Medieval Lore: Des Grantz Geanz, or Of the Great Giants

Artist: William Blake – (Public Domain) Source

Des Grantz Geanz, Of the Great Giants

During the Middle Ages a very strange and very popular story appeared that told how the island today known as Britain was first named as  Albion. It appeared as an anonymous Anglo-Norman poem called Des Grants Geanz (Of the Great Giants) ca 1333-34  and often appeared as a prologue in the Brut chronicles, or Prose Brut.  This was the collective name for a number of medieval works written in Anglo-Norman chronicling the history of Britain from its mythological founding  by Brutus of Troy to the Plantagenet period.

The poem should be read as an allegorical work and tells how a Greek or Syrian princess named Albina and her twenty eight sisters were sent into exile arriving on the shores of an unknown country and with supernatural assistance created a new society.  When it first appeared it was largely accepted as being true despite the highly fantastic elements that were featured in the story. There were several versions which varied slightly in detail depending who was doing the telling and where they were found.  Presented her is a retelling of the story from more than one source followed by a brief discussion of some of the main questions and themes.

The Story of Albina and her Sisters

This story begins 3,970 years after the world began.  In Greece there was a king who was the most powerful king on Earth and more powerful than all of the other kings combined.  This king was exceptionally tall and married a beautiful wife who was also exceptionally tall. She bore him thirty daughters who were all very beautiful and very straight and tall like their parents.  There names are not known except for the oldest and tallest whose name was Albina.

The king and queen brought their daughters up ensuring they were taught all the royal protocols that behooved their status.  When they reached an appropriate age their father decreed they should all be married to rich and powerful kings and with their marriage they became queens.  They were very proud of their status as the daughters of the most powerful king on Earth and that with marriage they had become queens but there was a resentment that festered within each of them.  After the marriages the sisters contrived to meet together as one group. In this group the sisters discussed a common grievance they saw as an unjust part of the femmine fate which in their eyes put them at an unfair disadvantage in their society.  

The Murderous Plot

In the discussion that ensued it was agreed that not one of them would allow her husband to have sovereignty over her and furthermore, each would bind their husband to their own will.  They believed that being daughters of the most powerful king on Earth they themselves should not be subjected to the dominion of their husbands or any man. For this reason they were adamant that they would be ruled by no man or allow their own status and standing to be challenged or diminished by anyone.   This philosophy was agreed by each and everyone of them and to ensure this desire should reach fruition they devised a murderous plot. They took powerful oaths swearing that on a certain day they would murder their husbands while they were locked in close embrace in bed unless they should agree to obey the will of their wife in all of their doings.

With the plan of action agreed the sisters each returned to their respective husbands intent on carrying it out. However, the youngest sister had secretly not fully embraced the plan.  Although she had sworn an oath with the others it was because she was terrified of them and feared her sisters would kill her. Upon returning home she realised she loved her husband more than anything and could not find it in herself to do him harm.

The Plot Unmasked

Although she tried to hide her grief and fear from her husband he loved her greatly and saw through her and asked her what the problem was.  At this she broke down before him and revealed the extent of her sister’s conspiracy and begged his forgiveness for having gone along thus far with it.  Her husband took her in his arms and comforted her for he understood her fear of her sisters and knew full well how much she loved him. In his caring embrace she calmed down and her heart filled with love for him.  After reassuring her further he took her to see her father, the king, to disclose to him the full treachery of her sisters. Her father was both astounded at the plot and appalled. Once he understood completely the full magnitude of what his daughters were planning he had them  brought before him accompanied by their husbands and confronted them.  

The Trial

At first they denied the plot but he persisted with his questioning and with his perseverance the murderous plot was slowly unveiled to the horror of their husbands.  The king put them before independent judges who listened to their denials but investigated wisely. Eventually they found all the sisters with the exception of the youngest guilty of the intended murder of their husbands.  She was held to have initially agreed to the plot under fear of her sisters and because it was her who had revealed it to her husband she was fully cleared of guilt.

Punishment

The guilty sisters were imprisoned until a fitting punishment could be devised for them. Although such a crime usually warranted the death penalty it was decided that because they were all children of the most powerful king on Earth and his noble queen and indeed queens themseves they should be spared.  Instead of execution a large ship was prepared for them. This would be deprived of rudder or means of navigation and furnished with no food, water or any kind of comfort. Once the sisters had been escorted on board the ship was towed out to the open sea where it was left at the mercy of the waves, currents, wind and the mercy of the gods.  When this was done there was no one who pitied them for they had shown no regret or remorse only vexation that they had been found out and grief and sorrow for their own fate.

