The Legends of King Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea
hile it may seem to be only a minor adjustment to William's original text, the interpolated version of the story made the date for the construction of the Old Church, and by extension, the beginning of Glastonbury's Christian community, years earlier than previously claimed. An earlier foundation would go a long way toward solidifying the abbey's claim to pre-eminence among Britain's religious houses, merely on the basis of its great antiquity. But how much earlier could they plausibly claim the founding of their abbey to have been? And if it had been founded earlier than the time of Phagan and Deruvian, then who could they claim as their original founder?
In the original version of "De Antiquitate," William opens the door for a creative solution to the monks' dilemma when he writes:
There are documents of no small credit, which have been discovered in certain places to the following effect: 'No other hands than those of the disciples of Christ erected the church of Glastonbury.' Nor is it dissonant from probability; for if Philip, the Apostle, preached to the Gauls, as Freculphus relates in the fourth chapter of his second book, it may be believed that he planted the word on this side of the Channel also. But, that I may not seem to balk the expectations of my readers by vain imaginations, I shall leave all doubtful matter and proceed to the relation of substantial truths. (8)
The author seems to be saying that there existed, perhaps in the abbey's archives, unspecified documents which could be construed as supporting an Apostolic foundation (the most prestigious kind) for the abbey. He speculates on the possibility of the validity of an earlier tradition that there had been a first century Apostolic mission to Gaul led by the Apostle Philip (Freculphus, an early ninth century continental chronicler, repeated a claim made in the 630's by Isidore of Seville about Philip's mission to Gaul). William reasoned that, if that were true, then it would not have been out of the question for a satellite mission to Britain to have been sent out from Philip's team. William refused to go beyond that, being careful to keep his feet on more substantial ground (the implication being that he considered this to be insubstantial ground).
William's purpose in writing the "De Antiquitate" was to tell the true story of Glastonbury Abbey. The later interpolators of his work apparently had an expanded agenda, for in their treatment of the same subject, they said:
St. Philip, as Freculph attests in the fourth chapter of his second book, came to the land of the Franks where he converted many to the faith by his preaching and baptised them. Desiring to spread the word of Christ further, he sent twelve of his disciples into Britain to teach the word of life. It is said that he appointed as their leader his very dear friend, Joseph of Arimathea, who had buried the Lord. They came to Britain in 63 AD, the fifteenth year after the assumption of the blessed Mary, and confidently began to preach the faith of Christ. (9)
In a bold stroke, the monkish interpolators of William of Malmesbury's "De Antiquitate" pushed back the origin of their abbey more than a hundred years beyond the earliest date that had ever been claimed for it. The monks of Glastonbury had a very well-developed sense of pride in their house and never saw themselves as anything but pre-eminent among the religious communities in the land. If they had allowed the story of Phagan and Deruvian to remain the official version of their founding, then they would have had to share that same founding story with every other Christian community that traced their origins back to the journey of those evangelistic missionaries through Britain.
Now, however, Glastonbury's foundation predated them all by more than a century. From the monks' point of view, there was another benefit to the rewriting of their monastery's accepted history. Since Phagan and Deruvian were emmisaries of Rome, any converts they made on their journey would have been beholden to Rome, its pope and its representatives, in perpetuity. Glastonbury had had many Celtic connections over the centuries as a result of its great antiquity and its geographical location in the west of England. The abbey's pantheon of saintly associations (personal visits, relics and burials) included mostly men and women from Celtic traditions. Celtic Christianity tended to be less structured, less formal, more monastic, more independent and more resistant to outside control. All of these characteristics of the Celtic church were in opposition to the main emphases of the Roman brand of Christianity, and as its later history would demonstrate, Glastonbury would keep whatever distance it could from Rome. A non-Roman foundation, then, would be seen as highly desirable, and this "corrected" version of their founding legend gave that to them.
So far, we seem to be on solid ground. We can see what the monks of Glastonbury did and can speculate as to why they did it. But, all that we think we understand of their plans and motives is called into question by the man they chose as their founder, Joseph of Arimathea. What could have possessed the monks to make such a choice? Joseph had never been mentioned in any of the abbeys early writings. He had hardly been mentioned in any writings of the early Christian fathers. He had no stature in the early Christian community, there were no exciting deeds attributed to him, there were no Biblical reports of his activities after Christ's resurrection and no traditions of his leading great missionary journeys. He simply had no cachet. Worse, still, was the fact that he was not accepted as an Apostle. There were many other, more dynamic, better pedigreed people to choose from, people whose selection as founder would have conferred instant status on the abbey by the very association with their names. They could have gone right to the top and chosen, for example, the Apostles Paul or Peter. Or, since Philip was believed to have been in Gaul, why not have him lead the missionary journey across the Channel to Britain? Any of those names carried much wider recognition and had vastly more spiritual clout than that of Joseph of Arimathea.
Perhaps, the monks were more subtle than we give them credit for. It appears that they understood the basic principle of legend making very well; the blanker the slate, the more room to write on it, the bigger and better the legend you can create. Joseph had as blank a slate as anyone could have, and by the standard just stated, he was an ideal choice. We will see how the abbey used the choice of Joseph of Arimathea to their great advantage in the later middle ages.
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