The History of the Britons (Latin: Historia Brittonum) is a purported history of the indigenous British (Brittonic) people that was written around 828 and survives in numerous recensions that date from after the 11th century. The Historia Brittonum is commonly attributed to Nennius, as some recensions have a preface written in his name. Some experts have dismissed the Nennian preface as a late forgery and argued that the work was actually an anonymous compilation.[a][b]

Overview Edit

The Historia Brittonum describes the supposed settlement of Britain by Trojan expatriates and states that Britain took its name after Brutus, a descendant of Aeneas. The work was the "single most important source used by Geoffrey of Monmouth in creating his Historia Regum Britanniae"[1] and via the enormous popularity of the latter work, this version of the earlier history of Britain, including the Trojan origin tradition, would be incorporated into subsequent chronicles for the long-running history of the land, for example the Middle English Brut of England, also known as The Chronicles of England.

The work was the first source to portray King Arthur, who is described as a dux bellorum ('military leader') or miles ('warrior, soldier') and not as a king. It names the twelve battles that Arthur fought, but unlike the Annales Cambriae, none are assigned actual dates.

The reference in the Historia Brittonum of Arthur carrying the image of St. Mary on his shoulders during a battle has been interpreted by later commentators as a mistake for Arthur bearing the image of Mary on his shield, the error being caused by the similarity between the words in Welsh.[2]

The great classicist of the 19th century, Theodor Mommsen, divided the work into seven parts: Preface (Prefatio Nennii Britonum); I. The Six Ages of the World (de sex aetatibus mundi) (§1-6); II. History of the Britons (historia Brittonum) (§7-49); III. Life of Patrick (vita Patricii) (§50-55); IV. Arthuriana (§ 56); V. Genealogies (regum genealogiae cum computo) (§c. 57–66); VI. Cities of Britain (civitates Britanniae) (§66a); VII. Wonders of Britain (de mirabilibus Britanniae) (§67—76).

The Historia Brittonum can be dated to about 829. The work was written no earlier than the "fourth year of [the reign of] king Mermenus" (who has been identified as Merfyn Frych ap Gwriad, king of Gwynedd). Historians have conservatively assigned 828 to the earliest date for the work, which is consistent with the statement in chapter 4 that "from the Passion of Christ 796 years have passed. But from his Incarnation are 831 years".[3][4][5][c]

The text makes use of two narrative techniques that are generally considered not reliable by modern academic standards: synthesizing and synchronizing history. Synthetic history combines legendary elements with fact, which makes the veracity of the text challenging to evaluate. Various specious causal connections and attempts to synchronize material from different sources and traditions also contribute to undermining the reliability of the chronicle.[6]

Authorship, recensions and editions Edit

The question of the nature of the text of the Historia Brittonum is one that has caused intense debate over the centuries. Some scholars have taken the position that treating the text as anonymously written would be the best approach as theories attributing authorship to Nennius have since been disputed by subsequent scholars.[7]

Classical debate Edit

Repudiating the so-called vindication of Nennius in 1890 by the Celtic scholar Heinrich Zimmer, Mommsen returned to the earlier view of a ninth-century Nennius merely building on a seventh-century original,[8] which he dated to around 680.[9] The historian Ferdinand Lot swiftly challenged Mommsen;[10] but it was not until 1925 that the Anglo-Saxon scholar Felix Liebermann offered a major reconstruction of the Mommsen view, arguing that Nennius in fact first put the whole work into shape in the ninth century.[9] Re-analysing the eleven manuscript variants of Mommsen, he produced a two-stemma analysis of their hypothetical descent, noting however that “Only one branch, viz. C2d2 of the second stem, preserves Nennius's name”.[11] His overall conclusion (based on uniform particularities of style) was that “The whole work...belongs to Nennius alone”, but this did not prevent him from recognising that “we must lower Nennius's rank as a historian...[but] praise his patriotic heart.[12]

