For centuries, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s medieval best-seller, the Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), the book that first brought the exploits of King Arthur to the world’s attention, has been cast as a work of pure make-believe. Yet, once you look beyond the tales of magic, wizards and giants, what you have is a potential insight into what life was really like for the inhabitants of late prehistoric and Roman Britain.
Compiled in around 1136, Geoffrey’s Historia is an epic which supposedly chronicles the rulers of Britain from earliest times until the seventh century AD.
Containing characters such as Cole (the merry old soul), Lear and Cymbeline (both later immortalised by Shakespeare), as well as Arthur, Merlin and Mordred, the Historia’s influence upon European culture cannot be overstated.
Geoffrey’s work clearly contains numerous fictional stories – and so it’s hardly surprising that, within a few years of it being published, serious doubt was being cast on the authenticity of his research. In 1190 William of Newburgh declared that “it is quite clear that everything this man wrote was made up”, while 800 years later, Geoffrey Ashe insisted that “Monmouth is an entertaining and memorable companion, so long as one never believes anything he says”. Geoffrey of Monmouth himself claimed that the inspiration for his work was an ancient book “in the British tongue”. Yet the fact that this source remains utterly elusive to us today has added weight to the conviction that it was nothing more than a figment of his imagination.
This viewpoint does Geoffrey a disservice. In fact, detailed examination of the text as part of the Lost Voices Project demonstrates that there is sufficient evidence to suggest this was no work of make-believe. On the contrary, it is starting to look as if it was indeed originally compiled from a variety of genuine sources – most of them hailing from what is now the south-east of England – some of which date back at least to the first century BC.
Once you accept that the Historia does not represent a single fictional epic but a mass of unrelated stories woven together by Geoffrey of Monmouth in order to form a grand narrative, it’s easier to tease out individual tales. When viewed objectively, such tales can radically reconfigure our understanding of the British past, producing new ways of seeing how the Britons dealt with the arrival of Rome, and what happened following the collapse of Roman authority in the fifth century AD. The Historia matters because it is something that was set down by the ancient Britons themselves: it is their ‘lost voice’. This is no work of Medieval fiction then, but a remembrance of real events from a period of the past we still mistakenly call pre-history. Interim statements on the project have already been published and a final report is currently being compiled.
Russell, M. 2014 The Search for King Arthur and the story of Britain in the Dark Ages. History Revealed 11