Lawman Lived Here

This article was first published in PN Review 156, Volume 30 Number 4, March - April 2004.


An Preost wes on leodan. La3amon wes ihoten
he wes Leouenaðes sone. liðe him beo Drihten
He wonede at Ernle3e. at æðelen are chirechen
uppen Seuarne staðe. sel þar him þuhte
 On-fest Radestone. þer he bock radde.

                                                (Brut, lines 1-5)

 [A priest called La3amon lived amongst the people. He was Leovenath's son, may the Lord be good to him. He lived at Areley, at the noble church on the Severn's banks. He thought it was good there, near Redstone, where he read (the) Book (books?).]

 For perhaps the first time in English poetry, a poet steps forward to claim the text as his own. Sometime around the end of the twelfth century, Lawman1 began to write the history of the English.2 In an age when French was the literary language of England, he wrote in English. When most poetry was resolutely anonymous, he begins his poem by telling the reader his name, his job, where he lived, his father's name, why he wrote this poem and how he went about writing it.

 His thirty-two thousand lines3 begin with the adventures of Brutus, after whom he believed Britain to have been named, and continue until the Anglo-Saxon conquest of the island.

 I doubt if many people have read extracts from the poem, let alone attempted the long haul from start to finish. But the text deserves better than to be discarded as an antiquarian curiosity. Surviving as it does from a time of transition: historically, linguistically, poetically; poet and poem challenge the reader. The problems of dealing with both of them can tell us a great deal about how we read.

 How do you tell if a poem's a good one? The problem has always bedevilled medieval studies: a canon created by those who studied it, for those who studied it, often by applying codes of taste to which the writer couldn't subscribe. The few poets who survived such treatment, after a little patronising head shaking, became established in curriculums. The others were left in the dustier stacks. The Brut has always been very dusty.

 It's an interstitial poem. It's not `Old English'. It has been compared, to its detriment, with Old English poetry, but anything up to four hundred years may have passed since the `classics' of old English were written down and there's very little to suggest Lawman knew them. The poem does use an heroic vocabulary and the kings of the poem have more in common with dark age warriors than contemporary Angevin `statesmen'. But the terms have lost their specific meanings. The social institutions they reflect had long ago become anachronistic. Coming to the poem from studying Old English, and most users of this poem are students rather than readers, a modern reader may be reminded of Maldon or Beowulf, but there is a curious sense of watching the events through a grubby lens. The alliterative line has shaken loose and rhyme is making an erratic appearance.

 If the poem is reminiscent of Old English Verse, it seems to pre-empt the later alliterative poetry of `the Gawain poet' and the Alliterative Morte, suggesting a fluid if developing continuum of form, attitude and content. But it is not `Middle English' poetry either.4 Even by Lawman's time that alliterative tradition is no longer the main one, but an energetic, occasionally dazzling, ultimately doomed dead end. The mainstream of English poetry will flow from the Southern court, through Lydgate and Chaucer, with their classical and European models to the Renaissance and beyond. Paradoxically, this is another reason why Lawman stands at the beginning of English poetry. For all his barbarous `rim ram ruff' he pre-empts what would become one of the characteristics of `the English tradition'. His main source isn't English, but the Anglo-Norman Brut of Wace, itself a translation of the Latin of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Strip away the superficial resemblance to Old English and Lawman's text has far more in common with surviving Chanson de Geste than Beowulf or Maldon. For the next 800 years, English poets will follow him in looking abroad for their models or back to other poets who did the same.

 The poem is interstitial in other ways. Lawman might claim the text as his, but no scribe agreed. No scribe would agree for centuries that a poet's text was fixed, final or sacrosanct.5 The poem survives in two manuscript versions. One is much shorter than the other. The scribe who copied out what is usually taken as the later manuscript was so unimpressed by Lawman's claim to ownership that he basically rewrote all the biographical information. He also`modernised' the vocabulary and left out huge chunks of the poem.

