Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Nennius

NENNIUS (fl. 796), historian, is the traditional author of the ‘Historia Britonum.’ From incidental allusions in the body of the work it would appear that the time of writing was the end of the eighth century, and that the counties of Brecknock and Radnor formed the district in which the writer lived. In § 49 the author gives a genealogy of Fernmail, ‘qui regit modo in regionibus duabus Buelt et Guorthigornaun.’ Builth was a ‘cantref’ of Powys and Gwrtheyrnion a ‘cwmwd’ of Radnor, while Fernmail's date can be fixed by a genealogy given in ‘Y Cymmrodor,’ x. 110, and by other evidence, between 785 and 815 (Zimmer, pp. 66–71). In § 35 a reference to Catell, king of Powys, points to the date of writing having been previous to 808 (ib. pp. 71–3). The genealogies given in §§ 57–65 favour the same period as the date of the final composition of the ‘Historia,’ for the ‘Genealogia Merciorum’ in § 60 ends with Ecgfrith, the son of Offa, who reigned for a few months in 796; it is therefore probable that the work was originally completed in that year (ib. pp. 81–82). That the writer lived on the borders of Mercia in Brecknock or Radnor is further probable from the inclusion in the ‘Mirabilia’ in § 73 of two wonders in Buelt and Ercing (Erchenfield in Herefordshire), of the latter of which he remarks, ‘ego solus probavi.’ All that Nennius tells us directly of himself is contained in the preface (§ 3), which commences with the words, ‘Ego Nennius sancti Elbodi discipulus.’ Elbod or Elbodug is no doubt the Bishop of Bangor of that name who died in 809, and through whose influence the Roman custom as to the keeping of Easter was introduced into the Welsh church about 770. The change met with considerable opposition, and it seems possible that Nennius was a partisan of the new movement, and wrote his preface to accompany a copy of the ‘Historia’ which he sent to Elbodug. Some corroboration for the date and locality here ascribed to Nennius is to be derived from a story preserved in a Bodleian MS. (Auct. F. 4–32, f. 20), which dates from the end of the eighth or beginning of the ninth century. It is there related that one Nemniuus devised certain letters to confound the scoffing of a Saxon scholar at British learning, ‘ut vituperationem et hebetudinem deieceret gentis suæ.’ The forms of the letters given were in use in south-east Wales from the fifth to the seventh centuries, and the names assigned to them are ancient British words. It seems not unlikely that the Nemniuus of this story is the Nennius of the ‘Historia Britonum,’ and the conjecture is supported by the expression which the latter uses in his preface, ‘excerpta … quæ hebetudo gentis Britannicæ dejecerat’ (Zimmer, pp. 131–3).

Twelfth-century historians, such as Henry of Huntingdon, in referring to the ‘Historia Britonum,’ do so under the name of Gildas, and since the preface in § 3, as well as the longer preface in §§ 1 and 2, is found in no manuscript earlier than the twelfth century, it has been inferred that before this period the name of Nennius, as an historian, was probably unknown (Stevenson, p. xv; Hardy, Mon. Hist. Brit. p. 63); but this is clearly a misapprehension, for Nennius is mentioned as the author of the ‘Historia Britonum’ in the Irish version ascribed to Giolla Coemgin (fl. 1071), both in the preface and in § 48 (Todd, p. 104); the ‘Historia Britonum,’ moreover, appears to have been known under the name of Nennius to Cormac MacCuillennan (831–903 or 908) [q. v.] Other critics, starting from the ascription of the authorship to Marcus the Anachoret in the early Vatican manuscript, and arguing that the author, while of British birth, must have had a close Irish connection, have assigned Nennius to the inferior position of a transcriber, and given the authorship to Mark. Mark was a genuine person, who flourished in the ninth century; was a Briton born, and an Irish bishop. Heric of Auxerre, writing about 875, ascribes to Mark a statement concerning St. Germanus which coincides closely with the narrative in the ‘Historia Britonum’ (Todd and Herbert, Pref. pp. 12–18). This theory, however, rests on no sure foundation; Mark probably derived his information from the ‘Liber Beati Germani,’ which Nennius had used in his own work. There is no sufficient reason to doubt the genuineness of the ascription to Nennius as the original compiler, and the date of writing may be accepted as definitely fixed on internal evidence about 796.

