Home  »  The Cambridge History of English and American Literature  »  § 9. Geoffrey of Monmouth

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

IX. Latin Chroniclers from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Centuries

§ 9. Geoffrey of Monmouth

William of Malmesbury claimed, as we have seen, the patronage of Robert, earl of Gloucester; Henry of Huntingdon that of Alexander, bishop of Lincoln. The favour of both these magnates, and, if we are to trust the evidence of a MS. preserved at Berne, that of King Stephen himself, was invoked by the chronicler who enjoys the dubious distinction of having been among British writers the greatest disturber of the waters of history. Could he have foreseen the influence which he was destined to exercise over the poets of England, Geoffrey of Monmouth would doubtless have been quite content with the prospect of forfeiting the confidence of critical historians. Indeed, it is difficult to believe, on any supposition, that the History of the Kings of Britain was written as a serious contribution to authentic history. Geoffrey’s manner only too obviously betrays him. Just as William of Malmesbury is anxious to “fill up the chasm” between Bede and Eadmer, so Geoffrey professes to explore and map out a still more obscure period, namely that of “the kings who dwelt in Britain before the incarnation of Christ,” and especially of “Arthur and the many others who succeeded him after the incarnation.” It so happened that a document was placed in his hands which “set forth the doings of them all in due succession and order from Brute, the first king of the Britons, onward to Cadwaladr, the son of Cadwallo, all told in stories of exceeding beauty.” This document was a certain “most ancient book in the British tongue,” which was supplied to him by Walter, archdeacon of Oxford. No other contemporary chronicler seems to have had access to this mysterious book, and no amount of subsequent research has been able to discover it.Geoffrey himself evidently looked upon its contents as his own exclusive secret; for, in the epilogue to his History, he expressly warns William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon, who could write competently enough about the kings of the English, not to meddle with the kings of the Britons, “inasmuch as they have not the book in the British speech which Walter brought over from Britanny.”

All this affectation of mystery, however, does not prevent Geoffrey from openly commending his work to the favourable notice of the two great men whose confidence and encouragement William and Henry respectively enjoyed. The main body of his History is dedicated to earl Robert of Gloucester, while the seventh book, consisting of the famous prophecies of Merlin, is prefaced by an almost fulsomely laudatory letter addressed to Alexander of Lincoln. Geoffrey was thus determined to lose nothing of the prestige and credit to be derived from aristocratic patronage; and his dedications only confirm the assumption that he imitates the practices and assumes the pose of an authentic chronicler with the deliberate purpose of mystifying his readers. For Geoffrey’s History is, on the last analysis, a prose romance, and, in its Arthurian portions in particular, a palpable excursion in fiction. One need not believe that the entire work is, in the words of William of Newburgh, a tissue of “impudent and shameless lies.” Even the reference to “the British book” cannot altogether be regarded as a ruse for the deception of the ingenuous reader. Geoffrey doubtless drew upon some documents, possibly Welsh, which have since been lost. He borrowed all he could from Bede and Nennius; he probably borrowed more from floating British traditions. What is even more certain is that he invented a great deal. It is impossible to read the later books of the History without feeling that Geoffrey, when he had embarked upon the history of Merlin and of Arthur, was fully conscious of his opportunities of romantic dilatation. Arthur was a British prince capable of being exalted into a heroic figure who should overshadow both Alexander and Charlemagne. These two potentates were already the titular heroes of profitably worked romantic cycles. Why should Britain not have its romantic “matter,” as well as Rome and France? Read in the light of the general literary history of its time, and of its immediate and immense popularity, Geoffrey’s History can be adequately explained only as the response of a British writer, keenly observant of the literary tendencies of the day, to the growing demand for romance. How well he succeeded in his design appears from William of Newburgh’s complaint that he had “made the little finger of his Arthur stouter than the back of Alexander the Great.”

The History of the Kings of Britain was complete in the form now known to us by 1148 at the latest; but there is evidence that it existed in some form as early as 1139. A letter from Henry of Huntingdon, addressed to one Warinus, otherwise unknown, and prefixed to the Chronicle of Robert de Monte, gives an abstract of a “big book” by “Geoffrey Arthur,” which Henry discovered in 1139 at the abbey of Bec in Normandy. Henry himself had long been anxious to know something about the kings of the Britons; and “to his amazement he found” at Bec “a written record” of their deeds, including the history of Arthur, “whose death the Britons deny, and still continue to look for his return.” Henry’s letter contains no mention of Merlin; but whether then incorporated in the History or not, the Prophecies must have been written before 1139, for Ordericus Vitalis quotes from them in the twelfth book (ch. 47) of his History, which was composed in 1136 or 1137. By the year 1152 Geoffrey’s work seems to have been well known, and to have won him favour in high places, as he was then consecrated bishop of St. Asaph. He died in 1155. The fame of his History had spread even before his death; for Wace, and, probably, Geoffrey Gaimar, had begun to translate it into Anglo-Norman verse before 1155.

In England a long line of chroniclers, in both prose and verse, from Layamon and Robert of Gloucester down to Grafton and Holinshed, accepted Geoffrey in all good faith as a revealer of “the marvellous current of forgotten things”; while a host of poets, great and small, have been constantly haunted by his fables. Two hundred years after his death his repute was such that, on the strength of his use of the Brutus legend, Chaucer gave him a high place in his Hous of Fame. With Homer and Statius, Dares and Dictys and Guido de Colonna, “English Gaufride” stands on an iron pedestal,

  • besy for to bere up Troye.
  • In a later age both Spenser and Drayton sang his praises; while even Wordsworth could not withhold a tribute to“the British record long concealed,” where
  • We read of Spenser’s fairy themes,
  • And those that Milton loved in youthful years;
  • The sage enchanter Merlin’s subtle schemes,
  • The feats of Arthur and his knightly peers.
  • But Geoffrey has exacted still greater homage from the poets. Lear and Cymbeline and Sabrina, “virgin daughter of Locrine,” are names that link his memory for ever with the two supreme poetical geniuses of England. Here, indeed, is a distinction which the greatest of chroniclers might have coveted; and it is enough to mark the History of the Kings of Britain as the most significant literary product of the twelfth century.

    Geoffrey, however, succeeded in deluding so many honest chroniclers who followed him that, in modern times, he has been altogether proscribed from the company of sober historians. Even before the twelfth century was out, his credit had come to be gravely questioned. Giraldus Cambrensis, who had himself no mean gift for the artistic manipulation of the legendary and the marvellous, is one of Geoffrey’s severest detractors. According to Gerald, a certain Welshman named Meilyr was reported to have an extraordinary familiarity with unclean spirits, and they never responded to his call in greater numbers than when Geoffrey’s book was placed on his bosom. Gerald, as is well known, had a strong sense of humour, and, probably all he means to imply is that Geoffrey had over-reached himself in the art of romance.