 So who was he? Nothing else is known except what he tells us. He mentions in passing that Wace gave his poem to Elanore, `who was Henry's Queen'. But no text of Wace (and over twenty have survived) carries the least dedication. How did the incumbent of such a small living know what was going on at Henry's court? How could he afford the valuable texts he used, or the parchment he wrote on? Who wanted a poem in English when it could already be read in both French and Latin? Too many questions, and none of them can be answered.

 If you try to reconstruct the poet from the poem you run into an obvious problem. You can study the differences between source and text, but there is no way of knowing what is Lawman's and what is the scribe's. The implied author of one manuscript is different from the implied author of the other. If you go to the `historical record' to try and find out what type of man might be a parish priest in such a place, the answer is something like an ignorant, uneducated, barely literate, usually immoral, often absent, semi-peasant. Lawman the poet is literate and at least bilingual. (The jury is out over his knowledge of Latin and Welsh).

 He steps out of the shadow world of anonymous literature, and then, just as you try to grasp him, he fades back again.

 The poetry itself presents the reader with the usual problems facing anyone trying to read medieval literature. It's difficult to deal with it as `poetry'. For a start, there's nothing to suggest Lawman thought of himself as `a poet'. He introduces himself as a priest. His express purpose is to tell the noble deeds of the English and he uses the genre which was available to him for that purpose.

 There was no poetic primer for him to follow, and there was no academic discipline of History either. There is simply no way of knowing how he learnt the form he uses.6 Nor is there enough evidence to reconstruct the tradition he inherited at the point of inheritance. While he undoubtedly had a standard of excellence to go by,7 we can't even tell if contemporaries thought he was `good at it'. The Otho scribe removed almost everything that seems to make the poem `poetry'. The only evidence we have that anyone read his poem, apart from the scribes who copied it, is that `Robert of Gloucester' when compiling his chronicle sometime in the thirteenth century used this particular manuscript.8

 From a modern perspective, it's easy to damn the poem. It's usually described as boring, and barbarous.9 There are long passages where the poet seems to be grinding out lines, repeating stock phrases to fill in a battle scene or adding a too familiar tag to describe yet another instantly forgettable king. The endless battles and butchery are alien to modern taste,10 as are the poet's obvious enjoyment of them.

 On an even deeper level the poetry seems alien. Like so many medieval poems, it proves Tom Shippey's point.11 It doesn't play by our rules. The assumptions one brings to the text as reader of modern poetry get in the way. A poet weighs his words carefully? As a simple example, take Lawman's use of adjectives. `Hende' is used so often and so indiscriminately it's difficult to say what it means. It's a term of approbation, but it can be used to describe almost everything from appearance to qualities. The first named English poet seems to use the language with all the subtlety and precision of an Australian football commentator.

 Yet on a closer reading the poem does have its own peculiar merits. Any writer can only select from the forms available and work within that inherited tradition. To compare him with Chaucer or the Gawain poet is invidious, not only because few poets stand up to comparison with those two12 but because they had access to poetic resources and traditions Lawman didn't. Both are conscious artists and neither was trying to do what he did.

 The form imposes its own limitations: the dull bits are inevitable. Perhaps the one modern narrative convention he would have grabbed with both hands is the writer's ability to start the next chapter with the words: `Fifty years later'.

 But as narrative there are many moments to impress the reader's imagination when the poet suddenly becomes involved in his material and brings the characters to life in a world where nothing quite turns out the way you'd expect: in his version of King Lear, the Cordelia character actually wins the war, and rules, until overthrown by her nephews and driven to suicide.13

 Lawman exploits the inherent strengths of the narrative form. And because the poem is usually presented chopped up in anthologies this aspect of the work isn't apparent. You can isolate the Battle of Bath as an example of `heroic verse' and praise the `extended similes', you could translate the `Arthurian sections' and that's fine for scholars, students of language and the Arthurian enthusiasts. But cutting it up invites a reading strategy that misses one of the poem's strengths.

