William of Malmesbury and the Irish

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Editor: Lynn M. Zott
Date: 2003
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,550 words

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[(essay date 1927) In the following essay, Slover argues that William brought elements of Irish literature, which are the basis of Arthurian romance, into several of his works.]

In the imaginative literature of mediaeval England, especially in the material dealing with King Arthur and his knights, there are numerous stories and motifs which find close parallels in the Celtic literature of Wales and Ireland. How far we are justified in accepting such parallels as evidence of Celtic origin, however, is a matter of controversy. As the controversy proceeds, it becomes increasingly apparent that the attempt to make a just estimate of the influence of Celtic literature on the literature of mediaeval England is seriously hampered by lack of information about the channels available for the transmission of Celtic culture to English literary consciousness. Celtic ideas, to be sure, could have been communicated by the Welsh to their Norman conquerors, but, unfortunately, the scantiness of early Welsh imaginative literature makes it difficult to find out just what literary ideas the Welsh had to communicate. As we turn hopefully to the generous supply of Celtic literary material represented by the literature of early Ireland, we are confronted by the question, what channels were available for the transmission of Irish literature and literary ideas from Ireland to England before and during the period in which the literature of romance in England took its rise?

The purpose of this study, therefore, is to consider the part played in this transmission by William of Malmesbury, the distinguished twelfth-century historian, during his period of service as a writer of advertising propaganda for the great publicity campaign at Glastonbury Abbey.

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries the power and influence of Glastonbury were seriously impaired by the growing reputation of Canterbury and Wells. The Glastonbury monks, in order to enlist public support for their abbey, embarked upon a comprehensive scheme of advertising. Their procedure consisted largely of gathering up various ecclesiastical and secular traditions--British, Saxon, and Irish--and reshaping them in such a way as to reflect honor and glory upon Glastonbury.

The significance of this process for the history of mediaeval English literature lies principally in the fact that one set of traditions thus utilized were those dealing with King Arthur. According to Glastonbury propaganda, Arthur granted lands and immunities to the abbey out of gratitude to St Gildas, who rescued Guinevere from an abductor;1 he endowed a choir of twenty-four monks to pray for the soul of his nephew Ider, who died there from his wounds after fighting against three giants;2 and finally both he and Guinevere were buried at Glastonbury.3 The most interesting achievement, perhaps, was the Arthurian romance, Perlesvaus, which consists of a combination of Arthurian and Glastonbury traditions.4

William's intimate connection with a movement which was so largely concerned with the collection and dissemination of romantic material gives special importance to his interest in Irish culture and his use of Irish documents. It should prove profitable, therefore, to...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420049629