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With Great Pleasure at Christmas 2014

In Our Time: Le Morte d'Arthur

Friday 11 January 2013, 11:05

Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg

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Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Le Morte d'Arthur. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - AI.

Le Morte d'Arthur Le Morte d'Arthur (for In Our Time)


I want to start off with an apology to Helen Cooper - or rather Professor Helen Cooper.  When she described Malory as a 'thug' with such emphasis I was taken aback by the vehemence of the word emanating from the mouth of such an elegant and decisive professor of medieval literature at Cambridge. 

I also thought that some of the things she said had been contradicted in the notes (perhaps not hers) which I'd read.  Yes, he was accused of rustling cattle - but this was a war zone in the Wars of the Roses and leaders of small packs of armies had to find food for their men.

He was accused of taking plate and silver from a monastery.   Yes, but there was a radical movement at the time which believed that the Church should have no wealth - there was none of that in the Bible - and there's no record of anybody being killed in this raid. 

The charge of rape was of course serious but, again in the notes of one of the contributors to the programme, rape was often an accusation brought by a husband who had lost his wife to someone else in order to cover up the fact that she had just gone and left him.   So there's room for manoeuvre there.

Helen elegantly let my objection pass, but after the programme said, with exemplary firmness, that he was a very bad man.  When they gave the equivalent of a General Pardon at the time of the Wars of the Roses he was the only person in England not pardoned, and nobody would take him into their household afterwards.  She also pointed out in the programme that there was very little relationship between the behaviour of someone in life and their performance in art. 

So I think that could be called a comprehensive routing. 

At the moment I'm driving through the countryside in Gloucestershire with Anna Cox, who's the producer of a programme I'm doing on William Tyndale - not very far away from Malory. In fact Malory was published in 1485 and Tyndale was born just a few years later.  I'm beginning to lead a joined-up life.  This is a film for BBC 2 and we are going back to the man's origins here among the then-thriving merchants and farmers of the wool trade which in some ways sustained his radical life - his short radical life - while he was abroad.

It's a return to where I was only a week ago when I came down here to interview Alfie Boe for a South Bank Show.  He is moving down to the Cotswolds, and as we turned into the Cotswolds after Burford I had a serious feeling that I was entering a completely different country.  It was more foreign than anywhere abroad I've been over the last few months - i.e. Germany, Holland, Belgium, France - here were complete uninterrupted villages, here was antiquity still living, here were village greens, and even the moss had moss on top of it.  Churches whose bells would toll only now and then for the occasional death, because people live forever in these villages.  It is a very strange experience living in this area.

And then I saw a sign pointing to Chipping Norton.   Well, there you go.  (Should I not have said that?  I hope you keep it in).

So off we go to a farm where Tyndale's  brothers farmed and tomorrow we'll be attempting to record the opening statement of his radicalism where he confronted Bishops - he as a young man, they as soi-disant learned clerics whom he demolished at dinner.

I hope you had a good Christmas and New Year.   I went North with the family, the far North to which we've been returning for the last 42 years.  It was foul weather - King Lear would have recognised it - it was full of 'blow, winds, and crack your cheeks'.  But there was a silver lining.  That  was lying in bed listening to a hurricane-strength wind booming in the trees nearby, whacking against the house with a sound that I would love to make into a record and knowing - that if the Cumbrian stone held - we were all safe and sound inside.

The Xmas decorations are still up in Regent St.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg


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    Comment number 1.

    Malory is part of the great period of Middle English literature,comprising Langland, Chaucer, Gawain,the Ballad and the Mystery plays.Gawain and the Green Knight mentions Arthur and Gawain,depicting a battle between chivalry and paganism.Most of Le Morte d’Arthur of Malory(1485) comes from 3 French texts,the prose Tristan,the Vulgate Cycle and the Roman du Graal,and two English works,the alliterative Morte Arthure,and the stanzaic Morte Arthur.Malory made the Arthuriad more compact,what is really a succession of separate prose romances has been given an appearance of unity,his 8 tales share common characters and a common interest in the themes of chivalry,love and religion,but have episodic discontinuity,held together
    by elegiac cadences in a fin de siecle style.

