The Alliterative Morte Arthure

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The Alliterative Morte Arthure


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This high medieval romance, one of the most ambitious Middle English alliterative poems, tells of Arthur's global military conflict with the Roman Emperor Lucius and of the demise of Arthur and his court due to Mordred's treachery. It survives in only one manuscript – the Lincoln Thornton – and is dated to approximately 1400 A.D.

For a full-text version, see Larry D. Benson's online edition from the Middle English Texts Series: The Alliterative Morte Arthure


Summary:

Several Roman senators arrive at Arthur's court and demand tribute, claiming that Arthur's lands are still under the power of the Roman Empire. Arthur refuses on the grounds of his lineage—going so far as to say that he should be the emperor of Rome. He and his men agree that they should war with Lucius in France. The armies are described in striking detail: Arthur—in his gathering of and sober consultation with his men—establishes himself as a wise ruler and commander, while Lucius—in his hiring of mercenaries from all over the Mediterranean—establishes himself as a ruler without loyal retainers and, consequentially, the lesser of the two rulers. As Arthur and his army make their way into France, Arthur has a vivid dream in which a dragon and a bear battle each other. His philosophers say that the dragon represents Arthur and the bear stands either for Lucius and his army or a giant. As it turns out, both possibilities are valid; for soon after they land in France, a Templar tells Arthur that a giant from Genoa has taken residence on St. Michael's Mount and has raped and killed the Duchess of Brittany (Guenevere's cousin), captured and eaten various Christian children, and hoarded an immense amount of wealth. Arthur battles the giant, and castrates, disembowels, dismembers, and finally decapitates the creature.

Soon after this battle, a messenger arrives and announces that Lucius' army has sacked Burgundy, and Arthur and his men journey onwards to meet them in battle. Two minor battles between Arthur's and Lucius' armies occur—Arthur's knights (Gawain and Cador most notably) win the field in each engagement. Arthur's and Lucius' armies clash a final time, and Lucius himself is killed—the field is clearly Arthur's, but in winning the war he has lost some of his best knights, including Kay and Bedewere. Arthur has the leaders of Lucius' armies entombed and sent off to Rome as a mocking "tribute."

Now bent on conquering his way to Rome to become Emperor, Arthur lays siege to Metz due to the duke's betrayal. Saracen soldiers are found throughout the Metz contingency. During the siege, Arthur notices that the Frenchmen "grow feeble" and sends Gawain and Florent to hunt for food. While on this mission, Gawain meets and fights an enemy knight, and both are gravely wounded. This knight is Priamus, a pagan descended from several of the pagan and Jewish Nine Worthies. Priamus heals both himself and Gawain with a magical elixir from the Orient and agrees to join Arthur's army and be christened. Shortly thereafter, the duchess of Metz pleads for clemency from Arthur; he promises that no women, children, virtuous knights, or clergy will be killed by his men or himself. Once the city is conquered, Arthur moves into Lombardy and conquers Como; intimidated, Milan willingly surrenders to Arthur in order to avoid a siege. Arthur's subsequent destruction of Tuscany swiftly encourages the Pope to surrender. With Rome now in his command, Arthur makes plans to conquer even more territories and eventually reclaim the Holy Land.

After announcing his plans, Arthur falls asleep and has a vivid dream of Fortune's Wheel. In the dream, Lady Fortune presents him with a vision of the rise and fall of the Worthies; he has, according to her, "delighted long enough in lands and lordliness" and will now suffer the same fate as his predecessors (3387). He learns as well, however, of the worthies who will come after him—namely Charlemagne and Godfrey de Bouillon who "will avenge God / On Good Friday, going to it with gallant knights; / He will be Lord of Lorrain by leave of his father, / And revel in rapture in Jerusalem later, / For he will recover the Cross by skill in battle / And then be crowned king with consecrated oil" (3436-3440). He learns, in short, that he will fall, but also that he has risen to a status equal to that of Alexander the Great and King David. The dream also reveals that those within his kingdom have betrayed him and are plotting against him.

No sooner is this dream interpreted than Sir Craddock appears with news from England: Mordred has usurped the thrown, squandered the royal treasury, and claimed Gwenevere as his wife/lover. He has also divided the kingdom and given lands to a number of foreigners, including Saracens. Arthur returns to England with his army, and a naval battle ensues, in which Arthur and his men triumph. Gawain and his small troupe are the first ashore, and they face Mordred and his mercenary army without the main body of Arthur's forces; they fight valiantly but are all eventually killed. Everyone, even Mordred, laments Gawain's passing, as he was the best of all knights. Arthur grieves intensely over this loss and vows to avenge Gawain's death. The war between Arthur and Mordred continues and ends in both of their deaths. The poem concludes with the dying Arthur passing his crown on to his cousin Constantine, and with a reminder that Arthur was descended from Hector: "Thus ended King Arthur, as old authors affirm. / Of Hector's blood was he, son of the Trojan king, / And kin to Sir Priamus, a prince praised the world over. / From Troy the Britons brought all his brave ancestors / To Britain the Greater, as the Brut records" (3342-46).