The ‘Historia Britonum’ in the fullest form that has come down to us consists of seventy-six sections, divided as follows: (1) ‘Prologus Major,’ §§ 1, 2; (2) ‘Prologus Minor,’ § 3; (3) ‘Calculi,’ or ‘De Sex Ætatibus Mundi,’ §§ 4–6; (4) ‘Historia,’ §§ 7–56; (5) ‘Genealogiæ Saxonicæ,’ §§ 57–65; (6) ‘Mirabilia,’ §§ 66–76; and at the end (7) ‘Nomina Civitatum xxviii.’ In addition one manuscript (Univ. Cambr. Ff. 1, 27) has a list of Capitula prefixed, and also contains some ‘Versus Nennini ad Samuelem filium magistri sui Beulani,’ and two short chronological memoranda. The ‘Versus’ are undoubtedly spurious, and their own internal evidence condemns the ‘Capitula;’ these additions are printed by Stevenson in his ‘Preface’ (pp. xxvi–xxvii, and Appendix, pp. 63–70), and also in Hardy's ‘Catalogue of British History’ (i. 318) and the ‘Monumenta Historica Britannica.’ The ‘Prologus Major’ (which is also found in no ancient manuscript but Ff. 1, 27) gives the date of writing as 858, and is clearly a later compilation based on the older but shorter preface which follows, and on passages that have been interpolated in the original work. Of the other parts the ‘Historia’ and ‘Civitates’ alone are found in all the manuscripts. This circumstance has led some critics to reject all else as spurious, and, owing to the fact that the number of cities is variously given as twenty-eight and thirty-three, some would reject the ‘Civitates’ also. Schoell even rejects the account of St. Patrick in §§ 50–5 (Schoell, p. 35; De la Borderie, pp. 16, 28; but cf. Zimmer, p. 6). Such criticism, however, appears to be too sweeping, and is against the evidence afforded by Giolla Coemgin's version. Zimmer is accordingly prepared to accept the work, with the exception of the undoubtedly spurious ‘Prologus Major,’ as substantially the compilation of Nennius. The ‘Historia Britonum,’ as completed by Nennius in 796, did not, however, include the whole of §§ 3–76 as they now stand. Sections 16 and 18 are interpolations of later date; neither is found in the Irish version, and the former is in part and the latter is entirely wanting in some Latin manuscripts (ib. pp. 163–5; Stevenson, pp. 14 n. 14, 16 n. 9); the earlier part of § 16 clearly dates from 820, and it therefore follows that the ‘Historia’ was originally compiled before that time. The ‘Mirabilia,’ while in the main (§§ 67–73) the work of Nennius, contain an interpolation in § 74, and an addition on the ‘Wonders of Anglesey,’ made by a North Welsh copyist in §§ 75–6. It also appears probable that there were some considerable variations in the order of §§ 10–30, while the ‘Civitates’ preceded instead of following the ‘Mirabilia’ (Zimmer, pp. 32–6, 59, 110–16, 154–162).

