“A PLEASANT AND IN MANY PLACES A TRUE HISTORY OF A VERY BRAVE PEOPLE”: FIRST EDITION IN ENGLISH OF JEFFREY OF MONMOUTH’S BRITISH HISTORY, 1718
JEFFREY OF MONMOUTH. The British History. London: J. Bowyer, H. Clements, and W. and J. Innys, 1718. Octavo, later full vellum.
Scarce first edition in English of Jeffrey of Monmouth’s vastly influential History of the Kings of Britain, the most important source for the story of King Lear and the legend of King Arthur.
Jeffrey (also "Geoffrey") of Monmouth wrote his monumental Historia Regum Brittaniae sometime before 1139. Drawing in part from other chroniclers' books but mostly from his own imagination, Jeffrey provided stories that became source material for some of England's greatest literature. The Historia includes the earliest known story of King Lear; here called "Leir," he is "arguably the most successful of Geoffrey's creations" (DNB). The book is also famous for presenting one of the earliest and most elaborate accounts of King Arthur. Merlin's prophecies and magical machinations to bring about Arthur's birth, Arthur's war against the Emperor of Rome, and his final battle against treasonous Modred—after which Arthur is borne "to the Isle of Avalon to be cured of his Wounds"—all figure prominently (Books VIII-XI). "The publication of the Historia marks an epoch in the literary history of Europe. There followed in less than half a century… the romances partly based upon it of the Grail, Perceval, Lancelot, Tristan and the Round Table, and Geoffrey's stories of Merlin and King Arthur were naturalized in Germany and Italy, as well as in France and England… Shakespeare used [Geoffrey's] fictions through Holinshed. Milton, Dryden, Pope, Wordsworth and Tennyson have all pressed Geoffrey's legends into their service." More than 200 manuscript copies of the Historia exist, testament to its popularity and influence. First published in Latin in 1508, this edition of the Historia is the first in English. Alexander Pope assisted Aaron Thompson with the work. "While Thompson does not believe that everything Geoffrey wrote was historically accurate, he is anxious [in his preface to this book] to establish his general credibility… [calling Geoffrey's book] 'a pleasant, and in many Places a true History of a very brave People'" (Fulton, Companion to Arthurian Literature, 342). Lowndes, 1194. Graesse III:14. Contemporary owner signatures to title page. Spine with author's name in ink manuscript.
Occasional light foxing, expected soiling to vellum. Near-fine condition. Scarce.