WAS LINDISFARNE A BRITTONIC NAVAL BASE IN THE AGE OF ARTHUR?

 

Lindisfarne-0198
Lindisfarne Castle, while only dating to the seventeenth century, overlies older Saxon and perhaps even Brittonic fortifications.

The “Holy Island” of Lindisfarne off the coast of northeastern England is notable for the great monastery established there in the early 7th century, as well as for its most famous expression of Medieval religious art, The Lindisfarne Gospel.[1]  Lindisfarne is also notable for suffering the first recorded Viking attack in 793 A.D., which was preceded, not surprisingly, by the sighting of ferocious dragons in the sky.[2] 

Vikings attack Lindisfarne
A Popular view of the Viking raid on Lindisfarne. via Wikimedia

 

Lindisfarne is not recognized by most modern scholars as having had any military associations tied to its early history, much less naval ones.  However, renewed archaeological interest in Lindisfarne’s early period, coupled with observations made a few years back by Professor Howard Williams, brings to mind some interesting possibilities, which in turn lead us to a suggest a new hypothesis regarding the island’s early history.  Whether this hypothesis will eventually be proven valid or not remains to be seen.

The earliest archaeological evidence of human habitation on Lindisfarne dates to the Late Neolithic era, consisting of a lone stone found out of context with cup-marks on it.  At that period the coastline around Lindisfarne would likely have been far different than from today and, in fact, may not have been an island at all.  Today the “Holy Isle” is a tidal island which can be accessed by land when the tide is out.  Lindisfarne’s relation to sea and shore has doubtless changed several times over the intervening millennia.  Of greater importance for our present concern is Lindisfarne’s geographic proximity to Bamburgh Castle, the royal capital of an Anglian dynasty during the Late Brittonic (or Early Saxon) Period. Lindisfarne was within eyesight of Bamburgh and the relationship between the Northern Anglian dynasty’s royal seat and the island was clearly one of long standing, both religiously and politically.

Bamburgh Castle from beadh Wikimedia 2006
Bamburgh Castle viewed from the beach is within direct eyesight of Lindisfarne. Before becoming an Anglian stronghold, it would have been under Brittonic control.

 

Throughout most of its history, Lindisfarne has been seen in the context of it as a holy place and monastic center.  But there is evidence that it has served a far more secular role in the past as well.  In 2001, the Time Team conducted brief three-day investigation of Lindisfarne, concentrating on sites referred to as “the Priory” and “the Palace.”  Most of their finds from this short survey were of post-Medieval date, but what they discovered was relevant to our present line of inquiry.  The “Palace,” it turns out, was a tavern with an adjacent brew-house and in all likelihood was part of a 16th century naval station.  Similarly, the “Priory” was probably a naval barracks, where definite evidence was found for it having been used to house military supplies, including solid shot for cannon.  The Time Team also uncovered evidence of an earthwork near The Priory, as well as a lost angular bulwark.  A nearby field, today dry land, would have been a tidal basin at that time and was probably a part of the sixteenth century naval station.  All in all, while the Time Team did find assorted Medieval finds (mostly shards of pottery) they determined that, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries at least, Lindisfarne was “the Portsmouth of the North.[3]

The geographic location of Lindisfarne in far northeastern England made it ideally suited as a place from which Elizabethan fleets might sail out to defend against incursions from both Scotland or from across the North Sea, or indict enemies sailing north from the English Channel; its strategic location would have made it equally useful as a naval base in earlier eras as well.  This fundamental geographic reality of Lindisfarne has not escaped the attention of other scholars, despite the dearth of written sources on the subject.  Professor Williams, in his essay, “Lindisfarne’s Landscape and Seascape,” points out that Lindisfarne’s natural harbor on the south shore, coupled with its proximity to the Angle fortress of Bamburgh, would have made it a “key maritime central place” in the seventh and eighth centuries.[4]

Lindisfarne Castle, while looking suitably Medieval to the modern eye, in fact only dates to the seventeenth century, but the castle is located on a large outcropping of rock with clear visibility for miles around and may well have had a genuine military installation atop it in ages past, now covered over or erased by later construction.

These inferences regarding Lindisfarne’s early military and naval importance, throw the infamous Viking attack on the “Holy Island” in an entirely new light.  To be sure, the pious monks with their silver and gold would have been easy targets for the wolves of the sea; but what if the Viking raid had a sound military purpose as well?  A swift, sudden attack on the main Saxon naval base of the north, putting their northern fleet to the torch while it sat at anchor helpless and unmanned, would in one bold blow have shattered Anglo-Saxon maritime defenses and exposed the entire eastern coast of England open to numerous smaller plunder raids.

Without the northern fleet to ward off even these lesser blows, larger Viking raids were inevitable.  The Danes, it should be remembered, invaded Britain from the northeast, of which the attack on Lindisfarne was the opening gambit.  For English chroniclers, steeped in the ethos of a warrior culture, it would have been far less humiliating to record the butchery of pious unarmed monks at the monastery and conveniently omit from their chronicle the fact that the pride of the Saxon navy had been caught unawares and butchered at anchor with sails furled.

