Walter Map and the Matter of Britain

Why would the thirteenth-century French prose Lancelot-Grail Cycle have been attributed to Walter Map, a twelfth-century writer from the Anglo-Welsh borderlands? Joshua Byron Smith sets out to answer this and other questions and offers a new explanation for how narratives about the pre-Saxon inhabitants of Britain circulated in England.

Walter Map and the Matter of Britain

Joshua Byron Smith

2017 | 272 pages | Cloth $69.95
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
A Note on Translations

Chapter 1. Walter Map, Wales, and Romance
Chapter 2. Works Frozen in Revision
Chapter 3. Glosses and a Contrived Book
Chapter 4. From Herlething to Herla
Chapter 5. The Welsh-Latin Sources of the De nugis curialium
Chapter 6. Walter Map in the Archives and the Transmission of the Matter of Britain

Appendix. A Preliminary List of Suspected Interpolated Glosses in the De nugis curialium

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


In either 1209 or 1210, Walter Map, a British churchman, courtier, and writer, died. While the year of his death remains in doubt, the month and day are clearly recorded: April 1. Of course, the association of this date with practical jokes had not yet arisen when Walter passed away, but enough of his mischievous personality comes through in his work to suggest that he would surely appreciate the serendipitous alignment of his obituary with a day devoted to hoaxes. He had a wry sense of humor, and, fittingly, much of his literary career can be summed up as a series of hoaxes—some intentional, some not. Walter has been mistaken for St. Jerome, an ancient Roman, a Welshman, a precocious Greek translator, a vicious satirical poet, and the son of a Welsh princess and Norman lord. Indeed, a significant portion of scholarship on Walter Map has been devoted to sifting the real Walter out of this preponderance of fake Walters. This book seeks to understand another of Walter's mistaken identities: his role as author of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, a sprawling thirteenth-century French prose narrative and one of the highlights of medieval Arthurian literature. Why did Walter Map, who apparently did not write in French and who had seemingly no interest in Arthurian material, become attached to the Lancelot-GrailCycle ?

In unraveling this question, this book makes two larger arguments concerning the literary history of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The first is that Walter Map's De nugis curialium is not the disheveled and disorganized text that scholars have imagined—or, at least, its disorganization is of a completely different nature than has been realized. This better understanding of Walter's work in turn provides new evidence in support of a second, larger argument. I show that ecclesiastical networks of textual exchange played a major role in exporting Welsh literary material into England in the twelfth century. Overall, this book attempts to rewrite the history of how narratives about the pre-Saxon inhabitants of Britain, including King Arthur and his knights, first circulated in England. It contends that inventive clerics like Walter Map, and not traveling minstrels or professional translators, were responsible for popularizing these stories about ancient Britain. In the early thirteenth century, someone envisioned Walter Map withdrawing ancient documents about the Holy Grail from a monastery and putting them in order for Henry II. This story cannot be true. But it is not the literary equivalent of an April Fools' joke, either. As this book will show, it was a succinct and clever way of summarizing how literary material about ancient Britain made its way to numerous gifted and innovative writers in the twelfth century.

Walter Map's posthumous lives have in the past overwhelmed the real, historical Walter Map. Thankfully, Walter's actual career is relatively well documented for a twelfth-century author, and several good biographies have rendered clear the major phases of his life. The details of his early life, however, are rather more cloudy. Walter's exact birthplace is unknown, but he seems to have been born in southwestern Herefordshire, sometime in the late 1130s. Walter tells us that his family was "faithful and useful" to Henry II, both before his coronation and after, and that his promotion to Henry's court was due to their loyalty. (Frustratingly, he never names these members of his family.) As several scholars have suggested, and as I argue as well, Walter may have begun his education at St. Peter's Abbey in Gloucester, before moving on to Paris, where we find him studying theology with Gerard la Pucelle in 1154. Upon his return from the schools, Walter entered the service of the church when the bishop of Hereford, Gilbert Foliot (1148-63), employed him as a clerk. It is very likely that Gilbert already knew Walter, having met him as a youth when he was abbot of St. Peter's, Gloucester (1139-48). When Gilbert Foliot became bishop of London (1163-87), Walter followed him there, and by 1173 he was a canon of St. Paul's. By 1173 he had also entered royal service, traveling with King Henry II to Limoges. He served as a royal justice in England in 1173, and in 1179 he was one of the king's representatives at the Third Lateran Council. He was at Saumur in 1183 when the Young King Henry died at Martel. All in all, Walter seems to have been a trusted courtier. Gerald of Wales, Walter's colleague and friend, calls him a clericus familiarius of the king and gives two anecdotes that suggest Walter had King Henry's ear. Walter proved useful at court, and he seems to have remained in Henry's service until his death in 1189. Like so many of Henry's courtiers, Walter may well have found himself out of favor with Richard. Nonetheless, we have no evidence that Richard or even John was particularly hostile to Walter. Indeed, in 1202 John even gave Walter the revenues from the archdeaconry of Brecon.

