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GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH(C. 1100–1155). Geoffrey is best known for his Historia regumBritanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), completed between 1136 and 1138. He also composed a long verse “Life of Merlin” in about 1152. In addition to writing his Historia and his Vita Merlini, Geoffrey served as the archdeacon of Llandsaff, anointed in 1140. In 1152 he was consecrated bishop of St. Asaph, a place it is doubtful he ever saw or visited.
His Historia enjoyed a vast readership for hundreds of years, despite its dubious reliability as history. Its fame is primarily due to its emphasis on and glorification of King Arthur, to whom a majority of its pages are devoted. Since Arthur is a figure whose historical authenticity is still unverified, it is likely that as much fiction went into Geoffrey’s work as fact. Thus, though the issue is still debated, many scholars credit Geoffrey of Monmouth with having actually invented the King Arthur of popular perception, by combining details from existing “local hero” stories into his tale of one great hero. Geoffrey also includes and gives importance to the character of Merlin, whom he probably borrowed both from Nennius’ Ambrosius and from a body of poetry about a Welsh prophet named Merddyn.
It is clear from his own commentary that Geoffrey perceived the literary status of the Celts to be low compared to various continental peoples. He set about rectifying this by presenting purely British heroes in the first comprehensive, descriptive history of Britain from the Celtic point of view. In the Historia, Geoffrey establishes for Britain an equal literary importance with Greece and Rome by inserting the foundation of Britain into the tradition of the classical sources, claiming the founder of Britain to be Brutus, the great-grandson of Aeneas. This detail contributed to many vernacular verse “histories” of Britain,