Although the Viking raid in 793 may be the first detailed mention of Lindisfarne, we know that it was a thriving place long before that and that there may yet be archaeological evidence of it having had a military function long before the Viking Age.  A new archaeological investigation of Lindisfarne is currently being undertaken, and while only preliminary results are available, the Dig Ventures expedition has already uncovered some interesting finds.  The new expedition is specifically tasked with looking for “Early Medieval” finds, presumably those associated with the monastery established there by St. Aidan in 635.  Among the sites being investigated was a structure called the “Holy Island Heugh” where their first season uncovered the foundation of a massive 25m. wide wall.  The Heugh is a rocky spine of high ground which seemed to protect the monastery from storms coming out of the North Sea; Lindisfarne Castle is built along another such outcropping to the east.[5]  Among some of the small finds from the first season were numerous indicators of early maritime activity, although none specifically naval.[6]

Brian Hope-Taylor in 1962 had determined that the Heugh was scattered with buildings of an early date, so it was a logical site for the present-day excavators to investigate.  Opening a trench on the Heugh, the Dig Ventures team uncovered the massive 25 meter wall; its lack of mortar suggests to them a pre-Norman date, while its size and structure point to it being a tower.  Such a massive construction argues strongly for it being more than simply a “signal tower” and likely served a military purpose.[7]

The military installation on the Lindisfarne Heugh (if such it was) is thought to be of early Saxon date which, if proven true, strongly supports Professor Williams theory regarding Lindisfarne being a Bernician and then a Northumbrian naval base.  But Lindisfarne’s strategic value surely was not only appreciated by the Anglian kings of Benicia; before the area fell under their rule Lindisfarne would have been an important port in the Brittonic Period—an era popularly associated with the Arthurian post-Roman state.  Is there any evidence which can point to a pre-Saxon phase at Lindisfarne and nearby Bamburgh?

Towards the end of the sixth century, a war broke out between the newly established Kingdom of Bernicia, ruled by Theodoric, versus a coalition of Celtic British kings (and a few Irish as well) led by the famous (or infamous) Urien of Rheged.  Bamburgh was taken by a force of the Dalriada Scots, while British armies overran the rest of the upstart Saxon kingdom.  Overwhelmed by superior forces, Theodoric retreated to Ynys Metcaut—the Celtic British name for Lindisfarne.  Although, as with most events of the Brittonic Period, dating is fluid for this campaign the best estimate puts it sometime around AD 590.[8]

The Anglian dynasty of Bernicia would surely have fallen had not Urien been assassinated at the instigation of one of his own sub-kings.  As it was, the siege (or blockade, depending on the translation) of Ynys Metcaut lasted three days and three nights.  Nennius’ text is a bit obscure in this passage and it is not entirely certain whether the siege/blockade of Lindisfarne was raised due to Urien’s death or whether he was perhaps murdered later because of his failure to take the island citadel. In any case, it is clear from the passage that Ynys Metcaut was a military stronghold of some sort and the possibility that there was naval component to the siege is at least implied; whether Urien’s siege was raised by the timely arrival of a Saxon fleet is purely speculative but not unreasonable given the island’s history and geography.

Two ships at sea from Arthurian MS in British Library
Medieval Arthurian MS showing two sailing vessels at sea.

 

All this occurred in the late sixth century, after the unified Brittonic state of the fifth century had disintegrated into separate successor realms governed by competing Celtic warlords, with each seeking hegemony—both over each other and over the Saxon realms that also arose in this era.

Going farther back into the past of this region, when a Celtic Overking or Ameradaur still held sway over most of what had been the Roman diocese of Britannia, it is generally acknowledged that the first Germanic settlers did not come as conquerors, but had been settled as foederati under Octha, military auxiliaries recruited by the British Overking to defend the area against both Picts and less friendly Saxons who might come raiding across the North Sea. They initially replaced Cunedda’s warband of the southern Votadini, who had been dispatched to Wales to deal with the Irish threat there.  While the exact date of the settlement of the first Germanic federates is, again, a moot point, a date in the early to mid fifth century is not unreasonable.

Late Roman early Brittonic warriors & sailors
Late Roman/Early Brittonic Warriors and Sailors, such as might have garrisoned Dinas Guayardi and Ynys Metcaut in the fifth century.

 

It was not until the mid to late sixth century that Ida is believed to have moved north from the Anglian colony of Deira (the Celtic Deywr) and established, probably by force, his headquarters at the former Brittonic stronghold of Din (or Dinas) Guayardi—Bamburgh.[9]  Din Guayardi could well have begun as a Roman signal station in the fourth century or earlier; as a rocky outcropping which guarded the mouth of a river, it also made a natural location for a later Brittonic citadel.  It is believed to have been the capitol of the Brittonic kingdom of Bryneich from the late fifth into the mid sixth century, up until Ida’s revolt. If Lindisfarne was not already a naval base before Ida’s arrival, it would certainly have been so after.

Celtic Sailing Vessel based on Guernsey Ship, artist's reconstruction, Guernsey Museum
Artist’s reconstruction of the Guernsey Ship, a sailing vessel of Celtic style construction.

While the early history of Lindisfarne remains but dimly understood, the geography and topography of Lindisfarne, Ynys Metcaut, would not have changed radically between the late fifth and early seventh centuries, nor would the island’s strategic relationship to northern Britain have changed during that time.  The first garrison could have been Celtic British, superseded by a Saxon garrison in the employ of a local Romano-Celtic polity before Ida’s outright break with his Celtic neighbors.  In any case, the use of Lindisfarne as a naval base would have been the logical outcome of its location under both Brittonic and Anglian rule.

At the present time, despite its fame, its long history and successive archaeological surveys, the systematic investigation of Lindisfarne is just beginning.  Moreover, to date little or no underwater archaeology has been conducted around the island to supplement investigations on land.   While current investigations are concerned with the early Saxon period (largely with seventh century remains), which are scarce enough, one would hope excavators would keep their eyes—and minds—open for earlier Brittonic occupation levels.

We know the Brittonic period favored wooden architecture over stone, so the evidence in the ground may consist of little more than discolorations in the soil where post-holes once lay; it may also be that the post-Roman Brittonic occupation levels were scraped clean by successive construction and reconstruction on the island and that such evidence is absent entirely.  Still, excavators should be made aware of the possibility of their existence, as the subtle testimony of the soil can be easily overlooked or ignored, as it has been on many other sites in the past.

