King Arthur and Glastonbury (18th April)

Next Meeting: 18th April 2018 / Room 3.62 / 3-5pm

Glastonbury is a village situated in a secluded spot in the marshes, though it can be reached both on horseback and on foot. It affords pleasure neither by its situation nor by its beauty.[1]

Located in Somerset, Glastonbury Abbey is a site of popular myth and legend. In the Middle Ages, the Abbey claimed to have been founded by Joseph of Arimathea, and it is also the legendary burial site of King Arthur.

Hagiography and Historiography

In the 1129, the monks at Glastonbury commissioned William of Malmesbury to write the official history of the Abbey, as well as the life of Saint Dunstan, who was the first abbot of Glastonbury (and later became the Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London, and Archbishop of Canterbury).

William’s original version of De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesie has not survived. The text is extant in two thirteenth-century manuscripts. Both manuscripts include several interpolations relating to the legend of Joseph of Arimathea, the relics of Saint Patrick and Saint Dunstan, and the exhumation of the bodies of Arthur and Guinevere. These interpolations were introduced into the text between 1171 and 1247.

In the 1130s, the Welsh cleric Caradoc of Llancarfan, who was a contemporary of Geoffrey of Monmouth, composed the Vitae Gildae for the Glastonbury monks. Caradoc claims that the sixth-century British monk ‘Gildas Sapiens’ – or ‘Gildas the Wise’ – wrote De excidio et conquestu Britanniae while at Glastonbury. Caradoc was also the first writer to associate King Arthur with Glastonbury, and the Vitae Gildae includes the earliest version of the story of the abduction of Guinevere.

The Exhumation of King Arthur

By the late twelfth century, Glastonbury Abbey ‘was in a state of financial and ecclesiastical crisis’.[2] In 1184, a great fire at Glastonbury destroyed the monastic buildings. Reconstruction began almost immediately, and the Lady Chapel was consecrated in 1186 or 1187; however, work on the abbey was postponed by the death of Henry II (1189), which ended financial support and royal patronage.

In order to raise funds, the monks of the abbey commenced a series of propaganda exercises, and used holy relics and the bodies of saints to promote Glastonbury as place of pilgrimage. The bodies of Arthur and Guinevere were discovered in the cemetery at Glastonbury in 1190 or 1191. In both of his accounts of the exhumation, Gerald of Wales recalls how a Welsh bard had told Henry II about the location of Arthur and Guinevere’s bodies. Gerald was the first to explicitly identify Avalon – the resting place of Arthur – with Glastonbury.

Arthur and Guinevere’s bodies were re-exhumed in 1278. At Easter, Edward I visited the Glastonbury with his wife, Eleanor of Castile, and on the 19th April he instructed the bodies to be moved to the high altar. The exhumation asserted that Edward I ‘was a legitimate successor to the Arthurian imperium’.[3] Following the conquest of Wales in 1282, Edward took possession of Arthur’s crown in 1283, and held a Round Table at Winchester in 1284. His grandson, Edward III, also visited Arthur’s tomb with his wife, Philippa of Hainault, in 1331. 

The Legend of Joseph of Arimathea

The legend of Joseph of Arimathea was popularised in thirteenth-century French Arthurian romance. In the first part of his trilogy of Arthurian romances, Robert de Boron describes how Joseph of Arimathea used the Holy Grail to catch the last drops of blood from Christ as he hung on the cross. Robert also claims that the descendants of Joseph brought the Grail to Britain.

In the mid-thirteenth century, the story of Joseph of Arimathea was interpolated into William of Malmesbury’s De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesie. These revisions asserted that Joseph was the original founder of Glastonbury, which subsequently bolstered the reputation of the abbey. John of Glastonbury also expanded the story of Joseph in his Cronica sive antiquitates Glastoniensis ecclesie, using the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus – also known as The Acts of Pilate – and the first part of the Lancelot-Grail cycle, L’estoire du Graal, as his main sources for the apostle’s life.

The legend of Joseph of Arimathea also survived into the later middle ages. In the fifteenth century, John Hardyng included the story of Joseph of Arimathea in the two versions of his Chronicle (1457 and 1464). As Edward Donald Kennedy points out, ‘[t]he account of Joseph afforded Hardyng an ideal story to use to counter Scotland’s claims to preeminence as a Christian nation’.[4] Hardyng’s Chronicle also contains a grail quest – which is unprecedented in the chronicle tradition – and Galahad’s achievement of the Grail occurs before Arthur’s war against Rome and the final battle between Arthur and Modred.

Texts

Gerald of Wales

Gerald wrote two accounts of the exhumation of King Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury. The first account is contained in De principis instructione (c. 1193), while the second – and more detailed – account is included in Speculum ecclesiae (c. 1216). Gerald claims that he was an eyewitness of the exhumation, but Richard Barber has challenged his claim to authority.

