09.02.18, Reeve and Wright, ed.trans. The History of the Kings

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Matthew Fisher

The Medieval Review baj9928.0902.018


Reeve, Michael D., ed. and Neil Wright, trans.. Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History of the Kings of Britain. An Edition and Translation of De gestis Britonum.. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2007. Pp. lxxvi, 307. ISBN: 9781843832065.

Reviewed by:
Matthew Fisher
University of California, Los Angeles

The new edition and translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae by Michael Reeve and Neil Wright is a monumental accomplishment. The meticulously edited text will certainly become the standard edition for all scholars working on Geoffrey of Monmouth's history. Coupled with a new and accessible translation by Wright, this volume brings the centuries-long tradition of editing Geoffrey's history to a fitting close, and at the same time opens up entirely new vistas for scholars working on the text.

The 217 surviving manuscripts of the Historia (or, De gestis Britonum, proposed by Reeve as the more correct title) have long been one of the great challenges facing editors of English medieval texts. Reeve's introduction is magisterial, but focuses almost entirely upon the dense complexities of textual editing and manuscript transmission, offering little for those not interested in such matters. Building upon the seminal work of Julia Crick and Wright, and his own 1991 article, "The Transmission of the Historia Regum Britanniae," Reeve collates 11 manuscripts in full and six in part, exhaustively tracking the witnesses in three primary clusters across the entirety of the text, itself divided into five sections. Although not a full collation of all surviving manuscripts (an utterly impractical proposition), Reeve deftly uses the apparatus to cite manuscript clusters, preferring "clarity" and "economy" (li) to a pretense of comprehensiveness. Longer explanations of some editorial decisions are found in the "Critical notes" section of the introduction, and cited as such in the apparatus. Nonetheless, identifying precisely where Reeve has supplied conjectural emendations, and his reasoning behind the emendation, can sometimes involve turning to the 1991 article--a minor annoyance. Thus Reeve's text at 40.13, ex hac uita rapuit, for which the apparatus indicates that Ω, the notional common source of all surviving manuscripts, reads ex hac uita migrauit, can only be understood by turning to the 1991 article. There, Reeve argues Geoffrey has erroneously and inconsistently used migrare as a transitive verb, preferring rapuit by conjecture from another use of the phrase several sections later. It is possible, of course, that the familiarity of the common phrase ex hac uita migrauit was sufficient to obscure the incorrect construction; the reading's wide attestation in the manuscript tradition of the Historia also suggests a certain lack of concern among medieval scribes about migrare as a transitive verb. Is conjectural emendation a compelling option to "correct" Geoffrey's Latin against the entire manuscript tradition for a fairly trivial grammatical error?

To give another particularly problematic example, Reeve notes (lxxiv) of the final lines of the entire text, "The syntax can be rescued with a comma after Britonum, so that the ablative absolute is paired with the participles; but as Geoffrey does not write in that way, it seems likelier that he just lost control of the sentence." To assert that one of the final sentences of the entire Historia somehow escaped the grasp of the author, particularly a sentence that imagines how the Saxons "acted more wisely," how "British lordship [was] overthrown," and how the Saxon Athelstan took the crown, is to imagine and reprove an author wholly separate from any text that survives. Interestingly, Reeve chooses neither to emend conjecturally at this point, nor to add the punctuation he indicates will resolve the syntax, instead offering "negligenter compositum (cf. Introd.)" in the apparatus and shifting the burden of making sense of the matter to others, including Wright. Wright had added the indicated comma in his previous edition of the Bern manuscript, and the sense of his translation follows that decision. Coming at the very end of the text, this rare admission by Reeve of the insoluble, of the limits of editorial intervention, serves as a salient reminder that the edition is itself a collection of new readings of the text, and along with all scribal interpretations takes its place in the continuous textual tradition of the Historia.

Given the imagined erudition of a target audience interested in and committed to reading Reeve's introduction, Neil Wright's translation is a welcome addition to the volume. The text is eminently readable, though it tends to be more formal tonally, particularly in comparison to M.A. Faletra's recent translation for Broadview Press of Wright's edition of the Bern manuscript. Proper names and place names are always a complex issue, given how extensive scribal and textual variation can be, but the decision to retain the Latin form of personal names, except for "very familiar characters" (lxxv), and yet to render most place names in their modern forms, is oddly contradictory. If accessibility is not a concern, then the reader will not be too unsettled when she encounters King Leir's otherwise very familiar daughter as Gonorilla. On the other hand, Geoffrey's ancient book in British has been brought "from Brittany" (206) a translation that unnecessarily wades into the fray of several contested interpretations of quite what Geoffrey meant by "Britannia" at the end of the Historia. In the midst of Merlin's prophecies, the lioness of the Vado Baculi (151) loses her multilingual word play and vatic overtones, and becomes the more humble "lioness of Stafford" (151). Despite the conflicting impulses- -familiarity for the geographical, and textual fidelity for personal names--the translation is quite accessible, and highly attuned to the nuances of sense that Reeve's edited text makes newly possible.

The book visually registers the priority of the Latin text by placing it, unusually, on the recto, and the translation on the facing verso-- a welcome decision that suggests the volume's own sense of its primary value. The edition is indeed a monumental accomplishment, but it is precisely as a monument that the work stands most prominently: an act of memorialization for the transformed role of the critical edition in medieval studies. Geoffrey himself couples a rhetoric of exclusive textual availability with a rhetoric of authorized speech, famously denying his contemporaries William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon the right to speak about the Britons, as they "do not possess the book in British which Walter, archdeacon of Oxford, brought...and whose truthful account of their history I have here been at pains...to translate into Latin" (280). At the same time, this newly edited text marks the absence, and indeed impossibility, of an authorized Historia. The textual stability Reeve's edition provides will become the platform from which the Historia is returned to the complexity of its constituent manuscript parts, themselves no longer witnesses to textual error or accuracy, but rather textually, temporally, and culturally meaningful artifacts. Whether this edition brings us closer to what Geoffrey did or did not write is impossible to resolve. Ultimately, however, we are no closer to Geoffrey's liber uetustissimus than before, and we should not confuse the authority of the edited text with the authority of a volume, real or imagined, that will always recede from our grasp, leaving only a proliferation of scribes, manuscripts, and texts, all authoritative in their own way.

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Author Biography

Matthew Fisher

University of California, Los Angeles