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It’s unfortunate that one of the icons of Arthur in the modern eyes is the Round Table.  As you can see above, Early Medieval feasting halls were small and simple.  Comparable to Norse longhouses, they were not very wide but could be quite long with a single table stretching most of the length of the hall, a ditch underneath for waste, benches on either side for the warriors, and a chair for the chieftain.

There is no physical evidence in the halls – no table, no ditch, no adjusted structure – for a round table during the fifth or sixth century.  There is also no evidence that it existed in Arthurian literature until Wace invented it in 1155.  And that writer, more Geoffrey of Monmouth’s translator, said only that its members were among the greatest warriors and that many were nobles and kings in their own right.

Other aspects of the Round Table could not be historical.  The concept of courtly love did not exist until Marie de Champagne patronized its inception with Andreas Capellanus and Chretien de Troyes in the late twelfth century.  The modern world has developed the Madonna/Whore perspective on women, and this was very much a part of the Arthurian world as well.  Whereas a woman who had come to the hall willing to give herself to any man in return for food and shelter was not respected, a man’s wife would have been.  But not quite the way the modern world would view respect.  A man could be involved in seven forms of marriage ranging from a one-night stand to a standing arrangement to something more convention.  Even with Christian influence he could be involved with more than one woman at a time.  By long-held custom, women could only own land if all male heirs died, and she could not pass on her possessions unless their were no male heirs

Chivalry was also not known yet.  Respect for a worthy opponent was given, but it was not expected.  Certainly kings made their way through entire careers without showing any chivalric qualities.  Early on, they were probably the most successful kings.

However, not everything about the Round Table legend may be wrong.  As a king Arthur did have a personal retinue of warriors, and Arthur’s men are mentioned time and again as the epitome of perfect warriors throughout the romances.  Arthur’s extensive court-list is highlighted in Culhwch ac Olwen and his warriors are noted for their unique qualities in Trioedd ynys Prydein.  In all of Welsh literature even the most celebrated of other kings only have one or two warriors who have been linked to them.  Not Arthur, he has over a hundred.

Their composition as Wace gives it unlikely.  Successful kings acquired land and gave it out to their best warriors so that they could serve as vassals.  In fact this arrangement would eventually become inherited and the vassals would in time develop into nobles.  In the fifth and sixth centuries there were dozens if not hundreds of kingdoms, so it seems reasonable that princes who were unlikely to succeed their fathers might have found other halls to serve in.  If that is accepted, then certainly Arthur’s may have been the most famous of them all.

Nor may the number be that far off from reality, either.  Most medieval writers gave 150 Knights of the Round Table, which in itself is an odd number I think no one has ever explained.  Historically, many of the British feasting halls that have been excavated might have held a dozen or twenty warriors, but some halls might have seated up to a hundred.  Accounting for a few vassals with war-bands of their own, 150 seems like a reasonable, if high, number of men at any one time.

The “knights” were also a fluid group, with deaths often allowing for new entries.  In an era where the maximum life-span was 55, and the average man was dead by 25, such was a given.

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