Ralph of Coggeshall

Ralph was abbot of Coggeshall, near Colchester in Essex. He wrote his Chronicon Anglicanum in around 1223, and the entry for 1191 includes an account of the exhumation of Arthur and Guinevere.

Adam of Damerham

Adam was a monk of Glastonbury Abbey in the thirteenth century. He wrote a history of the abbey entitled Historia de Rebus gestis Glastoniensibus, which is a continuation of William of Malmesbury’s De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesie from 1126 to 1291. Adam was also an eyewitness of Edward I’s visit to Glastonbury in 1278 when the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere was opened and their bones were moved to the high altar.

(NB: Adam’s account of the second exhumation in 1278 is taken from John of Glastonbury’s Cronica)

Vera historia de morte Arthuri (c. 1200)

Written around 1200, the Vera historia de morte Arthuri is extant in four manuscripts. Two manuscripts – London, British Library, Cotton Titus A. xix and Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby 186 – include materials relevant to Glastonbury, such as excerpts from the works of William of Malmesbury and John of Glastonbury. In Paris Biblioteque de l’Arsenal, 983, the Vera historia is interpolated between chapters 178 and 179 of the First Variant version of the Historia regum Britanniae. Richard Barber and Michael Lapidge have suggested that the Vera historia was originally composed in Wales.

John of Glastonbury, Cronica sive antiquitates Glastoniensis ecclesie (1350s)

The Cronia survives as a complete text in seven manuscripts. The main sources for John’s Cronica are William of Malmesbury’s De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesie and Adam of Damerham’s Historia de Rebus gestis Glastoniensibus. John’s Cronia is ‘highly derivative’,[5] and he uses a selection of chronicles, hagiography, and romance to construct a history of Glastonbury Abbey.

Questions for discussion

  • What are the motivations for the exhumation in the accounts by Gerald of Wales, Ralph of Coggeshall, and Adam of Damerham?
  • What is the significance of royal and ecclesiastical authority in the different accounts of the exhumation of Arthur and Guinevere?
  • How does Arthur’s tomb function as a site of public memory?
  • Philip Schwyzer classifies the exhumation of Arthur as a sub-genre of the inventio topos that participates in an act of ‘colonial archaeology’.[6] How are the materials and artefacts of British history appropriated in these texts?
  • Catherine Clarke argues that local landscapes are ‘central to the fashioning of monastic identity and its connection to images of the nation’.[7] How is the landscape of Glastonbury represented in these texts?
  • Why does Gerald of Wales undermine of the myth of Arthur’s return?
  • How do the texts – particularly the Vera historia and John of Glastonbury’s Cronica – engage with models of Arthurian history in chronicle and romance?
  • How do Gerald of Wales and John of Glastonbury align the story of Arthur’s death by Geoffrey of Monmouth with Glastonbury?
  • Can the relocation of Arthur’s resting place to Gwynedd in the Vera historia be read as a response to the growth of Glastonbury legends in the 1190s?

Useful links

Glastonbury Abbey

Digital reconstruction of Arthur’s tomb

Glastonbury in the news

Recent excavations at Glastonbury

[1] William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum: Volume One: Text and Translation, ed. and trans. by M. Winterbottom with the assistance of R. M. Thomson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), 2.91.1.

[2] Valerie M. Lagorio, ‘The Evolving Legend of St Joseph of Glastonbury’, Speculum, 46 (1971), 209-31 (p. 210).

[3] John Carmi Parsons, ‘The Second Exhumation of King Arthur’s Remains at Glastonbury, 19 April 1278’, Arthurian Literature, 12 (1993), 173-77 (p. 176).

[4] Edward Donald Kennedy, ‘John Hardyng and the Holy Grail’, Arthurian Literature, 8 (1989), 185-206 (p. 197).

[5] James P. Carley, ‘Introduction’, in The Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey: An Edition, Translation and Study of John of Glastonbury’s Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1985), pp. xi-lxii (p. xi).

[6] Philip Scwhzyer, Archaeologies of English Renaissance Literature (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 55.

[7] Catherine A. M. Clarke, Literary Landscapes and the Idea of England, 700-1400 (Cambridge: Brewer, 2006), p. 68.

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Representing Crisis in Contemporary Historiography: The Murder of Thomas Becket (1st February 2017)

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Alabaster panel depicting Thomas Becket’s Murder, England, 1450-1500

Next meeting: 1st February 2017 / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

The murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his own cathedral and, supposedly, on the orders of Henry II, was major crisis point in the conflict between secular and ecclesiastical power in the twelfth-century and sent shockwaves through Western Europe. One of the ways in which this shock manifested itself was in an outpouring of literary production. Ten Lives of Becket were produced within just seven years of his murder, and there are records of many more – including one by a woman – which have not come down to us. Often written by men personally acquainted with Becket, these hagiographies were predominantly written with the purpose of promoting his canonisation (achieved in 1173) or to bolster the ‘Cult of Becket’ that, in the years following his murder, had spread across Western Europe.

