Arthur, Arthurian, Battle of Camlann, Bedevere, Calogrenant, Camlann, Cei, Ector, Erec, Gawain, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Gereint, Gwalchmai, Holy Grail, Kay, King Arthur, Knights of the Round Table, Layamon, Meleagant, Melwas, Merlin, Modred, Mordred, Owain, Perceval, Peredur, Post-Roman, Sir Thomas Malory, Sub-Roman Britain, Yvain
In the twelfth century, a translator of Geoffrey of Monmouth named Layamon, in The Brut, first said that Arthur possessed a round table around which all of his knights sat as equals. The number of said knights was supposed to be 1200. Later sources would assign Arthur anywhere from a dozen up to 150 knights.
The Welsh literature that precedes Layamon – including the Welsh Triads, Culhwch ac Olwen, the poem Pa Gur?, and various folktales – makes no mention of a round table. In their stories, Arthur is clearly the leader, and there is no democracy among his men. His men are assigned no special value, either. They are important only because they are Arthur’s men.
The idea of a round table is also not a detail supported by the historical evidence. Archeology of the period’s high status dwellings is filled with long houses. These had a pit running down the middle to collect waste, and a rectangular table over it. There would have been wooden benches on either side. At the head, and facing the door, sat the king. The number of his companions was limited by the technology of the time; certainly no more than thirty men could have been seated in any king’s hall.
Arthur would have kept deerhounds for the hunt. Either these or other dogs would have been allowed in the hall during feasts. They might have begged for scraps, but most of their food would have come from the pit under the table.
Servants were present, a cook was needed to prepare the food and someone would have been needed for bringing it in. The server would most likely have been a woman. Likely, there was more than one woman.
That said, and the obvious “companionship” available there left alone, halls were likely not a fifth-century reproduction of a modern football party. The literature of the period speaks of one warrior being ‘meek as a maid’, and the comparison is a compliment. There were professional jugglers, jesters, and even farters, but the simple fact that bards and all their skills were highly valued speaks volumes about the importance of culture in the king’s hall.
Layamon clearly did not get the idea of a round table from previous sources. However, looking at his portrayal of Arthur one gets the distinct impression Layamon is speaking of King Richard, a contemporary and one of the most beloved rulers in English history. In contrast to Layamon’s predecessors Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace, the Arthur in his history is more knightly, has more pomp associated with him, and is a defender of Christianity, law, and order. In short, he is more like the Richard who was a contemporary of the book.