Emperor in 476.

Several reasons have been put forward for the failure of the Romans at Adrianople, described as their worst defeat since Cannae in 216 BC, among them that Valens engaged the enemy without waiting for co-emperor Gratian’s forces from the west owing to his jealousy of his young nephew’s recent success against the Alemanni and wanted the victory for himself; Roman intelligence massively misjudged the numbers of the Gothic army; ill-discipline in the Roman ranks led to an outbreak of fighting before the command was given.

All of these may have played a part in the devastation of the Roman war machine at Adrianople; however, a decisive factor seems to be the role of the Gothic cavalry that hit the Roman army in a lightning blitz attack. The Gothic cavalry contained a large contingent of Alans which had not been spotted by Valens scouts, or had been deliberately hidden by Fritigern, and came from nowhere to hit the Roman flank.

Who Were the Alans?
The Alans who fought alongside the Goths at the battle of Adrianople never limited their allegiance to one particular people; they were first recorded as fighting with the Huns against the Goths, on other occasions against the Huns, and throughout their travels into western Europe often employed by the Romans, sometimes fighting for the Empire, sometimes against. Alanic horsemen were highly valued by the emperor Gratian and were part of his entourage.2 Resentment of Gratian’s favouritism shown to his Alan auxiliaries seems to have contributed to his downfall in 383.

Around eighty years after being driven from their Black Sea homelands by the Huns, the Alans fought alongside Romans and Goths in the major defeat of the Huns at the The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in Gaul (AD 451), the last great Imperial victory in the west. 

The history of the Alans is a complex story; they are the only non-Germanic tribe to permanently settle in Western Europe during the migration period.3


The Asiatic Alans (Latin: Alani or Halani) were Iranian nomadic pastoral people of the North Caucasus, between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, their warriors were mainly cavalry units of mounted archers who disliked fighting on foot.4 As nomads the Alans resided in wooden wagons that were the hub of family life. The wagons had canopies constructed from bark and were drawn by cattle. As they travelled from place to place they drove herds of horses and cattle and flocks of sheep with them.

The Alans, like other tribes of the Asiatic steppe, bound the heads of some of their infants, creating deformation of the skull. These distinctive, elongated skulls have been found at a number of sites claimed to have been settled by Alans that have been excavated in modern-day France.5 

However, it would be wrong to assume all elongated skulls found at places with ‘Alan’ place names in Gaul were all Alanic as this practice was typical of many tribes from the central Asiatic steppe. Binding the heads of infants before the skull bones fused to form the characteristic elongated shape was a common practice of the Huns and some of their European neighbours adopted this practice for a brief period at the height of Hunnic power in the mid-5th  century.6

In the 370s the Alans living on the plains between the Don and Volga Rivers, the area north of the Black Sea, were attacked by another Asiatic tribe known as the Huns. Some Alans submitted and joined the Huns, while others fled to the west across the river Don. After being devastated by the Huns the Alans never again managed to come together as one cohesive group, but splintered into several tribal groups that seem to have had no common interests. Of all barbarian peoples the Alans were the most fragmented; as Wolfram says, they appeared ‘everywhere and nowhere’.7

After first storming and subduing the Alans the Huns then displaced the Gothic tribe known as the Greuthungi who inhabited the lands between the Don and Dnieper Rivers, and then the Tervengi Goths who lived between the Dnieper and the Danube Rivers. The pressure from the Huns resulted in displaced Goths, Alans and Taifali massing on the north bank of the Danube. Valens permitted Fritigern’s Tervengi to cross the Danube and enter the Empire, but the emperor refused to allow the Greuthungi across.

By 377 some Alans and Greuthungi had joined the Tervengi south of the Danube. After being poorly treated by the Romans the Gothic federation rebelled, culminating in the Battle of Adrianople the following year, where as we have seen, the Alanic cavalry played a significant role in the Emperor’s downfall. The number of Alans at Adrianople was probably no more than 3,000, it is likely that a number of these Alans remained with Fritigern’s Goths.

A group of Alans was later settled in the province of Valeria, in Pannonia, attaching themselves to the Hasding Vandals. Despite very different ethnic origins the Alans found much in common with these Vandals. These barbarian groups would move westward and eventually settle within the western Empire. The Alans entered Gaul through two main groups; the main group, in alliance with Vandals and Suevi, crossed the Rhine in 406–407 and spent the next three years journeying through Gaul.

Other units of Alans broke away from this main group and took service with the Romans, first in the Rhineland and then in central Gaul. Alans are recorded as besieging Bazas around 414 and another Alan group is mentioned thirty years later as settled near Valence. The main group stayed with the Vandals and eventually settled in Spain. The Vandals crossed to Africa in 429 and captured Carthage ten years later.

Another contingent of Alans, some remnants of Radagasius’s army that attacked Italy in 405-6, some descendants from the Alans who fought at Adrianople that had remained with the Goths, entered southern Gaul in the Gothic federation of Athaulf following the sack of Rome in AD 410 by Alaric. Some of these Alans were settled with this group, now known as Visigoths, in southern Gaul, the region traditionally associated with the Grail legends

The Sarmatian-Alanic Connection
In 'From Scythia to Camelot' the authors, C Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor argue that the core of the Arthurian and Holy Grail traditions derived not from Celtic mythology, but rather from the folklore of the peoples of ancient Scythia (what are now the South Russian and Ukrainian steppes).8

It is argued by the authors that this fusion of folklore came about through a detachment of Sarmatians posted to Britain in the 2nd century AD, coming into contact with a Roman officer named Artorius, the Latin origin of the name Arthur, and thus the Arthurian legend was born. 

However, THIS Artorius, serving as the camp prefect for Legio VI Victrix at York, made such an insignificant impact during his time in Britain that he was totally forgotten, until modern scholars told us he was the origin of the Arthurian legend. [see: Artorius: A Nation with Amnesia ]

Later, so the story goes, in the 12th century when the Arthurian legend was taken to the Continent it collided with the folklore of the Alans, the Iranian nomadic people and neighbours of the Sarmatians on the Black Sea in antiquity, and the Arthurian Cycle and the Story of the Grail was created. 

Is it possible that the folklore of the Alans could have survived the 9,000 km journey, and several generations later, from their Black Sea homelands to their settlements in the western Empire in the 5th century to re-emerge as the stories of the Grail in the 12th -13th centuries?


Notes & References
1. Peter Heather, The Goths, Blackwell, 1996, p.1.
2. Herwig Wolfram, History of the Goths, University of California Press, 1988, p.239.
3. Torsten Jacobsen, A History of the Vandals, Westholme Publishing, 2012, p.49.
4. Bernard Bachrach – A History of the Alans in the West, 1973, p.89.
5. Bachrach, p.68.
6. Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Oxford University Press, 2007, p.586.
7. Wolfram, p.238
8.  C Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot, Garland, 2000.


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Friday 22 December 2023

First Sarmatian found in Britain

"In 175 CE, following their defeat in the Marcomannic Wars, emperor Marcus Aurelius drafted Sarmatian cavalry into Roman legions and deployed 5,500 Sarmatian soldiers to Britain, as recorded by contemporary historian Cassius Dio. Little is known about where the Sarmatian cavalry were stationed, and no individuals connected with this historically attested event have been identified to date, leaving its impact on Britain largely unknown."

In 2017, during excavations preceding the A14 road improvement scheme between Cambridge and Huntingdon, archaeologists discovered a complete well-preserved skeleton of a young man, around 18–25 years old at the time of death between 126 and 228 AD. The man has been named Offord Cluny 203645 after the Cambridgeshire village he was found near. 

Further analysis of extracted DNA by the Ancient Genomics Laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute in London has shown that the remains, found buried in a ditch on a farmstead site that later developed into a villa complex during the Roman occupation of Britain, belong to a man from a nomadic group known as Sarmatians, an Iranian-speaking people from around the Black Sea at the far end of the Roman Empire, the area today of southern Russia, Armenia, and Ukraine. 

(Francis Crick Institute)

Analysis of his teeth by the archaeology department of Durham University has shown that until the age of six he ate C4 crops such as millets and sorghum grains, which are plentiful in the plains where the Sarmatians lived. As he grew his diet changed, decreasing his consumption of these grains and eating more wheat, found in western Europe. Scientists conclude that Offord Cluny 203645, and not his ancestors, made the journey to Britain indicating that he could have been a cavalry man's son, or possibly his slave. 

Dio Cassius's Roman Histories describe how toward the end of the Marcomannic Wars (AD 166-180) 8,000 heavy cavalry from a Sarmatian tribe known as the Iazyges were taken into the Roman army by Marcus Aurelius; 5,500 of which Dio says were sent to Britain. 

It is claimed that these Sarmatian auxiliaries were posted in groups of five hundred to the garrisons along Hadrian's Wall. Additionally, when their period of service was over, the veterans were settled at the Roman fort of Bremetennacum Veteranorum (Ribchester, Lanchashire).

