Geoffrey of Monmouth

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Geoffrey of Monmouth

The English pseudohistorian Geoffrey of Monmouth (ca. 1100-1155) is known for his "History of the Kings of Britain," through which he contributed greatly to the dissemination of the Arthurian legend throughout Europe.

Geoffrey was born in or near Monmouth, Wales. By 1129 he was residing in Oxford, probably as a member of a nonmonastic ecclesiastical community. He stayed at Oxford at least until 1151 and during this period wrote his two extant works, Historia regum Britanniae (1136-1138; History of the Kings of Britain) and Vita Merlini (ca. 1148; The Life of Merlin). Geoffrey was a keen observer of contemporary trends in historical writing and combined his observations with a fertile imagination and a consistent, if not profound, philosophical outlook about history to produce his brilliant pseudohistory of the Britons, the Celtic people which inhabited the island of Britain before being conquered by the Anglo-Saxons.

Historia regum Britanniae purports to be a Latin translation of a "very old book" recounting the story of the rise and fall of the Britons. In composing his legendary history, Geoffrey utilized material from British legend and folklore. He also borrowed from earlier Latin accounts of the Britons but treated all his sources with great imaginative freedom. The Historia begins with the story of Brutus, grandson of Aeneas and founder of Britain; there follow accounts of many mythical monarchs (including King Lear). The climax of the work is Geoffrey's invention of a glorious reign of King Arthur and his description of Arthur's tremendous victories over the invading Saxons and the hostile Roman Empire. Here Geoffrey was influenced by contemporaneous historians' accounts of the Anglo-Norman kings and by the English civil war which raged as he wrote. The main themes of the Historia are that history is cyclic, that civil strife brings national disaster, and that the goals of the individual and those of society often clash.

In the Vita Merlini, a 1,500-line Latin poem, Geoffrey tells the story of Merlin, a legendary Welsh prophet and prince, whose prophecies formed one part of the Historia. Merlin goes mad as he watches a ferocious battle and flees to the forest, thwarting all attempts to make him return to the court, whose follies he bitterly reveals. This work carries further Geoffrey's concern with the hero who finds antagonism between his own desires and the values of society.

In 1151 Geoffrey was designated bishop of St. Asaph on the border of England and Wales. In the years following his death, his Historia became widely, though not unanimously, accepted as factual and influenced serious historians of the Britons and the English for centuries.

Further Reading

The most thorough, though controversial, study of Geoffrey's art is J. S. P. Tatlock, The Legendary History of Britain (1950). Also useful is the chapter on Geoffrey in Roger S. Loomis, ed., Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages (1959). For a recent analysis of the themes and intellectual context of the Historia regum Britanniae see Robert W. Hanning, Vision of History in Early Britain from Gildas to Geoffrey of Monmouth (1966). □

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Historian, bishop; b. Monmouth, England, c. 1100;d. 1155. Little is known of his career except that he seems to have been "magister" at Oxford and was consecrated Bishop of saint asaph, Wales, Feb. 21, 1152. Because of the Welsh rebellion in 1150, he probably never visited his see. He is chiefly remembered for his literary activity as a writer of pseudo-history. His first completed work, Prophetiae Merlini, an obscure series of prophecies in a highly apocalyptic style, may well contain native Welsh vaticinal material. It is included as Book 7 of his major work, Historia regum Britanniae, completed probably between 1136 and 1139. Geoffrey said he translated the Historia from a British book given him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, but there is no other evidence for the book's existence. Starting from the barest hints in the ninth-century Historia Brittonum attributed to Nennius, Geoffrey combined materials from the Old Testament, Latin writers, Continental and insular historians, and an undetermined amount of Welsh tradition (though this is vigorously denied by some scholars) with other materials and contemporary events, to trace in full and convincing detail the history of Britain from the fall of Troy to the invasions of Julius Caesar and on to the final conquest of the island by the Anglo-Saxons. His greatest achievement, the reign of King Arthur, occupies about a fifth of the whole. There is no reason to believe that the work has any value as history. Though it had little direct influence on the arthurian legends, it was widely read, and scarcely an English chronicler for the next 500 years failed to make use of it. It is found in over 200 MSS and in at least three distinct versions, only two of which have yet been published. The Vita Merlini, c. 1150, is in verse and more certainly contains Celtic material.

Bibliography: e. faral, La Légende Arthurienne (Paris 1929). geoffrey of monmouth, The Historia Regum Britanniae , ed. a. griscom (New York 1929); Historia Regum Britanniae: A Variant Version, ed. j. hammer (Cambridge, Mass.1951); History of the Kings of Britain, tr. s. evans, rev. c. w. dunn (New York 1958). a. b. emden, A Biographical Register of the University of Oxford to A.D. 1500, 2:129495. j. s. p. tatlock, The Legendary History of Britain: Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae and Its Early Vernacular Versions (Berkeley 1950). j. j. parry and r. a. caldwell, "Geoffrey of Monmouth," Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, ed. r. s. loomis (Oxford 1959).

[r. a. caldwell]

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Geoffrey of Monmouth (mŏn´məth), c.1100–1154, English author. He was probably born at Monmouth and was of either Breton or Welsh descent. In 1152 he was named bishop of St. Asaph in Wales. His Historia regum Britanniae (written c.1135), supposedly a chronicle of the kings of Britain, is one of the chief sources of the Arthurian legend. Geoffrey was the first to write a coherent account of Arthur, establishing the great warrior as a national hero, the conqueror of Western Europe. He drew information from the writings of Bede, Gildas, Nennius, the Welsh chronicles, and folklore, and imaginatively wove the whole into a fictional narrative in the form of a history. His work had great influence on Wace, Layamon, and many chroniclers of the Middle Ages. Another work attributed to him, the Vita Merlini (1148), also influenced later stories of Arthur and Merlin.

See his History of the Kings of Britain, tr. by L. Thorpe (1966); study by J. S. P. Tatlock (1950).

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Geoffrey of Monmouth (c.1100–55). Probably of Breton origin, Geoffrey was raised in Wales. As a young man, he went to Oxford and is thought to have been a canon of St George's church. His consecration as bishop of St Asaph, c.1152, may have been no more than a titular appointment. His principal work, earning him fame, was the History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136). Written in chronicle form, it proved very popular, particularly in Wales, for the portrayal of a long and glorious Welsh past, and for centuries was widely believed. Ultimately recognized as a work of fiction based on old legends, it was nevertheless a great literary work of its time. It also launched the romantic Arthurian legend in European literature. A separate Life of Merlin, based on Welsh traditions of the magician, appeared c.1148–50.

Audrey MacDonald

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Geoffrey of Monmouth (c.1100–54) Welsh priest and chronicler, best known for his History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136). Though accepted as reliable until the 17th century, Geoffrey essentially told folk tales. His book was the chief source for the legend of King Arthur and his knights, and it was Shakespeare's source for King Lear and Cymbeline.

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Geoffrey of Monmouth (c.1100–c.1154), Welsh chronicler. His Historia Regum Britanniae (c.1139; first printed in 1508), an account of the kings of Britain, was a major source for English literature but is now thought to contain little historical fact.