The Public and Private Boundaries of Motherhood: Queen Igraine in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia and Laȝamon’s Brut’—By Phoebe C. Linton

‘Rising high often costs dearly.
We are all blind in our own deeds.’

Igraine is King Arthur’s mother and so the first Arthurian woman. Despite the fact that Igraine plays a pivotal role in founding the new kingdom which sees the warring regions of Cornwall and England united, her voice in events which lead to the birth of Arthur is left largely unnarrated. This is partially decided by genre, as she first appears in chronicles of the twelfth century before Arthurian myths are taken up by concurrent early medieval romance, a form able to develop female roles through their increased emphasis on interiority. Igraine’s value is predominantly determined by her public impact; therefore, this study aims to further understanding of how a public sublimation of Igraine’s private identity creates areas of ambiguity within texts. Igraine’s inchoate form in early Arthurian literature impinges on the degree to which her voice is identifiable.

Two sections of text discussed here – the prose chronicle Arthurian portions of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, written c.1136-8, and Laȝamon’s Brut c. 1197-1215 – illustrate  these ideas.[2] Geoffrey’s work has been maintained in both Latin and Welsh manuscripts as Ygerna and Eigr respectively. I concur with Siân Echard, who argues that ‘Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britannie may not be the very first Arthurian narrative, but it is clearly one of the most influential’.[3] Geoffrey’s Historia focuses on the matter of Britain, which follows the development of the British patrilineal system based on the law of male primogeniture, and therefore in most cases queens are accorded less importance than kings. An Anglo-Norman writer of the 1150s, Wace, wrote his Roman de Brut based loosely on Geoffrey’s text. The next Arthurian chronicle after Wace to include a sequence with Igraine was Laȝamon’s Brut.[4] This chronicle was written in Early Middle English, and will be compared with Geoffrey’s text in order to illustrate nuances of characterisation the process of translation enables.

According to Geoffrey and Laȝamon, Uther Pendragon, the king of England, calls his retainers to court to celebrate, among whom is the lord of Cornwall, Gorlois and his wife Igraine. Uther is enflamed with desire upon seeing Igraine and tries to win her in full view of the court. The couple are insulted at the slight to their marital honour, and leave. Uther promptly swears enmity against Gorlois and wages war against him. Unsuccessful in his attempts to subdue Gorlois’ armies or win Tintagel castle where Igraine is protected, Uther employs the supernaturally gifted Merlin to contrive a new strategy to win the war and Igraine. An enchantment physically transforms Uther so that he is infallibly disguised as Gorlois, which allows him to enter Tintagel in the midst of battle and sleep with Igraine. During the bed-trick the future King Arthur is conceived; moreover, when Gorlois is killed that same night, Uther is able to marry Igraine, securing Arthur’s legitimacy. Thus Igraine is the pivot around which political action turns in the Arthurian sequence of these texts.

In literary criticism, awareness of transmission of tales between British and continental literature tends to encourage a view of some Arthurian narratives as more similar in tone, style, and language than they in fact are. A reason for this could lie in the ambiguity of terms applied to the writing of Wace and Laȝamon, sometimes called ‘adaptations’ or ‘translations’ of Geoffrey. For example, Echard ascribes the term of ‘translator-adaptors’ to Wace and his followers.[5] However, Helen Cooper and Chris Given-Wilson designate Wace’s work a translation.[6] For the purposes of this study, Lister Matheson’s ascribing of ‘adaptation’ and James J. Wilhelm’s of ‘adaption’ to the process are clearest, as these terms acknowledge the subtlety of the texts’ stylistic variances, which are vital to a fuller understanding of characters such as Igraine, about whom so little material exists.[7] Admittedly, to draw on work begun by previous authors was common practice. However, by focusing too narrowly on texts incorporating translated passages or similar plotlines, it is possible that the significance of minor characters has been overlooked. As I intend to show, the looseness of these adaptations enables moments of undefined narrative space, which allow later writers to insert their own projections onto ambiguous characters such as Igraine. As Wendy Doniger writes concerning the historical repetition of tales, ‘when myths tell us what happened, they do not always tell us why the people in the story did what they did or how they felt about what happened to them. To this extent, they remain open and transparent and can be retold’.[8] With this principle in mind, this study will analyse the similarities and differences between Geoffrey’s and Laȝamon’s texts in order to foreground discussion of how later writers were able to profit from inconsistencies and ambiguities in the early material and, in so doing, transmute Igraine’s condition over time.

In order to contextualise the place of Geoffrey and Laȝamon within the larger corpus of Arthurian literature it is necessary to point out that a difficulty lies in attempting to distinguish concretely the key aspects of chronicle from those of romance, since these can only be communicated in generalities. Nevertheless, the following general, contrasting features of chronicle and romance must be listed in order to provide a background for the more specific areas of chronicle/romance intersection relevant to this study. Structurally, chronicles tend towards a paratactic, chronological narrative set in a specific, recognisably historical time, as addressed by Laura D. Barefield and more recently by Helen Fulton.[9] Conversely, romances favour interlacing and temporal fragmentation as Derek Pearsall, Tony Davenport, Gail Ashton and Larry Benson note.[10] Cooper phrases this alternatively, writing that romance is set in the more liberated, folkloric ‘far away and long ago’.[11] Again, though chronicles prefer issues of nationhood, genealogy and royal lineage, romances focus typically on tales of love and the private trials of individuals. Chronicles favour an epic tone, recounting great battles through the rise and fall of empires in contrast to romances which follow personal quests for selfhood, as well as the chivalric or spiritual quests that knights must fight alone rather than with an army. Chronicles built their reputation on being, or posturing as, factual rather than fictional narratives, and accordingly they favour prose as opposed to verse; similarly, they favour the authoritative languages of Latin or French rather than the more democratic British vernaculars. Indeed, critics such as Cooper, Ashton, and K. S. Whetter refer to the derivation of the English ‘romance’ from the Old French romanz, which denotes the ‘vernacular’, whilst Geraldine Heng notes the expansive effect this contrasting form had for the medieval readership.[12]

Arthurian criticism has overlooked Igraine because, although she is Arthur’s mother, British narratives that incorporate her character are rare. Moreover, what criticism has been written on Igraine’s role in these works or sections of texts is sparse. Few book-length studies have been devoted exclusively to Arthurian women more generally, with none specifically on Igraine.[13] Of these books, only three illuminate Igraine’s character in any detail. The first is Gender and History in Medieval English Romance and Chronicle by Laura D. Barefield. Barefield’s study does not address Igraine specifically; however, her understanding of chronicles’ narrative structures and women’s relevance to narrative progression has been extremely beneficial to this study. Barefield argues that although chronicles have been viewed simply as linear rather than complex narratives, a re-evaluation of chronicle narratives’ employment of rhetorical styles of ‘parataxis, or coordination, and hypotaxis, or subordination’ should be encouraged, since they ‘mark the play of power relations in a text’.[14] Barefield makes the following assertion (that, to the best of my knowledge is still true): ‘Gender in romance has been well-studied, but never in connection with a genre like the British chronicles’.[15] Her argument is framed by the idea that ‘historical narratives, as well as some authors and readers, use the genre of chronicle and romance to resist and perhaps revise the constraints that familial politics, with its accompanying gender roles, could impose on them’.[16] Applying this approach to Laȝamon (and Geoffrey), and in spite of the fact that her study never directly addresses Igraine, I would like to claim for Igraine what Barefield argues of another queen in the Historia; that Igraine’s private identity is ‘nearly absent, yet her appearance is absolutely necessary’.[17]

Fiona Tolhurst is the next scholar to expand Echard’s exposition in her book Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Feminist Origins of the Arthurian Legend where a discussion of Igraine’s character is included. In addition to Echard’s and Tolhurst’s analyses, a number of essays superficially examine Igraine. Lisa M. Ruch discusses the tenuous link used in a variant Middle English Prose Brut, positing Igerne’s name as the etymological root of ‘England’.[18] Martine Thiry-Stassin also writes on the early Arthurian chronicles in ‘Ygerne entre Geoffroy de Monmouth et Wace’, discussing how Wace makes Laȝamon’s portrait of Igraine more courtly.[19] In ‘Uther and Igerne: A Study in Uncourtly Love’, Rosemary Morris compares the Igraine sections of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia, Wace’s Brut, Robert de Boron’s Arthurian material, the Pantheon of Godfrey of Viterbo, and Laȝamon’s Brut.[20] Morris traces the origins of courtly culture in Arthurian Britain back to Monmouth, whose text does not conform to the standards medieval readers came to expect of the later, mature courtly romances, although the Historia is an influential source in their creation.

