Walter Map and the Matter of Britain—Review by Thomas Sawyer

Smith, Joshua Byron. Walter Map and the Matter of Britain. Philadelphia: (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). pp. 272, ISBN 9780812249323. 

As its title suggests, Joshua Byron Smith’s recent monograph is primarily concerned with two topics: its first three chapters explore most fully the life and literary production of Walter Map, while its final three chapters lay out a theory of how Map’s Welsh influences are indicative of his false, but nevertheless longstanding, historical reputation as a writer of French-influenced Arthurian legends. The book therefore moves between specifically authorial and broadly cultural stakes, all while keeping in sight fundamental generic questions about the development of the Matter of Britain. So Walter Map and the Matter of Britain traces a clear arc from Walter Map’s only surviving text (the De nugis curialium) to the messy construction of a late-medieval English identity. Along the way, its argument disrupts a familiar arc from Latinity to Englishness which tends to bypass crucial Welsh influences on the romantic and folkloric imagination. The Arthurian tradition can thus be productively understood through Map’s representative place along the English-Welsh border, both by way of his historical association with tales he did not write and by way of a more nuanced comprehension of those he did.

Chapter 1 (“Walter Map, Wales, and Romance”) opens with a brief rendition of the life of Walter Map (of which we know a surprising amount) and of Map’s relationship with his own Welsh heritage (of which – unsurprisingly – we know very little). According to Smith, and in accordance with prior scholarship, Map could be most accurately referred to as a “Marcher,” or one who dwelt as an Englishman very near to the Welsh border. But Smith spends significantly more time in consideration of Map’s affiliations with Welsh culture and linguistic aptitudes with the Welsh language than prior studies do, most notably in comparison with C.N.L. Brooke and R.A.B. Mynor’s introduction to their critical edition and translation of the De nugis curialium (itself updated from the editorial and translational work of M.R. James).[1] For Smith, Map’s interest in exploiting his limited familiarity with Welsh stereotypes coincided with his literary interest in upsetting identifiable romance-tropes while employing those tropes in his own nugae.

Smith’s second and third chapters take up the task of sorting out Map’s historical-cultural position alongside his literary tastes, primarily through the use of codicological and paleographical tools. Chapter 2 (“Works Frozen in Revision”) has two closely related aims: first, to free the literary record of the false conception that Walter Map was a scattered and haphazard thinker; and second, to demonstrate how the untidy document now known as the De nugis curialium may have been derived from a more carefully organized group of thematically relevant narrative snippets. For both aims, Smith relies primarily upon internal evidence. Modifying James Hinton’s influential bibliographic study, he identifies several stylistic habits that must have been authorial.[2] These changes indicate that Walter Map was a thorough reviser and careful adapter of texts to contexts. Following such claims concerning Map’s own process of literary revision, in Chapter 3 (“Glosses and a Contrived Book”) Smith explores possible changes made to the De nugis curialium outside of Map’s control, either contingent upon the material conditions of the papers he left behind or upon the habits of later scribes. Of particular importance are scribal conventions of fourteenth-century England, as made prominent by the sole medieval attestation of the work in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 851. Foremost among these conventions are a large number of interpolated glosses, added by scribes either writing for an audience unfamiliar with Welsh contexts or themselves somewhat ignorant of those contexts, as well as the insertion of chapter titles where none were likely present in Map’s own papers. Such scribal additions have served, for the most part, to confuse the deployment of a subtle satirical mode still in the process of unfinished authorial revisions – leading scholarship to laud “aspects of [Map’s] work that stem from transmission of his manuscript rather than Walter himself” (82).

What Map ought to be lauded for occupies the second half – that is, the Matter of Britain half – of Walter Map and the Matter of Britain. In Chapter 4 (“From Herlething to Herla”) Smith pivots from his concern with Map’s textual legacy to the relationship between Map and the construction of a mythic British origin; here, for the first time since the introduction, the reader must grapple seriously with that numinous phrase, “the Matter of Britain.” For Smith, the Matter of Britain cannot be summed up in a straightforward collection of sources and analogues which informed the construction of a late-medieval identity; rather, as in the case of Walter Map’s satirical re-deployment of the tale of King Herla, even the most apparently “Celtic” of documents may already seek to undermine and complicate such a construction. Crucial to this argument are the reaches and limitations of Map’s own apparent knowledge about the relationship between Welsh and English identities, along with the satirical material available through his observations of that relationship.

If a large part of Chapter 4 has to do with showing how Map’s satirical “Celticizing” of the Matter of Britain depended on a close familiarity with Welsh folkloric materials, Chapter 5 (“The Welsh-Latin Sources of the De nugis curialium”) takes up an examination of what specific documents might have been available to a writer like Walter Map living on the Welsh-English border at the close of the 12th century. Smith focuses especially on the Benedictine abbey of St. Peter’s in Gloucester, where records indicate a large corpus of Welsh saints’ lives were preserved. He makes a strong argument for Map’s ability to access such materials and for his familiarity with that specific group of texts. Smith’s reliance on orthographical evidence to support a further claim that the De nugis curialium constitutes a Latinate preservation of essentially Welsh material struck this reviewer as less persuasive than the bibliographic resources deployed in Chapter 4, given the famously fluid nature of spelling in many Anglo-Latin texts and the prior claims made concerning Map’s rhetorical slipperiness. Nevertheless, the argument from orthography maps well onto prior arguments about confusion introduced by scribal transmission (often in a misconceived effort to correct, rather than corrupt, Map’s text).

Chapter 6 (“Walter Map in the Archives and the Transmission of the Matter of Britain”) turns its eye from a local interest in the world and wit of Walter Map to the broader field of how Arthurian studies might relate to these partial Welsh origins of the Matter of Britain. Smith argues that approaches to the formation of an Arthurian corpus have been too quick to assume a straightforward trajectory from original, oral, dynamic, vernacular myth to later, written, static, Latinate renditions – the former in service of identity-formation and the latter in service of empire. Indeed, such assumptions invest themselves in the same oversimplified historical narratives which first mistook Walter Map as an author in the transmission of Arthurian legend, since a recovered oral text by necessity requires some intermediate author-figure, easily appended to a person such as Map. As a result, a significant part of Arthurian scholarship has focused exclusively upon material containing Arthur himself, rather than the much more complex Matter of Britain of which he formed an essential but not comprehensive part.

For those who believe that the literary style of Walter Map deserves more scholarly attention, Joshua Byron Smith’s book must be considered a welcome addition to a limited critical archive; in fact, if dust jackets can be believed, Walter Map and the Matter of Britain may be the only critical single-author text written in English to take Walter Map as its primary subject. Moreover, Smith’s claim that Welsh materials should be of more concern in our reconstructions of Arthurian influence aligns well with many current cultural and editorial approaches in that field while challenging many limited preconceptions about the hybridity of folkloric Englishness. Even if – horribile praedictu – the field of Walter Map Studies does not expand rapidly in the coming years, Smith’s book will remain valuable for scholars interested in texts and transmission, cultural hybridity, romance, and the elusive Matter of Britain.

Thomas Sawyer, Washington University in Saint Louis


[1] Map, Walter. De Nugis Curialium : Courtiers’ Trifles. Ed. and trans. M.R. James, rev. ed. and trans. C.N.L. Brooke and R.A.B. Mynors. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.

[2] Hinton, James. “Walter Map’s De Nugis Curialium: Its Plan and Composition.” PMLA 32, no. 1 (1917): 81–132.