While Walter is mostly remembered today as a witty courtier, he probably considered himself to be a servant of the church more than the king. He seems to have accumulated some benefices early on, likely in the 1170s. He held the church of Westbury-on-Severn in Gloucestershire, and Ashwell in Hertfordshire. Probably sometime in the 1180s, he became a canon of Hereford, where he would be joined by a rather illustrious group of intellectuals under Bishop William de Vere. From Gilbert Foliot he received a prebend in St. Paul's. Additionally, Walter became a prominent figure in the diocese of Lincoln. By 1183-85 he was a canon, and by 1186 he became chancellor. Upon the death of Henry II, he become precentor of the cathedral. Finally, in 1196 or 1197 he moved south and became the archdeacon of Oxford, which was to be his final ecclesiastical position. Although he was nominated for two bishoprics, Hereford in 1199 and St. Davids in 1203, neither was granted to him. Like his contemporaries Peter of Blois and Gerald of Wales, he ended his career as an archdeacon; literary prowess and a quick wit only got one so far in the twelfth century. In the cursus honorum of the English church, Walter could claim a respectable, though not outstanding, career. His death in 1209 or 1210, however, proved to be the best career move he could have made.

The thirteenth century witnessed the rise of two Walter Maps. The first is the subject of this book: early in the century, probably only a little more than a decade after his death, he became associated with the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, an attribution that, if true, would have made him one of the most influential authors of medieval Europe. Equally impressive is the fact that Walter Map's name quickly became attached to the corpus of satirical poetry widely known as Goliardic verse. This, too, first began in the thirteenth century. While it is clear that Walter did compose satiric verse—one of his poems, for example, provoked a feisty reply from an Oxford contemporary—the vast majority of these attributions are spurious. Thomas Wright's 1841 volume The Latin Poems Commonly Attributed to Walter Mapes testifies to the wide variety of poetry that attracted Walter's name, as does Alfred Lord Tennyson's play Becket, in which an incorrigibly satirical Walter Map is criticized for "Goliazing and Goliathizing." Interestingly, this reputation seems to have developed haphazardly throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when the works of several satirical poets by the name of Walter circulated together in manuscripts, which ultimately gave way to the name Walter being associated with a certain type of irreverent, satirical poem. Walter Map (or "Mapes" as he is often called in this tradition) became the foremost of these Walters, and many poems that were written by other Walters, as well as many that were anonymous or had the misfortune of being composed by someone not named Walter, came into his orbit. In Medieval Latin poetry, the name Walter Map became more a marker of genre than of authorship. It is hard to know what exactly Walter would have thought about this development, but it seems that the man who could craft exquisite monastic and curial satire would not have been entirely displeased with some of his more biting pseudepigrapha.

These first two alternative lives, Arthurian author and Goliardic poet, are well known to scholarship, but the least familiar development in Walter's posthumous reputation occurred in nineteenth-century Wales, when the most famous Welsh intellectual of his day, Edward Williams (1747-1826), better known by his bardic name Iolo Morganwg, endeavored to turn Walter into a leading figure of medieval Welsh literary culture. Iolo took to Walter with customary inventiveness, making him responsible for Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain and a medieval Welsh agricultural treatise. So great was Walter's pull on his imagination that he created the Llyfr Gwallter Demapys (The Book of Walter Demapys), an agricultural treatise that contained spurious—but attractively romantic—biographical information about Walter. He also brazenly claimed that Walter had translated works from Greek. Additionally, Iolo made Walter the son of a Norman knight and a Welsh princess, and he used Walter as one example of the literary precocity of the peculiar Cambro-Norman culture of the southern Welsh Marches. It took Welsh scholarship at least a century to work out Iolo's forgeries, but once his machinations were laid bare, Walter Map ceased to be the greatest Welsh writer of his age.

