British History, 407-597, by Fabio P. Barbieri

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Appendix 10: Mil Du the Knight

Fabio P. Barbieri

Mil Du turns up in two widely different Breton stories, the Life of St.Malo and the heroic poem Yonec.  The less impressive of his two appearances is in the Life, an undistinguished fiction copied almost word for word from the adventures of the Irish St.Brendan the Navigator.  One of the few episodes not imitated from Brendan is the meeting of the adventurous company of monks with a giant called Mil Du, buried on an island.  Raised to temporary new life, he helps them in their quest and as a reward is absolved of his sins post mortem and returned to his rest.  There are two inferences to be drawn from this: that Mil Du’s life was seen as sinful, but not irredeemable; and that he died without the chance of getting absolution, that is, presumably, in battle.  That the Life interrupts its steady imitation of the Life of St.Brendan to insert a legend whose closest parallel does not belong to Ireland at all, shows that someone had an interest in placing this ancient figure under the protection of the local Saint, and this suggests that if there were descendants of Mil Du anywhere in Britain, they were in the diocese of St. Malo.

The parallel for the story of the resurrected giant comes from North Britain and concerns Caw, the father of Arthur’s opponent Hueil.  The Life of St.Cadoc says that the Saint, who had gone to Scotland to found a monastery, found an enormous collarbone and prayed and fasted to be allowed to understand the mystery.  In answer to his prayer, the owner of the collarbone, an enormous giant, was raised up to answer their questions.  He told the Saint that his name was Caw of Prydein and that he lived beyond Mount Bannog (that is, Campsie Fells; the ancient name is preserved in the river Bannockburn).  He regularly sailed to raid the country where Cadoc was now, until, after years of pirate raids, he was killed by its king; and he died unshriven.  The Saint promises him absolution in exchange for the help of his great physical strength in building and serving around the monastery.  Because of the fame of the miracle, the local king (the Life says, anachronistically, the king of Scotland) grants the new monastery “twenty-four homesteads”[1].

This is an important detail.  The granting of land strongly suggests that somebody had reason to feel grateful to the Saint; or rather (given that this is an account centuries later, and cannot be taken to be historical) that the possession of these twenty-four homesteads was justified in terms of the favour done to Caw by letting him out of Hell.  That, in turn, suggests opposing post mortem views of Caw: what the legend seems to be doing is justifying a positive view of the ancient king as redeemed, in God’s grace, a benefactor, in the face of a strong historical memory that made him a raider and a pirate justly slain in battle by the legitimate “King of the country”, and who, having died in his sins on the field of battle, had quite rightly gone to Hell with the applause of all his victims.

It was the monastery that had to justify the positive view of Caw; and it justified it by saying that the hero had helped build the monastery itself, thus atoning for his crimes.  And as he was known to have died long before the monastery itself was founded, the difficulty was got over by having him resurrected.  The narrative difficulty is visibly in how to get the dead man resurrected in the first place; Cadoc’s prayer to be enlightened about the mystery of the collarbone is not an adequate reason to contravene the laws of nature by resurrecting a long-dead man (or giant).  The idea of the monstrous bone proving the immense size of a past hero is a widespread one, told for instance of our old friend Hygelac[2], but rarely in connection with a resurrection; the one does not imply the other.  In other words, this story is specific to the particular time and place in Scotland, that is, it is, as I argued, an answer to the specific problem of a monastery which honoured a hero whose memory other groups in the same country held in horror.