Another reason for the lack of Igraine criticism could be her swift removal from British narratives after Arthur’s conception, since, despite her public service of providing a legendary heir to the British throne, Igraine does not benefit from Arthur’s more sensitive values. An account of why Igraine fades from sight is not provided, and consequently there exists a conceptual gap where readers must reconcile the paradigmatic chivalry usually evoked by mention of Arthur’s knights with the injustice committed against Arthur’s own mother, the private effects of which are occluded by the normative conclusion of events through marriage and childbirth in the chronicles. Narrative ambiguities in these chronicles make Igraine’s status unclear because she has no voice of her own and so her private identity does not tend to be conveyed.

I suggest that on a textual level language is symptomatic of cultural tendencies to prioritise women’s public responsibilities over their private identities during the periods in which these authors were writing. To demonstrate, the Old English and Early Middle English lexicon conflates the words and denotations of ‘queen’, ‘wife’, and ‘woman’ and their interchangeability demonstrates the public sublimation of the private.[21] The hybrid usage of these three words reveals a strong interconnection over a great expanse of time, which can claim direct relevance to the role of language in shaping the narrative emphasis in Geoffrey and Laȝamon. So in Old English through to Middle English, the definition of ‘wife’ encompasses all of the following: a ‘human biological female’, ‘a woman’, ‘the female partner in procreation’, ‘the mother’, and ‘the mistress of a household’, or ‘stewardess (of property)’.[22]

Although Geoffrey wrote the Historia in Latin, he himself was a native English speaker. It is therefore of note that whilst in Latin the words regina for ‘queen’, uxor for ‘wife’ and femina for ‘woman’ are completely different words, Geoffrey uses conjunx in reference to Igraine, meaning ‘wife’ or ‘partner’ in the sense of someone who is joined to another.[23] Geoffrey’s assignation for Igraine highlights the importance of her public function over her private entity since it is the state of conjuncture that is most important, rather than her independence. When Wace transmuted Geoffrey’s work into Anglo-Norman by Wace, a similar linguistic milieu existed, since as in English the French femme can mean both ‘wife’ and ‘woman’. This connection persists through to Laȝamon’s time. Thus, in these two texts, Uther is king at some times but man when he has personal desires, whereas Igraine’s role as a wife is inseparable from her role as queen.

The plots of Geoffrey’s Historia and Laȝamon’s Brut are very similar. Arthur is conceived by Uther Pendragon and Igraine of Cornwall at a point in time when the kingdom has reached a relative level of stability and it is at this point that the Arthurian sequences in Geoffrey’s Historia and Laȝamon’s Brut begin.[24] At the feast where Uther first espies Igraine, nothing can prevent him from acting as he wishes, since having vanquished his only opponent, Vortigern, Uther is the most powerful king in the land. Uther is adequately characterised for the reader to glean ideas of a ‘personality’ that wants Igraine, though the third-person narration providing this information is almost entirely absent for Igraine. Uther acts as a foil to Igraine through his action and transparency to highlight Igraine’s inaction and obscurity. Therefore the first part of this argument will explore in detail the dinner scene, and Uther’s lovesickness as a prelude to my investigation of the bed-trick.

In order to underscore Uther’s supreme position and righteousness, any wife of his must be of superlative quality. Igraine immediately can be assumed to be of such a quality, as on a physical level her beauty is metaphorically complementary to Uther’s power. At the feast, Geoffrey recounts: ‘There was present among the others Gorlois the Cornish leader with his wife Ygerna. She, whose beauty surpassed that of all the women of Britain’.[25] Beauty, here, is a noun rather than an adjective, making it so great that it seems to be something almost separate from Ygerna. The Latin syntax forms a neat chiasmus whereby the words ‘beauty’ and ‘surpassed’ lie on either side of the words pertaining to all the women less beautiful than Ygerna, structurally mirroring the peerless quality of her beauty:[26]

A                B                     B                     B                     B                     A

   Cuius          pulcritudo        omnes           mulieres          britannie          superabat

  Whose           beauty              all                 women         of Britain        surpassed

Wace, the text to bridge the gap between Geoffrey and Laȝamon, writes that ‘there was no lady so fair in all the land’.[27] Similarly, Frederick Madden translates Laȝamon’s description as ‘Ygaerne the fair … woman fairest of all’.[28] Although there is comparatively little material on Igraine, it is already clear that whenever she is mentioned, she is repeatedly portrayed as the pinnacle of beauty. Whether Igraine’s is a purely physical beauty in Laȝamon is debatable, as Madden’s choice of the word ‘fair’ is originally hende, which connotes ‘courteous’ as well as ‘fair’; whilst Madden’s translation is usefully ambiguous, from the point of view of how translation may affect the reception of a text, ‘courtesy’ is only a personal attribute, not a physical one, and it evokes the skill of conveying public goodwill. The meaning of Ygaerne’s introduction to the text is significantly changed when described in Madden’s terms. If she is ‘Ygaerne the courteous … most courteous of all men’s wives’, her superlative calibre will make her a good queen, one skilled in diplomacy as well as palatable to the public.[29] Whether her endowment is translated as ‘fair’ or ‘courteous’ necessarily affects how her characterisation and the plot development are perceived. It causes the reader to question whether Uther’s desire for Igraine is purely physical, emotional, political, or a combination of all three.

In Geoffrey, Uther’s reaction to Ygerna is described in these terms: ‘Suddenly he glowed with love for her’.[30] In Lewis Thorpe’s edition of the Historia he translates amore as ‘desire’, which is a non-specific term, in that desire can mean physical desire, whereas ‘amore’ connotes love or affection more than lust.[31] Likewise in Laȝamon, Uther wastes no time; no sooner are they seated at the feast than seeing her, ‘the king sent his messenger to Ygaerne’.[32] Uther’s desire is visual in multiple ways in Geoffrey: ‘So then he neglected the others. All his effort was focused around her. To her alone he incessantly sent his board. He sent golden goblets to her with the family servers.[33] He smiled at her often and interjected with droll conversation’.[34] In this scene, if Geoffrey intends the amore Uther feels to mean ‘love’ or ‘affection’ then his personal attention to Ygerna can be considered as adulterous but benign at this point. That Uther sends her food to consume means a public awareness will be generated due to the constant movement of his servants to and from Ygerna’s table. Moreover, Uther’s desire is also written on his face. The element of the ‘droll conversation’ in which he attempts to engage her could merely be a superficial ploy to attract notice, or alternatively it could suggest Uther is interested as much in Ygerna’s mind as in her body. In Laȝamon this nuance is absent because he reduces the description of Uther’s attentions to a summary: ‘Oft he looked on her, and glanced with his eyes; oft he sent his servants forth to her table; oft he laughed to her, and made her glances’.[35] The insistency of Uther’s desire is apparent: Geoffrey repetitively uses the word incessanter, meaning ‘incessantly’, to describe the frequency with which food, drink and gifts are sent to Ygerna and Laȝamon creates anaphora of the word ofte. There is an abundance of details pertaining to Uther, emphasising the one-sided perspective of a narrative in which Ygerna’s feelings are unclear.

