What King Arthur did before he got famous

I hope you all had a good start into the new year, and I hope you don’t mind me starting this new year in blogging by catching up on backlog rather than dashing ahead with something that is actually new. Anyway, I first had the idea for this post a couple of months ago. I believe I had some sort of incentive back then, but I can’t remember what it was. Not that it matters, seeing as I quickly ditched the idea again… I started thinking about it again, though, when only a few weeks later Carl Pyrdum of GotMedieval published a post about the dubious origins of King Arthur and the Arthurian Myth.

As is well known, the first full narrative account of the life and deeds of King Arthur appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae [History of the Kings of Britain], written c. 1136. Or more precisely, Geoffrey’s account is the oldest to survive in written form. But from a number of brief mentions and allusions in other, earlier texts we may deduce that the figure of Arthur was pretty well-known even before his life was first put to paper parchment. As Carl reminds us in his post,

“[…] everyone was going on about Arthur at the beginning of the twelfth century. No one source seems to have known much about this Arthur, but they all give the impression that he was impressive and important. Presumably some of those lost oral tales the Celticists suppose had widely circulated and cross-pollinated with other heroes’ stories, and multiple parties were actively trying to bolster their individual agendas by linking themselves somehow to the rapidly growing legend. If we can believe the report of the canons of Laon, the subject of Arthur was enough to cause people to come to blows–even while in line to view holy relics–if someone dared suggest he had never lived.

[…] And that’s how they often refer to him, ‘this Arthur’, always pointing at stories they didn’t bother to record for us.”

This, of course, brings us back to a topic I brought up here only recently , i.e. oral tradition. As long as texts and tales are passed on from mouth to ear rather than being written down, they are by definition ephemeral and will always be lost for historians of later generations. Anyone who has ever had to deal with these matters knows how annoying and eternally tantalizing it is to know, e.g., that by 1100 tales about King Arthur were circulating widely, but we just don’t know what kind of tales they were and how they were related to the later Arthurian Romances as invented by Chrétien de Troyes towards the end of the 12th century.

There is, however, one important document that allows us a cursory glance at a pre-Geoffrey-of-Monmouth-Arthur, namely a set of relief carvings on the archivolt of the Porta della Pescheria of Modena Cathedral:

Porta della Pescheria, Modena Cathedral, Italy (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

At the centre of the archivolt there is a castle with two figures in it – they are identified by accompanying inscriptions as “Mardoc” and “Winlogee”. To the left, there is an axe-wielding figure defending the castle inscribed “Burmaltus” while three knights on horseback are attacking; only two of them are identified, one as “Isdernus”, the other as – ta da – “Artus de Bretania” (for a more detailed view see here). To the right, a mounted knight called “Carrado” defends the castle against the approaching “Galvagin”, “Che” and “Galvariun”.

There are lots of interesting aspects to these reliefs, not least the fact that they appear on a church portal. But what interests me here is first and foremost the notion that they are generally dated to c. 1120/1130 and therefore predate Geoffrey’s written account of Arthur. And indeed they seem to show us a more archaic version of King Arthur as found in the texts, most notably the courtly romances of Chrétien and his followers/imitators: Just remember that in most of the so-called Arthurian Romances Arthur himself is a rather marginal figure – perhaps comparable to Charlie in Charlie’s Angels – while it’s the knights of his round table that have the actual adventures. Not so in the Modena archivolt. Here, we find Arthur himself at the forefront of the battle, presumably engaging in some heroic feat. Unfortunately, we can’t say for certain what exactly that feat is. Of course, most of the relief’s protagonist may be more or less plausibly identified with characters from later Arthurian romances, with Winlogee probably corresponding to Guinevre, Isdernus to Yder, Galvagin to Gawain, Che to Kay, Galvariun to Galeshin, and Carrado to Carados. The problem is that while these figures fit into the Arthurian world, there isn’t any one among the surviving texts where they appear in the same particular combination as in the Modena archivolt.

These days, it is widely agreed upon that the reliefs on the Porta della Pescheria show a variant of the Abduction (and Rescue) of Queen Guinevere, an episode first mentioned in the mid-12th century Life of Gildas. Still, it remains enigmatic what exactly Arthur and his knights are doing and whom they are fighting in the carvings. So as important as these reliefs may be as a document of early Arthurian legends, in the absence of written material their meaning nevertheless remains vague and elusive.

However, from an art historical perspective, the important thing is that these reliefs exist at all and that they predate the oldest known written account of King Arthur’s life. Because, truth be told, one of art history’s favourite pastimes is still to go looking for the textual sources of images, and by textual we usually mean written. But when it comes to artworks produced in a largely oral society, I believe it is important to remember that quite frequently things were painted, carved or sculpted before they were written down. In the case of the Porta della Pescheria and Geoffrey’s Historia it’s only a few years that separate the images from the writing. In other cases, though, it’s several centuries…

The Seven Labours of Rostam, mural paintings from Panjikent, c. 740, Hermitage, St. Petersburg (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

For instance, in c. 740 A.D., a reception hall in a private house in Panjikent was decorated with an extensive cycle of mural paintings. Panjikent is located in what is now Tajikistan, but in the 8th century it was part of the Sogdian Empire, one of the last remnants of pre-islamic Persia, soon to be conquered, though, by the Samanids. (In between, the area was also part of the Soviet Union which is why the wall paintings ended up being detached and brought to the Hermitage Musuem in Leningrad St. Petersburg where they can still be found today.) Some of the scenes in the murals can clearly be identified as the Seven Labours of Rostam, the greatest hero of Persian literature and mythology. As Wikipedia puts it: “Rostam is the champion of champions and is involved in numerous stories, constituting some of the most popular (and arguably some of most masterfully created) parts of the Shahnameh.”

Now some of you will probably ask “What’s the Shahnameh?”. Well, it is the Persian national epic, its title translating as The Book of Kings, which was written by the poet Ferdowsi and comprises some 60.000 verses. Much of it is actually dedicated to Rostam and his exploits of which the Seven Labours are only a small, though significant part. The interesting thing here, however, is that Ferdowsi’s magnum opus is the oldest surviving written account of Rostam’s feats and yet it was only written between c. 977 and 1010 – about 250 years after the story was painted in Panjikent!

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3 Responses to What King Arthur did before he got famous

  1. Very nice. But what is the significance of the naked person riding a seahorse at bottom left of the Modena reliefs? I don’t know my Arthurian literature as well as some but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that probably doesn’t belong there till later…

    • Oh, just ignore the images on the lintel ;-) They’re just marginal images of (semi-) monstrous creatures that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the story shown on the archivolt… And anyway, the more interesting question, perhaps, would be: Why is REX ARTVRVS himself riding a billy goat in the late 12th century pavement mosaic of Otranto Cathedral? Well, at least he’s not doing it naked…

  2. Pingback: Seminars CXXII-CXXIV: British heresy, pagan burial and Norman profanity | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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