Jaakko Tahkokallio – ”Monks, Clerks and King Arthur: Reading Geoffrey of Monmouth in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries”. Lectio praecursoria 27.4.2013

FM Jaakko Tahkokallion väitöskirja ”Monks, Clerks and King Arthur: Reading Geoffrey of Monmouth in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries” tarkastettiin 27.4.2013 Helsingin yliopistossa. Vastaväittäjänä toimi professori Julia Crick (King’s College London) ja kustoksena professori Markku Peltonen. Väitöskirja on luettavissa sähköisenä https://helda.helsinki.fi/handle/10138/38657.

Most medieval Englishmen probably did not know a great deal about a place called Finland. But if they knew something, it may well have been this: Finland was an island of the Swedish Kingdom, and it was in ancient times conquered by King Arthur. This may be news to you, but so it was written in an English law book, Leges Anglorum, dating from around 1200. This text discusses not only laws but also various law-making kings, and it presents a list of regions which King Arthur had conquered in the sixth century, including Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Lapland, and Finland. The source and inspiration of the writer is obvious, even though he himself added Finland and Lapland to the list: this creative legal scholar was using the work known by the name History of the Kings of Britain, written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, a churchman at Oxford, in the 1130s.

Geoffrey’s History, our topic of today, has at least three uncommon qualities for a piece of historical writing. Firstly, its contents are primarily invented, as you may have already guessed from the anecdote about King Arthur. Secondly, it tells not only about the past but also about the future, as it includes a long set of prophecies, spoken by a seer called Merlin. Thirdly, it became a great best-seller of its times. There exist over 220 manuscripts of it from the whole of the middle ages, which is to my knowledge more than there is of any other medieval historical text. It circulated widely not only in Britain but also in continental Europe – in contrast to most histories which, just like today, tended to attract readers mainly from the region they discussed.

As to its contents, Geoffrey’s History is a narrative of what happened in Britain over a timespan of almost two thousand years, between the fall of Troy and the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon rule. It is a period from which we have very few written sources. Geoffrey filled this vacuum with an account he claimed was simply a translation of an ancient book in Welsh or Brittonic language. Now, only Geoffrey had this book, and in his History he explicitly commands his most famous contemporary historians, William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon, to stay silent on the topic because they did not have his rare source.

Most scholars today agree that such ancient book never existed, and that Geoffrey primarily invented his History, combining elements from various narrative traditions. He was an imaginative man. According to Geoffrey, Britain was settled by a group of survivors from the sack of Troy, led by a man called Brutus, who was a great-grandson of Aeneas. From Brutus the island got its name, Britannia, and from him started an illustrious line of kings. One of them conquered Rome, and another became known as Shakespeare’s King Lear. By far the most famous of these kings was, however, Arthur, who ruled in the sixth century AD, conquering half the Europe, and whose reign occupies more than a fifth of Geoffrey’s narrative. After Arthur the Kingdom of the Britons faced decline and defeat in the hands of the invading Germanic tribes.

Given that Geoffrey does not really tell us facts about the early past of Britain, the central scholarly question concerning his History, also the one examined in my study, must be: What did such a potentially controversial work mean to its contemporaries? It certainly found a wide resonance among the reading public of the times, as its extraordinary success shows. What were the reasons behind its success? How are we to understand it as a literary phenomenon in the context of its times?

The traditional view of Geoffrey History has stressed its secularity and its connection to emerging chivalrous culture. The idea of knighthood as a cultural institution came into existence in the course of the twelfth century, and its ideals were articulated in romance literature. When writing a Latin history discussing King Arthur in the 1130s Geoffrey was using material that just one generation later became a part and parcel of secular aristocratic culture. According to one eminent historian, Antonia Gransden, Geoffrey was indeed a ‘romance writer masquerading as a historian’.

Furthermore, it has often been noted how ecclesiastical history plays a relatively minor role in Geoffrey’s work. While it discusses the period in which Britain was first Christianised, this process does not receive much attention in the story. A reader turning to it does not find praise of the saints and the victories of the church, but an endless ebb and flow of the fortunes of secular rulers. Consequently, Geoffrey’s text, characterised by a recent critic as ‘a story of blood and thunder,’ is often supposed to have appealed to the courtly audience of secular clerks and perhaps educated knights. Some scholars have gone so far as to suggest that with all this Geoffrey was actually making a mockery of monastic historians of his time, and that his narrative was not compatible with what learned and religious men expected of a historical work.