The paucity of indicators informing readers of Ygerna’s feelings towards Uther is reinforced by her equally obscure relationship with her husband, Gorlois. Thorpe translates that Gorlois is ‘annoyed’ by Uther’s attentions to his wife but I maintain that the Latin iratus is less equivocal, meaning rather ‘angry’ or ‘enraged’ as the modern ‘irate’ would suggest.[36] There is no indication from the author as to whether Ygerna herself is annoyed, angry, indifferent, or if she secretly welcomes the attentions of the king. ‘Barrenness could be interpreted as a sign of an unhappy marriage’, as Tolhurst explains and since Ygerna has been childless thus far, it is possible that many medieval readers could have been less sympathetic towards her first marriage.[37] Unlike modern readers, for whom this cultural inference is lacking, a medieval readership might have deduced that Ygerna is favourably disposed towards Uther.[38] Laȝamon problematises either point of view by remarking non-commitally, ‘I know not whether she loved him’.[39] The phrase ‘she looked at him pleasingly’ complicates the scene, and Tolhurst believes that Ygaerne receives Uther favourably, meaning she is potentially ‘duplicitous’.[40] In response, I suggest that if Ygaerne were to openly insult Uther by rejecting him in public, she would risk incurring the deaths of her husband’s men at that very moment, as well as her own. It is possible that Laȝamon’s periphrasis of ‘I know not’ is purposefully used to create doubt, unlike Geoffrey whose text is not concerned with interiority and therefore passes over the issue completely; this gains relevance as the sequence unfolds, as Laȝamon continues to emphasise the ambiguity around Ygaerne’s silence.

Geoffrey’s Gorlois becomes enraged immediately upon finding that Uther is courting Ygerna, which communicates that his is a reaction that escalates quickly, an idea that is enhanced by the clipped nature of the Latin sentences.[41] In contrast, the Brut suggests Gorlois suffers the king’s attentions to his wife for a certain period of time before acting: ‘The king led this game for so long that Gorlois became angry, / and was very much enraged’.[42] Another subtle difference between Geoffrey’s and Laȝamon’s accounts is the reason for each Gorlois to take his wife away. In the Historia, Gorlois removes her from Uther’s court because ‘she alone was the one he could fear parting from. He valued her above all things’.[43] Readers could interpret his motivations as either possessive or loving, although Geoffrey does write that Gorlois ‘would be made anxious more for his wife than for himself’.[44] Interestingly, Laȝamon chooses to clarify this ambiguity and when this Uther proclaims he ‘would be after him and use all his strength, to take from him all his land and his silver, and his gold’, Gorlois does not surrender.[45] Uther’s threat of bereaving Gorlois of his silver, gold, and land changes Gorlois from a possessive husband into a loving one that is beyond bribery. He values his wife above all material possessions; at stake for Laȝamon’s Gorlois is the potential scende, or ‘damage’, to Ygaerne.

In both the Historia and the Brut, Uther’s words and deeds express a need for immediate gratification coupled with extreme anger when he faces obstacles to his will. What differentiates the two is that in Geoffrey’s text, prematurely for chronicle, Ygerna’s beauty affects Uther in the manner of courtly love.[46] The trope of sudden and unreciprocated love results in extreme reactions of despondence and illness, as he declares ‘I am being burned up with love of Ygerna. Nor do I think to survive this corporeal ordeal’.[47] Laȝamon gives a more conventional insight into Uther’s mind despite being the later text, and simply frames it in terms of frustrated attempts at possession:

Ygaerne was as dear even as his own life to him,
and Gorlois was the most hostile man of all people,
and either way he was to be sorry over this forever,
for he could not achieve anything he wanted.[48]

This is a simpler, more conventional statement for chronicle which narratively prioritises warfare and the ownership of people or land. Indeed, Laȝamon’s Uther is not wasting away as a result of his feelings. Rather, he reacts with abstract extremes of ‘love’ and hatred which are visceral and lack Geoffrey’s initially emotional portrayal of Uther. This is in keeping with Matheson’s view that Laȝamon reduces the chivalric elements found in Wace’s version, the original adaptor of Geoffrey, ‘changing it into an old-fashioned warrior epic rather than a chivalric tale’.[49] Therefore Laȝamon’s Uther follows his simplistic frustration without delay and proceeds to wage war against Gorlois.[50]

Thelma S. Fenster believes that in Geoffrey’s Historia, ‘ladies are said to require that a knight prove himself three times in battle before being worthy of love’.[51] Although Uther may initially react in a courtly way, the chivalric standard that Fenster gestures towards is not upheld. Uther does not win Ygerna by any proof except that of violence. Resorting to the bed-trick is inconsistent with the knightly honour his son will embody, since Uther manipulates Ygerna into marriage rather than respecting her marital virtue. Politics, martial power, magic and sexual desire converge to create a force which Ygerna is incapable of evading, since these represent key parts of the warrior court’s social apparatus.

Igraine’s powerlessness is compounded by her portrayal as a commodity interchangeable with land; there is parity between Uther’s wish to make Gorlois submit politically and Igraine physically. In the Historia, when Gorlois and his wife leave court, ‘the king was offended to the highest degree. And he treacherously swore to the oath that he would ravage that man’s nation’.[52] Thorpe translates nationem as ‘lands’, but the word in Latin is singular and, more significantly, means a place of birth or origin.[53] ‘Nation’ is synonymous with the very core of Gorlois’ identity because he is the figurehead of his land and people; as his ‘other half’, the figure of Igraine has more political significance to Cornwall than has hitherto been made explicit in the text. Just as Uther threatens to ‘ravage’ Gorlois’ lands, so too does he finally overcome Ygerna through the bed-trick. Uther does wish to possess her as a woman, although his desire to assert political superiority over the defiant Gorlois is no less intense. This detracts from Ygerna’s individuality, but equally the idea of Ygerna’s interchangeability with Cornwall is reinforced. Geoffrey writes that Uther indiscriminately ‘spread fire over cities and castles’.[54] Similarly, in the Brut Uther first attacks Gorlois and then Ygaerne’s fortress as if, in the pursuit of dominance, the winning of both is to be found in either castle. The generic chronicle form clearly limits what can be achieved in Igraine’s characterisation since the development of her personality and Uther’s is concurrent with the transference of power and wealth and Igraine in particular is relegated to fulfilling a single, public function.

It is the dichotomy of public and private which Laȝamon identifies and uses to contextualise his version of the bed-trick. In the Brut, Merlin is not yet part of Uther’s court and so must be summoned. Uther bribes his man Ulfin to seek out Merlin, saying ‘I will give you in favour thirty ploughs of land / if you capture Merlin and do my will’.[55] Laȝamon’s inclusion of Ulfin dissociates Ygaerne as an active participant even more than did Geoffrey, rendering her a product in a layered market of exchanges. In this instance, the chronicle genre anticipates Gorlois’ failure to keep his wife, since its status as political historiography means that the victor in any war will be decided by the economics of power; whether these are of money, armies, or as here, enchantment. Laȝamon’s marginally more substantial presence as a narrator distinct from his story separates him personally from the inevitabilities of genre. For example, regarding the exchange of land in order to obtain Ygaerne, Joseph D. Parry suggests that Laȝamon does not necessarily approve of his own characters’ actions:

Land and insight converge here as rewards, as desired possessions, but both remain for Uther, as they do for Arthur and Vortiger, slippery, elusive objects of desire … Land and knowledge function differently for Merlin and for Lawman: possession does not equal control.[56]

If possession does not equal control, then we can deduce that Laȝamon, as author and narrator, is undermining the idea that using people like material possessions is morally right. Laȝamon thereby gestures, albeit fleetingly, toward the idea of individuality and of the private interiorities beneath characters’ public roles.

When Laȝamon’s narrative progresses to the battle between Uther and Gorlois, he increases the interpretative potential around Ygaerne’s silence. His comment that ‘Ygaerne was sorry and sorrowful at heart / that so many men should be lost for her’ is uncharacteristically revealing of a female character in the chronicle genre.[57] It can be interpreted in opposing ways, as Tolhurst demonstrates to Ygaerne’s detriment: ‘the poet presents her as a troublesome woman who causes men to die needlessly. Furthermore, her sorrow suggests that Igærne feels morally responsible for these deaths … having encouraged Uðer with her kind looks and possible love’.[58] This attributes culpability to Ygaerne for the war being fought around her. In contrast, I argue that this brief insight depicts a woman who is more worried for other people than for her own plight. Therefore her silence either constitutes a narrative punishment for the national disorder she has unintentionally precipitated; alternatively, readers could interpret this as indicative of trauma. Symbolically the topography of the battle sequence complements the idea of a public/private incohesion, as Ygaerne’s/Ygerna’s passive isolation contrasts with the site of prestigious action, the battlefield. Geoffrey writes that Tintagel castle is on the ‘seashore’, associating Ygerna with an environment that is cold and distant from the mainland.[59] This coldness contrasts with Uther’s fiery nature and reiterates the fact that Ygerna is a character about whom it is only possible to know very little in this text.