Given the impressive scope of Walter's fictitious lives, it is easy to see how his pseudepigrapha overshadowed his genuine work until the twentieth century. While it is common to read that the De nugis curialium is Walter's only work to survive, this assertion is not quite true. The Dissuasio Valerii, an antimatrimonial tract, circulated widely and was a medieval favorite. Indeed, it gathered anti-matrimonial exempla from antiquity with such range and verve that it struck a chord with misogynist readers everywhere. It is, in essence, Jankyn's "book of wikked wyves," made famous in Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Prologue. Recognizing its appeal, Walter revised the Dissuasio, and a copy of this revision appears in distinctio 3 of the De nugis curialium alongside Walter's mournful comments about having to use a pseudonym to gain literary fame. Nonetheless, in 1468 the Dissuasio's popularity earned Walter the noteworthy distinction of being the first English author whose work appeared in print; however, he would have surely been disappointed to see that he had been confused with St. Jerome. Apart from the Dissuasio and the rest of the De nugis curialium, scraps of verse survive here and there in addition to a few of Walter's witty anecdotes. Finally, it is possible that a few of the satiric verses that bear his name are genuine, though not nearly to the extent that the attributions would have us believe.

Nonetheless, Walter's modern fame rests on this strange book known as the De nugis curialium, which survives in only one manuscript, Bodley 851. In spite of the existence of only one medieval copy of this work, Walter's name is ubiquitous in studies not only of twelfth-century British history and literature but of the European Middle Ages in general. His ability to craft engaging, peculiar vignettes of figures such as Henry II makes for memorable reading. For example, his use of Bernard of Clairvaux's failed miracles to mock a monkish predilection for pedophilia is unforgettable, and any discussion of the French language in England includes Walter's ridiculing of Geoffrey Plantagenet for speaking what he terms "Marlborough French." Walter is often praised as one of the best satirical writers of his age. His anti-monastic satires, in particular, are deliciously compelling in their well-directed scorn and baroque farce, especially in their treatment of the Cistercians, who at one point are compared unfavorably to the barbarous Welsh. Walter's interest in the Welsh, for that matter, pervades several tales, and the presentation of the Welsh therein has become one of the major sources for Anglo-Norman views of their western neighbors. As mentioned above, Walter also has the dubious honor of writing one of the most vicious and popular anti-matrimonial tracts of the Middle Ages, the Dissuasio Valerii. The Dissuasio's deft command of classical and patristic sources has impressed modern and medieval readers alike. Although Walter could wield the vast array of auctoritates expected of a secular cleric, he was to a surprising extent open to what we would now call the popular culture of his day. His stories of fairy lovers, zombies, and phantasms provide folklorists with some of the first medieval witnesses of certain folkloric motifs, and his knowledge of Welsh folklore has even been used to reconstruct the archetypes of a few Celtic myths. Finally, the De nugis curialium has garnered significant scholarly attention for its construction of authorship and its presentation of reading practices. In several provocative passages, Walter addresses his shortcomings as an author, voices his complaints for contemporary literary taste, and explicitly instructs readers how to approach his text.

The above has certainly not exhausted the reasons for Walter's continuing appeal, but it should help explain why scholars from all disciplines so often quote the De nugis curialium. Urbane, learned, and occasionally scurrilous, the De nugis curialium is a potpourri of twelfth-century literary culture. Yet Walter Map is typically treated as scholarly window dressing. He is often called in to deliver a witticism or anecdote before being shown the door, and when he is encouraged to stay for a little longer, the interest usually lies in only one or two of his tales. In many respects, this behavior is hard to fault: Walter, always prepared with a bon mot, seems to have been something of a twelfth-century Oscar Wilde. While this book does not aim to offer a complete synthesis of Walter's work, it does, I hope, provide a clearer path for those who may desire to do so in the future.

