Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Story of Vortigern

I’m not interested in whether or not Vortigern was an historical figure. I am interested in his role in ‘The Legendary History’ or ‘The Matter of Britain’, in particular the version of his story told by Laȝamon and how that story had developed. 

Laȝamon's version, written sometime after 1155, is the earliest English version of what resembles a full life. The brief appearance of Vortigern’s name in two entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has been developed into a complicated narrative which leads to the conception of Arthur:  Vortigern first seizes power, employs Hengist but is out-maneuvered by him, he marries Hengist’s daughter, fights his own sons and brings Merlin into the Legendary History. 

Vortigern’s story seems to belong to three traditions which might be separated purely for convenience. I'm particularly interested in the story before Geoffrey (1 and 2 below).  

1)   Gildas > Bede> Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
2)   Historia Brittonum (Nennius) / 2a  [The Pillar of Eliseg] 
3)   Geoffrey of Monmouth>Wace>Laȝamon
1 is the ‘historical’ Vortigern. From a possible mistranslation/misreading of Gildas to the brief Chronicle entries for 449 and 455.  

2 is ‘legendary’ and British.  This version is not only ‘fuller’ but different to 1 in a number of significant ways. The inscription on the pillar of Eliseg seems to commemorate Vortigern, but as Higham (2002, p. 167) writes : it treats him ‘with great honour…as a figure of extraordinary repute to whom the current generation look back with proper reverence'. As such it may be the only positive treatment of Vortigern in any of the sources. 

Have I missed any sources from the period before Geoffrey?
(A separate post on each of the traditions to follow).
Update: It's been pointed out that I've left out William of Malmesbury. My thanks.

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