Geoffrey of Monmouth Biography


Through the mixed medieval genre of pseudohistory, Geoffrey of Monmouth (JEHF-ree of MAHN-muhth) created the first full-fledged biographies of King Arthur and his mentor, Merlin, as well as the classic structure of the glorious rise and tragic fall of the Round Table. He was probably born in 1100, perhaps in Monmouth, where he may have been educated in a Benedictine priory. He has left authentic signatures as witness to six charters connected with various religious houses at or near Oxford, where he may have been a secular canon at the College of Saint George, which he joined in 1129 and at which he may have taught.

Less conjectural are Geoffrey’s works and their enormous influence. In his lifelong search for ecclesiastical preferment, he dedicated to Alexander, bishop of Lincoln, his first work, The Prophecies of Merlin, an extended, panoramic, sometimes historical but largely allegorical discourse on British history. In Geoffrey’s major opus, History of the Kings of Britain, the inserted Prophecies become the prelude to Arthur’s career, the spiritual and (at one-third of the whole) textual center of the narrative of two thousand years of British rule. In the extended Arthurian centerpiece, the hero succeeds to the high kingship through hard-fought victories against domestic and nearby enemies, marries Guinevere, and, leaving her in the charge of his nephew Mordred, sails to the Continent with another nephew, Gawain. After defeating in single combat the Giant of Mt. St. Michel, with his army he conquers and kills the Roman emperor Lucius. As he is preparing to march upon Rome itself, he learns that Mordred has seized both Guinevere and Britain. Returning, Arthur faces the forces...

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Ashe, Geoffrey. “A Certain Very Ancient Book.” Speculum 56 (1981). Attempts to identify Geoffrey’s posited Welsh source.

Curley, Michael J. Geoffrey of Monmouth. New York: Twayne, 1994. A good overview of the long critical history of Geoffrey’s works. Includes a useful bibliography.

Davies, R. R. The Matter of Britain and the Matter of England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. This short pamphlet, the text of his inaugural lecture at Oxford University by a prominent Welsh medieval historian, discusses the relationship between English and Welsh in the twelfth century and places Geoffrey’s work in its social and cultural context.

Echard, Siân. Arthurian Narrative in the Latin Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Geoffrey is central to this discussion of medieval Arthurian literature.

Hanning, Robert. The Vision of History in Early Britain: From Gildas to Geoffrey of Monmouth. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. Geoffrey’s historiographic importance is discussed.

Howlett, D. R. “The Literary Context of Geoffrey of Monmouth.” Arthuriana 5 (1995). Geoffrey’s position in his contemporary literary world is described; important for understanding the blurry line between fiction and history in the twelfth century.

Jarman, A. O. H. Geoffrey of Monmouth. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1966. A biography by one of the foremost Welsh scholars of Geoffrey and his probably Welsh antecedents.

Otter, Monika. Interventiones: Fiction and Referentiality in Twelfth Century English Historical Writing. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. Geoffrey is studied, along with William of Malmesbury, Walter Map, William of Newburgh, and Giraldus Cambrensis.