- Geoffrey of Monmouth
- (ca. 1100–1155)Geoffrey of Monmouth was the author of the 12th-century HISTORIA REGUM BRITANNIAE (History of the Kings of Britain), a pseudo-history in Latin prose that popularized the legendary monarchs of pre-Saxon Britain. Geoffrey’s history is one of the most important and influential texts of the European Middle Ages because it introduced the story of King ARTHUR, previously known only in Welsh and Breton legend, into the mainstream of European literature.Little is known of Geoffrey’s life. Probably he was born at Monmouth in southern Wales. He may have been Welsh, but some scholars believe that his pro-Breton bias evident in the Historia suggests he was of Breton descent. This is not unlikely, since many Bretons came to England during the Norman Conquest and immediately thereafter.Some time before 1129, Geoffrey was living near Oxford.His signature appears on six different charters between 1129 and 1151, all related to religious houses in or near Oxford.Twice after 1139, Geoffrey added the title magister after his name, which could imply that he was in some kind of teaching capacity in Oxford. There was not yet a university there, but it was already a center for scholars.In 1151, Geoffrey was named bishop elect of the see of St. Asaph. He was ordained a priest in 1152, but it is unlikely he ever actually visited St. Asaph. The area was a hotbed of animosity between the English and the Welsh, and probably would have been unsafe. In 1153, he was one of the bishops to witness the Treaty of Westminster that named Henry of Anjou the heir of King Stephen and ended the civil war that had marred most of Stephen’s reign. According to the Welsh Chronicles (not necessarily known for their accuracy), Geoffrey died in 1155, probably having lived his last four years in London.The three literary works attributed to Geoffrey were all written during the 23 years he was at Oxford, and seem, at least in part, to have been written to curry the favor of powerful nobles and win Geoffrey some political appointment—a goal that was realized when he was made bishop. His earliest work (ca. 1130–35) was Prophetiae Merlini (The prophesies of Merlin), a long series of cryptic prophecies that were later incorporated into the Historia Regum Britanniae as Book VII. Geoffrey had appropriated the Welsh tradition ofMyrddin, a seer who was said to have foretold the overthrow and destruction of the Saxon power in Britain. Geoffrey invented most of the undecipherable oracles, though they provided fuel for generations of commentators who sought to decipher them. These were originally dedicated to Alexander, bishop of London, and were apparently written at his request.Geoffrey’s greatest work followed shortly thereafter. Though he calls it a “history,” and claims that he took the stories from “a certain very ancient book in the Celtic tongue” that he received from Walter, archdeacon of Oxford, it is clear that Geoffrey is mainly repeating oral legends or simply exercising his imagination through most of the Historia Regum Britanniae. The book tells the story of the legendary kings of Britain before the Anglo-Saxon invasion, beginning with Brutus, greatgrandson of the Trojan Aeneas, who names the island “Britain” after himself.Here also is the story of King Lear; of Belinus (who sacks Rome); of Vortigern, who loses the island to the Saxons; and most important, of King Arthur, who drives the Saxons out of Britain, then becomes a world conqueror, and is about to take Rome itself when he hears of his wife’s betrayal of him with his nephew Mordred, whom he has left as regent of the kingdom. He is wounded in battle while defeating Mordred, and is borne away to the Isle of Avalon. Geoffrey’s Historia was completed around 1138. Several different dedications are preserved for the Historia in various manuscripts, and these seem to reflect the changing political climate of the time: Most of the manuscripts dedicate the work to Robert of Gloucester, illegitimate son of Henry I and thus half-brother of the Empress Matilda, whose claim to the throne had begun the civil war in 1138, and lasted until her son, Henry of Anjou, was named Stephen’s heir. Some manuscripts dedicate the work to King Stephen and Robert of Gloucester together: Robert had supported Stephen’s claim to the throne in 1135 but withdrew his support in favor of Matilda in 1138. A third dedication is to Waleran Beaumont, count of Meulen, one of Stephen’s chief supporters after Robert’s defection. Clearly Geoffrey was attempting to position himself as a supporter of the king in the changing political climate of the late 1130s. Geoffrey’s final work was the Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin), a 1,500-line poem in Latin hexameters dedicated to Robert de Chesney, the new bishop of London, and completed about 1150. The Merlin Geoffrey presents in this poem is not at all like the character of the earlier Historia. Rather it seems that in the intervening years, Geoffrey had become better acquainted with the Welsh Myrddin legends, and makes his Merlin a wild man of the woods who has lost his reason in battle and now lives in the forest, where he meets the bard Taliesin, who describes life in the isle of Avalon, where King Arthur has been taken to have his wounds healed by the sorceress Morgen. But it is his Historia on which Geoffrey’s fame rests. Geoffrey gave the legend of King Arthur the coherent form that it took throughout the high Middle Ages in Europe, and for that, his importance in the European literary tradition cannot be overemphasized. The creators of ROMANCE later in the 12th century, like CHRÉTIEN DE TROYES and MARIE DE FRANCE, created narratives set against what they perceived as Geoffrey’s historical account. Later writers added characters, expanded incidents, and elaborated situations, but the basic outline of the Arthurian story begins with Geoffrey.Bibliography■ Geoffrey of Monmouth. The Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Edited by Neil Wright. Cambridge: Brewer, 1985.■ Parry, John Jay, ed. and trans. Vita Merlini. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1925.■ Tatlock, J. S. P. The Legendary History of Britain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950.■ Thorpe, Lewis, trans. The History of the Kings of Britain. London: Penguin, 1966.
Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.