This assessment of Geoffrey as a secular writer, appealing to a secular audience, has been based primarily on modern readings of the contents of his work – in other words, learned guesswork. But there exists a body of material that gives us a more direct access to its medieval reception – the numerous medieval manuscript copies of the text. This is the material used in the present study, and it leads us to rather different conclusions as to who read Geoffrey, and for what reasons, as we shall see.

Both as regards what I argue, and on what sources I base my argument, my thesis builds on a thorough study of these manuscripts by my distinguished opponent, professor Julia Crick. Access to the over 220 copies of the History was made possible by the catalogue and the dissemination study she had already produced. My study takes a closer look at those 135 manuscripts that are datable to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

The manuscripts tell us, firstly, about who read the work. In her study, Julia Crick had already examined the medieval owners of the manuscripts, and she had presented some unexpected findings: the work was found in many Cistercian houses – which was an order with a reputation for an austere literary culture – and it was present in numerous monastic libraries on the Continent, well outside regions in which British history could have had any immediate meaning. These were interesting observations, but the difficulty with ownership information is, as Crick observed, that all kinds of books tended to end up in monastic libraries in the middle ages, regardless of their origin.

Working with a lesser number of manuscripts, I have, to the extent this has been possible, assessed from what kind of setting, monastic or other, books actually originated. This is possible to do, since many books that were produced in monastic settings can be identified as such because of their physical features, especially the number of scribal hands. Examining the manuscripts, I discovered that at least 40 % of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century copies are very probably of monastic origin. If we focus on the twelfth century, we see that over half of the books, and almost 60 % of the continental books, are very probably monastic. By the late twelfth century, Geoffrey’s History was available not only everywhere in England and Wales, but in many religious houses of Paris, in Benedictine abbeys of Normandy and Flanders, and in Cistercian centres of book production in Burgundy and Champagne, to name but some regions.

I furthermore extended the survey of the owners and origins of the manuscripts to those manuscripts that contained only the Prophecies of Merlin – this part of the History was originally published before the rest of the work and circulated also independently of it. It transpired that an even greater share of the Prophecies manuscripts can be connected with a monastery than is the case with the History.

The manuscripts thus demonstrate that Geoffrey’s History had a very wide monastic dissemination, and this brings us to an apparent paradox. If  Geoffrey was a secular writer who was at odds with contemporary Christian understanding of what was good history, as has been maintained, how do we explain his massive popularity in Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries? How are we to understand monks, whose life should have been about striving to get closer to God, reading Geoffrey’s work – a book telling about the pagan past, about the heroes of courtly romances, and containing suspicious, non-Biblical prophesies?

It is this apparent paradox to which my study proposes a solution. The evidence again comes primarily from the surviving medieval books, which provide clues not only to who were the audience, but how the audience perceived the work. My distinguished opponent had already suggested, examining the texts with which Geoffrey’s work was copied, that it was understood as a real history, not some kind of Latin romance. My thesis extends the study of the manuscripts to a new group of evidence, one that most directly tells us about how the work was read, that is, rubrics and annotations that were written in the books by their makers and medieval readers.

The marginal annotations provide, firstly, ample evidence in support of the idea of that Geoffrey’s History was seen to be a serious work, as they demonstrate that many readers turned to the History for factual information. Some annotations contain fairly complicated notes on chronology, showing us readers who were evidently quite knowledgeable about the past. Yet these readers, despite their wide knowledge, did not criticise the work, but tried to accommodate its information with what they already knew. This perceived historicity is, I believe, an important prerequisite for the acceptability of Geoffrey’s work in monastic circles. History was a respectable field of knowledge, and keeping track of God’s workings in the world was a Christian duty.

