Seminar Six

Foundresses in Britain

As you know, Geoffrey of Monmouth peopled Albion with giants for Brutus to conquer but did not explain their origin.  The French of England Brut tradition, followed by Latin and Middle English, develops a scandalous preliminary female foundation for Britain, by Albina and her sisters. We will look at a short prose version of this story and investigate this distinctively female prologue to Brutus’s foundation, present as it is preceding many (though by no means all) of the Bruts in their manuscripts.

In considering foundresses, we cannot overlook the roles of virgin female saints as founders, guardians and protectresses of territories for religious houses.  We look here at St Osith, an Anglo-Saxon virgin princess and foundress saint who herself was found/invented in the eleventh and twelfth centuries to supply a needed Anglo-Saxon origin for a particular Norman monastic house, and whose Latin biography was the precursor to a vernacular career.  Osith is one of a number of examples of female foundresses: Bede and Ælfric’s leading Anglo-Saxon virgin princess saint, Etheldreda of Ely, herself has a career as an Anglo-Norman virgin foundress (and a long thirteenth-century biography, La Vie de sainte Audree, by one Marie) and many other figures could be cited.

Not only countries and monastic houses but families need their founders. Lineage and genealogy are matters requiring constant re-invention and re-membering: the production of romance and chronicle literature might serve a mutual creation of patronage and poetic identities, and a number of other Anglo-Norman romances have been seen by scholars and critics to function, among other things, as romans lignagers. But the vocabulary of motifs, topoi and tale types available for the invention of tradition in elite and aspirant kin groups also embraced a wide range of what we now categorize as historiographical and/or hagiographical  rather than as romance material- as we have already seen in the case of Fouke Fitzwaryn.  Particular families do not hesitate to inscribe themselves in the Brut story in the genre of universal chronicle in their own origin stories, and we look at one of these by studying just the Prologue to the Chronicle composed for Lady Joan de Mohun.


1.  Des Grantz Geanz: a verse version of the Albina story.  The text of the Granz geanz poem is available in photocopy and a translation of the verse version will be sent on email.

2. The Life of St Osith (ed Delbert Russell, trans Jane Zatta, rev JWB) in PLL 41 (2005), 339-441 (one volume will be lent to  each student).

3. The prologue to the Mohun Chronicle, composed before 1350 for the Mohun family, most probably for Lady Joan de Mohun by Walter Hove, Abbot of Newenham (circulated by email), together with its Albina story.


All to read:

Lesley Johnson, ‘Return to Albion’, Arthurian Literature 13 (1995), 19-40.

Jane Zatta, ‘The Vie Seinte Osith: Hagiography and Politics in Anglo-Norman England’, PLL 41.3, 4 (2005), 306-338.


a) Compare and contrast (i) Osith and (ii)  Albina as paradigms of foundation, as, if you like, founding ideas.  Why should it be necessary to find or invent such figures?  Must orgins always be scandalous?

b)  On the evidence of the Prologue, what kind of cultural work might a prose family history such as the Mohun Chronicle be entrusted with and what if anything might that suggest about the roles of women in family, lineage, and cultural memory?


(i) La Vie sainte Osith: see the Bibliography accompanying the Osith text in PLL 41 (2005), 442-4.

(ii) Mohun Chronicle:  John Spence,  ‘Anglo-Norman Prose Chronicles and Their Audiences’, in English Manuscript Studies, 1100–1700: XIV, Regional Manuscripts, ed.A. S. G. Edwards (London, 2008), pp. 27–59 (on E-res).  A valuable concise overview of A-N prose chronicles.

(iii) Albina: Bibliography  (items are either on reserve, on E-res or in the reference non-circulating section at Walsh)

Dean, R. J. and Boulton, M. B., Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts, ANTS OPS 3 (London, ANTS, 1999), nos. 36-41  (lists the unedited as well as the edited manuscript versions).

Brereton, Georgine E. (ed.), Des Grantz Geanz: An Anglo-Norman Poem (Oxford: Blackwell, 1937).

Marvin, Julia, ‘Edition and Translation of the Prose Prologue to the Long Version of the Anglo-Norman Prose Brut’, Arthurian Literature 18 (2001), 185-191 (at the end of the article cited below).


Baswell, Christopher, “Albina in Motion,” in Freedom of Movement in the Middle Ages, ed. Peregrine Horden, Proceedings of the 2004 Harlaxton Symposium (Donington, 2007).

Bernau, A., ‘Beginning with Albina: Remembering the Nation’,  Exemplaria 21.3 (2009), 247-73.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

Marvin, Julia, ‘Albine and Isabelle: Regicidal Queens and the Historical Imagination of the Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Chronicles’, Arthurian Literature 18 (2001), 143-83.

Reynolds, Susan, ‘Medieval Origines Gentium and the Community of the Realm’, History 68 (1983), 375-90.