Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain

https://manuscrits-france-angleterre.org/view3if/pl/ark:/12148/btv1b10542189p/f134

From the first page of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae,  BNF  Latin 8501A fol. 63v. “Britain, best of islands…”

I have avoided reading Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain for years, many years. Never understanding the allure of all the Arthurian nonsense, I did not see the point in dedicating time to a work dedicated to putting Arthur’s reign and derring-do at the center of early British history. I’d read William of Newburgh’s damning assessment of his near contemporary chronicler.  He savages Kings of Britain as historical flummery at best, romantical codswallop at worst. Thus, Geoffrey’s book sat neglected on my shelf amongst other chroniclers who seemed a worthier investment of time Henry of Huntingdon, Usama Ibn Mundiqh, Jean de Joinville and Geoffroy de Villehardouin, and their ilk. I only picked up Geoffrey’s History recently because I was on a very specific hunt.

Illstr copy Geoffrey of Monmouth Kings of Britain

Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae,  BNF  Latin 8501A fol. 108v 12th cent 2nd 1/2)

I kept reading because of the recommendation of Geoffrey’s translator[1] Lewis Thorpe that those those skeptical of Geoffrey’s utility approach the work as they do the Aeneid and Odyssey, not at history, but epic.[2] History does, as Thorpe writes, occasionally “peep” through the fiction, but the sweep of the story certainly feels more fictional—both epic and romantic–to me than it does historic.[3] For some reason, that adjustment of expectations made a world of difference.

Geoffrey’s is a winding but not wandering account of the history of Britain’s kings from its fictional founder Brutus (son of Silvius, the son of Ascanius, the son of Aeneas) down to Cadwallader. If Troy was destroyed around 1240 BC and Cadwallader died in 689 AD, then our lad Geoffrey bites off quite a mouthful. Still, he maintains a compelling tone and rhythm. His history is intermittently interrupted by proverbial asides that lend both color and moral portent to the gazillionth battle between the Romans and the Britons:

“However it is easier for a kite to be made to act like a sparrow-hawk than for a wise man to be fashioned at short notice from a peasant. He who offers any depth of wisdom to such a person is acting as though he were throwing a pearl among swine.”[4]

Geoffrey’s slandering of peasants here is it turns out, a whole lot better than what the course of events threw at them:

“In opposition to them [them being everybody and their brother from the North of the Isle and Scandinavia who decided to attack the Britons after Rome took off], slow-witted peasants were posted on the top of the walls, men useless in battle, who were unable even to run away for the very palpitation of their bellies, and who shook with fear through the days and nights on top of their stupid perches. Meanwhile the enemy continued to ply their hooked weapons, dragging the miserable plebs down from the walls with them, so that they were dashed to the ground. The very suddenness of the death they endured was a stroke of luck to those who were killed in this way, for by their immediate execution they avoided the miserable torments which awaited their brothers and their children.”[5]

Right riveting stuff. When Geoffrey touches on the pusillanimity of the Britons in this section, it’s impossible not to think of Gildas’ De excidio Britanniae. Geoffrey never gets mouth-frothingly apoplectic as does Gildas, but then Geoffrey wrote in the twelfth century and not the sixth as did Gildas, and so Geoffrey had more time to reconcile himself to the waning of British glory before the onslaught of treacherous Saxons and domineering Angles. Indeed, by Geoffrey’s time, the Normans had settled in like the pox to make their mark upon the island. Ah, the Normans: proof positive that things can always get worse. Always.

“What more can I say?” asks Geoffrey after the Romans leave the Britons to fend for themselves.

The answer, it turns out, is quite a lot.

For the edification of anyone is thinking that, aside from that whole ‘Trojans take Britain’ thing, the narrative here looks respectably historical, I hold up as exhibit B: The Prophecies of Merlin. Despite my lack of interest in Merlin and Arthur (the two of whom never meet in Geoffrey’s text), I will admit to being quite taken with the prophecies of Merlin. Figures like “the Boar of Commerce,” “the Dragon of Worchester,” and “the Ass of Wickedness” give the prophecies a what-kind-of-mushroom-did-you-eat-and-are-you-sure-it’s-not-going-to-kill-you quality. A sampling will suffice.

