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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

V. Latin Writings in England to the Time of Alfred

§ 3. Nennius and Historia Brittonum

The Historia Brittonum has been the centre of many controversies as to its date and origin. As set forth in Theodor Mommsen’s edition, it consists of the following tracts, which together form what has been called Volumen Britanniae, or the Book of Britain: 1. A calculation of epochs of the world’s history, brought down to various dates by various scribes or editors. 2. The history of the Britons down to a time immediately after the death of Vortigern. 3. A short life of St. Patrick. 4. A chapter about Arthur. 5. Genealogies of Saxon kings and a calculation of epochs. 6. A list of cities of Britain. 7. A tract on the wonders of Britain.

As to the probable date of this curious congeries of writings, it is held that they were compiled by a Briton somewhere about the year 679, after which additions were made to them. In particular, about the year 800, a recension of the whole was made by one Nennius. He represents himself as a pupil of Elbodugus (who is known to have been bishop of Bangor, and to have died in 809) and also, seemingly, as a pupil of one Beulan, for whose son Samuel he made his revision of the book. He may, very possibly, be identical with the Nemnivus of whom we have some curious relics preserved in a Bodleian manuscript.

The revision of Nennius is not extant in a complete form. Our best authority for it is an Irish version made in the eleventh century by Gilla Coemgin. Some of the Latin copies have preserved extracts from the original, among which are the preface of Nennius and some verses by him. A principal point to be remembered in this connection is that it is scarcely correct to speak of the History of the Britons as being the work of Nennius

The sources employed by the original compiler or compilers of the various tracts which make up the “volume of Britain” are both native and foreign. He or they have drawn largely upon Celtic legend, written or oral. Other writings which have been used to a considerable extent are Gildas, Jerome’s Chronicle and a lost life of St. Germanus of Auxerre. Slighter traces of a knowledge of Vergil, Caesar, Isidore, and a map resembling the Peutinger Table, are forthcoming.

Of the authors to whom the book was known in early times it is only necessary to name two. In all probability, Bede was acquainted with it, though he does not mention it as having been one of his sources of information. Geoffrey of Monmouth made fairly extensive use of it. The copy which he had evidently attributed the authorship to Gildas, as do three at least of our extant manuscripts.

It is hardly possible to speak of the History as possessing a distinctive style. Where the author attempts a detailed narrative, his manner reminds us of the historical portions of the Old Testament. The books of Chronicles, with their mixture of genealogy and story, afford a near and familiar parallel.

If we possessed the whole of the revision by Nennius in its Latin form, we should most likely find that he had infused into it something of the learned manner beloved of his race and age. At least, his preface and his verses indicate this. Greek and Hebrew words occur in the verses, and one set of them is so written that the initials of the words form an alphabet. The original author of the History had no such graces. His best passage is the well-known tale of Vortigern.