Recent re-assessments Edit

The Nennius question was re-opened in the 1970s[13] by Professor David Dumville. Dumville revisited the stemmatics of the various recensions (he published the Vatican version). Dumville branded the Nennian preface (Prefatio Nennii) a late forgery,[a][b] and believes that the work underwent several anonymous revisions before reaching the forms that now survive in the various families of manuscripts.[14] Dumville's view is largely accepted by current scholarship, though not without dissent.[15] Peter Field in particular has argued for the authenticity of the preface, suggesting that it was left out of many recensions because it was seen as derogatory to British scholarship. However, Field believes Liebermann's earlier argument for Nennius's authorship in Liebermann 1925 still bears consideration.[16]

Compiler's approach Edit

Various introductory notes to this work invoke Nennius's (or the anonymous compiler's) words from the Prefatio that "I heaped together (coacervavi) all I could find" from various sources, not only concrete works in writing but "our ancient traditions" (i.e. oral sources)[17] as well. This is quoted from the Apologia version of the preface.[18] Giles's translation rendered this as "I put together", obscuring the fact that this is indeed a quote from the work and not from some commentator (See Morris's more recent translation as given in wikiquote: Historia Brittonum). Leslie Alcock was not the first to draw attention to the phrase though he may have started the recent spate of interest.[19] However the author still clearly aimed to produce a synchronizing chronicle.[citation needed]

Arthuriana Edit

The Historia Brittonum has drawn attention because of its role in influencing the legends and myths surrounding King Arthur. It is the earliest source that presents Arthur as a historical figure, and is the source of several stories which were repeated and amplified by later authors.

Vortigern and Ambrosius Edit

The Historia contains a story of the king Vortigern, who allowed the Saxons to settle in the island of Britain in return for the hand of Hengist's daughter.[20] One legend recorded of Vortigern concerns his attempt to build a stronghold near Snowdon, called Dinas Emrys, only to have his building materials disappear each time he tries. His advisers tell him to sprinkle the blood of a boy born without a father on the site to lift the curse. Vortigern finds such a youth in Ambrosius, who rebukes the wise men and reveals that the cause of the disturbance is two dragons buried under the ground.[21]

The tower story is repeated and embellished by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae, though he attributes it to Merlin, saying "Ambrosius" is the sage's alternative name. Geoffrey also includes Aurelius Ambrosius, another figure mentioned in the Historia, as a king in his own right, and also includes other characters such as Vortimer and Bishop Germanus of Auxerre.

Arthur's battles Edit

Chapter 56 discusses twelve battles fought and won by Arthur, here called dux bellorum (war leader) rather than king:

At that time, the Saxons grew strong by virtue of their large number and increased in power in Britain. Hengist having died, however, his son Octha crossed from the northern part of Britain to the kingdom of Kent and from him are descended the kings of Kent. Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the military commander ["dux bellorum"]. His first battle was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein. His second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was above the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the forest of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle was at the fortress of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of Holy Mary ever virgin on his shoulders; and the pagans were put to flight on that day. And through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the power of the blessed Virgin Mary his mother there was great slaughter among them. The ninth battle was waged in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was waged on the banks of a river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought on the mountain which is called Agnet. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor. And while they were being defeated in all the battles, they were seeking assistance from Germany and their numbers were being augmented many times over without interruption. And they brought over kings from Germany that they might reign over them in Britain, right down to the time in which Ida reigned, who was son of Eobba. He was the first king in Bernicia, i.e., in Berneich.[22]

Most of these battle sites are obscure and cannot be identified. Some of the battles appear in other Welsh literature, though not all are connected explicitly with Arthur. Some scholars have proposed that the author took the list from a now-lost Old Welsh poem which listed Arthur's twelve great victories, based on the fact that some of the names appear to rhyme and the suggestion that the odd description of Arthur bearing the image of the Virgin Mary on his shoulders at Guinnion might contain a confusion of the Welsh word iscuit (shield) for iscuid (shoulders).[23] Others reject this as untenable, arguing instead that the author included battles which were not previously associated with Arthur or perhaps made them up entirely.[24]

