A witty chronicler of miscellanea

Walter Map was a mediaeval Welsh clergyman, (eventually an Archdeacon no less!), a King’s courtier and a noted wit.

Walter Map with Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and somebody else. I think Map is the one writing.

There was clearly an awful lot to the man in his lifetime but he’s on this podcast, and mostly remembered to this day, for his authorship of “De Nugis Curialium”. This manuscript is a bit of a miscellany of whatever took his fancy.

Much of it is the equivalent of gossip columns about religious and secular leaders of his day and there are many details of the history of various religious orders. There are historical accounts of various kings and battles and such like. There are small elements of autobiography and there is quite a lot of the work that condemns both the specific court he was in, that of Henry II and the whole court system he worked within – notably comparing it to hell at some length.

But much of the work is given over to either outright legends – Greek legends, romances, fantastical stories and the like, or to very strange events that supposedly really happened, often in the very recent past.

These strange snippets are of most interest to us, and are referred to by Map as “Prodigium”, which can be variously translated as “Marvels” or “Wonders”.

And it’s in the chronicling of supernatural happenings, fanciful oddities and strange creatures that the work has achieved a degree of longevity, regularly referenced up to the modern day.

Podcast episodes featuring Walter Map
Tales of Britain and Ireland
Tales of Britain and Ireland

A storytelling and folklore podcast.

Telling some of the famous and not so famous British and Irish myths, legends and folktales, in no particular order.

Coming direct from South Yorkshire it is currently regularish, and will feature all of the above and whatever other miscellaneous snippets take my fancy.

Presented by Graeme. Website at http://www.TalesofBritainandIreland.com

32: The Shoemaker of Constantinople
byTales of Britain and Ireland.
32: The Shoemaker of Constantinople
38: King Herla & the Wild Hunt

Biographical Sketch

While exact details from Map’s life are, well, sketchy, scholars are in general agreement that map was born in 1140, in or around Hereford, a city on the Welsh Borders.

He clearly came from a background of some high social standing – from a Norman aristocratic family, still a socially distinct class in the day. As a young man he studied at the University of Paris, which was only just developing at the time. This was at a time where there was a reasonable degree of cross european travel amongst churchmen and scholars (who were all connected to the church in some way or another). Map was a member of a distinctly cosmopolitan set. 

Hereford Cathedral, today. This building was started in 1079, c.60 years prior to Map’s birth. Photo:Diliff CC BY-SA 3.0

On his return to England he moved from Hereford to London and became attached to the court of Henry II, fulfilling a role as a courtier while retaining his ecclesiastical positions. There’s probably reams that can be written about the exact function of such a role but in Walter’s case he seems to have been equivalent to what today might be upper management, or a high ranking civil servant, fulfilling a variety of tasks as was required of him.

He would serve as a royal justice for a time, which was essentially a roving judge and he was sent abroad on a number of occasions as part of diplomatic missions to the King of France and the Pope, and to attend church councils, at which he would represent the King.

King Henry II – whose court Map served in, and of whom he was highly critical

During all this time we know from his writings he managed a significant household at the time, which seemed to go with the territory. For all the lightness and strangeness of his stories, he was a rich, powerful and influential man, travelling across Europe and living an opulent lifestyle by the standards of the day.

He continued to climb in his career taking on a number of increasingly senior positions which  must admit I do not really understand the distinctions between – Chancellor of the Diosece of Lincoln, Precentor of Lincoln and Archdeacon of Oxford. He did not achieve his goal of becoming a bishop though we’ve records of him being in the running on occasion.

Map died in 1209 or 1210, but the date is known – the 1st of April. He would go on to enjoy a reputation as a writer after death, but for a work he didn’t write (see the last section for more details!)

De Nugis Curialium

Nugis De Curialium,written in latin with a title that translates as “Courtiers Trifles” – and this is a descriptive title for what is a miscellany of vignettes and short fancies. Map says of himself that he wrote it in brief moments of time in the court of King Henry II.