Unlike its modern-day popularity, the De nugis curialium does not appear to have been widely read in the Middle Ages, thus seemingly fulfilling Walter's prophetic complaint: "For when I have begun to rot, then my work will begin to gain flavor for the first time, and my decease will compensate for all its defects, and my antiquity will make me an authority in the most distant future, since then, as now, old copper is preferred to new gold." Yet while the De nugis curialium has gained modern currency, the nature and extent of its "defects" are still misunderstood. Indeed, few modern readers have thought the text without defect. With a quip that has resonated widely in discussions of Walter, C. N. L. Brooke and R. A. B. Mynors, the most recent editors of the De nugis, have called the work "the untidy legacy of an untidy mind." And while I will show that this characterization is unfair—its untidiness, in fact, results from the disorderly transmission of the only manuscript of the De nugis curialium—the presentation of Walter as inattentive and scatterbrained in the edition most consulted by Anglophone scholars has perhaps had an outsized impact. Framing the De nugis curialium as the disconnected jottings of a hectic courtier has in turn produced untidy readers of Walter's work, readers who are content to examine a few tales or sections at a time, without pausing to examine the place of individual tales in their overall context. After all, if there is no discernible structure to the work, or if its textual transmission has been hopelessly bungled by a scribe, or even by Walter himself, why should one try to understand the text as a whole?

Of course, the otherwise excellent edition of Brooke and Mynors is not entirely to blame for this phenomenon; the eclectic nature of the De nugis curialium, its confused textual state, and its anecdotal approach to history with only a passing regard for what we may call historical fact all invite readers to approach the work in snatches. Perhaps it is for these reasons that only one book-length study of Walter has been completed. The De nugis curialium belongs to that curious category of a text that is widely known and carefully read, but consulted only in part and not as a whole: it is the Lonely Planet Great Britain of the late twelfth century.

The De nugis curialium deserves a better reputation than a series of hastily scribbled anecdotes, and in exploring Walter's involvement with the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, this book also offers a reappraisal of textual history of the De nugis curialium. I argue that the work was never meant to be a single, unified text, but likely represents at least five works in various stages of completion. Its presentation as one work called the De nugis curialium results from several layers of scribal interference, not from a haphazard process of composition on Walter's part, as many have believed. Moreover, the De nugis curialium preserves several instances of revision, passages that Walter has reworked from earlier versions. Seen in this light, the De nugis curialium provides important evidence for the practice of revision in twelfth-century literature. In its exploration of the De nugis curialium as a text in the process of revision, this book offers a timely reappraisal of Walter and his work, one that shows Walter to be a careful, focused reviser in the vein of Gerald of Wales or even William Langland.

While this reevaluation has wide-ranging implications for all aspects of Walter's work, it is particularly helpful in understanding how he became associated with the Lancelot-Grail Cycle. In one instance, recognizing Walter's revisions allows us to see a tale about ancient Britain taking shape before our eyes. Walter, although he never mentions Arthur, was in fact interested enough in stories about ancient Britain that he wrote one himself, almost from scratch. Moreover, noticing the extent of the scribal interventions and corruptions that pepper the De nugis curialium provides a clearer picture for how Walter dealt with Welsh material. He, as will be seen, tended to know what he was talking about when it came to Wales, a fact often obscured by later scribal tinkering. Finally, viewing Walter as a careful reviser better accords with how the Lancelot-Grail Cycle portrays him. Giving Walter, a supposedly undisciplined author, a hand in the creation of the Cycle is not absurd as some critics have thought. His modern reputation no longer must remain at odds with this medieval one.

Using Walter Map as a case study, this book overturns long-established narratives of how Welsh literary material first circulated outside of Wales. Instead of identifying Breton minstrels as the agents of transmission, I show that Walter and others had access to Welsh-Latin documents that circulated throughout a monastic network in southern Wales and western England. Latin literature, and not folktales, brought Arthur out of Wales and into England. I also argue that Walter Map participates in the widespread phenomenon of reworking existing tales in order to fit them into the newly popular setting of ancient Britain, in effect creating faux-Celtic stories. Taken together, these two discoveries suggest a new approach for understanding the "Celtic" element in medieval French and English literature. Rather than the sources-and-analogues approach that has dominated scholarship for decades, I propose an approach that is historically sensitive, one that asks what kind of literary work the concept of ancient Britain does in a culture in which the inheritors of ancient Britain—the Welsh—are often at odds with the ruling elite. Twelfth-century clerics were at the forefront of a vibrant literary culture, collecting Welsh-Latin documents and reshaping the Welsh material they found for their own ends. In the thirteenth century, Walter Map, or at least the figure of Walter Map, became an Arthurian author precisely because he fit the profile: he was a clerical Latin writer with a strong interest in Wales and its past.

