1902 Encyclopedia > Geoffrey of Monmouth

Geoffrey of Monmouth
British chronicler
(c. 1100-54)

GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH (1100-1154), one of the most famous of the Latin chroniclers, was born at Monmouth early in the 12th century. Very little is known of his life. He became archdeacon of the church in Monmouth, and in 1152 was elected bishop of St Asaph. He died in 1154. Three works have been attributed to him—the Chroni-con sive Historic/, Britonum; a metrical Life and Prophecies of Merlin; and the Compendium Ganfredi de Corpore Christi et Sacramento Eucharistice. Of these the first only is genuine; internal evidence is fatal to the claims of the second; and the Compendium is known to be written by Geoffrey of Auxerre. The Historia Britonum appeared in 1147, and created a great sensation. Geoffrey professed that the work was a translation of a Breton work he had got from his friend Walter Calenius, archdeacon of Oxford. It is highly probable that the Breton work never existed. The plea of translation was a literary fiction extremely common among writers in the Middle Ages, and was adopted to give a mysterious importance to the communications of the author and to deepen the interest of his readers. We may compare with this Sir Walter Scott's professed quota-tions from " Old Plays," which he wrote as headings for chapters in his novels. If Geoffrey consulted a Breton book at all, it would probably be one of the Arthurian romances then popular in Armorica. His history is a work of genius and imagination, in which the story is told with a Defoe-like minuteness of detail very likely to impose on a credulous age. It is founded largely on the previous histories of Gildas and the so-called Nennius; and many of the legends are taken direct from Virgil. The history of Merlin, as embodied in the Historia, is found in Persian and Indian books. Geoffrey's imagination may have been greatly stimulated by local English legends, especially in the numerous stories he gives in support of his fanciful derivations of names of places. Whatever hints Geoffrey may have got from popular tales, and whatever materials he may have accumulated in the course of his reading, the Historia is to be thought of as largely his own creation and as forming a splendid poetical whole. Geoffrey, at all events, gave these stories their permanent place in literature. We have sufficient evidence to prove that in Wales the work was considered purely fabulous. (See Giraldus Cambrensis, Itinerarium Cambrics, lib. i., c. 5, and Gam-brice Bescriptio, c. vii.) And William of Newbury says "that fabler (Geoffrey) with his fables shall be straightway spat out by us all." Geoffrey's Historia was the basis of a host of other works. It was abridged by Alfred of Beverley (1150), and translated into Anglo-Norman verse, first by Geoffrey Gaimar (1154), and then by Wace (1180), whose work, Li Bomans de Brut, contained a good deal of new matter. Early in the 13th century was published Layamon's Brut; and in 1278 appeared Robert of Gloucester's rhymed Chronicle of England. These two works, being written in English, would make the legends popular with the common people. The same influence continued to show itself in the works of Roger of Wendover (1237), Matthew Paris (1259), Bartholomew Cotton (13001), Matthew of Westminster (1310), Peter Langtoft, Bobert de Brunne, Balph Higden, John Harding, Robert Fabyan (1512), Richard Grafton (1569), and Raphael Holiushed (1580), who is especially important as the immediate source of some of Shakespeare's dramas. A large part of the introduction of Milton's History of England consists of Geoffrey's legends, which are not accepted by him as his-torical. The stories, thus preserved and handed down, have had an enormous influence on literature generally, but especially on English literature. They became familiar to the Continental nations; and they even appeared in Greek, and were known to the Arabs. With the exception of the translation of the Bible, probably no book has furnished so large an amount of literary material to English writers. The germ of the popular nursery tale, Jack the Giant-KUler, is to be found in the adventures of his Corineus, the com-panion of Brutus, who settled in Cornwall, and had a desperate fight with giants there. Goemagot, one of these giants, is said to be the origin of Gog and Magog—two effigies formerly exhibited on the Lord Mayor's day in London, which are referred to in several of the English dramatists, and still have their well-known representatives in the Guildhall of the city. Chaucer gives Geoffrey a place in his "House of Fame," where he mentions "Englyssh Gaunfride" (Geoffrey) as being "besye for to bere up Troye."

Meanwhile the Arthurian romances had assumed a unique place in literature. The Arthur of later poetry is a grand ideal personage, seemingly unconnected with either space or time, and performing feats of extraordinary and superhuman valour. The real Arthur—if his historical existence is to be conceded—was most probably a Cumbrian or Strathclyde Briton; and Geoffrey is responsible for the I blunder of transferring Mm to South Wales. So intimately is Geoffrey connected with Arthur's celebrity, that he is often called Galfridus Arturus. Although the wondrous cycle of Arthurian romances scarcely originated with Geoffrey, he made the existing legends radiant with poetic colouring. They thus became the common property of Europe ; and, after being modified by the trouvères in France, the minnesingers in Germany, and by such writers as Gaimar, Wace, Mapes, Robert de Borron, Luces de Gast, and Hélie de Borron, they were converted into a magnificent prose poem by Sir Thomas Malory, in 1461. Malory's Morte Barthur, printed by Caxton in 1485, is as truly tlie epic of the English mind as the Iliad is the epic of the Greek mind.

