The Laȝamon Project: using poems to think, or revisiting Pound's 'scholarship poem'.

‘Laȝamon remembers Ireland’ is a small part of a much bigger project. 

You can read the poem here:  (on pages 72-73)

There’s an introduction to Laȝamon's Brut on this website here:

I’ve been reading and then reading and writing about the Brut since about 1981, when a disgruntled undergraduate, me, was told he couldn’t use Malory for his Honours thesis but should ‘do something with Laȝamon’.

The questions that interest me now are ones that a conventional academic approach, confined by the discipline of whatever methodology, cannot answer. This is not to denigrate scholarship. Without scholarship, mine and others, what I’m trying to do would come untethered and drift off into pseudo-historical fantasy-writing.

If writing a poem can offer a unique way of thinking through and in language, then writing poems, retelling stories, can lead beyond the various walls that hedge academic scholarship to suggest ways of thinking about the Brut, its author and their time. A question as simple as, ‘Why does Locrin put Aestrild in an ‘earth house’ with ‘ivory doors’? lead to the Bronze age tin trade. Whatever the poem suggests can then be tested against the evidence. It’s a fascinating process because it leads into areas logic and reason might not consider.   It’s Pound’s ‘scholarship poem’, or Graves’ ‘poetic method’ taken seriously.  

I set out to retell four stories from the Brut. But as the project developed, it became a many-sided conversation with a strange variety of textual participants: the history of Dark Age Naval power, tin trade in the Bronze age, Homer, Virgil, Herodotus, the archaeology of post Roman Britain, the history of early Medieval Wales and England, the English Parish clergy in the 12th century, the writings of Gerald of Wales…and while trying to translate the prologue, I found I’d started writing about Laȝamon himself. 

The Poet

First question: Should I conscript a name and hang a set of beliefs and values on it that probably weren’t his, or should I try to recreate the man and risk gagging on his alterity. 

Answer: the second option, though it’s much riskier to attempt to strip back the associations that Priest, Poet, Poem, Literature have accumulated. 

As soon as I write ‘Laȝamon is one of the first named English poets’ or ‘he was a priest’ I have activated a series of responses which unavoidably muddy the discussion. 

What we know about Laȝamon is contained in ‘The Prologue’: the first 35 lines of the poem. He was a priest, at one time living at Aerely Kings. He decided to tell the noble deeds of the English. He went looking for books and then started writing. Other than that, his French was good.  

The current church at Arely was rebuilt in the 19th century. The Norman Church may have been small, about thirty-five feet by fifteen according to Tatlock. Though Laȝamon calls it a church it was probably a chapel. It is about ten miles from Worcester, not ‘the middle of nowhere’, there was a ford crossing the river on a road to Wales and a ferry at Redstone, but it was a small living. In the later 13th Century the income of the church was valued at £5.13s.4d when the national average seems to have been about 10 pounds.

Call him a poet and you can imagine him coming up with the idea of his poem and then scribbling away at his desk in the evening after a hard day’s priesting.  But he couldn’t just go to the local shop and buy paper or notebooks or go online and order a copy of Wace from the Book depository or pop into the local library and ask them to organise an interlibrary loan.

Areley was not the kind of place where those resources were available. Although he claims it was his idea, if he were the priest at Areley, then someone told him to write this and they were prepared to fund the necessary materials. Who that someone was, whether individual or institution, and why they wanted him to do it are unanswerable questions given the lack of evidence. Nor is there any evidence to suggest he’d written anything previously:  the Brutstumbles at the beginning as though he’s learning as he goes along. It may be the only ‘poem’ he wrote.

Using poems as a way of thinking about all this, I found I’d attached Laȝamon to Gerald of Wales. (you can read the poem, ‘Laȝamon remembers Ireland’ here: on pages 72-73)

J.S.P Tatlock had suggested Laȝamon had been in Ireland. His argument has been dismissed not because it was implausible but because of the evidence he used to support it. Playing with the idea, I sent him to Ireland with John, not yet a King. But why would he have been there? He would have been useful; possibly trilingual and able to write. He could have gone as a clerk in the retinue of one of the lords, he could even have been attached to John’s household. But the main source for John’s expedition is Gerald of Wales, and his name fitted the rhythm of the line. A scribe in the household of Gerald of Wales, worked whereas ‘A scribe in the household of John, not yet King…sounded naff. 

