la Table Roonde, Tavola Ritonda
A term applied both to Arthur’s fellowship of knights and the actual table at which the fellowship convened. It is first mentioned by Wace in Roman de Brut, who says that Arthur seated his knights at a round table to avoid disputes about precedence; since there is no “head” at the round table, no knight can claim superiority over the others by his position at the table.
As The Grene Knight tells it.
[Arthur] made the Round Table for their behove, that none of them should sitt above, but all shold sitt as one.
In Layamon, the table is constructed by a carpenter who comes to Arthur’s court in the days of peace following Arthur’s conquest of almost all lands west of the Alps. The carpenter suggested the idea of the Round Table to Arthur after a brawl broke out in Arthur’s court over who would get to sit at the head of the (then) rectangular table.
The number of knights who could sit at the table varies from legend to legend, ranging from 13 to incredible 1600!
- 13 seats | Didot-Perceval
- 50 seats | Robert de Boron
- 60 seats | Jean d’Outremeuse
- 130 seats | The Legend of King Arthur
- 140 seats | Hartmann von Aue
- 150 seats | Vulgate Lancelot
- 250 seats | Vulgate Merlin
- 1.600 seats | Layamon
Layamon’s Round Table, with the 1.600 seats, was also portable! Béroul mentions that the Round Table “rotate[d] like the Earth,” but it is unclear what purpose this would serve. Any table seating more than a dozen knights would be so large in diameter as to be unwieldy, but some artists and late authors depict it as a ring rather than a solid table, with space in the middle for servants and entertainers.
In contrast to Wace, who makes Arthur the founder of the Round Table, Robert de Boron and the Vulgate Cycle assert that Uther Pendragon established it after hearing Merlin’s tales of the Grail Table in the time of Joseph of Arimathea.
Turning to Malory and his immediate sources, we find that Uther Pendragon gives this table to King Leodegan of Carmelide (Leodegrance of Cameliard) who, in turn gave it, with one hundred knights, to Arthur as a wedding present when Arthur married Guenevere, Leodegan’s daughter. The claim that Leodegan once owned the Round Table is first found in Perlesvaus, and in both Perlesvaus and the Vulgate Lancelot, a demand is made upon Arthur to relinquish the Round Table to a relative of Leodegan – Jandree in Perlesvaus and Guinevere the False in the Vulgate Lancelot.
When Arthur re-established the Round Table in his own court, Merlin designated one of the seats the Perilous Seat, which was destined to be filled by Galahad. Merlin wrote the names of the knights who sat in each seat in magical golden letter, which changed as the occupancy of the seats changed.
In the Vulgate, the Round Table is presented as the greatest of Arthur’s orders, ahead of the Queen’s Knights, the Knights of the Watch, the Table of Errant Companions, and the Table of Less-Valued Knights. Members of the Round Table were bound by a code of honor and service. Malory outlines this code as:
- To never do outrage nor murder.
- Always to flee treason.
- To by no means be cruel but to give mercy unto him who asks for mercy.
- To always do ladies, gentlewomen, and widows succor.
- To never force ladies, gentlewomen, and widows.
- Not to take up battles in wrongful quarrels for love or worldly goods.
On the page Twelve Rules of the Round Table there is another list.
Italian romance distinguish between the Round Tables of Uther Pendragon, called the Tavola Vecchio, “Old Table,” and Arthur, the Tavola Nuovo, or “New Table.”
La Tavola names four types of seats at Arthur’s Round Table:
For practical purposes, the full complement would have been 149. Malory remarks in his colophon that “when they were whole together there was ever an hundred and forty”, possibly always allowing a few seats for worthy newcomers. At least one modern romancer has considered that Merlin and Queen Guenevere were also allowed to sit in council at the Round Table: conceivably there were 140 seats for knights, with an extra ten for King, Queen, and non-knightly counselors.
The roundness of the table symbolizes the world. As is fitting to complete this symbol, the Knights of the Round Table come from all parts of Christendom and heathendom. Even baptism may not have been a prerequisite of membership; Sir Palomides seems to have been a companion of the Round Table before his baptism.
Welsh warriors traditionally ate and met in circles, which may be the origin of the Round Table theme. Fights over placement and other favors at feasts are common in Irish tales.
Romance writers were probably also enticed to develop the Round Table after the tradition that Christ and his apostles sat at a round table at the Last Supper. In Luke 22:24-6, God chastises his apostles for bickering over precedence, which is echoed in Wace’s story of the Round Table’s origins. Pilgrims returning from Jerusalem in the eleventh and twelfth centuries reported to have seen the marble round table of the Last Supper. These reports may have influenced the account of Robert de Boron, for whom the Round Table was the third of its kind, following the table of the Last Supper and the Grail Table.
The Table Round in Winchester
In the Great Hall of Winchester Castle a round table made from oak is hanging in the far end of the wall. Malory’s publisher, Caxton, thought it to be the authentic Arthurian Round Table. However, it was probably constructed in the thirteenth or fourteenth century for one of the various Arthurian festivals held in the Middle Ages.
The Winchester table is 18 feet in diameter, and since 1522 it has displayed the names of 25 knights taken from Malory’s Le Morte Darthur.
Roman de Brut | Wace, c. 1155
Erec | Chrétien de Troyes, late 12th century
Merlin | Robert de Boron, 1191–1202
Didot-Perceval | c. 1220-1230
Parzival | Wolfram von Eschenbach, 1200–1210
Perlesvaus | Early 13th century
Daniel von dem blühenden Tal | Der Stricker, 1210-1225
Vulgate Lancelot | 1215-1230
Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal | 1215-1230
Vulgate Mort Artu | 1215-1230
Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin | 1230-1240
Post-Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal | 1230-1240
Post-Vulgate Mort Artu | 1230-1240
La Tavola Ritonda | 1325–1350
Ly Myreur des Histors | Jean D’Outremeuse, c. 1350
De Casibus Virorum Illustrium | Giovanni Boccaccio, 1355-1362
Le Morte Darthur | Sir Thomas Malory, 1469-1470
The Grene Knight | c. 1500
”The Legend of King Arthur” | 16th century
The Round Table | Artist: Unknown
Evidence found of ancient tribute to King Arthur’s Round Table | Daily Mail Online, 28 August 2006
Time Team solves mystery of the round table (at Buckingham Palace) | The Telegraph, 29 August 2006
Round Table (Tournament) | Wikipedia