Geoffrey of Monmouth Essay - Critical Essays

Geoffrey of Monmouth

Introduction

Geoffrey of Monmouth c. 1100-c. 1155

(Also known as Gaufridus Monemutensis and Geoffrey Arthur.) English historian, prose writer, and poet.

Geoffrey is best known for his Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1138; The History of the Kings of Britain), a formal and cohesive mythical history of Britain and ninety-nine of its rulers spanning approximately eighteen hundred years, and ending with the death of Cadwallader in 689. Geoffrey ventured further into the past (all the way to the fall of Troy) than had yet been attempted by any other British historian, sometimes drawing on mere fragments of documents and greatly expanding upon the writings of such earlier chroniclers as Gildas, Nennius, and Bede. Britons had fared badly compared to Romans in previous accounts; Geoffrey turned this situation upside-down, giving his people heretofore undreamt of pride in their past. The History of the Kings of Britain was one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages, generally accepted as true, revered by the public, and translated into Anglo-Norman, French, and English. For centuries many writers freely borrowed from or paraphrased it, and it inspired many works—notably Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—and led to the spread of Arthurian material throughout the continent. William Shakespeare based his King Lear (1606) on the story of Leir as told by Geoffrey, and John Milton used his story of Sabrina in Comus in 1637. Through the inspired invention of Merlin, Geoffrey immortalized the legends of King Arthur; and many of the other characters he launched—Guinevere and Gawain, Bedivere and Modred, and Kay and Morgan le Fay—have earned him recognition as a superlative creator of imaginative literature.

Biographical Information

Geoffrey was born around 1100, possibly in Monmouth in what is now Wales. As is the case with many matters concerning Geoffrey, there is considerable controversy regarding whether he was indeed born in Monmouth or whether he merely resided there, and whether he attended a Benedictine priory located in the area. Some biographers contend that he was of mixed Norman- or Breton-Welsh origin. Based on signatures he placed as witness to six different charters connected with religious houses at or near Oxford, it is possible to construct a likely history of Geoffrey's early career. He probably was a secular canon at the College of Saint George's, which he had joined in 1129 and where he may have taught (although Oxford was not yet a university). The provost was Archdeacon Walter, from whom Geoffrey claimed to have received both written and verbal sources for The History of the Kings of Britain. Another of Geoffrey's works, the Prophetie Merlini (before 1135; The Prophecies of Merlin), was dedicated to Robert de Chesney, who served as canon of Saint George's. Geoffrey's last known work, the Vita Merlini (before 1151; Life of Merlin) is also believed to have been a product of his Oxford period. Geoffrey was made bishop-elect of Saint Asaph's in 1151 and ordained priest at Westminster in February 1152; eight days later he was consecrated bishop at Lambeth, although he apparently never visited his see. He probably resided in London during the last four years of his life. He reportedly died in 1155, in Llandaff, Wales, according to some accounts.

