Arthur, le Roi des Britons: The Influence of French Literature on England’s Greatest National Myth

10 July 2019

History | Literature

The Adam Matthew collection 'Arthurian Legends and the Influence of French Prose Romance', one of fifteen collections in Research Source: Medieval and Early Modern Studies, offers an insight into how one of England’s most famous nation-making myths was not only shaped, but transformed, by the literature of France.

This weekend will see the French national holiday Bastille Day, or la FĂȘte nationale – “the National Celebration”. Celebrations of nationhood, for better or worse, seem to organically lead into discussions of national identity – particularly in times where contemporary politics is fixated with borders and boundaries, what is and what is not a nation, and who belongs to it, if it even exists. In such times, the concept of a “National Identity” can be uncomfortable to some, alienating to others.

The parent of a “National Identity” is a national history. Yet one of England’s most enduring, most legendary histories (for it is itself more legend than history) owes a great deal of its fame and cultural longevity to another nation. The myth of King Arthur has embedded itself into the mental and physical landscape of England, used to celebrate footballers, advertise beer and attract tourists. Whatever the use, it is almost always inherently a herald of “Englishness”.

 

 

Public domain, accessed via Wikimedia Commons

 

The earliest mentions of Arthur appear in the Welsh chronicles of the early middle ages, describing a Saxon warrior king who in Nennius’ Historia Brittanum felled nine hundred and sixty men in one charge. It is only in the twelfth century with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae that Arthur is fashioned as the King of Britain. In the same century, the Norman poet Wace wrote his own history of Britain, the Roman de Brut, later translated from Anglo-Norman into Middle English by Layamon in the thirteenth century. Even in its very earliest conceptions, the Arthurian legend was one indebted to international collaboration. 

Yet where Geoffrey’s history provided the skeletal structure of Arthurian myth, the works of the French poet ChrĂ©tien de Troyes gave the body a pulse - a lifeblood which turned the story of Arthur from cold History to feeling Romance. The most fundamental elements of Arthuriana – the supernatural Excalibur, the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere, the divine quest for the grail – were all begotten from ChrĂ©tien’s use of the dominant French literary form amour Courtois, or Courtly Romance. 

Public domain, accessed via Wikimedia Commons

Amors sanz crieme et sans peor

Est feus sanz flame et sanz chalor,

[Love without trepidation and fear is fire without flame and heat]

(CligĂšs, 3893-4)

 

The courtly romance genre told tales of human passions and otherworldly forces, illicit affairs and magical objects, and through it, the earlier histories were transformed. Indeed, perhaps the most integral story to the Arthurian canon, the quest for the Holy Grail, was only introduced with ChrĂ©tien’s Perceval, or le Cont du Graal

 

Public domain, accessed via Wikimedia Commons

The squires were followed by a maiden

Who bore a grail, with both hands laden. 

(Perceval, or the Story of the Grail, 3219-20)

 

The story of King Arthur that has been retold throughout generations of art, literature and popular culture is not the political history of Geoffrey and Wace, but the romance of ChrĂ©tien. ChrĂ©tien’s transformation of the political histories into stories of courtly love inspired countless reinterpretations, from the tragic love and betrayal of Arthur in Tennyson’s The Idylls of the King (c. 1859) to the titular parodical quest in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). It was the influence of another nation’s literature, then, of ChrĂ©tien and the amour Cortois genre, that was the maker of England’s nation-making myth.

 

Research Source: Medieval and Early Modern Studies includes 52 manuscripts with the works of ChrĂ©tien, Malory and other Arthurian writers, as well as fifteen other collections that house material spanning from the Black Death to the turn of the nineteenth-century. 

For more information on our Medieval and Early Modern Studies resource, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the Author

Emma Varley

Emma Varley

Emma joined Adam Matthew in March after completing a Master’s degree in English Literary Studies at Durham University. Prior to joining the company, she worked as a Research Assistant for the project ‘Causes and Consequences of Electoral Violence: Evidence From England and Wales, 1832-1914’. She studied Medieval History and English at the University of Liverpool, specialising in medievalism and Romantic literature.