    King Arthur is 1st mentioned under the Latin name Artorious in the late 7th century Historia Brittonum(ed.by Nennius 9thc.).Arthur as Dux Bellorum,not king,is said to have led the Britons against the Saxons in 12 battles culminating in the great victory of Mons Badonicus(fought between 493 and 516).So we have the historical shadowy figure and the figure that emanated from the romances of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae,which claimed to be a translation of an ancient Celtic history of Britain,lent by Walter Map,archdeacon of Oxford.This was versified in French in Wace’s Roman de Brut(1155),which is the 1st to mention the Round Table.In the 12th century Robert de Borron introduced the Holy Grail legend and gave prominence to Merlin.Chretien de Troyes brought in the tragic loves of Launcelot of the Lake and Guinevere,the story of Perceval probably drawn from Welsh sources including the Mabinogion.Thus Map and the Arthurian writers introduced the romantic spirit of chivalry and courtly manners into European literature and King Arthur became the embodiment of the ideal Christian knight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    It is fair to say that that Geoffrey of Monmouth gave a Norman version of the tales and the French sources seem to diminish King Arthur and give the lion’s share to Lancelot,who steals Arthur’s glory.In Malory’s version Arthur again is made the central pivotal figure.The last 4 books have an impressive unity,comprising the 7th and 8th tales,the lawless loves of Lancelot and Guinevere,the break-up of the fellow-ship of the Round Table through Arthur’s discovery of Guinevere’s adultery,the self-destruction of Arthur’s knights and kingdom in a great civil war,the last battle and death of Arthur,and the deaths of Lancelot and Guinevere have a gloomy power deeply felt by Malory,reflecting the anarchy and confusion of the England of the Wars of the Roses.Caxton’s printing as one book gave the Arthurian legend its widest circulation and success to date.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    As there's no Newsletter for The Cult of Mithras thought Id just make this entry:-
    Interpretation of the physical evidence remains problematic and contested,and I thought the speakers did a good job covering the available evidence.I realized that they didn’t mention the votary standing beneath a sacrificial bull being blood-soaked or maybe that is a myth,coming from another belief system?A mystery religion was private not public,it is silent about what happens,hence the lack of written evidence. All we have is the archaeological evidence,hence the problem of interpretation. As with other mystery cults Isis-Osiris,the Eleusian Mysteries,we don’t know what they ultimately believed.There is a lot of dying/rising in a lot of these mystery cults,but Mithras doesn’t do that.The imagery shows the killing of the bull.This gives life. Imperial administrators realized religion could be a useful instrument for discipline in the army.The soldiers were far away sacrificing their lives for Rome. The Eastern cults provided a bridge from impersonal, remote classical religion to the personal salvation religion of Christianity. During the Imperial Roman era the vast majority of Roman citizens did not live in Rome, were not ethnically or physically linked with Rome, took no part in the affairs of the city. Religious micro-societies and 'mystery' sects assure him of a kind of reintegration and existence, when traditional frameworks and institutional authorities are in decline or failing in their mission.

    The mystery part of Mithraism is the revelation of the 7 grades of initiation: you start as a raven and end as a father.The ceremonies are brutal and cruel-humiliated,blind-folded, threatened, generally maltreated,ordeals connected to learning.There is a strong connection to astrology(also from the East).From philosophical sources(Poryphry) we get the idea of the cave as a model of the cosmos,maybe used from Plato’s myth of the cave.The situation of Mithraea,below ground,down steps,in an artificial or natural cave,went against the norms of classical religion which was a temple in the open air. Everything takes place in the dark,people don’t know what goes on there.The offence was part of the attraction.The bull-killing symbolised creation,the beginning of the world (comes from the Zoroastrian myth the beginning of time,the evil Ariman rushes into to kill the created bovine to show how death came into the world).Strange this had a Persian connection like a previous programme.Mithraism started in Southern Turkey,with features of Persian origin that had been Hellenized,using more violence.

    Christianity which came to ultimately replace it is more similar to the cult of Attis and Osiris, depicting men who became gods who suffered a cruel death and rose again. Mithras is a distinct product of the Roman Empire. So Mithraism was introduced to support the growing empire and the power of the emperors What disgusted the Christians was the idea of a pagan cult aping Christian rituals like the sacred meal, celebrating the birth date of the founder as 25th December like Christianity,the miraculous birth and the immortality of the soul,offeringsalvation. Mithraism fell because it excluded women,appealed to graded male professionals and masculinity, was emotional rather than philosophical,had no general organisation to direct its course.As with soldiers and generals,it spread to the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire, was dropped when the Romans adopted Christianity The major competitor to Christianity was paganism,imported as official Roman cults.The strange thing about Christianity: it was a personal religion integrated into the state.This brought new energy into the Roman Empire,a secular power that formerly was backed up by a mixture of state cults and personal religions, where people had worshipped many gods.Now it was one.Christianity itself may have borrowed things from Mithraism.


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