Major Works

The Prophecies of Merlin was eventually published as book seven of The History of the Kings of Britain. Geoffrey claimed to have translated the work “from the British tongue into Latin,” a claim he would repeat for the larger work. Merlin was conflated from the “marvelous boy” depicted in Ambrosius of Nennius's Historia Britonum and the wild man Myrddin of Welsh legend. His prophecies result from a seizure induced by his explanation of the red (British) and white (Saxon) dragons beneath Vortigern's collapsing tower. Merlin offers a panoramic history of Britain through a dense series of political prophecies, grounded in animal symbolism, which serve to ratify the subsequent contents of The History. The popularity of The Prophecies of Merlin is attested to by the survival of nearly eighty independent manuscripts and its inclusion in almost a dozen others. Geoffrey claimed he translated The History of the Kings of Britain into Latin from a “most ancient book in the British tongue,” but scholars routinely dismiss this claim as an attempt to lend authority to the work. Instead they credit Geoffrey as an author of a virtuosic imagination and narrative skill. The book which Geoffrey claimed he copied is not mentioned by any other historian and thus widely believed to have been invented by him. It begins with Brutus, either grandson or great-grandson to Priam of Troy, as he gathers up colonies of Trojans with whom he founds Britain. Geoffrey includes lists of kings punctuated by tales of love, war, and daring adventures. In addition to Brutus, other main characters include Belinus, said to have captured and sacked Rome, and Arthur, the greatest British king. Much of the book is devoted to Arthur's history and the recounting of his victories in battle. Before Geoffrey, Arthur was a minor hero known only in limited areas. Geoffrey completely reworked the character, lending him a vitality which endures to the present. The History of the Kings of Britain survives in well over two hundred Latin manuscripts, separable into versions known as the Vulgate and the Variant. Which of the versions came first has long been a matter of great debate among Geoffrey scholars, as has whether Wace's Roman de Brut (1155) inspired the Variant, or whether the Variant inspired Wace's work. Neil Wright criticizes previous efforts to determine the answers to such questions as inadequate exercises. He has published a definitive comparison of the versions and concludes that the Vulgate was written first, that the Variant is a redaction of the Vulgate made by an unknown contemporary of Geoffrey's, and that Wace used the Variant in Roman de Brut. Life of Merlin, a hexameter poem, appears to have been intended for a learned audience familiar with Geoffrey's scholarly and hagiographic sources. It is founded on Celtic, postclassical, and what Basil Clarke in his edition of the poem calls exotic sources. Merlin takes to the Caledonian forest out of grief at the death of his companions in battle. Wooed out of the woods by music, he reveals his queen's adultery and, giving his wife permission to remarry, moves once again to the forest. Returning with deer as a wedding present for her, he kills her new husband on a whim. Taken captive, he spouts prophecies, which are ratified as true, and then returns to the forest, where his sister Ganieda at his request builds him a dwelling with a large staff of astronomers. He again prophesies, this time of Britain's fate. The work survives in only one complete manuscript, and as extracts in various others. It was not published until 1830.

Critical Reception

Although The History of the Kings of Britain was denigrated by a few historians as a fake even in Geoffrey's time, it was accepted as genuine by almost everyone else. The work was tremendously successful from the beginning, satisfying a need of the people of Britain for a heroic national history heretofore undocumented. Although today little of the work is believed to be historically accurate, Geoffrey's reputation has continued to grow. Scholars are quick to explain that the practice of historians has changed radically over the centuries and that aspects now deemed unacceptable were standard in the Middle Ages; students of medieval historical writing find Geoffrey to be a fascinating and invaluable source for study. Robert W. Hanning, for example, contends that Geoffrey's work helped popularize secular accounts of history, breaking from religious historiographical notions best exemplified in the works of Bede. Hanning points out what he calls a remarkable feature of The History: “a narrative technique whereby [Geoffrey] addresses himself to the crucial and concrete problem of personal fulfillment within the march of history.” Christopher Brooke views Geoffrey as a parodist who enjoys poking fun at laws and the church. Valerie I. J. Flint agrees and contends that Geoffrey's purpose in writing was not chiefly to express his literary talents but, through parody and ridicule, “to diminish the authority” with which certain exponents of literature spoke, and “to call into question the position held and hoped for in twelfth-century Anglo-Norman society by literate and celibate canons regular and monks.” Because of the recognition of the masterly quality of The History, relatively little attention has been paid to Life of Merlin, which Brooke calls “a strange and horrifying fairy-story.” Until very recent times critically authoritative texts of Geoffrey's works were not available, but now that that situation has been corrected, scholars are demonstrating a keen interest in Geoffrey's accomplishments.

Principal Works

Prophetie Merlini [The Prophecies of Merlin] (fiction) before 1135

Historia Regum Britanniae [The History of the Kings of Britain] (historical fiction) Vulgate version circa 1138, Variant version before 1155

Vita Merlini [Life of Merlin] (poetry) before 1151

The Vita Merlini (edited and translated by John Jay Parry) 1925

The Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth (Vulgate version; edited by Acton Griscom and R. E. Jones) 1929

Geoffrey of Monmouth: Historia Regum Britanniae: A Variant Version (Variant version; edited by Jacob Hammer) 1951

Life of Merlin (edited by Basil Clarke) 1973

The Historia Regum Britannie of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Vol. 1 (Vulgate version; edited by Neil Wright) 1985

The Historia Regum Britannie of Geoffrey of Monmouth: The First Variant Version; A Critical Edition. Vol. 2 (Variant version; edited by Neil Wright) 1988

Criticism

Robert A. Caldwell (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: “Geoffrey Monmouth, Prince of Liars,” The North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 31, Nos. 1 & 2, Winter-Spring, 1963, pp. 46-51.

