Geoffrey of Monmouth’s horrific history of violence against men

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain {Historia regum Britanniae} begins with Brutus, the first king of Britain and the great-grandson of the eminent Trojan Aeneas. Brutus caused the deaths of his mother and father. Brutus’s mother died giving birth to him. Like today’s anti-meninists, Brutus was thus cut off from personally appreciating his mother as a living human being. Brutus accidentally killed his father while hunting a stag. A similar stag-hunting scene in the Aeneid led to war between the Trojans and the Italians. Brutus killing his father roots Historia regum Britanniae in violence against men.

Consider King Arthur’s pivotal battle against the Roman army at Saussy in France. With the battle going against the Britons, King Arthur responded dramatically:

Hearing of the losses that the Britons had just suffered, Arthur rushed up with his legion and, drawing his mighty sword Excalibur, urged on his fellow soldiers, shouting:

“Men, what are you doing? Why are you letting these womanly men get away unharmed? Let none of them escape with their lives. Think of your sword-hands, which have endured so many battles and subjected thirty kingdoms to my power. Think of your forefathers forced to pay tribute by the Romans, when they were mightier. Think of your freedom, which these half-men, weaker than yourselves, wish to take away. Let not one escape alive, not one. What are you doing?”

With cries such as these, he charged the enemy, bowling them over, cutting down any man who got in his way and killing him, or his horse, with a single blow.

{ Ipse etenim, audita suorum strage, quae paulo ante eisdem dabatur, cum legione irruerat, et abstracto Caliburno gladio optimo, excelsa voce atque verbis commilitones suos inanimabat, inquiens:

“Quid facitis viri? Ut quid muliebres permittitis illaesos abire? Ne abscedat ullus vivus. Mementote dexterarum vestrarum, quae tot praeliis exercitatae terdena regna potestati meae subdiderunt. Mementote avorum vestrorum, quos Romani, dum fortiores erant, tributarios fecerunt. Mementote libertatis vestrae, quam semiviri isti et vobis debiliores, demere affectant. Ne abeat ullus vivus, ne abeat. Quid facitis?”

Haec et plura alia vociferando irruebat in hostes, prosternebat, caedebat, et cuicumque obviabat aut ipsum aut ipsius equum uno ictu interficiebat. }[1]

Historia regum Britanniae emphasizes fully masculine men fighting for liberty. Neither masculinity nor liberty necessarily requires the massive slaughter of men that occurs throughout Historia regum Britanniae.

Geoffrey of Monmouth scarcely showed concern for violence against men. Narrating the battle between King Arthur’s Britons and those of the traitor Mordred, Geoffrey allowed a glint of grief:

As the commanders on either side were addressing their troops, the two armies suddenly charged and collided, eager to exchange blows. It is a sad and difficult task to describe the slaughter that soon ensued among both parties, the groans of the dying men, and the fury of the assailants. On both sides men dealt wounds or were wounded, killed or were killed.

{ Ipsis itaque commilitones suos hinc et inde cohortantibus, subito impetu concurrunt acies et commisso proelio crebros ictus innectere elaborant. Fiunt ilico in utrisque partibus tantae strages, tanti morientium gemitus, tanti invadentium furores, quantos et dolorosum et laboriosum est describere. Undique etenim vulnerabunt et vulnerabuntur, perimebant et perimebantur. }

Describing an earlier battle between Britons and Romans, Geoffrey deployed one of the few figures of speech in Historia regum Britanniae:

When the opposing forces were drawn up, they fought there, matching spear for spear and blow for blow. Immediately men fell on this side and that, having received spears into their vitals. The earth was as wet with the blood of the dying men as if a south wind was raining down the sea water it had soaked up.

{ Ibi, dispositis in utraque parte catervis, dextras cum hostibus commiscuerunt: pila pilis et ictus ictibus obicientes. Nec mora, hinc et inde corruunt vulnerati, telis infra vitalia receptis. Manat tellus cruore morientium ac si repentinus auster absorptum mare revomuisset. }

Another figure of speech similarly drew upon nature:

On both sides the wounded men fell as thick as leaves from the trees in autumn.

