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Nennius was a Welsh monk of the 9th century who is chiefly known today as the author of the Historia Brittonum, an attribution contained in the prologue affixed to that work [1] though David Dumville and others have cast doubt upon the ascription and upon the antiquity of the prologue.[2] He was a student of Elvodugus, commonly identified with the bishop Elfodd who convinced British ecclesiastics to accept the Continental dating for Easter, and who died in 809 according to the Annales Cambriae.

The Historia Brittonum was highly influential, becoming a major contributor to the Arthurian legend. It also includes the legendary origins of the Picts, Scots, St. Germanus and Vortigern, and documents events associated with the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the 7th century as contributed by a Northumbrian document.[3]

Nennius is believed to have lived in the area made up by present day Brecknockshire and Radnorshire counties in Powys, Wales.[4] He lived outside the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, isolated by mountains in a rural society.[5] Because of the lack of evidence concerning the life of Nennius he has become the subject of legend himself. Welsh traditions include Nennius with Elbodug and others said to have escaped the massacre of Welsh monks by Ethelfrid in 613.[6] by fleeing to Scotland.

Contents

Historia Brittonum

Nennius is credited with having written the Historia Brittonum c. 830.[7] Evidence suggests that this medieval literature was a compilation of several sources, some of which are named by Nennius while others are not. Some experts say that this was not the first compiled history of the Britons and that it was largely based on Gildas' De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae written some two centuries before.[8] Most other sources have not survived and therefore cannot be confirmed. The surviving manuscripts of the Historia Brittonum appear to be redacted from several lost versions: information about Nennius contained in the Prologue and in the Apology differs, the Prologue containing an expanded form of the Apology that is only found in editions copied during the 12th century, leading experts to believe that later versions of the document were altered.[9] The largest known edition contains seventy-six sections including the Prologue and the Apology. The work was translated into Irish by Giolla Coemgin in c. 1071 and is the earliest example of the original Historia Britonum,[10] but includes the author’s name, Nennius.[11]

Originally written as a history of the Britons in an attempt to document a legitimate past, the Historia Brittonum contains stories of legend and superstition alike.[12 ] The historical accuracy of the Historia Brittonum is at best questionable and serves more as historical fiction rather than a legitimate history of the Britons. Although, some historians argue that the Historia Brittonum gives good insight into the way 9th century Britons viewed themselves and their past.[13] Nennius makes several attempts to trace the history of the Britons back to the Romans and Celts through his empirical observations of what he refers to as "The Marvels" or "Wonders of Britain".[12 ] These include ruins, landmarks and other aspects of the British countryside that Nennius deems worthy of documentation. His explanation of the physical landmarks and ruins take on a very mystical interpretation despite Nennius being a Christian monk. Within the writing of Nennius is a sense of pseudo-nationalist pride attempting to legitimize the people of Britain and embellish the past through legend much as the Romans used the story of Romulus and Remus to legitimize the founding of Rome.[14] One such example of Nennius stressing legend is in his accounts of Arthur and his twelve battles. The Historia Brittonum would come to be the basis on which later medieval authors such as Geoffrey of Monmouth would write the romantic histories of King Arthur.[15]

Nennius's alphabet

In a Welsh manuscript dated 817[16], a "Nemnivus" or "Nemniuus" responded to the snide accusation of a Saxon scholar that the Britons had no alphabet of their own by spontaneously inventing a Welsh version of the Anglo-Saxon futhorc runes, in order to refute this insult. The futhorc runes were probably brought to Britain in the 5th century by the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians (collectively known as the Anglo-Saxons), and were used until about the 11th century.”[17]

In his Runica Manuscripta, René Derolez claims: “There can be no doubt that Nemnivus knew the O.E. futhorc and derived his Welsh alphabet from it.” Nora Chadwick cites this as part of her assertion that Nemnivus was the inventor of this new alphabet and further claims that “Nemnivus” and “Nennius” are only different spellings of “Ninian,” meaning that all three spellings refer to the same person. Chadwick says it is dubious, however, that Nennius invented the alphabet on the spot, since the alphabet is written separately after the brief narration detailing the insult and by someone with obvious knowledge of the Saxon alphabet.[18] It is more likely then, that Nennius made some boastful embellishments to the story but in truth researched the Anglo-Saxon futhorc before creating his alphabet.

Debate regarding his life and works

The Prologue, in which Nennius introduces his purpose and means for writing the British History, first appears in a manuscript from the 12th century. The prologues of all other manuscripts, though only included marginally, so closely resemble this first prologue that William Newell claims they must be copies. "The preface has evidently been prepared by some one who had before him the completed text of the treatise. It appears in the first instance as a marginal gloss contained in a MS. of the twelfth century;' under ordinary conditions, the chapter would unhesitatingly be set aside as a forgery."[19] He counters Zimmer's argument by reasoning that the Irishman responsible for the "superior" Irish translations might have added his own touches, further claiming that if a Latin version of the Historia had been available in the 12th century, it would have been replicated in that language, not translated.

