Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
22.06.18 Henley/Smith (eds.), A Companion to Geoffrey of Monmouth

22.06.18 Henley/Smith (eds.), A Companion to Geoffrey of Monmouth

Georgia Henley and Joshua Byron Smith’s Companion to Geoffrey of Monmouth presents a very welcome addition to scholarship on a significant figure in Insular, and wider European, literature and history. The collection brings together both longstanding and new scholarship on Geoffrey’s work, situated in medieval multilingual and cross-border contexts, highlighting, alongside established lines of enquiry, important new areas in which I hope we will continue to see future developments.

Smith’s introduction offers a nuanced appraisal of scholarship on Geoffrey’s biography, beginning from debates concerning Geoffrey’s identification as Breton or Welsh, a position which often turns on theories regarding the British book on which Geoffrey claimed to base his history of the Britons. In a significant, and as far as I am aware highly original, contribution Smith suggests that the British book might be understood not--as has generally been assumed--as a (fictionalised or otherwise) Breton or Welsh genealogy or chronicle but Dares Phrygius’s account of the fall of the Troy with which De gestis Britonum (termed elsewhere Historia regum Britanniae)is often paired. This possibility reads intriguingly, and especially illuminatingly, with the discussion of Dares in Paul Russell’s account of Geoffrey’s classical engagements in Chapter 2.

The first part of the volume is concerned, as we might expect, with Geoffrey’s source relationships. In chapter 1, Ben Guy provides a thorough account of Geoffrey’s linguistic competencies and his Welsh sources, including, alongside the Historia Brittonum, genealogies, and prophecy, Geoffrey’s likely engagement with hagiographical literature relating to St. David. In chapter 2, Russell details the classical and biblical inheritance of Geoffrey, engagements which are “allusive, potentially elusive, and sometimes illusory” (71), compared usefully to the Old Testament allusions of the near-contemporary Life of Gruffudd ap Cynan. Chapter 3 surveys the complex relationship between Geoffrey and English historiography. Rebecca Thomas offers an astute reading of the side-lining of English power in the later, post-conquest, part of De gestis, an “alternative vision of British history” (107) which draws on the textual authority of Bede even as it presents a profound reimagining of that earlier source content. In chapter 4, Maud Burnett McInerney approaches Geoffrey’s Prophetiae Merlini, an interest threaded through many of the earlier chapters of the volume. McInerney observes in the prophecies an anxiety about the status of history, and the textual function of prophecy, which McInerney seems to suggest might even be read as fabulous (I would have liked to have read more on this perception, which sits interestingly with the uses of prophecy as a medieval historiographical convention, after Geoffrey).

Part 2 of the volume explores the “Contemporary Contexts” of Geoffrey’s works. In chapter 5, Jaako Tahkokallio gives a useful account of the early dissemination of the text and its monastic reception, and raises the tantalising possibility of the early production of copies for personal use. The early reader reception of Geoffrey is discussed in chapter 6 by Simon Meecham-Jones, including discussion of the familiar charge by English historians of Geoffrey’s invention. These very charges--of Geoffrey’s departure from authorities such as Bede (see also Thomas’s chapter)--Meecham-Jones suggests, “prove unexpectedly valuable in uncovering the sophistication and ambition of Geoffrey’s work” (203). In chapter 7, Siân Echard provides an overview of the Latin commentary tradition on Geoffrey, and continuations such as the Albina story, as well as the early Latin romances, which are strikingly indicative of the plurality of the ways in which Geoffrey was read, not least on the discursive level (by turns history and romance). The history of this discursive refocusing is extended in Françoise Le Saux’s discussion of De gestis and twelfth-century romance in chapter 8. Addressing the relationship between Latin and vernacular translation, Le Saux observes that Geoffrey’s prologue, which praises the beauty of the British book (if we assume this to be in Welsh or Breton) and laments his own rustic Latin, might “challenge…the presumption of the aesthetic superiority of Latin over the vernacular” (236), an observation which reminds us of the status of prestige vernaculars during this period, and is essential to the volume’s wider interest in the relationship between Welsh and European literature. Le Saux’s central concern is the French translation of De gestis, in which we start to see the emergence of “proto-romance” features, including the developed presentation of the wealthy heiress (239), and a relationship to romans d’antiquité. Chapter 9 looks again to Wales, as Owain Wyn Jones contextualises the relationship of Geoffrey to late-medieval understandings of the Welsh past and present, revisiting Geoffrey’s Welsh sources (further to Part 1) and detailing the Welsh brutiau tradition (translations of De gestis). In chapter 10, neatly cutting through many of the intertextual knots that have plagued work on this subject, Georgia Henley situates Geoffrey’s work in the context of the conventions of twelfth-century English historiography, noting that De gestis is distinct not in thematic interest or rhetorical strategy (for Geoffrey’s English contemporaries, insular history was similarly a mirror to the present), but in “choice of subject matter and the treatment of sources” (313).