The Notitia Dignatum, a record of Roman units of the late Roman Empire, does confirm a Sarmatian presence at Bremetennacum listed as Cuneus Sarmatarum. The Notitia Dignatum is considered to be fairly accurate for early 5th century Roman Britain but is of little value for 2nd century Roman Britain when the 5,500 Sarmatians are said to have arrived. However, Roman altars found at the site do confirm the presence of Sarmatian cavalry, however the size of the fort was not large enough to accommodate all 5,500. The fort, built around 70 AD and active for around 300 years, initially accommodated an Ala (wing) of 500 Asturians from Spain who were replaced by a similar number of Sarmatians. It is likely that the Cuneus Sarmatarum, as recorded in the Notitia Dignatum, was enlisted from later generations of the first Sarmatian cavalry settled in the area.

There is a surprising lack of archaeological evidence to verify their presence along the forts of Hadrian’s Wall; one would expect the arrival of 5,500 Sarmatians (possibly a much larger number if their families came with them) to have left a significant archaeological signature. But as it stands, the vast majority of the 5,500 Iazyges posted to Britain simply disappeared without trace. 

Offord Cluny 203645 was found along way from the north of Britain where it is claimed the 5,500 Sarmatians were posted. It is indicative of his status that he was not recovered from one of the small formal Romano-British cemeteries found along the modern A14 road, but in an isolated burial placed within a former trackway ditch toward the fringes of the farmstead. Furthermore there is a complete absence of grave goods indicating Offord Cluny 203645 was not a military man. Being found in a ditch in a rural location suggests he was associated with the farmstead.

During the early-mid Roman isolated burials outside of formal cemeteries in peripheral unfurnished graves were not an uncommon feature of farmsteads and villas. However it is usually unclear who was placed in these isolated burials, but the very act of interment itself distinguishes them from the majority of the rural population from this time who were subjected to funerary rites which left little archaeological trace.


Sources:
DNA sleuths solve mystery of the 2,000-year old corpse - BBC News 20-12-2023

Read the report in full:

An individual with Sarmatian-related ancestry in Roman Britain - Marina Silva, Thomas Booth, Joanna Moore, David Bowsher, Janet Montgomery, Pontus Skoglund, et al.
Current Biology, Cell Press, 19-12-2023 (Open Access)

Science Direct (Open Access)


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Monday 4 December 2023

Artorius: A Nation with Amnesia

In this series of articles we have considered the relationship of the Three Welsh Romances, Historia Peredur ab Efrawg, Owain (Chwedl Iarlles Y Fynawn) and Geraint ab Erbin to their French counterparts the Arthurian romances written by Chretien de Troyes, Perceval, or Le Conte du Graal, Yvain, Le Chevalier du Lion; Erec et Enide. The relationship between these parallel stories immediately calls into question the origin, history, and influences of the tales – the so called mabinogionfrage. In particular the debate regarding the provenance of Chretien's story of the Grail has focused on the anonymous tale Peredur which has been locked in a ‘Welsh v French’ argument. It is clear that as the Grail stories evolved they were subject to influence from various sources from the Continent and even the Orient, creating a complex hybrid of themes in the later tales. However, one theory argues for the origins of the Arthurian Cycle and the story of the Grail in the ancient folklore of the Caucasus Mountains, the land between the Black and Caspian seas.

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“Attempts have been made to find a prototype for the Arthur of the Britons by identifying him with historical figures whose names have come down in early and independent records. It is commonly accepted that the most likely derivation of his name is from the Latin Artorius, and there is evidence that this name was known in Britain in the second century, for an inscription records that in this century a certain Lucius Artorius Castus, praefectus castrorum of the Sixth Legion stationed at York, was sent at the head of two legions to Armorica to suppress a rebellion.”1


A Biography in Stone
Two epitaphs found on a pair of Roman tombstones discovered on the Adriatic coast of modern- day Croatia, once Roman Dalmatia, commemorating the career of a Roman officer, are claimed to closely correspond to the military career of the legendary historical Arthur.2 

The longer inscription:

Drawing of the Lucius Artorius Castus inscription from Podstrana,
as read (with minor errors) by professor Frane Bulić in the late 1880s
.3

Translation: 

“To the spirits of the departed: L. Artorius Castus,
Centurion of the III Legion Gallica; also centurion of the
VI Legion Ferrata, also centurion of the II Legion II Adiutrix;
also centurion of the V legion Macedonica; also primus pilus
of the same legion; praepositus of the classis Misenatium;
Praefectus of the VI Legion Victrix; dux of the cohorts
of cavalry from Britain against the Armoricans; procurator
Centenarius of the province of Liburnia with the power to issue
sentences of death. In his lifetime, for himself and his family,
he made this.”
4

The long inscription on the larger of the two tombstones, found in the wall of St Martin’s Church, Podstrana, details the career of Castus from centurion of the Legion III Gallica through to prefect of the Legion VI Victrix, then appointed commander of a detachment of British troops on a campaign in ‘Armoricos’ (?) before finishing his career as procurator in the province Liburnia (part of Dalmatia). This led the American linguist, Kemp Malone, to see the military career of Lucius Artorius Castus as the starting point of the Arthurian legend.5

In support of Malone’s conjectured genesis was the fact that a few years earlier in the late-19th century it had been shown that the Welsh name Arthur most probably derived from the Roman name Artorius. It must be conceded that the name Arthur could certainly be derived from Artorius, rather than a Latinisation of a Celtic name.

A Career Reconstructed
There is much debate, and little agreement,6 over this inscription; unfortunately it has split in two right through the word ‘ARM’…. which was interpreted by Malone,7 and many others since, to identify Castus campaign as the inspiration behind Arthur’s Gallic invasion as first recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), c.1138. 

But failing to identify a suitable military campaign in the desired timeframe in ‘Armoricos’8 this interpretation has now changed after many years. Early inspections of the long inscription claimed there was a ligature connecting the M to E, therefore ARM[ENIOS] seemed to be the most likely interpretation. This is the preferred interpretation of modern historians who see ARM[ENIOS] as referring to Castus in temporary command of troops drawn from legions stationed in Britain, in transit to Armenia and argue that Castus’s service as dux best fits the war triggered in AD 161 by a Parthian invasion of Armenia. Or even the later Parthian campaign of Caracalla of AD 216-17.

Others now argue that there is no ligature on the inscription and there never was (meaning no 'E'), initial readings were simply wrong, and it should now be interpreted as ARM[ATOS], as in ‘fighting armed’ men (adversus armatos) which unshackles Castus from fighting Armoricans or Armenians in AD 161 or AD 216 and makes other campaigns possible.9 Thus, the dating of the inscription is critical, but again, few agree on whether it is late 2nd century or early 3rd century. 

From the long inscription the complete military career of Castus has been reconstructed, determining where he would have served in each Legion, such as the first post recorded on the inscription was as centurion in Legio III Gallica which has been determined as in Syria c. AD 158 until around 162 when he transferred to IV Ferrata in Judea. After spending about 4 years in Judea Castus joined Legio II Adiutrix on the Danube, at the age of around 22, where it is claimed he first came into contact with the Sarmatians.10

Castus then moved to Legio V Macedonia where he was promoted to primus pilus (the highest ranking centurion).  According to the inscription Castus was then promoted to praepositus (a naval rank) of the classis Misenatium, (the fleet based at Misentia). He then moved to Britain as praefectus of Legio VI Victrix, who were based at Eboracum (York). From here he was appointed dux (a temporary command) to lead detachments of cavalry from Britain against the Armoricans(?), before finishing his career as procurator Centenarius of the province of Liburnia.11

There are no other sources known to us to verify the military career of Castus, and the shorter inscription merely confirms his posts as primus pilus of Legio V Macedonica and prefect of Legio VI Victrix.

However, another post is argued for between his time in Legio V Macedonia and the classis Misenatium that is missing from Castus's resume on the long inscription. Littleton and Malcor write that after serving as primus pilus Castus would have re-enlisted in the traditional "equestrian cursus,” the first rank of which ‘praefectus cohortis’ is missing from the inscription. It is then suggested that he “probably served this tour as a praefectus of numeri (an alternative rank to praefectus cohortis) by leading the Iazyges to Bremetennacum and settling them into the Roman military system.” They add that instead of serving as a simple praefectus alae (cavalry commander) in his next post as praefectus of Legio VI Victrix, Castus was placed in command of Bremetennacum (Ribchester).12 None of this is attested on either inscription or any other source and therefore must be considered pure speculation.

Neither inscription provides any dates whatsoever which has left a void, a black hole, for an imagined reconstruction of the career of Castus. According to John Matthews, as seen above, around AD 158 Castus was a centurion in Syria. Eight years later at the age of 22 he joined Legio II Adiutrix. Therefore he was a centurion in Legio III Gallica at the age of 14! Perhaps this was the inspiration behind Arthur the boy king who pulled the sword from the stone at age 15 in later Arthurian romance. In fact we have no idea when Castus was born and what age he was when he first achieved the rank of centurion, but it is hardly likely to be as a young boy. The inscription does not say he served in Syria, Judea or the Danube. These locations have been taken from known activity of the said legions to reconstruct a timeframe that revolves around the Marcomannic Wars (bellum Germanicum et Sarmaticum) from about AD 166 to 180 ensuring Castus was in the right place at the right time. Yet, the inscription provides no evidence of Castus’s contact with Sarmatians (Iazyges), we know he joined Legio II Adiutrix but we don’t know when and we have no evidence that he ever fought on the Danube.

