Friday 12 October 2018

Medieval Scottish approaches to King Arthur

                                       Queen Guinevere's (Vanora's) burial mound in Meigle

Following on from earlier posts (here and here) on Arthur and Scotland...
From the fourteenth century onwards, the Merlin of Arthuriana began to appear as a character in Scottish pseudo-histories...They usually depicted Arthur in his familiar guise as a mightly king, with Merlin cast as a prophet and sorcerer at the royal court. Both characters were often treated unfavourably, chiefly because of the political implications of Merlin's prophecies. In Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae Merlin prophesied that Arthur would one day return to regain his authority over the whole of Britain. To many Scots in the Middle Ages, this was a profoundly unsettling prospect. They did not welcome the idea of being conquered -or reconquered- by an ambitious southern king, whether legendary or not. Moreover, HRB had not only shown Arthur as conquering Scotland but had also depicted his treacherous nephew Modred [sic] as a Scottish king. This, too, made Arthur seem like an enemy of the Scots. His negative image north of the Border was strengthened by the attitudes of contemporary English writers, many of whom saw Arthur as a model for their own kings. Arthur's supposed domination of Britain provided a template for English territorial ambitions in the 1300s and 1400s...Scottish writers responded by promoting Modred, not Arthur, as the legitimate overlord of ancient Britain...
This type of ill-feeling towards Arthur and Merlin was a characteristic of Scottish historical writing in the late medieval period and continued through the arguments over political union during the sixteenth century. At its heart was a broader opposition to the perceived 'Englishness' of Arthur and to the idea of a single, pan-British kingdom ruled by a southern monarch.

[From ch. 8, Scotland's Merlin: A Medieval Legend and its Dark Age Origins. Tim Clarkson, 2016. Review here.]

The discussion continues with particular reference to the treatment of Merlin in The Complaynt of Scotland.

I suppose the above passage reinforces for me the sense that many narratives which purport to tell 'our' national story don't adequately reflect deep differences in cultural history between Scotland and England, let alone the other parts of the UK. It's very easy to pick holes in the crasser Braveheart narratives of Nationalism. But Unionism faces the problem that, firstly, due to the appalling state of historical education in Scotland, probably the only thing that most Scottish children do know historically is that England kept invading Scotland; and, secondly, far too many narratives (of which Roberts' programme is an example) are provokingly blind to those deeper patterns of difference which any successful modern Unionism will have to negotiate rather than simply dismiss. 

Walter Scott provides a striking contrast here. His narratives are soaked in the detail of Scottish history and even antipathy towards England, but they also sublate those antagonisms, in part through the exercise of nostalgia and in part through the myth of enlightenment, into an acceptance of the Union. I see nothing of comparable subtlety occuring at the moment in Unionism, the arguments for which seem predominantly based on economic interest. My guess is that such a solely economic basis is inadequate for asabiyyah, and that consquently Unionism will ultimately prove increasingly unpersuasive. That would be a pity, not only for those who support the Union, but also for those Nationalists who, absent a worthy intellectual and cultural opponent, will be stuck with superficial, complacent and ultimately poisonous narratives of Utopian progress and being a lot nicer than the Southron.

1 comment:

  1. This would be better entitled 'Late Mediaeval Scottish Reinterpretations of King Arthur'. It is clear that with the rise of constructed nationalisms in the late Middle Ages (a side effect of the failure of Hohenstaufen universalism and the appropriation of its ideology by local rulers) Arthur, as an expression of the organic ancient Roman universalism, needed reinterpretation. This can be seen in England as well where writers try to re-designate Arthur as 'King of England' whereas in the High Middle Ages he had always been 'King of Britain' or 'The Emperor Arthur'. That is, he was an expression of the narrative of native British resistance to Anglo Saxon invasion and therefore far more the property of Alba than of England.