The Storm at Sea

The ship drifted with the currents for a few days before the wind began to blow hard and the sea became wild.  While at one moment the ship rode the crest of a wave, the next it plunged into its trough and the women were thrown from side to side trying to desperately to find something solid to cling to.  At any time the women could have been thrown overboard or the ship overwhelmed by the waves.  

At last all the women could do was huddle together in the bottom of the ship, hungry, thirsty and terrified while lamenting their present state of wretchedness.  Once they had they been royal queens and feasted on the best food and victuals and had servants at their beck and call. Now they were wretched and terribly afraid of their fate which was firmly in the hands of the gods.  Many days and nights passed in this way and at last the women passed out through hunger, fatigue and sea sickness. For three days and nights they lay insensible to the world while all the time the ship was driven wildly across the seas.

An Unknown Land

At last the storm abated and the ship gently floated to the shore of a land that is now called Britain but in those times had no name for there were no human inhabitants.  The sisters awoke from their sleep to find the ship had come to rest upon a fair and pleasant land. Greatly relieved and overjoyed they quickly followed Albina the eldest sister in stepping onto solid ground again.  Being famished they were greatly relieved to find an abundance of nuts, fruit and berries to satisfy their hunger and they quenched their thirst from the pure springs of water of which there were many. After rest and refreshment they began to explore the unknown shore venturing further inland.  They roamed the length and breadth of the land discovering it was in fact an island and were delighted to find many streams of clean fresh water and rivers and lakes abundant in fish and water birds. The land was home to plentiful game and there were many fruit and nut trees. Herbs and roots were easily found on the ground and they found rich, fertile meadows suitable for cultivation of vegetables and grain.  Although the land appeared to be able to host great cities full of people with enough farms to feed them they saw no sign of human occupation or that it had ever been settled. 

Albion

Although it was clear they would never again be queens the abundance of animals and birds greatly reassured them.  After their exploration Albina called her sisters together saying,

“We must face that we as exiles cannot return to our native land and regain our former status as queens even if we could find our way back.  Therefore, lets us see that we are indeed fortunate and fortune has delivered us to this island. I propose that with myself being the oldest of us it would be right that I take the rule and lordship of this land and you should all accept my command  and because I was the first to set foot upon this land took seisin in doing so.”

When her proposition had been approved by all and Albina was made the leader over them with her authority recognised and accepted she named the land “Albion” after herself, so people in the future would remember her.

Although the land provided an abundance of fruit, nuts and plants to eat the women began to crave meat.  They were clever and resourceful women and quickly learned how to make hooks and nets to catch fish and fashioned traps to catch birds and animals.  They learnt how to make fire from flints and how to roast the game they caught. They used the skins for clothing and bones for needles and tools and learnt how to make flint knives, arrowheads and spears.  In this way they feasted upon the bounty of the land and drank from its pure waters. 

They feasted so well that they grew fatter and stronger their sexual desire grew and they yearned to satisfy their carnal needs but there were no men and no other humans.  Nevertheless what they did not know was that the air over the land was inhabited by demon spirits known as incubuses who fed off the women’s basest desires and emotions. They came to the women at night in the shape of men and impregnated them  with their demon seed and then vanished.

The Giants of Albion

Although the women could not see the men they all experienced the male presence and each gave birth to male offspring that was both gigantic in size and grotesquely resembled human beings.  When their sons reached maturity they mated with their mothers who produced males and females. Brother mated with sister to produce a new generation of monstrous giants huge in physique and grotesque in appearance. These were the descendants of Albina and her sisters who had grown huge and abhorrent themselves and the incubi .   In this way monsters mated with monsters and gave birth to monsters and abhorrent things mated with abhorrent things begetting abhorrent things that were gigantic in stature. The giants of Albion bred and populated the land and made for themselves underground dwellings or fortified the hills with great walls and stitches, some of which can still be seen today scattered across the ancient landscape though many have decayed over the ages.

Brutus of Troy

The giants lived peacefully for many years until the arrival to Albion of Brutus of Troy with an  army of Trojans exiles. The Trojans arrived on Albion 1,136 years before the birth of Christ, while Albina and her sisters had arrived 260 years before them.   On arrival Brutus set about exterminating the giants and claimed Albion as his own renaming it Britain after himself, so that people in the future would remember him.  The last of the giants was named Gogmagog and was the largest and strongest of his race and their leader.   After the slaughter of his kin the Brutus kept him alive to fight his lieutenant Corinieus, in single combat and was defeated and thrown him from a cliff to die in the sea.