{ Concidunt in utraque parte vulnerati, quemadmodum in autumno arborum folia. }

Geoffrey seems to have regarded as natural the gendering of men as disposable in institutionalized violence. Just as today military conscription continues to be applied only to men despite women being encouraged to serve voluntarily in armed forces, Geoffrey, with no concern for depriving men of liberty in this way, reported:

He also conscripted all the island’s young men. Next to the coast he stationed them, awaiting the enemy’s arrival.

{ Collecta etiam tota juventute insulae, mansionem juxta maritima fecit, adventum hostium expectans. }

According to Geoffrey, the Britons under Maximianus engaged in gendercide in France:

Wherever they gained entry, the Britons killed all the males and spared only the women. Finally, when they had left all the provinces completely destroyed, they placed British knights in the cities, towns, and castles in their various locations. News of Maximianus’s savagery spread throughout the remaining provinces of France.

{ Qui quocunque intrabant, interficiebant quicquid erat masculini sexus, solis mulieribus parcentes. Postremo cum universas provincias penitus ab omni incola delevissent, munierunt civitates et oppida militibus Britanniae et promontoria in diversis locis statuta. Saevitia igitur Maximiani per ceteras Galliarum provincias divulgata }

The people of France recognized the savagery of killing all males. Nonetheless, treating men’s lives as more disposable than women’s lives occurs throughout Historia regum Britanniae.[2]

Battle of Doncaster: medieval violence against men

Men as a gender were burdened with fighting wars. The individual characteristics of particular men didn’t matter. After Roman soldiers withdrew from protecting Britain, the Archbishop of London called upon all British men to serve as soldiers:

Will your hope always depend on others, and will you not take up shields, swords, and spears against robbers who would be no braver than you, were it not for your slothful laziness? … Before your soldiers left, were you not commoners? Do you think that made you less than men? Surely generations change so that a farming man can father a soldiering man, and vice versa, and a soldiering man can be born to a trading man, just as a trading man to a soldiering man. Although the one can produce the other, I do not think that either lose their manhood. Since you are men, conduct yourselves like men, beg Christ to make you brave, and defend your liberty.

{ Eritne ergo spes vestra semper in alieno tutamine, et non instruetis manus vestras peltis, ensibus, hastis in latrones nequaquam vobis fortiores, si segnitia et torpor adesset? … Quod si tempore militum vestrorum fueratis vulgus? Putatis iccirco a vobis humanitatem diffugisse? Nonne homines transverso ordine nascuntur ita ut ex rustico generetur miles et ex milite rusticus? Miles etiam de mangone venit et mango de milite. Hac ergo consuetudine quamvis unus ab altero procedat, non existimo eos esse quod est hominis amittere. Cum igitur sitis homines, habetote vos ut homines et invocate Christum ut audaciam adhibeat et libertatem vestram defendite. }

The idea of women shouldering an equal role in defending liberty apparently was inconceivable. Under the ideology of courtly love, women used their love to manipulate and inspire men to engage in violence against men. According to Geoffrey, Britain under King Arthur surpassed all other kingdoms:

To such a noble state was Britain then restored that in abundance of wealth, luxury of dress, and elegance of its inhabitants, it surpassed all other kingdoms. Any knight truly famed for his virtue in that country wore clothes and armor of a single color. Elegant women, having dressed themselves similarly, spurned the love of any man who had not proved himself three times in battle. The women thus became more chaste and honorable, and for their love knights conducted themselves more virtuously.

{ Ad tantum etenim statum dignitatis Britannia tunc reducta erat, quod copia divitiarum, luxu ornamentorum, facetia incolaram, cetera regna excellebat. Quicumque vero famosus probitate miles in eadem erat unius coloris vestibus atque armis utebatur. Facete etiam mulieres, consimilia indumenta habentes, nullius amorem habere dignabantur nisi tertio in milicia probatus esset. Efficiebantur ergo castae et meliores et milites pro amore illarum probiores. }

In reality, men are intrinsically manly and intrinsically worthy of women’s love. That reality has been socially effaced to encourage men to engage in violence against men.

