Laȝamon’s Brut is a translation and reworking of an earlier text, Roman de Brut, written by Wace in around 1155. The Roman de Brut is the earliest surviving vernacular chronicle of British history and was originally written in Anglo-Norman, the language spoken in Normandy and by the Norman elite in Britain after the Norman Conquest of 1066. It is named after ‘Brutus’, who was the legendary founder and first king of Britain. The text uses a variety of sources, but is mainly based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1138 work Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain).
In the 13th century, the poet Laȝamon translated Wace’s work into an early form of Middle English. His text comprises 16,000 lines of alliterative verse, meaning that there is internal rhyme within the units of the lines themselves. The verse harks back to Old English heroic verse, particularly in the way that it uses what are called ‘kennings’, poetic compound words frequently found in Old English and Old Norse verse that use metaphor in a very compressed way. In the opening lines of Beowulf we find the word ‘hronrad’, for instance, which translates as ‘whale-road’, and means the sea.
The text is a kind of pseudo-history of Britain up to the 7th century, beginning with the story of the supposed founding of the nation. It describes the Roman conquest of Britain and then the legendary brothers, Hengist and Horsa, who brought the Angles, Jutes and Saxons to Britain. After this, the story focusses on the myth of King Arthur. In this sense, Laȝamon’s text differs from Wace, his source, in that there is more material relating to Arthur.
Laȝamon’s version of the Brut survives in two manuscripts. This one, Cotton MS Caligula A ix, also contains the Owl and the Nightingale. The other manuscript, Cotton MS Otho C xiii, was damaged in a terrible fire in 1731.
Who was Laȝamon?
We know almost nothing about Laȝamon, whose name roughly translates as ‘lawman’. In the prologue he says that he is a priest at Areley Kings in Worcestershire. The third letter in his name, ȝ, known as ‘yogh’, is a letter found in Middle English which is no longer in use in Modern English. It makes a sound similar to the ‘ch’ in the Scottish word ‘loch’.