This, according to the ancient texts was the beginning of the nation known after Brutus of Troy as the British who took control of the entire island after the extermination of the brood of giants.

Questions and Themes

This story still raises many questions and there is much more to it than a simple story.  The narrative reveals the tension between male and female – patriarchal society and that of matriarchy –  in the Middle Ages. This is seen in the initial rejection by Albina and her sisters of male dominance not just in marriage but in society and status.  It was not equality the sisters allegedly sought but sovereignty over themselves and over their husbands wanting to rule them and all others to their will. In short they wanted mastery of themselves, their bodies and their lives for themselves while ruling over males.

Murder would have been bad enough but dominance and control over men threatened patriarchal authority and could not be tolerated hence their exile.  In the medieval patriarchal view the family was a microcosm of the state and anything that threatened the status quo within it also threatened the state and male dominated society.

On arrival on to Albion it is noticeable that the already tall sisters grew fatter and stronger and their mating with incubus resulted in a monstrous gigantic brood of giants.  Not only was their new matriarchal society unnaturally created it was unnaturally perpetuated by incest between mothers and sons and sons and sisters. 

it is also worth noting that there was also a clash of Greek philosophies that were held important during the Middle Ages: the first was that of Aristotle and the second was that of  Galen. These were important to how women were seen and also the state.

It also highlights another theme that occured in the prose and literature of the Middle Ages that was the question of what women really want which is also related to the various forms of sovereignty.  This theme was found in the anonymous poem of The Marriage of Gawain and Dame Ragnalle and Geoffrey Chaucer’s, The Wife of Bath.  These and other issues will be discussed in further articles concerning Albina and her Sisters and Des Grantz  Geanz.

© 24/07/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright July 24th 2019 zteve t evans

The Murderous Plot of Albina and her Sisters and the Origin of Albion

Image 1 Slider
Jerusalem The Emanation of The Giant Albion – The William Blake Archive [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (cropped and digitally altered)
This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com February 22, 2018 as British Legends: The Origin of Albion and the Bloodlust of Albina and her Sisters written by zteve t evans

Of the Great Giants

According to British medieval legend and myth, the island now known as Britain was once named Albion after an exiled queen named Albina.   She was the eldest of a family of sisters who had been exiled from their homeland in Greece, though some versions of the story say Syria.   How this came to be is an outlandish and in many ways disturbing story, found in the 14th century poem, Des Grantz Geanz (“Of the Great Giants”) which was popular in its time and probably best read as an allegorical work.  British traditions of the Middle Ages were heavily influenced by the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth in his book Historia regum Britanniae  (The History of the Kings of Britain) written about 1136 that tells that when Brutus of Troy arrived on the island that that been revealed to him in the Prophecy of Diana, he found it was just as she had described, being a green and fertile land populated by only a few giants.  Brutus and his Trojans fought the giants until at last the biggest and strongest of them was  the only one left alive. His name was Gogmagog and Brutus had deliberately saved him to fight his own champion Corineus who thrilled at such challenge.

Geoffrey of Monmouth never said where the giants had come from or why the island was called Albion.  This perplexed medieval scholars and a story evolved that attempted to explain this discrepancy. According to medieval tradition, before the fight began Brutus was said to have asked Gogmagog who he was and of the origin of his people.  Gogmagog was said to have given the Trojan a fantastic tale revealing the origin of the giants and how the island had been named, “Albion”.  Presented next is a retelling of the story Gogmagog allegedly told Brutus and has been sourced from several medieval and Anglo-Norman accounts and more recent works.

Albina and her Sisters

According to Gogmagog the story of the origin of the giants of Albion began 3,970 years after the world began.  In a country now called Greece there ruled a very powerful king.  This king was very noble and very righteous and the head of a strict patriarchal state and society.  His queen was a very beautiful woman and they had a very happy marriage and were blessed with thirty beautiful daughters who were said to be very tall in some accounts.  The giant confessed he did not know all their names but knew the eldest, tallest and most influential of these was named Albina.

He told Brutus, that in accordance with the custom of the time and of their society the king decided that their daughters had come of sufficient age to marry. He then decided without consulting his daughters which daughter would marry which of the many kings, princes and rulers that would be a good political match for his realm.  All thirty of the daughters were then married to their allotted husbands with much ceremony and fanfare.