Nennius in his preface says that he had used the Roman annals (Jerome, Eusebius, Isidore, and Prosper), together with the ‘Annales Scottorum Saxonumque,’ and ‘Traditio veterum nostrorum.’ In point of fact the treatise of Gildas, ‘De Excidio Brittanniæ’ appears to have formed the groundwork of Nennius's compilation as far as A.D. 540; in conjunction therewith he used Jerome's version of the history of Eusebius, together with the continuation of Prosper Tiro. For the period from A.D. 540–758 he had a North-British treatise dating from the seventh century, but with subsequent additions, which is incorporated in the ‘Genealogiæ;’ in the ‘Mirabilia’ also a North-British source was used. In the ‘Sex Ætates’ an Irish source was used, with some reference to Isidore. Other Irish authorities were the ‘Leabhar Gabala,’ or ‘Liber Occupationis,’ for various passages in the earlier part of the history; and for the account of St. Patrick (§§ 50–55), the ‘Vita Patricii’ of Muirchu Maccu Machteni, and the ‘Collectanea’ of Tirechan (cf. Stokes, Tripartite Life of St. Patrick, cxviii. Rolls Ser.) Finally with some minor authorities, Nennius had a south Kymric ‘Liber beati Germani,’ which was the basis of §§ 32–48, and to which special reference is made in § 47. Nennius himself does not seem to have had any acquaintance with Bede, but his North-Welsh editor had some indirect knowledge (Zimmer, pp. 69, 207–75, and especially pp. 264–9; with this may be compared Schoell, pp. 36–7).

With regard to the history of the ‘Historia Britonum,’ it would seem probable that Nennius, after the completion of his original work in 796, wrote the dedicatory epistle, which now forms the ‘Prologus Minor,’ and sent it, with a copy of the ‘Historia,’ to Elbodug. After 809, but before 820, a writer, who gives himself the name of Samuel, and describes himself as the pupil of Beulan the priest, and who would appear to have been a native of Anglesey, made a copy, or rather an edition, of Nennius's history at his master's bidding. By the direction of Beulan he omitted the genealogies ‘cum inutiles visæ sunt,’ but, on the other hand, he inserted the four ‘Mirabilia’ of Anglesey, together with some minor passages (Zimmer, pp. 50–2, 275). It is easy to see why, in the manuscripts founded on this version, the ‘Prologus Minor’ should have been retained, while in the versions of South-Wales origin it was omitted, no doubt through the jealousy, which survived in that quarter, for the Roman use, of which Elbodug had been the champion. It would appear that in South Wales a version was composed in 820, to which the reference in § 16 to the fourth year of Mermin belongs. Another South-Welsh version was made in 831 (cf. § 5), and a third in 859 (cf. latter part of § 16; as to these dates see Zimmer, pp. 165–7). Finally, from a copy of the second South-Welsh version, probably obtained in the north during the wars of Edmund, 943–5, there was derived an English version, the date of which can be fixed at 946 from references interpolated in the Vatican MS. in §§ 5 and 31 (Stevenson, p. 5, n. 7, and p. 24, n. 18). From a copy of the North-Welsh version an edition of less importance, now represented by Burney MS. 310, was made about 910; from another and earlier copy of the same version Giolla Coemgin must have made his Irish translation about 1071, which consequently represents the most ancient form of the ‘Historia’ now extant. The manuscripts fall into three principal groups: 1. The Cambridge, of which the chief, though not the most authentic, is Univ. Lib. Camb. Ff. i. 27; the manuscripts of this group, eight in number, represent the North-Welsh version, but have all been influenced by South-Welsh copies. 2. The Harleian group, comprising seventeen manuscripts, and representing the South-Welsh version; the chief manuscript is Harleian 3859, which dates from the tenth or early eleventh century, and is perhaps the oldest extant complete copy of the ‘Historia.’ 3. The Vatican group, comprising five manuscripts and representing the English version of 946; the chief manuscript being Vatican 1964. A manuscript at Chartres (No. 98), which may date from the ninth or tenth century, contains §§ 4–37, and represents the South-Welsh version. (For an account of the manuscripts reference may be made to Hardy, Descript. Cat. Brit. Hist. i. 318–36; De la Borderie, pp. 112–21; {{sc|Stevenson}, pp. xxi–xxix; cf. also Zimmer, pp. 36–42, 201, 277–82).

