Robert Mannyng of Brunne and the History of Arthurian Literature

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Author: Lesley Johnson
Editor: Jelena O. Krstovic
Date: 2006
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,576 words

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[(essay date 1991) In the following essay, Johnson examines how Mannyng's Chronicle of England contributed to a fourteenth-century historiographic reorientation of Arthurian narrative.]

Robert Mannyng of Brunne's Chronicle of England, completed according to the explicit on Friday 15 May 1338, belongs to the large group of medieval 'genealogical narratives', to use the term coined by Howard Bloch, which are structured around a linear pattern of descent from a founding father.1 The founding father in this case is Brutus, who is the first to organise a human society on the island of Britain, and who serves as a point of origin for the succession of kings of Britain, and subsequently of England, which Mannyng traces in his narrative. The culmination of this continuous sequence in the Chronicle is the reign of Edward I and the narrative ends with an account of Edward's death when Mannyng's written sources finish too:

Now must I nede leue here, of Inglis forto write, I had no more matere of kynges lif in scrite. (ii, p. 341)

In Bloch's view, this kind of historical narrative seeks to 'establish the most ancient ancestry possible and to create the most coherent continuity between [a] mythic beginning and the present'.2 But if narratives such as Mannyng's, and the sources on which he draws, seek to legitimise national communities by tracing their origins, as Bloch suggests, they also register the difficulty of tracking down a single generative line which may link the line of Brutus, and the political community he represents, with that of Edward I. The sequence of kings which Mannyng traces cannot be accommodated to a single genealogical line of descent. The origin stories included in the Chronicle are multiple not single; the identity of those in power and those whom they govern and represent is subject to redefinition and change as is the very name and geo-political dimension of the site of Mannyng's narrative:

[Brutus] regned ffoure and twenty, ȝer In al Bretaigne fer and ner. Al was Brutaigne, by elde tales, Engelond, Scotlond and Walys, Þyse þre were þenne al on, Þat erest was cald Albyon; Albion highte þyse londes þre, ffor þey ar closed al wiþ þe se. (i, 1937-44)

The boundaries of Albion itself are naturally defined, but they rarely coincide with those of the various communities who inhabit the land and it is the fluctuating identities of these communitites which provide Mannyng with his historical subject matter.

Mannyng's access to the past is of course through the texts of other historical 'fathers'. Before embarking on the 'geste' of the English, which forms the second part of his Chronicle, Mannyng follows his authority, Pierre de Langtoft, in calling on Bede to aid him in his historiographical task:3

When Peres [i.e. Pierre de Langtoft] first bygan his werk, He bisoughte an holy clerk To gyue hym grace wel to spede,-- Þat holy man highte seint Bede,-- ffor in his bokes mykel he fond; He made ffyve bokes of Engelond, And y...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420072030