The Historia Regum Britanniae and the Efficacy of an Imaginary Past

I find Andrew Galloway’s reading of the Historia Regum Britanniae—through the lens of William Cullen Bryant, as an expression of the Anglo-Norman’s “urgent anxiety about the fragility of their own cultural identity” (741)—to be compelling. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s text, while certainly an entertaining romance, contains puzzling elements. Written in Latin in an Anglo-Norman context, it glorifies the bravery, Christianity, and courtliness of the ancient Britons, only to chide them for the internal divisions that opened them to Saxon invasion. It contains some statements that I think would be troubling in light of the recent Norman conquest: “That can never be possessed justly, which is gained by force and violence” (IX.XVI); and, following the Arthur’s glorious routing of the Romans: “The justice of Divine Providence was very visible; considering how unjustly the ancestors of the Britons were formerly invaded and harassed by those of the Romans; and that these only stood in defense of that liberty, which the others would have deprived them of; and refused the tribute, which the others had no right to demand” (X.XII). If you interpolate for Britons and Romans Anglo-Saxons and Normans, the problematic suggestion becomes obvious. In the historical context of its composition, Geoffrey’s text seems to be suggesting the injustice of conquest, and a concern for native rights to self-rule and liberty.

This reading can be pursued it we take Geoffrey to be a Welshman, or a Welsh sympathizer, who sees all post-Brythonic invasions—Roman, Saxon, Norman—as illegitimate. However, if we take Geoffrey as a member of the new Norman ruling class, the anti-conquest thesis must be abandoned. This is where Galloway’s reading becomes helpful. Geoffrey is clearly eager to find an analogue to the Norman court in ancient Britain, ascribing to fifth-century Arthur’s court practices that are clearly the late-medieval traditions of courtly love:

The knights in it that were famous for feats of chivalry, wore their clothes and arms all of the same colour and fashion: and the women also no less celebrated for their wit, wore all the same kind of apparel; and esteemed none worthy of their love, but such as had given a proof of their valour in three several battles. Thus was the valour of the men an encouragement for the women’s chastity, and the love of the women a spur to the soldier’s bravery. (IX.XIII)

In Geoffrey’s hands, ancient Britain seems to become not so much the heritage of the contemporarily extant Brythonic peoples as a space for the conceptualization of the idealized late-medieval Anglo-Norman kingdom. A monarch “beloved by all people” (IX.XII), a kingdom “that in abundance of riches, luxury of ornaments, and politeness of inhabitants . . . far surpasses all other kingdoms” (IX.XIII): these unattainable aspirations of the Norman polity are projected on the Britons. This allows not only a displacement of the desire, but an ahistorical continuity of rule, from the kingdom of Arthur to the kingdom of Henry, thus picturing the Anglo-Saxons as the true interlopers.

Galloway describes an “American archeological sublime, in which early-nineteenth-century newspaper-reading Americans imagined . . . a world promising to contain the relics of some ancient, sophisticated ‘race’ before the Indians, fraught with the story of its own destruction” (732). Such a perspective allows for a connection with a past that is equally other to the culture being immediately displaced. Rather than investigating, and therefore inherently valuing, the past of a people Americans were actively trying to devalue, the archeological imagination fictionalized a people “who had made much greater advances in the arts of civilized life, than any of the aboriginal inhabitants of North America, who have been known since its discovery by Europeans” (732). Civilized can of course be read as Euro-American, and the “red-man” (725) is thus able to be pictured as a historical interloper, as “the rude conquerer” (725) whom it is unproblematic to efface in the reconstitution of “civilization” on the prairie.

Similarly for Geoffrey of Monmouth, history becomes a space for a fictionalization that demonized and distances the immediately subjugated people—the Anglo-Saxons rather than the Native Americans. The Historia Regum Britanniae is the imagination for the Anglo-Normans of a Britannic “middle ages whose darkness was more compelling than the equally unknown traditions of the more fully ‘native’” Anglo-Saxons (734). In this darkness could be found justifications and premonitions of the Conquest, as well as myths of an ancient societal affinity. In Arthur’s adventures on the continent prefiguration of the English concern to assert control over Normandy can be seen. Ancient Christian British glory, destroyed by the Saxons, usefully opens a moral space of the Anglo-Normans to reoccupy.



One thought on “The Historia Regum Britanniae and the Efficacy of an Imaginary Past

  1. SHH: You are right, GoM is a puzzling work. That odd statement of Arthur’s is doubly weird, since he goes on to gain most of Europe through force and violence.
    I wonder about the notion of an ahistorical continuity of rule. I like the notion, and certainly think that’s what GoM is trying to accomplish in this section, but it is a bit of a stretch, since the entire HRB is a deeply historicized text….The movement towards chivalry in the Arthurian section is strange and a bit awkward, and the reason for this is, as you note, made clear when we think about the anxieties about conquest and power with which GoM is struggling.
    It gets even weirder when Layamon takes on the Brut material, since he rewrites this ambivalent history in a pseudo-Anglo-Saxon poetic meter. Yet his barbarians are even more barbaric than Geoffrey’s, What gives?

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