13th Century Manuscript image of Walter Map and King Henry II

While there is some agreement that it was written by Map it was not produced as a coherent whole in one piece, but rather assembled from pieces written over many years. A number of pieces are clearly unfinished and there is repetition of elements which are unlikely to have been included in a polished work. It seems that Map was working on it during his life but died before it could be completed, or decided to discontinue it.

It’s not clear how well known the text was during Map’s own lifetime given this, and the work that we have it today was put together after his death to try and make some kind of coherent whole, though that was clearly not entirely possible.

This does much to explain the journal or scrapbook type feel to the work, its haphazard organisation and how it generally lacks a feel of completeness. It’s not the work he would have wanted anyone to have.

However despite this in some ways this format seems oddly suited to the many and varied nature of the book’s contents: a jumble of odds and ends, miscellanea, titbits, observations and opinions.

Histories, religion, satire and political journalism
Frontpiece to M.R. James’s 1914 Latin translation

A fair bit of the book is concerned with telling histories of different religious sects, Kings, saints and other figures. It also recounts many episodes from Map’s own life – recording his first hand encounters with important and sometimes miraculous men. In addition he passes commentary on current events, or currentish events, his invective on Saladin’s conquest of Jerusalem in 1187 particularly standing out.

These bits of the text are history writing, journalism, celebrity gossip and a bit of autobiography all rolled up into one. Much of it exaggerated and much of it consisting of very forthright opinion.

While, of course, very relevant at his time,these pieces are less interesting to us (me) now and much of them are simply minutiae about religious and political figures and Map firmly nailing his colours to the mast. And his colours are very much for a good simple Christian life and against Jews, Cestercians and various other Christian sects. He disapproves of these in no small degree and says so at some length.

For all his wry humour, which might even amuse today, he took a serious tone of disapproval not just against such religious opponents but also against women and their multiple evils. None of this gives the best impression and at least some of which I hope appeared rather silly even then, though it’s not particularly out of line with much mediaeval stereotyping.

(It’s worth mentioning as an aside that a recent article by academic Stephen Gordon suggests that his hyperbolically misogynistic anti-marriage text might actually be a sarcastic attack on similar texts, which would change the whole reading of this section, but this doesn’t seem to have achieved widespread agreement at time of writing.)

Bernard of Clairvaux is a famous Cistercian, and Walter Map hates him, recounting a story of how he failed at exorcising a demon (painted here with a demon)

A modern reader might find more sympathy with him when he is proselytising against the corruption, hypocrisy and greed of the court and of certain bad rulers and religious figures. These pieces have much of the ring of the kind of political satire, lampooning and genuinely angry commentating which are today very common in all forms of media and right across the political spectrum.

Walter Map is funny, or at least trying to be funny and I’m sure he would have been considered so then. He’s a wit and often enjoyable to read – though sometimes it’s difficult to unpick what is hyperbolic for humour and what is deadly serious.

There’s no clear division between these more factual pieces of the texts and the pure stories – for many of these passages of history contain what seem fairly fanciful depictions and indeed supernatural events.

Take as an extreme the description of King Herla who ends up leading a very early variant of the Wild Hunt, which is presented as straight up fact, but which is likely to be neither – being either an original Welsh tale or a tale authorised entirely by map, consisting vicious satire on the court using tropes recognisable as belonging to welsh tales.

Nevertheless there are definite differences in tone from the parts of the work that are akin to political and historical writings and those which are more based around fabulous marvels, even if they do often overlap.

Stories and accounts of marvels

Now writings of history from the previous few hundred years or so and retellings of classical histories and stories were not uncommon at the time.

Where Map really stands out from his contemporaries is his attention to the more oddball and often more allegedly contemporary accounts that seem more reflective of current rumours and oral legend than from other manuscript sources.

The Herlathingi, a forerunner of the Wild Hunt, make a couple of appearances in Map’s work

His tales feature a menagerie of creatures that would go on to feature prominently in many folklore collections and role playing games today but were less mentioned in most sources back then.