Chapter 1 examines Walter's affiliations with Wales and with the genre of romance, providing important context for how Walter could be seen as someone who worked with the Matter of Britain. Walter took a special interest in Wales and the Welsh, and while these Welsh tales have generally been said to reflect common anti-Welsh stereotypes, they are often more sophisticated than has been assumed. They show that Walter viewed himself as somewhat of an expert on the Welsh; his stories display a relatively nuanced view of Anglo-Welsh politics. This chapter also argues that Walter was a skilled writer of romance. Distinctio 3 of the De nugis curialium contains four polished romances that demonstrate that Walter could write a series of thematically linked stories. While these romances are not set in ancient Britain, they nonetheless show that Walter had read widely in contemporary French literature and that he incorporates many elements of popular romance into his own work.

Chapters 2 and 3 concern the only surviving copy of the De nugis curialium found in Bodley 851. I argue that the De nugis curialium was originally five separate works in various stages of completion that were erroneously taken by later scribes to be a single work. Chapter 2 examines all of the doublets in the De nugis curialium, arguing that Walter was reusing earlier material in later work. This chapter does the meticulous work of comparing all of the doublets found in the De nugis curialium and finds that some of the tales in distinctiones 1 and 2 are indeed polished revisions of their counterparts found in distinctiones 4 and 5. Walter's work is therefore not a messy collage of courtier notes. Rather, it is a collection of unfinished works, some of which are frozen in the act of revision. Chapter 3 argues that many of the text's infelicities, which are often attributed to Walter himself, are the result of scribal interpolation. Overall, I suggest that Walter's work is not as sloppy or "untidy" as earlier critics have assumed.

Chapter 4 examines in detail the process of revision that lies behind the tale of King Herla, one of Walter's most celebrated tales. This tale is not in fact authentically Welsh, as is widely believed, but is rather a reworking of a continental tale, fitted into Welsh garb—a practice that I argue was widespread. Reworking tales to make them fit into the Matter of Britain could have very specific ideological effects. Walter, for example, has his own way of bringing Henry II into ancient Britain. This chapter also includes an overview of other medieval works that have been incorporated—some skillfully, some sloppily—into the Matter of Britain. Overall, I conclude by arguing that this phenomenon was commonplace in medieval literature and that many instances of Celtic narrative material may in fact be the invention of medieval authors.

Chapter 5 takes up the thorny question of the transmission of the Matter of Britain. How did so many Welsh, Cornish, and Breton characters, themes, and stories make their way into medieval French literature? Walter Map's De nugis curialium provides a good deal of indirect evidence, as well as some direct evidence, that transmission occurred through written Latin documents, instead of itinerant multilingual minstrels, who are thought to be the usual channel for transmission. It also explicitly details a network of exchange among minor Marcher aristocrats, which Walter took advantage of to find material for his own work. Arguing that Latin clerics like Walter played a larger role in the transmission of the Matter of Britain than has previously been acknowledged, this chapter concludes by examining other instances in which Latin clerics were instrumental in moving narrative material out of Wales. In particular, this chapter argues that Walter obtained the sources for two of his Welsh tales from the monastic archive of St. Peter's, Gloucester.

Chapter 6 reviews Walter Map's reception in the thirteenth century and beyond, asking why so many readers and writers ascribed to him parts of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle. I argue that the earliest attributions to Walter, written only a decade after his death, do not portray him as the author or translator of any of these Arthurian romances. Instead, Walter is merely imagined as a clerk of Henry II who rummaged through monastic archives to compile the Latin source for the French romances. This image corresponds well to what we know about Walter Map and to our revised understanding of how Welsh material passed into the larger European world. Although Walter almost certainly had no hand in the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, the author who first introduced him into the Cycle's list of putative authors knew more about how legends of Arthur and his court circulated out of Wales than he has been given credit for.