Analysis:

The story of Arthur's war with the Roman Emperor Lucius appears in several chronicles that predate the Alliterative Morte Arthure (AMA). Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Brittanae—as well as the chronicles of Robert de Boron, Wace, and Layamon—each contain a version of this story. While the general narrative arc is the same across all versions, the AMA's dramatically amplifies the matters of crusade rhetoric and ideology. The polarity between Arthur's and Lucius' armies is made even more drastic in this version, with the latter's amalgam of soldiers and races becoming "a virtual cartography . . . of English crusading history" (Heng 150).

Additionally, the Giant of St. Michael's mount—in his rapacious sexual and epicurean appetites and in his monstrous and bestial physicality—is an amalgam of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim polemical imagery; he hails from Genoa (the Italian city-state which fought alongside the French during the Hundred Years War, and which was allied with the Byzantine Empire); he consumes Christian children and, in doing so, evokes the blood libel imagery found in polemics against the Jews; and he is frequently described in bestial (particularly dog-like) terms which strongly suggest a saracenic aspect of the giant as well.

The appearance of the Templar and his telling Arthur about the Giant is a curious reference to crusading history. This Templar appears in no other version of this story (he is even removed from Malory's later retelling of the tale), and the persecution and trials of the Templars had occurred roughly acentury prior to the composition of the AMA. That the Templar fixates on the Giant's wealth in a way that Arthur does not might be a veiled gesture to or comment upon the wealth of the order.

The clash of armies throughout the AMA is apocalyptic in scale, with emphasis consistently placed on the mangled bodies of the dead Easterners in Lucius' retinue. The image of a largely Saracen force invading Christian territory is one that can be found in numerous crusades-inspired insular romances of the high and late Middle Ages and may well have had as its inspiration the anxieties surrounding the expanse of the Turkish empire and the inability of western European kingdoms to wage a successful crusade against them. While earlier versions of the Roman war narrative do include the invading Saracen forces in Lucius' retinue, the AMA heightens the threat that they pose to the landscape and culture of Christendom. For instance, the incoming army commanded by Lucius is feared in part because they threaten to corrupt "the very language of France" (1250), and their contaminating presence legitimizes the war between Arthur and the Duke of Metz. It also completes the vilification of Mordred, given that he carves out British territory for Saracens to control and also enlists them in his army.

The most obvious crusades reference, however, comes after Arthur defeats Lucius and his army. He states in no uncertain terms that his campaign is far from over and that, once Rome is conquered and he is crowned emperor, he and his men will recover the Holy Land. That he is thwarted in his attempts by Mordred's treachery and is told in a dream immediately after this declaration that he will not be able to wage such a war has made many scholars posit that Arthur transforms from a virtuous and wise king into a reckless tyrant. He does, after all, continue to wage wars against other Christians in an attempt to take Rome itself, and the final battles back in England are solely Christian vs. Christian. All the same, the poet (via the aforementioned repeated placement of Saracens fighting alongside disloyal Christians) seems to squarely place the blame on the traitorous Christians themselves and not on Arthur; it is, after all, their betrayal that prevents Arthur from being able to "rescue" the Holy Land.
Bibliography

Manuscripts

The Alliterative Morte Arthure survives in only one manuscript, though the version was clearly a copy of an older, now lost, original.

Lincoln Cathedral 91 (Thornton Manuscript), fols 53a-98b; c. 1400-1440 (Lincoln Cathedral Library).

Editions (in chronological order)

Morte Arthure, or The Death of Arthur. Ed. Edmund Brock. EETS o.s. 8. New York, London, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1871; rpt. 1961.

Morte Arthure. Ed. Erik Björkman. Alt- und mittelenglische Texte, 9. Heidelberg: Carl Winters and New York: G. E Stechert and Company, 1915.

The Alliterative Morte Arthure: A Critical Edition. Ed. Valerie Krishna. New York: Burt Franklin, 1976.

Morte Arthure: A Critical Edition. Ed. Mary Hamel. Garland Medieval Texts, 9. New York and London: Garland, 1984.

Benson, Larry. King Arthur's death : the Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure. Exeter: University of Exeter, 1986.

Benson, Larry and Edward E. Foster. King Arthur's Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute publications, 1994.

Bibliography

Chism, Chris. Alliterative Revivals. Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic. New York : Columbia University Press, 2003.

Patterson, Lee. "The Historiography of Romance and the Alliterative Morte Arthure." Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 13.1 (1983): 1-32.