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A Tale of the Rise of Law: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain

Decorated initials 'C'(umque) and 'K'(imbelinus) in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae. Photo courtesy British Library

A Tale of the Rise of Law: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain

By Allen Mendenhall

Inquire: Journal of Comparative Literature, Vol 2:1 (2012)

Decorated initials 'C'(umque) and 'K'(imbelinus) in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae. Photo courtesy British Library

Introduction: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain is a tale of the rise of law, suggesting that there can be no Britain without law – indeed, that Britain, like all nation-state constructs, was law or at least a complex network of interrelated processes and procedures that we might call law. During an age with multiple sources of legal authority in Britain, The History treats law as sovereign unto itself in order to create a narrative of order and stability. This article examines the way Geoffrey establishes the primacy of law by using the language-based, utilitarian methodologies of John Austin, who treats law as an expression of a command issued by a sovereign and followed by a polis, and whose jurisprudence enables twenty-first-century readers to understand Geoffrey’s narrative as a response to monarchical succession and emerging common law. The first section of this article briefly explains Austin’s jurisprudence and provides historical context for The History. The second section considers The History in terms of uniform and rational justice in the twelfth century, situating Geoffrey’s jurisprudence alongside that of Ranulf de Glanvill and analyzing the complex relationships between sovereignty, law, polis and nation state.

Austin treats law as an expression of will that something be done or not done, coupled with the power to punish those who do not comply: “A command […] is a signification of desire […] distinguished from other significations of desire by this peculiarity: that the party to whom it is directed is liable to evil from the other, in case he not comply with the desire”. Accordingly, law is a command that carries the power of sanction. Austin, who writes in the nineteenth century, is in many ways different from the twelfth-century Geoffrey. Whereas Geoffrey employs fiction to instruct his contemporaries in the official narrative of incipient nationalism, Austin proclaims that many “of the legal and moral rules which obtain in the most civilized communities, rest upon brute custom, and not upon manly reason”. Austin adds that these legal and moral rules “have been taken from preceding generations without examination, and are deeply tinctured with barbarity,” and also that these takings are particularly harmful because the rules “arose in early ages” during “the infancy of the human mind” when people ruled based on “the caprices of fancy”. Because The History is more mythology than fact, Austin probably would have accused Geoffrey of perpetuating “obstacles to the diffusion of ethical truth” and of “monstrous or crude productions of childish and imbecile intellect” that nonetheless “have been cherished […] through ages of advancing knowledge”. Austin, in short, was skeptical of mythology and claims about absolute law; whereas, Geoffrey embraced mythology and implied that law was a constant corrective.

Click here to read this article from Inquire: Journal of Comparative Literature

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