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The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. A: Middle Ages
Stephen Greenblatt, Alfred David, James Simpson, M.H. Abrams
Progress: 367/543 pages

Reading progress update: I've read 128 out of 543 pages.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. A: Middle Ages - Stephen Greenblatt, Alfred David, James Simpson, M.H. Abrams

I read a bit in this volume today -- this time, it's selections concerning the legendary history of Britain and King Arthur, written by three different 12th-century authors, to wit: Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, and Layamon. My favorite is the selection about the earliest settlers of Britain. People in early Norman times in Britain (12th century) and earlier believed that descendants of Aeneas and his band of roving Trojans split off from their Italian cousins, wandered the seas a bit (riffing off the adventures of Aeneas himself in Vergil's Aeneid), and ended up settling Britain! I've studied quite a lot in the Greek and Latin classics, but I never came across Geoffrey of Monmouth because the typical classical education ignores what people did with classical texts after classical times. So, this is new and fascinating material for my brain to pick over.


From those earliest Trojan forebears eventually came King Arthur (whom Geoffrey, Wace, and Layamon all place in the mid-6th century AD, some 1500+ years after those first settlers). These 12th-century stories of Arthur, as far as I can tell from the excerpts here, are not as romantic as the later versions that are more familiar. But you can still pick up on the ideas of romantic love and honorable conduct among high-born warriors (summed up by the term "chivalry"). They also feature some interaction between Arthur and what's left of the Roman Empire! Of course, the chronology doesn't line up; but then medieval authors did not have the same sense of history that we do today. What was more important to the likes of Geoffrey, Wace, and Layamon, was that their contemporary kings (12th-century Norman rulers of England) should pay attention to the "precedent" of Arthur -- that he was a mighty chivalric king pursuing justice and glory for the English but nevertheless had to face the betrayals of his nephew Mordred and wife Guinevere. Such were the deepest concerns of the Anglo-Norman nobility (imperial ventures on the Continent balanced against domestic strife). It reminds me of the narrative arc of Shakespeare's history plays (Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III) and thus that some of the anxieties of medieval and Renaissance England were long-lasting indeed.