Gens and Populus in the History of the Kings of Britain: translation problems

I’m sure this topic has been covered thoroughly often; and now I’m doing it too, less thoroughly.

The translation of the History of the Kings of Britain for Penguin, by Lewis Thorpe (1913-77), published in the mid 60s, was my first time meeting Geoffrey of Monmouth, and I suspect it remains a standard classroom edition. Neil Wright and Julia Crick, via Boydell & Brewer, have done the work the honor it deserves, but the version most of us are likely to read remains Thorpe’s.

Geoffrey of Monmouth is more than a little interested in grouping people. The Trojans, Greeks, Picts, Saxons, Britons, Italians (which is to say, the Romans), Gauls, Irish, and, among them, a few others, like the Huns and the Scots: all of these are quite distinct, for Geoffrey, and intermarriage — barring the occasional intermarriage with a Roman — tends to trouble him.

It’s not, of course, that Geoffrey witnesses to actual ethnic divisions among the peoples of Northern Europe. It’s that he’s inheriting categories from his sources, which include the early medieval histories of Gildas, Ninnius, and Bede; and it’s that medieval peoples sorted themselves into groupings that they liked to imagine were bound by natural kinship, as Walter Pohl, among others, have argued. Geoffrey’s very insistence on the kinship divisions among these people, and his insistence that conquerors come, homogeneously, as a “people,” witnesses to a myths of ethnic division that many modern people have dismayingly continued to promote. His history, like any history, is also a work of motivated fiction.

Thorpe doesn’t help us much, however, in supporing these observations. Here are some of his translations, with a few from Wright to compare:

“Britain is inhabited by five races of people” (54) – quinque…populis

“When Brutus realized that these people were of the same race as his ancestors, he stayed some time with them” (55) – Agnita igitur ueterum conciuium prosapia, moratus est Brutus apud eos [Once Brutus learned of their descent from his ancient countrymen, he lived among them; Wright trans, 8; Faletra trans., 44; “Perceiving their distant kinship, Brutus lives for a time among these slaves” — note that Faletra is a translation from a single early manuscript, and Wright is from several]

“for they have found it intolerable that they should be treated in your kingdom otherwise than as the purity of their noble blood demands” (56) – serenitas nobilitatis eius expeteret [Wright, trans 8: otherwise than their serene nobility demanded; Faletra, 45; “being treated in your realm with less dignity than their lineage demands”]

“The nobility which flourishes in him, and his fame, which is well-known to us, show him to be of the true race of Priam and Anchises [quem ex genere Priami et Anchisae creatum]” (63) [Wright trans, 16: “descent from the race of Priam and Anchises; Faletra trans, 50; “as is the nobility that pulses through his veins, being a descendant of the line of Priam and Anchises”]

“The two Kings took hostages from the Consuls, and the showed them mercy, leading their own troops off to Germany. No sooner had Belinus and Brennius begun harassing the German people than the Romans repented of the treaty just described” (97); “Sumptis igitur obsidibus, ueniam donauerunt reges cohortesque suas in Germaniam duxerunt. Cumque populum infestare institissent” &c [Wright trans., 56: The kings granted their request, took hostages and led their troops against Germany. Once they had begun their assault on that people”; Faletra, 76, “and leading their own forces into Germany. As soon as the Britons and their allies began to attack Germany”]

“Cassivelaunus therefore sent a message to Androgeus, asking the Duke to make peace for him with Julius, for otherwise the majesty of the race [ne dignitas gentis ex qua natus fuerat] into which he, Androgeus, had been born would come to an end with the capture of its King” (117) [Wright trans. 78, lest his capture should dishonour the race to which they both belonged; Faletra, 91, “lest the honor of his native people by sullied by the capture of its King”]

“Caradocus felt that Maximianus had a right to Britain, for he came both from the family of the Emperors and from a British origin” (135) – matre uero et natione Romanus ex utroque sanguine regalem ferebat procreationem. Iccirco igitur stabilitatem pacis promittebat quia sciebat illum et ex genere imperatorum et ex origine Britonum ius in Britanniam habere. [Wright trans, 98; whilst his mother and his nation were Roman were Roman, so that he was of royal blood on both sides. Hence Caradocus could promise an enduring peace, since he knew that Maximianus’ claim to Britain rested both on imperial descent and British birth; Faletra, 107, “who is Roman by birth but also descends from the royal line of the Britons”]

Royal blood is Geoffrey’s locution, and certainly a significant mystification of aristocratic power. But Thorpe’s rendering of genus and populus as “race” needs to be rethought (as Wright has done, to a degree). On the one hand, it’s advantageous to rethinking the modern pseudo-sciences of race to observe how minutely Geoffrey divides “racial” grouping: all of these people would be adjudged, more or less, white in the modern era. On the other hand, what’s left out of this translation is the way that whiteness promised mastery to all whites, emancipating them to the degree that it gave them some other group to dominate.

Whatever inequities existing among white people in the Americas in the eighteenth century, for example, they were all the masters of people they identified as Black. That sense of the kind of democratic brotherhood of whiteness, core to modern racial thinking, isn’t at all present in Geoffrey of Monmouth. He’s quite dismissive of the peasants, of whatever stock. When Brutus recognizes the enslaved Trojans as his countrymen, he’s recognizing, presumably, only those people he recognizes as worthy of having a lineage: only the aristocrats. And that subtle, yet significant, elitism of Geoffrey is what gets lost when we translate genus as “race.”