Friday, April 3, 2020

An extra ordinary moment in Lawman's Brut: Vortimer meets Saint Germanus

Vortimer is the eldest son of Vortigern. He has a very small part in the Legendary History. After Vortigern marries Rowena and begins to show favouritism to both Hengist’s people and his religion, the Britons rebel. They choose Vortimer as their leader. As is usual in the Brut no reason is given for the decision, and no evidence is provided prior to the election of his character or actions.  However, he immediately demonstrates his abilities by defeating Hengist. He offers a bounty of twelve silver shillings per Saxon head. When Hengist has been driven out after four battles, and Vortigern has fled, Vortimer asks for help from Rome to re-establish the church. This is the context of St Germanus’ visit. 

When the saint arrives Vortimer makes a speech to greet him. The speech is not in Wace. He begins by introducing himself. In the standard way of the Brut this means naming his father, which gives him the opportunity to twice say Vortigern has been led astray by the German woman. Vortimer then boasts of his victories over Hengist. And there’s not much that’s startling about anything in this until the speech suddenly shifts gears and becomes extra-ordinary. It’s one of the minor eruptions in the Brut  which are easy to miss.

& we scullen an londe; luuiæn ure Drihten.      
Godes folc ur((o))frien; & freond-liche hit halden.      
wurðen mils liðe; wið þa lond-tilien.  
churichen we scullen hæhȝen; & hæðene-scipe hatien. 
Habbe alc god mon; his rihte ȝif Godd hit an.    
& ælc þrel & ælc wælh; wurðe iuroeid.    
& here ich bi-teche eou an hond; al freo ælc chiric-lond. 
& ich for-ȝiue ælchere widewe; hire lauerdes quide.  
& þus we scullen an ure daȝen; aniðeri Hengestes laȝen.    
& hine & his hæðene-scipe; þæ he hider brohte.      7408-7417

(source is the superb ‘Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse”;view=fulltext)

‘& ælc þrel & ælc wælh; wurðe iuroeid.’  And free every slave and thrall? The promise to free people is absent from Cotton Otho. I’d like to consult the various translations to see what has been made of these lines, but that will have to wait.  

Slavery was an integral part of both Classical and Old English society. It came to an end in England with the Norman conquest and the development of new ways of tying people to the land. Here is a fictional king with a dream of freedom, who cares for all of his people. And is willing to enter into some sort of contractual arrangement with the Church as institution. 

The Brut rarely admits the non-heroic poor. Kings and their retinues are the focus of the story. But not only are the non-Heroic being admitted, they are being promised freedom and the implication is that this is the Christian thing to do. Widows too are being forgiven their husband’s debts. Laȝamon's ideal kings are ruthless war lords, and Vortimer is no exception. But here is something that looks like an attempt to imagine a Christian society. 

Nothing comes of this because Vortimer is about to die, a victim of English Literature’s first wicked step mother. Here in Quarantine, a long way from my books, I can’t check this, but I wonder how many of Laȝamon's King’s share such an ideal? I’m reasonably sure that the answer to that is very few or none. I don’t remember anything similar in Arthur’s reign.

In the Prologue to the Brut, Laȝamon is identified as a priest. This explicit identification has exercised its own gravitational pull on scholars, sometimes in a detrimental way. But whatever you know about ‘Author Functions’ and the danger of succumbing to them, it’s so very tempting to see this insertion as our Priest’s attempt to imagine what an ideal Christian King would do: Not only would he trash his enemies; he would establish a contractual relationship with the Church; he would look after widows; he would care for the poorest and least powerful of his people. 

It would also be tempting to then go one step further and read this as the author’s reaction to the church’s ongoing problems with the Angevins…particularly with Henry II and John, with some of the clauses of Magna Carta echoing around to confuse things.

Did the garbled story of the historical Germanus, which I’ve been tracking here, give him an opportunity to suggest what a genuinely, radical Christian King might do? Did he put his own ideals into Vortimer’s mouth?