Prophetia Merlini

John of Cornwall
  • Latin
  • Cornish texts

Latin poem (139 hexametric lines) on Merlin and his prophecies, written by John of Cornwall in the middle of the 12th century, or somewhat later, in response to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of the same subject. In the introduction, John dedicates his work to his patron, Robert Warelwast (d. 1155), bishop of Exeter, or his succcessor Robert of Chichester (d. 1160?), and puts forward the claim that he is drawing on an independent Cornish source for his text. The text is accompanied by a prose commentary, notably including glosses in a variety of Brittonic, possibly Cornish, the origin and nature of which has been subject to some debate.

John of Cornwall
John of Cornwall
(d. in/after 1198)
Theologian and author.

See more
Warelwast (Robert)
Warelwast (Robert)
(d. 1155)
Bishop of Exeter (elected in 1137, consecrated in 1138), a nephew of his predecessor William (de) Warelwast and previously archdeacon of Exeter; educated at Laon.

See more
Robert of Chichester
Robert of Chichester
(d. 1160?)
Bishop of Exeter (elected and consecrated in 1155) in succession to Robert (de) Warelwast; previously a canon of London in Islington and dean of Salisbury.

See more
Bartholomew [bishop of Exeter]
Bartholomew ... bishop of Exeter
(d. 1184)
Bishop of Exeter and theologian, who was born in Normandy, studied in Canterbury (possibly Paris prior to that) and was archdeacon of Exeter before being elected bishop.

See more
(patronage)The Venerabilis R. presul Exoniensis addressed in the dedication to the poem is usually taken to refer to either Robert (de) Warelwast, bishop of Exeter (1138–1155), or his successor, Robert of Chichester (1155–c.1160), who is sometimes confused with his namesake. Another suggestion is that R. is, in fact, a copying error for B. and originally referred to Bartholomew, who was bishop of Exeter between 1161 and 1184. The reading given in support of this is a possible allusion to the death of Conan IV, duke of Brittany, in 1171.
f. 1r–4r
rubric: ‘Johannis Cornubiensis Prophetia Merlini’
beg. ‘Venerabilis R(oberte) Presul Exoniensis [preface] … Eure, tuum nostris extyrpat germen ab hortis [poem] … Eure et cetera [commentary]’
Unique copy of the text, with marginal and interlinear glosses.
  • Latin
Middle of the 12th century, or 1171 x 1184.


Cornish textsCornish texts


(time-frame ass. with King Arthur)
magician in Arthurian legend; primarily a creation of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who appears to have based his character on the prophet Myrddin as well as Ambrosius Aurelianus.

See more


Primary sources Text editions and/or modern translations – in whole or in part – along with publications containing additions and corrections, if known. Diplomatic editions, facsimiles and digital image reproductions of the manuscripts are not always listed here but may be found in entries for the relevant manuscripts. For historical purposes, early editions, transcriptions and translations are not excluded, even if their reliability does not meet modern standards.

[ed.] Curley, Michael J., “A new edition of John of Cornwall’s Prophetia Merlini”, Speculum 57 (1982): 217–249.
[tr.] Flobert, Pierre, “La Prophetia Merlini de Jean de Cornwall”, Études Celtiques 14:1 (1974, 1974–1975): 31–41.
Persée – fasc. 1: <link> Persée – fasc. 2: <link>
Modern translation into French
[ed.] Greith, Carl Johann, Spicilegium Vaticanum: Beiträge zur nähern Kenntniss der Vatikanischen Bibliothek für deutsche Poesie des Mittelalters, Frauenfeld: C. Beyel, 1838. <link> View in Mirador
99–106 (transcription), 92–99 (discussion)

Secondary sources (select)

Faletra, Michael A., “Merlin in Cornwall: the source and contexts of John of Cornwall’s Prophetia Merlini”, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 111:3 (July, 2012): 304–338.
Padel, O. J., “Evidence for oral tales in medieval Cornwall”, Studia Celtica 40 (2006): 127–153.
Padel, O. J., “Geoffrey of Monmouth and the development of the Merlin legend”, Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 51 (Summer, 2006): 37–65.
Crick, Julia C., “Geoffrey of Monmouth, prophecy and history”, Journal of Medieval History 18:4 (1992): 357–371.  
Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain is widely considered to have transgressed the historiographical canons of his time. The work provides a lengthy and detailed account of a prehistoric period for which no history in any currently accepted sense can be written. Among Geoffrey's greater departures from historical credibility is his championship of two mythical figures, Arthur and Merlin, both of whom are given a central place in his History. In this article, the author considers the evidence for the reception of Merlin's Prophecies and its implications for the reception of the history in which they were located. Besides reviewing the testimony of twelfth-century authors who used or criticised the Prophecies, she looks at commentaries on the Prophecies, both published and unpublished, written by contemporaries. She concludes that the Prophecies were attacked not because of any perceived historical inaccuracy but primarily because of political considerations. Indeed, the presence of Merlin's Prophecies at the heart of the History served to enhance its credibility and validity.
Flobert, Pierre, “La Prophetia Merlini de Jean de Cornwall”, Études Celtiques 14:1 (1974, 1974–1975): 31–41.
Persée – fasc. 1: <link> Persée – fasc. 2: <link>
Fleuriot, Léon, “Les fragments du texte brittonique de la Prophetia Merlini”, Études Celtiques 14 (1974): 43–56.
Rathbone, Eleanor, “John of Cornwall: a brief biography”, Recherches de théologie ancienne et médiévale 17 (1950): 46–60.
Dennis Groenewegen
Page created
July 2015, last updated: January 2024