Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 21.djvu/140

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autumn of 1147. Geoffrey was consecrated bishop of St. Asaph by Archbishop Theobald at Lambeth, 24 Feb. 1151–2, having been ordained priest at Westminster on the 16th of the same month (‘Reg. Eccles. Christi Cantuar.’ in Wharton, De Episc. Assav. p. 305). On 16 Nov. 1153 he was a witness of the compact between Stephen and Henry II (see ‘Brompton’ in Twysden, 1039, and ‘Gervase,’ ib. 1375). He does not seem to have visited his see, and died in 1154 ‘in his house at Llandaff, before he entered on his functions, and was buried in the church there’ (‘Gwentian Brut,’ ut supra, p. 124). Another text of the Welsh Brut states that the death took place ‘at mass’ (ed. Williams ab Ithel, Rolls Series, 1860, p. 185).

Geoffrey of Monmouth was at least fifty years of age when he was ordained priest in 1152. His literary career was already over, and its record is a brilliant one notwithstanding the charges made on one side that his Cymric scholarship was faulty, and on the other that his Latinity is of vulgar order. The metrical ‘Vita Merlini’ has been considered too excellent a piece of composition for his pen, and therefore supposititious; but Mr. Ward gives good reason for believing it genuine. Indeed, the suggestion—however gratuitous—that Geoffrey was a Benedictine monk is almost a necessary one to account for the education evinced by his labours, not the most important part of them being the reduction of ancient British legends into respectable mediæval Latin history—a task accomplished with manifest literary skill and tact. His allusions to antecedent and contemporary writers are a proof that he was no mere monkish student eager to swallow wondrous stories, but a shrewd scholar equipped with all the learning of his age. ‘He was a man whose like could not be found for learning and knowledge,’ says the ‘Gwentian Brut’ (ut supra, p. 125), and had a charm of manner which made his society agreeable to men of high station.

The publication of the ‘Historia Britonum’ marks an epoch in the literary history of Europe. There followed in less than half a century after the completion of Geoffrey's Chronicle, the romances partly based upon it of the Grail, Perceval, Lancelot, Tristan, and the Round Table; and Geoffrey's stories of Merlin and King Arthur were naturalised in Germany and Italy, as well as in France and England. They are best known in English literature through Sir Thomas Malory's compilation (sec. xv.) of the Arthurian romances. Geoffrey's originality as an inventor of the tales related in his history has been much discussed. Of the larger portion of his text and its principal elements, his own work is the oldest existing specimen; but there can be little doubt that he compiled it from the Latin ‘Nennius,’ still extant, and a book of Breton legends which has perished. The central idea of the latter book, described as vetustissimus, which undoubtedly came from Brittany, was the descent of the British princes from the fugitives of Troy—a notion to which a parallel is found in the traditions of the Franks in Gaul, and which seems to have arisen in both countries only after the invasion of the Teutonic tribes. The myth may be assumed to have sprung up in Britain about the end of the fifth century, or the beginning of the sixth; but it can hardly have had general credence or been set down in writing at the time when Beda was writing his ‘History,’ since he makes no allusion to it. Thus the liber vetustissimus could scarcely have been more ancient than the ninth century, and was probably less than two hundred years of age when Geoffrey inspected it. The name of Arthur outside the mythic story was an unfamiliar one in Britain, if not indeed quite unknown, when the so-called ‘Nennius’ was written (about A.D. 900). That the Breton contribution to Geoffrey's history was a considerable one must be admitted, notwithstanding Welsh denials of the fact, and the acceptance by many good authorities of a theory assuming definite Cymric characteristics in the narrative. History and philology tend equally to show that whatever differences exist at present between the Welsh and Breton languages have arisen gradually since the time of Henry I, and that before his time the two peoples were virtually identical.

The ‘Historia Britonum’ exercised a powerful influence in the unification of the people of England. The race-animosities of Breton, Teuton, and Frenchman would probably have endured much longer than they did, but for the legend of an origin common to them all, and to the Roman conquerors of Britain whose descendants were not yet extinct in the towns. Geoffrey's work was spread throughout the country and on the continent in an unlimited multiplication of copies. It was abridged by Alfred of Beverley as ‘Historia de gestis Regum Britanniæ libris ix,’ and translated into Anglo-Norman verse by Geoffrey Gaimar and by Wace about the middle of the twelfth century. Within a hundred years later Layamon and Robert of Gloucester gave the stories an English dress, and the chroniclers from Roger of Wendover to Holinshed followed Geoffrey as a sober historian. Shakespeare used his fictions through Holinshed. Milton, Dryden, Pope, Words-