Effective violence doesn’t necessarily depend on physical strength. Situational and relational positions can compensate for relative weakness in physical strength. Today, nuclear bombing and drone warfare could readily be female-enacted violence. In ancient Britain, when Porrex killed killed his brother Ferreux in a battle for succession to their father’s throne, their mother Iudon was furious:

She burned with such fury over Ferreux’s death that she strove to take revenge on his brother. Waiting until he was asleep, she and her serving women attacked him and tore him to pieces.

{ Unde tanta ira ob mortem ipsius ignescebat ut ipsum in fratrem vindicare affectaret. Nacta ergo tempus quo ille sopitus fuerat, aggreditur eum cum ancillis suis et in plurimas sectiones dilaceravit. }

Superior guile can easily overcome superior strength.

Most large-scale violence involves leaders directing masses of followers. Women can direct men to commit violence on their behalf. That occurs not just personally, but also socially. For example, King Locrinus was forced to marry Guendoloena, the daughter of his strongest warrior-man Corineus. For seven years Locrinus carried on a secret sexual relationship with his beloved Estrildis. When Corineus died, Locrinus divorced Guendoloena and established Estrildis as his queen. Guendoloena was furious at Locrinus divorcing her. She went to her father’s kingdom of Cornwall and gathered an army of men. Guendoloena’s army killed Locrinus and conquered his kingdom. Then Guendoloena took charge:

Guendoloena began to run the government of the kingdom with the raging fury of her father. She ordered Estrildis and Estrildis’s daughter Habren to be hurled to death in the river now called the Severn.

{ cepit Guendoloena regni gubernaculum, paterna insania furens. Iubet enim Estrildidem et filiam eius Habren praecipitari in fluvium qui nunc Sabrina dicitur }[4]

Without men serving her in committing violence against men, Guedoloena wouldn’t have been able to seize Locrinus’s kingdom and have his wife and daughter killed. Of course, many more unnamed and unnoted men undoubtedly died from Guedoloena’s insurrection.

When will violence against men end? Alas for violence against men, for the end of men-only conscription isn’t near. Women and men around the world will read of the Byzantine wife who save her husband from castration. They will understand why Aeneas left treacherous, complaining Trojan women in Sicily. Reproductive choice for men will be legalized so as to free women from abortion coercion. All the earth will be fruitful beyond human need, and human beings will fornicate unceasingly. Then the red rose and the white lily will make peace. Delight in the simple joy of gardening will bring tranquility to all.[5]

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Notes:

[1] Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain {Historia regum Britanniae}, 10.419-30 (sec. 174), Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Reeve & Wright (2009). Subsequent quotes from Historia regum Britanniae are similarly sourced unless otherwise noted.

The Historia regum Britanniae, which Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote about 1138, became widely distributed and enormously influential. It survives in at least 217 manuscripts, a third of which were written before the end of the twelfth century. Reeve & Wright (2009) p. vii. Here’s an online manuscript dating probably to the end of the twelfth century.

Historia regum Britanniae prompted many subsequent medieval works about King Arthur and his court. Here are overviews of Historia regum Britanniae in relation to Arthur’s court and the crusades. On the reception of Historia regum Britanniae, Henley & Smith (2020), Part 4.

Geoffrey referred to this work as The Deeds of the Britons {De gestis Britonum}. That title also occurs in early manuscripts. Reeve & Wright (2009) p. lix. Titles weren’t an authorially fixed, enduring meta-attribute of written works in medieval Europe. Above I have used the title more commonly recognized today, Historia regum Britanniae.

The complex manuscript corpus of Historia regum Britanniae includes variant versions. Their relation to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work isn’t clear. The First Variant version may have been a source for Geoffrey, or a revision of Geoffrey’s work. On the First Variant, Burchmore (2019) and Hammer (1951).