One thing that follows from this is that the description of Caw’s activities is probably historical, or at least older than the legend itself; since the legend was constructed to rescue Caw’s memory from his reputation as a bandit.  That reputation is not contested; interesting, in view of the fact that Caw was remembered elsewhere as the father of several saints, including the indubitably historical Gildas and one Maelog, who may well have been the bishop of that name in the British colony in Spanish Galicia[3].  It is also exactly the same account as is given of his mighty son Hueil.  The career of both is said to have lasted a long time – in the case of Hueil, it is clearly said that his raiding lasted for years; it is not a matter of a single war, but of continuous, probably seasonal piracy.  Both of them come raiding by sea rather than by land; in the case of Caw this is particularly significant, since his kingdom definitely was on land rather than on any island – its border, according to the Life, was on “Mount Bannog”.  And both were eventually caught up with and killed by “the king of the land”, who, in the Life of Gildas, is none other than Arthur.  No other source known to me has Caw being killed by Arthur or anyone, and it is possible to suspect a certain amount of confusion between the patriarch and the most famous – bar Gildas – of his sons; it goes without saying that the politics and great deeds of the descendants of Caw would tend to be attributed to their longfather.  But we need not doubt the Arthurian context; indeed, if we suggest that Caw has been confused with Hueil, the association is strengthened.  Even the giant size of Caw (and Mil Du in the Life of Malo) might hint at Arthurian lore, since we know from The Dream of Ronabwy that the heroes of Arthur’s court were believed to have been giants, and that Arthur looked with pitying scorn on the tiny men left to defend the island after his generation passed away.

It is therefore interesting that two separate heroes, at the opposite ends of the British world, both enemies of Arthur, should be attributed similar stories of resurrection and redemption through the agency of the local saint, who, in both cases, is committed to founding a monastery.  An important difference is the site: while Caw’s great bone is found, it seems, on the very grounds of the monastery Cadoc is building, Mil Du in the story of Malo is found on a fabulous island in the course of the saint’s sea journey.  Now it makes plenty of sense for Caw to be closely associated with the monastery; it gives us an obvious reason why his memory should be honoured there even though other parts of Scotland reviled it.  Quite simply, whatever the historical association of any historical Cadoc with the site in Scotland, the monastery must have pertained to the family and kingdom of Caw.  On the other hand, this tells us just as clearly that Mil Du was known not to have died anywhere near Malo’s eventual stomping grounds in Brittany; and given that Malo’s Life is not only imitative but quite late – scholarly opinion dates it to the ninth or tenth centuries – it seems clear that whoever wanted Mild Du’s reputation cleaned up was quite aware, even so long after the facts, that Mil Du had died nowhere near Saint-Malo.

There can be no doubt that the story reflects a desire to clean up Mil Du’s name.  In his case as in that of Caw, we are not told that they were pagans, but that they died in their sins and that they are in bad need of rescue from Hell; that is, not as pagans, but as bad Christians.  Ad it follows that in both cases the monasteries concerned by the stories had reason to want to pull the ancient heroes’ reputation from the mire.

It is interesting to find that two traditions about enemies of Arthur, so close in many ways in spite of coming from the opposite ends of the British world, both seem to leave the king’s name out of the account.  The name of “the King of the country” in the Life of Cadoc is not mentioned, and nor is that of the enemy of Mildumarec in Yonec.  That is understandable in the case of Yonec, in a country and a time where the memory of the great King was revered; it is not so easy to understand in that of Caw and Cadoc, in which “the King of the country” was in the right, and there was no perceivable reason for his identity to be obscured.  And be it noted that the difficulty would be the same even if we did not take Arthur to be that king: why not mention the name of someone who was, according to the story, manifestly in the right, and who defended the men of the country?  But there are enough reasons to think that Arthur is the victorious enemy in both stories.

Whatever the case, this reminds me of the vanishing of the name of St.Patrick in the story of Ninian, discussed in Book IV; and we remember that that that, too, came from the old British lands of the North.  It is hard to examine an ancient, isolated culture that fell under Viking and Scottish blows long ago and whose very fingerprints are only to be sought for in material that has passed through two or three other languages after; but there seems to be, in all of these negative stories of famous men, a certain common habit of shrouding identities and not mentioning names.  What strongly suggests that the identity of Arthur was known to the authors and the readers of the Northern material that eventually entered the Vita Cadoci is that of the two stories, that of Caw and that of Mil, Du, that of Caw is certainly the archetype, and that of Mil Du the imitation.  Even if we did not know on other grounds that the Life of St.Malo is a tissue of imitations from older Saints’ lives, it seems to me undeniable that the Northern story is by far the better constructed, better rooted, and the one whose origin is easier to explain.  Its roots are in that Northern soil in which someone granted twenty-four homesteads to a specific monastery in the name of Caw of Prydein.  That Caw was held to have helped build Cadoc’s monastery means that his family had done so.  The deed was attributed, as so often, to the patriarch; and when annalistic computation proved that an early-sixth-century Caw could not have assisted a late-sixth-century Cadoc, he was simply resurrected to do so.  We know the place, the name, and the reason.  On the other hand, Mil Du’s body rests neither in Brittany nor in Britain, but in an unnamed island in the ocean, and there is no proper reason for him to appear to the monks at all: they do not directly receive any benefit from him, except to continue their journey – certainly they do not receive twenty-four material, this-worldly, tangible homesteads to base their legend on.