If it is proven that Lindisfarne possessed an early Saxon era naval installation, it inevitably follows that Lindisfarne would have served a similar role in the preceding era.  Reinvestigation of previous sites thought to have had no post-Roman occupation are more and more showing evidence of continuity from the Roman period onward; the whole concept of an “Anglo-Saxon Invasion” has been called into question by a growing number of scholars.[10]  Future careful investigations of the “Holy Island” may yet reveal that Lindisfarne had an as yet undocumented Brittonic Era presence and verify its use as a Dark Age naval base.

 

[1] Janet Backhouse, The Lindisfarne Gospels, (Oxford: Phaidon, 1981).

[2] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, A.D. 793:

[3] “Holy Island, Lindisfarne” Time Team, S08, Ep09 (2001): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4v4E8zUWA1A

[4] Howard Williams, “Lindisfarne’s Landscape and Seascape,” Archaeodeath Blog, July 10, 2014: https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2014/07/10/lindisfarne/comment-page-1/

[5] Dig Ventures. Site Diary: “Tools Down” June 27, 2016: https://digventures.com/lindisfarne/timeline/diary/site-diary-tools-down/

[6] Dig Ventures. Site Diary: “A Whale’s Tale” June 18th 2016: https://digventures.com/lindisfarne/timeline/diary/4339/

[7] “Archaeologist’s Find St. Cuthbert’s Tower” Berwick Advertiser, July 12, 2016: http://www.berwick-advertiser.co.uk/news/archaeologists-find-st-cuthbert-s-tower-1-4175447

[8] Nennius, Historia Brittonum, cap.63; the syntax of this passage is somewhat garbled; the way it is phrased makes it uncertain as to whether the Bernician King in question was Theodoric or Hussa. For the war and Urien in general, see John Morris, The Age of Arthur, (NY: Scribers, 1973), 232-237; also see Peter Marren, Battles of the Dark Ages, (Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 1988), 60-61.

[9] Anglos-Saxon Chronicle, AD 547. All early dates in the ASC were assigned by later editors and for the fifth and sixth centuries are highly suspect.  For a discussion of the etymology of the place name Lindisfarne and the origin of the Saxon  presence in Bernicia, see Caitlin GreenLindisfarne, the Lindisfaran and the Origins of Anglos Saxon Northumbria” Britons and Anglos-Saxons, Lincolnshire AD 400-650 (Lincoln: History of Lincolnshire Committee, 2012), Chap. 6 235-265.  At least one scholar would put Ida’s revolt against his British overlords at 575; see Donald Henson, “The Early Kings of Bernicia” Academia.Edu (2008):

[10] Dr. Francis Pryor, in his Britain AD (BBC TV Channel 4, 2004), described it as “The Invasion That Never Was,” while other scholars, though more circumspect, also emphasize British continuity over discontinuity.  See, for example Howard Williams, “Forgetting the Britons in Victorian Anglo-Saxon Archaeology” in Nicholas Higham, Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, (Woodbridge, Boydell, 2007) Chapter 3, 27-41; Christopher A. Snyder, “A Gazetteer of Sub-Roman Britain (AD 400-600): The British sites.” Internet Archaeology, (3). (Council for British Archaeology, 1997).

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Germanus & St. Collen. The Beginnings of Independent Britain Part II

 

Germanus leads the British troops to victory by reciting scripture. Over a month of training and reinforcements from elsewhere in Britain also helped.
Germanus leads the British troops to victory by reciting scripture. Over a month of training and reinforcements from elsewhere in Britain also helped.

Germanus and the Beginnings of Independent Britain II: Germanus and St. Collen

In the previous essay on Germanus of Auxerre, we asserted the basic historicity of Constantius’ hagiography of the famous Gaulish bishop and while wishing the biographer had been more detailed when it came to his account of the bishop’s sojourn in Britain, I think there is now a general consensus that, as inconvenient as it is for some versions of modern historian’s reconstruction of fifth century British history, his visit in AD 428/429 is fundamentally historical.

Dinas Bran, with the Dee flowing below (1798) by J M W Turner. This was the citadel of Comes Brennius who was likely the commander of the Romano-Britons along the western borders in the early fifth century. It was also the site of the Alleluia Victory in 429 AD.
Dinas Bran, with the Dee flowing below (1798) by J M W Turner. This was the citadel of Comes Brennius who was likely the commander of the Romano-Britons along the western borders in the early fifth century. It was also the site of the Alleluia Victory in 429 AD.

I would, however, question Constantius’ basic premise that Germanus’ visit to the British Isles was solely a pastoral visit, to correct what he asserts were heretical beliefs in the British Church.  That may well have been the official cover story at the time, but we should remember that large numbers of former Roman Army officers became clergymen during the fifth century—or at least were later remembered as such.  Moreover, on the continent we have a number of documented cases where the local bishops and other clerics concerned themselves with political and military affairs, organizing and leading the resistance to barbarians, while what passed for Imperial officialdom at that time either fled, cowered in their beds or made common cause with the invaders.  It was a time when the best and the brightest in the Roman Army and government were joining the Catholic Church.  Unspoken in this movement was, perhaps, the utter disgust on the part of many civic minded Romans with the Imperial government in the West.

So, when the former Dux Tractus Armoricani et Nervicani, who would have had the equivalent command in Gaul as the Comes Litus Saxonum in Britain, came to visit Britannia, we may question how much of his tour of the realm was pastoral and how much military-political.

A view of the vale of Llangollan from the commanding heights of Dinas Bran
A view of the vale of Llangollan from the commanding heights of Dinas Bran

Another issue, touched on previously, was exactly where Germanus obtained an army to defeat the barbarian armies rampaging unchecked on the west coast.  Certainly Germanus would have tried to scrape together whatever remnants were left after their previous commander, Comes Brennius/Bran, lost his head in a punitive expedition to Ireland.  However, in analyzing the locale where the battle allegedly occurred, I find there is also a hint as to where Germanus may have obtained further reinforcements.