A similar story to that attached to Guinnion also appears in the Annales Cambriae; here, Arthur is described as carrying "the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights…", though here the battle is said to be Badon rather than Guinnon.[25] T. M. Charles-Edwards argues that these accounts both refer to a single source.[26] Other scholars, however, such as Thomas Jones and N. J. Higham, argue that the Annales account is based directly on the Historia, suggesting the name of the battle was switched from the unknown Guinnon to the famous Badon, and that the icon Arthur carries was replaced with a more common one.[26]

The Battle of Mount Badon is associated with Arthur in several later texts, but not in any that predate the Historia.[27] It was clearly a historical battle, being described by Gildas, who does not mention the name of the Britons' leader (he does, however, mention Aurelius Ambrosius as a great scourge of the Saxons immediately prior).[28] Of the other battles, only the Battle of Tribuit is generally agreed to be associated with Arthur in another early Welsh source.[29] Tribuit appears as Tryfrwyd in the Old Welsh poem Pa Gur?, dating to perhaps the mid-ninth century. In this poem, it follows the story of a battle against cinbin, or dogheads, whom Arthur's men fight in the mountains of Eidyn (Edinburgh); in the Tryfrwyd battle they spar with a character named Garwlwyd (Rough-Gray), who is likely identical with the Gwrgi Garwlwyd (Man-Dog Rough-Grey) who appears in one of the Welsh Triads.[30][31][32] Arthur's main protagonist in the fight is Bedwyr, later known as Sir Bedivere, and the poem also mentions the euhemerized god Manawydan.[32] "The City of the Legion" may be a reference to Caerleon, whose name translates as such, but it might also refer to Chester, the site of a large Roman base.[33]

Cat Coit Celidon is probably a reference to the Caledonian Forest (Coed Celyddon) which once covered the Southern Uplands of Scotland. Scholar Marged Haycock has suggested this battle can be identified with the Cad Goddeu, the "Battle of the Trees", best known from the tenth-century poem Cad Goddeu.[34][35] Arthur is mentioned towards the end of this poem, and a fragment of a story about the battle preserved in manuscript Peniarth 98B states that the battle had an alternate name, Cad Achren, which suggests a connection with the Caer Ochren raided by Arthur in the earlier poem Preiddeu Annwfn.[36]

Various writers have asserted that this chapter supports a historical basis for King Arthur and have tried to identify the twelve battles with historical feuds or locales (see Sites and places associated with Arthurian legend). On the other hand, Caitlin Green argues that the only identifiable battles linked explicitly with Arthur in Old Welsh sources are mythological, undermining any claims that the battles had a basis in history.[37]

Mirabilia Edit

Attached to the Historia is a section called De mirabilibus Britanniae (or simply Mirabilia for short). It gives a list of 13 topographical marvels, or wonders of Britain,[38]\[d] followed by a few marvels of Anglesey (Menand insulae or Mona) and of Ireland.[39]

The Mirabilia section is thought to be not part of the original work,[40] but to have been composed shortly after,[41] and is attached to many, though not all of the manuscripts.

Two of the marvels are Arthurian lore (Chapter 73 of the Historia). It might be worth noting that old editions give "Troynt" as the name of the great boar and "Anir" as the name of Arthur's tragic son, from the Harleian manuscript, but Fletcher suggested the variant readings "Troit" and "Amr" be preferred[42] (since they are closer to the Welsh forms of those names).

