Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Geoffrey of Monmouth

GEOFFREY of Monmouth (1100?–1154), otherwise Galfridus or Gaufridus Arturus, Galfridus Monemutensis, styled by Welsh writers Galffrai or Gruffyd ab Arthur, bishop of St. Asaph and chronicler, was either born or bred at Monmouth about the commencement of the twelfth century, and may have been at one time a monk of the Benedictine abbey there. He was the son of Arthur, who, according to Welsh authorities, was family priest of William, earl of Gloucester, an apocryphal personage. Geoffrey was brought up as ‘foster son’ by his paternal uncle Uchtryd, archdeacon and subsequently bishop of Llandaff (Archæologia Cambrensis, 3rd ser. 1864, x. 124). He went to Oxford and made the acquaintance of Archdeacon Walter [see Calenius, Walter] as early as 1129, when the two witnessed the Oseney charter subscribed by Geoffrey as Gaufridus Arturus (see Journ. Arch. Instit. 1858, p. 305). It was from Walter that Geoffrey professed to have obtained the foundation of his great work. He begins and ends his ‘Historia Regum Britanniæ’ with an acknowledgment that it was based upon a certain ‘librum vetustissimum’ ‘Britannici sermonis, quem Gualterus Oxenfordensis archidiaconus ex Britannia advexit.’ Before the book was half completed, however, Alexander, bishop of Lincoln [q. v.], desired Geoffrey to make a Latin version of the ‘Prophecies of Merlin’ from the Cymric. This was probably produced separately before the termination of his larger work (in which it was incorporated), as Ordericus Vitalis (Historia Ecclesiastica, bk. xii. cap. 47), writing about 1136–7, quotes from it. Alanus de Insulis wrote extensive commentaries upon the ‘Prophecies’ about 1170–80, and professed to have collated several manuscripts for the purpose. Towards 1140 Geoffrey went to Llandaff, ‘and for his learning and excellencies an archdeaconry was conferred upon him in the church of Teilo’ in that city, ‘where he was the instructor of many scholars and chieftains’ (‘Gwentian Brut,’ ut supra, p. 124). He probably accompanied his uncle Uchtryd, who had been made Bishop of Llandaff in that year. By this time the ‘Historia Regum Britanniæ’ had been issued in some form, as Henry of Huntingdon examined it at the abbey of Bec in Normandy, in January 1139, on his way to Rome with Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury. He made an abstract of its contents, which is extant in his works. Within a space of six months, in 1147–8, Geoffrey's two powerful friends, Robert, earl of Gloucester (to whom the ‘Historia’ is dedicated) and Bishop Alexander, as well as his uncle, died. He sought other patrons and addressed, at the beginning of 1149, his poem entitled ‘Vita Merlini’ to the new bishop of Lincoln, Robert de Chesney [q. v.], who had influence at the court of King Stephen.

Wright (Biog. Lit. 1846, p. 144) and Hardy (Catalogue, i. 350) agree in referring the final edition of the ‘Historia Regum Britanniæ,’ as we now possess it, to the 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, Wordsworth, and Tennyson have all pressed Geoffrey's legends into their service.

The three Welsh chronicles known as the ‘Brut Tysilio,’ the ‘Brut y Brenhinoedd,’ and the ‘Brut Gruffyd ab Arthur’ have been clearly shown to be late translations or adaptations of Geoffrey's ‘Historia,’ made at a time when the word brut had, by frequent use as an appellative (both in Welsh and English) for the popular story with its continuations, become equivalent to chronicle. Editions of those various texts, or portions of them, have been given in the Myvyrian archæology and the Cambrian register. They must be distinguished from the ‘Brut y Saeson’ or ‘Brut y Tywysogion’ of Caradoc of Llancarvan, which is pure history, and has been printed in the Rolls Series and in the ‘Archæologia Cambrensis.’ Bale supplies the titles of several imaginary books supposed to have been written by Geoffrey. The treatise ‘Compendium Gaufredi de Corpore Christi et Sacramento Eucharistiæ,’ sometimes attributed to Geoffrey, of which two manuscripts are in the library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, is stated by Wright to be written by Geoffrey of Auxerre.

