Walter Map Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Walter Map c. 1140-c. 1209

(Also known as Mapes or Mahap, and under the pseudonym Golias.) British essayist, courtier, and civil servant.

Map is remembered and admired for the single work that can with certainty be attributed to him—De Nugis Curialium (Of Courtiers' Trifles). First transcribed in Latin, Of Courtiers' Trifles is a collection of satirical essays, witty personal and historical anecdotes, and romance tales typical of the period in which Map lived.

Biographical Information

Little is known about Map's life. Scholars believe that he was born in the border region of England and Wales and that he was possibly a Welshman. Evidence for this is Map's own reference to the Welsh as "his fellow-countrymen," and to the fact that the word "map," frequently abbreviated to "ap," is Welsh for "son of." Alternatively, Giraldus Cambrensis (also known as Gerald of Wales), with whom Map had close ties, referred to him as English, and some critics have suggested that Map came from Hereford in England. Ultimately, much of what is known about Map comes from his own remarks in Of Courtiers' Trifles. He spent time studying in Paris before becoming a clerk in the English court of King Henry II. During his life, he held various secular and religious appointments, working as a circuit justice and as a diplomat, and becoming Archdeacon of Oxford in 1197—a post he held until his death around 1209.

Major Works

Map's first work, Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum philosophum ne uxorem ducat (A Dissuasion of Valerius to Rufinus the Philosopher that He Should Not Take a Wife) is a satirical essay against women and marriage written in the form of a letter, or epistle, and widely circulated during Map's lifetime. This epistle was later incorporated by Map into a collection, or miscellany, which remained unpublished until the fourteenth century, at which time the miscellany was given the title De Nugis Curialium (Of Courtiers' Trifles). Of Courtiers' Trifles was first translated into English in 1923 by Montague Rhodes James; it begins with a satire on courtly life, comparing it to Hell. The work also contains details of Map's own life, historical accounts of Jerusalem and Byzantium, and some fictional tales. The work displays Map's sense of humor as well as some religious and secular customs of the Middle Ages, but it also reveals his inveterate dislike for the Cistercian order of monks. The miscellany closes with a second comparison of the court to Hell. It is not known for certain whether the final Latin transcription, as we have it, was arranged according to Map's wishes, or by someone else after Map's death. But there is little doubt that the actual content is mostly Map's own compositions. At one time it was believed that Map was also the mysterious and pseudonymous author "Golias," responsible for a series of satirical and ribald poems associated with the "Goliards," who were notorious as lawless and gluttonous buffoons and jesters. Map's connection to "Golias" and his writings has since been disproved. It was also once widely believed that Map was the creator of a group of chivalric Arthurian romances—in particular the "Lancelot" poems, but that, too, has been discounted by most critics.

Critical Reception

Critics have suggested that Map was known more as a wit, courtier, civil servant, and religious official during his lifetime than as a writer. Nineteenth-century scholars regarded Map as a writer of Arthurian romances and profane Goliardic poetry. James, who translated Map's work into English, complained that Map's knowledge of Latin was faulty and that his sentences were awkward and overlong. Later in the twentieth century, however, scholars began to examine the contents of the miscellany more closely and have praised Map for his subtle use of satire and for his understanding of the close connection between what we regard, on the one hand, as tales, and on the other as history.