Episode 93: The Two Arthurs

The introduction to Layamon’s Brut

In this episode, we look at the rivalry between John “Lackland” and Arthur of Brittany for control of the Angevin Empire.  John eventually emerged victorious, but in the process, he set in motion the events that led to the loss of Normandy and most of northern France. The loss of these territories produced a renewed sense of “Englishness” and a revival of English literature. This English renaissance was spearheaded by an English translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “History of the Kings of Britain.”  For the first time, the legend of King Arthur was presented in English verse.

13 thoughts on “Episode 93: The Two Arthurs

  1. Question: do you think it more likely that Layamon in Brut was attempting to including deliberate archaisms in his text than the language changing so significantly in a short time?

    For example, in your excerpt that had horsen, that was so non standard it’s​ not included in the OED’s forms. It sounds to me like a hyperarchaistic mistake (is there a word for this?), similar to people mixing up thee, thou and thine or conjugating them wrong.

    Were Layamon caught up in the fun of portraying the history of England, is it more reasonable to assume that he was aware of the changes to the language, and attempted to write in what he perceived to be an older fashion, or that the language had changed a lot in 50 years?

    For example, I would not need to translate any words as far as I can tell in Agatha Christie, but would have made significant changes to LOTR if I had zero regard for Tolkien’s use of older English for stylistic effect.

    • Great question! I don’t really know the answer. I haven’t come across that particular suggestion in any of my research. I should mention that the changes between the first manuscript and the later manuscript are actually quite small. I focused on the specific changes in the episode, but I also covered over 10,000 lines of text. So when the changes are put into the overall context of the poem, they were relatively minor. That implies that the later scribe just made a few changes along the way to reflect the state of the language at the time. But again, I can’t refute the possibility that Layamon was intentionally writing in an older style.

  2. Slight quibble on the first use of “Middle Earth”: Apparently Tolkien found it in the poem “Crist” by the Anglo-Saxon author Cynewulf, who flourished – probably, maybe – in the 9th century.

    I first encountered the section
    ”Éala, Éarendel, engla beorhtast,
    ofer middangeard monnum sended,”
    in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien.

    “middangeard” is A-S for “middle earth” it seems.

    • Hi Michael,

      Thanks for the feedback. I’m glad you mentioned the word “middangeard” because I originally intended to discuss that word in the episode, but I omitted that discussion due to time considerations. Believe it or not, I have actually discussed the word “middangeard” before, and it is even older than the poem you mentioned. I discussed the word in Episode 39 in relation to the cowherd poet named Caedmon, who is considered the first known poet in the English language. He used the word “middangeard” in “Caedmon’s Hymn.” It was actually a common kenning in Old English poetry.

      “Middangeard” is literally the “middle yard.” It can also be translated as the “middle garden” since the word “garden” is essentially the Frankish version of the Old English word “yard.” While the term has the same meaning as “Middle Earth,” Layamon was the first known poet to substitute “Earth” for “yard.” So at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary, that earns Layamon the distinction of being the first known person to use the phrase “Middle Earth” in an English document. But you are correct that the phrase “Middle Earth” was based on an older construction that had been around since the early Anglo-Saxons.

      • Thanks, Kevin! I’ve been listening since ep1, and might have to go back and check back on ep39 now! Cheers!

      • Are “Earth” and “Yard” cognate more generally?

        In some other Germanic languages, the word for earth has an “-rd” sound rather than a “th”. Also there is a slight semantic connection between earth and gardens: that is soil.

        • I am dying to hear this episode just discovered but I am used to the word “earth” being a synonym for “soil”. Some of my neighbours live in mud brick or in rammed earth dwellings.

          • Yes, the original meaning of ‘earth’ was dirt or soil. It only acquired the sense of a planet in later centuries. So in Old English, an ‘earthling’ was a farmer.

        • There does not appear any etymological connection between ‘earth’ and ‘yard.’ Each has a distinct Indo-European root. The root of ‘earth’ is *er, and the root of ‘yard’ is *ghazdh-o.

  3. I have been checking regularly for this episode and I have only just found it thanks to this comment. I wonder why it has remained hidden from me for so long

  4. Kevin, as always I’m really enjoying the HoE series.

    In this episode, you mention that the older English “mid” gets replaced by “with.” I would love for you to talk about how this happens. “Mid” seems cognate to the German “mit,” but where does “with” come from, I wonder? Of course, prepositions are notoriously fuzzy, but there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of consistency among Indo-European languages on this anyway, with French “avec” and Spanish “con,” etc….

    Anyway, something for a future episode, perhaps?

    • Hi Kent. I actually discussed the relationship between “mid” and “with” at the very end of Episode 52. You might recall that “with” originally meant ‘opposed to.’ So it had the opposite meaning of the modern word. The meaning of the word shifted under Norse influence because the Norse version of the word focused on the close proximity of two combatants – in the sense of going to war ‘with’ each other. As the meaning of “with” came in line with “mid”, the word “mid” gradually disappeared as a preposition. Of course, it survives in words like “middle” – as in “MID-dle English.”

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