Why was "Matter" chosen for the Matter of Britain, the Matter of France and the Matter of Rome?

What would the exact definition of "Matter" be in this instance? Written/Printed Material, or a Theme/Group of Themes, or (obsolete) the essence; the pith; the embodiment? Whereas it seems to refer to topics, we often hear it used as a proper noun to describe the Literature itself, such as "in the Matter of Britain we often read of..." So what did it mean in its original context and what has it come to mean - exactly - in the English language?

Who coined this term and when? Was it the old French poet Jean Bodel (c. 1165 – c. 1210) who classified "The Three Matters" ["N'en sont que trois materes a nul home entendant / De France, et de Bretaigne, et de Rome la grant."], or was the term commonly used in regards to bodies of literature before him? And when if ever did it's use fall out of vogue?

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    And we have another question: did matière mean the same thing in French when Jean Bodel used it as matter does in English today? I think the answer to this question is no. From the OED: "The subject of a book, speech, etc.; a theme, a topic, a subject of exposition. In early use also: a narrative, an account, a tale. Obsolete." One of their citations is (ca. 1340) The matere of this boke is crist & his spouse. Commented Jun 7, 2019 at 17:47
  • If a child is crying and his mother asks "What is the matter?", what does "matter" mean?
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 8, 2019 at 3:43
  • @Johan88 - I thought the question was on the meaning of "matter".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 8, 2019 at 3:52
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    A progression from 'The Matter of Elbonia' to 'Thoughts / A Treatise on the Subject of Elbonia' to 'Thoughts Concerning Elbonia' to 'On the Subject of / Concerning Elbonia' to 'Elbonia' has probably occurred. Commented Jun 8, 2019 at 13:15
  • @EdwinAshworth q-_-p
    – Johan88
    Commented Jun 8, 2019 at 13:24

2 Answers 2


The phrases "the Matter of Britain," "the Matter of France," and the "Matter of Rome" seem to have been taken directly into English from Jean Bodel's verse some time in the late 19th century. Before then, "the Matter of Britian" seems to have been called by other names, such as "the Arthurian Cycle," in English.

The first time I can find "Matter of Britain" used in Google books is in The Flourishing of Romance and the Rise of Allegory by George Saintbury, which was first published in 1897.

More evidence that these phrases were taken directly from Jean Bodel's verse into late 19th century English, and were not timeworn English phrases, comes from the 1920 book A History of English Literature, by William Allan Neilson, in which we find

The great majority of the romances fall into groups or cycles concerned with what an old French poet called the “matter of Britain,” the “matter of France,” and the "matter of Rome."

Since the word comes to us from Old French, and seems to have been translated into English using the cognate word matter (whether or not this was the best English word), what we really need is a good Old French dictionary.

The Anglo-Norman Dictionary has for one of the definitions of matire:

subject matter, topic (of a literary work),

which is exactly the sense that Jean Bodel used it in. (And matire is the same word as Jean Bodel's matere – Old French spelling was as variable as Middle English spelling.)

The OED has the very similar definition (which is not surprising, since a large amount of Old French vocabulary was incorporated into Middle English after the Norman Conquest):

"The subject of a book, speech, etc.; a theme, a topic, a subject of exposition. In early use also: a narrative, an account, a tale. Obsolete."

One of their citations for this meaning is (ca. 1340)

The matere of this boke is crist & his spouse.

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    Nitpick: matter is not really cognate to OF matere – it is a descendent of it, having been borrowed from OF into English. Cognates are generally defined as inherited words which share a common ancestor. Commented Jun 8, 2019 at 10:45
  • Wikipedia: "The Matter of Britain is the body of Medieval literature.." "The Matter of France, also known as the Carolingian cycle, is a body of literature.." "..the Matter of Rome was the literary cycle.." It does not say "The Matter of Britain/France/Rome is the subject matter/topic(s) of the body of literature.." That is how "Matter" is used, as a proper noun referring to the literature itself, not the subject of the literature. And it leaves me wondering if we can title modern bodies of work (literature or otherwise) "The Matter of so-and-so"
    – Johan88
    Commented Jun 8, 2019 at 11:45
  • @Johan88: the definition from the Anglo-Norman Dictionary is the meaning that Jean Bodel intended. Commented Jun 8, 2019 at 12:43
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    I misunderstood your comment. The last citation in the OED that clearly means "narrative/tale" seems to be 1340 "Ich nelle non more zigge, ac hier ich wille endi mine matire." But there are a few more citations that might have this sense up to around the mid-16th century. Commented Jun 8, 2019 at 13:25
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    The obsolete meaning of narrative/tale was not restricted to "the matter of Britain", and "the matter of Britain" seems to only have become an English phrase in the late 19th century. Commented Jun 8, 2019 at 13:31

It's a straight borrowing from the Latin Res "matter, thing," which we still use daily in the form of Re: "in the matter of:"; Latin books were often titled beginning De Re .... (Concerning the matter/nature of....), e.g. Agricola's De Re Metallica (On the Nature of Metals), Cicero's De Re Publica (On the Republic, which is literally the 'public matter') -- as distinct from the usage of genitive rerum as actual "things" in Lucretius's De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things).

Cf. Arthurus (rex): "Saeculis XI, XII, XIII multae mythistoriae de vita Arthuri scriptae sunt in Cambria, Francia, Anglia; id genus fabularum poetae Francici Matière de Bretagne appellabant, scilicet 'Res Britanniae'. "

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