As an original authority the ‘Historia Britonum’ has little or no direct value. Skene, however, speaks of it as ‘a valuable summary of early tradition, together with fragments of real history which are not to be found elsewhere’ (Four Ancient Books of Wales, i. 40). The true interest of the ‘Historia’ is to be sought in its value for Kymric and Irish literary history from the sixth to the ninth centuries, for Kymric philology, British mythology, and the history of the Arthurian legend. The ‘Genealogiæ,’ however, possess a distinct historical value of their own, and are an important contribution to our knowledge of early British and English history.

The authenticity and value of the ‘Historia Britonum’ have been a fertile subject for criticism in the present century. Gunn, in his edition of 1819, first suggested the claims of Mark to the authorship, but himself regarded the true author as unknown (Preface, p. xv). Stevenson in 1838 regarded the ‘Historia’ as the work of an unknown writer, holding that the ascription to Nennius dated from the twelfth century, and that ‘the successive recensions which have manifestly been made rendered it impossible to satisfactorily ascertain its original form or extent’ (Preface, p. xv). Thomas Wright, in 1842, under the belief that there was no allusion to the ‘Historia Britonum’ older than the twelfth century, and that it claimed to be a work of the seventh century, says that ‘it contains dates and allusions which belong to a much later period, and carries with it many marks of having been an intentional forgery’ (Biog. Britt. Litt. p. 138). The publication of Todd's Irish version of the ‘Historia’ in April 1848 marks an epoch. Herbert, in his preface to this work, while recognising the genuine character of the ascription to Nennius, had no means to test the significance of such data as the genealogy of Fernmail, and concludes that ‘Marcus compiled this credulous book of British traditions for the edification of the Irish circa A.D. 822, and one Nennius, a Briton of the Latin communion, republished it with additions and changes circa A.D. 858’ (Preface, pp. 15, 18). Sir T. Hardy, writing later in 1848, regards the work as anonymous, and Nennius as the possible name of a scribe who in 858 interpolated and glossed the original work for his friend Samuel. He accepts the supposed evidence of the Vatican MS. in favour of a version which was at least as old as 674, and considers that there were later editions dating from 823, 858, 907, and 977 (Monumenta Historica Britannica, pp. 62–4, 107–14; cf. Descrip. Cat. of Brit. Hist. i. 318). Schoell in 1850 regards the authorship as quite unknown, and rejects all but §§ 7–49 and 56, and is doubtful as to the latter; he dates the various editions of the work in 831, 858, 907, 946, and possibly two others in 976 and 994. Skene in ‘The Four Ancient Books of Wales’ (1868) thinks the ‘Historia’ was written in Welsh in the seventh or early eighth century, and that it was afterwards translated into Latin. He observes the predominance of northern influence in parts of the work, ascribes an edition to Mark in 823, when the legends of SS. German and Patrick were added, and another to Nennius in 858, when they were finally incorporated. De la Borderie in 1883 for the most part follows Schoell, holding that the ascription to Nennius was a fiction, but that the original work dates from 822, and that there were six later versions in 831, 832, 857 or 859, 912, 946, and 1024 (L'Historia Britonum, pp. 19–24). Heeger in 1886 puts the date of composition in the early half of the eleventh century. The general attitude of scepticism was broken in 1893 by the ‘Nennius Vindicatus’ of Zimmer, whose arguments appear conclusive and have been adopted in this article.