[In the following essay, Caldwell argues that the original work from which the Variant version of The History of the Kings of Britain stemmed was compiled by Archdeacon Walter and was not in the British language, but in Latin.]

Probably in 1135 or 1136 a.d. Geoffrey of Monmouth, or Geoffrey Arthur as he sometimes called himself, a member of the house of Augustinian canons at Osney near Oxford, released to the world his Historia Regum Brittaniae, or The History of the Kings of Britain. That his work created something...

(The entire section is 4162 words.)

Robert W. Hanning (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: “Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae: Great Men on a Great Wheel,” in The Vision of History in Early Britain, Columbia University Press, 1966, pp. 121-72.

[In the following essay, Hanning discusses the impact of the Normans on the more secular attitude toward historical study in the twelfth century. He focuses on how Geoffrey demonstrated this new approach through his accounts of outstanding individuals and the cyclical nature of history.]

The secular interpretation of British history brought to birth by at least one of the authors of the Historia Brittonum can be said only to have reached a promising youth in that work. Its...

(The entire section is 11546 words.)

Brynley F. Roberts (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “Geoffrey of Monmouth and Welsh Historical Tradition,” Nottingham Mediaeval Studies, Vol. 20, 1976, pp. 29-40.

[In the following essay, Roberts contends that Geoffrey's historical view was influenced by the teachings of native Welsh historians.]

Former generations of readers, who accepted Geoffrey's claim to have translated a “British” book, naturally regarded the Historia Regum Britanniae as an authentic and valuable source for early Welsh or British history. Even after the eclipse of the book as an acceptable account of genuine history, there remained a belief in its value as a source of Welsh legend and tradition. If Geoffrey had in fact...

(The entire section is 6676 words.)

Christopher Brooke (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “Geoffrey of Monmouth as a Historian,” in Church and Government in the Middle Ages, edited by C. N. L. Brooke et al., Cambridge University Press, 1976, pp. 77-91.

[In the following essay, Brooke explores some possible motives and intentions of Geoffrey in writing The History of the Kings of Britain.]

Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain1 purports to be a history of the rulers of Britain from the foundation of the British race by Brutus, great-gradson of Aeneas, in the second half of the second millennium b.c. to Cadwalader in the seventh century a.d. It is a shapely, well-conceived book, written in Latin in the...

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Valerie I. J. Flint (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “The Historia Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth: Parody and Its Purpose—A Suggestion,”Speculum, Vol. LIV, No. 3, July, 1979, pp. 447-68.

[In the following essay, Flint presents evidence that The History of the Kings of Britain was intended to make fun of other histories and ultimately to advance the cause of worldly society over monastic society.]

The Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth has enjoyed an enormous amount of attention. In the first place, the work itself was extraordinarily popular. The most recent edition of the text, by Acton Griscom, lists almost 200 surviving Latin manuscripts, 48 of the twelfth...

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R. William Leckie, Jr. (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “New Light on a Shadowed Past,” in The Passage of Dominion: Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Periodization of Insular History in the Twelfth Century, University of Toronto Press, 1981, pp. 29-54.

[In the following excerpt, Leckie discusses the many problems faced by medieval historians in chronicling Britain's past and traces the reaction to and impact of Geoffrey's effort.]

Prior to the second quarter of the twelfth century information on pre-Saxon Britain was sparse and largely discontinuous. The deeds of the island's early Celtic inhabitants had left few traces in extant sources. Scattered entries afforded brief glimpses of isolated events, but no coherent...

