Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain was the 12th Century’s big bestselling British fantasy novel, a precursor to the likes of The Lord of the Rings in the 20th Century or Harry Potter for the 21st. This is evidenced not least from the sheer number of contemporary manuscripts of the book that survive to this day, which must after all be the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of manuscripts actually produced. Monks and nuns laboured away in scriptoria to churn out these copies of the history, and the King Arthur legend as popularised in it immediately became one of the central subjects of the up and coming troubadour art form.
Almost as soon as it came into existence, other historians adapted its material, inserting their own opinions and spin on the subject matter – and for that matter, Geoffrey hardly seems to have had a neutral agenda itself. A particularly interesting study of this phenomenon from a feminist perspective is Fiona Tolhurst’s Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Transmission of Female Kingship.
Over the course of an exhaustive analysis of Monmouth’s magnum opus (concentrating on the non-Arthurian portions, which have been rather neglected over the years), Tolhurst produces a credible argument that Geoffrey’s history was a feminist work – not, perhaps, by the the standards of what we recognise as feminism today, but certainly by the standards of the period in which he was writing.