However, this event is also widely recorded in the contemporary historiography of the period. As the Becket Affair involved three key figures of institutional power – Henry II, the King of England, Thomas Becket, the head of the Church in England, and Pope Alexander, the leader of Christendom – it posed a particular representational challenge to contemporary historiographers. Many negotiated this by drawing substantially on the Lives and utilising their discourse – which, by the 1180s and 90s had become institutional in its own right – to safely represent this event. Others, however, including William of Newburgh, remained troubled by Becket’s involvement in secular affairs, unable to reconcile the worldly Chancellor with martyred saint, and this scepticism manifests itself in their histories

 

Overview of Thomas Becket’s Life

Thomas Becket was born on 21 December c. 1119 in Cheapside, London. In c. 1143 he acquired a position in Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury’s household, and was made Archdeacon of Canterbury in 1154. In January 1155, he was made Chancellor by Henry II and, as a result of his success in that post, he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury on 3 June 1162.

Becket’s appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury was an unpopular one.[1] Tradition dictated that the monks of Canterbury elected their own Archbishop – usually a Benedictine of their own house. Not only was Becket a figure of secular power, but he was only ordained as a priest the day before he assumed the archbishopric. By overriding this established ecclesiastical custom in order to put his friend and loyal follower in power, Henry II hoped to be the de facto ruler of both secular and ecclesiastical affairs through Becket.

However, on 10 August 1162 Becket resigned the Chancellorship to focus exclusively on his new ecclesiastical role. This early indication of trouble was confirmed when Becket refused to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon in January 1164, which decreed that any ecclesiastic found to have committed a crime should be tried in secular, as well as ecclesiastical, courts. Becket’s refusal to grant the increase of secular control over ecclesiastical affairs infuriated Henry II, and, on 2 November 1164, Becket fled to France, where he remained for six years, under the protection of Pope Alexander and the King of France.

The coronation of Henry, the Young King on 14 June 1170 by Roger, Archbishop of York, was seen – and, probably intended – as a direct insult to Thomas Becket. However, by 22 July 1170, a tentative peace had been reached and, on 2 December 1170, Becket returned to Canterbury. Despite the supposed peace, at the end of his sermon on Christmas Day, Becket formally excommunicated de Broc, and a number of churchmen who had sided with Henry II in the dispute. Four days later, on 29 December 1170, Becket was brutally murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by four men who had come directly from Henry II’s court.

 

Overview of the Texts

William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum
William of Newburgh (c. 1135 – 1198) was an Augustinian Canon, cloistered at Newburgh Priory in Yorkshire. His Historia (1196-98) was written at the request of Ernald, abbot of the nearby Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx, and covers the years 1066 to 1198. For much of his earlier material, William draws most prominently on Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum, and John Gillingham has recently proven that William of Newburgh used Roger of Hoveden’s Chronica as an ‘essential skeleton of information’ for the years from 1148.[2]

The Chronicle of Battle Abbey
The Chronicle of Battle Abbey, written sometime after 1155, tells the history of the abbey from its foundation in the late eleventh century until the 1180s. As well as being a history of the affairs of Battle Abbey, the Battle Abbey chronicler intended his work to provide a legal guide for the next generation of monks. He was probably the Abbey’s representative at legal disputes and had a high regard for Henry II’s legal administration.

Roger of Hoveden’s Chronica
Roger of Hoveden (Howden) (c. 1201) became parson of Hoveden, Yorkshire, following his father’s death in c. 1174. He was also a royal clerk at the court of Henry II from around this time and continued in this office until just after the King’s death in 1189. The extract we are reading is from his Chronica. Antonia Gransden has argued that, whilst Roger relied on letters for his account of the ‘Becket affair’, the narrative seems to be his own.[3]

Edward Grim’s Vita
Edward Grim was a clerk from Cambridge who was in Canterbury visiting the Archbishop at the time of his murder. He was an eyewitness to the murder and was wounded trying to protect Becket from his attackers. His subsequent hagiography was one of the earliest Vita (c. 1174) and had a substantial influence on subsequent hagiographical and historiographical engagements with the event.

Gervase of Canterbury’s History of the Archbishops of Canterbury
Gervase of Canterbury (c. 1145 – c. 1120) was a Benedictine monk of Christ Church, Canterbury and was ordained by Thomas Becket in 1163. The extract we are reading is from his Actus Pontificum Cantuariensis Ecclesia, a history of the archbishops of Canterbury.

