Medieval Myths and British Identities Conference 18th September 2015

Cardiff MA student Arthur Usher reports on a recent conference

‘Medieval Myths and British Identities: Past, Present, Future’, kicked off with a fascinating talk by keynote speaker Dr Diarmuid Scully (University College Cork), on how Gerald of Wales’ writings influenced the view of Ireland, through the mythic lens, across the medieval period. Dr Scully talked about Gerald’s subversion of Irish origin myths via Geoffrey of Monmouth, and the way English kings, most notably Henry II, used these writings as justification for numerous invasions of Ireland. These justifications sprung from a number of episodes in Gerald’s work, including the British King Gurguintius originally gifting Ireland to Spanish settlers; the supposedly savage nature of the Irish or ‘forest people’; possession of the Orkney Islands as a crucial last outpost of inhabitable Britain; and the need to Christianise the Irish. Dr Scully concluded by saying that Gerald’s emphasis was on Ireland as a British island, the strangeness of the Irish, and the civilizing mission of the English invaders.

After the essential tea and coffee break, delegates were forced to choose between two enticing panels – ‘Origin Myths’ and ‘Constructing English National Identity’. Those who attended ‘Origin Myths’ heard three papers. The first, from Ben Guy, was on how origin myths and local identities are presented in the corpus of Medieval Welsh genealogy and, using the Llywelyn ab Iorwerth Genealogies, revealed how local families fashioned themselves a local identity, rather than relying on the grand origin myths. Victoria Shirley discussed the various styles used by British kings when writing to Caesar in the Historia regum Britanniae and the Chronica Gentis Scotorum. She noted how these letters are Scottish historiography, challenging an Anglo-centric narrative. Sheri Chriqui then finished the panel by talking about the origin of heraldry being traced to the Trojan War to distinguish worshipful knights, how Brutus brought this practice to England and how it was then used as the foundation for the new profession of knighthood.


Afterwards, it was straight onto the next panels – ‘Culture and Conquest’ or ‘Historical and Mythological Figures’. Brianna Dougher talked about the mythical figure Hereward and his role as trickster. Dougher discussed how Hereward frustrates the ability of others to read him, by adopting numerous masks, which appear impenetrable until he decides to reveal himself, and how some of his exploits were later drafted into other outlaw tales while Hereward himself faded into history. We also heard from Jacob Deacon who showed us some remarkable medieval fencing treatises, comparing them to depictions of battle in medieval chronicles, particularly Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Arthur vs. Mordred. This comparison revealed the lack of realism in accounts such as Geoffrey’s when depicting combat.

We were then treated to a lively Round Table, ‘Medieval National Heroes in the 19th and 20th centuries’. Juliette Wood discussed Gwenllian of Kidwelly as a very modern hero with medieval roots. We returned to Gerald of Wales to hear about his view of women, and the fashioning of Gwenllian as a Dame Wales figure. Following this, Rob Gossedge took us into the forest with Robin Hood and showed how he is more a figure of local archaic justice than of national identity. We saw Robin Hood become increasingly fantastical through the ages, to contain the power of the legend’s subversive roots, until it can now only take place in the trans-Atlantic world of Hollywood. Carl Phelpstead rounded off the table with St Magnus of Orkney, and a very good joke if you know a bit about liturgical terminology! According to Phelpstead, St Magnus is not strictly a hero, he chose to chant psalms instead of fight the Welsh, and may not have come to prominence were it not for the 4th Marquis of Bute; however, on Orkney St Magnus is central to the Orkadian local identity.

More tea and coffee.

The final panels of the day gave us a choice between ‘Britons and Saxons’ and ‘Arts and Heritage’. On ‘Britons and Saxons’ we heard from Rebecca Thomas on Kymry, Gwyr Gogled, and the treachery of the long knives: memory and identity in tenth-century Wales. Thomas noted the poet’s suppression of elements which are not conducive to his vision of the future and his presentation of an alternative memory of men of the North. Amy Faulkner followed Thomas, and presented us with the British word brocc (badger) and what its use reveals about the construction of British identity in Anglo-Saxon England. We were told that there are no more than twenty Celtic loan words and only four are widely accepted, yet brocc is one. Faulkner illustrated the perceived similarity between the British, hiding in forests, and badgers as a possible explanation, both for its use and the negative connotations it picks up. Sheri Smith treated us to a paper on the displaced, disembodied, and marginalised Britons in Chaucer’s The Man of Law’s Tale. Smith discussed the tale a hagiography which is disrupted by its subjects and how the narrator presents getting a response from prayer as being less important than the act of prayer itself.

Philip Schwyzer then delivered an interesting plenary at the end of a fascinating day, entitled ‘The Return of the King: King Arthur and Richard III’, in which he drew attention to the surprising similarities between the fictional excavation of Arthur’s tomb and the real discovery of Richard III in a car park. It would seem that the process of finding a dead king, in fiction or real life, is as follows –

  1. Many deny the body can be found
  2. The location of the body is found through documents, inscriptions, and also dreams/vision
  3. The body is abnormal – either in size or shape
  4. The body has evidence of many wounds
  5. The discovery sheds light on the life of the dead king
  6. The excavation is a triumph of fact over poetic deception
  7. The body is reburied close by in a heavily remodified church

Schwyzer noted how the discourse around the discovery of Richard III suggests an older view of history as redeemable and described the reburial as thoroughly Tudor.  He concluded with the argument that the discussion of kingship, even when conducted by the anti-Shakespeare Richard III Society, is dictated by the discourse laid down by Shakespeare himself.

A wine reception and dinner followed the conference, at which everyone had the opportunity to discuss the day’s papers in a relaxed environment.

The Storify for the Myths and Identities conference can be found here.


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