The third part of the volume, “Approaches,” presents a series of thematically engaged essays, beginning with Michael Faletra’s analysis of the “colonial preoccupations” of De gestis (chapter 11),exploring the resonances of the text’s imaginary acts of imperial theatre, such as Arthur’s coronation. Given the volume’s likely student readership, a brief account of the theoretical contextualisation of medieval postcolonialism, in application to Wales and Ireland, would have been welcome here, but the question is certainly a vast one and (as Faletra has written elsewhere) is a book in and of itself. chapter 12, by Fiona Tolhurst (†), “Geoffrey and Gender,” reads excitingly in relation to Le Saux’s observations on Galfridian romance elsewhere in the volume, and again gestures to the origins of romance in Geoffrey’s writing. It is particularly pleasing to see discussion of the Vita Merlini here, which Tolhurst reads in relation to the validation of female power, the presentation of female learning and authority in the figure of Morgan, and Merlin’s prophetic sister, Ganieda (whom Tolhurst sees as a double to the trickster prophet himself). In chapter 13, Coral Lumbley makes an important case for the ways in which De gestis establishes an influential “system of race in which hybridisation operates as a useful tool in empire-building” (370). There is a great deal that might, and I hope will continue to be, written on this topic--not least (as Lumbley suggests) the relationship between Geoffrey’s work and the Islamophobia that we might associate with the figure of the giant of St. Mont Michel and Mordred’s African allies. The final chapter in this section, by Barry Lewis, draws on a number of issues inevitably discussed earlier in the volume--Geoffrey’s relationship to historiography and hagiography--to offer a succinct sense of his representation of the Church. While I wonder whether some of this material might have been integrated elsewhere, I am certainly grateful to have this stand-alone account.

The Companion is an ambitious undertaking, and there are points where elements of the wider scholarly context are necessarily compressed by the Companion format. This is most notably the case in Part 4, “Reception,” which traces the international reception of De gestis (the Vita is generally understood to have seen limited circulation). This is material that in many cases cannot be contained easily within a single chapter, although the accounts here given present a useful resource, offering a precis of work on the well-attested reception of Galfridian material in its Iberian contexts (Paloma Gracia’s discussion of its Castilean reception, in chapter 16; Nahir I. Otaño Gracia’s account of Galfridiana in Aragon, in chapter 17; and Santiago Gutiérrez García’s analysis of reception in Portugal and Galicia, in chapter 25); in Dutch translation (David F. Johnson, chapter 19); English (Elizabeth Bryan, chapter 19); French (Jean Blacker, chapter 20); Old Norse-Icelandic (Hélène Tétrel, chapter 23); Italian (Fabrizo De Falco, chapter 24; although citation of Laura Chuhan Campbell’s 2017 book on the continental reception of Merlinian prophecy is a notable omission in the research overview given here); and its life in Scotland (Victoria Shirley, chapter 26); although the chapter on Wales (given that discussion of Geoffrey’s Welsh reception and translation is a broader feature of the volume) was not necessarily essential. This part of the volume also includes useful statements on the absence, or limited nature, of evidence of Galfridian dissemination, such as Thomas H. Crofts’s account of Geoffrey in Byzantium in chapter 15 (where we find it, a product of the spread of Latin Christendom); and Smith’s brief accounts of the limited reception (in translation, at least) of Geoffrey’s writings in Germany, in marked contrast to the wider interest in Arthuriana in this region (chapter 21); and Ireland where a distinctive historical and prophetic tradition precluded extensive reception of De gestis (chapter 23). While I am in general in favour of the presentation of this type of research in geographical succession rather than alphabetical order, the latter has the important effect of de-centring the western limits we have a tendency to privilege in our accounts of Galfridian reception and is a pedagogically sound editorial decision.

The Companion encompasses a universe of scholarship, and while in places its scope is perhaps greater than the format always allows, it presents a rich resource. A comprehensive state of the field of immense value to a graduate, and a sophisticated undergraduate, student audience, it is also essential reading for scholars engaged with advanced work on Geoffrey of Monmouth and his legacy, which will leave you full of ideas of what we might do with Geoffrey next.