Laȝamon describes the coastal Tintagel as one which ‘may not be won by means of any kind of man, / but if hunger comes under there’, being surrounded almost completely by cliffs.[60] Making hunger the active party in this instance is apt, as it offers a further reason for Uther’s success; Gorlois does not hunger for kingship, and he cannot hunger for Ygaerne, since she is already his wife. Uther’s hunger, however, is what leads him to resort to magic in order to gain access to Ygaerne. Indeed, Anthony K. Cassell states that in literature, ‘bed-tricks usually require extraordinary strategies on the part of both the protagonists and their authors’.[61] Since Tintagel is an impenetrable fortress, a fact compounded by its enclosure by cliffs, a literary device is needed in order to explain how such an otherwise unbelievable event can take place. Herein lies the function of the enchantment which allows Uther to enter Tintagel under the semblance of Gorlois. Geoffrey writes, ‘[a]nd in fact he deceived her. It was a false appearance which he assumed. He deceived even with artificial conversations which he constructed artfully’.[62] Geoffrey’s choice of the words ‘deceived’, ‘false’, ‘artificial’, ‘constructed’, and ‘artfully’ could be seen to have a critical edge, since they emphasise Uther’s falsification. On the other hand, the scene makes explicit that Uther’s disguise is, apparently, so successful that Ygerna is completely unaware she is not with Gorlois. The description gives a sense that this is a natural sequence of events, but is not one in which we gain a sense of Ygerna’s feelings. Likewise in Laȝamon, ‘Ygærne fully believed that it was Gorlois; / Never by means of no kind of thing did she recognise Uther the king’.[63] A grammatically correct translation into modern English is unrepresentative of the original where the Early Middle English contains triple negatives as I reproduce in the above quote: these serve to underscore Ygaerne’s unawareness of the bed-trick.

Uther dies not long after marrying Igraine and there is  no sign in the text that he lives a long life. Merlin’s prior lack of transparency concerning this fate demonstrates the unwavering focus of chronicle figures on the importance of public image. Uther’s status as the most powerful king necessitates the need for a superlative wife, and Merlin’s role as royal advisor requires him to aid Uther in this. Moreover, Merlin’s status as national prophesier allows him to see that Arthur will be one of the best kings of Britain – again, a public function. Laȝamon’s vision of the bed-trick is different from Geoffrey’s in that he indicates with more clarity the idea that private and public lives of characters are not harmonised. Moreover, in order that public and private may experience a temporary elision, an illusion needs to exist in one of these spheres. Laȝamon’s gesture towards a private subjectivity is apparent in the care taken by his character Merlin to ensure Ygaerne is happy when the disguised Uther comes to Tintagel. Her display of happiness and trust upon seeing whom she believes is her husband is obvious, since upon Uther’s first arrival in the guise of Gorlois, ‘[o]ut came Ygaerne forth to the earl, and said these words with winsom speech: ‘“Welcome, lord, man to me dearest; and welcome, Jordan, and Britaelis also”’.[64] Not only is she happy to see ‘Gorlois’, but her joy is respectfully inclusive of any men who are also his friends. That she greets her lord with ‘winsom speech’ is poignant because, being already married, she has no need to win her husband at all. Moreover, in this scene she suffers a triple deception because she sees enter the gates not one but three false images of men who occupy trustworthy positions in her social circle. Geoffrey mentions these disguises (Jordan and Ulfin in the Historia), but the betrayal has less impact because Ygerna is not visualised as waiting at the gates to welcome them.

If we are to take both accounts at face value and accept that Ygaerne is genuinely unaware of the imposter, it emphasises the fact that public, political life takes precedence even in the relationship between the couple themselves. If physical appearance is enough to deceive the wife, then she and Gorlois cannot have had genuine interface with each other as individuals distinct from their royal duties. Laȝamon demonstrates how a public image departs from private realities by adding details to Merlin’s directions for Uther, which specify that is not enough simply for his physical form, horse and clothes to transform.[65] First on Merlin’s list of priority is that Uther’s ‘deeds, among the people’, should be in keeping with the ways of Gorlois; naturally, ‘the people’ would include Ygaerne.[66] Merlin promises these things will result in her compliance, saying that because of this, ‘she will be well in mood’.[67] And indeed, Geoffrey writes that Ygerna, ‘suspecting nothing, did not deny anything which he desired’.[68] The effect of this is to indicate a supernatural episode that readers are expected to accept as simply beyond our ordinary experience, as opposed to a non-magical, costumed disguise; I therefore maintain that Igraine comprehends nothing of what passes in this moment, as Tolhurst corroborates.[69] This is also reinforced by Barefield’s idea of the ‘subordinate narrative’ of romance that here enlightens the significance of Igraine’s placement in the narrative. Her blithe unawareness serves to compound her public marginality; she is, literally, a political and a plot device. It is also worth noting that Igraine’s failure to deny her husband’s wishes is not the same as actively seeking them, and Laȝamon’s description plays on this ambiguity originating in the Historia:

The king went to her as man should do to woman
And slept with the dearest of women,
And he begot on her an outstanding man.[70]

Syntactically, Uther is made the subject and Ygaerne the object, which does suggests her passivity in this consummation. Moreover, her lack of voice in both accounts is apt since, regardless of authorial intention, her silence is a passive rejection of untruthfulness or misrepresentation, precisely the two crimes visited upon her.

Geoffrey reveals the result of Uther’s deception in the words, ‘that night she conceived that celebrated man Arthur’.[71] Medieval and modern readerships could interpret this occurrence in a variety of ways. Symbolically, Ygerna’s conception of Arthur is notable, as in the Middle Ages, ‘[l]egal doctrine, drawing on medical knowledge as promulgated by Galen onwards, did not admit of the possibility of conception if the female did not consent to the act’.[72] Not only was female autonomy implicated in the conception, but as Tolhurst and John F. Benton agree, rape suits were denied if the woman had fallen pregnant as a result.[73] Therefore, the fact that Ygerna gives birth to a legendary son could be seen to represent a narrative token of consolation for Ygerna; though she has suffered the loss of her husband and has been coerced into marrying Uther, the greatness of her child counterbalances Ygerna’s indignity. Arthur’s future as a ‘celebrated man’ is foretold in order to differentiate him from Uther, who is powerful but not loved or celebrated.[74] Certainly in the later romance texts Arthur’s encoding of kindness to women in the ideals of the Round Table serves to spare the women in his court the enforced separation of public and private that so damaged his mother.[75] The entitlement to freedom and agency are defining principles of the Pentecostal Oath in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, where King Arthur charges his knights ‘allwayes to do ladyes, damesels, and jantilwomen and wydowes [socour], strenghe hem in hir ryghtes, and never to enforce them, uppon payne of dethe’.[76] The Historia does not explicitly suggest a narrative connection between the most mature portrayal of Igraine and Arthur’s wish that women should be treated more kindly during his reign in the Morte. Nevertheless, Geoffrey is the principal author to afford the opportunity to add depth to the figure of Igraine that later writers find creatively advantageous.

Laȝamon is the first to profit from Geoffrey’s ambiguous style, and in so doing he is a mediator between the Historia and subsequent romances in the English language. Certainly, Laȝamon’s ambiguity may arise more from reasons of changing style and form than anything else, although it has direct relevance to the characterisation of Ygaerne. For instance, before the bed-trick is performed, the effects are predicted by a hermit, which anticipates the repeated use of these character tropes for their prescience in romance:

he [Uther] shall possess the fair Ygaerne;
on her he shall beget he who will go far;
he shall beget on her one greatly marvellous man.[77]

Hermits are characters summoned to advise kings, and are often represented as leading a Christian ascetic life but their ability to divine the future and interpret dreams borders on the magical. As noted above, medieval chroniclers did often blend the historical with supernatural elements. In this instance, the supernatural birth of a legendary king provides a justification for the events about to unfold. The word ‘marvellous’ rather than the greatness that Geoffrey predicts also leans more towards romance than chronicle, since it is a word frequently used in connection with quests. ‘Marvellous’ suggests something beyond the physical, political, or legal, which is suitable in this context where Arthur’s birth is enabled by unearthly powers. Igraine suffers the loss of something more than physical, and so the reward for her good behaviour should be more than physical. Uther’s desperate measures to achieve instant gratification for his sudden desire for Igraine are remedied through the longevity of Arthur’s reign; just as the brevity of Uther’s kingship matches the brevity of his temper, so too does Arthur’s promise reward Ygaerne’s truth and loyalty to her lords: ‘For all of time, he will never be dead; / as long as this world stands, his fame is to last’.[78] This prediction complements my earlier observation that Ygerna’s ‘beauty’ is significant for its status as a noun rather than an adjective because it transcends Ygerna the individual. Laȝamon thus makes fate a neutralising literary device that sanctions the bed-trick through the promise of Arthur’s greatness.

