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Geoffrey of Monmouth

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This profile of Geoffrey of Monmouth is part of
Who's Who in Medieval History

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Geoffrey of Monmouth was known for:

Writing a history of the kings of Britain that historicized the Arthur of legend. He may have been a teacher, and he became Bishop of Asaph in 1152.

Occupations:

Places of Residence and Influence:

Important Dates:

Born: c. 1100
Died: 1155

About Geoffrey of Monmouth:

Probably from Monmouth, and possibly of Breton descent, Geoffrey spent much of his life in Oxford. In the 1130s he began publishing parts of the Historia regum Britanniae (the "History of the Kings of Britain"), a comprehensive yet highly suspect chronicle of Britain's history from its settlement by Brutus the Trojan to Arthur's reign.

Almost as soon as it was published, Geoffrey's History was discredited by more responsible historians. Too much is unsubstantiated or fantastical, including the story of how Brutus and Corineus, founder of Cornwall, exterminated the "giants" who inhabited Britain.

Geoffrey claimed to have based the chapters on Arthur on a "certain very ancient book written in the British language," which has never been found or positively identified. The numerous details about Arthur, Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table may have been collected from tales circulating about the legendary king during Geoffrey's lifetime, and some appear adopted from Celtic mythology. Geoffrey's placement of Arthur within the line of British monarchs is not substantiated by any earlier documentary source.

However, The History of the Kings of Britain proved a powerful influence on the poets of the day, inspiring such greats as Chrétien de Troyes and Thomas Mallory to write extraordinary romances about the legendary king. And despite its lack of historical value, Geoffrey's work would become one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages, particularly among later British monarchs such as the Tudors.

In addition to his History, Geoffrey wrote the Vita Merlini, a poem about Arthur's advisor Merlin that is clearly based on a Celtic story about a prophetic madman. At the end of this poem, Geoffrey reveals his desire for recognition and his pride in his heritage -- as well as a possible motive for fabricating his History:

So, Britons, give a laurel wreath to Geoffrey of Monmouth. He is indeed your Geoffrey, for he once sang of your battles and those of your princes, and he wrote a book which is now known as the 'Deeds of the Britons'--and they are celebrated throughout the world.

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