 Reading the phrase `Arður wes i Cornwale. Al þene winter þere/and al for Wenhæuere lufe. wimmonne him leofuest' (11,101-02), the modern reader, faced with the story of Arthur and Whenhaver as an extract, and preconditioned by a culture obsessed with Romantic love, reads the phrase as a positive affirmation of the depth of their relationship.

 The reader who comes to this after reading the eleven hundred lines that precede it immediately recognises a warning: Arthur and his kingdom are in trouble. The weight of previous examples bear upon those words. A king in `love' will put personal desire before public duty, and as the poem proves repeatedly, that is disastrous. The benefit of plodding through all those flat passages to get to `the good bits' is that the poem's effect is cumulative and one of its subtleties rests on the poet's ability to work variations within the limited material at his disposal.

 Nor is it simply a technique of piling up examples. Modern readers, familiar with Malory, know that Uther betrays Gorlois, but Lawman's story makes explicit the fact that it is a double betrayal. Gorlois saves Uther from destruction, winning the victory that is being celebrated when Uther first sees Ygraine. Using a repeated variation on `his wife' and `Gorlois' wife' as epithets to describe Ygaerne, Lawman builds a refrain to foreground the double betrayal established by the narrative.

 Another example of how an apparently limited vocabulary can be exploited is his description of King Lear. The only epithets he uses are variations on`Old'. When he first does this, the word seems positive; all that needs to be said. Age has brought wealth and wisdom, and deserves veneration, but as Lear's behaviour becomes increasingly incomprehensible, the word slides through all its possible connotations until it becomes negative: all that can be said about the King.

 If narrative verse has its own strengths, then so too does alliterative verse. But either you like them or you don't and alliteration has been out of fashion for a long time. One of the simplest and most obvious pleasures of alliterative verse is the way in which speaking voices can be dramatically brought to life. There are numerous examples where the clash of angry men is caught in the alliterative line. However, this can get tiresome if there's no variation, and Lawman can make his characters speak quietly, exploiting the vowels to soften the harsh clash of consonants:


And ich æm bi nichte bi-stole from þan fihte
And æfter þi ic wes of-longed, Wifmonne þu ært me leofuest.

 In the clash of armies and the great set pieces of battles and conferences, he can also manage something close to quietness and draw small and memorable pictures. There is frank and direct gentleness in his version of Uther's seduction of Ygraine which has not made it into `civilised' twentieth-century filmed versions. The long story of Uther's betrayal of Gorlois is brought to a climax and stilled by the sounds of a simple line: `And Ygæerne læie adun. bi Uðere Pendragun' (9,505). These variations in pace are also visible in small descriptions. His lines on Tintagel are few but effective:  

Uppen þere sæ-stronde. Tintaieol stondeð
He is mid sæ-cliuen, faste biclused
þat he ne bið he biwunne þurh nanes cunnes monnen
bute 3if hunger commen þer an under.14

 The description not only evokes the castle on the cliffs, but serves an important narrative function and manages both swiftly and effectively.

 Like so many medieval texts, instead of a poem, it remains an historical curiosity. A curiosity, and an academic gold mine. Here is the earliest surviving English telling of the stories of King Arthur and King Lear. Here, for the first time, England is described in a language recognisable as English. Naming towns, describing natural wonders, giving the history of the roads, Lawman sang the landscape into literary being.

Scanned Postcard. Artist unknown.

Scanned Postcard. Artist unknown.

 Eight centuries later, I wanted to see his place for myself. To hell with theories. I had spent so long studying the poem and its context that I wanted to know what the poet would have seen if he looked up from this work. After too many years of careful scholarship, where enthusiasm is bounded by a thorny hedge of carefully annotated footnotes and certainties recede down an endless chain of subordinate clauses, I wanted a direct and unashamed encounter.

