. Historia Brittonum

The Historia Brittonum is an early ninth-century Cambro-Latin composition, which purports to give an account of the geography and history of the British Isles from their first settler (said to be Brutus, in the time of the Biblical Judge Eli) to the early Middle Ages. The document has been viewed by recent commentators (notably David Dumville) as a carefully crafted political statement, reflecting the concerns of early ninth-century Gwynedd and containing little or nothing of value to the history of earlier ages, whereas earlier generations of historians were often content to read it at face value.

In particular, there has been a near-unanimous rejection of the view that its writing involved what the (certainly spurious) preface attributing it to Nennius claims, coaceruaui omne quod inueni ‘I heaped up all that I found’; only P J C Field and David Howlett have offered serious defences of the Nennian attribution. The former is effectively an appeal to the linguistic parallels between the preface and the main body of the text, while the latter uses this argument as well as complex word and letter counts. Neither has found favour with other specialists and neither explains the loss of the preface from the textual tradition in all but two manuscripts. Howlett’s hypothesis also depends on an acceptance of Harleian MS 3859 as containing the best version of the text, that closest to the archetype, a view accepted by all its editors since Stevenson (1838), apart from Henry Petrie (1848), who preferred Cambridge Corpus Christi College MS 139. However, Harleian MS 3859 cannot be close to the archetype and the entire hypothesis fails without need for detailed refutation.

Critical historians, particularly following the lead of David Dumville, have instead shown the Historia Brittonum to be a well-constructed piece of synthetic historical writing, entirely at home in the early medieval British Isles and nothing like the ‘heap’ that its more enthusiastic promoters have tried to make it.

The bases of recent critical arguments about the historical value of the text are that:

  1. Where it impinges upon history that can be tested by external sources (for instance, in its accounts of Roman Britain (§§19-30 in Mommsen’s (1898) edition: all quoted chapter numbers are those of Mommsen) or Saint Germanus (§§32-35, 39 and 47)), it is demonstrably either wrong or it distorts the evidence to fit the author’s preconceptions about British history. The pseudo-history constructed around the career of Magnus Maximus (§27) is an excellent example of this tendency.
  2. The weaving together of different strands of tradition (the originally separate tales of Saint Garmon and Gwrtheyrn, and of Gwrtheyrn and Hengest, for instance (§§31-48)) betrays an author who is manipulating sources and manipulating them well, ample demonstration that the ‘heap’ interpretation is wrong. This is not a compilation along the lines of a modern academic Reader but a well crafted literary construction. At the same time, it is evident that the author was making the fullest use of scanty sources, many of which are derivative (the hagiography of Patrick, for instance (§§50-55)), many of which are of dubious historicity (the account of the Roman emperors who visited Britain (§27)) and many of which are just plain fabulous (the tale of Gwrtheyrn, Emreis and the vermes (§§40-42)).

This site aims to present the evidence of different versions of the text (known as ‘recensions’) and the begin an attempt at commentary. Of particular note is the attempt to reconstruct the original version of this difficult text, which was subject to so many additions, deletions and alterations over five hundred or so years after its original composition that no two of the over forty surviving manuscripts are identical.

My current thoughts on the text can be found in this PDF: The textual history of the Historia Brittonum, a PowerPoint presentation.