Walter Map and the Matter of Britain

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Joshua Byron Smith
The Middle Ages Series
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , June
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Readers of medieval literature have long wondered about the authorial attribution of the anonymous early-13th-century French Lancelot-Grail Cycleto the 12th-century British churchman, Walter Map. In Walter Map and the Matter of Britain, Joshua Byron Smith sets out to solve this academic riddle and, in doing so, provide his readers with a long overdue literary reassessment—though “not a complete synthesis” (6)—of Walter’s De nugis curialium. Smith further situates his work into several larger scholarly debates: 1) the importance of Latinate ecclesiastical writing culture in the transmission of the Matter of Britain to continental literary traditions; 2) the debate about oral vernacular versus Latin textual transmission; and 3) the problematic, but often unchallenged, assumption of the traveling minstrel and professional translator as popularizers of these stories. Overall, “this book attempts to rewrite the history of how narratives about the pre-Saxon inhabitants of Britain, including King Arthur and his knights, first circulated in England” (1). Smith achieves his goals excellently, and the book is a page turner, at least for this scholar who teaches the French Lancelot-Grail Cycle and has never been completely convinced by the minstrel theory.

Chapter 1 attempts to tease out who the historical person of Walter was, what connected him to Wales and the writing of romances, and why medieval clerics advanced his authorship of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle. Likely an inhabitant of the borderlands between England and Wales––the Marches––Walter may have been considered well versed in Welsh matters. Although he did not claim to be Welsh himself, “he traded tales with Marcher barons, knights, aristocrats, and bishops” (19). Furthermore, “at home in the international world of Latin Christendom ... he was one of Henry II’s representatives at the third Lateran Council” (20). This chapter examines the four romances that Walter wrote in Latin and demonstrates his knowledge of the prevailing romance motifs, including problematic love triangles. His expertise in both Welsh and romances, as well as his presence at Henry’s court—later invoked in the Lancelot-Grail Cycle—made him a plausible medieval choice as author of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle

Even though Smith argues against this authorial attribution, he spends chapters 2 and 3 rescuing Walter’s literary reputation from the criticism of textual disarray by illustrating that the manuscript transmission tradition did not always recognize that several of his texts existed in different drafts within the same manuscripts, thus making Walter appear to be severely disorganized and repetitive. Here, Smith provides cogent readings of Walter’s material, for instance, with the story of the militant monk of Cluny, that leads him to conclude “Walter was a careful reviser of his own work as well as that of others” (60). Using the most likely interpolated glosses to Walter’s work, chapter 3 argues further that the De nugis curialium was “plainly an unfinished work in the process of revision” (73), which Walter either abandoned or could not finish before his death.

Chapter 4, “From Herlething to Herla” is a gem of literary criticism. Smith wishes to illustrate “that medieval authors regularly created ersatz Celtic tales. Using Walter Map’s tale of the wild hunt of King Herlething as a model, this chapter argues that the Matter of Britain owes a greater debt to the fertile minds of secular clerics and romancers than to the multilingual mouths of itinerant Welsh or Breton minstrels” (83). Smith suggests that Walter successfully practiced “Britonicization”—the “setting of tales in the ancient British past” (84)—thus reaffirming clerical textual culture over oral folktale. In the case of King Herlething, Walter has radically transformed the tale “to appear to be a genuine piece of Celtic folklore” (93) about King Herla. Moreover, Smith brilliantly expounds on how this revised tale demonstrates Walter’s known talent for satire, as all of his changes satirize both the court of Henry II as well as the “Welsh obsession for messianic figures” (103) such as King Arthur.

Chapter 5 tries to unearth the Welsh-Latin sources of Walter’s De nugis curialium. This chapter may be the most fascinating for readers interested in religion, as it outlines the importance of the ecclesiastic repositories and libraries that might have aided Walter in his access to popular story material. Smith contends that “Walter took his stories not from Welsh folklore but from Latin documents that circulated throughout the ecclesiastical network of southeastern Wales and the southern Marches” (106). Smith convincingly links Walter to St. Peter’s Abbey in Gloucester, with its significant 12th-century library holdings, and posits MS Cotton Vespasian as his main source for early Welsh saints’ lives. Walter may have derived his short tale of Cadog, for instance, from the Vita Sancti Cadoci.

Chapter 6 tries to unravel and undo the claim of a medieval French manuscript miniature in which “Henry II commands his clerk Walter Map to compose La mort Artu” (147), one of the five parts of the most influential Lancelot-Grail Cycle. Three facts easily disprove this claim: 1) both Henry II and Walter Map were dead by the time the Lancelot-Grail Cycle had been written; 2) Walter wrote in Latin, not in French; and 3) Walter is not known to have written sustained narrative on the scale of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle. Nevertheless, somehow Walter’s name “conjures up just the right amount of cultural and literary authority ... to impart some historical veracity to the work” (149). Smith also shines when putting Walter into the context of two other contemporary British heavy hitters, Gerald of Wales and Geoffrey of Monmouth, as models of how “narratives of ancient Britain passed into French” through “a clerical writer discovering Latin documents in an ecclesiastical center with Arthurian connections” (171).

Walter Map and the Matter of Britain is one of the best books I have recently read. Written in an elegant, jargon-free style, it provides the best of traditional scholarship—combining philology, onomastics, archival research, history, religion, literary criticism, and a good portion of Sherlock Holmesian sleuthing to produce a most persuasive context for the vexing problem of Welsh textual transmission.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anita Obermeier is Chair and Professor of English and Director of the Medieval Studies Program at the University of New Mexico.

Date of Review: 
April 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joshua Byron Smith teaches English at the University of Arkansas.


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