David N. Dumville argues that the manuscript tradition and nature of the Prologue in particular fail to substantiate the claim that Nennius authored Historia Brittonum. In his argument against Zimmer, he cites a textual inconsistency in the Irish translation regarding a place called Beulan, concluding that "we must admit to ignorance of the name of [the Historia's] ninth-century author."[20]

Associated historians and authors

  • Gildas - Fifth century historian who lived in South-west Britain. Wrote De Excidio, which focused largely on the history of Christian Britain but fails to give an in depth look of the Pagan period.[21]
  • Bede (the Venerable Bede) - Lived in Northumbria about half a century prior to Nennius. He wrote Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) over many years (completed 731 or 732). It includes a geographical description of the British Isles and focuses on the history of the Anglo-Saxon Church from St. Augustine's 597 mission though his preamble covers earlier ages.
  • William of Malmesbury - Late tenth century historian. Recorded history of Britain by compiling both Anglo Saxon and Anglo Norman traditions. He was the first historian of England to make use of topography and ancient monuments as historical sources.
  • Geoffrey Gaimar - Eleventh century Norman historian who wrote L'Estoire des Engleis. It was the first known Romance in vernacular verse written in England.

Notes

  1. ^ J. A. Giles (Translator), Nennius: The History of the Britons, in Six Old English Chronicles (1847)[1]
  2. ^ Quoted at: http://www.britishhistoryclub.com/bhc/sources/nennius_hb.html
  3. ^ Marsh, Henry. Dark Age Britain: Some Sources of History. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1970. 84
  4. ^ Lee, Sidney, ed. "Nennius." Dictionary of National Biography. XL. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1894. 218
  5. ^ Gransden, Antonia. Historical Writing in England. Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1974. 12
  6. ^ Lee, Sidney, ed. "Nennius." Dictionary of National Biography. XL. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1894. 221
  7. ^ Gransden, Antonia. Historical Writing in England. Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1974. 6
  8. ^ Gransden, Antonia. Historical Writing in England. Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1974. 7
  9. ^ Lee, Sidney, ed. "Nennius." Dictionary of National Biography. XL. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1894. 218-19
  10. ^ Lee, Sidney, ed. "Nennius." Dictionary of National Biography. XL. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1894. 219
  11. ^ Gransden, Antonia. Historical Writing in England. Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1974. 9
  12. ^ a b Gransden, Antonia. Historical Writing in England. Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1974. 11
  13. ^ Marsh, Henry. Dark Age Britain: Some Sources of History. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1970. 8
  14. ^ Gransden, Antonia. Historical Writing in England. Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1974. 8
  15. ^ Marsh, Henry. Dark Age Britain: Some Sources of History. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1970. 65
  16. ^ Dumville, D. N. Histories and Pseudo-histories of the Insular Middle Ages. Aldershot: Variorum, 1990.
  17. ^ Ager, Simon. “Runic Alphabet.” Omniglot. 2009. 29 March 2009 <http://www.omniglot.com/writing/runic.htm>
  18. ^ Chadwick, Nora, et al. Studies in the Early British Church. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1958.
  19. ^ Newell, William Wells. "Doubts Concerning the British History Attributed to Nennius." PMLA. 20.3 (1905): 622-72.
  20. ^ Dumville, D. N. Histories and Pseudo-histories of the Insular Middle Ages. Aldershot: Variorum, 1990.
  21. ^ Gransden, Antonia. Historical Writing in England. Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1974.

References

  • Gransden, Antonia (1974) Historical Writing in England. Ithaca, NY: Cornell U. P.
  • Dumville, David N. (1975) Nennius and the "Historia Brittonum" in: Studia Celtica, 10/11 (1975/6), 78-95
  • Chadwick, Nora K. (1958) "Early Culture and Learning in North Wales" in her: Studies in the Early British Church

External links

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1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

NENNIUS (fl. 796), a Welsh writer to whom we owe the Historic Britonum, lived and wrote in Brecknock or Radnor. His work is known to us through thirty manuscripts; but the earliest of these cannot be dated much earlier than the year 1000; and all are defaced by interpolations which give to the work so confused a character that critics were long disposed to treat it as an unskilful forgery. A new turn was given to the controversy by Heinrich Zimmer, who, in his Nennius vindicatus (1893), traced the history of the work and, by a comparison of the manuscripts with the 11th-century translation of the Irish scholar, Gilla Coemgim (d. 1072), succeeded in stripping off the later accretions from the original nucleus of the Historia. Zimmer follows previous critics in rejecting the Prologus maior (§§ 1, 2), the Capitula, or table of contents, and part of the Mirabilia which form the concluding section. But he proves that Nennius should be regarded as the compiler of the Historia proper (§§ 7-65). Zimmer's conclusions are of more interest to literary critics than to historians. The only part of the Historia which deserves to be treated as a historical document is the section known as the Genealogiae Saxonum (§§ 57-65). This is merely a recension of a work which was composed about 679 by a Briton of Strathclyde. The author's name is unknown; but he is, after Gildas, our earliest authority for the facts of the English conquest of England. Nennius himself gives us the oldest legends relating to the victories of King Arthur; the value of the Historia from this point of view is admitted by the severest critics. The chief authorities whom Nennius followed were Gildas' De excidio Britonum, Eusebius, the Vita Patricii of Murichu Maccu Machtheni, the Collectanea of Tirechan, the Liber occupationis (an Irish work on the settlement of Ireland), the Liber de sex aetatibus mundi, the chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine, the Liber beati Germani. The sources from which he derived his notices of King Arthur (§ 56) have not been determined.

See J. Stevenson's edition of the Historia Britonum (English Hist. Soc., 1838), based on a careful study of the MSS.; A. de la Borderie, L'Historia Britonum (Paris and London, 1883), which summarizes the older negative criticism; H. Zimmer, Nennius vindicatus (Berlin, 1893); T. Mommsen in Neues Archiv der Gesellschaft fur dltere deutsche Geschichtskunde, xix. 283. (H. W. C. D.)


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