21964821911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 16 — LayamonWalter William Skeat

LAYAMON, early English poet, was the author of a chronicle of Britain entitled Brut, a paraphrase of the Brut d'Angleterre by Wace, a native of Jersey, who is also known as the author of the Roman de Rou. The excellent edition of Layamon by Sir F. Madden (Society of Antiquaries, London, 1847) should be consulted. All that is known concerning Layamon is derived from two extant MSS., which present texts that often vary considerably, and it is necessary to understand their comparative value before any conclusions can be drawn. The older text (here called the A-text) lies very near the original text, which is unfortunately lost, though it now and then omits lines which are absolutely necessary to the sense. The later text (here called the B-text) represents a later recension of the original version by another writer who frequently omits couplets, and alters the language by the substitution of better-known words for such as seemed to be obsolescent; e.g. harme (harm) in place of balewe (bale), and dead in place of feie (fated to die, or dead). Hence little reliance can be placed on the B-text, its chief merit being that it sometimes preserves couplets which seem to have been accidentally omitted in A; besides which, it affords a valuable commentary on the original version.

We learn from the brief prologue that Layamon was a priest among the people, and was the son of Leovenath (a late spelling of A.-S. Leofnoth); also, that he lived at Ernley, at a noble church on Severn bank, close by Radstone. This is certainly Areley Regis, or Areley Kings, close by Redstone rock and ferry, 1 m. to the S. of Stourport in Worcestershire. The B-text turns Layamon into the later form Laweman, i.e. Law-man, correctly answering to Chaucer’s “Man of Lawe,” though here apparently used as a mere name. It also turns Leovenath into Leuca, i.e. Leofeca, a diminutive of Leofa, which is itself a pet-name for Leofnoth; so that there is no real contradiction. But it absurdly substitutes “with the good knight,” which is practically meaningless, for “at a noble church.”

We know no more about Layamon except that he was a great lover of books; and that he procured three books in particular which he prized above others, “turning over the leaves, and beholding them lovingly.” These were: the English book that St Beda made; another in Latin that St Albin and St Austin made; whilst the third was made by a French clerk named Wace, who (in 1155) gave a copy to the noble Eleanor, who was queen of the high king Henry (i.e. Henry II.).

The first of these really means the Anglo-Saxon translation of Beda’s Ecclesiastical History, which begins with the words: “Ic Beda, Cristes theow,” i.e. “I, Beda, Christ’s servant.” The second is a strange description of the original of the translation, i.e. Albinus Beda’s own Latin book, the second paragraph of which begins with the words: “Auctor ante omnes atque adiutor opusculi huius Albinus Abba reverentissimus vir per omnia doctissimus extitit”; which Layamon evidently misunderstood. As to the share of St Augustine in this work, see Book I., chapters 23-34, and Book II., chapters 1 and 2, which are practically all concerned with him and occupy more than a tenth of the whole work. The third book was Wace’s poem, Brut d'Angleterre. But we find that although Layamon had ready access to all three of these works, he soon settled down to the translation of the third, without troubling much about the others. His chief obligation to Beda is for the well-known story about Pope Gregory and the English captives at Rome; see Layamon, vol. iii. 180.

It is impossible to enter here upon a discussion of the numerous points of interest which a proper examination of this vast and important work would present to any careful inquirer. Only a few bare results can be here enumerated. The A-text may be dated about 1205, and the B-text (practically by another writer) about 1275. Both texts, the former especially, are remarkably free from admixture with words of French origin; the lists that have been given hitherto are inexact, but it may be said that the number of French words in the A-text can hardly exceed 100, or in the B-text 160. Layamon’s work is largely original; Wace’s Brut contains 15,300 lines, and Layamon’s 32,240 lines of a similar length; and many of Layamon’s additions to Wace are notable, such as his story “regarding the fairy elves at Arthur’s birth, and his transportation by them after death in a boat to Avalon, the abode of Argante, their queen”; see Sir F. Madden’s pref. p. xv. Wace’s Brut is almost wholly a translation of the Latin chronicle concerning the early history of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who said that he obtained his materials from a manuscript written in Welsh. The name Brut is the French form of Brutus, who was the fabulous grandson of Ascanius, and great-grandson of Aeneas of Troy, the hero of Virgil’s Aeneid. After many adventures, this Brutus arrived in England, founded Troynovant or New Troy (better known as London), and was the progenitor of a long line of British kings, among whom were Locrine, Bladud, Leir, Gorboduc, Ferrex and Porrex, Lud, Cymbeline, Constantine, Vortigern, Uther and Arthur; and from this mythical Brutus the name Brut was transferred so as to denote the entire chronicle of this British history. Layamon gives the whole story, from the time of Brutus to that of Cadwalader, who may be identified with the Caedwalla of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, baptized by Pope Sergius in the year 688. Both texts of Layamon are in a south-western dialect; the A-text in particular shows the Wessex dialect of earlier times (commonly called Anglo-Saxon) in a much later form, and we can hardly doubt that the author, as he intimates, could read the old version of Beda intelligently. The remarks upon the B-text in Sir F. Madden’s preface are not to the point; the peculiar spellings to which he refers (such as same for shame) are by no means due to any confusion with the Northumbrian dialect, but rather to the usual vagaries of a scribe who knew French better than English, and had some difficulty in acquiring the English pronunciation and in representing it accurately. At the same time, he was not strong in English grammar, and was apt to confuse the plural form with the singular in the tenses of verbs; and this is the simple explanation of most of the examples of so-called “nunnation” in this poem (such as the use of wolden for wolde), which only existed in writing and must not be seriously considered as representing real spoken sounds. The full proof of this would occupy too much space; but it should be noticed that, in many instances, “this pleonastic n has been struck out or erased by a second hand.” In other instances it has escaped notice, and that is all that need be said. The peculiar metre of the poem has been sufficiently treated by J. Schipper. An abstract of the poem has been given by Henry Morley; and good general criticisms of it by B. ten Brink and others.

See Layamon’s Brut, or a Chronicle of Britain; a Poetical Semi-Saxon Paraphrase of the Brut of Wace; . . . by Sir F. Madden (1847); B. ten Brink, Early English Literature, trans. by H. M. Kennedy (in Bonn’s Standard Library, 1885); H. Morley, English Writers, vol. iii. (1888); J. Schipper, Englische Metrik, i. (Bonn, 1882), E. Guest, A History of English Rhythms (new ed. by W. W. Skeat, 1882), Article “Layamon,” in the Dict. Nat. Biog.; Six Old English Chronicles, including Gildas, Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth (in Bohn’s Antiquarian Library); Le Roux de Lincy, Le Roman de Brut, par Wace, avec un commentaire et des notes (Rouen, 1836–1838), E. Mätzner, Altenglische Sprachproben (Berlin, 1867).  (W. W. S.)