Geoffrey's 'Very Old Book' and Penda of Mercia

By Pace, Edwin | Arthuriana, July 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Geoffrey's 'Very Old Book' and Penda of Mercia


Pace, Edwin, Arthuriana


Major story elements in Geoffrey of Monmouth's narrative concerning Uther Pendragon and Aurelius Ambrosius closely follow historical events recorded for the reigns of the seventh-century insular rulers Cadwallon of Gwynedd and Penda of Mercia. This may have important implications for the provenance of the Historia Regum Britanniae. (EP)

Geoffrey of Monmouth's claim for the existence of 'a very old book in the British tongue' (Britannici sermonis librum uetustissimum) is often seen as little more than a cunning fiction.1 The Historia Regum Britanniae differs so markedly from all previous material about ancient Britain that many scholars dismiss the idea that Geoffrey had access to some now-lost source for the reigns of almost a hundred British kings.2 If such a book existed, they ask, why do we see no evidence for it in any previous work? Why do the stories of Aurelius, Uther, and Arthur differ so radically from the known evidence for this period? Clearly, the Historia Regum Britanniae (henceforward 'HRB') is a product of Geoffrey's own literary genius, not the result of a happy discovery of authentic ancient material.

It is certainly true that there is much that is fanciful (and certainly nonhistorical) in the good bishop of St Asaph's book. Various observers have demonstrated how Geoffrey seems to misquote and manipulate Gildas, Bede, and other writers in order to create more vivid narratives.3 It has also been demonstrated that literally hundreds of names have been taken from other sources to lend an air of credibility to the work. In Geoffrey's battles the commanders of each detachment are named. In his ceremonies, the part played by each vassal is described in obsessive detail.4 When we read that Ali Fatima commanded a Roman Army unit in fifth-century Gaul, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that most of the HRB is a clever literary deception.5 As one study has asserted, Geoffrey 'pillaged other authors with unequalled audacity to fabricate what he certainly did not believe himself.'6

There have been some dissenting voices to this skepticism, however. Acton Griscom and Lewis Thorpe were willing to consider that Geoffrey's claim was more than mere fiction.7 Molly Miller, Peter Bartrum, and Michael Curley have each allowed that Geoffrey may have had access to some written material, albeit no more than a few pages of text.8 Mary L.H. Thompson ventured that a Late Antique story of Vercingetorix might lie behind the account of Arthur's Roman war, while Roger Sherman Loomis saw the deeds of the Irish hero Llwch Llawwynnawc as a possible exemplar.9

Acceptance of these arguments has been far from universal, however. Rosemary Morris perhaps best sums up much current scholarly opinion about Geoffrey's claim when she states: 'Geoffrey's ex nihilo creation of a complete biography for Arthur is an ineffably important achievement.'10 The phrase 'ex nihilo,' however, raises an important, though largely neglected issue. The biography of Arthur is only part of a much larger narrative, the story of the House of Constantine. This is a very complex literary and quasi-historical work, comprising most of the latter half of the HRB. Yet it must be said that the authors of complex literary works on historical themes rarely create them ex nihilo. Tolstoy certainly used pre-existing historical material to write War and Peace, as did Shakespeare when he composed his history plays. This implies that Geoffrey's originality was of a very high order, in that he could assemble compelling narratives from extremely diverse materials-and on his very first attempt. Indeed, since the HRB spawned one of the most long-lived genres in world literature, one might make a case that Geoffrey was the most original writer of historical fiction ever, creating ex nihilo a literary tradition still going strong after eight centuries. But one must then ask: does the fact that Geoffrey was 'capable' of deceiving his readership also imply that he was 'capable' of producing the compelling narratives found in the HRB? …

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