 

Topics for discussion

  • How is martyrdom constructed and represented in these texts?
  • How does the institutional alignment/positioning of the historians inform and influence their depictions of the ‘Becket affair’? Is the enormity of the crisis enough to overcome these ties?
  • David Knowles has observed that ‘all but eight years of Thomas’ adult life were notoriously deserving of criticism rather than admiration.’ How do these historians reconcile the problematic nature of Becket’s life with his martyrdom?
  • How do these texts depict a) Henry II, b) Thomas Becket, and c) Pope Alexander, d) the knights, and their roles in the conflict? How and where is blame ascribed?
  • How do these texts make use of rhetoric/rhetorical devices?
  • How does the type of history (i.e. institutional, national) that is being written affect the way that historians engage with this event?
  • William of Newburgh was writing with a copy of Roger of Hoveden’s Chronica before him. How does William of Newburgh adapt his source text and, more generally, how do the historians respond to hagiographical materials (i.e. Grim’s Vita) that were in wide circulation at the time? What are the significances of their changes in emphases, additions, elisions?

[1] R. W. Southern, The Monks of Canterbury and the Murder of Thomas Becket (Canterbury: Friends of Canterbury Cathedral and the William Urry Memorial Trust, 1985).

[2] John Gillingham, ‘Two Yorkshire Historians Compared: Roger of Howden and William of Newburgh’, Haskins Society Journal, 12 (2003), 15-37 (p. 24).

[3] Antonia Gransden, Historical Writing in England c. 550 to c. 1307 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1974), p. 226.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Medieval Werewolves (23rd November 2016)

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The werewolves of Ossory in Gerald of Wales’ Topographica Hibernica (London, British Library, Royal MS 13 B. viii, f. 18r)

Next meeting: 23rd November 2016 / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

One of the first stories of the transformation of a man into a wolf occurs in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Book 1 of the Metamorphoses, Ovid tells the story of Lycaön, the king of Arcadia, who served human flesh to Jupiter when the king of the gods wandered the earth disguised as a mortal. Lycaön’s ‘gruesome banquet’[1] breaches the laws of hospitality, and Jove retaliates by transforming him into a wolf:

Lycaön fled to the country
where all was quiet. He tried to speak, but his voice broke into
an echoing howl. His ravening soul infected his jaws;
his murderous longings were turned on the cattle; he still was possessed
by blood lust. His garments were changed to a shaggy coat and his arms
into legs. He was now transformed into a wolf. But he kept some signs
of his former self: the grizzled hair and the wild expression,
the blazing eyes and the bestial image remained unaltered.
(Metamorphoses, I.233-9)

Ovid’s story of Lycaön fits into the broader thematic structure of Book 1 of the Metamorphoses, which focuses on the depravity of humanity. In response to Lycaön’s treachery, Jove holds an assembly of the gods, and he announces his intention to send a flood to destroy mankind for their crimes. Only Deucalion and Pyrrha survive the flood, and they produce ‘new race of miraculous birth’ (Metamorphoses, I.252) who repopulate the earth.

Stories of werewolves were also popular in medieval Europe. Werewolves became associated with the romance tradition in which a man – baron, knight, or king – became trapped in a wolf’s body through the treachery of his wife. Marie de France follows this plot in Bisclavret (1160-1215), which was the source for Melion (c. 1170-1267) and Biclarel (1319-22). Meanwhile, the French romance Guillaume of Palerne (1200), which was translated into English in the fourteenth century, recounts how the hero was changed into a wolf through his stepmother’s enchantments.

The medieval werewolf is a rational creature. As Amanda Hopkins writes, these stories demonstrate the werewolf’s

gentle behaviour, his human mind and sensibilities [which are] trapped inside an outer form that was indistinguishable from a wolf. If a werewolf attacked someone, it was with reasoned purpose: to express the injustice done to him and often to identify the culprit.[2]

The benevolent nature of the medieval werewolf contradicts our modern view of the werewolf as a vicious, cannibalistic creature; however, the Wolfsbane potion helps today’s werewolves resist their killer instincts. Remus Lupin – who was surely everyone’s favourite Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher – frequently used the potion during his lifetime.

 

Overview of the texts

Five different manuscripts contain one or more of Marie’s lais, but only one thirteenth-century manuscript – London, British Library, MS Harley 978 – contains all twelve.

Melion survives in a single thirteenth-century manuscript, Paris Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, 3156, f.343r, col. 1-344r, col. 4 – 1268.

Biclarel is extract from first redaction (A-text) of Le Roman de Renart le Contrefait, which is included in MS Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fr. 1630, anc. 7630, de la Mare 284. Biclarel appears in f.188 col. a- f.190, col. D. The manuscript dates from the fourteenth century.

Arthur and Gorlagon survives in a single fourteenth-century manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rawlinson MS B 149, pp. 55-64. The story originates from the twelfth century.

