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Definition: Nennius (lived c. 800) from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Welsh historian, believed to be the author of a Latin Historia Britonum, which contains the earliest reference to King Arthur's wars against the Saxons.

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History of the Britons


Summary Article: Nennius
From Continuum Encyclopedia of British Literature

Nennius was a 9th-c. monk of Bangor, North Wales, and supposed author of the Historia Britonum, an early Welsh history containing the first apparently historical account of the military exploits of Arthur. Writing in about 830 in response to a perceived negligence among the Britons in the recording and cherishing of their history, Nennius synthesizes various literary, historical, and oral traditions in his work, colorfully declaring he has “made a heap” of such material and writing up his findings in Latin prose. The earliest complete text survives in a British Library manuscript (Harleian MS 3859), itself a miscellany of items, collecting Nennius’s Historia with the Annales Cambriae and a collection of Welsh genealogies.

In a prose periodically reflecting the anti-Saxon bias and pious disposition of the compiler, Nennius documents the origins of the British, the invasions of the Romans, Picts, and Saxons, the lives of saints Germanus and Patrick, the reign of King Vortigern, and, in chapter 56 of his history, the wars of Arthur. Describing the hero as warrior rather than king, the chapter lists twelve key battles in which the ever victorious Arthur challenges the Saxon dominance of mainland Britain, leading the kings of the Britons on account of his superior military prowess. The impression of historical veracity is heightened by Nennius’s naming of the specific site of each campaign, knowledge perhaps drawn from a Bardic poem. One is fought at the river Glein, four at the river Dubglas, one at the river Bassas, one at the forest of Celidon, another at the fort of Guinnion, the ninth at the city of the Legion, the tenth at the river Tribuit, the eleventh on the mountain Agned, and the twelfth on Badon Hill.

Nennius elaborates on two of the battles, describing how at the battle of Fort Guinnion Arthur carried an image of the blessed Virgin Mary on his shield while at the battle of Badon Hill no fewer than 960 men met their deaths at Arthur’s hand. If this latter detail reflects Nennius’s receptivity to more fantastic traditions concerning Arthur, he includes two more such details in his appendix of Mirabilia or “Wonders.” His account here of two Arthurian marvels establishes that Arthur was already a legendary figure by the early 9th c. First to be described is the Carn Cafal, a stone bearing the paw-print of Arthur’s dog, Cafal. Nennius recounts how the impression was taken when hound and master were embarked on a hunt for the boar Twrch Trwyth and how the stone, if removed, will always mysteriously return to the cairn that Arthur himself assembled. The second marvel concerns the tomb of Amr, Arthur’s son. Nennius’s elliptical reference tells how Amr was killed and buried by Arthur himself and how his tomb mysteriously alters in proportion each time it is measured. The chronicler even attests, “I have tried it myself.” Despite its brevity the text makes a substantial contribution to later Arthurian tradition, forming a principal source for GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH’s Historia Regum Britanniae that significantly amplifies Nennius’s Arthurian material. Details such as Arthur’s bearing of an image of the Virgin Mary on his shield and his exaggerated military prowess are developed by Geoffrey and throughout later Arthurian tradition. While Nennius’s casual blending of myth and history limits the value of his text for those seeking an historical Arthur, it is suggestive that certain of the battle sites listed have been successfully identified while the historicity of the battle of Badon, if not its victor, is confirmed by the mid-6th-c. historian Gildas.


Bibliography Barber, R., King Arthur in Legend and History (1973); Fletcher, R. H., The Arthurian Material in the Chronicles (1906; rev. ed., 1966); Morris J., ed. and trans., N.: British History and the Welsh Annals (1980)

Roger Dalrymple

© 2006 The Continuum International Publishing Group, Ltd

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