The Commander at Ribchester
Dio Cassius's Roman Histories describes how toward the end of the Marcomannic Wars (AD 166-180) 8,000 heavy cavalry from a Sarmatian tribe known as the Iazyges were taken into the Roman army by Marcus Aurelius; 5,500 of which Dio says were sent to Britain.

The Notitia Dignatum, a record of Roman units of the late Roman Empire, does confirm a Sarmatian presence at Bremetennacum, near Ribchester, Lancashire, listed as Cuneus Sarmatarum, under the command of the Dux Britannia, the only firm evidence for their presence in Britain. The Notitia Dignatum is considered accurate for early 5th century Roman Britain but is of little value for 2nd century Roman Britain when the 5,500 Sarmatians are said to have arrived. However, Roman altars found at the site do confirm the presence of Sarmatian cavalry, however the size of the fort was not large enough to accommodate all 5,500. The fort, built around 70 AD and active for around 300 years, initially accommodated an Ala (wing) of 500 Asturians from Spain who were replaced by a similar number of Sarmatians. It is likely that the Cuneus Sarmatarum, as recorded in the Notitia Dignatum, was enlisted from later generations of the first Sarmatian cavalry settled in the area. 

The Roman bathhouse remains at  Bremetennacum (Ribchester) 
 

It is claimed that these Sarmatian auxiliaries were posted in groups of five hundred to the garrisons along Hadrian's Wall. Additionally, when their period of service was over, the veterans were settled at Bremetennacum Veteranorum. It is further argued, in line with the imagined additional inscription (above) that their first commander was a Roman officer named Lucius Artorius Castus, prefect of the VI Legion Victrix, whose headquarters were at York (Eboracum). Apparently, as the name is uncommon, the very same Roman Officer commemorated on the epitaphs of the two tombstones from Podstrana as we have seen above. There must have only been one Roman stationed in Britain named Artorius.

It is then claimed that these Sarmatian cavalrymen from north of the Danube brought with them a treasury of folktales which became attached to the Roman commander whose name was the origin of ‘Arthur’, who led a band of mounted knights, that evolved as the core of the Arthurian legend and the stories of the Holy Grail, and thus, the so-called ‘Sarmatian Connection’ was conceived.13

We must recognise that the two tombstones from Podstrana bear, as far as we know, the only complete career biography of Castus, as we have no other source to verify this. Anything else is imaginative  speculation and conjecture. Accepting this fact, we must also recognise that there is nothing to link Castus with Sarmatian cavalry in Britain; the inscription simply does not record any contact between them. There is also nothing to verify that they were posted in groups of 500 along the forts of Hadrian’s Wall. In fact there is very little archaeological evidence for their presence along the Wall; it is likely the majority of the 5,500 (if they ever arrived - and we only have Cassius Dio’s word for it, and I suspect the number is incorrect) were moved out of Britain soon after their arrival. But as it stands, the vast majority of the 5,500 Iazyges posted to Britain simply disappeared without trace. Furthermore, there is no evidence whatsoever that Castus had any connection with Bremetennacum.

Thus, we can now see why the interpretation of ARM […] on the long inscription is critical to the career of Castus. If ARM[ENIOS] is correct and Castus was fighting Armenians in the 160s he had left Britain before the Sarmatians arrived. And neither inscription suggests he returned to Britain after this campaign. If Castus was in Armenian at this time he could not have had contact with any Sarmatians in Britain and the ‘Sarmatian Connection’ collapses.

A Caledonian Campaign?
Taking this a mighty leap further, it is then argued that the twelve victories,  culminating in the famous victory at Badon Hill, attributed to "Arthur" in the 9th century Historia Brittonum and 10th century Annalaes Cambriae, may actually have been won by Lucius Artorius Castus between AD 183-185 in Northern Britain leading units of Sarmatian cavalry and defeating marauding Caledonians who had crossed Hadrian’s Wall and raided into Northern England.14

I struggle to see a convincing attachment of the 2nd century Roman officer to the earliest Arthur, the successful leader (dux bellorum) of the battles of the Historia Brittonum; to suggest that this is a distant memory of the northern campaign of Castus, some 650 years earlier, is incredulous to say the least.15

How do we explain the silent gap? The onus is on those people proposing this thesis to validate their claims. Reconstructions based on speculation and conjecture of what may have been are worthless as evidence. We may ask where did the author of the Historia Brittonum get his information? There is no record of any battles fought in the north of Britain by Castus; certainly not on his tombstone, so where did this come from? It is no more than a modern myth.

Are we really supposed to believe a memory of this campaign suddenly appeared after a 650 year silence? There is no qualification for any of these claims that the 2nd century military career of Castus reflects that of the 9th century Arthur of the twelve battles in the Historia Brittonum. Arthur’s battles have been located all over the country, but it is fair to say that historians favour a northern location for the whole campaign. 

We have already seen how there is no evidence that Castus was commander of a Sarmatian cavalry unit at Bremetennacum (Ribchester) and now we find in the reinterpretation of Nennius’s battle list that this fort appears as Arthur’s eleventh battle at Breguoin in the Historia Brittonum, which is often identified with the Roman fort at High Rochester (Bremenium). Malcor’s identification is unconventional to say the least but Ribchester fits her reconstructed battle sequence of Castus chasing Caledonians all over the north of England and back into Scotland.

Two Roman forts on the Wall, Camboglanna and Avallana, have been suggested as the site of Camlann, Arthur’s last battle, and Avalon, respectively, where he was taken to be healed of his wounds. Neither battle occurs in the list in the Historia Brittonum; Camlann belongs to Welsh tradition and Avalon is based on the Celtic Elysium.

Furthermore, there is no record of any post-Roman battles at either fort. All we have is a Roman officer bearing the name ‘Artorius’ which could have been taken into Celtic as the name ‘Arthur’ but not necessarily.  Oddly no Latin sources refer to him as such: only to a Latinized Welsh or Breton name ‘Arthurus’.16 It is significant that Latin writers always refer to Arthur as Arturus or Arturius, but never as Artorius,17 suggesting any link with a Roman officer was unknown to these writers.

Moving forward a thousand years from the time Castus was active in the 2nd century to Arthur’s Gallic invasion as first recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century we find the only part of Castus’s career that could possibly correspond to the military career of Arthur. Yet as we have seen this has now been rejected by the current wisdom.

Yet, as we have seen Arthur’s Gallic invasion does not appear before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s psuedo-historical account of the Kings of Britain and certainly is not part of the earliest stratum of the Arthurian legend, Arthur of the battles as recorded in the 9th century Historia Brittonum, and 10th century Annales Cambriae which records Badon and Camlann only. Geoffrey’s source for Arthur’s Gallic invasion has been the subject of much debate, he probably pulled from several sources but the usurpation of Magnus Maximus was likely his main source; Geoffrey seemed totally unaware of a Roman officer named Lucius Artorius Castus stationed in Britain – or no doubt he would have used him in his Historia.

An Armorican Campaign?
However, we find the sources do reveal an occasion in Armorica (read Gaul) in which Roman troops from Britain may have been deployed as a counter offensive. The Historia Augusta explicitly records a military disorder that immediately precedes Commodus’ accession to imperial power, (HA Comm. 16.1–2). The Historia Augusta names this as ‘bellum desertorum’ (War on Deserters) without going into any great detail. Commodus reigned as emperor from AD 177-192 which certainly puts the events in the correct timeframe for a late 2nd century Castus.

The Roman geographical area of Armorica

A certain Maternus and some fellow soldiers left the army and turned to robbery and plunder, living as outlaws. They had reasonable success and gained further supporters (deserters) from the army, criminals and prisoners. The commentary of the historian Herodian, one of the main sources of the Historia Augusta, tells us that Maternus’ mob had swelled in such numbers it ravaged the “Celtic and Iberian territories”. Herodian’s account is supported in other accounts such as the biography of Pescennius Niger (HA Pesc. Nig. 3.3–5) which also reports that deserters plagued the provinces of Gaul in countless numbers.18

Commodus took appropriate action and prepared to despatch imperial forces into the area, but before they arrived Maternus’ rabble disbanded, with some small bands going into Italy. Maternus, so the story goes, now planned to assassinate the Emperor and take the throne himself. His own men betrayed him and he was quickly caught and executed.

Cassius Dio reports a failed uprising among the legions of Britain around this time, which seems to be linked to the War of the Deserters. Dio writes that “the lieutenants in Britain, accordingly, having been rebuked for their insubordination, — they did not become quiet, in fact, until Pertinax quelled them, — now chose out of their number fifteen hundred javelin men and sent them into Italy. These men had already drawn near to Rome without encountering any resistance, when Commodus met them.” When the Emperor asked them the purpose of their mission they replied that they had come because Perennis was plotting against him and plans to make his own son emperor.19

As Birley writes20 it hardly seems credible that the 1500 legionaries would be sent from Britain to simply denounce Perennis and ponders if they were part of a task force rounding up deserters, whose activities had reached alarming proportions in Gaul and Spain and may even have got as far as Rome. Birley adds that Lucius Artorius Castus, prefect of VI Victrix, had a special command over vexillations from two British legions and is often associated with these events.21 If the inscription does read ARM[ORICOS] then this is surely a strong candidate for the event it refers to.

