Walter’s Ancient Book in the British Tongue February 25, 2011Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain was not only one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages. It was also one of the most mysterious and controversial. In c.1136 Geoffrey offered to the world and to his patron Robert of Gloucester this epic relating to the ancient and early medieval history of the British Celts from their first king through to the Saxon-British wars of the seventh century. He also ushered onto the central stage of European literature Arthur of Round Table fame. Yet before Geoffrey there are only whispers of these histories and legends: where then does Geoffrey get ‘copy’ to fill out twelve substantial chapters? Well, if we take Geoffrey’s words on trust (a big ‘if’) there is no mystery.
Oftentimes in turning over in mine own mind the many themes that might be subject-matter of a book, my thoughts would fall upon the plan of writing a history of the Kings of Britain, and in my musings thereupon it seemed to me a marvel that, beyond such mention as Gildas and Bede have made of them in their luminous works, nought could I find as concerning the kings that had dwelt in Britain before the Incarnation of Christ, nor nought even as concerning Arthur and the many others that did succeed him after the incarnation, albeit that their deeds be worthy of praise everlasting and be as pleasantly rehearsed from memory by word of mouth in the traditions of many peoples as though they had been written down. Now, whilst, I was thinking upon such matters, Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, a man learned not only in the art of eloquence, but in the histories of foreign lands, offered me a certain most ancient book in the British language that did set forth the doings of them all in due succession and order from Brute, the first King of the Britons, onward to Cadwallader, the son of Cadwallo, all told in stories of exceeding beauty.I gathered gay flowers of speech in other men’s little gardens, and am content with mine own rustic manner of speech and mine own writing-reeds, have I been at the pains to translate this volume into the Latin tongue.
This ‘most ancient book in the British language [Welsh, Breton or Cornish]’ Britannici sermonis librum vetustissimum is perhaps the greatest lost work of the Middle Ages. Nor does it survive transparently in Geoffrey’s ‘translation’. Indeed, most scholars over the last century have taken Geoffrey’s claim to translate with a pinch of salt: Geoffrey’s work is just too twelfth-century and the bombastic Latin too far from a vernacular Welsh or Breton text. But more seriously the ancient book itself has been decried as a ‘fantasy’, a ‘fiction’ and (getting all post-modern) a ‘game’. Beachcombing is extremely sceptical about Geoffrey’s work as a translator. However, he would be rather more chary about cancelling out the existence of the ancient book altogether. First, the circumstantial details are not invented. Walter (obit c. 1151?) certainly existed and seems, from our little evidence, to have been learned. Indeed, as Archdeacon of Oxford, he appears in several charters with a certain Geoffrey Arthur, almost certainly Geoffrey of Monmouth. Either they plotted together or shared a genuine source together or Geoffrey’s claim would have been vulnerble to contradiction. Second, Beachcombing has never come across a convention in twelfth-century Latin literature for inventing phantom sources save in out-and-out forgeries: whereas inventing details was par for the course. Third, Geoffrey certainly read Welsh and possibly Cornish and Breton. Fourth, Geoffrey’s rivals and enemies (including Gerald of Wales) claimed that his book was full of lies, though never directly attacked Walter’s book. Then, fifth, and most interestingly, a near contemporary Gaimar – and one who is a far better documenter than Geoffrey – writes routinely about the existence of this book of Walter the Archdeacon, a man he likely had dealings with. Gaimar, Beachcombing repeats, is a documenter not an inventor. (Short ‘Gaimar’s Epilogue’) So how great a loss was this ancient British book? Well, given our lack of manuscripts in Welsh before this date a tragedy and a half. It would have been of extraordinary value for understanding an earlier phase of the Arthurian legend – being ‘ancient’ this text was presumably older than 1000 AD or believed to be by Walter and Geoffrey? It would also have been a useful primer for Old Welsh as it mutated into Middle Welsh. But as far as legendary material goes it is possible that it was an outline of British history rather than a text-book. Perhaps it was even an early translation of that Welsh classic the ninth-century Historia Brittonum: a Welsh ‘book of invasions’ written in the vernacular. Having said that Beachcombing would wreck his kitchen just to spend ten minutes turning the pages that lucky Geoffrey saw. And where did Geoffrey get the bulk of his information from if not from this book? Why not from his childhood in Monmouth Wales where he likely grew up in an Anglo-Norman or Anglo-Breton family. Medievalists preach about the existence of an important oral culture in medieval society, but sometimes forget just how that same oral culture must have suffused and formed the imaginations of men like Geoffrey. No wonder there are so many correspondence between Welsh tradition and Geoffrey’s writings. Any other views on the librum vetustissimum? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com