Geoffrey of Monmouth
(Gruffudd ap Arthur or Sieffre o Fynwy
) (c. 1100 – c. 1155) was a clergyman
and one of the major figures in the development of British history
and the popularity of tales of King Arthur
Geoffrey's birthplace is unknown, but he may have been born in Monmouth
, possibly of Breton
ancestry. Certainly he had significant connections to Monmouth
, as his name suggests, and the descriptions of Caerleon
in Historia Regum Britanniae
indicate familiarity with the area. He studied at Oxford University
, where he met Walter
, who was Archdeacon of Oxford
. On 21 February 1152 Archbishop Theobald
consecrated Geoffrey as bishop of St Asaph
, having ordained him a priest 10 days before. "There is no evidence that he ever visited his see," writes Lewis Thorpe
, "and indeed the wars of Owain Gwynedd
make this most unlikely. Geoffrey attested about six different charters between the years 1129 and 1151; the date of his death is recorded in the Welsh Chronicles.
Geoffrey wrote several works of interest, all in Latin, the language of learning and literature in Europe during the medieval period. The earliest one to appear was Prophetiae Merlini
("The Prophecies of Merlin"), which he wrote at some point before 1135. Geoffrey presented a series of apocalyptic
narratives as the work of the earlier Merlin
who, until Geoffrey's book came out, was known as "Myrddin". The first work about this legendary prophet in a language other than Welsh
, it was widely read — and believed — much as the prophecies of Nostradamus
were centuries later; John Jay Parry and Robert Caldwell note that the Prophetiae Merlini
"were taken most seriously, even by the learned and worldly wise, in many nations", and list examples of this credulity as late as 1445.
Next was Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), the work best known to modern readers. It purports to relate the history of Britain, from its first settlement by Brutus, a descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas, to the death of Cadwallader in the 7th century, taking in Julius Caesar's invasions of Britain, two kings, Leir and Cymbeline, later immortalised by Shakespeare, and one of the earliest developed narratives of King Arthur. In it, he outlines the rise and fall of many British kings, including Arthur himself and his father, Uther the Conqueror. Geoffrey claims to have translated it from an ancient book written in Welsh, although few take this claim seriously. Much of it is based on the Historia Britonum, a 9th century Welsh-Latin historical compilation, Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum and Gildas's 6th century polemic De Excidio Britanniae, expanded with material from Welsh legend, genealogical tracts, and Geoffrey's own imagination. It contains little believed historical fact, and many modern scholars are tempted to agree with William of Newburgh, who wrote around 1190 that "it is quite clear that everything this man wrote about Arthur and his successors, or indeed about his predecessors from Vortigern onwards, was made up, partly by himself and partly by others, either from an inordinate love of lying, or for the sake of pleasing the Britons. Other contemporaries were similarly unconvinced by Geoffrey's "History". For example, Giraldus Cambrensis recounts the experience of a man possessed by demons: "If the evil spirits oppressed him too much, the Gospel of St. John was placed on his bosom, when, like birds, they immediately vanished; but when the book was removed, and the History of the Britons by "Geoffrey Arthur" (as Geoffrey named himself) was substituted in its place, they instantly reappeared in greater numbers, and remained a longer time than usual on his body and on the book. However, His work was not popularly received thus poorly, and it enjoyed a significant afterlife in a variety of forms, including the Brut tradition. Further, his structuring and reshaping of the Merlin and Arthur myths engendered the vast popularity of Merlin and Arthur myths in written literature, a popularity that lasts to this day; he is generally viewed by scholars as the major establisher of the Arthurian canon.
Lastly, Geoffrey wrote the Vita Merlini ("The Life of Merlin") at a point between 1149 and 1151. This is in part Geoffrey's retelling of the earlier Myrddin legend from Welsh tradition, but includes numerous other source materials as well, and includes elements of the tradition of saints' lives as well as the sort of encyclopaedic knowledge of the natural world and the heavens then in vogue at Oxford. The work, Geoffrey's only known poem, was written in Latin verse (hexameter).
References and further reading
- Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. Translated, with introduction and index, by Lewis Thorpe. Penguin Books: London, 1966. ISBN 0-14-044170-0
- John Jay Parry and Robert Caldwell. "Geoffrey of Monmouth" in Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, Roger S. Loomis (ed.). Clarendon Press: Oxford University. 1959. ISBN 0-19-811588-1
- N. J. Higham. King Arthur: Myth-making and History, London and New York, Routledge, 2002, ISBN 0415213053
- John Morris. The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650. Barnes & Noble Books: New York. 1996 (originally 1973). ISBN 1-84212-477-3
- Brynley F. Roberts. "Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regnum Britanniae and Brut y Brenhinedd" in The Arthur of the Welsh: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature, Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1991, ISBN 0708313078
English translations available on the web
- Historia Regum Britanniae:
- Histories of the Kings of Britain, tr. by Sebastian Evans, at Sacred Texts
- By Aaron Thompson with revisions by J. A. Giles at http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/geoffrey_thompson.pdf. (PDF)
- (Arthurian passages only) edited and translated by J. A. Giles at http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/geofhkb.htm.
- Brut y Bryttaniait, translated from a medieval Welsh version (which has a few interesting differences) by Wm. R. Cooper at http://www.annomundi.co.uk/history/chronicle_of_the_early_britons.htm
- Vita Merlini, Basil Clarke's English translation from Life of Merlin: Vita Merlini (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1973).