On the other hand, the heirs of Caw and those of Mil Du have a common problem: to raise the profile and clean the reputation of a patriarch who died in battle at the hands of the most famous of all kings.  Which, in turn, suggests that the adoption of the Caw/Cadoc story by the author of the Life of St.Malo was no accident, and that he understood the common plight of the two heroes.  But the story of Caw, as we have it, does not name the king of the land; and the story of Mil Du and Malo does not mention the enemy who killed him at all.  Yet why adopt this peculiar account, which is not, to the best of my knowledge, a hagiographical commonplace – in fact, I would be surprised if it turned up in any other saint’s life except these two – unless the plagiarist author of the Life of St.Malo had seen good reason to adopt this particular story?  And in that case, can it be a coincidence that both patriarchs shared one enemy, and that that enemy certainly killed the one and the son of the other?

There is another reason, though very weak and vague, to suspect that the author of the Life of St.Malo knew of Arthur as Mil Du’s enemy: namely, the island in the middle of the ocean in which he was buried.  In Glewlwyd’s words to Arthur, when he slew Mil Du son of Dugum, he destroyed the retinue of Gleis (current) son of Merin (sea).  Unless this is a separate boast of Glewlwyd’s, alluding to some fabulous or invented adventure, this seems to suggest that Mil Du son of Dugum was a man of the sea, a pirate, and that in challenging and destroying him, Arthur destroyed the power of the ocean.  This, if any faith could be placed on the chain of argument, would seem to agree with the Mil Du of the Life of St.Malo being buried in an island somewhere in the Atlantic.  The story was indubitably placed in the Life in deference to family traditions of some important family in the St.Malo area; and it seems that those traditions involved the death and burial of the patriarch in an ocean island.

The bad reputation and bad end of Mil Du are both reflected in what is by far the most substantial of his two legends, in which he features as Mildumarec, that is Welsh Mil Du Marchog, Mil Du the Knight: Marie de France’s lai Yonec (a lai is a short heroic or romantic story in verse, reputed to come originally from Brittany)[4].  The story goes hat there was once a very rich old man in Britain, who married a very young and beautiful woman for the sake of having children and jealously shut her in a tower.  However, she was visited by a bird who turned into a handsome young Christian man (she tested his religion before she gave herself to him).  The old man got wind of it, and laid a trap for the bird: as it flew into the window of the lady’s tower, hidden blades cut his wings to ribbons.  He only had time to tell his lover that she was pregnant by him, and that she was to call their son and future avenger Yonec, a messianic name meaning “the desired one[5]”.  Clad only in her shift, she fled the tower through the window (some magic power, perhaps, protected her, since it was a twenty-foot jump) and followed the blood trail of her beloved to a wonderful city, where every house, hall and tower seemed made of solid silver and the harbour was full of over 300 ships.  (Reading though the exaggerated description, we perceive that this was an important harbour in Britain, surrounded by fertile fields and protected by swamps and forests.)  She found her dying beloved, who sent her back to her husband, with the gift of a ring and a sword for their son.  Yonec grew up in the house of his mother’s husband, but on a holy day[6], he was taken as if by chance to the former kingdom and tomb of his real father.  His mother told him the truth and promptly died of grief; he made use of his father’s sword on his stepfather’s head, and took over his father’s kingdom, whose throne had been kept vacant in expectation of him.