Within Historia regum Britanniae, disparaging the enemy’s manliness occurs in other contexts of urging men into violence against men. Earlier King Arthur promised victory “if with equal determination we would endeavor to crust these half-men {si pari affectu semiviros illos elaboraverimus opprimere}.”Historia regum Britanniae 10.284-5 (sec. 169). In this context, the First Variant version refers to “half-men and effeminate men-prostitutes {semviri et effeminati}.” First Variant 10.238-9 in Hammer (1951). In response to a threatening letter from Rome, Auguselus, King of Scotland, urged King Arthur’s court, “Let us attack these half-men {Aggrediamur igitur semiviros illos}.” Historia regum Britanniae 9.515 (sec. 161).

Historia regum Britanniae is freely available online in Latin editions and English translations. For Latin editions, Ellis & Black (1830), Giles & Virunio (1844), and Schulz (1854). The best of these is Giles & Virunio (1844), which is reproduced in Schulz (1854). This unattributed online Latin text is quite close to Reeve & Wright (2009). For freely available English translations, Evans (1904) and Giles (1848). Thorpe (1966) is a relatively low-cost English translation with text-section numbering and an excellent index.

Subsequent quotes above from Historia regum Britanniae are 9.63-8 (sec. 178) (As the commanders on either side…), 4.48-52 (sec. 56) (When the opposing forces were drawn up…), 4.211-2 (sec. 62) (On both sides the wounded fell…), 4.105-6 (sec. 59) (He also conscripted…), 5.335-39 (sec. 85) (Wherever they gained entry…), 6.37-9, 42-9 (sec. 90) (Will your hope always depend on others…), 9.385-91 (sec. 157) (To such a noble state was Britain then restored…), 2.300-2 (sec. 33) (She burned with such fury…), 2.58-60 (sec. 25) (Guendoloena began to run the government…).

[2] Tolhurst superficially interpreted gender in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s works. She focused on valorized female figures:

In Geoffrey’s PM, DGB, and VM, female figures not only play pivotal roles but also perform actions that do the “feminist” work of providing implicit critiques of the brutality, warmongering, moral weakness, and immorality that tend to characterize powerful males in the Galridian world.

Tolhurst (2020) p. 343. Females in Geoffrey’s works don’t lessen violence against men. They encourage it. Tolhurst’s interpretation of Geoffrey’s works apparently hinges on men being regarded as essentially inferior to women:

Within Geoffrey’s metanarrative of kingship, female rule becomes an attractive alternative to male rule because some male monarchs are weak and foolish while others commit crimes of tyranny, warmongering, sexual misconduct, and/or murder.

Id. p. 352. Geoffrey probably wasn’t so weak-minded or gender-bigoted to think that the existence of some bad male rulers implies that any female ruler (“female rule”) is necessarily better.

Geoffrey’s Historia regum Britanniae is a horrific history of violence against men. As meninist literary criticism emphasizes, systemic violence against men should be recognized as a gender injustice. Rulers of any gender should be held accountable for lessening it. Instead, readers typically ignore the most pervasive gender injustice in Historia regum Britanniae: massive violence against men.

[3] Prior to modern women-are-wonderful ideology, women’s potential for violence was occasionally recognized. For example, in ancient Athens, the Athenian councilor Lycidas proposed putting before the Athenian assembly a proposal to capitulate to an invading force. Other Athenian councilors stoned Lydias to death for his perceived betrayal of Athens. Athenian women added additional, cruel punishment:

When the Athenian women learned what was going on, with one calling to another and bidding her to follow, they went on their own motion to the house of Lycidas and stoned to death his wife and children.

{ πυνθάνονται τὸ γινόμενον αἱ γυναῖκες τῶν Ἀθηναίων, διακελευσαμένη δὲ γυνὴ γυναικὶ καὶ παραλαβοῦσα ἐπὶ τὴν Λυκίδεω οἰκίην ἤισαν αὐτοκελέες, καὶ κατὰ μὲν ἔλευσαν αὐτοῦ τὴν γυναῖκα κατὰ δὲ τὰ τέκνα. }

Herodotus, Histories 9.5, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Godley (1920).