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T. D. Crawford (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “On the Linguistic Competence of Geoffrey of Monmouth,” Medium Aevum, Vol. 51, No. 2, 1982, pp. 152-62.

[In the following essay, Crawford examines evidence indicating that Geoffrey did not read Welsh and was unfamiliar with Breton, but that, rather, his history was based on remembered oral tales, embellished with imagination.]

There is a striking disagreement among students of the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth about his ability to speak the Welsh language. A propos of his breaking off the composition of the Historia Regum Britanniae in order to translate the ‘Prophecies of Merlin’, Parry and Caldwell declare, ‘There is no evidence that at...

(The entire section is 5686 words.)

Hugh A. MacDougall (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “The Britains as Trojans: The Legendary World of Geoffrey of Monmouth,” in Racial Myth in English History: Trojans, Teutons, and Anglo-Saxons, Harvest House Ltd., 1982, pp. 7-27.

[In the following excerpt, MacDougall discusses the significance of The History of the Kings of Britain, the controversy surrounding its authenticity, and its reception.]

In the history of myths of national origin few have been as influential and have had such a curious development as those popularized by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain. His writing, appearing about 1136, was destined to become “the most famous work of nationalistic...

(The entire section is 7990 words.)

Neil Wright (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: An introduction to The “Historia Regum Britannie” of Geoffrey of Monmouth: I. Bern, Burgerbibliothek, MS. 568, edited by Neil Wright, D. S. Brewer, 1985, pp. ix-lix.

[In the following excerpt, Wright discusses the merits and shortcomings of various editions of The History of the Kings of Britain.]

… THE PRESENT EDITION

It is surprising that a work as important and influential as the Historia Regum Britannie has previously been edited on only eight occasions; in view of the plethora of surviving manuscripts, it is less surprising that none of these editions can be considered to fulfill the needs of modern...

(The entire section is 3464 words.)

Sheila Delany (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chaucer's Legend of Good Women,The Chaucer Review, Vol. 22, No. 2, 1987, pp. 170-74.

[In the following essay, Delany discusses Chaucer's use of The History of the Kings of Britain for a line in his Legend of Good Women.]

Chaucer took much of the material in his Legend of Good Women from Ovid's Metamorphoses, and this text, supplemented with the Ovide Moralisé, was his primary source for the legend of Thisbe.1 However, one curious and unforgettable line from the legend occurs neither in Ovid nor in the OM: it is the oddly farcical phrase describing Piramus's death, when Thisbe...

(The entire section is 2116 words.)

Mary L. H. Thompson (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “A Possible Source of Geoffrey's Roman War?” in The Arthurian Tradition: Essays in Convergence, edited by Mary Flowers Braswell and John Bugge, The University of Alabama Press, 1988, pp. 43-53.

[In the following essay, Thompson presents evidence that Geoffrey used Caesar's Commentary on the Gallic Wars as a source for his own History.]

Arthur's campaigns in Gaul, here collectively termed his Roman War, make up a part of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae for which almost no historical evidence has been forthcoming and which has thus been considered exclusively fictional. After his pacification of the region and a period of nine...

(The entire section is 3588 words.)

Neil Wright (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: An introduction to The “Historia Regum Britannie” of Geoffrey of Monmouth: II, The First Variant Version: A Critical Edition, edited by Neil Wright, D. S. Brewer, 1988, pp. xi-cxvi.

[In the following excerpt, Wright provides an overview of the First Variant version of The History of the Kings of Britain.]

THE FIRST VARIANT VERSION OF THE HISTORIA REGUM BRITANNIE: CONTENTS, DATE, AND AUTHORSHIP

In 1951 Jacob Hammer published—albeit in seriously mangled form—a text of the Historia Regum Britannie which differed considerably from that hitherto regarded as the standard version of Geoffrey's Historia.1...

(The entire section is 2519 words.)

Antonio L. Furtado (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Geoffrey of Monmouth: A Source of the Grail Stories,” Quondam et Futurus, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 1-14.

[In the following essay, Furtado concludes that the Elidurus episode in Geoffrey's narrative, or at least a related document or tradition, served as the source for later versions of the legend of the Holy Grail.]