Geoffrey’s account is shorter and allows less insight into Ygerna’s perception of the enchantment. After Gorlois’ death in battle shortly following the conception of Arthur, Geoffrey writes that Uther mourns for him, ‘but he was also glad because Ygerna was released from the ties of married people. Thus he returned to Tintagel castle. He seized it. And he seized Ygerna. And his oath was fulfilled’.[79] Whether Ygerna mourns Gorlois’ death is omitted, as is her reaction to being married to a tyrant. Her status as being ‘freed from the obligations of married people’ is key, as it refers not to Ygerna’s personal freedom, but a legal, and therefore public, freedom for Uther, which allows him to marry her. Although Ygerna is a lady who effectively presides over her own Cornish faction, female royalty in her position would most likely have been obligated to take up such an offer in order to facilitate social stability. I perceive the ambiguities of the text as disproving Tolhurst’s assertion that Geoffrey’s readers would have seen their union as ‘a model of royal marriage,’ or that they could be ‘partners in love and power rather than spouses out of political necessity’.[80] Unlike Tolhurst, Barefield asserts that childbirth (and its conclusion, as I will examine) ‘literally returns the narrative to a genealogical structure. In these ways, gender relations construct the narrative, but the narrative also treats models of gendered behaviour as themselves constructed, giving readers some room to negotiate and question these constructs’.[81] Therefore, structural fluidity partially contributes to the questions that arise about Igraine’s private response to her situation. Tolhurst’s argument that legally ‘after a rape, the woman would have had to give her consent before the perpetrator could marry her’, and that Geoffrey’s readers would be untroubled by issues of consent, is somewhat self-negating since Ygerna does not consent.[82] Moreover, precisely because this was standard legal practice, a medieval readership might have been more likely to understand how public roles of propriety and concerns over the stability and of social processes could take priority over an individual woman’s inclinations.

Laȝamon’s account implies a disjunction in the public/private faces of Ygaerne. He expands the opportunity afforded by Geoffrey’s choice of the word ‘obligations’ in the passage above, since in the exchange detailed earlier Ygaerne has license to speak openly with the man she believes to be her husband and she displays a willing affection for him when she first greets Uther/Gorlois at the gate. Once Ygaerne is married to Uther, it is judicious to frame her interpretation of the bed-trick retrospectively in terms of obligation. Indeed, that Uther sends word to ‘enclose this castle very tightly, and command my Ygaerne not to mourn’ constitutes a physical and linguistic restraint that prevents any further communication between Ygaerne and her people.[83] Not only is Ygaerne’s voice suppressed, but her faithful words are used to blackmail her into silence: Uther ‘greeted Ygaerne, noblest of wives, and sent her token what they had spoken in bed; he commanded her that she should give up the castle quickly – there was no other way, for her lord was dead’.[84] Considering that their marriage is a public, political, move in this case, the fact that Uther uses her own words from a private exchange makes Ygaerne’s disenfranchisement all the more brutal. Bedrooms of the nobility would be the only place that afforded any privacy at a time when communal living was the standard except for the very richest, who could afford a bedroom separate from the rest of the house. Commenting on another Arthurian text, Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, Christopher R. Clason states that ‘strangeness/foreignness stands out most clearly in the bedroom because of the stark contrast between expectation and reality’, since the bedroom should be the safest and ‘innermost realm of the court’.[85] A connection may be drawn between this concept of safety breached and P. J. Heather’s comment on the Early Middle English word taken meaning ‘token’; he sees it as ‘a signal’ with which Uther announces his identity to Ygaerne.[86] Heather groups Ygaerne’s token together with benign signifiers of equality and respect sent between peers; contrary to this sense, here Uther’s token reifies the polarisation of public/private, along with the political/personal superiority he has won. Moreover, etymologically the fact that her words are taken rather than given inflects the sending of the ‘token’ with a poignant double meaning when the Old and Modern English are conflated.

Igraine’s agency diminishes significantly with the arrival of Uther; that she recedes even further behind the emblematic, but superficial, public image is apparent in Uther’s swift conquest of Tintagel. After he proves to the court that he and Ygaerne have had a prior relationship and that he therefore has a claim on her, the reader is given a single direct insight into her thoughts. Despite the evidence before her, ‘Yet Ygaerne believed that it was true / that the dead earl had sought his people’.[87] The next two lines revert to the ambiguity characteristic of this sequence: ‘and she simply laughed that it was lies / that the king Uther had come there before’.[88] In modern English, the word ‘laughed’ ostensibly implies lightness of heart, however, lehȝen or lihȝen may equally connote ‘mocking and derision’.[89] Therefore Ygaerne’s reaction simultaneously offers several interpretations: denial and consequently happiness that she was really with her husband; indifference to her husband’s death and open flirtation with Uther; or derision of the man before her and bitterness for the situation in which she finds herself, i.e. obligated to marry a man other than her true husband. Indeed, Ygaerne’s private wishes are marginalised due to the debasing and binding proof offered in public before her own court, and consequently a swift decision is made without her: ‘Knights went to consultations; knights went to counsels … they let down their bridge’.[90]

In the bed-trick sequences of Geoffrey and Laȝamon, free will is demonstrably and deeply undermined; it is perhaps for this reason that different texts attempt to portray Igraine as at least being happy during the illusion before she is disenchanted. I have argued that Uther’s appearance to Igraine in the guise of Gorlois extends some small gesture of concern for her mental well-being. Even so, the dishonesty bereaves Igraine of her rightful husband and agency. Tolhurst proposes that Geoffrey heals these wounds through Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere, who is portrayed as an adoptive daughter of Cornwall, the region from which Igraine hails.[91] Accepting this approach, then, it could also be argued that Arthur’s greatness as king constitutes a cure, balancing out the terms upon which he was conceived. Alternatively, the bed-trick achieves three decidedly non-altruistic results: power for Uther, marriage to a beautiful queen, and a legendary male heir. Therefore the issue is a complicated one to resolve; all the more because whilst there are many words to describe Uther’s wishes, what is heard from Ygerna is a resounding silence. Igraine’s is only one of two cases in British Arthurian texts where this type of deception is used to gain non-consensual access to an elusive desired partner, and there, the denial of an individual’s wishes is significantly and vocally elaborated upon, with all the pain that the situation generates.[92] In both scenarios, the result of the bed-trick is a child prodigy.