At the hart of this story there is a crowing sense of triumph at the expense of the legitimate but undeserving husband, who all but bought his beautiful young wife for no other reason than to have a child and not only had none, but ended up being punished by the person he thought to be his son but who is in fact the son and heir, acclaimed by his subjects, of the man he hounded to death – the hero Mildumarec.  Mildumarec had died, not in a fair fight, but by deception and treachery.  He had paid dearly for what the legend admits was the invasion of another man’s bed; and so did his wife; but while the old man’s childless death is clearly meant as a “serve-him-right!”, the deaths of the lovers are just as clearly meant to atone for their adultery and are, therefore, redemptive and fruitful.  What they do is clean any stains that might otherwise have stuck to the son and heir, the desired one of his people.  In other words, the fate of the individuals takes second place to the destiny of the dynasty, whose continuation is what the people desire; and that is sufficient to prove the dynastic origin of the legend and to show that the dynasty to which it pertained still existed when it was first turned into a permanent story or song, and was still concerned to be clean of the stain of what it took to be its adulterous origin.

Given that we are investigating Mil Du as ex hypothesi an enemy of Arthur, it is very odd to find that the character who kills the hero and is in turn killed by his heir is an unmilitary, grasping old man[7]; but the central elements of the story on the one hand, of Mild Du’s mention in Cullhwch on the other, confirm the identity.  The central, crowing point of the story is that, while the triumphant and legitimate husband has no sons, the persecuted and destroyed lover – whose people were without a king for decades because of his death, until his heir came back – has a descent; a long one, to judge by the fact that it was still around in Brittany long enough to have its dynastic legend recorded, and to influence the Life of St.Malo.  And we have seen that a defining point of the tragedy of Arthur is that his son or sons pre-deceased him, so that he had no heir; a point which no defeated enemy could fail to contemplate with glee.  That the dynasty of Mil Du endured, I repeat, we know from the mere existence of this story; and if that would not give them a warm feeling of contemptuous superiority over their mighty enemy, I don’t know what would.  From the other side, we have seen that Mil Du was defined in the tradition that went into Cullhwch and Olwen as an enemy Arthur defeated and killed; and the protagonist of Yonec is likewise defined as the hero defeated and killed by the old husband.  That is central to the whole story.  Finally, there is the fact that when all is said and done, he was committing adultery, which the Christian Middle Ages would approve no more than the pagan Celtic antiquity; and this seems to relate to his spiritual condition in the Life of St.Malo, in which he needs absolution to be freed from Hell – evidently, he died in his sins.  The legend of Yonec, in effect, accepts that what Yonec’s father was doing was wrong, but justifies it; the legend of St.Malo confirms that he died doing what is wrong.  The tradition is therefore unanimous: all the traditions define Mil Du by his fall and his sins; two of them attribute to him a definite enemy, to be identified with Arthur.

A good deal of thought has gone into the story of Yonec.  Take for instance the irony of the name, which might, for the lady’s husband, have stood for his long hope of an heir, but which in fact embodies the expectation of revenge on him.  It was certainly not the work of Marie de France, who makes nothing of the irony and who seems not to have spoken Welsh/Breton; which shows that the legend has a long prehistory. The fact that it is set in the island of Britain, a setting which is underlined with considerable insistence, is significant; in particular, it is made quite clear that the bird-lover, in spite of his magical characteristics, is not a fairy or other supernatural being, but a Christian man like herself.  He even takes Communion in her presence (Marie de France does not seem to have stopped to wonder at this somewhat dubious use of the Body of God to explore the suitability of a candidate for the sin of adultery!), and she manages to walk from her husband’s tower[8] to his city in what seems quite a short time.  She goes over a hill, and there is the city beyond it; there is not even mention of day and night, as though it was maybe one day’s walk for a tired, uncomfortable young woman “naked except for her shift” and prostrated by grief.  In other words, the bird-lover was the lord of a neighbouring kingdom, if not indeed their own overlord.

There is much in this story to remind us of Arthur, and even more of Guinevere.  The unnamed lady is a kin of reverse Guinevere: Arthur’s queen is often confined inside castles or towers, but it is, without any exception, by her abductors, and it is quite an Arthurian cliché to see Arthur and his knights, or Lancelot, besieging, storming or penetrating a castle in which the queen is kept.  A variation of this occurs in the Vulgate Morte d’Arthur, in which the queen shuts herself of her own will in the Tower of London to escape Mordred’s advances.