I like this poem.

Like most English churches it was locked.  

At first no one answered my persistent knocking on the rectory door. The vicar appeared. `And why do you want the key?'

 The inside of the rectory suggested the presence of an elderly housekeeper: polished wood, lines of books, carpet. A very different set of literary associations. I had forgotten to wear my visiting vicars clothes. Scruffy and road stained, I looked more like someone who wanted a place to kip than anyone's idea of an earnest academic.

 I told him I'd come all the way from Australia to visit his church. I didn't tell him I'd come via Siberia, on the train.

 He had heard of Lawman, the first known incumbent of the parish. He was even used to the occasional pilgrim like myself. An expert on early English history had been through recently and had told him Lawman was unreadable.

 `I've read him,' I said, determined to establish my credentials. `I've read him from start to finish.' I wanted that key. `Several times.'

 He was reaching for the shelf.

 `Where did you get your translation?'

 `I read the original’.

 He gave me the key, and told me to make myself at home.

 I was. I didn't need the little guide book: I knew where the memorial glass was, in the twelfth-century window discovered during a nineteenth-century rebuilding. I knew all about the baptismal font with its fake inscription carved into the base.

 I knew this place.

 It wasn't difficult to imagine what the view was like without the modern houses and boats. It didn't take any great effort of the imagination to visualise a man in priest's robes, struggling against the wind as he walked to the church, his mind full of an heroic world where the men were brave, the women beautiful, and it never rained.  


1.    The name is La3amon, modernised to Lawman or sometimes Layamon.

2.    Exactly when he did this is unknown. Attempts to date the poem, and there are many, reflect the medieval scholar's love of a good argument when a definitive answer is impossible. Wace finished the poem Lawman used as his main source in 1155, which provides an absolute terminus a quo. The terminus ad quem is usually given, on dodgy internal evidence, as 1216, but the mss dating, which would give an absolute terminus ad quem in the absence of anything else, may be as late as the 1270s.

3.    Sir Frederick Madden, Lawman's first modern editor, arranged his poetry in thirty-two thousand +/- short lines. Brooke and Lesley, for their EETS edition, printed the poem in 16,096 long alliterative lines.

4.    Its survival, in two manuscripts, suggests that poetry such as this, locally produced and limited in dissemination, may have been much more common than is often thought, but was also painfully vulnerable to the accidents of manuscript survival. This raises the more intriguing possibility that what has conventionally been described as an Alliterative Revival in the fourteenth century may well by simply an alliterative survival.

5.    This hasn't changed either, some modern editors agree with them.

6.    One of the odder traditions of Lawman scholarship is the argument that as his poem doesn't observe Siever's five types, he failed to write Classic Old English poetry, therefore he must either be `inept' or following a debased `popular' form which had existed alongside the `Classical Poetry'. The fact that `Classical Old English Poetry' may have been finished long before Harold died at Senlac doesn't seem to enter this argument.

7.    He praises Wace for his skill.

8.    Anyone who thinks Lawman is a boring poet hasn't plodded through Robert's chronicle.

9.    J.S.P. Tatlock used this to argue that Lawman was Irish

10.Unless of course on a screen in Technicolor.

11.`... the failure is caused by the assumption that archaic writers set themselves to keep the bargain of modern poetry - that nothing vital will be left out and nothing unnecessary put in - that every word counts. If then successful poetry can be written against the grain of modern acceptance, it would seem essential for every student of poetry to know about it, and about the way it works.' Tom Shippey, Old English Verse (London, 1972), p.13.

12.OK, I think the Gawain poet is one of the finest in English.

13.One of the few ‘authorial statements’ condemns her for her suicide, not the nephews for torturing her and putting her in a cage.

14.It's interesting to compare the two manuscripts as poetry here. The Otho version is all but unsayable

This article is taken from PN Review 156, Volume 30 Number 4, March - April 2004.