Geoffrey of Monmouth Critical Essays

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.