But the marginalia I have examined also suggest an additional, and hitherto undiscovered, rationale for the reading of the work in religious contexts. Arguments for the usefulness of historical writing did not end in the somewhat abstract notion of Christian record-keeping. If we look at medieval prologues to historical works, or medieval instructions on how to read classical Latin histories, the one justification that surfaces most frequently is that such texts are good for moral education. The marginal annotations found in the manuscripts indicate that Geoffrey’s work fit this expectation. Its readers commented on various characters and episodes of the story as exemplifying certain vices or virtues. They also very frequently marked up proverbial lines making a point about morals, often appearing in speeches made by characters of the History.

This may sound surprising, keeping in mind how many earlier scholars have seen Geoffrey as a secular writer, uninterested in Christian morality. According to one modern critic, Geoffrey was a historian who ‘unlike the reputable historians of the day had no moral, edificatory purpose and no interest in recording historical facts.’ What are we to make of this? As I see it, the problem that some previous scholars have had in understanding Geoffrey and his readers, has had to do with a too narrow understanding of how history was supposed to teach morals to medieval readers. For many, history’s capacity for moral instruction in the medieval context has been more or less synonymous with showing how God punishes vices and rewards virtues, and in giving models for specifically Christian life. However, in my understanding, the idea that was at the centre of medieval moral thought was that of developing a virtuous character – and the virtues were largely, although not completely, the same for pagans and Christians, for knights and for monks alike. Thus, for a French late twelfth-century reader of the History, the elder daughters of King Lear exemplified the vice of ungratefulness – it did not matter that they were pagan princesses; what mattered was that the story was good and made a memorable point concerning a vice.

What is more, even if a particular virtue would be in conflict with some Christian ideas, a virtuous character as such could still be considered a source of inspiration. For example, one proverbial passage that has frequently been marked up in the manuscripts is spoken by Uther, King Arthur’s father. Deciding to do battle in difficult circumstances to save his kingdom he reasons that ‘it is better to die with honour than to live with shame’. When medieval monks marked this up, the point was probably not that this was considered a priceless piece of moral wisdom for them to follow, but that this proverb brought forward the virtuous character of the king. He was putting virtue and common good before self-interest, and he expressed himself nicely in a compact Latin sound-bite.

In its essence, what I propose regarding Geoffrey’s History is that this literary work conformed better to those expectations that medieval audience set for historical writing than might seem in the first place. It was seen to be a real history, and it was seen to be useful in the same way that real histories generally were supposed to be useful. It appears that the reader believed Geoffrey at his word when he claimed that the book he had published was simply a translation of an old Welsh text. This very probably also made the potentially dubious Prophecies included in his work less problematic: they were not on Geoffrey’s responsibility – he was just providing an access to them.

This does not mean that all the readers would have uncritically accepted everything that Geoffrey wrote. On the contrary, it is evident that his Arthurian account in particular aroused suspicions widely. But medieval readers of history were well aware that historical texts contained faults, and they could be biased. Not even the Gospels told quite similarly about the life of Jesus, so was it surprising if an ancient British book contained some exaggerations on the most famous Briton? Neither do I argue that the interest in King Arthur was not a significant feature behind the popularity of Geoffrey’s work – it most certainly must have been, even though there is less evidence on this than one might expect. But it is important to keep in mind that for the medieval audience Geoffrey’s narrative offered the proper historical account of Arthur, ‘the untold true story that inspired the legend,’ as a recent rather unsuccessful movie about this King claimed itself to be.

Regarding medieval historical culture more generally, I believe my thesis underlines one feature worth noting: that we should take it seriously when medieval historians claim that their works have a moral dimension, and that this dimension must not be understood in too exclusively Christian terms. When medieval writers thought about history’s capacity for moral instruction they were not, at least not always, thinking just about putting the fear of God in people’s minds. History was primarily about human virtues, not about God’s interventions. By studying histories, and observing how other men and women had acted in the past, readers were to be both advised about moral issues, and inspired to act morally.

If Geoffrey had lived in the twentieth century, he could perhaps have found a kindred soul in another Oxford man, who also wrote a best-selling book inspired by ancient, largely irretrievably lost myths of a nation whose culture had in his understanding been suppressed. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a work of fiction, Geoffrey’s a work of history, but their inspiration, and their aims, were perhaps not quite so different. I most certainly do not mean that Geoffrey considered himself a fantasy writer, or that his audience thought so. I mean that historical writing was in the medieval world a form of moral story-telling, not entirely unlike what novel is in our day.

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