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Did the Round Table really seat 1,600 men?

Explorations in Arthurian History>>
The introduction of the Round Table can be traced to the French monk Robert Wace, who wrote Roman de Brut, a poem based on Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. Wace says that Arthur's knights sat inside a round table while Arthur sat on a dais, above the Round Table. The idea here was that the knights were all equal but Arthur was still the king.

A few years later, an Englishman named Layamon tried his hand at the story, calling his work Brut. (The idea of Brut comes from Brutus the Trojan, whom Geoffrey says founded the first kingdom in Britain.) Layamon identifies Arthur's court as being at London, and places the king at the center of all the action. In Brut, the Round Table is the result of a chance meeting between Arthur and a Cornish carpenter, who offers to make for the king a table that could seat 1,600 men and be folded up and taken anywhere.



Now, the number 1,600 is fanciful. Wace doesn't tell us how many knights sat inside the circle the table formed. All subsequent Arthurian stories can be classified as legends, not histories. So we are left with 1,600.

Explorations in Arthurian Legend>>
Robert de Boron starts the ball rolling with the Round Table, too, telling us how Merlin ordered Uther Pendragon to construct the table based on his vision of the Last Supper Table and Joseph of Arimathea's Grail Table. Merlin instructed Uther to have the table accommodate 50 chairs; he also said to leave one chair blank, for the knight who would fulfill the Grail Quest. The Vulgate Cycle says the Round Table sat 250 knights.

The legend writers followed the lead of the history writer Wace in advancing the idea that the table was round to promote equality in the ranks. The Vulgate Cycle introduces the idea of the Siege Perilous, continuing the empty-chair theory but adding to it the caveat that anyone not anointed would perish after sitting there. Galahad, of course, was the only one able to sit there; it was he who fulfilled the Grail Quest.

Robert says 50 knights sat at the table; the Vulgate authors say 250. Each of these numbers suggests a progressively larger table but nothing so big as that suggested by Layamon, a history writer. In Brut, we are told that the table could seat 1,600 and be folded up and taken anywhere. Such a fanciful story is not heard of in Arthurian histories. Indeed, some scholars think that almost all of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain is made up. Yet, Layamon and Wace before set out to tell the story of Arthur as a history. Arthurian writers beginning with Chretien de Troyes and continuing with Robert de Boron, the Vulgate Cycle writers, and continuing on through Malory, Tennyson, and the modern compliment, add their versions of the legends.

Did the Round Table really seat 1,600 men? Depends on whom you read and whom you believe.

DW, King Arthur: A Man for the Ages




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