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

Advertisements

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.

Read More