Artorius Remembered?
As we have seen above, from the two inscriptions an imaginative full blown biography of this Roman officer has been developed, including Arthur’s twelve battles of the Historia Brittonum re-interpreted as Castus fighting a band of Caledonians that crossed Hadrian’s Wall in the late 2nd second century.22 

The longer inscription

We have seen that in AD 175 a group of 5,500 Sarmatian heavy cavalry, who belonged to a tribe known as Iazyges, were posted to Britain. It is argued that these Sarmatians brought with them stories from their homeland, around the Black Sea, to Britain. Their native folklore became attached to a Roman officer named Artorius, the Latin name from which the name ‘Arthur’ most probably derived. Thus, the core of the Arthurian stories that developed through the Middle Ages apparently has its origins in oral storytelling in the Caucasus, the meeting of Asia and Europe; the heavy cavalry of the Iazyges under the command of Artorius being the origin of the Arthurian knights.23 Mabinogionfrage solved! The source of the Arthurian Romance is neither Welsh or French but the Caucasian folklore of the Pontic-Caspian Steppe!

For this theory to be viable these tales of Caucasian folklore must have passed through several language barriers, to quote Nicholas Higham; “from Old Iranian into Latin and Brittonic, been taken up by both the clerical and vernacular traditions in post- Roman Britain, then been adopted into literature written predominantly in French from c.1150 onwards”.24 

It is accepted that any thesis is initially built on a level of conjecture but this is a very taxing route of transmission susceptible to all sorts of challenges, not least the many language changes, as Higham states above, that could have failed at various stages; and even more challenging to be accepted as credible. There are no proofs here, only speculation and conjecture which is argued as fact. 

Are we really expected to believe that these tales from the Caucasus arrived in Britain in the 2nd century and lay dormant, forgotten for many hundreds of years then suddenly re-emerged without any interim record? If the account of Arthur’s twelve battles in the 9th century Historia Brittonum is based on memories of Castus 2nd century campaign against the Caledonians what was the author’s (Nennius?) source? 

There is no record of any interim account; are we to believe the story of the battles survived as an oral account; one day Nennius was chatting to an old Sarmatian……. Where was this story for 650 years?

The reinterpretation of the battle list in From Scythia to Camelot (Appendix 3) shows greater similarity to the account of Arthur’s battles as told by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century which is accepted by historians as a pseudo-historical tale, but here it is presented as a factual recall of Castus’s campaign against the Caledonians in AD 180s. Where was this story for a 1,000 years?

This, it is argued, is a typical pattern of development of a legend; a hero’s extraordinary deeds are passed on by people of his own time telling tales of this remarkable character. Then after many years in which his name is not used (?) the same hero suddenly re-emerges in further tales in which historical facts and imaginative stories merge into the hero often now possessing superhuman qualities; “he was victorious at the battle of ???? and he alone killed 900 of the enemy by his own hand”. Other bodies of folklore become attracted to the existing cycle to create a new form of the legend often with a semi-historical foundation. 

This is the formula being used to explain Castus as the genesis for the Arthurian legend. Yet, in the case of the historical events of Castus developing into a new form as the Arthurian legend there is a complete absence of evidence of transmission between stages, a silence of hundreds of years, no interim steps whatsoever. It seems Artorius’s time while stationed in Britain was so insignificant that no one even remembered him. Combined with the issues of transmission across many languages as noted above and this becomes a massive, if not impossible, call.

Eurasian steppes

During the late classical period the Alans had been neighbours of the Sarmatians, nomads of the Central Asian Steppe, at their peak extending across the plains from the borderlands of western China, westward to what is now Hungary. The Alans moved west under pressure from the Huns, some settled in Gaul by the Romans while others arrived as invading barbarians during the 5th century.

When the Arthurian Legend was taken to the Continent, so it is claimed, it collided with the folklore of the Alans, who told tales of magical swords and magical cups, including the death of the hero among other parallels that can be found today in the Nart Sagas of the Caucasus and the cultures and languages of the Ossetians and their neighbours, the ancestral lands of the Alans.

It is argued by Littleton and Malcor that the coming together of these two strands of folklore resulted in the Arthurian Cycle and the story of the Grail that emerged on the Continent from the 12th century and the introduction of a new Arthurian character, Lancelot the Alan.25



Notes and References:

1. Rachel Bromwich, A.O.H. Jarman, Brynley F. Roberts (editors), Introduction, to The Arthur of the Welsh, University of Wales Press, 1993. p.6.
2. For a detailed commentary on the inscriptions, Lucius Artorius Castus’ Career and the origin of the name “Artorius” see: Christopher Gwinn, Lucius Artorius Castus: A Sourcebook 
3. T. G. Jackson, "Dalmatia, the Quarnero and Istria", Oxford, 1887, pp. 167 (Wikimedia Commons)
4. The Monumental collection of Latin inscriptions, Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, No. 1919 (ed.) by Th. Mommsen: Berlin, Reimer, 1873.
5. Kemp Malone, Artorius, Modern Philology 23 (1924–1925): pp.367–74.
6. a. Tony Sullivan, The Roman King Arthur?: Lucius Artorius Castus, Pen & Sword, 2022,
b. Linda A. Malcor & John Matthews, Artorius: The Real King Arthur, Amberley Publishing, 2022.
7. Kemp Malone, Artorius.
8. Armorica, (from Celtic ar “on,” and mor, “sea”), the Roman name for the northwest peninsula of Gaul, now Brittany, which included the western part of what later became Normandy, part of the Gallia Lugdunensis province.
9. Linda A. Malcor & John Matthews, Artorius: The Real King Arthur, Amberley Publishing, 2022.
10. John Matthews, King Arthur Of The Romans: Lucius Artorius Castus And The Sarmatians In Britain, Hallowquest, Oxford, p.279.
11. Matthews, Ibid.
12. Littleton & Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot, p.73, fn.16.
13. a. Linda Malcor, Lucius Artorius Castus, Part 1: An Officer and an Equestrian, Heroic Age, 1, 1999.
b. Lucius Artorius Castus, Part 2: The Battles in Britain" Heroic Age 2, 1999.
c. C. Scott Littleton & Linda A. Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail, Garland, 2000 (Revised Edition)], Appendix 3 – A Reinterpretation of Nennius’s Battle List.
13. C. Scott Littleton and Ann C. Thomas, The Sarmatian Connection: New Light on the Origin of the Arthurian and Holy Grail Legends, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 91, No. 359 (Jan. - Mar., 1978), pp. 513-527.
14. Littleton & Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot, Appendix 3, pp. 327-330.
15. John Matthews and Caitlín Matthews, The Complete King Arthur: Many Faces, One Hero, Inner Traditions, 2017. This book includes a new translation of Taliesin's poem Kadeir Teyrnon in which they present Arthur as fighting along Hadrian's Wall. This interpretation of the poem has significant differences to more recent modern translations and clearly influenced by the authors' bias toward a Northern Arthur rather than accuracy of translation in support of their case for Lucius Artorius Castus.
16. J. E. Caerwyn Williams, Brittany And The Arthurian Legend, in The Arthur of the Welsh, University of Wales Press, 1993. p.264.
17. Jean Markale, Le Roi Arthur et la societe celtique, Paris, 1981.
18. Tilman Moritz, An army in revolt? Military disorder during the reign of Commodus. Ancient World magazine.
19. Cassisus Dio, Roman History, Epitome of Book 73.9.
20. Anthony R. Birley, The Frontier Zone in Britain: Hadrian to Caracalla, pp.355-370, in The Impact of the Roman Army (200 B.C. – A.D. 476), Lukas de Blois and Elio Lo Cascio (Editors), Brill, 2007, pp363-.364.
21. Birley, Ibid. p.364, fn.46.
22. Littleton & Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot, Appendix 3.
23.  C. Scott Littleton and Ann C. Thomas, ‘The Sarmatian Connection: New Light on the Origin of the Arthurian and Holy Grail Legends.
24. Nicholas Higham, King Arthur: The Making of the Legend, Yale University Press, 2018, p.41.
25. Littleton & Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot, Chp 9: The Alans and the Grail, pp.233-254.


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Thursday 16 November 2023

Lancelot in Wales?