Igraine’s condition in motherhood and marriage is most significant to an exploration of her narrative silence. A superficial reading of Geoffrey suggests that he balances the characterisation of Ygerna as a wronged woman by offering her in marriage what she lacked in decision-making prior to this. For, ‘[b]eing bound thereafter they manifested in equal part no small amount of love. And they produced a son and a daughter. Moreover the son was named Arthur. The daughter was declared Anna’.[93] Yet the linguistic ambiguity is still inherent in the text, in that the verb commaneo, which is translated here as ‘manifest’ means to ‘remain somewhere constantly’ or to ‘maintain’, which could be the legal, public form of binding that does not necessarily correspond with characters’ private realities. In addition, the description could indicate a permanent joining of husband and wife as a personal commitment, equally binding for each partner through a synonymy of genuine affection, i.e. an outward demonstration of inner feeling. Although Geoffrey encourages readers to believe that Ygerna lives in equality with Uther from this point onwards, I argue that in the interests of consistency this phrase is more likely to imply the public nature of their marriage. Echard offers a counter-interpretation to Tolhurst by taking as her material for translation an alternate manuscript that reads cum minimo rather than non minimo which changes the meaning significantly. Hence Echard states, it

is not absolutely clear as to whether Uther and Igerna were in fact married, or happily married: “From then on they lived together equally, joined by no love at all, and they brought forth a daughter and a son.” It is possible that this phrase – cum minimo amore – is simply an oversight on Geoffrey’s part, or a scribal error, but it may also be another intentional ambiguity, further shadowing Arthur’s future career.[94]

What these contrary phrases and their translations highlight is the important difference between the speaking and bespeaking of happiness. Barefield’s approach to chronicle supports this idea: ‘Genealogy, a form whose subject is the production of generations, can often elide the place occupied by women both in the politics of succession and in the processes of reproduction itself’.[95]

Crucially, Geoffrey neglects to inform readers of the role Ygerna plays in the upbringing of her children. The couple’s ability to produce offspring where Ygerna and Gorlois could not might have provided ample evidence to some medieval readers that their marriage was a happy one.  Syntactically, that their son and daughter are mentioned in conjunction with each other could indicate they are twins, thereby reinforcing the equality now present in the relationship between Uther and Ygerna. Similar to Geoffrey, Laȝamon omits mention of whether Ygaerne is happy, and instead focuses on the king: ‘Long lived Uther here in great bliss, well-protected, in good peace, free in the kingdom’.[96] Therefore, whilst the Historia favours public events over private ones to the extent that it is difficult to comment on Ygerna’s interiority, Laȝamon’s omission of what happens subsequently in Ygaerne’s life perhaps more successfully demonstrates the incompatibility of her public and private existences. This is particularly pertinent where Laȝamon’s portayal of motherhood is concerned. He writes: ‘The time came that was chosen when Arthur was born’, a declaration which signifies fate’s control over events, which disenfranchises Ygaerne as a mother.[97] Then,

As soon as he came to the earth, elves seized him;
they enchanted that child with magic most strong;
they gave him the power to be best of all knights;
they gave him another thing, that he should be a noble king …
they gave to him, that royal child, such good qualities
that he was the most generous of all living men.
This the elves gave him, and thus that child thrived.[98]

Tolhurst observes that ‘[b]ecause the poet lavishes attention on the fairies’ gifts to Arður, the son displaces his mother whose only significance is procreative’.[99] I concur, although this interpretation could be extended further in a consideration of parenthood from Ygaerne’s perspective rather than from the author’s. It should be noted that Laȝamon’s Brut is the only medieval British text where Arthur is nurtured by magical creatures instead of being given to human surrogates, for example to Sir Ector and his wife in Malory’s Morte. In the Brut, the child Arthur is therefore stolen away from his mother in the same way that her marital chastity was compromised: by magic. The word for ‘soon’ in the Early Middle English verse is in a place of emphasis, meaning it immediately follows iboren, the birth, capturing the abruptness with which Arthur is taken from Ygaerne. That Arthur’s surrogate parents are elves rather than humans attaches connotations of child abduction to the episode, an extremely emotionally charged idea in folklore which is apparent in tales of changelings.[100] The violence of the word iuengen, for ‘seized’ to describe what happens, in combination with the pronoun ‘that’ which precedes ‘child’ rather than ‘her’ or even ‘Uther’s child’, echo Arthur’s detachment from his mother. Laȝamon’s portrayal of the event is sympathetic to the extremity of what constitutes yet another theft visited upon Ygaerne – it is as if her child dies, effectively – and once again reinforces that the value of Ygaerne to the public is radically separate from her private entity. Conversely her daughter, Anna, or Æne, is not mentioned as being traumatically stolen away. Æne’s birth occurs after Arthur’s, thus losing their tacit closeness in Geoffrey; their distancing as siblings echoes the air of detachment and silence that characterises Ygaerne more noticeably in Laȝamon. Ygaerne’s embedding within the court structure is responsible for her silence, and can be related meaningfully to her daughter’s ability not only to control the court in her own time in the romance Morte, but to control it from the margins.

To conclude, I have demonstrated that the narrative ambiguities present in the texts of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Laȝamon, ending in Barefield’s ‘paradigms of succession’, exemplify the obscure nature of Igraine’s early representations in medieval British chronicle.[101] However, the oblique nature of their female characterisation should not preclude the possibility of realising that for their times, both writers seem to make their chronicles less restrictive than usual through ambiguity. Laȝamon’s addition of otherworldly and folkloric details in the Arthurian portion of his Brut demonstrates the importance that genre has in the development of female characterisation in Arthurian literature, since he includes the elements less common in chronicles that later medieval romances monopolise. For instance, Arthur’s upbringing by ‘elves’, and the context for Excalibur as a sword that ‘was forged in Avalon with magical crafts’ are early symptoms of the shift from one genre to another.[102] Another is Arthur’s promotion by Laȝamon from Geoffrey’s human king who is greatly celiberrimum or ‘celebrated’ to a near demi-god, which in turn means the bed-trick has greater implications for Arthur’s reign and the prodigy of kingship he represents. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the romance genre capitalised on supernatural elements at the same time that romance also became the primary vehicle for sympathetic female characterisation in the Middle Ages. Igraine’s role in these chronicles, however, remains almost entirely a silent one within the public sphere and exemplifies how women of high status were limited by the expectations of society, thus proving that rising high does often ‘cost dearly’.

Phoebe C. Linton

Phoebe C. Linton is in the second year of a PhD at the University of Edinburgh, where she completed her MA in English literature in 2011, followed by an MSc by research in 2012. As a continuation of earlier research, her thesis focuses on narrative structure and female subjectivity in Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century romance Le Morte Darthur. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, the thesis examines characterisations of Igraine and Morgan throughout the medieval period. She seeks to re-evaluate their involvement in the text and in the formulation of Pentecostal chivalry. In her explorations of medieval chronicle and romance Phoebe is primarily concerned with female voice or silence, ambiguities between boundaries of public and private, and social marginality. She draws on other Early and Middle English sources, and maintains a keen interest in Old French chivalric literature and Neomedieval romances such as J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Her PhD, supervised by Dr Sarah Dunnigan and Dr David Salter, is funded by the AHRC.

Outwith her studies, Phoebe is a reader for the literary James Tait Black Award and co-organises the Medieval Literature Reading Group at Edinburgh University with Lucy Hinnie (Department of English Literature). She has been a peer mentor to English Literature undergraduates at Edinburgh since 2009.

[1] The Danse Macabre of Women, ed. Ann Tukey Harrison (Kent and London: Kent State University Press, 1994), p. 78.

[2] Igraine is the name that is most familiar to Arthurian readers due to the popularity of the late medieval romance Le Morte Darthur by Sir Thomas Malory and nineteenth century poets such as Lord Alfred Tennyson, whose poems include The Lady of Shalott and the Idylls of the King and carried her through to the modern literary consciousness. Medieval variant spellings include Ygerna in the Latin manuscripts, Eigr in Welsh, Ygaerne, Ygerne and Igerne in French or Anglo-Norman, Arnive in German, and Igrayne or Igraine in Middle English. When referring to the character in general terms, her name will be standardised as ‘Igraine’, but in writing of specific texts authors’ individual spellings will be used.

[3] Siân Echard, Arthurian Narrative in the Latin Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 3.

[4] Also known as Lazamon, Layamon, Lachamon, or Lawman.

[5] Echard, p. 3.

[6] Helen Cooper, The English Romance in Time: Transforming motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 24; Chris Given-Wilson, Chronicles: The Writing of History in Medieval England (London: Hambledon, 2004), p. 141.

[7] Lister M. Matheson, ‘The Chronicle Tradition’, in A Companion to Arthurian Literature, ed. Helen Fulton (Chichester: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), p. 60; James J. Wilhelm, ‘Layamon: Brut (“The Death of Arthur”)’, in The Romance of Arthur: New, Expanded Edition: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation (New York: Garland Publishing, 1994), p. 109.

[8] Wendy Doniger, The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. xviii.