 

Questions for discussion

  • How does the werewolf challenge the boundaries between human and animal? How do the different accounts of transformation from man into wolf compare with each other?
  • Marie writes that ‘[a] werewolf is a ferocious beast which […] devours men, causes great damage and dwells in vast forests’. Do the werewolves in these texts conform to or defy this description?
  • Is Biclarel ‘a mere imitation’ of Bisclavret?
  • Medieval werewolf stories traditionally explore the opposition between marital love and feudal service; however, Arthur and Gorlagon focuses on the question of ‘what women want’. Is this text a parody of the werewolf romance? What other texts also revolve around this central quest?
  • Biclarel and Melion are more explicitly misogynistic that Bisclavret and Arthur and Gorlagon. Why do you think gender politics are central to medieval werewolf stories?
  • In medieval werewolf stories, adulterous women are often punished ‘publicly and voyeuristically’. How do these texts legitimate violence against women? Is it significant that the wife goes unpunished in Melion?
  • Why do to you think King Arthur was later included in werewolf romances? Is the Arthurian setting relevant in these texts?
  • Does the medieval werewolf story constitute a genre in its own right? If so, what are its defining features?

 

Further reading

Medieval werewolves

‘One thing I know’: Werewolves Are a Thing

The Werewolf’s Indifference

Naked came the werewolf

 

References

[1] Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. David Raeburn (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), I.164.

[2] Amanda Hopkins, ‘The Medieval Werewolf’, Centre for the Study of the Renaissance, University of Warwick. Available at http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/ren/news_and_events/researchblog/werewolf/ [accessed 18th November 2016].

The auctoritas of Geoffrey of Monmouth

In his Anglica Historia (1534), Polydore Vergil published his scathing comments about Geoffrey of Monmouth, which subsequently ignited a debate over the veracity of the Historia regum Britanniae.[1] Quoting the twelfth-century historian, William of Newburgh, he writes that

there hathe appeared a writer in owre time which, to purse these defaultes of Brittains, feininge of them thinges to be laughed at, hathe extolled them above the nobleness of Romains and Macedonians, enhauncinge them with moste impudent lyeing. This man is cauled Geffray, surnamed Arthure, bie cause that oute of the olde lesings of Brittons, being somewhat augmented bie him, he hathe recited manie things of this King Arthure, taking unto him both the coloure of Latin speech and the honest pretext of an Historie.[2]

Vergil believed the Historia to be largely fictitious: he regarded Brutus to be an invention of the author, and he also suggested that Geoffrey’s portrait of Arthur had been highly embellished. British historians and antiquarians, such as John Leland, John Prise, and Humphrey Llwyd, were not receptive to the Anglica Historia, and they rushed to defend Geoffrey.

Yet Polydore Vergil’s objections about the Historia regum Britanniae were not new. In the twelfth century, Gerald of Wales and – most famously – William of Newburgh had their doubts about the reliability of Geoffrey’s work. Vergil, then, was merely continuing a tradition of skepticism about the Historia that had been popular since the twelfth century, and so his comments were not, necessarily, the product of Renaissance humanist doubt. This short post will consider how medieval and early modern commentators on the Historia regum Britanniae used their scholarly arguments to explore ideas of authority and authorship; in particular, it focuses on how William of Newburgh and John Leland used their evaluative historiographical practices to influence the reputation of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

William of Newburgh

Geoffrey’s most profound early critic was William of Newburgh. His skepticism of the Historia regum Britanniane is well documented in his Historia rerum Anglicarum (‘The History of English Affairs’, c. 1198), a history of the Anglo-Norman kings from William I to Richard I, which focuses in particular on the civil unrest in the reign of King Stephen. In this text, William includes a vicious attack on Geoffrey and the Historia, and the prologue to his text begins with a treatise on history and truth. He upholds Gildas and Bede as the most esteemed writers of ‘British’ history, particularly as they were committed to revealing the truth about the Britons, but he laments that

in our own day a writer [scriptor] of the opposite tendency has emerged. To atone for these faults of the Britons he weaves a laughable [ridicula] web of fiction [figmenta] about them, with shameless vainglory extolling them far above the virtue of the Macedonians and the Romans. This man is called Geoffrey and bears the soubriquet Arthur, because he has taken up the stories about Arthur from the old fictitious [figmentis] accounts of the Britons, has added to them himself, and by embellishing them in the Latin tongue he has cloaked them with the honourable title of history.[3]

In this passage, William’s main objection to the Historia is its basis in fiction [figemnta], rather than fact, and he complains that such an unreliable work has been produced in Latin, the language of authority. The contrast between fact and fiction demonstrates the unreliability of Geoffrey’s work, especially since the deeds of Arthur in the Historia have been over exaggerated. William insists that here is no justification for such ‘wanton and shameless lying’ (I.5), and dismisses Geoffrey as a mediocre historian who has ‘not learned the truth about events’ (I.5).