However, his daughters were said to be very proud and strong-willed women who wanted their own well-being and desires met. They were fiercely independent and hated the idea of being married to men who were not of their own choosing and did not love. To them it was an indignity and an insult to have to be subjugated in any way to any man regardless of how rich and powerful he was or whatever benefits it might bring for their father’s kingdom.

A Murderous Plot

They vowed they would be no man’s possession and instead would be the rulers of all men regardless of their status.  To further these vows they plotted together in secret and hatched a most extreme plan.

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Gwendolen: Legendary Queen of the Britons

438px-gwendolen_gascoyne-cecil_281860-1945292c_by_edward_coley_burne-jones

Artist – Edward Burne-Jones

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the legendary Gwendolen, became the first queen regnant, reigning over the Britons in her own right.    The Historia Regum Britanniae (History of Britain) by Geoffrey of Monmouth, tells how Gwendolen is betrayed and humiliated by her husband, King Locrinus, the legendary ruler of Loegria.    His public rejection and humiliation of her in favor of his lover, Estrildis, spurred Gwendolen to take swift and dramatic action. Although Geoffrey’s work was accepted as fact up to the 17th century, today it is largely dismissed as a historical record by historians. Nevertheless, it still has its fascinations and many think he was influenced by older myths and legends. This work introduces the main characters of her story and tells how betrayal and rejection motivated her into wreaking a terrible but calculated revenge on those who had wronged her and put the future peace and stability of Britain at risk.

Locrinus, son of Brutus of Troy

King Locrinus was the eldest son of Brutus of Troy, the legendary founder and the first king of Britain.  Brutus was the descendant of Aeneas, the Trojan commander, who survived the fall of Troy and after escaping went on to found the Aeneads, who were said by Virgil to be the progenitors of the Romans.  It is this hereditary link with Troy and Rome that supposedly provides the ancient authority to rule for the descendants of Brutus and supposedly elevates the historical status of Britain and its rulers in medieval and later times.

Gwendolen, daughter of Corineus

Gwendolen was the daughter of the legendary Corineus, the first ruler of Cornwall, a companion and commander to Brutus of Troy.  Corineus was a towering figure at the time, a mighty warrior and highly respected for his military skill and bravery.  He was commander of his own band of followers who had joined up with Brutus and his army to conquer and settle Britain.   Corineus had killed Gogmagog, the last King of the race of Giants that had ruled Britain before the arrival of the Trojans in a fight to the death.

The death of Brutus

When Brutus died his kingdom fragmented  and was divided into three parts with his three sons, Locrinus,  Albanactus, and Kamber inheriting a share each. The kingdom of Locrinus was known as Loegria which was roughly equivalent to England.  Albanactus ruled Albania ,or Albany, which was roughly equivalent to Scotland and Kamber ruled Cambria or Kambria which was roughly equivalent with Wales.  Corineus still ruled Cornwall which Brutus had given him as his own in reward for help in subduing Britain.

Locrinus inherits Loegria

When Brutus died and Locrinus his eldest son, became ruler of Loegria, Corineus was still alive and as ruler of Cornwall was still a much respected and powerful ruler.  Locrinus now ruled over a powerful kingdom so a marriage with Gwendolen would have made a great deal of political sense for both him and Corineus.  There were still many enemies in the world so an alliance with the powerful Corineus would have been highly desirable and Locrinus made a pact with Corineus to marry his daughter.

One of those enemies were the Norsemen led by Humber the Hun who attacked Albany killing Albanactus in battle and forcing his people to retreat.  Locrinus and Kamber joined forces and met Humber in battle near one of the main  rivers of Britain defeating him.  umber was said to have drowned in the battle in the river which was named the River Humber after him.

After the battle Locrinus captured Humber’s ships and as well as a good deal of treasure found  Estrildis, the daughter of a German king who was being held hostage.  Locrinus  fell in love with her and set her free, but he was betrothed to Gwendolen the daughter of the powerful Corineus who he did not want to upset.

Corinius was not happy that Locrinus had fallen in love with the German princess and made his feelings known in no uncertain terms.  Rather than risk upsetting him  Locrinus married Gwendolen despite his love for Estrildis.  Wanting the best of both worlds he took Estrildis as his mistress, but secretly kept her hidden in a cave below Trinovantum, now London, the city Brutus built as his capital.  There she remained for seven years. She was looked after by her servants and gave birth to his daughter, Habren and stayed there until Corineus died.  

