1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Geoffrey of Monmouth
GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH (d. 1154), bishop of St Asaph and writer on early British history, was born about the year 1100. Of his early life little is known, except that he received a liberal education under the eye of his paternal uncle, Uchtryd, who was at that time archdeacon, and subsequently bishop, of Llandaff. In 1129 Geoffrey appears at Oxford among the witnesses of an Oseney charter. He subscribes himself Geoffrey Arturus; from this we may perhaps infer that he had already begun his experiments in the manufacture of Celtic mythology. A first edition of his Historia Britonum was in circulation by the year 1139, although the text which we possess appears to date from 1147. This famous work, which the author has the audacity to place on the same level with the histories of William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon, professes to be a translation from a Celtic source; “a very old book in the British tongue” which Walter, archdeacon of Oxford, had brought from Brittany. Walter the archdeacon is a historical personage; whether his book has any real existence may be fairly questioned. There is nothing in the matter or the style of the Historia to preclude us from supposing that Geoffrey drew partly upon confused traditions, partly on his own powers of invention, and to a very slight degree upon the accepted authorities for early British history. His chronology is fantastic and incredible; William of Newburgh justly remarks that, if we accepted the events which Geoffrey relates, we should have to suppose that they had happened in another world. William of Newburgh wrote, however, in the reign of Richard I. when the reputation of Geoffrey’s work was too well established to be shaken by such criticisms. The fearless romancer had achieved an immediate success. He was patronized by Robert, earl of Gloucester, and by two bishops of Lincoln; he obtained, about 1140, the archdeaconry of Llandaff “on account of his learning”; and in 1151 was promoted to the see of St Asaph.
Before his death the Historia Britonum had already become a model and a quarry for poets and chroniclers. The list of imitators begins with Geoffrey Gaimar, the author of the Estorie des Engles (c. 1147), and Wace, whose Roman de Brut (1155) is partly a translation and partly a free paraphrase of the Historia. In the next century the influence of Geoffrey is unmistakably attested by the Brut of Layamon, and the rhyming English chronicle of Robert of Gloucester. Among later historians who were deceived by the Historia Britonum it is only needful to mention Higdon, Hardyng, Fabyan (1512), Holinshed (1580) and John Milton. Still greater was the influence of Geoffrey upon those writers who, like Warner in Albion’s England (1586), and Drayton in Polyolbion (1613), deliberately made their accounts of English history as poetical as possible. The stories which Geoffrey preserved or invented were not infrequently a source of inspiration to literary artists. The earliest English tragedy, Gorboduc (1565), the Mirror for Magistrates (1587), and Shakespeare’s Lear, are instances in point. It was, however, the Arthurian legend which of all his fabrications attained the greatest vogue. In the work of expanding and elaborating this theme the successors of Geoffrey went as far beyond him as he had gone beyond Nennius; but he retains the credit due to the founder of a great school. Marie de France, who wrote at the court of Henry II., and Chrétien de Troyes, her French contemporary, were the earliest of the avowed romancers to take up the theme. The succeeding age saw the Arthurian story popularized, through translations of the French romances, as far afield as Germany and Scandinavia. It produced in England the Roman du Saint Graal and the Roman de Merlin, both from the pen of Robert de Borron; the Roman de Lancelot; the Roman de Tristan, which is attributed to a fictitious Lucas de Gast. In the reign of Edward IV. Sir Thomas Malory paraphrased and arranged the best episodes of these romances in English prose. His Morte d’Arthur, printed by Caxton in 1485, epitomizes the rich mythology which Geoffrey’s work had first called into life, and gave the Arthurian story a lasting place in the English imagination. The influence of the Historia Britonum may be illustrated in another way, by enumerating the more familiar of the legends to which it first gave popularity. Of the twelve books into which it is divided only three (Bks. IX., X., XI.) are concerned with Arthur. Earlier in the work, however, we have the adventures of Brutus; of his follower Corineus, the vanquisher of the Cornish giant Goemagol (Gogmagog); of Locrinus and his daughter Sabre (immortalized in Milton’s Comus); of Bladud the builder of Bath; of Lear and his daughters; of the three pairs of brothers, Ferrex and Porrex, Brennius and Belinus, Elidure and Peridure. The story of Vortigern and Rowena takes its final form in the Historia Britonum; and Merlin makes his first appearance in the prelude to the Arthur legend. Besides the Historia Britonum Geoffrey is also credited with a Life of Merlin composed in Latin verse. The authorship of this work has, however, been disputed, on the ground that the style is distinctly superior to that of the Historia. A minor composition, the Prophecies of Merlin, was written before 1136, and afterwards incorporated with the Historia, of which it forms the seventh book.
For a discussion of the manuscripts of Geoffrey’s work, see Sir T.D. Hardy’s Descriptive Catalogue (Rolls Series), i. pp. 341 ff. The Historia Britonum has been critically edited by San Marte (Halle, 1854). There is an English translation by J.A. Giles (London, 1842). The Vita Merlini has been edited by F. Michel and T. Wright (Paris, 1837). See also the Dublin Univ. Magazine for April 1876, for an article by T. Gilray on the literary influence of Geoffrey; G. Heeger’s Trojanersage der Britten (1889); and La Borderie’s Études historiques bretonnes (1883).