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Arthurian Legends

century thirteenth include expanded

Of disputed historical authenticity, King Arthur appears in early Welsh poetry and in the ninth-century chronicle (Historia Brit-tonum) of the Welsh writer Nennius. He is described as a brave warrior who led the Britons in a number of victorious battles against the Saxons in the early sixth century. The deeds of Arthur were expanded in folklore and oral tradition. Geoffrey of Monmouth included a very detailed account of Arthur’s reign in his Historia regum Britanniae This text, widely copied throughout the Middle Ages, inspired a number of offshoots and translations. Geoffrey also composed a life of the magician Merlin (the Vita Merlini , c.1135). These works, plus earlier and contemporary, related and independent compositions in Welsh and Irish, were translated, adapted, expanded, and revised in French, notably by Chrétien de Troyes and Marie de France in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century. Chrétien’s works include especially influential narratives concerning Lancelot, Percival, and the quest for the *Holy Grail. In the thirteenth century, a number of Arthurian tales were expanded and recast into prose form these compositions include: the Queste del Saint Graal, Mort Artu, Lancelot en prose, Estorie del Saint Graal , and the Estoire de Merlin .


Arthurian legends appear in German literature of the late twelfth century and important compositions of the thirteenth century include Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan und Isolt and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival . Numerous other Arthurian stories were composed in Norse, Dutch, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, and English from the thirteenth through fifteenth century, notably the monumental Le Morte d’Arthur of c.1470 by Sir Thomas Malory.


Corresponding with the vastness, variety, and complexity of the Arthurian legends in medieval literature, pictorial representations exist in a myriad of forms and media including sculpture, painting, tapestry, embroidery, metalwork, ivory, tilework, illuminated manuscripts, and woodblock prints. The very first example of Arthurian imagery may be in sculpture on the north portal of Modena Cathedral in Italy (c.1100–1140). Lavishly illustrated Arthurian manuscripts were created for wealthy patrons, especially in France, Italy, and Flanders, beginning in the early thirteenth century, and scenes from Arthurian romance were extremely popular on French ivory jewel caskets, combs, and mirror backs of the fourteenth century. The brave deeds of the Knights of the Round Table are found in wall paintings, especially in castles, other dwellings, and in secular/ civic buildings, as well as in tile pavements (Otranto Cathedral, c.1165; Chertsey Abbey, c.1270). Sculptures, manuscripts, stained glass, and tapestries depicting the Nine Worthies (famous world conquerors detailed in Les Voeux du paon , a French text of the early fourteenth century) were also very popular. Arthur is included with the Christian heroes: *Charlemagne, and Godefroy de Bouillon, who accompany the “pagan” heroes: Hector, Julius Caesar, and *Alexander the Great, and the Jewish heroes: *Joshua, *David, and *Judas Maccabeus.

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