The ‘Historia Britonum’ was first printed by Gale in 1691 in his ‘Scriptores Quindecim,’ iii. 93–139; the basis of this edition is the Camb. Univ. Lib. MS. Ff. 1, 27. It was included by Charles Bertram [q. v.] in his ‘Britannicarum Gentium Historiæ Antiquæ Scriptores,’ Copenhagen, 1757, which reproduces the text of Gale. Bertram also published the ‘Historia Britonum’ alone at Copenhagen in 1758. In 1819 Gunn edited the ‘Historia’ from the Vatican MS. In 1838 Joseph Stevenson edited it for the English Historical Society, using the Harleian MS., but collating sixteen other manuscripts and Gunn's edition. Stevenson's edition was re-edited in Germany by A. Schulz (San Marte) in 1844, with a translation of the English preface. The ‘Historia’ is printed in the ‘Monumenta Historica Britannica,’ pp. 46–82, where the text is based chiefly on the Cambridge MS. Ff. 1, 27; a fresh collation of the Vatican MS. is given in the Preface, pp. 68–9. The text of the Harleian MS. for §§ 50–5 is printed in Stokes's ‘Tripartite Life of St. Patrick,’ ii. 498–500. The Irish version of Giolla Coemgin was edited by Todd in 1848. A translation is contained in Gunn's edition, and another was published by J. A. Giles with Gildas in 1841, and in ‘Six Old English Chronicles’ in 1847.

Nennius has been often called abbot of Bangor Yscoed. This statement, which is entirely unfounded, is no doubt derived from the Welsh traditions adopted by Bale, who says that Nennius escaped from the massacre of the Welsh monks by Ethelfrid or Æthelfrith in 613, and afterwards lived in Scotland. The story may have arisen from some association with an Elbodug who was archbishop of Llandaff early in the seventh century, combined with an idea that Nennius himself must have lived at that time. Bale also gravely records that a British history was written by one Nennius Audax, a brother of Cassivellaunus, who killed Labienus, the lieutenant of Julius Cæsar, and says that it was this history which was afterwards translated into Latin by Nennius the abbot (Centuriæ, i. 19, 74). Leland, on the other hand, is judiciously critical in the short notice which he bases on his own observation (Comment. de Script. 74). The absurb legend of Nennius Audax appears in many mediæval chronicles; it gave the theme for some verses on the duty of all good subjects to defend their country from foreign enemies, in the seventeenth century (Harleian Miscellany, viii. 87–94).

The reference to the ‘Historia Britonum’ under the name of Gildas by twelfth-century historians is explained by the frequent ascription of it in manuscripts to Gildas the Wise. When the absurdity of ascribing the ‘Historia Britonum’ to the well-known Gildas was observed, a Gildas minor was invented as its author.

[The whole subject of the personality of Nennius and the authenticity of the Historia Britonum has been exhaustively discussed by Heinrich Zimmer in his Nennius Vindicatus. Über Entstehung, Geschichte und Quellen der Historia Brittonum, Berlin, 1893. The question of Cormac MacCuillennan's knowledge of Nennius is discussed by Zimmer in Neues Archiv der Gesellschaft für ältere deutsche Geschichtskunde, xix. 436–43. The chief conclusions arrived at by Dr. Zimmer have been summarised in this article. They are adversely criticised by Dr. G. Heeger in Göttingische gelehrte Anzeigen, May 1894, pp. 399–406. Other authorities are Stevenson's preface to the Historia (Engl. Hist. Soc. 1838); Wright's Biog. Brit. Litt. Anglo-Saxon. pp. 135–142, Essays on Archæological Subjects i. 203–209, and an article in Archæologia, xxxii. 337–9; Hardy's Introduction to the Monumenta Historica Britannica, pp. 62–8, 107–14, 1848; Herbert's Preface to Todd's Irish Version of … Nennius, Dublin, 1848 (Irish Arch. Soc.); Schoell's De ecclesiasticæ Brittonum Scotorumque historiæ fontibus, Berlin, 1851; Skene's Four Ancient Books of Wales, i. 37–40; Guest's Origines Celticæ, ii. 157; A. de la Borderie's L'Historia Britonum attribuée à Nennius, Paris, 1883; Stokes's Preface to Tripartite Life of St. Patrick, vol. i. pp. cxvii–cxviii; Heeger's Ueber die Trojanersage der Britten, Munich, 1886. Reference may also be made to reviews by Reynolds in Y Cymmrodor, vii. 155–66, by Gaston Paris in Romania, xii. 366–71, and Mommsen in Neues Archiv der Gesellschaft, &c., xix. 283–93.]

C. L. K.