[4] Guendoloena was “enraged / full of righteous anger {indignans}” that Locrinus had divorced her and made Estrildis his queen. Historia regum Britanniae 2.54 (sec. 25). Locrinus’s action violated his previous agreement with Corineus. Moreover, Christian teaching strongly opposed divorce. See Matthew 19:3-12. Tolhurst claims that Geoffrey chose “not to villainize this female regent even when she displays extreme anger and orders two killings.” Tolhurst (2020) p. 350. Under gynocentrism, women’s crimes tend to be excused.

[5] Book 7 of Historia regum Britanniae is Prophecies of Merlin {Prophetiae Merlini}. One of Merlin’s prophecies:

All the soil will be overflowingly fruitful, and humanity will not cease fornicating.

{ Omnis humus luxuriabit, et humanitas fornicari non desinet. }

Historia regum Britanniae 7.125-6 (sec. 115). McInerney (2020) perceptively emphasizes the literary character of Prophetiae Merlini, particularly in relation to the Aeneid.

[images] (1) Medieval men fighting on horseback. Illumination from a fourteenth-century instance of La Quête du Saint Graal et la Mort d’Arthus attributed to Gautier Map. Excerpt (color enhanced) from folio 25v of Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Français 343. (2) Knights battle on foot at the Battle of Doncaster. Excerpt from folio 81v of the fifteenth-century St. Alban’s Chronicle, Lambeth Palace Library MS. 6. (3) Men joust while a king and others watch. Illumination from a fourteenth-century instance of La Quête du Saint Graal et la Mort d’Arthus attributed to Gautier Map. Excerpt (color enhanced) from folio 86v of Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Français 343.

References:

Burchmore, David W., ed. and trans. 2019. The History of the Kings of Britain: The First Variant Version. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 57. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ellis, George, and William Henry Black, ed. 1830. Gaufridi Arthurii monemuthensis archidiaconi: postea vero episcopi asaphensis, De vita et vaticiniis Merlini Calidonii; carmen heroicum. Londini: Nicol.

Evans, Sebastian, trans. 1904. Geoffrey of Monmouth. Histories of the Kings of Britain. London: J.M. Dent.

Giles, John Allen and Ludovico Pontico Virunio, ed. 1844. Galfredi Monumetensis Historia Britonum: nunc primum in Anglia novem codd. msstis. collatis. 1967 reprint. New York: Burt Franklin.

Giles, John Allen, trans. 1848. Six Old English chronicles, of which two are now first translated from the monkish Latin originals. London: Bohn. Alternate, annotated presentation, including Geoffrey of Monmouth’s British History.

Godley, A. D., ed and trans. 1920. Herodotus. The Persian Wars {The Histories}. Loeb Classical Library 119. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hammer, Jacob, ed. 1951. Geoffrey of Monmouth: Historia regum Britanniae: a variant version edited from manuscripts. Cambridge, Mass: Mediaeval Academy of America.

Henley, Georgia, and Joshua Byron Smith, eds. 2020. A Companion to Geoffrey of Monmounth. Leiden: Brill.

McInerney, Maud Burnett. 2020. “Riddling Words: the Prophetiae Merlini.” Ch. 4 (pp. 129-152) in Henley & Smith (2020).

Reeve, Michael D., ed. and Neil Wright, trans. 2009. Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History of the Kings of Britain: an edition and translation of De gestis Britonum (Historia regum Britanniae). Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press.

Schulz, Albert. 1854, ed. Gottfried’s von Monmouth Historia Regum Britannie: mit literar-historischer Einleitung und ausführlichen Anmerkungen, und Brut Tysylio, altwälsche Chronik in deutscher Uebersetzung. Halle: E. Anton.

Thorpe, Lewis, trans. 1966. Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. London: Penguin Books.

Tolhurst, Fiona. 2020. ‘Geoffrey and Gender: the Works of Geoffrey of Monmouth as Medieval “Feminism.”‘ Ch. 12 (pp. 341-368) in Henley and Smith (2020).

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