The first English tragedy, Gorboduc, or Ferrex and Porrex (1565), which was written mainly by Sackville, is founded on the Historia Britonum. John Higgins, in The Mirror for Magistrates (1587), borrows largely from the old legends. This work was extremely popular in the Elizabethan period, and furnished dramatists with plots for their plays. Spenser's Faerie Qneene is saturated with the ancient myths ; and, in his Arthur, the poet gives us a noble spiritual conception of the character. In the tenth canto of Book ii. there is—

" A chronicle of Briton kings, From Brut to Uther's rayne.

Warner s lengthy poem entitled Albion's England (1586) is full of legendary British history. Drayton's Polyolbion (1613) is largely made up of stories from Geoffrey, beginning with Britain-founding Brute. Geoffrey's good faith and historic accuracy are warmly contended for by Drayton, in Song x. of his work.

In Shakespeare's time Geoffrey's legends were still implicitly believed by the great mass of the people, and were appealed to as historical documents by so great a lawyer as Sir Edward Coke. They had also figured largely in the disputes between the Edwards and Scotland. William Camden was the first to prove satisfactorily that the Historia was a romance. Shakespeare's King Bear was preceded by an earlier play entitled The Chronicle History of King Bear and his Three Daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordelia, as it hath been divers and sundry times lately acted. Shakespeare's immediate authority was Holinshed; but the later chronicles, in so far as they were legendary, were derived from Geoffrey. The story of Cymbeline is another illustration of the fascination these legends exercised over Shakespeare. An early play, ascribed by some to Shakespeare, on Bocrine, Brutus's eldest son, is a further example of how the dramatists ransacked Geoffrey's stores. The Historia was a favourite book with Milton ; and he once thought of writing a long poem on King Arthur, whose qualities he would probably have idealized, as Spenser has done, but with still greater moral grandeur. In addition to the evidence afforded by the in-troduction to his History of England, Milton shows in many ways that he was profoundly indebted to early legendary history. His exquisite conception of Sabrina, in Comus, is an instance of how the original legends were not only appropriated but ennobled by many of our writers. In his Latin poems, too, there are some interesting passages pertinent to the subject.

Dryden once intended to write an epic on Arthur's exploits; and Pope planned an epic on Brutus. Mason's Caractacus bears witness to Geoffrey's charm for poetic minds. Wordsworth has embalmed the beautiful legend of Pious Elidure in his own magic verse. In chapter xxxvi. of the Pickwick Papers Dickens gives what he calls " The True Legend of Prince Bladud," which is stamped through-out with the impress of the author's peculiar genius, and lit up with his sunny humour. Alexander Smith has a poem treating of Edwin of Beira, who figures towards the close of Geoffrey's history. And Tennyson's Idylls of the King furnish the most illustrious example of Geoffrey's influence; although the poet takes his stories, in the first instance, from Malory's Morte Barthur. The influence the legends have had in causing other legends to spring up, and in creating a love for narrative, is simply incalculable. In this way Geoffrey was really, for Englishmen, the in-ventor of a new literary form, which is represented by the romances and novels of later times.

There are several MSS. of Geoffrey's work in the old Royal Library of the British Museum, of which one formerly belonging to Margan Abbey is considered the best. The titles of the various editions of Geoffrey are given in Wright's Biog. Brit. Lit., in the volume devoted to the Anglo-Norman period, which also contains an excellent notice of Geoffrey. The work compiled by Bale and Pits gives a mythical literary history, corresponding to Geoffrey's mythical political history. Of the Life and Prophecies of Merlin, falsely attributed to Geoffrey, 42 copies were printed for the Roxburghe Club in 1830. The Historia was translated into Eng-lish by Aaron Thompson (London, 1718); and a revised edition was issued by Dr Giles (London, 1842), which is to be found in the volume entitled Six Old English Chronicles in Bohn's Antiquarian Library. A discussion of Geoffrey's literary influence is given in "Legends of Pre-Roman Britain," an article in the Dublin University Magazine for April 1876. The latest instance of the interest in Geoffrey is the publication of the following work:—Der Münchener Brut Gottfried von Monmouth in französ. Versen des zwölften Jahr-hunderts, herausgeg. von R. Hofmann und K. Vollmöller, Halle, 1877.

For further information about Geoffrey, consult Warton's English Poetry; Morley's English Writers; Skene's Four Ancient Books of Wales; and a valuable paper on '' Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Britons," in the 1st vol. of Mr Thomas Wright's Essays on Archceological Subjects (London, 1861). (T. GI.)

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