Written at Oxford in the late 1130s, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain became something of an instant sensation, and survives in a rather astonishing 218 manuscripts, eight of which are now preserved at Trinity College Dublin. These manuscripts are more than just a testament to the History’s popularity among medieval scribes. They are an important and, in a sense, unrivalled storehouse of information regarding contemporary reactions to and interpretations of the History’s significance and meaning for its Anglo-Norman audience.
Of all the insights they provide, perhaps none is more clearly reflected than the History’s relationship to the political environment in which it was conceived. While the History’s narrative ends with the fall of the Britons in the mid-seventh century, the prophecies of Merlin, which were situated right at its centre, were evidently understood by medieval audiences as pertinent to the political experiences of the Anglo-Norman and Plantagenet monarchies of the eleventh through fourteenth centuries.
TCD MS. 514, which was likely produced in Canterbury during the early fourteenth century, contains a series of marginal and interlinear glosses, written in a contemporary hand, which relate several of Merlin’s prophecies to kings William II, Henry I, Stephen, Henry II and so on. Here, as with TCD MS. 496, the commentaries on the prophecies appear as separate texts to the History itself. In both of these commentaries, the animal imagery used in Merlin’s prophecies is related to well-known political figures, and the inclusion of similar prophecies of non-Merlinic origin, such as the fourteenth-century prophecy of John of Bridlington (TCD MS. 172) and the prophecy of the Eagle of Shaftsbury (TCD MS. 514), are revealing of a continuation of the twelfth-century tradition of interpreting prophecy as political, rather than purely eschatological in its implications. Merlin is regularly identified as the key early figure in the development of this tradition, which is characterised by the sort of animal symbolism found throughout the manuscripts discussed here.
These manuscripts preserved in the Library of Trinity College Dublin represent a large collection of prophetic materials connected in some way with Geoffrey’s History and with the Prophecies of Merlin. The perceived relationship between Merlin’s prophecies and the political events of the eleventh through fourteenth centuries (and beyond) suggests that for Anglo-Norman writers, history was as much about the present and even the future as it was about the past.
Visiting Academic, History Books in the Anglo-Norman World Project, Trinity College Dublin / Lecturer in Medieval History, University of Exeter