The first concerns Arthur's dog, Cabal (Cavall in Welsh) and the footprint it left while chasing the boar Troynt (→Troit) Twrch Trwyth:

There is another marvel in the region which is called Buelt. There is a mound of stones there and one stone placed above the pile with the pawprint of a dog in it. When Cabal, who was the dog of Arthur the soldier, was hunting the boar Troynt, he impressed his print in the stone, and afterwards Arthur assembled a stone mound under the stone with the print of his dog, and it is called the Carn Cabal. And men come and remove the stone in their hands for the length of a day and a night; and on the next day it is found on top of its mound.[43][e]

The second concerns Arthur's son Anir or Amr (Amhar in Welsh) and his sepulchre:

There is another wonder in the region which is called Ercing. A tomb is located there next to a spring which is called Licat Amr; and the name of the man who is buried in the tomb was called thus: Amr(←Anir). He was the son of Arthur the soldier, and Arthur himself killed and buried him in that very place. And men come to measure the grave and find it sometimes six feet in length, sometimes nine, sometimes twelve, sometimes fifteen. At whatever length you might measure it at one time, a second time you will not find it to have the same length—and I myself have put this to the test.[43]

Germanus Edit

There are also chapters relating events about Saint Germanus of Auxerre that claim to be excerpts from a (now lost) biography about this saint, a unique collection of traditions about Saint Patrick, as well as a section describing events in the North of England in the sixth and seventh centuries which begins with a paragraph about the beginnings of Welsh literature (ch. 62):

At that time, Talhaiarn Cataguen was famed for poetry, and Neirin, and Taliesin and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry.

Associated works Edit

The opening few lines of the Middle Welsh manuscript Enwau ac Anryfeddodau Ynys Prydain from the Red Book of Hergest, which continued the wonders tradition of geographical descriptions of the Island of Britain after the Historia[44]

There are a number of works that are frequently associated with the Historia Brittonum, in part because some of them first appear with the text preserved in the Harleian manuscript, and partly because whenever the Historia Britonum is studied, these sources eventually are mentioned.

  • The Frankish Table of Nations. Written around 520, this is a short genealogical text in the mould of the Biblical Table of Nations. Both tables are incorporated into the genealogical sections of the Historia. The Frankish Table transmits to the Historia some information derived from Tacitus' Germania, albeit in garbled form. It is probably Byzantine in origin.
  • The Lebor Bretnach. An Irish translation of the Historia Brittonum (Todd 1848 ed. tr.), and a recension of the 'Nennian' Historia Brittonum.
  • The Annales Cambriae. This is a chronicle consisting of a series of unnumbered years, from AD 445 to 977, some of which have events added. Two notable events are next to AD 516, which describes The Battle of Badon, and 537, which describes the Battle of Camlann, "in which Arthur and Mordred fell." A version of this was used as a starting point for later Welsh Chronicles.
  • Welsh Genealogies. One of many collections of Welsh genealogies, this documents the lineage of Hywel Dda, king of Wales, and several of his contemporaries. The Pillar of Eliseg is frequently discussed in connection with these genealogies.
  • Anglo-Saxon Genealogies, a collection of genealogies of the kings of five pre-Viking kingdoms – Bernicia, Deira, Kent, East Anglia, and Mercia. A similar collection either derived from or sharing a similar source with this collection is found in the stand-alone Anglian collection of royal pedigrees, and embedded within annals of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Notes Edit

  1. ^ a b "Dumville has argued that the Nennian Prologue is a later forgery, so the work should therefore be treated as anonymous" (Koch 2006, p. 927).
  2. ^ a b "Formerly ascribed to one Nennius, Historia is now, seen, thanks to the work of David Dumville, to be a compilation.." (Mackillop 2004, Historia Brittonum).
  3. ^ The Prologue mentions "the 858th year of our Lord's incarnation, and in the 24th year of Mervin, king of the Britons", but presumably the preface was produced after the body of the work was written or was perhaps attached to a later revision.[citation needed]
  4. ^ The original Latin text proper only counts up to the fourth "Quartum miraculum", and thereafter just keeping adding "another miracle (Aliud miraculum)". Note that in Mommsen's edition, the text of the so-called Nennius interpretatus (Zimer's Latin translation of the Irish Historia Brittonum) is given on a parallel column.
  5. ^ A text and translation of this passage was given in Lady Charlotte Guest's notes to her translation of Kilhwch ac Olwan, and her book ran a facsimile of the Latin text of the above passage from Harley MS 3859.

