According to Laura Ashe, Associate Professor at Worcester College, Oxford, in her book “Early Fiction in England”, fiction was invented in England in the twelfth century. This was the time when English literary culture moved from celebration of collective ideals to an interest in the interior lives of people, a time of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “History of the Kings of Britain” and Wace’s “Roman de Brut”. To those illustrious names might be added that of Walter Map, the author of “Courtiers’ Trifles”.
Walter Map was born sometime between the years 1130 to 1140, of a knightly family that owned land in Wormsley, Herefordshire. The name “Map” is possibly derived from the Welsh “Ap”, meaning “son of” and might be a Norman or English nickname for someone of Welsh descent. His family decided that his future was in the church and he was obviously a man of talent because he rose rapidly, acquiring powerful patrons in Gilbert Foliot, bishop of Hereford and later London and Henry II and eventually becoming Archdeacon of Oxford. His abilities were soon diverted to a more civil service than spiritual role, taking part in various important diplomatic missions on behalf of the English crown. His wit made him quite a favourite in the court of Henry II and this book is most likely a copy of the stories with which he would regale the court. Brookes and Mynors (see below) have compared it to a twelfth century version of “1066 And All That”. Altered and added to throughout the later part of his life, and often no more than rough notes from which he could remember the story. This might account for its somewhat jumbled and repetitive nature. There is some dispute regarding the order in which it has come down to us, some authorities thinking it a haphazard jumble, Walter having died before he could put it in order. Others feel that there is a logic to it. To be on the safe side I have preserved the existing order. I have also not included the theological discussions that are a major part of the original book. These do not enthral us as much as they did the people of the twelfth century.
Walter Map seems to have been a reasonably cantankerous soul, with a special dislike of Welshmen, women and Cistercians. He also fell out with Geoffrey, the Young King, Henry’s heir. After this man’s death his prospects improved and, under Richard the Lionheart seemed likely to be appointed Bishop of Hereford. Unfortunately a crossbow bolt removed Richard from the ability to appoint bishops and King John had his own candidate. He disappears from the record books around 1210, presumably having died.
For centuries his main literary claim to fame was producing one of the earliest books on King Arthur, on which the Vulgate Arthur was based, so introducing the character of Lancelot into the cycle and moving the story from Celtic myth to medieval romance. The earliest extant version of the Cycle, from the middle of the thirteenth century, claims to be a copy of the original, “made by Walter Map at the request of King Henry, his lord.” Academics now think that this was merely literary convention, at a time when being original was not considered a positive attribute and his authorship unlikely, but academic fashions change and who knows what will be said of him in twenty years time. He is also no longer credited with an extensive corpus of ribald verse that was once attributed to him.
So all that he has left is this collection of stories. Since they were originally written in medieval Latin, fortunately for me they have been translated by M.R. James, with amendments by C.N.L. Brooke and R.A.B. Mynors. This work was, of necessity, a literal translation. I have taken the enormous liberty of developing them into what I hope are enjoyable stories, the way Walter would have wanted them. Perhaps you will hear rumblings from a forgotten tomb in Oxford. Whether this is Walter turning in his grave or having a good laugh I will leave you to decide.