Peredur - Part VII 

“OWAIN (or The Lady of the Fountain), probably dating to the thirteenth century, is one of three Middle Welsh prose tales commonly referred to as "the three romances," the others being Geraint and Enid and Peredur. All three have some as-yet-undefined relationship with romances by Chrétien’ de Troyes-Yvain, Erec et Enide, and Perceval.”1

“Whether the three Middle Welsh prose tales, Geraint ab Erbin, Owain and Peredur, all probably dating from the first half of the thirteenth century or even the end of the twelfth, should be included in a chapter on adaptions and translations of Chrétien’, is a thorny question. Their relationship with Erec et Enide, Yvain and the Conte, respectively, has not yet been (and may never be) satisfactorily defined. Were they derived from Chrétien’’s romances? Did they use an Old French source that Chrétien’ had known too? If so, was this French source drawing from Welsh and Breton oral tales?”2


An Assumption Confirmed?
It cannot be denied that the three Welsh tales ((Welsh: Y Tair Rhamant) in their extant form display similarities to three Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes, however, it must be conceded that they each also differ in the degree of their resemblance to the French works, and each should be considered individually. This series of articles has concentrated on examining the Welsh Peredur son of Efrog against Chrétien’s Perceval, or the Story of the Grail. By now it will have become clear that this is an immensely complex subject and definition of the relationship of these texts, as stated above, has never been satisfactorily accomplished. The Celticists have largely fallen from favour with modern scholars who prefer a continental origin with transmission from France to Wales. 

Today the debate has quietened somewhat with current wisdom tending to favour a common source, a lost French text perhaps intermediate between Peredur and Perceval; although the relationship between these parallel stories, the so-called ‘mabinogionfrage’ has never really been satisfactorily resolved. 

The late Claude Luttrell was an active participant in the mabinogionfrage and firmly denied Celtic origins to Chrétien’s Arthurian romances.3 He responded to Brynley Roberts’ entry in the Arthurian Encyclopaedia in which he observed that their relationship to Chrétien's romances has not yet been defined (above).  Writing a few years later Michelle Szkilnik suggested that they may never be satisfactorily defined (also above). Szkilnik is probably correct in her assumption that the issue may never be resolved.

Luttrell had been particularly vocal in arguing against a Celtic origin and accordingly responded to the challenge of definition by demonstrating the manner in which material from Le Conte del Graal has been incorporated in Historia Peredur (notice the direction of travel in Luttrell’s opinion). The dependence of the Welsh tale on the romance by Chrétien, and not vice-versa, Luttrell argues, is evident from at least the fact that the Welsh tale also makes use of other French sources, namely the Bliocadran, The Second Continuation, and even claims that Peredur’s amorous adventures derive from the non-cyclic version of the Prose Lancelot.4

The Knight of the Cart

Peredur’s Ladies
It is the beginning of Peredur, where his mother has taken him away from chivalric socity to live in the forest that Luttrell sees echoes of the Bliocadran prologue, a later addition to Chretien's tale.
In the Welsh version, when Peredur left his mother to go to Arthur's court to become a knight she advised him (among other things); "If you see a beautiful lady, make love to her even though she does not want you––it will make you a better and braver man than before."

Peredur's first encounter is with the maiden of the pavilion, a beautiful, auburn-haired maiden sitting in a chair with a frontlet of gold and sparkling stones on her forehead, and a thick gold ring on her hand. She gave him food and drink. Peredur took her ring then he went down on his knee and kissed the maiden. And he took his horse and set off. Note, this is the only kiss in the whole Mabinogion collection.

In Chretien's version the maiden in the pavilion resists Perceval but he forcibly “kissed her repeatedly, twenty times as the story says, regardless of whether she liked it or not...” until he saw a ring set with a shining emerald on her finger. ‘My mother also told me,’ he said, ‘to take the ring from your finger, but not to do anything more.’ She refused to give him the ring but he forcibly straightened out her finger, removed the ring from it.5

Returning to the Welsh tale; After leaving his uncle's castle where he witnessed the procession of the bleeding lance and severed head, Peredur meets a beautiful auburn-haired woman and a saddled horse standing beside her, a man’s corpse between the woman’s hands. She is his foster-sister.

Peredur arrives at a great, ivy-covered fortress where there were five maidens, he was sure that he had never seen such a beautiful sight as the principal maiden; 'her flesh was whiter than the flowers of the whitest crystal; her hair and her eyebrows were blacker than jet; with two tiny red spots on her cheeks, redder than the reddest thing'. She goes to his chamber and offers herself to him but Peredur does not take advantage of her. He defeats the earl and all his men who threaten her kingdom. And so for three weeks Peredur arranged tribute and submission from the earl to the maiden. And when he had settled and secured her in her realm, he went on his way.

Then he met by a lady rider on a lean, sweaty horse. She was the wife of the Proud One of the Clearing, the owner of the pavilion where he had taken the ring, who was convinced Peredur had his way with the maiden. Peredur said ‘I am the one you are after, and by my faith, the maiden is innocent on my account.’

Then he came to a castle on a mountain, where there was a large, handsome woman sitting in a chair and numerous handmaidens. She tells Peredur that there are nine witches here, the witches of Caerloyw. He went to the witches’ court where he stayed for three successive weeks and trained him in horse and weapons. 

The centre section (Part B) commences with Peredur’s romantic liaisons with Angharad Golden-Hand and then moves on to the Empress of Constantinople with whom he stayed for fourteen years.. It is generally accepted that this section of Peredur son of Efrog does not display any evidence of influence from Chrétien’s romance. In the final section (Part C), the Castle of Wonders, Peredur deals with the hideously ugly black maiden and the lady with the lapdog, who he never actually meets. It is this final section of the Welsh tale that Luttrell argues mirrors the stag hunt in The Second Continuation, we will return to this later.

It is difficult to see the comparison with Lancleot’s adultery with the Queen, the dire consequence of which leading to the downfall of the Round Table. Furthermore, it is doubtful that Lancelot was known in Wales at the time of the composition of Peredur son of Efrog as we will see later. However, we will return to Claude Luttrell later, at this point it is a worthwhile digression to consider the origin’s of Lancelot in Chrétien’s romance.

He little reaps who little sows 
Chrétien was the first to mention Camelot, and the first to write of the mysterious procession at the castle of the Fisher King, leading to the quest for the Grail. Similarities with the tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde have been detected in Chrétien’s works leading to suspicions that he may have been one of the first poets to recite the tale. He was also the first to write of Queen Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot of the Lake. Yet we know virtually nothing about the author of the five earliest Arthurian  romances: Erec and Enide, Cligés, The Knight of the Cart (Lancelot), The Knight with the Lion (Yvain), and The Story of the Grail (Perceval).6

Chrétien de Troyes is credited with introducing Lancelot to the world of Arthurian Romance as both Guinevere's lover and rescuer in the late 12th century tale 'Lancelot, or the Knight of the Cart', (Lancelot, ou Le Chevalier à la Charrette). Lancelot receives nothing more than a passing mention in Chrétien's earlier and first Arthurian work Erec et Enide in which he appears as third in a list of the knights of the Round Table. As with Perceval, or the Story of the Grail, Chrétien abandoned his romance of Lancelot leaving its completion to the clerk Godefroy de Lagny. With Perceval the time Chrétien stopped writing corresponds with the death of his patron on Crusade in 1191, but with Lancelot it is generally accepted that Chrétien disproved of the subject matter, Lancelot’s adultery with the King’s wife, a theme which seems to have been placed on him by the patron of that work Marie de Champagne.

In pre-Galfridian Arthurian literature, we hear little of Arthur’s wife Gwenhwyfar, receiving no more than a brief mention in the 11th century tale Culhwch and Olwen. Her abduction does not appear in a literary context until an early 12th century Saint’s Life (Vitae Gildae). She appears in several late Triads always associated with Camlan, however these seem to have been influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth who was the first to introduce her affair with Modred, a liaison that eventually led to the downfall of Arthur and the end of the fellowship of the Round Table. In later romance the male in this relationship was transposed to Lancelot.

The First Abduction
The cathedral at Modena, Italy, is famous for the Arthurian sculpture on the archivolt of the north portal. Work is said to have commenced toward the end of the 11th century by a group of sculptors under the direction of the master mason Lanfranco and the sculptor Wiligelmus (Guglielmo). The sculpture is generally agreed to date to the early 12th century, the knights seem to be a representation of the attire of the Crusader knights. The usual explanation for this sculpture is that it represents a tale told by a Breton conteur to a group of Crusader knights gathered at Bari in 1096 while waiting to embark for the First Crusade.

The Modena Archivolt

The scene on the Modena archivolt depicts a castle at the centre surrounded by water. Inside the castle is a woman named Winlogee and a man, Mardoc. Two barbicans defend entrances at opposite ends of the castle, at the left entrance is the churl named Burmaltus with a pick-like weapon. Three knights face the churl, Artus de Bretania, Isdernus, and an unnamed knight. From the other barbican rides a fourth knight named Carado striking with his lance the first of three attacking knights Galvaginus, Galvarium and Che.

The resemblance between the Arthurian scene on the Modena sculpture and the story of Carado of the Dolorous Tower in the later Vulgate Lancelot in which Gawain (Galvaginus) was carried off by a gigantic knight named Carado was first noted in the late 19th century.7 However, when it was realised that the name Winlogee had been substituted by Breton conteurs for the Welsh Gwenhwyfar it became clear that the scene was a depiction of the abduction of Guinevere. In Chrétien’s version in Chevalier de la Charette and Malory’s Morte d’Arthur it is Lancelot who is her rescuer. Perhaps he is the unnamed knight on the Modena sculpture?