William’s prologue continues with a brief descriptive of the Saxon invasion by Hengist, and he lists the English kings that ruled after him, including Ethelbert, Aethelfrith, Edwin, and Oswald. According to William, these are historically accurate [historicam veritatem] events as they are accounted for in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica. William then uses Bede’s account to disprove Geoffrey’s version of events, and he claims that

it is clear that Geoffrey’s entire narration about Arthur, his successors, and his predecessors after Vortigern, was invented partly by himself and partly by others. The motive was either an uncontrolled passion for lying, or secondly a desire to please the Britons, most of whom are considered to be so barbaric that they are said to be still awaiting the future coming of Arthur being unwitting to entertain the fact of his death. (I.9)

William’s juxtaposition of these accounts is clearly designed to assert the authority of Bede, rather than Geoffrey. Nevertheless, his assertion that created the Historia ‘partly by himself’, suggests that William also regarded Geoffrey as an auctor who was distinguished from scriptors, compilators, and commentators by their ability to invent their own work.[4] Technically, of course, Geoffrey only fulfills the category of scriptor as he only presents himself as a translator of the ‘British book’, which he claims was given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford. By acknowledging that some of the content of the Historia regum Britanniae was unique – even it was unaccounted for – Geoffrey’s principal critic is also his most important bestower of auctoritas.

After comparing Geoffrey with Bede, William casts his final judgment over the veracity of the Historia. He interrogates Geoffrey’s account of Arthur’s reign, particularly his foreign conquests, and he remarks

how could the historians of old, who took immense pains to omit from their writings nothing worthy of mention, and who are known to have recorded even modest events, have passed over in silence this man beyond compare and his achievements so notably beyond measure? How, I ask, have they suppressed in silence one more notable than Alexander the Great – this Arthur, monarch of the Britons, and his deeds – or Merlin, prophet of the Britons, one equal to Isaiah, and his utterances? […] So since the historians of old have made not even the slightest mention of these persons, clearly all that Geoffrey has published in his writer about Arthur and Merlin has been invented by liars to feed the curiosity of those less wise. (I.14)

Here, William’s process of evaluation is framed through a series of complex rhetorical questions and juxtapositions focusing on Geoffrey and the ‘historians of old’. The rhetorical questions are designed to reinforce the authority of Gildas and Bede (even if they are not directly mentioned by name), and they imply that it would be unreasonable to doubt the reliability of two writers who recorded every detail of events. William entirely discredits Geoffrey’s attempt to fill the lacuna in insular history, and his conclusion that the stories of Arthur and Merlin Historia must be an invention, especially since they cannot be confirmed by any of the ancient historians, appears to be perfectly valid.

John Leland

The critical attitudes to Geoffrey’s Historia regum Britanniae began to change in the sixteenth century. The English antiquarian John Leland objected to Vergil’s claim that the Historia was an unreliable source, and in his De uiris Illustribus (‘Of Famous Men’, first completed 1535-6 and revised 1543-6), Leland offered a defence of Geoffrey, whom he placed alongside various other writers of ‘British’ history, ranging from the first Druids to Robert Widow. The account in De uiris Illustribus can be considered to be the first biography of Geoffrey, who is described as a man who ‘took great pleasure in reading ancient history’ and who ‘also delighted in scholarly intercourse’.[5] Leland situates Geoffrey within the clerical and academic circles of his time, and he is upheld as model of learning and authority. He praises him for his dedication to ‘British’ history as ‘he stands alone in having rescued a great part of Britain’s antiquity [Britannicae antiquitatis] well and truly from destruction through a diligence [diligentia] which is beyond all praise’ (Leland, p. 308-9). Leland presents Geoffrey as a translator, rather than an author, of his own work, and he writes that

he openly declares that he performed the task [officio] only of an interpreter [interpretis]; in other words, he translated a British history, written in the British language, and brought to him by Walter Map, the archdeacon of Oxford, into Latin. (Leland, p. 310-11)

This remark is essentially an apology for the number of inventions that can be found in the Historia, and it is also designed to counteract the comments of Geoffrey’s critics, who credited him with fabricating many of the events in his work. According to Leland, then, Geoffrey had a limited amount of creative agency, and he simply acted as a cultural mediator by transmitting an ancient account of the ‘British’ past to his twelfth century readers.

Leland’s biography of Geoffrey includes a lengthy scholarly attack on Polydore Vergil. Leland complains that the Italian historian

launches a frenzied attack on Geoffrey, in order to undermine Geoffrey’s authority [autoritatem] and to accumulate weight and force as well as credibility [ueritatem] for his own empty inanities. Then, for much of the earlier part of his history, this most impudent fellow is forced to follow the writer whom he has just torn to pieces with so many harsh words. But one should surely forgive this impertinence when there was practically no other authority [autorem] he could have followed. (p. 310-11)

Here, Leland asserts that Vergil is a hypocrite for discrediting Geoffrey, and then using his account to form the basis of the record of insular history in the Anglica Historia. Leland’s comments also imply that ‘English’ history, from the Saxon period through the Normans to the Plantagenet kings, and the current Tudor monarchy, depends upon early ‘British’ history for its authenticity. Indeed, during the fifteenth century, the idea of cultural inheritance between England and Wales was being more explicitly acknowledged, especially as Henry VII had used his descent from Cadwallader, the last king of the Britons, to legitimate his claim to the throne. According to Leland, then, the Historia still had political currency, and he consistently emphasises the authority of Geoffrey, the ‘good author’, in order to expose Vergil, the ‘foreigner’, as the unreliable fraud.

