Brittonic Names in Twelfth-Century French Romance: Evidence of Written Transmission?

Joshua Byron Smith
University of Arkansas

In the twelfth century, French writers loosely adapted Brittonic (Welsh, Cornish, and Breton) literature to develop a new literary world set in the ancient British past: the matter of Britain. This much is relatively uncontroversial. But difficulty arises when scholars ask how authors encountered the names, places, and themes of Brittonic literature. Most researchers who worked on this problem in the last half of the twentieth century assumed that literary exchange took place through the medium of oral literature, especially through stories told by wandering minstrels. Others,including myself, have proposed more literate models of exchange.

This paper addresses the question by building off a section of my book Walter Map and the Matter of Britain (Philadelphia, 2017), in which I showed that in some cases the forms of Welsh names in Latin documents make it possible to differentiate between oral and literary exchange. I propose to follow a similar approach in this paper by conducting a survey of the forms of Brittonic names in early French romance. Do the names show tell-tale signs of being heard? Or do they preserve the conservative forms of literary Welsh orthography? I plan to examine the following texts: Marie de France’s Lais,Thomas of Britain’s Tristan, Chrétien de Troyes’s romances, Lai du Cor, and Lai del Desiré. In the conclusion to my paper, I wish to show that the manner of literary exchange is not an idle philological question, but that it bears on larger issues of multilingual British literary culture. In particular, orality has often been used to denigrate, not always innocently, Brittonic literary culture, rendering it a substrate, a mere “source” or “analogue.” But if the earliest French romance writers were seeking out and adapting written forms of exchange–if, in other words, they attempted to find authoritative texts–then this could imply that they held Brittonic literary culture in higher regard than has been realized previously.