They include walking corpses known as revenants (often called Vampires, though there are key differences), ghosts, Fairies and their connection with the dead, the Wild Hunt, Mermen, necromancers, succubi, demons, doppelgangers and centaurs. His is a world beset by supernatural threats and the occasional opportunities, at every turn.

I don’t want to overstate the uniqueness of Map – he’s one of a rare few rather than totally unique. Contemporary chroniclers such as Peter of Blois, Gerald of Wales, Ralph of Coggeshall, William of Malmesbury and William of Newburgh recorded similar marvels, and indeed some of these authors have written variations on the stories that Map covers. 

(He does appear to be unique amongst such chroniclers for not being known via the construction “Name of Place”)

The story of “Henno with the Teeth” has similarities with the Tale of Melusine

The stories are likely to be a mix of stories that Map has completely invented, for satirical purposes, significant reworkings of existing tales and some that are genuinely collected from oral traditions.

Certain of them are particular to the Welsh area in which he was raised, and will likely have been in circulation orally there, if not necessarily originating in Wales. Otherwise clearly have more distant sources: from the Mediterranean and the middle east, and may have originated in tales originally told by locals to those areas or tales of travellers who went there and returned.

There are certainly some tales that crop up in Map first, and where later manuscript versions were taken from him (King Herla being an obvious example). So in a number of cases this work is the only version of the tale.

The Shoemaker of Constantinople tells a particularly gruesome tale

While he wrote or significantly altered some of the stories, it still makes some sense to genuinely consider him a folklore collector, though the term wouldn’t be invented for many hundreds of years, but perhaps more correctly to consider him an earlier reporter of forteana: that is unexplained or supernatural phenomenon. 

Map describes himself as a “huntsman” of these tales – bringing the meat of them to his readers. And he is very explicit that he is not aiming for “elegance” in the telling of the tales but that his readers should “dress the dishes” themselves. Which is very much what I do through the podcast.

It’s nice to have an author from 900 years ago give this creative project approval from beyond the grave.

When recounting these stories or events Map often, but not always, tries to bring them together with some form of Christian moral. A moral which, to my modern eyes at least often looks incredibly tenuous when considered alongside the contents of the tale itself.

In terms of style of his stories his self-depreciating claims of his quality as a tale teller are perhaps somewhat fair. While I can’t read the original Latin, they’re clearly quite perfunctory tales, with not much in the way of first person dialogue or literary styling. 

This doesn’t make them dull to read though. In some ways this style also puts them close to a modern method of recording folklore, limiting the insertion of authorial voice, to best preserve the original tale or account, though it’s almost impossible to tell whether this is a misleading affectation, aimed to give precisely this impression – making them look more authentic when they are actually not.

What is undeniable is that the stories Map writes have had a lengthy afterlife and gone on to influence folklore and stories told to this very day. Including of course the tellings on the podcast!

Revenants – a type of Medieval undead, crop up in Map’s work.

Post Script: Walter Map’s strange Arthurian afterlife

This is not really relevant to his inclusion on the podcast – or to Map at all in some ways, however I’m including it as in interesting little titbit.

For many centuries Walter Map was cited as the author of the Vulgate Cycle, or more frequently as its translator from earlier hidden texts which Map supposedly discovered in some location, sometimes said to be Avalon itself.

The Vulgate Cycle is a collection of three absolutely key (and huge!) Arthurian texts, written in old French and now believed to date from about thirty to fifty years after Map lived. The association with him is so strong that the Vulgate Cycle is alternately called the Pseudo-Map Cycle.

While it is absolutely not the case that Map authored these works he did exist in a tradition of writers combining British (that is Welsh and Breton) legends and settings, such as those written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, with those of continental works – paving the way for Vulgate Cycle. This is why he may have later seemed a sensible figure to associate with the stories.

Th actual authors of these texts remain unknown, but for centuries after his death Walter Map was predominantly remembered as the author of these texts rather than for his actual work.

An image of Walter Map writing, taken from “The Death of King Arthur” BNF Fr 122

Episodes featuring Walter Map

Selected Sources

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