In De uiris Illustribus, Leland also includes an assessment of Vergil’s sources that he used in the Anglica Historia. Vergil’s account of early insular history relied heavily on Tacitus’ Agricola (c. 98) and Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico (c. 58-49 BCE), both of which had grown in popularity during the Early Modern period. For Vergil, these Latin Caesar and Tacitus were more authoritative than Gildas and Bede, who lived several centuries later than the period they were writing about. Leland, however, remarks that

none of them [the Romans], as far as I know, wrote anything worth mentioning before Caesar. Besides, not everything that Caesar wrote – however much the Dunce [Polydore Vergil] makes of his statements – seems to me to have proceeded from an oracle; the same applies to many other things about the Britons which were later handed down to posterity by Latin authors. (Leland, pp. 310-13)

This assessment of Caesar is also a judgment of Polydore Vergil. Leland implies that it was unreasonable for Vergil to use Roman – and therefore biased – history in order to counteract Geoffrey’s version of ‘British’ history. Moreover, Leland also disregards the authority of Gildas and Bede, especially since the authorship of De Excidio Britanniae was subject to question after its publication in 1525, and the Historia Ecclesiastica included very little information on early ‘British’ history prior to the Saxon conquest. Leland’s detailed evaluation of his these sources interrogates the comparative methodology that Geoffrey’s critics used to disprove his account of insular history, and through his scholarly inquiry, Leland demonstrates that the Historia is the only real authority worth following.

The short biography of Geoffrey of Monmouth in De uirius Illustribus canonised the ‘British’ historian as an auctor – a term that, as A. J. Minnis points out, ‘denoted someone who was at once a writer and an authority, someone not merely to be read but also to be respected and believed’.[6] John Leland’s appraisal of Geoffrey challenged and disproved the objections of the critics of the Historia regum Britanniae, and his work later influenced the Welsh historians John Prise and Humphrey Llwyd, who both wrote defenses of Geoffrey in the latter half of the sixteenth century. These classically educated scholars and intellectuals held the Historia regum Britanniae in great esteem, rescuing its reputation from the likes of William of Newburgh and Polydore Vergil. Through their arguments, Leland, Prise, and Llwyd proved that Geoffrey’s authority and the veracity of his Historia was beyond all doubt.


This is a revised version of a paper given at the International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds (July 2015)

[1] This debate has been previously explored by James P. Carley, who viewed the antagonism between the two historians as prefiguring twentieth-century scholarship on the ‘historical Arthur’ that became increasingly popular among historians and archaeologists following the work of E. K Chambers and Leslie Alcock; see James P. Carley, ‘Polydore Vergil and John Leland on King Arthur: The Battle of the Books’, in King Arthur: A Casebook, ed. Edward Donald Kennedy (New York: Garland, 1996), pp. 185-204.

[2] Polydore Vergil’s English History, from an early translation presented among the MSS. of The Royal Library in the British Museum. Volume 1. Containing the First Eight Books, comprising the period prior to the Norman Conquest, ed. Sir Henry Ellis (London: Printed for the Camden Society, by John Bowyer Nichols and Son, Parliament Street, MDCCCXLVI), p. 29. All further references to Vergil’s Anglia Historia are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.

[3] William of Newburgh, The History of English Affairs, ed. and trans. P. G. Walsh and M. J. Kennedy (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1988), p. 29. All further references to William’s Historia rerum Anglicarum are to this edition and are given in the text.

[4] On the definitions of the auctor, scriptor, commentator, and compiler, see A. J. Minnis, Medieval Theory of Authorship: Scholastic Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages (London: Scolar Press, 1984), p. 94.

[5] John Leland, De uiris Illustribus, ed. and trans. James P. Carley (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies and Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2010), p. 321. All further reference to Leland’s De uiris Illustribus are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text. It should be noted that Leland’s length discussion on Polydore Vergil and King Arthur were later insertions, and the entry on Geoffrey of Monmouth in the first version of De uirius Illustribus was purely concerned with the writer in question.

[6] A. J. Minnis, The Medieval Theory of Authorship, p. 10.

Gildas and Bede, Models of insular history (17th August 2016)

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Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (BL MS Arundel 74, f.1)

Next Meeting: 17th August 2016 / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

In the classical and late antique periods, continental writers were the main authors of insular history. The historical works by Julius Caesar and Tactius dominated the Roman view of Britannia and its people, while Orosius and Isidore of Seville included short geographical descriptions of Britain in their historical works, which were later used by insular writers.

In the early Middle Ages, two writers emerged who offered a more comprehensive view of the early history of Britain: Gildas and Bede.

Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (c. 540)

Gildas’ De Excidio is the earliest insular history of Britain. The early books focus on the Roman and Anglo-Saxon conquests of Britain, while the later books are more polemical, and are intended to condemn tyrants and the clergy. De Excidio is a salvation history, with the Britons presented as God’s chosen people who are akin to the Israelites in the Old Testament. The mode of Gildas’ history is essentially tragic, and he frequently laments how corruption and tyranny has consumed Britain and its people.

Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (731)

Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica covers the history of England, ecclesiastical and political, from the time of Julius Caesar to the present day (731). The first book includes an account of the Anglo-Saxon invasion, and while Bede borrowed material from Gildas, he emphasises how God’s favour passed from the Britons to the Saxons instead. The first book ends with Saint Augustine’s mission to England in 597, and the following books account for how Christianity spread among the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

In the twelfth century, several historians began to write regnal histories that relied on Gildas and Bede. William of Malmesbury wrote a history of Anglo-Saxon England that continued up to the present day (1127), while William of Newburgh focused on the period from the Norman Conquest to the end of the twelfth century. Henry of Huntingdon chose to write a history of Britain from the foundation of Britain to the present day, and he continually revised and expanded his work, which eventually ended in 1154. Henry quotes Bede at length in the early books of the Historia Anglorum, and he also rationalises Bede’s account of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Geoffrey of Monmouth, however, insisted that neither Gildas nor Bede had adequately accounted for the early insular history of Britain, and his Historia regum Britanniae records the deeds of the kings of Britain from foundation of Britain to the death of Cadwalladr in 682.

The prologues that we will be discussing are testament to the legacy of Gildas and Bede, and their models of insular history.

Questions for discussion

  • What is the function of history? Do the historians all agree on the moral purpose of history?
  • How do the historians present themselves? What sort of authorial personas do they adopt?
  • What is the significance of the various literary authorities that these writers invoke in their prefaces? (i.e. The Bible, classical and Christian authors, oral and written sources)
  • In his introduction, Lake suggests the commission topos is a ‘rhetorical device designed to influence the audience’s view of the author’. Do the dedications absolve the historians of their responsibility (as Lake suggests), or do they reveal the types of social networks that they operated it?
  • Do you think these prologues are a collection of topoi or do the individual author’s feelings predominate?
  • How do the twelfth-century historians construct Gildas and Bede as authorities?
  • In the twelfth century, many historians moved away from the annalistic style of historiography. How do they construct their historical frameworks in their prologues? Do they identify any important themes that might inform their histories?
  • Why do you think that William of Newburgh attacks Geoffrey of Monmouth so vehemently?

Georgius Agricola, De re metallica (1st June 2016)

Next meeting: 1st June / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

Georgius Agricola (the Latinised version of his birth name George Bauer), was a German Catholic, humanist, scientist and engineer. There’s not a lot written on him, but the Wikipedia entry is a good introduction for our purposes.

Agricola devoted himself to philology, philosophy, medicine, physics and chemistry as a young man, as part of the “New Learning” of Renaissance Humanism. He was a town physician in Joachimsthal (in the heart of Germany’s ancient industrial centre), where he made many of his early observations on mining, engineering and other ‘metallic arts’ or mineralogy and metallurgy.

He was friends with the greatest scholars of his day – Erasmus, Melanchthon, Meurer and Fabricus – and was admired by each of them, save in his Catholic faith, which caused him to be expelled from several posts in several Lutheran German states. He died, apparently, in a fit of apoplexy brought on during a discussion with an irksome Protestant theologian. Such was the violence of the theological feelings against him in his final home at Chemnitz that his body was refused burial, and had to be carted 50km away to Zeitz.

He published very widely – not only on mining, geology, mineralogy and allied subjects, but also on medical, religious, critical, philological, political and historical matters.

De re metallica was his greatest achievement. It was the first authoritative (and exhaustive) account of mineralogy and metallurgy to be written; and the work remained the premier account of the subject for 180 years. It passed through 10 editionsns in three languages in a few short years. As learned as the book is, most of the information seems to be new – and is certainly not found in the works he cites in his preface. He personally supervised the drawing of the woodcuts (the first technical drawings of their kind), though the woodcuts themselves were completed after his death – the book being published in 1556.

Topics for discussion:

1. The relationship between metallic arts (a) alchemy
(b) agriculture and husbandry
2. The interrelation of word and image (how do the texts work alongside each other? Can they be divorced from each other? Are they separate texts? How do they relate to other book-visual cultures, including MSS?)
3. Do these images have value outside of the metallurgical context? What values?
4. How can we read these texts sociologically? Perhaps in terms of:
(a) family
(b) class
(c) individual and community
5. In a text abounding with dogs/animal workers; trees/timber are there ecological concerns to this text?
6. Completed in 1550, to what extent is it useful to talk about this text in terms of the temporal and philosophical epochs medieval/early modern, and Renaissance / humanism?
7. Rationalisation and myth – how do we read these in the text?
8. Why do certain sections not have accompanying illustrations? Cf. Book I and the PDF on Health of Miners? How do we read the silence of the illustration?
9. Do the images carry meanings that the words do not?