Medieval Studies King Arthur
by
Christopher A. Snyder
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0095

Introduction

Perhaps no medieval monarch, historical or legendary, has had as wide and lasting an impact as King Arthur. From the bardic poetry of early medieval Wales to the epic blank verse of Tennyson, from the royal pedigrees of the Plantagenets and the Tudors to the modern myth of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot, and most recently films and Internet sites almost too numerous to count, the Arthurian myth has proved both enduring and adaptable. Does the myth rest, however, on a historical foundation? Was there a historical king or warrior named Arthur whose martial deeds served as the basis for the legend?

General Overviews

Most who believe in the historicity of Arthur would place him in Britain in the years immediately following the fall of Rome; that is, the late 5th and 6th centuries CE. Due to the scarcity of historical texts from this period, the Arthurian “problem” is by necessity an interdisciplinary one. Linguistics, paleography, literary-source criticism, and archaeology have been employed to help solve this historical problem. This interdisciplinarity is reflected in the general overviews on Arthur and post-Roman Britain (e.g., Halsall 2013). Chambers 1967, one of the earliest, is particularly good on the written sources; White 1998 provides something of an update but includes only English translations of the Arthurian texts. Beginning in the late 1960s, archaeology began to be seen as more relevant to the issue of Arthur’s identity, and both Alcock 1970 and Ashe 1968 reflect this. Snyder 2000 and Lupack 2005 have an even broader scope. For general historical overviews of the period, without an Arthurian focus, see Dark 1993 and Snyder 1998.

  • Alcock, Leslie. Arthur’s Britain: History and Archaeology, AD 367–634. London: Penguin, 1970.

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    Director of the excavations at South Cadbury and Dinas Powys, author surveys both the archaeological and written evidence to produce a model for a historical Arthur and British society in the late 5th and 6th centuries.

  • Ashe, Geoffrey, ed. The Quest for Arthur’s Britain. London: Paladin, 1968.

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    In addition to the author’s introductory and concluding essays, features chapters written by such archaeologists as Ralegh Radford (on Tintagel and Glastonbury Abbey), Philip Rahtz (on Glastonbury Tor), and Leslie Alcock (on Dinas Powys and South Cadbury).

  • Chambers, E. K. Arthur of Britain. New York: October House, 1967.

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    Sound textual criticism of the earliest written sources to mention Arthur. Includes the Latin of such texts (excerpted) as the Gallic Chronicles, Gildas, Bede, Nennius, the Annales Cambriae, the Life of St Goeznovius, William of Malmesbury, Henry of Huntingdon, and Geoffrey of Monmouth. First published in 1927.

  • Dark, K. R. Civitas to Kingdom: British Political Continuity, 300–800. Leicester, UK: Leicester University Press, 1993.

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    Good survey of the textual and archaeological evidence. Argues for continuity of native Brittonic political institutions into the post-Roman period.

  • Halsall, Guy. Worlds of Arthur: Facts & Fictions of the Dark Ages. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

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    Discussion of the historical Arthur debate, and an alternative view of the Saxon advent, written by an Arthurian agnostic—if not skeptic—and expert on early medieval politics and warfare.

  • Jones, Michael E. The End of Roman Britain. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

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    Argues for failed Romanization in Britain and environmental factors influencing population change in the 5th and 6th centuries.

  • Lupack, Alan. The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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    Solid and comprehensive, both a readable narrative and useful reference work.

  • Snyder, Christopher A. An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons, AD 400–600. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998.

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    Two-part study of the sociopolitical terminology used by Patrick and Gildas and comprehensive survey of the archaeology of the Britons c. 400–600.

  • Snyder, Christopher A. The World of King Arthur. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000.

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    Broad general discussion of the historical and archaeological background, the historical texts and medieval romances, the use of Arthurian propaganda by British dynasts, historical Arthur theories, and such modern Arthuriana as novels, movies, and websites. Heavily illustrated, with gazetteer of Arthurian sites. Published in the United Kingdom under the title Exploring the World of King Arthur.

  • White, Richard. King Arthur in Legend and History. London: Routledge, 1998.

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    Maps and brief introductions accompany this nearly comprehensive collection of Arthurian texts (in translation) from the 6th to the 16th centuries.

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