Brut, c. 1205
All that is known of Layamon (LI-uh-muhn), sometimes modernized as Lawman, is what he reveals in a brief biographical sketch at the beginning of his one surviving poem. There it is stated that he was a member of the secular clergy, that his father’s name was Leovenath, and that he resided at “a noble church” in the village of Ernley (Areley Kings, Worcestershire), on the Severn near Redstone Ferry. He must have lived during the second half of the twelfth century, for allusions in the Brut indicate that his version of Britain’s legendary history was composed sometime after 1189, when King Henry II died, but before May, 1206.
When it “came into his mind” to narrate “all the great deeds of the English,” he searched throughout Britain for books on the subject. Though he claims to have made use of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (731) in English and of a book coauthored by Augustine of Canterbury and his successor Albinus, his chief source was the Anglo-Norman Roman de Brut (1155) by the Jerseyman Wace. Wace’s poem, itself a rendition of the Latin History of the Kings of Britain (1136) by the Welshman Geoffrey of Monmouth, is clearly unsympathetic to the English-speaking Saxons who displaced the Britons. Layamon’s poem is an imaginative rewriting of Wace’s romance in Middle English alliterative meter, expanding Wace’s seventy-five hundred couplets to some sixteen thousand long lines and creating the first account of King Arthur in English and the only one before the fourteenth century.
In a poetic idiom rich in vivid images drawn from nature, Layamon not only reproduced the entire Arthurian legend known in his day but also invented many of the now-standard features of that legend. His innovations include the unseemly brawl that prompted Arthur to establish the Round Table, gifts from elves at Arthur’s birth, the dream warning Arthur of Mordred’s treachery, and the boat which carries the dying king to Argante in Avalon. While expanding the Arthurian portion of the legend to one-third of the whole, Layamon also consciously (though at times ineptly) linked his poem to Old English tradition and language, tying it into the Anglo-Saxon migration myth of conquest and loss.
Only two medieval manuscript texts of the Brut are extant, both from the thirteenth century but quite different in style. It appears that the scribe of the Otho manuscript worked to remove antiquarian features preserved in the Caligula manuscript. This phenomenon suggests that some readers of the Brut may have been uncomfortable with the archaic vocabulary of Layamon’s poem, whether for reasons of readability or for the attitude it implied toward the Anglo-Norman conquerors of Britain. Yet such readers must have demanded an “updated” version of the text, suggesting that Layamon’s English version of the Saxon conquest of the Britons spoke to an audience itself ambivalent about the cultural and political consequences and causes of the Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon Britain. While modern readers may hear in Layamon a naïve and powerful voice of folk traditions, his contemporaries may have heard a provocative and potentially subversive political message.