Book Review: Geoffrey of Monmouth

Karen Jankulak, Geoffrey of MonmouthWriters of Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010. 104pp. £16.99.

The Writers of Wales series’ stated objective is to “present for the first time in English a comprehensive survey of the literature of Wales.” By definition, a “comprehensive survey” in around a hundred pages can only cover so much ground, but like others in the series, the latest offering, Geoffrey of Monmouth, provides a surprisingly in-depth introduction. Jankulak’s purpose here is to place Geoffrey in a specific context as a Welsh author writing “specifically, although not exclusively, for a Welsh audience” (4). In the process, Geoffrey is inescapably presented not only with ties to Wales, but also to Brittany, as the native British tradition of the time could include Wales, Brittany and Cornwall almost indiscriminately. Famous as the inventor of King Arthur as we have come to know him, it may come as a surprise that this book covers so much new ground.

The book first introduces Geoffrey in an almost personal biography. Along with the obligatory list of dates and locations, Jankulak presents small details that may give insight into his personality, albeit speculative ones: she tells us, for instance, that he witnessed five charters on which he signed his name ‘Galfridus Artur’, already a sign of his literary interests. The following chapters develop Geoffrey’s character as he is placed in the literary and historical context of twelfth-century Britain, a period of intense anxiety for Wales and the British (not Anglo-Norman) identity. It was important to Geoffrey that the history of the British people be told in a properly historical and authoritative fashion, with a dramatic and respectable origin. Jankulak shows how the seeds of a classical education likely germinated into a comprehensive literary history warning the current regimes of the dangers of disunity in the face of English expansionism. She also takes time to clarify the place and function of what we now refer to as “pseudohistorical” writing in the Middle Ages, and explores the definitions of “synthetic” and “synchronistic” pseudohistory and the challenge of taking “a text on its own terms and as a whole, rather than a repository of facts, some true, some false” (24). This inability to “know for certain” is an important hurdle for anyone studying early British historical texts in depth to come to terms with.

The book marches neatly through Geoffrey’s works, drawing connections between his works, his acknowledged sources—the Historia Brittonum and Gildas—and possible cognates from Irish, Breton and Welsh. Consideration is given to what extent Geoffrey might have felt comfortable adapting his sources. Some may have been virtually unknown to his contemporaries but others were not; Gerald of Wales famously “related with relish the tale of Meilyr the prophet, who could be rid of harassing demons by having a copy of St. John’s Gospel placed on his lap; if it were replaced by Geoffrey’s Historia, [Gerald claimed] the demons would return in force, and stay for longer than usual” (102). Jankulak points out places where he most certainly amended information, and though one can only speculate on the reasons, her suggestions are reasonable and convincing.

One chapter is devoted entirely to the Arthurian section of the Historia Regnum Brittaniae, where we see Geoffrey “working most actively in the formation of a new tradition” (67) and another to the character of Merlin, who evolved so considerably over the course of Geoffrey’s dealings with him that he could almost be two separate characters. Throughout the book runs the single overarching theme of British identity and sovereignty. From the days of the Romans, when Britain is “’presented as a platform from which legitimate or less legitimate Roman rulers gained or regained the rule of Rome” (18) which exemplified the connections between the Roman empire and the fate of Britain, to the red and white dragons battling beneath Vortigern’s fortress, to the victories of Arthur and his legacy in Welsh tradition, this is the issue always at the forefront.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s chief strengths lie in this coherence and in the sheer volume of information presented. Engaging and thorough without being dense or pedantic, not a word is wasted and all are carefully chosen; fitting such a comprehensive survey into a book thin enough to fit in a pocket means there can be no rambling passages, no wild speculations. Geoffrey may have been responsible for Arthur, but later generations have enthusiastically taken up the challenge of fleshing out his legend, and Jankulak skilfully navigates a complicated and controversial field to provide a reliable and current road map through a vast amount of scholarship. The bibliography, neatly categorized into sections, is also a useful resource.

There is a shortage of work in English on the Welsh aspects of Geoffrey; this book was published specifically to fill that gap. A good secondary source, it is likely to be most useful for graduate students, advanced undergraduates, enthusiasts of a scholarly bent and academics whose primary field is something else; it requires minimal background knowledge but does assume familiarity with critical thinking and the basic tenets of historical medieval writing. Geoffrey of Monmouth stands alongside O. J. Padel’s Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature as an important resource for those embarking on study of the British origins of Arthur.

K. Kapphahn

Kit Kapphahn received a BA in Medieval Studies from the University of Oregon and an MA in Medieval Welsh Literature from Aberystwyth University. She is currently completing a PhD in Welsh Literature in Aberystwyth.

Creative Commons Licence
Book Review: Geoffrey of Monmouth by Kit Kapphahn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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