However, other versions of the Queen’s abduction, such as Hartmann von Aue’s Iwein, Heinrich von dem Turlin and Livre d’Artus, consistently show her releaser as Gawain. It is likely that Chrétien granted the role to Lancelot (under the direction of Marie de Champagne) and Malory devotedly followed him. Yet, regardless of the identity of the rescuer, we can be certain that Chrétien did not invent the abduction tale as the Arthurian scene at Modena predates his Knight of the Cart, 1171-1181.

Indeed, the Arthurian sculpture on the archivolt at Modena cathedral appears independently of any known literary source. More likely the tale of Guinevere's abduction originates from a meeting of east and west; the tales of Arthur and his knights taken to Italy by the Breton contingent of the First Crusade, becoming entwined with the Greek mythology of the abduction of Persephone, the archetype of the abducted flower maiden, by the Breton story tellers stopping off in southern Italy. In turn this abduction story, presented with an Arthurian twist, spread back across Europe along the pilgrim routes to Brittany and finally to Britain and the quill of Caradoc of Llancarfan who adapted the tale for the monks of Glastonbury.

Caradoc produced the first written account of the abduction of Gwenhwyfar in the Vita Gildae (The Life of Gildas) in the first quarter of the 12th century, to justify lands owned by Glastonbury Abbey, here presented by King Arthur to the abbey after Gildas brokered peace between the king and Melwas, her abductor. It should be noted that the Vita Gildae is more or less contemporary with the sculpture on the Modena Archivolt; the direction of transmission is therefore uncertain, but that the tale must have existed in oral form before either of these documentations is fairly certain. 

In Caradoc’s account Arthur’s Queen is carried away by Melwas (honey-youth), King of the summer country, to the “city of glass”.8 Similarities between the two tales indicates that this, or an oral version of it, is likely to be the source behind Chrétien’s abduction tale.

The Knight of the Cart
It is in Chrétien’s earlier Arthurian romance Erec et Enide, c.1170, that we first encounter Guinevere's abductor from the Otherworld where we find the figure appearing briefly as “Maheloas, a great baron, lord of the Isle de Voirre (Isle of Glass). In this island no thunder is heard, no lighting strikes, nor tempests rage, nor do toads or serpents exist there, nor is it ever too hot or too cold.” This is clearly a reference to the Celtic Elysium.9

In the Knight of the Cart we find Chrétien has slightly modified these names in his first mention of the land of Gorre and Guinevere’s abduction when we are told that, “Meleagant, a huge and mighty knight and the son of the king of Gorre, has carried her off into the kingdom from which no foreigner returns.” Gauvain and an anonymous knight follow her. In order to learn of the queen's whereabouts, the anonymous knight rides in a cart, a mode of transport usually reserved for disgraced criminals; subsequently the unnamed knight is called the Knight of the Cart

Lancelot crossing the Sword Bridge

There were two extremely perilous ways to access the land of Gorre, one being the Underwater Bridge and the other crossing by the Sword Bridge. Gauvain went by way of the Underwater Bridge, his adventures are not recorded, yet the Knight of the Cart crosses to the land of Gorre by the more dangerous Sword Bridge. Numerous adventures mark the knight's progress before he comes to the castle where Guinevere and Kay are being held.

Meleagant has Lancelot walled up in a tower with no door or opening, save only a small window from which he could be fed scraps.  He is eventually released by the same girl who who had asked a favour of him as he were going to the Sword Bridge.10

During the ensuing combat between the Knight of the Cart and Meleagant, Guinevere reveals the knight's true name: Lancelot.



Notes & References
1. Brynley F Roberts, in The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, edited by Norris J. Lacy, Garland Publishing, 1996, p.348.
2.  Michelle Szkilnik, Medieval Translations and Adaptions of Chrétien’’s Works, pp.202-213, in A Companion to Chrétien’ de Troyes, Norris J Lacey and Joan Tasker Grimbert (eds.), DS Brewer, 2005, pp.207.
3. Claude Luttrell, The Creation of the First Arthurian Romance, Edward Arnold, 1974.
4. Claude Luttrell, Le Conte del Graal et d'autres sources françaises de l'Historia Peredur, Neophilologus volume 87, 2003, pp.11–28.
5. Chrétien De Troyes Arthurian Romances, Translated with an Introduction and Notes By William W. Kibler, Penguin Books, 1991, The Story of the Grail (Perceval), pp.389-90.
6. Lancelot, or The Knight of the Cart, contains the earliest known mention of Arthur’s famous castle of Camelot, in the region near Caerleon, and the only allusion to it in Chrétien’s works. Following Chrétien it became an essential element of the Arthurian cannon but never existed in the earliest layer of the legend, where Arthur’s court is named as Kelliwig. We have no idea where Chrétien derived his Camelot, but it was not from Celtic tradition.
7. W Foerster, Ein neues Artusdokument (A new Arthurian document), in Zeitschrift fur Romanische Philologie, XXII, 1898.
8. New Arthurian Encyclopedia, NJ Lacey (ed), Garland, 1996.
9.  Patrick Sims-Wiliams, The Early Welsh Arthurian Poems, in The Arthur of the Welsh, UWP, p.59.
10. It is quite likely that here Gorre refers to the Celtic underworld, sometimes termed the Isle de Voirre (‘Isle of Glass’). A false etymology has identified this with Glastonbury, Somerset. In Chrétien’s poem it is the land into which Meleagant will take the queen and where he will hold her captive along with many others. Its capital is Bade (Bath).


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Sunday 10 September 2023

Peredur: Mimicry and Denial

Part VI – Manuscript Muddles

In attempting to unravel the complex relationship between the Welsh tale of Peredur son of Efrog and Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval, or Conte du Graal we must consider that in addition to the ‘standard’ version as found in the White Book of Rhydderch (c.1350) and the Red Book of Hergest (between 1382 and c.1400)  there is also two versions that are designated as incomplete ‘fragments’, deficient of some of the ‘standard’ text.1 One is found in MS Peniarth 14, which breaks off mid-sentence during Peredur's visit to his second uncle, and an earlier version found in MS Peniarth 7, which is deficient of the opening section and ends with Peredur ruling with the empress of Constantinople.

The Red Book version has been seen as a copy of the slightly older version from the White Book, however, others are of the opinion that they both derive from a common source. Traces of an earlier orthography have been identified in the Red Book which do not occur in the White Book making a common source possible but with the Red Book not being updated.2

The Grail Castle


Peniarth 14
A fragment of the text of Peredur son of Efrog is found in the manuscript Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, Peniarth 14, typically dated to the first half of the 14th century. The Peniarth 14 version breaks off mid-sentence after Peredur’s visit to his first uncle with the remainder of the story missing from the manuscript. Peniarth 14 has often been assumed to be an intermediate version of the tale, evidence of a fluid text with development of the tale traceable between versions with scribes adding to the original text between manuscripts.

In truth, we will never know where Peniarth 14 ended and what is deficient from the manuscript or whether this version agrees with later manuscripts or whether it follows the shorter version found in Peniarth 7. However, it is recognised that the orthography of Peniarth 7 is the more archaic of the tale, with the latter manuscript versions somewhat modernised respectively.3

Peniarth 7
The earliest known version of the tale of Peredur is preserved in Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, Peniarth 7 (hereafter Peniarth 7), usually dated c.1300. As we will see later, scholars rarely agree on the date of composition, a critical detail in determining whether the Welsh text is the chicken or the egg. This version has been considered a fragmented version deficient of some of the tale as there are leaves missing from the manuscript; it begins with Peredur’s meeting with the maiden at the pavilion on his way to Arthur’s court and ends with Peredur’s union with the empress of Constantinople, lacking the final adventures with the black, curly haired maiden leading to the Fortress of Wonders.

It is evident that the version of the tale in Peniarth 7 differs from that found in the White Book and Red Book, the ‘standard’ version. However, Peniarth 7 should not be considered a ‘short redaction’ of the standard version. Manuscript evidence indicates that Peniarth 7 was a complete version in its own right as it was at the time of composition.

The story ends after Peredur’s union with the Empress of Constantinople (Mary Williams and Brynley Roberts’ Part B as discussed in Part V: Peredur: Flower of Warriors, Candle of Knights with the scribe of Peniarth 7 indicating that his story ends here: 

“And thus ends the development of Peredur son of Efrawg”

This final statement is similar to that used in each of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi (“And so ends this branch of the Mabinogi”). Thus, it is a reasoned argument that the original text of Peniarth 7 was actually considered complete to this point. The fact that all other sections up to this point start and finish at Arthur’s court at Caerllion confirms this. See: Part III: Peredur: From Caerllion to Constantinople.

That Peniarth 7 represents a complete version (at its time of composition) is also in agreement with the argument presented by Mary Williams and Brynley Roberts that the first two sections of the tale (Parts A & B) may have been the original version. The final section (Part C - The Fortress of Wonders) as found in the two later manuscripts (Red Book and White Book), being a later addition by a different scribe, to align the first part of the text, i.e. the procession of bleeding spear and severed head (Part A), with Chrétien de Troyes’ Grail procession in the castle of the Fisher King. 