Llangollan is a quaint village located at a strategic crossing of the River Dee, just below a strategic pass, with an imposing fort overlooking the entire vale.  It’s doubtful that it was all that much different in the fifth century.  As is the custom in Welsh, when one combines words to form a toponym, a consonant or syllable will be modified to create the amalgamated word.  Thus Llangollan is derived from two words: Lllan + Collen.  Llan is a common toponym indicating the location of a church or abbey; St. Collen is an obscure Welsh saint very poorly represented even in the Celtic areas of Britain and about whom only a few Dark Age myths are told.  These myths, however, provide hints as to who the alleged saint really may have been.

The "Green Bishop" of St. Collen Church, Llangollan, which is about as realistic a portrait as the stories about him.
The “Green Bishop” of St. Collen Church, Llangollan, which is about as realistic a portrait as the stories about him.

Ostensibly, St. Collen settled in the vicinity of Llangollen some time in the early sixth century or early seventh century (chronology is very fluid when it comes to Dark Age saints).  In a future entry I will go into more detail regarding a similar Dark Age “saint” named Padarn, aka Paternus, who, it turns out, was in fact really a Roman or Post-Roman military commander.  I propose that the real St. Collen was similarly a Roman or Post-Roman officer active in the first half of the fifth century.

According to the often confusing and sometimes bizarre hagiographies, St. Collen had connections with Orleans in Gaul and Langolen in Brittany; he was apparently a soldier at some point, since he ostensibly fought in single combat at the behest of the Pope against a barbarian king, whose tribe converted to Christianity after being defeated by Collen.  Collen returned to Britain and then at one point was living—or posted as an officer—at Glastonbury Tor, where he had a supernatural encounter with the lord of the underworld.  Later, when he sought to become a hermit at Llangollen, he again had to fight a “giant.”  Apparently this peace-loving saint engaged in quite a few military contests in his spiritual wanderings.  All of which seems to contradict his pacific calling as cleric.

Diploma of the Dux Britanniarum, who in the early fifth century would have been Coel Hen
Diploma of the Dux Britanniarum, who in the early fifth century would have been Coel Hen

While all these tales should be taken with more than a grain of salt, what I would take away from them a core truth that the obscure saint had a more a military than contemplative background.  Only a few churches were ever dedicated to this obscure saint, whose very existence as an actual saint I aver is questionable.

In truth, the name Collen is about the only thing about the saint I would take as being completely reliable, for Collen is one of the many variant spellings for the famed fifth century military leader best known as Coel Hen–our modern “Old King Cole.”  Other variant spellings for this  once famous leader are Kyle, Colling, Coyll, Cullen and probably a few others that have yet to be recognized.  Although precious little factual information is known about Coel, scholars are reasonably certain that he was the “last Roman commander of the northern British defenses”—or Dux Britanniarum, who held command of the garrisons along Hadrian’s wall and the allied federate detachments on either side of it.  The fact that Coel is mentioned as the founder of a number of northern kingdoms points to the fact that he was not only the “last” Roman commander of the north but also the first British commander of the northern defenses.

Brittonic cavalry smiting the barbarians, ca fifth century AD
Brittonic cavalry smiting the barbarians, ca fifth century AD

If, around 428-429, the western defenses in Britain were seriously threatened by a large barbarian alliance invading from out of the Irish Sea, it is not unreasonable that not only would the unified British government recruit Germanus to take command there, but also draw on troops from the northern command to reinforce the failing western frontier defenses.  The forty days of Lent would certainly have been ample time to bring up reinforcements and supplies with which to counter the barbarian invasion.  While Germanus may indeed have been appointed Dux Prolil by Emperor Vitalinus (Vortigern), I would posit that Coel Hen would have served as Germanus’ second in command at the Alleluia Victory, in charge of the northern troops brought down to aid in the campaign for the western marches.

Of course, when it comes to reconstructing fifth century British history, most of what passes for established fact is really just a series of inferences buttressed by speculation with a smattering of highly speculative etymologies thrown in to sound authoritative; but I would assert that positing Collen as Coel/Colling is as reasonable an inference as any–and consistent with the known facts.  It also helps bring what Constantius would have us believe to be a divine miracle into the realm of plausible reality.

Now that we have tidied up these details of Germanus’ first visit, in our next entry will take a closer look at Germanus’ second visit and the questions associated with that as well–issues even more problematical than those surrounding his first visit.

FIRE VS ICE: WHAT ENDED CLASSICAL CIVILIZATION?

Comets have traditionally been looked upon as harbingers of doom. Maybe the folklore is right after all.
Comets have traditionally been looked upon as harbingers of doom. Maybe the folklore is right after all.

“The bay trees in our country are all wither’d,                                                          And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven;                                                              The pale-fac’d moon looks bloody on the earth                                                        And lean-look’d prophets whisper fearful change;”

—-Shakespeare

The decline and fall of the Roman Empire has been much chewed over and discussed by scholars for centuries.  Mostly they debate the causes of its political collapse, but almost as debated is the issue of when Classical civilization ended exactly.  The last nominal emperor in the West was in 476 AD and that is often cited as the dividing line, but in truth the political system was in decline for a long time before that and, as Professor J. B. Bury pointed out in one lecture long ago, when the last puppet emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed, no one in the West imagined that there would not be some figurehead placed on the throne to replace him after a year or so.  Moreover, the status quo of barbarian—Roman relations in the West, as chaotic as it was, remained more or less in place for several generations more.  In the East, the Imperial government went on without a beat and Justinian, is generally regarded as both the first ruler of the Byzantine era and the last emperor of the Roman one.  Yet even the East suffered a massive trauma and near collapse in the sixth century. Ancient civilization did end and the Middle Ages, at least in the West, was a very different period than that which preceded it.  Moreover, it is generally to the middle decades of the sixth century that we look to as the period of transition from one to the other.