Everything else in that poem can be footnoted EXCEPT the essential premise that Laȝamon was there.

But the idea seemed worth following.  Focussed on the scarcity of ‘English poetry’ in this period, it’s easy to forget how much writing does survive from the 12th Century. And the comparison with Gerald is revealing.  

Gerald is visible in ways Laȝamon is not. Over the twenty or so works he produced, he tells his readers enough about himself to produce a biography. There’s even something that can be called his ‘autobiography’. He was born into a marcher family with connections to many of the Welsh nobility. His grandmother Nest, had been Henry 1’s mistress. He was educated in France and had lectured in Paris during the great academic explosion of the 12th century. He held a  position at the Angevin court and had direct contact with the King and his family. He was sent with John to Ireland; his family, the FitzGeralds had played a major part in the Norman conquest of the Island. He visited Rome more than once. 

Gerald remains a vital if contested source for the history of Ireland and Wales in this period. He fought verbally with Kings and Archbishops and wasn’t averse to correcting the Pope.  

Unlike the priest at Areley, Gerald had the financial and institutional resources to be able to decide that he would devote time and materials to producing books. He had the independence of the well-connected and relatively well-off that enabled him to choose his own topics.

Ironically, because he wrote in Latin, Gerald is, unlike Laȝamon, much more recognisable as an ‘author’ in the modern understanding of the word. As a writer, he had a powerful sense of the tradition he was working in. He knew the church fathers and the Latin poets. His writing is scattered with quotations and allusions to both. He also seems to have had a sense of himself as a participant in that tradition, as a creator of literature and perhaps he saw himself as on a par with those glorious dead. He certainly believed his writing would win him posthumous fame. 

Perhaps career is the wrong word, but he had a sense of the trajectory of a dedicated writing life: I have written; I will write. The well- known books he describes as juvenilia: the great work was where it usually is, somewhere in the future at the end of the rainbow. 

He tried to use his writing as a way of gaining preferment, his prefaces flatter the great men he dedicated each work to and are the usual combination of self-advertisement, flattery and hope for reward.

He died an old man, hopefully at peace amongst his books. 

Gerald is an antidote to the idea that writing ‘literature’ was a way of gaining advancement or that the church automatically rewarded talent. In the 12th Century there were great men whose careers went from modest beginnings to positions of wealth and power: William the Marshall and Hubert de Bugh are the obvious examples. But ‘poetry’ and ‘literature’ were not a career path to wealth and prestige, a fact Gerald often bemoans. 

I can’t see Laȝamon writing the Brut as a way of advertising his talents to the church hierarchy. Nor can I accept the once popular ideas that the poem is Angevin propaganda and/or an example of popular literature offered to the lower orders. 

In a world of patrons and power, someone wanted this done. Who that was is now unknowable. But why it was done has, I think, a boring answer. Our mysterious patron, whether person or institution, had the resources and wanted the story in English. And Laȝamon was the man who was given the task. Why he was given that task is another intriguing mystery. 

My educated guess is that the Brutis an example of the small scale, localised production of texts, which has left little trace in the record because the odds were against the survival of one or two manuscripts in a language even the most educated would struggle to read until the 19th century. Such writing, as Christopher Canning has argued, would have been idiosyncratic by our standards, varying from writer to writer because there was no English tradition as fixed and glittering as the Latin one: no named glorious dead to quote and emulate.   

Laȝamon wrote the Brut because he was the best man available for the job. I think it makes sense to see it as a job and him as a jobbing writer. I don’t see either description as being in any way belittling. 

Unlike the essay marching to its preconceived conclusion, the poem opens up the conversation.  It lead to Pierre Michon's "Winter Mythologies' and the problem of writing about the Middle Ages. Which should be the next post.