What is more, everything that happens to the bird-lover is reminiscent of what happens to Lancelot in Le chevalier de la charrette, Chretien de Troyes’ romance.  Lancelot, like Mildumarec, has to enter a foreign kingdom which he has never visited to free his beloved from a tower.  Lancelot, in a famous episode, has to crawl along a sharp-edged sword; to reach his beloved in her inaccessible tower, and cuts himself to ribbons (Knight of the Cart 3124-3130; Chretien lays great emphasis on the fact that it is the power of his love for Guinevere that drives him on that agonizing path); Mildumarec cuts himself to ribbons on a spike while reaching her.  Both stories have special mention of the spite, jealousy and unfairness of the man who holds the heroine, Meleagant (3150-3194) and the unnamed old husband.  Both the queen and the heroine of Yonec are so closely imprisoned that no human being can reach them (though in Knight of the Cart this, curiously, includes Meleagant himself; 3364-3404).  Lancelot finally enters Guinevere’s private room through a window, and there is some play, in both stories, about the iron bars that close it; Mildumarec-the-bird flies through them, Lancelot bends them back and forth like rubber (4612-4666)[9]; he is, however, slightly cut in going through, as if in a memory of the blood he shed at the Sword Bridge – and an echo of Mildmarec’s’s horrible wounds when entering through the window.  In their final meeting, Mildumarec’s lover wore only a shift (and in this poor clothing she walked all the way to his kingdom); in their only meeting in her room, Guinevere wears only a white smock.  They manage to have sex in spite of the presence of one person who should have given the alarm; in Yonec, the old husband’s evil spinster sister; in The knight of the cart, Kai, who was sleeping in the same room, and who, as King Arthur’s man[10], could not possibly be expected to tolerate adultery against the King (and, in spite of the presence of that terzo incomodo, Meleagant, this reminds us that the person who suffers most from their adultery is King Arthur, Mil Du’s enemy).  There is a common theme of the adulterous lover leaving his trace by his bloodstains, and a common visual picture of red blood on white sheets (4755-4758)[11].  And if Lancelot is not, unlike Mildumarec, killed, at least there is a well-substantiated rumour of his death that reaches the queen in her tower (4125-4262) – which said that Lancelot had been killed on his way from the tower to the border between Gorre and Logres, not unlike the way Mildumarec died after crossing the border between the husband’s kingdom and his own. 

The notice that Meleagant is also kept from Guinevere, has probably a different origin from the group of items which connect Lancelot to Mildumarec.  It is one of a group of notices which seem to harken back straight to two of the greatest Indo-European epics.  These notices include the very existence of Meleagant’s father, the righteous king Baudemagus, who has no parallel in Yonec and whose relationship to his wicked abductor son Meleagant is comparable both to that of the Indian Dhartarashtra with his son Duryodhana, and of Priam with Paris.  The relationship of Guinevere with the two characters is reminiscent both of fair Draupadi’s relationship with Dhartarashtra and Duryodhana, with the beautiful queen appealing to the father to protect her from the injustice of the son; and of Helen’s relationship with Priam.  At one point, Guinevere and Baudemagus stand on the walls of Baudemagus’ castle to watch the duel of Lancelot and Meleagant, for all the world like Helen and Priam watching the Greek hosts from the walls of Troy –Iliad 3.145-244 – which is immediately followed by the scene in which the King’s wicked son, cause of the war, is defeated in duel by his enemy and only saved from death by Guinevere’s request, for all the world like Paris saved from Menelaus by the power of Love, Aphrodite, when he had already been well and truly defeated in a formal judicial duel – Il.3.245-382, which is followed by a strong reminder of the close connection between Helen and Aphrodite; in effect, the power of Love has saved Paris for Helen, just as the power of Guinevere’s love has saved Meleagant.  But in both cases, it is made clear that the dark lover and anti-hero is only saved for a time; in The knight of the cart, Meleagant is misled, the very next morning, into swearing a false oath about Guinevere, so that Lancelot can legitimately kill him; and though postponed for a while, the killing punctually concludes the story.

I will explore these analogies when I start my projected investigation of epic traditions; for the time being, it only matters in so far as it can show that the points in which The knight of the cart does not agree with Yonec are points in which it has a quite different, expansive and structured source.  The knight of the cart represents the fusion of at least two different narrative traditions, which argues that the material which went into Yonec was earlier; but the parallels between the Lancelot of Chretien and the Mildumarec of Marie de France certainly hint at a common prehistory which I hope to investigate in the future.  Certainly they do nothing to deny that the legend of Mil Du and his long-desired son had Arthurian connections.