Artist's conception of ancient volcano
Artist’s conception of ancient volcano

Now as in all other things in historiography, you will get various parties arguing that there was no ending and no beginning, that the Dark Ages weren’t dark at all and so forth.  Admittedly, because of the lack of survival of many written sources which might otherwise illumine things for us, the period following Classical Civilization demise appears more dismal than it might otherwise be.  But there was a collapse beyond the political one: in mid sixth century we have record of famines and a catastrophic plague which spread across the known world, killing off millions of people—perhaps even more than the Black Death of the late Middle Ages, which led to the end of Medieval Civilization.  But while famine and plague are certainly proximate causes, in recent decades there has been a gradual dawning among some researchers that a singular natural catastrophe triggered these economically and socially disruptive events.

Did Halley's Comet cause the collapse of Classical Civilizaton? Some think so.
Did Halley’s Comet cause the collapse of Classical Civilizaton? Some think so.

This is not an abstraction, nor is it solely based on literary sources which, while some academics tout the virtues of “close linguistic analysis,” often result in the same source being used to prove opposing viewpoints.  In particular, scientists studying ice cores going back many millennia and more recently the assembling of continuous sequences of tree rings dating back into the Neolithic and beyond,  have observed anomalies in the geophysical record around the middle of the sixth century AD which hint at a climatic event of staggering proportions.  This is not theory but scientific fact; it was severe and it lasted a number of years.  It certainly triggered massive famines worldwide and, as a rule, where famines occur plagues are not far behind.

What was this singular event was that triggered a worldwide climatic crisis?  Here’s where it gets a bit dicey; we have the physical evidence, but what the source of the crisis was is more problematical.  Professor Mike Baillie, an Irish dendrochronologist of some standing in the scientific world, first observed that at certain times during the Holocene, tree ring growth has displayed a dramatic change—a change which could only mean that the trees in question suffered a dramatic trauma.  This shift in the tree ring pattern transcends locale: it was noticeable in Irish tree rings, in those from Germany, from the US, as well as other places in the world, all centered around ca. the 630-645 AD time frame.  Ice core samples similarly reflect something really bad going on in the climate about the same time.  Tracking down the villain, Baillie at first considered volcanic activity, which can spew massive amounts of particulate matter into the upper atmosphere; while not entirely discounting this, however, Baillie concluded that rather it was the effect of either an impact, or the near earth grazing, by a large cometary body which triggered this climate disaster which killed millions and ended Classical Civilization.

Professor Mike Baillie, the leading proponent of comet impacts and near misses profoundly altering human history and world climate.
Professor Mike Baillie, the leading proponent of comet impacts and near misses profoundly altering human history and world climate.

Many historians, I gather, have not warmed to his ideas about catastrophic events causing culture change.  Immanuel Velikovsky, back in the 1950’s argued something similar and then proceeded to rewrite history—something historians don’t like.  Well, Velikovsy’s cosmetology was entirely wrong and his theories rightly dismissed.  But Velikovsky did comb through a welter of ancient sources for references to celestial events, many of which became mythologized in the form of fire gods and dragons; and when the hard science began to emerge about comet and asteroids affecting earth in recent times, some (not all) of his citations began to not look so absurd after all.

Catastrophists still reject Velikovsky’s basic premises, but some of the ancient sources he cited have proven of value, even if historians still tend to ignore them as fictitious or as fantasy.  Bear in mind, every year we pass through the debris of various comets—shooting stars we call them—and are mostly harmless.  One such meteor shower, the Draconid, is particularly interesting because dragons are one ancient metaphor for comets.  Now Baillie’s theory of a cometary cause for the mid-sixth century event is not  dependent on am actual impact—although that may have occurred.  A series of earth grazing comets, occurring one after the other, could also spew enough space dust, meteors and Tunguska-like fragments to trigger a prolonged climatic crisis as well.  The proverbial “dirty snowball” of 536AD and ensuing other close calls may well have ended what was left of Classical Civilization.

Dr. Dull and associate inspecting evidence for the 636 AD Ilopongo Eruption.
Dr. Dull and associate inspecting evidence for the 636 AD Ilopongo Eruption.

However, besides the skepticism of academia, in recent years Baillie’s thesis has been challenged, if not discarded, by an archaeologist/anthropologists working in Central America.  Dr. Robert Dull, environmental scientist researching the Classic Maya Collapse, has argued that the dramatic and sudden change which occurred to Mayan Civilization, and posited that a major volcanic eruption in El Salvador is what not only caused the collapse of the Mayans but of Classical Civilization as well.  That a massive eruption occurred was well known: the giant caldera of  Lake Ilopanga exists to prove the event.  Dating, however, was considerably more problematical.  Finally, according to the National Geographic documentary series, Perfect Storms, Prof. Dull did find one carbonized tree trunk which he had analyzed, and which yielded a date close to 636 AD—the approximate time of both the Mayan and the Classical collapses.  Because National Geographic carries far more clout in the media than the obscure scientific journals Prof. Baillie has published in, or the specialized books that Baillie has published on the subject, Dr. Dull’s theory seems have become dominant—at least among anthropologists and the media.