“An Ass shall call to itself a long-bearded Goat and then will change shapes with it. As a result the Mountain Bull will lose its temper: it will summon the Wolf and then transfix the Ass and the Goat with its horn. Once it has indulged its savage rage upon them, it will eat up their flesh and their bones, but the Ox itself will be burned up on the summit of Urianus. The ashes of its funeral pyre shall be transmuted into Swans, which will sim away upon dry land as though in water. These Swans will eat up fish inside fish and they will swallow men inside men. When they become old they will take the shape of Sea-wolves and continue their treacherous behavior beneath the sea. They will sink ships and so gather together quite a treasure-house of silver.”[6]

Who needs apoplectic diatribe when you have phantasmagoric soothsaying?

After all the startling figures who populate the prophecies—from the “Foster-daughter of the Scourger” and the “Horned Dragon” to the “Farmer from Albany” to the drunken Lion, the prophecies take a decidedly cosmic and apocalyptic turn. I rather wish Geoffrey’s book ended here rather than continuing on as it does to the rise of Arthur and his inevitable betrayal followed by the fall and scattering of the Britons. The prophecies conclude thusly:

“Roots and branches shall change their places and the oddness of this will pass for a miracle.

Before the amber glow of Mercury the bright light of the Sun shall grow dim and this will strike horror into those who witness it. The planet Mercury, born in Arcady, shall change its shield; and the Helmet of Mars shall call to Venus. The Helmet of Mars shall cast a shadow and in its rage Mercury shall over-run its orbit. Iron Orion shall bare its sword. The watery Sun shall torment the clouds. Jupiter shall abandon its pre-ordained paths and Venus desert its appointed circuits. The malice of the planet Saturn will pour down like rain, killing mortal men as though with a curved sickle. The twelve mansions of the stars will weep to see their inmates transgress so. The Gemini will cease their wonted embraces and will dispatch Aquarius to the fountains. The scales of Libra will hang awry, until Aries props them up with its curving horns. The tail of Scorpio shall generate lightning and Cancer will fight with the Sun. Virgo shall climb on the back of Sagittarius and so let droop its maiden blossoms. The moon’s chariot shall run amok in the Zodiac and the Pleiades will burst into tears. None of these will return to the duty expected of it. Ariadne will shut its door and be hidden within its enclosing cloudbanks.

In the twinkling of an eye the seas shall rise up and the arena of the winds shall be opened once again. The winds shall do battle together with a blast of ill-omen, making their din reverberate from one constellation to another.”[7]

Creation itself seems almost to move in reverse as if the voice of God over the waters were now withdrawing. The prophecies conclude with the majesty and mournfulness of the heavens collapsing as the constellations trip and fall out of their established courses. (Anyone who has ever read C.S. Lewis’ Last Battle will wonder with me if Lewis didn’t get the ideas for Narnia’s end from these lines.) No inscrutable bulls or mystifying farmers can diminish the gravitas of these final prophecies.  We may not weep with the Pleiades, but it’s impossible not to feel the tug of grief here for a world that will indeed be coming down around the Britons’ ears by the end of the book.

In short, do not pick up The History of the Kings of Britain for history, but for a window  into how Geoffrey (and his source-author) saw their nation and age as a part of larger human landscape. There is a deep dignity to Geoffrey’s dream of Britain. After all, how we tell the story of our past reflects the landscape of our heart. It reflects the world as we wish it might be, even if that reflection is per speculum in enigmate.

[1] Yes. I was being lazy.  All quotes hereafter from: Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History o the Kings of Britain, trans. Lewis Thorpe. Penguin, Clays Ltd. 1966.

[2] p 28.

[3] p 19.

[4]  p 146.

[5] p 147.

[6] p 180.

[7] pp 184-185.

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