[1] Vita Cadoci, in A.W.WADE-EVANS, Vitae Sanctorum Britanniae et genealogiae, Cardiff 1944.

[2] NEWTON, Origins op.cit., p.7

[3] See Maelog, in P.C.BARTRUM, Encyclopedia op.cit.  It is clear from Bartrum’s account that Maelog son of Caw was known to have been an ecclesiastic, but that not much else was known about him; which would be understandable if he had gone abroad, taking a high appointment in the Church of the most distant and least enduring of all the British colonies.  Gildas died in 570 according to the Irish annals, and the Irish had good reason to remember him; Maelog of Galicia was alive in 574; if Hueil was an adult by 516, when illness prevented him from fighting at Badon, and died some time before 528, then he must have been considerably the elder of both.  This is not a great problem: the entry in Caradoc’s Life of Gildas strongly suggests that Hueil was Caw’s expected heir, and while there was no automatic correspondence between being the eldest son and inheriting the throne, if a king’s son shows the eminent qualities attributed to Hueil he would have been universally expected to follow him.  Maelog and Gildas would be the children of Caw’s middle or old age.  And finally, one wonders whether the fact that not only Gildas, but a plural number of sons and daughters of Caw were known to have entered the Church – the Life of Gildas by a monk of Ruys, which is probably more legendary in various ways than that of Caradoc of Lancarfan, mentions four; triadic tradition speaks of many more, and the list grew down the ages – had anything to do with the later Frankish practice of shutting up the heirs of defeated royal lines in monasteries and tonsuring them.  If Arthur had wanted to defang a hostile dynasty without actually being seen to murder children, this would probably be the most natural way.

[4]The lais of Marie de France, Harmondsworth 1986, 87-93.

[5] “Le nom de Désiré est une traduction de Iunet, corrompu diversement en Ionec, Yonec, Iwenet, Iwenec, [Lozach’meur, Études Celtiques, t.15, 289-290].  Le nom de son père Mildumerec est une evidente coruption d’un nom composé Mildu, “Bête Noire”… et de Marhec, “Chevalier”…”  LEON FLEURIOT, Les lais, in Histoire literaire et culturelle de la Bretagne, Paris 1987, Vol.!, P.132.

[6] The feast of Sts.Aaron and Julius, 3 July, two British martyrs mentioned by Gildas.  This makes it very clear, if more evidence were needed, that the story is very firmly rooted in the island of Britain, and that the kingdom of Mildumereth is in Britain and not anywhere else.

[7] The status of the elderly husband is doubtful.  Marie de France calls him an avouez, which (according to the note in the Penguin edition, 127) in her time could mean the rapacious “advocates” who managed and as often as not stole the lands of the Church; which means that if he had had his desired heir, that heir would probably have inherited land which not only was not his by right, but which belonged to the heirs of Saints and martyrs.  This detail may be peculiar to the story, and it just possibly might reflect Arthur’s bad reputation as a despoiler of the Church (Life of St.Paternus) and besieger of abbeys (Life of St.Gildas by Caradoc).

[8] Her husband’s fief (or possibly the Church fief which he usurped, see previous note) is supposed to be Caerwent; but, given the great `time-span between the time of Mil Du and Arthur and that of Marie de France, this proves next to nothing; except that the Arthurian associations of Caerwent are another echo of the great king.

[9] Chretien had earlier established that Lancelot’s grip was inescapable, like iron – 813-845.

[10] When speaking up for himself, Kai underlines very strongly his loyalty to King Arthur; 4878ff.

[11] The fact that Meleagant mistakenly thinks that it is Kai who left the bloodstains reminds us of the Welsh poem in it is not Arthur but Kai who contends with Melwas for Gwennhwyvar.  The presence of Kai in The knight of the cart and the theme of the misunderstood betrayal might suggest a third source, originally related to the theme of the Welsh poem, but reduced to contemptuous burlesque because of the Breton/Continental tradition’s detestation for Kai.

History of Britain, 407-597 is copyright © 2002, Fabio P. Barbieri. Used with permission.

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