The following is a view of the printed editions. A list of the manuscripts (including compilations and extracts from his works) is given by Hardy (Descriptive Cat. 1862–71, 3 vols.); see also Ward (Cat. of Romances, 1883), and Potthast (Wegweiser, 1862–8, 2 vols.). 1. ‘Britannie utriusque regum et principum origo et gesta insignia ab Galfrido Monemutensi ex antiquissimis Britannici sermonis monumentis in Latinum sermonem traducta et ab Ascensio cura et impendio magistri Junonis Cavelleti in lucem edita,’ Paris, 1508, 4to, 1st edition (this, as well as the 2nd edition, were much altered by the editor); ‘Britanniæ utriusque regum et principum origo et gesta … ab Ascensio rursus majore accuratione impressa,’ Paris, 1517, 4to, 2nd edition; reprinted, after collation with a manuscript, in H. Commelini ‘Rerum Britt. Script.,’ Heidelb. 1587, folio, pp. 1–92. The first critical edition is ‘Galfredi Monumetensis Historia Britonum, nunc primum in Anglia novem codd. MSS. collatis ed. J. A. Giles,’ London, 1844, 8vo (also as a publication of the Caxton Soc.). The latest is ‘Gottfried's von Monmouth Historia regum Britanniæ und Brut Tysylio, altwälsche Chronik in deutscher Uebersetzung, herausgegeben von San Marte [A. Schulz],’ Halle, 1854, 8vo. ‘The British History, translated into English from the Latin of Jeffrey of Monmouth, with a large preface concerning the authority of the history, by Aaron Thompson,’ London, 1718, 8vo; a new edition, revised and corrected, by J. A. Giles, London, 1842, 8vo; again without the preface, in ‘Six Old English Chronicles’ (Bohn's Ser. 1848, small 8vo). ‘Legendary Tales of the Ancient Britons, by L. J. Menzies,’ London, 1864, small 8vo, is mainly drawn from Geoffrey. 2. ‘Prophetia Anglicana Merlini Ambrosii Britanni, ex incubo olim (ut hominibus fama est) ante annos mille ducentos circiter in Anglia nati, Vaticinia et prædictiones, a Galfredo Monumet. Latine conversæ, una cum septem libris explanationum Alani de Insulis,’ Francofurti, 1603, small 8vo; again as ‘Prophetia Anglicana et Romana, hoc est Merlini Ambrosii Britanni,’ Francof. 1608, 8vo, and also in 1649, 8vo. 3. ‘Gaufridi Arthuri Monemuthensis Archidiaconi postea vero episcopi Asaphensis, de vita et vaticiniis Merlini Calidonii carmen heroicum,’ Roxburghe Club, 1830, 4to, edited by W. H. Black; ‘Galfridi de Monemuta Vita Merlini: vie de Merlin attribuée à Geoffrey de Monmouth, suivie des prophéties de ce barde, tirées du ive livre de l'Histoire des Bretons, publiées d'après les MSS. de Londres, par Francisque Michel et Thomas Wright,’ Paris, 1837, 8vo. The ‘Vita Merlini’ and ‘Vaticinia’ are also in A. F. Gfroerer's ‘Prophetæ veteres pseudepigraphi,’ Stuttgart, 1840, 8vo, and in ‘Die Sagen von Merlin von San Marte [A. Schulz],’ Halle, 1853, 8vo.

[Much information has been collected by Mr. Ward in his valuable Catalogue of Romances in the MSS. Department of the British Museum, 1883; a biography is in Wright's Biographia Britannica Literaria Anglo-Norman period, 1846, pp. 143–50; the notices by Bale, Leland, Pits, and Tanner are full of fables. See also Haddan and Stubbs's Councils, 1859, i. 360–1; Wright's Essays on Archæological Subjects, 1861, i. 202–226; Legends of pre-Roman Britain, in Dublin Univ. Mag. April 1876, an excellent sketch of the literary influence of Geoffrey, by T. Gilray; Hardy's Catalogue of Materials relating to History, 1862–71, 3 vols.; T. Warton's Hist. of English Poetry (Hazlitt), 1871, 4 vols.; Encyclop. Brit. xx. s.v. ‘Romance;’ Skene's Four Ancient Books of Wales, i. 22–6; Romania, 1883, pp. 367–76; G. Heeger's Die Trojanersage der Britten, 1889, 8vo; N. Mitth. a. d. Gebiet Hist.-Antiq. Forsch., Halle, 1862, pp. 49–75; Dunlop's Hist. of Fiction (Wilson), 1888, 2 vols.; Der Münchener Brut, herausg. von Hoffmann u. Vollmöller, Halle, 1877, 8vo; Acta SS. Boll. 21 Oct. ix. 94–8; Archæological Journal, xv. 1858, pp. 299–312; a Letter from Bishop Lloyd in N. Owen's British Remains, 1777; L. A. Lemoyne de la Borderie, Études historiques bretonnes, 1883; Jahrb. für roman. u. englische Lit. bd. v. and ix.; P. Paris's Mémoire sur l'ancienne chronique dite de Nennius et sur l'histoire des Bretons de Monmouth, in Comptes Roy. Acad. des Inscr. 1865, vol. i.]

H. R. T.