[9] Laura D. Barefield, Gender and History in Medieval English Romance and Chronicle (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003), p. 3; Helen Fulton, ‘History and Myth: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae‘, A Companion to Arthurian Literature, ed. Fulton (Chichester: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), p. 47.

[10] Derek Pearsall, Arthurian Romance: A Short Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), p. 83; Tony Davenport, Medieval Narrative: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 273; Gail Ashton, Medieval English Romance in Context (London: Continuum International, 2010), p. 37; Larry D. Benson, Malory’s Morte Darthur (London: Harvard University Press, 1976), p. 40.

[11] Cooper, p. 4.

[12] Cooper, p. 8; Ashton, p. 17; K. S. Whetter, Understanding Genre and Medieval Romance (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2008), p. 62.

[13] These include: Laurence Harf-Lancner, Les Fées au Moyen Age: Morgane et Mélusine la naissance des fées (Geneva: Slatkine, 1984)Marion Wynne-Davies, Women and Arthurian Literature: Seizing the Sword (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996); Dietmar Rieger, Guenièvre: reine de Logres, dame courtoise, femme adultère (Paris: Klincksieck, 2009); Bénédicte Milland-Bove, La demoiselle arthurienne: écritures du personnage et art du récit dans les romans en prose du XIIIe siècle (Paris: Champion, 2006); Thelma S. Fenster, ed., Arthurian Women: A Casebook (New York and London: Routledge, 2000); Bonnie Wheeler and Fiona Tolhurst, ed., On Arthurian Women: Essays in Memory of Maureen Fries (Dallas TX: Scriptorium Press, 2001); Lucy Allen Paton, Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance (Boston: Ginn, 1903); Carolyne Larrington, King Arthur’s Enchantresses: Morgan and Her Sisters in Arthurian Tradition (London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006). These studies are preoccupied with medieval and/or modern authors’ treatment of the traditionally more prominent characters such as Morgan, Nynyve, Guinevere, Isolde and Elaine.

[14] Barefield, p. 3.

[15] Barefield, p. 9.

[16] Barefield, p. 97.

[17] Barefield, p. 28.

[19] Martine Thiry-Stassin, ‘Ygerne entre Geoffroy de Monmouth et Wace’, Conjointure Arthurienne: Actes de la ‘Classe d’excellence’ de la Chaire Francqui 1998. Liège, 20 février 1998, ed. Juliette Dor, Textes, études, congrès 20 (Louvain-la-Neuve: Institut d’études médiévales, 2000), pp. 109-21.

[20] Rosemary Morris, ‘Uther and Igerne: A Study in Uncourtly Love‘, Arthurian Literature 4 (1985): 70-92.

[21] This usage stems from two branches of language that had formed the English vernacular current in the twelfth century: Greek and Old Saxon. The Greek stem of γυνή, or ‘woman’, filtered into Old Teutonic languages, and from those into the Old English cwene; wif came from Old Frisian, Old Saxon and the Germanic languages, which used qinô, qēns (‘queen’) to denote ‘wife’ also (The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary).

[22] Middle English Dictionary (University of Michigan, 2013).

[23] Gregory R. Crane, ed., Perseus Digital Library (Tufts University, 2011).

[24] The versions of these texts I will be referencing are the Acton Griscom’s edition of The Historia Regum Brittaniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth published in 1929 (London: Longmans Green and Co.) alongside the G. L. Brook edition of the Brut of 1963 (London; New York: Oxford University Press for the Early English Text Society, no. 250, 277). It is nearing a century since this text was first published. However, as Lewis Thorpe affirms in his edition based on Griscom’s printing of the Cambridge MS, of the several editions there are, ‘only two need be considered by a modern translator, those of Acton Griscom and Edmond Faral’ (p. 33). Griscom’s choice of Latin manuscripts to present are the oldest and considered to probably be the nearest to Geoffrey’s original. Griscom presents in conjunction the texts of three Latin manuscripts: the Cambridge University Library MS. 1706, the Bern Stadtbibliothek MS. 568, and the Harlech MS. 17. Beneath these compared texts, Griscom also provides a literal translation of the Welsh Oxford, Jesus College, MS LXI. The most comprehensive modern edition of Geoffrey’s Historia is that of Thorpe, who bases his English translation on Griscom’s, i.e. primarily the Cambridge MS. Therefore in this study I have chosen to cross-reference Thorpe’s edition with my own translation of the Ygerna sections in the Cambridge MS. I have chosen to cite editions which supply reproductions of the texts in their original languages so as to identify linguistic nuances that enrich understanding of Igraine as a literary creation. In particular instances the different translation of one word contains the potential to add or subtract meaning. The only additions I have made to an otherwise literal translation of the Latin are occasional commas and word order adjustment, although I have tried to keep these to a minimum. In the cases where the structure of modern English loses any artistic patterning which adds significance to an idea, I discuss this.

[25] ‘Aderat inter ceteros gorlois dux cornubie cum ygerna coniuge sua. Cuius pulcritudo omnes mulieres britannie superabat’, Geoffrey, Historia, ed. Griscom, p. 423.

[26] Chiasmus is a Latin literary conceit, traditionally poetic but also found in prose, which articulates an idea more emphatically by adjusting a sentence’s structure.

[27] Eugene Mason, ed., Wace: The ‘Arthurian’ Portion of the Roman de Brut (Cambridge, Ontario: In parentheses Publications, 1999), available online at <>, p. 38.

[28] Sir Frederic Madden, ed., Layamon: The ‘Arthurian’ Portion of the Brut (Cambridge, Ontario: In parentheses Publications, 1999), available online at <>, p. 58.

[29] ‘Igærne ƿere hende … wifmone alre hendest’, Laȝamon, Brut, ed. Brook, lines 1535-6.

[30] ‘subito incaluit amore illius’, Geoffrey, Historia, p. 423.

[31] Lewis Thorpe, trans., Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History of the Kings of Britain (London: Penguin Books, 1966), p. 205.

[32] ‘ƿe king sende his sonde to Igærne’, Laȝamon, Brut, line 1535.

[33] ‘board’ from fercula, meaning a transportable table used for meals i.e. he sent her food.

[34] ‘ita ut postpositis ceteris. totam intentionem suam circa eam uerteret. hec sola erat cui fercula incessanter dirigebat. cui aurea pocula familiaribus internuntiis mittebat. Arridebat ei multociens. & iocosa uerba interserebat’, Geoffrey, Historia, p. 423.

[35] ‘Ofte he hire lokede on and leitede mid eȝene; / ofte he his birles sende fron to hire borde; / oft he hire loh to and makede hire letes’, Laȝamon, Brut, lines 1537-9.

[36] ‘iratus’, Geoffrey, Historia, p. 423.

[38] What is interesting is is that in modern adaptations of the story, such as in the film Excalibur or Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon series, Morgan, Arthur’s sister, is the daughter of Gorlois and Igraine and portray the first marriage as a happy one.

[39] ‘ah I næt whær heo hine luuede’, Laȝamon, Brut, line 1540. This is a detached posture which is introduced by his predecessor Wace: ‘She neither granted Uther’s hope, nor denied’, ed. Mason, p. 38.

[40] ‘and [heo] hine leofliche biheold’, Laȝamon, Brut, line 1540; Fiona Tolhurst, Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Feminist Origins of the Arthurian Legend (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 85.

[41] ‘Quod cum comperisset maritus. confestim iratus’ translates as ‘And the husband found this out. He was immediately enraged’, Geoffrey, Historia, p. 423.

[42] ‘Swa longe ƿe king ƿis game droh ƿat Gorlois iwærd him wrað, / and him gromede swiðe’, Laȝamon, Brut, lines 1543-4.

[43] ‘quod super omnia diligebat’, Geoffrey, Historia, p. 423.

[44] ‘Et cum magis pro uxore sua quam pro semetipso anxiaretur’, Geoffrey, Historia, p. 424.

[45] ‘ƿe king him wold after and don al his mahten, / binimen him al his lond and his seoluer and his gold’, Laȝamon, Brut, lines 1556-7.

[46] The term ‘courtly love’ became popular in the nineteenth century, and was not one which would have been in currency in the Middle Ages. However, it is useful in this context because it is one of the distinguishing factors of Arthur’s court which does not exist in Uther’s warrior society, particularly as a term connoting certain effects of love on the private individual: love at first sight, debilitating illness as a consequence of unrequited feelings, emphasis on the privacy of love between a couple, and idealism.