Gwendolen’s revenge

With the death of Corineus, Locrinus promptly divorced Gwendolen and married Estrildis. This proved to be a costly mistake and the old adage of hell knowing no fury like a woman scorned, rang true for him.   Gwendolen, being the daughter of the great warrior Corineus took swift and decisive action.

She returned to Cornwall where the people were still loyal to her and her family and raised an army which she led against Locrinus.  Not only had she inherited her father’s courage but also his decisiveness and skill in war.  The two armies met at the River Stour which in those days was the boundary between Loegria and Cornwall.  Gwendolen was victorious defeating Locrinus who was killed by an arrow. This made her the undisputed ruler and queen of both Loegria and Cornwall, becoming the most powerful ruler in Britain at the time.

She wasted no time in disposing of Elstrildis and Habren having them both drowned in a river which by Gwendolen’s decree was named after Habren.  Habren was also known as Hafren who became the eponym of the river. The latinized form was Sabrina which became Severn and was possibly influenced by earlier gods or spirits and sometimes she was known as Sabre and the river became known as the Severn.

The River Severn was named after Habren, not Elstrida, to emphasize and make known that a heir and potential rival to the British kingdom had been killed just as the River Humber was named after the Hun leader to emphasize his death and the ascendancy  of the British rulers to any potential outside challenge.  Elstrida did not get a river or place named after and was deliberately allowed to die in ignominy.  The killing of  Estrildis and Habren was more than just the revenge of a woman scorned.  It was also a political act that strengthened her power and that of her son by Locrinus,  Maddan, and when she abdicated the throne of Loegria went to him.

The attack on the country by Humber the Hun had been a typical invasion by men at arms who fought to control the land and the people.  The danger from Estrildis was more passive but potentially dangerous and subversive to the ruling order of Britain at the time and in the future.  The infatuation of Locrinus with a foreign princess threatened the future line of Brutus to the undisputed kingship of Britain.  Any possibility of a foreign heir to the throne potentially threatened the stability of Britain with the possibility of further invasions from Germanic rulers who may have believed they had a claim to Britain.

If Habren married outside of the British ruling community then an outsider is brought into future equations about who rules Britain.  With them out of the way Gwendolen reduces considerably the potential for foreign interference in the ruling elite of Britain.  Although other invaders did come after her time her action brought peace and stability during her reign and the reign of her successor.  She ruled her realm wisely and peacefully for 15 years and then abdicated. Her son by Maddan, by Locrinus, became king and she retired to Cornwall.

Legacy of Gwendolen

Gwendolen’s decisive action against Locrinus demonstrated the potential power and influence that women could wield.  It especially demonstrated how her gender was not a disadvantage to her use of power which she used to her advantage and to the benefit of those she ruled.  She was prepared to go to the extreme lengths of war and violence when she believed it necessary to protect her own realm acting and leading with decisiveness, wisdom, courage and military skill and foresight.

© 05/07/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright July 5th, 2016 zteve t evans

Corineus the Trojan: First Duke of Cornwall

Descendant of Trojans

In medieval legend Corineus was held to be a descendant of the Trojans and a great warrior who became the founder and first Duke of Cornwall. Geoffrey of Monmouth in his book The history of the Kings of Britain identifies him as the leader of a group of warriors descended from a group of Trojans who settled along the coasts of the Tyrrhenian Sea in exile after the fall of Troy. In a dream Brutus had been told by the goddess Diana to seek out Albion which was populated by giants and make it his home. Although the book was popular in its time it is not regarded today as a reliable history book. This shows how attitudes change with the times and how legends are made, though some may call it fiction. However, we will allow the reader to make up their own mind and look at the story Geoffrey tells about the founding of Cornwall by exiled Trojans.

Brutus of Troy

According to Geoffrey, Brutus was a descendant of Aeneas, a Trojan prince, and had freed many Trojans who had been enslaved in Greece after the fall of Troy. He had become their leader and traveled far and wide with them having many adventures before meeting up with another band of exiled Trojans along the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Corineus

The commander of these exiles was named Corineus who was a courteous and modest man who could offer good council but was renowned also for his courage, boldness and prowess as a warrior. Brutus told Corineus of how Diana had come to him in a dream and told him to search for Albion and asked Corineus to join him. Corineus agreed and although he was a great war leader in his own right when told about the dream and understood who Brutus was descended from he placed himself and his men under his command becoming second in command himself in the army of Brutus and joined the quest.  Read more