In support of this, consider the following scenario: that on reading the original story of Peredur as found in Peniarth 7, the procession of the spear that bleeds and the severed head at the uncle’s castle, among other details, was recognised as being very similar to the procession of the grail and bleeding lance in the French text. But finishing at Constantinople the redactor must have felt the ending was missing and the procession needed to be explained. Thus he inserted the adventures with the ugly damsel (black, curly-haired maiden in Peredur), taking much from the French grail romances, which led to the final revelation at the Fortress of Wonders in an attempt to explain the procession.

The French Connection
Over the years scholars have argued that Part A and Part C display clear influence from French Grail romances yet concede that Part B is based on Welsh tradition and free from Chrétien’s authority. We should now reconsider the three sections of the tale of Peredur that are said to have evidence of Chrétien’s influence:

Part A - Peredur's upbringing in the forest, maiden at the pavilion, arrival at Arthur's court, the insult to Gwenhwyfar, series of adventures, return to Arthur's court after avenging Cai’s insult to dwarfs; displays some similarities to Chrétien’s Conte del Graal and later Grail Romances.

Part B -  Angharad Law Eurog to the Empress of Constantinople has no parallel in Chrétien and must be considered free of French influence.

Part C – from the arrival of black, curly-haired maiden at Arthur's court, culminating with killing the witches of Caerlloyw; displays strong similarities to Chrétien’s Conte del Graal and later Grail Romances.

It is clear from the manuscript evidence that the story of Peredur has evolved over the years (centuries) with further episodes added to the text by later scribes. Although the earliest manuscript authority Peniarth 7 shows Part A and Part B as a ‘complete’ text ending with Peredur’s union with the empress of Constantinople, Part A may have existed as the original stand alone tale. Part B which is totally unrelated to Part A may have been added later as the tale evolved. This is certainly possible as the tale is divided by episodes at Arthur’s court; Part A ends at Caerllion and Part B commences at Caerllion forming a continuation from the original tale.

In Part A after leaving his mother in the woods to become a knight he first comes to a maiden in a pavilion who gives him food and a ring. He then arrives at his first uncle’s castle where he receives training and develops part of his weapon-craft; his uncle tells him he will be the best swordsman in this Island. At the second uncle’s castle he strikes a sword against an iron column, it breaks and he can only mend it twice as he has gained two thirds of his skills; his second uncle tells him he is the best swordsman in the kingdom. 

Immediately after leaving the castle of his second uncle Peredur meets his foster-sister who tells him the dwarf and she-dwarf that he saw in Arthur’s court was the dwarf of his father and mother and that Peredur is the cause of his mother’s death.

The owner of the pavillion, the Proud One of the Clearing, where he met the maiden on his initial journey to Arthur’s court, finally catches up with Peredur, believing he violated the maiden at the pavilion. Peredur defeats him but shows mercy as the girl was innocent.

Peredur then stays with the witches of Caerloyw for three weeks who teach him how to ride a horse and handle weapons; training completed he has now achieved all of his weapon skills. After leaving the witches he came to a valley where there was a hermit’s cell and the next day he saw the blood drops in the snow. He then fights Cai breaking his arm.

Part A ends as Peredur has avenged the insult to the dwarfs; Arthur says as much as if to conclude the tale;  “it was foretold by the dwarf and the she-dwarf, whom Cai harmed, and whom you have now avenged.” Part A ends, the tale complete, and they returned to Caerllion.

Dead Men Tell No Tales
Notably, at no point in the original version of the tale of Peredur, as found in Peniarth 7, is there any suggestion, not even the slightest hint, that Peredur should have questioned the procession at his uncle’s castle, indeed the foster-sister he meets immediately after does not reproach him for not questioning the procession, in fact she makes no reference to it at all. We have noted previously at this point in Chrétien’s version the maiden rebukes Perceval for not asking questions of the procession.

Indeed, as per the instructions of Peredur’s first uncle, the implication in Part A is that blame can only be attached to asking inappropriate questions; not to silence. Thus, the situation is the reverse of that of Chrétien’s text and the longer versions of Peredur (Red Book and White Book versions) that contain Part C. Natalia Petrovskaia refers to two legal triads which note three dishonourings that may be inflicted on a corpse through asking inappropriate questions; ‘who killed this one?’, ‘whose is this bier?’, and asking ‘whose is this fresh grave?’. The implication is that a kinsman would be aware of the circumstances of the death.4

Petrovskaia stresses the importance of galanas in medieval Welsh law, a payment made by means of compensation by a killer to the kinsmen of the victim and, the expectation of vengeance if this were not duly paid. Surely Petrovskaia is correct in adding that this situation fits Peredur perfectly, as the hero arrives at his uncle’s castle where he witnesses a procession that features a severed head.5

Part B, seemingly unrelated to Part A, continues with a series of adventures probably from Welsh tradition with no French parallel, taking Peredur from Caerllion where he initially meets Angharad Law Eurog (Golden-Hand), through the Round Valley,  a serpent that lay on a golden ring, then after a long period of wandering he eventually runs into Arthur’s men. A further, unrelated, altercation with Cai who did not recognise him, struck him with a spear through his thigh because he would not speak, hence, he was called the Mute Knight and then reunited with Angharad Law Eurog at Arthur’s court. 

Part B continues with a further series of adventures in all probability taken from Welsh tradition;  the Mound of Mourning, Sons of the King of Suffering, and the Knight of the Mill which ends the part with his union with the empress of Constantinople with whom he stays with for 14 years. 

As stated previously, there appears to be a clear division between the two sections in Part B of Angharad Law Eurog (B1) and the empress of Constantinople (B2). It is quite conceivable that part B1 was added to the first section (Part A) prior to the later addition of Part B2, with episodes beginning and ending at Arthur’s court, indicating the tale was initially designed for oral delivery. The whole tale ended at Constantinople, with  “And thus ends the development of Peredur son of Efrawg”, as stated above. The two parts then committed to writing in the first manuscript, Peniarth 7. 

On reading the final part (Part C) as found in the standard version found in The Mabinogion (Red Book) it is immediately obvious that it is at odds with the earlier part of the tale.

In what appears to be an attempt to link back to the earlier parts of the tale, Part C opens some years later with Arthur at Caerllion with his retinue including Peredur and Gwalchmai; however, no explanation is given for Peredur leaving Constantinople where he stayed with the empress for fourteen years. A black, curly-haired maiden suddenly arrives at Arthur’s court but refuses to greet Peredur because he failed to ask questions about the bleeding lance that he witnessed at the castle of the lame king. He embarks on a series of adventures to learn the meaning of the procession.

Arthur and Owain play Gwyddbwyll in the Dream of Rhonabwy (Alan Lee)


When Peredur arrives at a fortress he watches a gwyddbwyll6 match as the two sides magically play each other but when the side he supports looses he throws the board into the lake and is accused by the black, curly-haired maiden of making the empress lose her board, which he would not wish for her empire, presumably a reference to the empress of Constantinople of Part B. To get the board back he must go to the Fortress of Ysbidinongyl and kill a black-haired man who is destroying much of the empress’s land. Finally Peredur, with Arthur and his men, kill the witches of Caerloyw, who completed his training back in Part A, and are apparently responsible for the severed head, which is his cousin, and making his uncle lame.

Concurring with Williams, Roberts agrees that Part C, the Fortress of Wonders, should be seen as a separate narrative that has been added to the narrative of Parts A and B at a later date by a different scribe. There is certainly a lack of coherence between Parts B and C which has led Roberts to propose that Part C may have originally been a narrative of its own. But this seems unlikely as Part C has been added to the tale to explain events in Part A, namely the procession, but as we have seen in Part IV – The Procession there are internal inconsistencies between the earlier text and the final section of ‘Peredur’ at the Fortress of Wonders which reaffirms that the final episode was bolted on to the original storyline at a later date to align the Welsh text with Chrétien’s French tale. 

Denying Peredur
As we have seen, the debate, termed Mabinogionfrage, has raged on since the 19th century when Lady Charlotte Guest first published her translations of Welsh narratives from the Red Book of Hergest that formed her collection known as The Mabinogion. When the three Welsh romances first came under scrutiny they were initially considered incompetent translations of the French romances.

Yet, when it is argued that it is unlikely that the Welsh stories were taken directly from Chrétien owing to significant differences between the Welsh and French texts there is a general reluctance among scholars to accept that Peredur in its earliest form as we have it (Parts A and B as represented by Peniarth7), could have originated as a solely Welsh tale. Subsequently, a popular view has been that both versions derive independently from a common source, defined as French tales used by the poet.7

One ingenious suggestion proposed that the Welsh texts were taken to France and forgotten in Wales. Some years later they returned to Wales barely recognisable in their new French clothes.8

Today, owing to this reluctance to acknowledge the remotest possibility that the Peniarth 7 text of Peredur could be an entirely Welsh text, scholars generally accept that the three corresponding romances by Chrétien de Troyes were the main sources for the three Welsh romances, which should not be considered simple translations of their French counterparts.

In their determination to prove this French influence on the Welsh tale of Peredur, the latter has been subject to continuous in-depth analysis against its Continental counterparts with any similar episodes pulled out seemingly from any corresponding manuscript to prove sections of the Welsh text are paralleled in the Grail romances as evidence of borrowing from the French.

