Aaron Thompson's Translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britannie

In 1718, Aaron Thompson published the first English translation of Geoffrey's Historia. His lengthy preface spent a great deal of time addressing the question of the truth of Geoffrey's account, particularly with respect to the story of the Trojan origins of Britain. Thompson based his translation on the Latin edition printed by Jerome Commelin in Heidelberg in 1587. Thompson's translation was updated by J.A. Giles in 1848: it is this updated version which is available online through In Parentheses. This page collects some images from the 1718 printing.

Datur haec venia antiquitati, ut miscendo humana divinis, primordia urbium augustiora faciat. (This latitude is granted to antiquity, that by mixing human affairs with divine, it makes the first origins of cities more august)

The epigraph Thompson has chosen for his translation is drawn from the preface to Livy's Ab urbe condita. Titus Livius (c. 59 BC - 17 AD) was a Roman historian. Ab urbe condita (From the founding of the City) is his massive history of Rome, from the time of its founding. Like Geoffrey, Livy begins with an account of the role of Trojan refugees in founding the city/ nation. The small image below shows the first English translation of Livy's history, printed in 1600.

Click here to go to The Perseus Digital Library at Tufts University: in the Texts section, you will find both a Latin edition and an English translation of Livy's history (as well as an amazing collection of texts, images, and study tools related to the classical world).


"The most ancient Historians, those especially that treat of the Original of any Nation, will always preserve their just Value among the Curious, however simple and void of Ornament their Relations of Matters may be. And though modern Writers may deliver the same Accounts, with greater Accuracy of Judgment, and such Politeness of Stile, as is more agreeable to the Taste of their own Times; yet in all Matters of Testimony, the Original and most ancient Historians will constantly be esteemed and referred to as most authentick. The most ancient Writer now extant of the Affairs of this Nation is undoubtedly Cesar, who wanted no Qualifications that form a perfect Historian, and especially with Respect / to the Majesty, Politeness and Simplicity of his Stile, is not inferiour to any Author whatsoever, whether ancient or modern...."

Thompson goes on to point out that Caesar's attention was limited to his military campaigns. The "ancientest book now extant" to give an account of the rest of early Britain's history is now scarce, and "besides that the Stile of the Latin Translation of it by Jeffrey of Monmouth, which is the only one yet published, is barbarous and in many Places obscure" (pp. ii-iii).


You can see below (p. iv) that, like Geoffrey, Thompson writes that he made his translation in response to the urgings of friends.


Note what Thompson has to say above about Merlin: "Merlins Prophesy, for the Nonsense and unintelligible Jargon it contains, should have been omitted, but that Jeffrey has so connected it with the History, that the Thred of the Story would not be entire without it" (p. v).
Above to the left you see the opening of the Historia; to the right is the opening of the Prophecies of Merlin section. Notice how this section is presented, in terms of design, in ways which separate it visually from the rest of the text: in addition to the display letter (a feature common throughout this edition for the book openings), there is a separate title, in larger type than the title which designates this as "The Seventh Book." Below you see a sample of how the prophecies section is printed.  

Thompson's translation included an index of people and places: the entry opposite shows his reaction to the means by which Arthur was conceived:

Arthur is conceived in Adultery by his Mother Igerna being imposed upon.



If you are interested in learning more about early printed books, here are some links to get you started.

EEBO, Early English books online, a database to which our Library subscribes; it contains images of " virtually every work printed in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and British North America and works in English printed elsewhere from 1473-1700." If this link does not work for you, go to the Library's information page for EEBO to find out how to connect.


Octavo is a commercial producer of CD-ROM versions of rare books. Their website allows you to sample many of their titles online


St. John's College, Cambridge, has a nice online display of its early printed books collection


Early Printed Books on the Web is a page I have created to list the growing number of exhibitions and facsimiles of early books now available online

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©Siân Echard. Not to be copied, used, or revised without explicit written permission from the copyright owner.