So here we have it: Dull versus Baillie, fire versus ice; but who is correct?  I’m sure there are some academics out there who would say “none of the above;” but before rejecting both out of hand, I would recommend reading Mike Baillie’s Exodus to Arthur, which provides a good summary of his theories up to 1999.  Where Baillie relies on sub Roman British historians for his chronology of the fifth and early century, I’m afraid he is off, but that is not a defect in his ideas, merely of the historiography he relied on to supply him historical dates; where he instead relies on his dendrochronolgy and on ice core evidence, he is at his strongest.  For Dull, the Ilopango eruption is THE cause; while the documentary makes a good case for the Classic Maya Collapse being triggered by the Ilopango supervolcano, the linkage to the Justinian Plague and associated famines is assumed rather than proven.  However, see the “Dark Age Volcano” episode of Perfect Storms, either on the National Geographic Channel or on YouTube:

The way National Geographic weights the evidence, it makes Dull’s thesis seem as though it is the sole explanation of both events.  Moreover, more than ten years before, Prof. Baillie had theorized that cometary events might actually trigger volcanic events; certainly the reverse cannot be true.  So, while Dr. Dull’s arguments seem persuasive, his is not necessarily the only explanation.  The controversy continues and one would hope that a healthy discussion in the future will lead us all closer to the truth.

More recently, scientists analyzing ice core samples with up to date techniques, have found that much of the “stuff” that was deposited ca. 536 AD is extraterrestrial in origin: “I have all this extraterrestrial stuff in my ice core,” study leader Dallas Abbott, of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory opined to LiveScience/Huffington Post in 2013.  While acknowledging that they also found traces of volcanic material also dating to 536, Dr. Abbott said it almost certainly wasn’t big enough to change the climate so dramatically.

Who is correct? My own opinion is that Baillie is on the right track; but that does not necessarily negate Dr. Dull’s research. Unfortunately, while Dr. Baillie has written about his theories extensively, I could not find any academic publicatons by Dull, just articles in the popular media and, of course, the National Geographic documentary. I understand that he presented his theory orally at a meeting of the Association of American Geographers in 2012, but couldn’t find a copy of that lecture or any subsequent paper in print form. Perhaps Dr. Dull’s academic papers are available somewhere and I just haven’t located them.  Or perhaps the geographer has fallen prey to the chronic problem which besets archaeologists: digging and digging and not publishing their findings in a timely manner.  I have, unfortunately, known some distinguished archaeologists who perished before they published.

Comets were called "Broom Stars" by the Chinese, because their appearance meant life tended to be swept away by them.
Comets were called “Broom Stars” by the Chinese, because their appearance meant life tended to be swept away by them.

Regardless, I do believe that from time to time catastrophes of staggering proportion do strike without warning and when they do humans are virtually powerles to change the course of events. While it would be nice to think that the immutable forces of history control the march of events like some great orderly engine, it rather seems that nature’s fickle hand of fate intervenes to jumble things up from time to time for us. At the least, it would be good to learn more about this celestial pinball game before we get behind the eight ball once more, no?

The Real Dance of the Dragons

The Welsh Prophecy of the Two Dragons, attributed to Merlin, is the foundation myth of Britain and may have a factual basis.  From a 15th century copy of Nennius' Historia Brittonum.
The Welsh Prophecy of the Two Dragons, attributed to Merlin, is the foundation myth of Britain and may have a factual basis. From a 15th century copy of Nennius’ Historia Brittonum.

 

In George R. R. Martin’s magnum opus, Songs of Fire and Ice, the latest published volume, A Dance With Dragons, as well as in the similarly named episode of the television series, makes passing reference to a curious tale about a young knight who attempts to slay a dragon by using a polished shield, thinking the dragon will see only its own reflection; the young knight is burned to a crisp for his efforts.  It turns out that this short tale is but part of a much larger fictitious history, called “The Dance of the Dragons, A True Telling” relating to a previous civil war in the realm of Westeros between members of the previous dynasty, the Targaryens.  It turns out that there are various versions of both the knight’s tale and the happenings alluded to in the referenced (non-existent) book.  Although at present a minor part of Martin’s fantasy mythos, the referenced history itself provides a foundational understanding to the later happenings of the realm that Martin has clearly modeled on medieval Great Britain.

As with other elements in his historical fantasy, Martin has borrowed story elements and motifs from actual British history and rewove them into his sub-creation which has now become a best selling phenomenon.  Although it plays but a minor role in his epic, it is not hard to see that it is heavily influenced by the semi-legendary real foundation myth of the Britain.  As one of Martin’s characters relates, the dragons (actually personifications of the warring members of the Targaryen dynasty) are not really “dancing” so much as warring with one another.  In this regard, the allegory is much closer to its British archetype than I think either fans of Martin, or academic historians of Dark Age Britain, may be willing to concede.

In Nennius’ Historia Brittonum and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, after the massacre of the Elders of Britain and uprising of the Saxons, the discredited monarch Vortigern retreats westward fearing both rebellious subjects and the mutinous Saxons and decides to build a castle with his remaining loyal followers at Dinas Emrys in Wales.  However, the masons are continually thwarted, as whatever they construct during the day is mysteriously undone at night.  Vortigern’s “wise men” tell him that a human sacrifice is needed to undue the magic spell cursing the site where he is trying to build a stronghold.  A boy born without any human father must be killed and his blood sprinkled over the site.  In due course such a child is found, but as he is about to be slaughtered he astounds the King and counselors with his own prophetic vision.

Another medieval illustration of the "Dance of the Dragons" as rendered in Nennius.  Egerton 3028 BM ms.
Another medieval illustration of the “Dance of the Dragons” as rendered in Nennius. Egerton 3028 BM ms.

The wunderkind proclaims that only he can solve the mystery of the collapsing castle.  He instructs the kingsmen to dig into the ground, where they uncover a pond; he then instructs them to drain the pond, where they uncover two dragons, red and white, who proceed to duel one another.  The astonishing vision is explained by the prophetic child as symbolic of Britain: the Red Dragon represents the Welsh, the white one the Saxons and the two “dragons” will fight for possession of the land of Britain until the Red Dragon at last vanquishes the White, but not after much bloodshed and destruction.  Such, in short is the tale, although Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth and others disagree on a number of details.

