|Facsimile of the the Vatican Manuscript |
of the Historia Brittonum.
Historia Brittonum or History of the Britons is, as the title suggests, a history of Britain ascribed to Nennius, a Welsh monk living in the 9th Century. I am growing increasingly fond of reading Medieval histories having recently read Geoffrey of Monmouth's The History of the Kings of Britain (1136) and Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731), both of which I loved, and I thought now was the time to turn to Nennius.
A common criticism of Nennius is that he is not historically accurate: this is true, he is not even remotely historically accurate. Historia Brittonum is more a mythical history. It begins, rather sweetly I thought,
Nennius, the lowly minister and servant of the servants of God, by the grace of God, disciple of St. Elbotus, to all the followers of truth sendeth health.
Be it known to your charity, that being dull in intellect and rude of speech, I have presumed to deliver these things in the Latin tongue, not trusting to my own learning, which is little or none at all, but partly from traditions of our ancestors, partly from writings and monuments of the ancient inhabitants of Britain, partly from the annals of the Romans, and the chronicles of the sacred fathers, Isidore, Hieronymus, Prosper, Eusebius, and from the histories of the Scots and Saxons, although our enemies, not following my own inclinations, but, to the best of my ability, obeying the commands of my seniors; I have lispingly put together this history from various sources, and have endeavoured, from shame, to deliver down to posterity the few remaining ears of corn about past transactions, that they might not be trodden under foot, seeing that an ample crop has been snatched away already by the hostile reapers of foreign nations. For many things have been in my way, and I, to this day, have hardly been able to understand, even superficially, as was necessary, the sayings of other men; much less was I able in my own strength, but like a barbarian, have I murdered and defiled the language of others. But I bore about with me an inward wound, and I was indignant, that the name of my own people, formerly famous and distinguished, should sink into oblivion, and like smoke be dissipated. But since, however, I had rather myself be the historian of the Britons than nobody, although so many are to be found who might much more satisfactorily discharge the labour thus imposed on me; I humbly entreat my readers, whose ears I may offend by the inelegance of my words, that they will fulfil the wish of my seniors, and grant me the easy task of listening with candour to my history. For zealous efforts very often fail: but bold enthusiasm, were it in its power, would not suffer me to fail. May, therefore, candour be shown where the inelegance of my words is insufficient, and may the truth of this history, which my rustic tongue has ventured, as a kind of plough, to trace out in furrows, lose none of its influence from that cause, in the ears of my hearers. For it is better to drink a wholesome draught of truth from the humble vessel, than poison mixed with honey from a golden goblet.
The piece, only forty pages long in my edition, is divided into sixty-six chapters in which Nennius starts from the age of Adam, and from there divides the history of the world into six ages:
The first age of the world is from Adam to Noah; the second from Noah to Abraham; the third from Abraham to David; the fourth from David to Daniel; the fifth to John the Baptist; the sixth from John to the judgment, when our Lord Jesus Christ will come to judge the living and the dead, and the world by fire.
And from there to the history of the Britons: "The island of Britain derives its name from Brutus, a Roman consul. Taken from the south-west point it inclines a little towards the west, and to its northern extremity measures eight hundred miles, and is in breadth two hundred." He lists the thirty-three cities, including York (Cair ebrauc), Canterbury (Cair ceint), Catterick (Cair caratauc; now a small village, I list it because I was born there and was very happy to see it mentioned!), Gloucester (Cair glout), Manchester (Cair mauiguid), and of course London (Cair londein). He then notes Britain's "inhabitants consist of four different people; the Scots, the Picts, the Saxons and the ancient Britons", then writes more on the myth of Brutus and how he came to establish Briton and the ancient Britons, and from there the Picts and how they occupied the Orkney Islands (which inspired me to read the Orkneyinga Saga, 1230, which I'll be blogging about next week), then the Scots and Saxons.
Much of Historia Brittonum consists of lists of genealogy of the kings and emperors of Rome, which, admittedly, were a little tedious, but the work is fascinating as a mythical account of the origins of Britain, and accounts of Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, Vortigern, and even an early myth of King Arthur, short enough to quote in full here:
Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror. The first battle in which he was engaged, was at the mouth of the river Gleni. The second, third, fourth, and fifth, were on another river, by the Britons called Duglas, in the region Linuis. The sixth, on the river Bassas. The seventh in the wood Celidon, which the Britons call Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth was near Gurnion castle, where Arthur bore the image of the Holy Virgin, mother of God, upon his shoulders, and through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the holy Mary, put the Saxons to flight, and pursued them the whole day with great slaughter. The ninth was at the City of Legion, which is called Cair Lion. The tenth was on the banks of the river Trat Treuroit. The eleventh was on the mountain Breguoin, which we call Cat Bregion.The twelfth was a most severe contest, when Arthur penetrated to the hill of Badon. In this engagement, nine hundred and forty fell by his hand alone, no one but the Lord affording him assistance. In all these engagements the Britons were successful. For no strength can avail against the will of the Almighty.
There is, in some editions, a final section on the 'wonders of Britain' (de mirabilibus Britanniae): my edition didn't include this and it's thought this section wasn't written by Nennius after all. I haven't found it to read online, but there is a summary by Sean B. Palmer which is most interesting and I do very much recommend people read his post. Hopefully I'll be able to read the original soon enough! I really enjoyed reading Nennius. Inaccurate as it may be, it is interesting to learn of the perceived history of the early Medieval Age; one of the many reasons to read this short work.