Monday, April 22, 2019

Who was Hengist's daughter Part 2

In which she first appears, silent, serving the booze.

Hengist’s daughter first appears in the Historia Brittonum, which may or may not have been written by ‘Nennius’ and is dated to the early decades of the 9thCentury. 

She is not given a name. Hengist holds a banquet for Vortigern and tells his daughter to serve the alcohol. When Vortigern is drunk, Satan enters into his heart and makes him desire the girl. He asks for her and offers half his kingdom in return. Hengist asks for Kent, the deal is struck and Vortigern marries her. The girl disappears from the story. Later, we are told Vortigern favoured the barbarians ‘because of his wife’, and even later Hengist saves him from the massacre of the British leaders ‘for my daughter’s sake’. When, St. Germanus prays Vortigern to death in his tower, ‘he dies with all his wives’.

That’s all. 

More words are spent on Vortigern’s incestuous relationship with his own daughter or on the confused and equally pointless encounter with Merlin. 

Although four centuries separate the story from the time it’s set in, historically, its bones are not improbable. If the leader of a group of mercenaries had a daughter, he might marry her to his employer as a way of improving his own situation.

But the Historia Brittonum reads like an accumulation of anecdotes. And this anecdote sounds like a shard of a folk tale. The only thing we learn about her is that she is beautiful and she is Hengist’s daughter. Her only recorded action is to serve drinks at a banquet. She has no character. She’s not an Eve type, tempting Vortigern. The devil enters his  heart. Her sole value lies in her relationships to men: Hengist's daughter, Vortigern's wife. It’s not even possible to call her a passive object of desire: she has no opinions or reactions. She does not speak. 

However, if the bones of the story are not improbable, the details are. The audience is asked to believe that the ruler of Britain, a hard-headed war-lord, is so smitten by this girl at their first meeting, that he will trade half his kingdom, alienate his supporters and his sons, risk his life and position and put himself in Hengist’s debt so that he can get her into bed as fast as possible. That does seem improbable. 

It has been suggested that by the ninth century there were two versions of Vortigern’s story circulating amongst the British storytellers. In one he is an honoured ancestor. In another a villain who is responsible for the downfall of Britain. 

The Good Vortigern story eventually disappears. There’s no reason to think Geoffrey of Monmouth knew it had existed. 

The story of Hengist’s daughter makes sense as vilification, if Nennius was supporting his patrons by blackening the reputation of the ancestor of a rival dynasty. For the clerical, Christian writers of the middle ages, sex was dangerous. Excessive, uncontrolled sexual desire was an obvious external marker of an evil character.

Vortigern’s inability to control his desire for Hengist’s daughter is mirrored by his inability to control his desire for his own, with whom he has an incestuous relationship. Both relationships indicate the flawed moral character of the man. As vilification it makes sense, as history, it’s an almost irrelevant slur.

But in this folk tale, the nameless girl might signify Vortigern’s failure as a ruler in other ways. Not only is he is dangerously incapable of controlling his desires but he inverts the relationship he should have with his mercenary. He asks permission when he could demand, offering to buy the girl from his inferior, putting himself in the subordinate position. 

I don’t know which marriage customs are supposed to be operating here but there’s no sense that Hengist is offering any dowry to the bridegroom.

From this limited beginning, the story will be expanded, first by Geoffrey of Monmouth, then by Wace and Laȝamon. It’s possible to watch each storyteller interpreting the story he inherits. The later writers obviously felt something important was happening but in seeking for narrative coherence and significance in their sources, they made explicit what is not suggested in the original. By the time Laȝamon was finished with her, Hengist’s daughter, named and acting of her own volition, will be an essential part of a recurring pattern that structures the Legendary History. 

Which is the next post in which she gets a name and does more than serve the drinks.








Saturday, April 20, 2019

Who was Hengist's daughter?

A Presentment of Englishy ends with a poem that looks forward to the story of Vortigern, Hengist and his daughter.

The Matter of Britain
(Western Britain, 450 AD).

Mog the Magnificent
in his daub and wattle hut
lord of the scattered rocks
and the wind scarped ridge
watching the sheep he’s counted
penned on the wet hillside.
The members of his retinue
huddled round the fire,
dozing. The harper
droning stories of Vortigern
Hengist and Rowena.

They say it’s easier to look into the sun
Than look at her. They say,
she is the dawn and when she rises day begins.

Vortigern, traitor,
expert in evil,
skilled in deceit
sold his country
for a pagan witch.

Hengist, a cunning man,
a secret, silent, scheming
man, who pimped
his daughter for a crown
he could have seized.

But I was there when Rowena walked into the hall.
She lifted up the goblet, ‘Wes þu hal, Vortigern cyning’
and I swear, Hengist had pitched her at the son
at Vortimer. She swerved. She chose
and with that choice swerved history and Britain fell.


Anyone who reads A Presentment carefully will know that that last italicised section should not be taken seriously as historical fact.

But who was Hengist’s beautiful daughter?

In the next post, her earliest appearance in ‘The Matter of Britain’.