Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Reading between history's lines -- part one

Red and white dragons fighting it out
Detail from Lambeth Palace Library MS 6 folio 43v illustrating
an episode in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae

"The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice."

Mark Twain

It is almost cheating to start a series about invented histories with Geoffrey of Monmouth. Claiming that he used (among other sources) "an ancient book in the British language", his stories of which we have other versions paint a different picture. In the Wikipedia entry about Geoffrey it is said "He is best known for his chronicle Historia Regum Britanniae ("History of the Kings of Britain"), which was widely popular in its day and was credited, uncritically, well into the 16th century, ..." There is a wonderful exception to this statement which comes from Gerald of Wales (The Journey through Wales). As it is one of my favorite passages, I reproduce it here in full:
It is worthy of observation, that there lived in the neighbourhood of this City of Legions, in our time, a "Welshman named Melerius, who, under the following circumstances, acquired the knowledge of future and occult events. Having,on a certain night, namely that of Palm Sunday, met a damsel whom he had long loved, in a pleasant and convenient place, while he was indulging in her embraces, suddenly, instead of a beautiful girl, he found in his arms a hairy, rough, and hideous creature, the sight of which deprived him of  his senses, and he became mad. After remaining many years in this condition, he was restored to health in the church of St. David's, through the merits of its saints. But having always an extraordinary familiarity with unclean spirits, by seeing them, knowing them, talking with them, and calling each by his proper name, he was enabled, through their assistance, to foretell future events. He was, indeed, often deceived (as they are) with respect to circumstances at a great distance of time or place, but was less mistaken in affairs which were likely to happen nearer, or within the space of a year. The spirits appeared to him usually on foot, equipped as hunters, with horns suspended from their necks, and truly as hunters, not of animals, but of souls. He particularly met them near monasteries and monastic cells; for where rebellion exists, there is the greatest need of armies and strength. He knew when anyone spoke falsely in his presence, for he saw the devil, as it were, leaping and exulting upon the tongue of the liar. If he looked on a book faultily or falsely written, or containing a false passage, although wholly illiterate, he would point out the place with his finger. Being questioned how he could gain much knowledge, he said that he was directed by the demon's finger to the place. In the same manner, entering into the dormitory of a monastery, he indicated the bed of any monk not sincerely devoted to religion. He said, that the spirit of gluttony and surfeit was in every respect sordid; but that the spirit of luxury and lust was more beautiful than others in appearance, though in fact most foul. If the evil spirits oppressed him too much, the Gospel of St. John was placed on his bosom, when, like birds, they immediately vanished; but when that book was removed, and the History of the Britons, by Geoffrey Arthur [Geoffrey of Monmouth], was substituted in its place, they instantly reappeared in greater numbers, and remained a longer time than usual on his body and on the book. (Book 1, Chapter 5)
It is easy to imagine Gerald smirking, if not chuckling, as he wrote that passage. We don't have to worry too much whether any of it is true, Gerald was something of a social critic and Geoffrey was one of his favorite targets. With regard to Geoffrey's story about the fighting dragons (where the red dragon is the Welsh and the white dragon is the English), I could give you the earlier Nennius version or the later Lludd and Llefelys version, but really, it was about dragons -- any truths can only be metaphorical.

Other histories are less obviously false, and different versions of the same story can reveal the lie. What is more interesting, however, is why the lie? Tomorrow, I will examine one or two of Livy's embellishments with regards to the Celts -- be prepared to have some of your favorite moments in history crushed! 

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