Not surprisingly, historians have dismissed the story as utter nonsense, labeling Nennius’ entire history as “pseudo-history” and Geoffrey’s—well they never did have much faith in Geoffrey of Monmouth as a historian anyway.  While clearly framed in mytho-poetical terms, the story relates some basic historical realities, albeit much disguised and distorted; however, that is beyond our main point here.  The Prophecy of the Two Dragons as related by Welsh tradition is in fact the basic foundation myth of Great Britain and as such transcends whatever historical realities which may be disguised in the story.  In later times it would be referenced again and again to cite one faction or claimant’s legitimacy, or lack thereof.  Not surprisingly, when Henry Tudor (or to give the Welsh spelling, Twdwr) fought at the Battle of Bosworth Field, he carried not the English St. George’s cross into battle, but rather the Red Dragon of Wales as his battle standard.  So as not to leave any doubt about his partisanship for the Welsh cause, Henry (in English terms Henry VII) named his first son Arthur, so that, as the ancient Welsh prophecy foretold, Arthur would once day rule again over a united Britain.  Unfortunately, though Henry VII ended the English Civil War—the War of the Roses—Arthur did not become king again, and the Welsh prophecy remains to be fulfilled.

It is easy enough to dismiss the Prophecy of the Two Dragons as pure fantasy, like George Martin’s works; but Welsh legends and myth generally have a factual basis, if one is willing to spend some time unraveling the entangled truth (most academics are not so inclined) and, more importantly, this legend has had a far deeper cultural impact on British history than any historical details which may be gleaned from it.  At a later date I may detail the historical background underlying the Legend of the Two Dragons, although it is convoluted and bound to stir disagreement as to interpretation; but for now let us just appreciate the foundation myth as myth and George R. R. Martin’s creative appropriation of it

Germanus and the Beginnings of Independent Britain

Germanus Auxerre

Germanus of Auxerre’s Life, writen by Constantius of Lyon around 480 or so, stands as an important document for the study of post Roman Britain—more properly the Brittonic Period or Age of Arthur.  As such, one wishes it were more detailed regarding his two trips to the Misty Isles.  Not surprisingly when it comes to any source relating to our knowledge of fifth century Britain that conflicts with their a priori assumptions, the Minimalists have been hard at work erasing the blackboard, as it were, and trying to “debunk” it as a legitimate source of history.  Fortunately, unlike their take-down of other important sources and personalities, the academic community does not seem to have gone so willingly into that good night when it comes to Germanus and his main biographer.

As noted in a previous blog essay, saint’s lives in general have a reputation for unreliability and alleged fabrication, their goal being mainly to fortify the soul and strengthen the faith and not to relate political or military history.  While we’re at it, we should also note that, despite the Minimalists’ attempts to enshrine Gildas De Excidio as the prime source for fifth century history, the same criticism could—should—be leveled at his essay.  A homily is an argumentative essay intended to prove a spiritual point and while, like the saint’s lives, one may often extract historical tidbits from it in passing, that was not its intended function when written.  That the Venerable Bede also misused Gildas’ work for polemical purposes has given later generations of historians ever since the green light to do so as well.  That saint’s vitas are often peppered with miraculous events often causes modern reductionist scholars to reject them out of hand as well and of course Constantius’ vita is no different in this regard.  So before I go into criticizing Germanus and his biographers, let me start out by defending them.

 

Germanus as portrayed in the movie Arthur, about the only aspect of the movie that reflected historical reality.
Germanus as portrayed in the movie Arthur, about the only aspect of the movie that reflected historical reality.

Insofar as the miraculous events in Constantius’ vita go, while they are supernatural in nature, when shorn of their supernatural veneer they are far less fantastic than many such hagiographies.  While crossing from Gaul to Britain, (chapter 13), the ship Germanus and his companions are in is hit by a terrible storm, roused up by demons who were angered at the presence of the pious bishop on the open sea.  Apparently Germanus, who as a former soldier, was not easily panicked, decided to take a nap at that point below decks.  The storm got even worse and both sailors and passengers were terrified and the vessel was “navigated by prayer and not by muscles.”  Bishop Lupus, who was also along on the mission, woke Germanus and implored him to intervene.  Germanus, in god’s name, chided the ocean for misbehaving and then, presumably reaching for his chrism bottle which was part of a priest’s stock and trade, anointed the violent seas, calming it with soothing prayers to heaven.  The demons of the air were defeated and the winds calmed and became favorable and the currents of the sea also became cooperative and the ship arrived in Britain without further incident.

 

St. Germanus Calms the Tempest fresco from Vizelay.
St. Germanus Calms the Tempest fresco from Vizelay.

Now, on the face of it, that a ship at sea should run into foul weather is not all that unusual.  Presumably, the voyage was undertaken sometime in the winter or early spring of 428/29 and storms descending from out of the north would not have been all that unusual.  That the English Channel (as it’s called today) should be hazardous to ships is no surprise: during the D-Day Invasion in 1944 the invading fleet ran afoul of one bad storm; the Spanish Armada in Queen Elizabeth’s day was broken up and destroyed by another, lacking a saintly bishop to intervene on their behalf.  The bit about pouring oil on the sea to calm it is also not so fantastic: we have records of it being done in the nineteenth century, so it is a folk belief of great longevity—whether or not it was of any practical benefit.  That Constantius is here relating a real event is not to be doubted.

On landing in Britain, Germanus and Lupus engage in public debate with some unnamed supporters of Pelagius’ theology.  A large crowd gathers and according to Constantius, Germanus and Lupus’ eloquence and superior theology win the day, with the populace serving as both spectators and jury.  Germanus had been given a classical Liberal education as a youth, which included the art of rhetoric; he had also studied Roman law, and was well experienced in arguing a case in public.  However, the great success attributed to his public debate (or debates) with the British Pelagians is something that should be taken with a grain of salt.  Constantius was, after all, not going to report a failure or mediocre outcome about his subject.  Historians tend to regard Germanus’ religious mission as less than successful; that the Pelagian clergy and their egalitarian theology still held sway in much of Britain after Germanus’s visit.  Moreover, there is a strong suspicion that despite what Constantius says, that the good clerics mission to Britain had strong political and military overtones and that the religious mission was a cover for a tacitly Imperial Roman diplomatic mission.

