The Matter of Britain is the body of medieval literature and legendary material associated with Great Britain and Brittany, and the legendary kings and heroes associated with it, particularly King Arthur. It was one of the three great story cycles recalled repeatedly in medieval literature, together with the Matter of France, which concerned the legends of Charlemagne, and the Matter of Rome, which included material derived from or inspired by classical mythology.
Ne sont que III matières à nul homme atandant,
De France et de Bretaigne, et de Rome la grant.
"Not but with three matters no man should attend:
Of France, and of Britain, and of Rome the grand."
The name distinguishes and relates the Matter of Britain from the mythological themes taken from classical antiquity, the "Matter of Rome", and the tales of the Paladins of Charlemagne and their wars with the Moors and Saracens, which constituted the "Matter of France". King Arthur is the chief subject of the Matter of Britain, along with stories related to the legendary kings of Britain, as well as lesser-known topics related to the history of Great Britain and Brittany, such as the stories of Brutus of Troy, Coel Hen, Leir of Britain (King Lear), and Gogmagog.
The legendary history of Britain was created partly to form a body of patriotic myth for the country. Several agendas thus can be seen in this body of literature. According to Professor John J. Davenport, the question of Britain's identity and significance in the world "...was a theme of special importance for writers trying to find unity in the mixture of their land's Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Roman and Norse inheritance."
Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae is a central component of the Matter of Britain. Geoffrey drew on a number of ancient British texts, including the ninth century Historia Brittonum. The Historia Brittonum is the earliest known source of the story of Brutus of Troy. Traditionally attributed to Nennius, its actual compiler is unknown; it exists in several recensions. This tale went on to achieve greater currency because its inventor linked Brutus to the diaspora of heroes that followed the Trojan War. As such, this material could be used for patriotic myth-making just as Virgil linked the founding of Rome to the Trojan War in The Æneid.
Medievalist Joshua Byron Smith contends that clerics with access to Welsh-Latin documents that circulated throughout a monastic network in southern Wales and western England and not traveling minstrels or professional translators, were responsible for popularizing these stories about ancient Britain. Geoffrey lists Coel Hen as a King of the Britons, whose daughter, Helena marries Constantius Chlorus and gives birth to a son who becomes the Emperor Constantine the Great, tracing the Roman imperial line to British ancestors.
It has been suggested, that Leir of Britain, who later became King Lear, was originally the Welsh sea-god Ll?r, related to the Irish Ler. Various Celtic deities have been identified with characters from Arthurian literature as well: for example Morgan le Fay was often thought to have originally been the Welsh goddess Modron or Irish the Morrígan. Many of these identifications come from the speculative comparative religion of the late 19th century and have been questioned in more recent years.
William Shakespeare was interested in the legendary history of Britain, and was familiar with some of its more obscure byways. Shakespeare's plays contain several tales relating to these legendary kings, such as King Lear and Cymbeline. It has been suggested that Shakespeare's Welsh schoolmaster Thomas Jenkins introduced him to this material. These tales also figure in Raphael Holinshed's The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, which also appears in Shakespeare's sources for Macbeth.
Other early authors also drew from the early Arthurian and pseudo-historical sources of the Matter of Britain. The Scots, for instance, formulated a mythical history in the Pictish and the Dál Riata royal lines. While they do eventually become factual lines, unlike those of Geoffrey, their origins are vague and often incorporate both aspects of mythical British history and mythical Irish history. The story of Gabrán mac Domangairt especially incorporates elements of both those histories.
The Arthurian literary cycle is the best-known part of the Matter of Britain. It has succeeded largely because it tells two interlocking stories that have intrigued many later authors. One concerns Camelot, usually envisioned as a doomed utopia of chivalric virtue, undone by the fatal flaws of the heroes like Arthur, Gawain and Lancelot. The other concerns the quests of the various knights to achieve the Holy Grail; some succeed (Galahad, Percival), and others fail.
The Arthurian tales have been changed throughout time, and other characters have been added to add backstory and expand on other Knights of the Round Table. The medieval tale of Arthur and his knights is full of Christian themes; those themes involve the destruction of human plans for virtue by the moral failures of their characters, and the quest for an important Christian relic. Finally, the relationships between the characters invited treatment in the tradition of courtly love, such as Lancelot and Guinevere, or Tristan and Iseult.
In more recent years, the trend has been to attempt to link the tales of King Arthur and his knights with Celtic mythology, usually in highly romanticized, 20th-century reconstructed versions. The work of Jessie Weston, in particular From Ritual to Romance, traced Arthurian imagery through Christianity to roots in early nature worship and vegetation rites, though this interpretation is no longer fashionable. It is also possible to read the Arthurian literature in general, and that concerned with the Grail tradition in particular, as an allegory of human development and spiritual growth, a theme explored by mythologist Joseph Campbell amongst others.
|Chrétien de Troyes||12th||Erec and Enide, Cligès, Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, Perceval, the Story of the Grail|
|Geoffrey Chaucer||14th||The Canterbury Tales|
|Geoffrey of Monmouth||12th||Historia Regum Britanniae|
|Gottfried von Strassburg||13th||Tristan|
|Hartmann von Aue||12th||Erec, Iwein|
|Thomas Malory||15th||Le Morte d'Arthur|
|Marie de France||12th||The Lais of Marie de France: Lai de Yonec, Lai de Frêne, Lai de Lanval (...)|
|Robert de Boron||12th||Merlin|
|Taliesin||6th||Book of Taliesin|
|Thomas of Britain||12th||Tristan and Iseult|
|Wace||12th||Roman de Brut, Roman de Rou|
|Wolfram von Eschenbach||12th||Parzival|
|Raoul de Houdenc||12th||Meraugis de Portlesguez|
|Païen de Maisières||13th||La Mule sans frein|
|Rustichello da Pisa||13th||Roman de Roi Artus, Gyron le courtois, Meliodus|
|Ulrich von Zatzikhoven||13th||Lanzelet|
|Alliterative Morte Arthure||14th-15th|
|Blandin de Cornouaille||14th|
|Le Chevalier à l'Épée|
|Le Chevalier au Papegau|
|La Demoiselle à la Mule||12th|
|Folie Tristan d'Oxford||12th|
|Le Roman de Jaufré|
|The Lancelot-Grail Cycle||13th|
|Life of Caradoc|
|Les Merveilles de Rigomer||13th|
|Of Arthour and of Merlin||13th|
|The Post-Vulgate Cycle||13th|
|Sir Gawain and the Green Knight||14th|
|Stanzaic Morte Arthur||14th|