The Classical Legacy
Following the accepted tradition of a 'universal' history, the Canterbury Roll quickly speeds through the founding of the three known continents: Asia, Europe, and Africa. On the central axis, descended from a grandson of Noah, are the Roman gods Saturn and Jupiter. This somewhat creative approach indicates the extent of the medieval historical imagination and the degree to which this could extend beyond the Bible.
A classical legacy is reinforced by the inclusion of Trojan refugees. Aeneas, Ascanius, and Silvius make their appearance as the ancestors of Brutus on the Canterbury Roll. The inclusion of these characters reveals the cultural influence of Rome on medieval minds.
According to legend, Brutus wandered across Europe as a Trojan refugee. He travelled from Troy to ‘Albion’, an island that he renamed ‘Britannia’ after himself. This is the starting point for a medieval foundation myth for the Britons.
The association of Britain’s origins with Troy is typical of a European-wide phenomenon in the Middle Ages. For instance, the French had their own version of the myth, which suggested they had descended from the grandson of Priam of Troy.
The story of Brutus’ journey to Britain strongly evokes the story of Aeneas’ voyage to Rome as told by Vergil and Livy. In the commentary accompanying the Canterbury Roll, events in Rome unfold parallel to developments in the British Isles. This reinforces the idea that Britain has a destiny comparable to that of Rome.
By linking classical heroes with the founding of Britain (and hence England), the myth establishes a sense of ‘exceptionalism’.
On the Canterbury Roll a few names and a short commentary communicate the great founding myth of England through a genealogical structure. This strengthens the credibility of the current line of English kings by portraying them as heirs to an ancient civilisation.