John Selden never misses an opportunity to refute the medieval legends of King Arthur, Merlin, and others celebrated by Drayton in his Songs. Yet in spite of his scholarly principles, Selden clearly relished these legends too. The task of tracing a fable to its original source was both absorbing and rewarding. Though he often insists that he has no time for such tales, the time he spends both explaining and denouncing them belies this claim. Paradoxically, we often learn more from Selden about medieval legends than we do from Drayton.
William Rowley’s play The Birth of Merlin, or The Child Hath Found His Father (1622) reflects some of the traditions mentioned in this passage and might well have been influenced by Poly-Olbion. Even today, the Welsh town of Carmarthen prides itself on being the wizard’s birthplace; an oak statue of Merlin, standing eleven feet tall, was recently erected in the city centre.
|So is the vulgar tradition of Merlin’s conception. Untimely it were, if I should slip into discourse of spirits’ faculties in this kind. For my own part, unless there be some creatures of such middle nature, as the rabbinic conceit upon the creation supposes (and the same with Hesiod’s nymphs, or Paracelsus his non-Adams), I shall not believe that other than true bodies on bodies can generate, except by swiftness of motion in conveying of stolen seed some unclean spirit might arrogate the improper name of generation. Those which Saint Augustine calls Dusii, in Gaul, altogether addicted to such filthiness, fauns, satyrs and sylvans have had as much attributed to them. But learn of this, from divines upon the Bene Elohim ‘Sons of God’ in Holy Writ, passages of the Fathers upon this point, and the later authors of disquisitions in magic and sorcery, as Jean Bodin, Johann Weyer, Martin Delrio, others. For this Merlin (rather Merdhin, as you see to the 4th Song, his true name being Ambrose) his own answer to Vortigern was that his father was a Roman Consul (so Nennius informs me) as perhaps it might be, and the fact palliated under name of a spirit, as in that of Ilia supposing, to save her credit, the name of Mars for Romulus’ his father. But to interlace the polite muse with what is more harsh, yet even therein perhaps not displeasing, I offer you this antique passage of him:|
|[———————] the messagers to Kermerdin come
And hou children biuore the yate pleyde hii toke gome
Tho sede on to another, Merlin wat is the
Thou faderlese ssrewe, wy misdostou me
Uor icham of Kinges icome and thou nart nought worth a fille
Uor thou naddest neuere nanne fader, thereuore hold the stille
Tho the messagers hurde this hii astunte there
And esste at men aboute wat the child were
Me sede that he ne had neuere fader that me mighte vnderstonde
And is moder au Kings doughter was of thulke lond
And woned at S. Petres in a nonnerie there.[———————] the messengers came to Carmarthen
And noticed how children played before the gate:
Then one said to another, ‘Merlin what are you,
You fatherless shrew? Why do you torment me?
For I a descendant of kings, and you are worthless,
For you never had a father, therefore be still.’
When the messengers heard this they stopped there
And asked the people around who the child was.
They said that he had no father that people knew of,
And his mother a was the daughter of a king of that land,
And lived there at Saint Peter’s, in a nunnery.
His mother (a nun, daughter to Pubidius, king of Mathraval, and called Matilda, as by poetical authority only I find justifiable) and he being brought to the king, she colours it in these words:
[———————] whanne ich ofte was
[———————] often, when I was
and tells on the story which should follow so kind a preface. But enough of this.