Sunday 16 August 2020

A Certain Very Ancient Book - Part I

“[The History of the Kings of Britain] that vast compendium of random folklore reshaped into a semblance of history.…….. Even at the end of the 19th century works which took Geoffrey’s account of Arthur seriously were still emerging. It was Geoffrey who elevated Arthur into the Emperor of half of Europe….. developing Nennius’s theme of of the warrior-hero into unheard-of proportions, until the Arthurian armies marched on Rome itself.” [Richard Barber, The Figure of Arthur, DS Brewer, 1972, p.124]

Geoffrey of Monmouth and King Arthur
Surviving in over 200 manuscripts Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) was nothing less than a Medieval best seller. Presumably Geoffrey was from Monmouth as his name suggests, just west of the River Wye on the Welsh Marches, as he had local knowledge of the area and placed King Arthur’s court at Caerleon, no doubt impressed by its Roman remains. However, Geoffrey (c.1090 – 1155) spent most of his career in Oxford, where, he claims, he was presented with a “certain very ancient book in the British tongue” by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, which he translated into Latin as the Historia, although scholars now suggest it was originally titled De gestis Britonum (On the Deeds of the Britons).

Roman Amphitheatre at Caerleon

Geoffrey is remembered as the author of three works; Prophetiae Merlini, Historia Regum Britanniae (De gestis Britonum) and Vitae Merlini.  In circulation before the death of Henry I in 1935 the Prophetiae was issued a few years before his magnum opus the Historia in which it was incorporated at Book VII. Geoffrey had certainly completed his main work on the Kings of Britain before 1139 when Henry of Huntingdon discovered a copy of the manuscript at the Norman Abbey of Bec.  The Life of Merlin saw his return to the prophet but this later version (c.1150) is based on the tradition of the Celtic wildman of the northern forest that features in the Welsh Myrddin poems and seems quite at odds to the wizard-like character of his earlier stories.

Geoffrey’s history starts with Brutus the Trojan, a descendant of Aeneas, who is exiled from his homeland and arrives at an unknown island, exterminates the race of giants inhabiting it, and names the place “Britannia” after himself. Geoffrey’s account continues with the Roman arrival in Britain, through to Vortigern and the advent of the Saxons to King Arthur and the fall of the last British king Cadwallader before the supremacy of the Saxons. Thus, the Historia turns full circle, from the exile of Brutus to the exile of Cadwallader.

According to Geoffrey, Arthur’s career begins with three of the battles as attributed to him in the Historia Brittonum (aka Nennius); the locations of these twelve battles has defied positive identification yet Geoffrey locates these three at York, Lincoln and Bath. The last was clearly Badon Hill which resulted in total conquest of the Saxons, preserving the emphasis that Gildas had placed on the battle.

According to Geoffrey, Arthur then defeated the Scots and the Picts before enjoying something of a golden age. He marries Ganhumara (Guinevere; different forms of the name appear in different manuscripts) before conquering Ireland, Orkney, Iceland and Norway. He then sets off for Gaul leaving his nephew Mordred and Guinevere in charge of the kingdom. Following successes in Gaul, Arthur was intent on marching on Rome but received notice of Mordred’s affair with Guinevere and usurpation of the throne. Arthur turns back for the confrontation with his nephew. After landing in Kent and then chasing Mordred to Salisbury Plain the final battle takes place on the River Camblan in Cornwall.

As Geoffrey’s history commenced with the arrival of Brutus, the name “Brut” came to be used to mean 'chronicle of the Britons' in the tradition of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Within a few years, Geoffrey Gaimar had composed a now-lost French Galfridian history of the Britons. The Brut tradition was continued by the Norman poet Robert Wace (1155) and in less than 50 years the first version appeared in Middle English composed by the English priest Layamon.

With the King’s biography taking up about a fifth of his work it is essentially the centre-piece of Geoffrey’s Historia and the foundation from which all subsequent Arthurian literature sprang. But by the last quarter of the 12th century the Arthurian chronicle had turned to fiction with Chretien's Story of the Grail, a tale of Arthur’s knights with the King relegated to the side-lines.

The Arthurian canon may been created by Geoffrey but it was embellished by the writers of later Arthurian Romance, with iconic themes such as the Round Table (Wace), Camelot (Chretien) and the Sword in the Stone (Robert de Boron); King Arthur had rapidly evolved into a literary figure, or perhaps he always was.

Monnow Bridge in Monmouth, the only remaining fortified river bridge in Britain
Invented History
From a character of supernatural legend fighting giants, witches and monsters, Geoffrey transformed Arthur into a figure of history, a successful military leader who conquered much of Europe. His effect on the Arthurian legend was immense and cannot be over stated.

Geoffrey’s readership was immensely popular as demonstrated by the number of surviving manuscripts. However, in his own times he was taken to task for inventing much of Historia; a few years after publication William of Newburgh proclaimed that “… everything this man wrote was made up”. 

Another of Geoffrey’s critics was Gerald of Wales, who’s own part in the reporting of the discovery of King Arthur’s grave at Glastonbury was rather suspect, wrote that when Saint John’s Gospel was placed on a man possessed by demons they would leave immediately, but when Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book was placed on him the demons would return.

There is a complete lack of evidence for many of Geoffrey’s key characters such as Brutus or Belinus, similarly there is no evidence for a British invasion of Gaul or confrontation with Rome. Perhaps William and Gerald were correct in their assessments of Geoffrey’s work.

Geoffrey Ashe has argued that a historical figure called Riothamus, who went by way of ocean to Gaul, may well have been used by Geoffrey as the model behind Arthur’s invasion of Gaul. However, positive identification of Riothamus has proved problematic; after being routed by the Goths he was last seen heading toward the Burgundians, yet many reconstructions of Arthurian history have him return across the Channel in time to lead the Britons to victory at Badon. Furthermore, there is no evidence that Geoffrey knew of Riothamus.

Today Geoffrey’s work is not regarded as a historical account of the Britons and most scholars today consider Geoffrey’s book as “invented history”. Geoffrey claimed he had access to a certain book in the ancient tongue. He certainly knew Gildas, Bede and the Historia Brittonum, yet most historians doubt the existence of any such book.

The question of the veracity of Geoffrey’s Arthurian epic has raged for almost 900 years and still goes on today with modern authors using the Historia to reconstruct Arthurian histories. Two recent works published in the last few years take quite different views of Geoffrey’s Historia; Arthur and the Kings of Britain by Miles Russel and King Arthur’s European Realm by Paul Sire. We will examine these accounts in the next two posts.

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