However, its not as a simple as identifying a suitable French counterpart to determine the amount of borrowing, as many of the Gallic sources survive in various versions, some pulling on sources older than Chrétien, some with very limited extant manuscripts which may or may not have been known in Wales during this period. Two factors often overlooked which are critical in determining the direction of influence; the Welsh scribes access to the French material, and; the earliest dating for the respective tales. And we don’t have solid evidence for either.


Notes and References
1. The texts of Peredur son of Efrog are preserved in four manuscripts:
i) Peniarth 7, (c.1300)
ii) Peniarth 14 (c.1300–50)
iii) Peniarth 4–5 (White Book of Rhydderch, c. 1350)
iv) Oxford, Jesus College, MS 111 (Red Book of Hergest, c. 1382×1400).
The four manuscripts are seen as representing different stages in the development of the tale which display a gradual accretion of material. Manuscript dating varies between scholars.
English translations of the 'standard' text of 'Peredur' (Red Book, White Book) are widely available in editions of the Mabinogion; I recommend the Oxford University edition 2007 by Sioned Davies.
The only English translations of Peredur vab Efrawc MSS Peniarth 7 and 14 currently available are by Anthony Vitt, Master's Thesis-MPhil, Aberystwyth University.
2. Glenys Goetinck, Peredur: Study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends, University of Wales Press, 1975.
3. Ibid.
4.  Natalia Petrovskaia, Peredur and the Problem of Inappropriate Questions, The Journal of the International Arthurian Society, 2021, Volume 9 Issue 1, pp.3–23.
5. Ibid.
6. The gwyddbwyll in Peredur is closely paralleled in The Gwyddbwyll of Gwenddolau in the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain: “The Gwyddbwyll of Gwenddolau son of Ceidio: if the pieces were set, they would play by themselves. The board was of gold, and the men of silver.”
See: Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, Fourth Edition, University of Wales Press, 2014, Appendix III, pp.258-264.
7. Brynley Roberts, Tales and Romances, pp.203-243, in A Guide to Welsh Literature Volume 1, AOH Jarman and Gwilym Rees Hughes (eds.), Christopher Davies (Swansea), 1976, p.222.
8. Ibid.


*  *  * 


Thursday 31 August 2023

Peredur: Flower of Warriors, Candle of Knights

Peredur: A Grail Romance? Part V

“Historia Peredur vab Efrawg …. is a microcosm of almost all the problems which can be found in early Welsh prose literature. It is virtually impossible to unravel the manuscript tradition, and because of this it is difficult to settle upon an ‘authoritative’ text; the narrative structure has been analysed in different ways, and widely differing suggestions have been advanced as to the underlying structure which unifies the romance; and the relationship of the story to other versions, notably Chrétien’s Conte du graal and its continuations, appears less than straightforward.”1

The majority of studies of the Middle Welsh tale Peredur, son of Efrog tend to focus on its relationship with Chrétien de Troyes Perceval, or The Story of the Grail. Chrétien’s eloquent writing style and enthralling storytelling has led to a persistence in priority of the French text with the former dismissed as a pale imitation of the latter, Peredur seen as a poorly structured adaption from the French. However, this conclusion fails to give merit to the original tale as can be deciphered from careful analysis of the manuscript tradition instead of rushing into comparisons with the French.

The 'standard' (full or long) version of Peredur son of Efrog, familiar to most of us as found in the collection of tales in The Mabinogion, is found in two manuscripts: the “White Book of Rhydderch” (Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, Peniarth 4–5, dated c. 1350); and the “Red Book of Hergest” (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Jesus College 111), which is dated slightly later to between 1382 and c.1400. The versions of Peredur found in these two manuscripts are very similar. 

It is certainly true that the popular version of ‘Peredur’ as found in the Mabinogion collection taken from the Red Book of Hergest contains episodes that mirror sections of Chrétien’s tale. However, there are earlier versions of Peredur in which the claimed French influence is noticeably absent from certain sections. 

Valley of the Mills (Alan Lee)

Narrative Structure
In Peredur the hero’s initial journey transforms him from a country bumpkin into a skilful knight; following on from the procession of a bleeding spear and a severed head at his uncle’s castle he embarks on a further series of adventures in which he gains the love of Angharad (Golden-Hand), before winning the admiration of the empress of Constantinople, with whom he rules for fourteen years; finally he embarks on a series of further adventures that leads him to the Fortress of Wonders, where the procession is explained and he gains vengeance on the witches of Caerloyw. 

It was noted in Part III - Peredur: From Caerllion to Constantinople that the so-called standard version of the tale, as found in the Red Book and White Book, contains logical breaks in the story using a standard formula with each section beginning and ending at King Arthur’s court at Caerllion:

1. The first section begins in the Welsh Woods where Peredur leaves his mother to become a knight, goes to Arthur’s court and ends after Peredur befriends Gwalchmai and they return to Caerllion.

2. The next section commences with "The first night Peredur came to Caerllion to Arthur's court" when he met Angharad Law Eurog (Golden Hand). After a series of adventures, he returns to Arthur's court as the ‘Mute Knight’ and wins the love of Angharad.

3. The next section again begins "Arthur was in Caerllion ar Wysg" and ends with Peredur, now known as the ‘Knight of the Mill,’ …. ‘and there did he stayed with the empress fourteen years’. There is a reason why the formula of returning to Arthur’s court is not used here as we will see below.

4. The final section again begins with the same formula "Arthur was in Caerllion ar Wysg" when a black, curly-haired maiden arrives at Arthur’s court on a yellow mule, and after a series of further adventures culminating in the death of the witches of Caerloyw, ends with “And that is what is told of the Fortress of Wonders” breaking the previous links returning to Arthur’s court at Caerllion suggesting closure of the episode of the black, curly-haired maiden, but perhaps leaving the tale open for further addition opening with “Arthur was in Caerllion”.

One can imagine oral delivery of the tale to a court audience with the people knowing a new adventure commenced when the storyteller opened with the words, "Arthur was in Caerllion”.

As we can see the tale has four logical sections divided by events, starting or returning, at Arthur’s court at Caerllion. The exception to this being the very opening episode in the Welsh woods, and the very end of the standard (Mabinogion) version at the Fortress of Wonders and the killing of the witches of Caerloyw.

One exception to the ‘Caerllion rule’ is the third section which ends at Constantinople where Peredur stayed with the Empress for 14 years; the text ends with “And thus ends the Progress of Peredur ab Efrawg”. This ending is very similar to the closure of the Branches of the Mabinogi which use a similar phrase to close the respective branch, clearly implying that this was the end of the original tale of Peredur, apparent by not ending back at Arthur’s court at Caerllion with the final section with the black, curly-haired maiden being a bolt-on episode to align the procession of the bleeding lance and the severed head with the Grail procession in Chrétien de Troyes Perceval as stated in Part IV – Peredur: The Procession

However, learned scholars, more qualified than myself, have divided the tale into three parts. For example, Mary Williams2 saw the tale with a tripartite structure:

i) from the beginning to the end of the drops of blood in the snow episode,

ii) the story of Angharad Golden-Hand, Peredur’s adventures in the Round Valley, the Black Opressor, the Sons of the King of Suffering, and the Addanc, the Serpent with the Ring, The Miller and the Empress of Constantinople,

iii) from the arrival of the black, curly-haired maiden to the death of the witches of Caerloyw.  

Williams was surely correct in arguing that the variations in the first part and the last part indicates they were the work of different authors. Williams saw the events described in the last section being added at a later date as they were necessary for the explanation of the first part, and copied directly from the French.

Brynley Roberts also sees three sections to the tale of Peredur which are essentially the same as Williams:

Part A - departure from his mother, to King Arthur's court, the lame nobleman, the procession

Part B - Anghard Golden-Hand, the empress of Constantinople

Part C - opens with the black, curly-haired maiden, ending with death of the witches of Caerloyw.3

The manuscript tradition confirms the separation between these three sections; Roberts claims that in two of the four manuscripts which preserve the tale of Peredur, the section breaks are clearly marked by introducing each with a large capital. These capitals are only used to mark the beginning of these three sections and do not appear anywhere else in the narrative, indicating the importance of these break points.4

We can shed some clarification on the situation when we consider that copies of the tale of Peredur can be found in two further medieval manuscripts; while parts A and B are present in all four manuscripts, Part C is not. 

In addition to the ‘standard’ version found in the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest there is also two versions that are designated as ‘fragments’ incomplete or deficient of some of the text. One is found in MS Peniarth 14, which breaks off mid-sentence during Peredur's visit to his second uncle, and an earlier version found in MS Peniarth 7, which is deficient of the opening section and ends with Peredur ruling with the empress of Constantinople. 


Notes and References:
1. Ian Lovecy, Historia Peredur Ab Efrawg, in Arthur of the Welsh, Wales University Press, 1991, pp.171.
2. Mary Williams, Essai sur la composition du roman gallois de Peredur, 1909.
3. Brynley F. Roberts, ‘”Peredur Son of Efrawc”: A Text in Translation’, 2000, Arthuriana 10.
4. Ibid.