Citations Edit

  1. ^ Koch 2006, p. 925
  2. ^ Fletcher 1906 points out this confusion between "shield" (Welsh: ysgwyd, Middle Welsh: scuit) and shoulder (Welsh: ysgwydd), citing J. William's edition of the Annales Cambriae, (1860), p.xxiv; and Skene, Four Ancient Books(1868), I, 55.
  3. ^ Koch 2006, p. 926.
  4. ^ Dumville, "Some aspects of the chronology." 439-45.
  5. ^ Higham, King Arthur: Myth Making and History (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2002), p. 118.
  6. ^ Lambdin, Laura C.; Lambdin, Robert T. (2008). Arthurian Writers: A Biographical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-0-313-34682-8.
  7. ^ N.J. Higham, 'Early Latin Sources', in Helen Fulton ed, Blackwell Companion to Arthurian Literature, (Oxford 2009) p. 31
  8. ^ F. Liebermann, 'Nennius', in A. G. Little ed, Essays in Medieval History presented to T. F. Tout (Manchester 1925) p. 29-30
  9. ^ a b G. O Sayles, The Medieval Foundations of England (London 1966) p. 4
  10. ^ F. Liebermann, 'Nennius', in A. G. Little ed, Essays in Medieval History presented to T. F. Tout (Manchester 1925) p. 29
  11. ^ F. Liebermann, 'Nennius', in A. G. Little ed, Essays in Medieval History presented to T. F. Tout (Manchester 1925) p. 33-4
  12. ^ F. Liebermann, 'Nennius', in A. G. Little ed, Essays in Medieval History presented to T. F. Tout (Manchester 1925) p. 32 and p. 42
  13. ^ Dumvillle, David, “ ‘Nennius’ and the Historia Brittonum”, Studia Celtica 10/11 (Cardiff, 1975/6), 78-95
  14. ^ See Dumville 1985, "Introduction", This needs to be more precise
  15. ^ Koch 2006 "Although Dumville's case has been widely accepted, ..Field has since argued.."
  16. ^ Norris Lacy, The Fortunes of Arthur (2005) p. 2
  17. ^ Lacy 1986, p. 404, G. Ashe's entry for Nennius "..and matter that was probably oral rather than written that they seldom inspired much trust."
  18. ^ Mommsen 1898, p. 143 as variant preface in C2D2GL; Giles 1847, Apologia, I, p. 303 "Ego autem coacervavi omne quod inveni tam de annalibus Romanorum..", English tr. in II, p. 384, "But I have got together all that I could find as well from the annals of the Romans."
  19. ^ "like a cairn of stones, uneven and ill-fitting… as an example of the historian's art it is atrocious. But it has the virtue of its defects. We can see the individual stones of the cairn, and in some cases we can trace the parent rock from which they came, and establish its age and soundness" (Alcock 1971, p. 32).
  20. ^ Nennius, (Traditional attribution) (1848) [Composed after A.D. 830]. Gunn, W.; Giles, J. A. (translators) (eds.). History of the Britons: Chapters 31–38  – via Wikisource. {{citation}}: |editor2-first= has generic name (help)
  21. ^ Nennius, (Traditional attribution) (1848) [Composed after A.D. 830]. Gunn, W.; Giles, J. A. (translators) (eds.). History of the Britons: Chapters 40–42  – via Wikisource. {{citation}}: |editor2-first= has generic name (help)
  22. ^ The History of the Britons (Historia Brittonum), translated by Lupack, Alan, The Camelot Project, retrieved 27 July 2008
  23. ^ Green 2007, p. 19.
  24. ^ Green 2007, p. 19-21.
  25. ^ Green 2007, p. 26.
  26. ^ a b Green 2007, p. 28.
  27. ^ Green 2007, p. 41.
  28. ^ Green 2007, p. 31.
  29. ^ Green 2007, p. 20.
  30. ^ Bromwich 2006, pp. 73–74
  31. ^ For the discussion of Gwrgi Garwlwyd as a werewolf, see Bromwich 2006, p. 385.
  32. ^ a b Green 2007, pp. 84–85.
  33. ^ Ashe, Geoffrey (1991). "Annales Cambriae." In Lacy, Norris J. (Ed.), The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, p. 65. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
  34. ^ Bromwich 2006, pp. 218–219
  35. ^ Green 2007, p. 64.
  36. ^ Green 2007, pp. 62–64.
  37. ^ Green 2007, p. 67.
  38. ^ The count might be fourteen (see the English translation of the full Mirabilia in Cambrian Quarterly 1830, pp. 60 ff.) it is thirteen in the Irish version, Todd 1848, cf. p.114n, where Todd makes comparison with the "Thirteen tlysau, i.e. jewels".
  39. ^ For English translation of the full Mirabilia including the Anglesey and Irish wonders, see Cambrian Quarterly 1830, pp. 60 ff.
  40. ^ "De mirabilibus Britanniæ. Although this apparently forms no part of the original work of Nennius" (Stevenson 1838, p. 56, note 3).
  41. ^ e.g., Geoffrey Ashe, under entry "Nennius", in: Lacy, Norris J., ed., The Arthurian Encyclopedia", Peter Bedrick Books, 1986
  42. ^ "Two names in the Mirabilia should be replaced by better variant readings, Troynt by Troit, and Anir by Amr" (Fletcher 1906, p. 320 fn.).
  43. ^ a b Nennius, (Traditional attribution). Lupack, Alan (translator) (ed.). History of the Britons: Chapters 73  – via Wikisource. {{citation}}: |editor-first= has generic name (help) (an alternative source) — See also a slightly different annotated translation quoted on Twrch Trwyth page.
  44. ^ McMullen, A. Joseph. "Enwau ac Anryfeddodau Ynys Prydain and a Tradition of Topographical Wonders in Medieval Britain". Harvard University: 40. Retrieved 21 July 2021.

