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Myths & Legends
KING ARTHUR’S FRENCH ODYSSEY - pArt 2
'Avalon' gets hijacked by Britain
First of all, we’ll not waste any time agonising over the spelling of Avallon in Burgundy. Throughout the centuries there has been an easy carelessness about that extra ‘L’. On Peutinger’s map of 1264 it is marked as the Latin ‘Aballo’.
From the early 1610 print below, the name ‘Avalon’ can be clearly seen. There are many other examples of the single ‘L’ spelling from the eighteenth century, but by the late nineteenth century it had settled down as ‘Avallon’. To avoid any confusion, I’ll use ‘Avallon’ to mean the town in Burgundy throughout.
Avalon and Avallon both came from the same root, and originated with exactly the same meaning. The name Avallon means ‘apple’. From “Avallon Ancien et Moderne” by A. Heurley first published 1880:
[On the derivation of the name ‘Avallon’]
[Translation] The name, according to certain historians, comes from a Celtic word, Avaleum, which means apple. This opinion appears to be based on the fact that a small island in England where a lot of apple trees grow, is still called Avalonia. (my emphasis)
This is Avallon’s first step on the slippery slope to Arthurian obscurity. One of the very first history books of Avallon (above) mentions, in the same sentence, the island of Avalon in England – almost as if Avallon, Burgundy is embarrassed about its credentials. Avallon most certainly pre-dates Glastonbury, and so far as any physical location is concerned, it is the only Avallon in existence. There is no Avalonia famous or otherwise for its apples. There is no island of that name, or anything like it, in England. There never has been.
This French history book reflects exactly an attitude prevalent amongst the local people I have interviewed about the name of their town, and its Arthurian associations. They say that Avallon has the same name as the place in England, and was probably named after it. ‘There’s no Arthurian connection as far as we know to our Avallon – it’s just a coincidence that we have the same name,’ they say. But, to risk repetition, there is no Island of Avalon in England. So, even amongst its own inhabitants there’s a long tradition of ignoring the obvious.
Avallon, Burgundy, doesn’t ring any Arthurian bells because since the earliest times, the people of Avallon have been told that their Avallon isn’t in the running – that there’s almost an appellation contrôlé over the world-famous Avalon of King Arthur – and it belongs to Britain. Is it possible that the reverse might well be true? That all of the mentions of Avalon in the canon of Arthurian literature, may originally have derived from the Avallon in Burgundy? From a dim recollection of the place where Arthur Riothamus sought sanctuary from the Visigoths?
Is it possible that Avallon, Burgundy, has missed out on a thousand years of potential tourist income because of a few opportunistic monks in England in the 12th century?
So, we now have to look at why the Avallon/Burgundy/Arthur connection has been largely ignored until now. Who were these English monks who had such power and influence that they managed to hoodwink Christendom for hundreds of years? Well, hoodwinking large numbers of people with miraculous body parts and artefacts was the stock-in-trade for medieval monks. Europe was rattling with old bones and relics, and the coffers of the abbeys and monasteries were overflowing with taxes from the mills and wine-presses, with harvest levies, tithes and fees from the stalls at the Fairs on Holy Days. But the most lucrative activity was the Pilgrimage. It was a little gold mine. The Pilgrimage brought the very best of everything to the Abbeys. Hordes of people spending money on food and accommodation and buying official keepsakes and mementoes; old and sick people buying pardons and privileges; people scared out of their wits by demons and damnation buying Masses and doing expensive penances to save their eternal souls; guilty ‘sinners’ leaving lands and chattels to the already rich institutions ……. The competition – Europe-wide – for the best Pilgrimage was as tough then as it is now for the top tourist attractions. There were no holds barred. It was an abbot-eat-abbot culture, and may the best old relic win. This is one of those times when the story of Arthur goes medieval – and how. As we shall see, in 1191 Glastonbury hijacked the name ‘Avalon’ and made it its own.
© Marilyn Floyde 2007
2016: King Arthur's French Odyssey - Avallon in Burgundy by Marilyn Floyde, has now been republished with fresh findings. Your can order it from www.islandofavallon.co.uk. Now also translated into French.