Monday, January 23, 2017

Thank you twelfth century

The frequency illusion at work. A couple of weekends ago I purchased a nice copy of the Folio Society 1969 edition and translation of The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, originally written in 1136.

Nine days later, I come across The British Past and the Welsh Future: Gerald of Wales, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Arthur of Britain, a 1999 paper by Julia Crick tackling the relationship between these two ancient texts.

Crick opens with:
In 1197, Gerald de Barri [Gerald of Wales], archdeacon of Brecon, in the course of revising an earlier work, launched a devastating rhetorical attack on a compatriot and fellow writer.
A Welshman from the neighbourhood of Caerleon was endowed with occult and prophetic gifts. Most notable among them was his ability to detect lies, whether written, spoken, or merely thought, a process facilitated by devils who indicated to him the offending person or passage (the man himself was illiterate).

When he was harrassed beyond endurance by these unclean spirits, Saint John’s Gospel was placed on his lap, and then they all vanished immediately, flying away like so many birds. If the Gospels were afterwards removed and the History of the Kings of Britain by Geffrey of Monmouth put there in its place, just to see what would happen, the demons would alight all over his body, and on the book, too, staying there longer than usual and being even more demanding.
Successive readers of Geoffrey’s ‘History’ have recognised Gerald’s sentiments and no doubt allowed them to colour their perceptions of Geoffrey’s work. Yet few commentators have stopped to question whether Gerald’s hostility was occasioned by anything more than his offended historical sense. This question lies at the heart of this paper.
It has to be more than a couple of years since I registered or thought anything about Geoffrey of Monmouth and yet here he is, twice in nine days. The serendipity and frequency illusion both struck me.

I am also taken with the idea, in this time of obsessing over Fake News, of unclean spirits helping to detect lies and offending passages. Thank you twelfth century.

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