[47] ‘Vror inquid amore ygerne. Nec periculum corporis mei evadere existimo’, Geoffrey, Historia, p. 424.

[48] ‘for Ygærne him wes swa leof æfne alse his aȝen lif, / and Gorlois him wes on leoden monnen alre læðest, / and ælches weies him wes wa a ƿissere weorlde-riche, / for he ne mihte beon wurðe naƿing of his wille’, Laȝamon, Brut, lines 1617-20.

[49] Matheson, ‘The Chronicle Tradition’, in A Companion to Arthurian Literature, p. 60.

[50] Laȝamon, Brut, line 1607.

[51] Fenster, ‘Introduction’, in Arthurian Women, p. xx.

[52] ‘admodum indignatus est rex. iurauitque iureiurando se uastaturum nationem ipsius’, Geoffrey, Historia, p. 423.

[54] ‘ignem in urbes & opida acumulauit’, Geoffrey, Historia, p. 423.

[55] ‘Ich ƿe ȝiue an honde ƿritti solh of londe / ƿat ƿu Merlin biwinne and don mine iwille’, Laȝamon, Brut, lines 1657-8.

[56] Joseph D. Parry, ‘Narrators, Messengers, and Lawman’s Brut, Arthuriana 8.3 (1998): 58.

[57] ‘Ygerne wes særi and sorhful an heorte / ƿat swa moni mon for hire sculden habben ƿer lure’, Laȝamon, Brut, lines 1576-7.

[58] Tolhurst, Feminist Origins, pp. 85-86.

[59] ‘in litore maris’, Geoffrey, Historia, p. 424; ‘Uppen ƿere sæ-stronde … he is mid sæ-cliuen faste biclused’, Laȝamon, Brut, lines 1586-7.

[60] ‘ne bið he biwunne ƿurh nanes cunnes monnen, / bute ȝif hunger cumen ƿer an-vnder’, Laȝamon, Brut, lines 1588-9.

[62] ‘Deceperat namque illam. falsa specie quam assumpserat. Deceperat etiam ficticiis sermonibus quos ornate componebat’, Geoffrey, Historia, p. 426.

[63] ‘Ygerne ful iwis ƿat hit weoren Gorlois; / ƿurh neuere nænes cunnes ƿing no icneou heo Vðer ƿene king’, Laȝamon, Brut, lines 1792-3.

[64] ‘Wilcume, læuerd, monne me leofest, / and wilcume Jurdan and Britael is a[l]swa’, Laȝamon, Brut, lines 1778-79 (emphases mine).

[65] ‘ƿine hors and ƿine iwede’, Laȝamon, Brut, line 1737.

[66] ‘ƿi dede, imong ƿere duȝeðe’, ‘duȝeðe’, Laȝamon, Brut, line 1736.

[67] ‘a mode hire scal wel beon’, Laȝamon, Brut, line 1738.

[68] ‘Unde ipsa credula nichil quod poscebatur abnegauit’, Geoffrey, Historia, p. 426.

[69] Tolhurst, Feminist Origins, p. 87.

[70] ‘Ƿe king hire wende to swa waþmon sculde to wimmon do / and hæfde him to done wið leofuest wimmonne and he streonede hire on ænne selcuðne mon’, Laȝamon, Brut, lines 1794-6.

[71] ‘Concepit … eadem nocte celeberrimum uirum illum arturum’, Geoffrey, Historia, p. 426.

[72] Catherine Batt, ‘Malory and Rape’, Le Morte Darthur or The Hoole Book of Kyng Arthur and of His Noble Knyghtes of the Rounde Table, ed. Stephen H. A. Shepherd (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), p. 807.

[73] Tolhurst, Feminist Origins, p. 22.

[74] ‘celeberrimum uirum’, Geoffrey, Historia, p. 426.

[75] This of course does not preclude voluntary separation of the two, as is the case with Lancelot and Guenever, or Tristan and Isolde. Nor does this apply to women outwith the court, like Morgan.

[76] Shepherd, ed., Le Morte Darthur, p. 77.

[77] ‘he scal aȝe ƿa hende Ygærne; / on hir he scal streonen ƿat scal wide sturien; / he scal streonien hire on ænne swiðe sellichne mon’, Laȝamon, Brut, lines 1659-61.

[78] ‘Longe beoð æuere, dæd ne bið he næuere; / Ƿe wile ƿe ƿis world stænt, ilæsten scal is worðmunt’, Laȝamon, Brut, lines 1692-3.

[79] ‘set ob ygernam a maritali copula solutam gauisus est. Reuersus est itaque ad oppidum tintagol. Cepit illud. cepitque ygernam. & uoto suo potitus est’, Geoffrey, Historia, p. 427.

[80] Tolhurst, Feminist Origins, p. 23.

[81] Barefield, p. 17.

[82] Tolhurst, Feminist Origins, p. 23.

[83] ‘ȝe ƿesne castel bicluseð swiðe uaste, / and hateð me Ygerne ƿat heo noht ne murne’, Laȝamon, Brut, lines 1862-3.

[84] ‘grætte Ygærne, wifuene aðelest, / and sende hire taken whæt heo I bedde speken; / hehte heo ƿat heo aȝeuen ƿene castel biliue – / ƿer nes nan oðer ræd, for hire lauerd wes dæd’, Laȝamon, Brut, lines 1878-81.

[85] Christopher R. Clason, ‘Deception in the Boudoir: Gottfried’s Tristan and “Lying” in Bed’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 103.3 (2004): 287, 284.

[86] P.J. Heather, ‘Gleanings from Lazamon’s Brut’, Folklore 53.1 (1942): 64.

[87] ‘Ȝet wende Ygærne ƿat hit soð weoren / ƿat ƿe dæde eorl isoht hafede his duȝede’, Laȝamon, Brut, lines 1882-3.

[88] ‘and al heo ilæfde ƿat hit læs weore / ƿat ƿe king Vðer æuere weoren icumen her’, Laȝamon, Brut, lines 1884-5.

[90] ‘Cnihtes eoden to ræde; cnihtes eoden to rune … heore brugge heo duden adun’, Laȝamon, Brut, lines 1886-88.

[91] Tolhurst, ‘Britons as Hebrews’, p. 77.

[92] The other is Elaine of Ascolat, who uses the help of Dame Brusen to trick Lancelot into bed; the result of this union is the conception of Sir Galahad.

[93] ‘Commanserunt pariter deinde non minimo amore ligati. progenueruntque filium & filiam. Fuit autem nomen filii arturus. filie uero anna’, Geoffrey, Historia, p. 427.

[94] Echard, pp. 54-55.

[95] Barefield, p. 8.

[96] ‘Longe liuede Vðer mid muchelere blisse her / mid gode griðe, mid gode friðe, freo on kinedome’, Laȝamon, Brut, lines 1906-7.

[97] ‘Ƿe time com ƿe wes icoren ƿa wes Arður iboren’, Laȝamon, Brut, lines 1893.

[98] ‘Sone swa he com an eorðe, aluen hine iuengen; / heo bigolen ƿat child mid galdere swiðe stronge; / heo ȝeuen him mihte to beon bezst alre cnihten; / heo ȝeuen him anoðer ƿing, ƿat he scolde beon riche king … heo ȝifen him, ƿat kinebern, custen swiðe gode / ƿat he wes metecusti of alle quike monnen. / Ƿis ƿe alue him ȝef, and al swa ƿat child iƿæh’, Laȝamon, Brut, lines 1893-1901.

[99] Tolhurst, Feminist Origins, p. 88.

[100] Folkloric traditions of changeling tales have been kept in collections such as Popular Romances of the West of England, or, The Drolls, Traditions, and Superstitions of Old Cornwall, ed. Robert Hunt (Cornwall, England: John Camden Hotten, 1865), or Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, ed. Sir John Rhys (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901).

[101] Barefield, p. 8.

[102] ‘aluen’, line 1894, and ‘wes iworht in Aualun mid wiȝelefulle craften’, Laȝamon, Brut, line 2834.


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