To retrace my previous day’s journey for a moment: I came through the once-bustling port of Calais, primary site of embarkation and debarkation for sea travelers between England and France. That seems simple to say now.
Calais and the region of Normandy, however, have not always been so simply defined by the channel. The Normans became overlords of England when William the Conqueror (Duke of Normandy) sailed from Normandy to England to claim by right of force the English crown, ushering in the Norman Conquest (1066). England later claimed sovereignty over parts of Normandy at various times during the Hundred Years War (1345-1450). David Wallace has an excellent chapter on Calais and its intermingled French/English history and identity in his book Pre-Modern Places.
As a result of this shifting authority over Normandy, 12th century readers of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Roman War account and 15th century readers of Malory’s Roman War account would not have seen such a clear, sea-based divide between “England” and “France.” In fact, those 15th century English readers would very likely have seen Normandy as the rightful extension of England. Arthur, then, would have been embodying a territorial claim the moment he stepped foot in Normandy.
Arthur, however, did not come through Calais. I was bound by modern ferry routes whereas Arthur instructed his men to set forth from Sandwich to the harbor town of Barfleur before falling into his tempestuous dream.
There is a textual crux related to the location of Barfleur. In the Winchester manuscript version of Malory’s text, the town name is anglicized and identified as Barfleet. It was the name familiar to fifteenth-century English readers as the harbor town on the northern Cotentin peninsula of Normandy. But when Caxton prints the text, he identifies the town as being in Flanders, located far to the east in modern-day Belgium. P. J. C. Field puzzles out the geographical confusion in an essay entitled “Caxton’s Roman War,” and suggests that it might have been a scribal addition in trying to make sense of the city name. (See The Malory Debate, edited by Bonnie Wheeler.)
Despite the name confusion, geographically speaking it is clear that the Arthurian Roman war route is via Barfleur because once Arthur and his troop embark, he heads to Mont St. Michele, the brooding, liminal monastery on the northern Normandy coast.
After recovering, with tea and croissant, from my late night driving and unsettling news of a friend’s divorce, I head north from Rennes into the countryside of Normandy, driving toward the port town of Barfleur.