References Edit

Primary sources Edit

Mirabilia only Edit

  • (tr.) R (1830), "The Wonders of the Island of Britain", Cambrian Quarterly Magazine and Celtic Repertory, 2: 60 ff
  • (tr.) Barber, Richard (1999), "On the Marvels of Britain", Myths and Legends of the British Isles, New York: Barnes and Noble Books, pp. 85–88, ISBN 0-7607-1959-4

Texts and translations Edit

Secondary sources Edit

General and dictionaries Edit

Manuscript catalogues Edit

Critical studies Edit

  • Alcock, Leslie (1971), Arthur's Britain: History and Archaeology AD 367-634, London: Penguin
  • Bromwich, Rachel (2006), Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain, University Of Wales Press, ISBN 0-7083-1386-8
  • Dumville, David N. (1974), "Some aspects of the chronology of the Historia Brittonum", Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, 25 (4): 439–45
  • Fletcher, Robert Huntington (1906), "The Arthurian material in the chronicles" (google), Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature, vol. 10, pp. 32–4 Alt URL,
  • Green, Thomas (2007), Concepts of Arthur, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus, ISBN 978-0-7524-4461-1
  • Higham, N.J. (2002), 'King Arthur: Myth Making and History, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
  • Liebermann, F. (1925), "Nennius the author of the Historia Brittonum" (preview), Essays in Medieval History presented to T. F. Tout, Manchester, pp. 25–44, ISBN 9780836904277
  • Mackillop, James (2004), "Historia Brittonum", A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (online ed.), Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780198609674)

Further reading Edit

  • P. J. C. Field, 'Nennius and His History' Studia Celtica 30 (1996) 159-65

External links Edit