This summer, I’m researching the ways that history was created and used politically in 12th-century England. Pretty exciting, right? Don’t worry, it’s less dry than it sounds. In this post, I’ll talk a little bit about the main text that I’ve been working with: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain.
Writing sometime between 1136 and 1138, Geoffrey presented his work as a historical account of the lives of ninety-nine British kings, translated from material that he found in an ancient book. Geoffrey tells a very compelling story, and Michael Faletra’s translation is top notch. The problem? Very little of the material in the History is remotely close to what we now consider factual. It reads more like a work of imaginative fantasy than a history book.
Inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid, as well as Bede, Nennius, and Gildas, Geoffrey creates an elaborate history for the British people (these days we might call them Celtic peoples- the ancestors of the Welsh, Cornish, and Bretons). He begins with the fall of Troy, describing how Aeneas’ grandson, Brutus, brought a group of Trojans to Britain, defeated the giants who lived there, and settled down. From there, the History is a wild ride- there are more wars with giants, magic, prophecies, and multiple British kings who conquer Rome and become emperors.
Where Geoffrey really shines is his tale of King Arthur. The History of the Kings of Britain is the first text in which the Arthurian legend really appeared in its present form, and it’s a great account. Arthur unites the Britons, conquers Iceland, Ireland, Denmark, Gaul, and Rome (essentially the known world), sets up a grand court at Caerleon, and is eventually brought low by Guinevere’s infidelity and the treacherous Mordred. After Arthur’s death, the Britons’ last hope is gone and they are doomed to fade into obscurity. A good number of the classic Arthurian characters are there- besides the aforementioned Guinevere and Mordred, Merlin makes an appearance, as do Sir Gawain, Sir Kay, and Sir Bedivere. The History started the medieval craze for King Arthur and his knights, inspiring French romancers like Chrétien de Troyes, who added Perceval’s quest for the Holy Grail and Lancelot’s story to the mix.
To modern historians, Geoffrey’s History is obviously legendary. One of the fun parts about medieval history, however, is that medieval writers frequently didn’t concern themselves with the distinction between fact and fiction. The fact that Geoffrey cited unquestionably reputable sources (Bede, especially) was enough for most scholars to accept his account as truth.
So I’ve had the chance to look into a lot of interesting questions over the course of this project: What is fiction and why do we differentiate it from ‘history’? Why did medieval scholars approach the world differently than we do? How can we use the blurred distinction between history and fiction to better understand social and political life in the Middle Ages?
Those may be questions for a different blog post, but I’ll leave you with a thought. (Kind of a long thought- bear with me…) Going into this project, I wasn’t sure if the studying the Middle Ages had much value for individuals and institutions. The 1130s were an awfully long time ago, and don’t provide the most fruitful ground for the sort of identity-politics/postcolonial/not-white-people history that’s popular today. So why should we study the medieval period at all?
Looking at Geoffrey of Monmouth provides one good reason. His is very much an invented history: Fiona Tolhurst argues quite convincingly that his ‘British’ history was intended to provide a sense of historical legitimacy to the newly powerful Norman kings after their invasion of England in 1066. By presenting his invention as history, Geoffrey lends a sense of legitimacy to William the Conqueror’s power grab and therefore to his successors’ rights to the throne.
So here’s something to think about, especially with the 4th of July right around the corner: are there parts of our own history where an invented narrative provides legitimacy to an otherwise questionable action? Why are stories of black men fighting for the Confederacy used to excuse the South’s racism? How did speculation about the explosion of the USS Maine contribute to the Spanish-American war? How do people use the supposed intentions of the Founding Fathers to justify practically anything? (Examples: For gun control, against gun control). You get the point- the creation of myth was not limited to the Middle Ages. The questions that Geoffrey brings up about the divide between history and fiction and the political nature of stories have many applications today.
Anyway, I find the research interesting and really appreciate the Hurford Center’s willingness to fund it. If you ever get a chance to read Geoffrey of Monmouth, you might be pleasantly surprised by how entertaining and thought provoking medieval literature can be.