What’s the Matter?

A rhetorical question?  Genuine concern?

In this essay we are examining another form of matter otherwise known as national literary matters, the three most important of which being the Matter of Rome, Matter of France, and the Matter of England.

Our focus shall be on the Matter of England or Britain.

What we are referring to is the Medieval literature and legends underpinning the history of Brittany to include the Arthurian literature of legendary and heroic King Arthur.  In contrast, the Matter of France focuses on the legends of Charlemagne and the Matter of Rome was derived from classical mythology.

French poet Jean Bodel’s La Chansondes Saisnes or Song of the Saxon first described the matters thus:

“Ne sont que III matieres a nul momme 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.”

Medieval literature could be considered an early form of state propaganda, written to ensure the acceptance of future kings by providing them with written history and pedigrees of lineage.  With grand myths of conquest and great deeds, heroic figures such as King Arthur became important early role models so as to provide the common people with a set of noble attributes by which to expect, see, and believe in their leaders; chief among these being chivalry, honour, and courage.  Along with the legend of King Arthur, this literature introduced us to Brutus of Troy, King Lear and Coel Hen.   In much of this literature, fact and fiction become blurred as the written word of historians supplemented the myths.  Themes of great conquests, adventure, Christianity, loyalty, and love abound in these tales and so does the lesson of negative consequences should one embark upon a darker path in seeking glory.

Among the notable Medieval(12th & 13th centuries) authors of this literature of matters we find Geoffrey of Monmouth, John Milton, Michael Drayton, Thomas Malory, Geoffrey Chaucer, Gottfried Von Strassburg, Chrétian des Troyes, Nennius, Thomas of Britain, and Talisein from the 6th Century. Shakespeare extended the time frame into the Elizabethan Era.

To learn more about Medieval authors and the works that underpin the Matter of Britain, click here.

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