The most influential version of the Grail story, the first to introduce the term “grail” (a deep wide dish, a platter), is the Perceval—li Contes del Graal of Chrétien de Troyes. Chrétien died before concluding the work, and one can only conjecture the kind of ending he had in mind. Nor did he have the chance to review...

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Brynley F. Roberts (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae and Brut y Brenhinedd,” in The Arthur of the Welsh: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature, edited by Rachel Bromwich et al., University of Wales Press, 1991, pp. 97-116.

[In the following essay, Roberts considers the conception, planning, and design of The History of the Kings of Britain.]

The early history of the Britons appears to have been Geoffrey of Monmouth's sole literary or ‘scholarly’ interest, inasmuch that the two, perhaps three, works associated with his name are narratives of pre-Saxon Britain and of the English conquest. His earliest book was probably the...

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Julia C. Crick (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Reception,” in The “Historia Regum Britannie” of Geoffrey of Monmouth: IV, Dissemination and Reception in the Later Middle Ages, D. S. Brewer, 1991, pp. 218-26.

[In the following excerpt, Crick credits The History of the Kings of Britain with inspiring the composition of other histories and argues that Geoffrey's work circulated widely not because it was accepted as historical fact, but because it served the needs of its readers.]

So far this study has largely been concerned with the immediate circumstances in which Geoffrey's History was transmitted, a subject hardly separable from the broader question of how the Historia was regarded...

(The entire section is 3785 words.)

Neil Wright (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: An introduction to The “Historia Regum Britannie” of Geoffrey of Monmouth: V, Gesta Regum Britannie, edited and translated by Neil Wright, D. S. Brewer, 1991, pp. ix-cxiii.

[In the following excerpt, Wright considers the date of composition and the author of the Gesta Regum Britannie, a 5000-line hexameter version of The History of the Kings of Britain.]

I. DATE AND AUTHORSHIP

The Gesta Regum Britannie can be dated, though not exactly, through its addressee. In the prologue of the poem (I.16), the dedicatee is referred to as presul Uenetensis or bishop of Vannes; and in the last line of the work (X.501), he is...

(The entire section is 2686 words.)

Alison André (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Geoffrey of Monmouth's Portrayal of the Arrival of Christianity in Britain: Fact or Fiction?” Reading Medieval Studies, Vol. 19, 1993, pp. 3-13.

[In the following essay, André argues that Geoffrey's writings concerning Christianity are in part historically authentic and in part politically-motivated propaganda.]

William of Newborough described Geoffrey of Monmouth as ‘effrenta mentiendi libidine’ (that is, as an imposter writing from an inordinate love of lying). In more modern times, Geoffrey has fared little better in the hands of R. W. Hanning, who calls him ‘an unscrupulous fabricator of a legendary British past’.1 However, I would...

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Kellie Robertson (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Translation of Insular Historiography,” Arthuriana, Vol. 8, No. 4, Winter, 1998, pp. 42-57.

[In the following essay, Robertson explains how Geoffrey distanced himself from rhetorical historians and the prevailing practices of historiography by asserting that his chronicle was a translation. Robertson also discusses the problem posed by Geoffrey's writing in Latin, a language associated in the Middle Ages with conveying the truth.]

In claiming to translate his Latin history from a Celtic source, Geoffrey attempts to disrupt the received Anglo-Latin historical tradition. The divergent responses of monastic...

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John E. Curran, Jr. (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Geoffrey of Monmouth in Renaissance Drama: Imagining Non-History,” in Modern Philology, Vol. 97, No. 1, 1999, pp. 1-20.

[In the following essay, Curran argues that playwrights who tried to be faithful in their adaptations of Geoffrey's material met with disappointing results, whereas William Shakespeare's version—which did not treat the History literally—is a masterpiece.]

At the end of King Lear, Shakespeare makes a crucial decision that sheds much light on his intentions for the play: contrary to the story he would have read everywhere else, he has Regan and Goneril die without issue. Geoffrey of Monmouth's version, recounted in his...

(The entire section is 8912 words.)