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Reesing Lecture 2019

Putting King Arthur on the Map in Early Modern England

 

Heraldry, Chorography, and Drayton’s Poly-Olbion

 

Dr. Kenneth Hodges, Virginia Tech
Carroll Science 101
Friday November 8, 2019
3:30-5:00 pm

 

While historians in early modern Britain increasingly dismissed King Arthur as either entirely fictional or as so obscured by legend as to be rendered ahistorical, in other genres he was not so easily expunged.  He survived in heraldic texts, and as a number of heralds were also antiquarians, King Arthur found his way into new genres.  Chorography – the mapping and describing of particular areas of the Earth – made King Arthur visible by mapping the places associated with him.  In texts like William Camden’s Britannia and John Speed’s paired Historie of Great Britaine and The Theatre and Empire of Great Britaine, therefore, King Arthur is dismissed in the historical sections only to reappear on the maps. Michael Drayton, responding to the popularity of chorography, seized on this bifurcation as an opportunity.  In Poly-Olbion, he tries to wrench chorography away from history and back to literature.  His maps offer a pointed contrast to Speed’s and John Norden’s, emphasizing natural features rather than built ones, and distributing contrasting British and English histories through the landscape, leading to a competition between Welsh and English bards across the Severn, with King Arthur versus the Saxons as the subject.  While the poem emphasizes the legendary, the commentary by John Selden offers a skeptical historical view, and the interplay leaves Arthur’s historical status ambiguous but a figure on the border of two ways of imaging the nation, one English and historical, the other British and legendary.