Layamon Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

All that is known of Layamon (LI-uh-muhn), sometimes modernized as Lawman, is what he reveals in a brief biographical sketch at the beginning of his one surviving poem. There it is stated that he was a member of the secular clergy, that his father’s name was Leovenath, and that he resided at “a noble church” in the village of Ernley (Areley Kings, Worcestershire), on the Severn near Redstone Ferry. He must have lived during the second half of the twelfth century, for allusions in the Brut indicate that his version of Britain’s legendary history was composed sometime after 1189, when King Henry II died, but before May, 1206.{$S[A]Lawman;Layamon}

When it “came into his mind” to narrate “all the great deeds of the English,” he searched throughout Britain for books on the subject. Though he claims to have made use of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (731) in English and of a book coauthored by Augustine of Canterbury and his successor Albinus, his chief source was the Anglo-Norman Roman de Brut (1155) by the Jerseyman Wace. Wace’s poem, itself a rendition of the Latin History of the Kings of Britain (1136) by the Welshman Geoffrey of Monmouth, is clearly unsympathetic to the English-speaking Saxons who displaced the Britons. Layamon’s poem is an imaginative rewriting of Wace’s romance in Middle English alliterative meter, expanding Wace’s seventy-five hundred couplets to some sixteen thousand long...

(The entire section is 520 words.)


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

All the known details concerning Layamon’s life are derived from the opening section of his Brut, the first five lines of which read as follows (in Madden’s translation, which includes the significant manuscript variants):There was a priest on earth (or in the land) who was named Layamon; he was son of Leovenath (Leuca),—may the Lord be gracious to him!—he dwelt at Ernley, at a noble church (with the good knight) upon Severns bank (Severn),—good (pleasant) it there seemed to him—near Radestone, where he books read.

The author’s name, which has been spelled in a number of ways, is Scandinavian in origin, and is cognate with modern English “Lawman.” The recorded variant spellings of his father’s name are less confusing when one realizes that the scribe often writes u for v; “Levca” can then be seen as a shortened form of “Leovenath.” Tatlock hypothesizes, in the light of the familiarity with Ireland that Layamon exhibits in his poem, that perhaps Leovenath went to Ireland with the Norman invading force, married a Scandinavian Irishwoman (there having been a sizable Viking population in Ireland at that time), and later returned to England with his son. In any case, the only residence Layamon himself mentions is a church at “Ernley” on the banks of the Severn near “Radestone.” These details accord well with a village variously referred to as Lower Areley, Areley Kings, and Areley Regis, not far from Worcester and the Welsh border. The books that Layamon mentions as having read (line 5) have usually been taken to be service books that he used in his role as a priest. Despite attempts to find the man behind these few details, however, Layamon remains little more than a name, an occupation (priest and translator), and a place-name. Even the time in which he “flourished” is derived from the supposed date of composition of the Brut, which is itself undergoing a reevaluation.