 

Diploma of the Dux Tractus Armoricani et Nervicani , the position which Germanus held as Roman officer
Diploma of the Dux Tractus Armoricani et Nervicani , the position which Germanus held as Roman officer

Germanus had been Dux Tractus Armoricani et Nervicani before assuming the role of cleric and as such he exercised military and political power along the coasts of northern Gaul facing Britain.  In Armorica there had been a popular uprising in the early decades of the fifth century which lingered on for some time and which the Imperial government often dealt harshly with.  It may well have been that the independent Britons were suspected of aiding and abetting that part of Gaul which they had a long association with against the Emperor.  After all, Britain had the reputation of being the “home of tyrants” who threatened Imperial power on multiple occasions.  The British central government, lately organized with a central leader, or “Overking,” may also have requested some kind of assistance in dealing with barbarian threats to the independent polity and Germanus’ mission may well have been the answer.  We at least may allow that Germanus had more than one goal in mind in visiting the sundered provinces of Britannia.

At this point in the narrative (chapter 15) a man “tribunician rank” steps forward from the crowd with his blind daughter and asks both the Pelagians and Germanus and Lupus to cure her.  The Pelagians are unable to do so; Germanus places a “reliquary” on her eyes and succeeds in restoring her sight.  We cannot know whether this was a real event or no; all we can say is that Christian saints are frequently attributed with possessing miraculous power; that Germanus, have had a very thorough education, may also have possessed some medical knowledge as well from his Greek tutors is not beyond the bounds of possibility.  More important to historians is the casual mention of a British official who is ranked as “tribune.”  Unfortunately, the rank of tribune could as easily be a civilian as a military rank and Constantius was unconcerned with such details; regardless, it is evidence that the British had not fallen into anarchy and that civilian and/or political institutions had survived its separation from the empire.  The fact that the theological debate occurred in an urban setting is also prima facie evidence of the continuity of town life as well.  The Britain Germanus visited in 429 was not a wasteland.

Similarly, on a return from a pilgrimage to the site of the British martyr St. Alban (which was located in a thriving post-Roman town) Germanus injured his foot and was laid up in an unnamed town—further evidence of continued urban life.  A fire broke out, which miraculously spared the injured bishop’s residence.  That the populace may have worked more diligently to stop the spread of the fire due to having the bishop in their midst was not considered by his hagiographer even if we may: again, we have a miracle which when shorn of its spiritual trappings is an entirely credible event.  That the biographer mentions in passing that the houses had thatched roofs which made them highly flammable is another important piece of information that is offhandedly related by the biographer.

Of course the greatest of Germanus’s British miracles is the one of greatest historical import: the Alleluia Victory (chapters 17-18).  At this point we may transition from defender of the faith to critic, or at least of Constantius’ version of it, but first we must contest those who would see his account as a total fabrication.  As is often the case, the Minimalists dismiss the narrative as a fabrication without citing any real proof of their assertions.  They are entitled to their opinions, but opinion is not fact, still less is it history.  It has been observed, however, that the British sections of Constantius’ life are far less detailed than those sections relating to Germanus’ life and career on the continent.  When Constantius wrote, Bishop Lupus was still living and it is surmised that he was the main source of this section, whereas there were numerous other sources available to Constantius for the other aspects of Germanus’ life and career.  When Constantius was writing, Bishop Lupus had to have been up in years and it is likely that details of the voyages to Britain had faded from his memory quite a bit; this does not negate their underlying veracity, but it does leave quite a few gaps in the narrative we would wish had been related in more detail.

 

A view of Llangollen from the heights of Castel Dinas Bran, a medieval castle which overlays the site of the Dark Age citadel of Bran the "Blessed" who would have been the regional commander for the British before he got his head chopped off by the Irish.
A view of Llangollen from the heights of Castel Dinas Bran, a medieval castle which overlays the site of the Dark Age citadel of Bran the “Blessed” who would have been the regional commander for the British before he got his head chopped off by the Irish.

As to the location of the Alleluia Victory, we are told simply that it is a valley enclosed by steep mountains with a swift running stream or river nearby.  The town of Mold in Flintshire has sometimes been ascribed as the site of the battle, in a field a mile west of the town called Maes Garman (“field of Germanus”), but while it is close to a bay which may well have served as the landing spot for a barbarian army, my understanding is that the site of the open field does not fit the description given us by Constantius.  It’s identification as the battlefield dates back to a monument erected there in the eighteenth century.  It may well have been the site of a battle in the dark ages, just not this particular one.  The site of Llangollen is generally preferred as the location for Germanus’ battle and an analysis of maps and photos of the area shows that it perfectly fits the description.  At times even southeastern Britain’s lowlands have been put forward as the location of the battle, mainly, I gather, because it is close to the Saxon Shore; but the topography in that part of Britain is all wrong.

 

Dinas Bran in the background with the River Dee in foreground.  Painting by famous British landscape artist Turner.
Dinas Bran in the background with the River Dee in foreground. Painting by famous British landscape artist Turner.

No, Llangollen does seem to fit the bill and it is my sense that most scholars agree on it as the site—assuming they even agree that the battle occurred.  Analyzing the photos and maps of the vicinity, however, several things are clear.  One is that Germanus was a brilliant tactician; the terrain was ideal for a battle favoring the defender.  The other thing that is clear is that Constantius’ narrative was deficient in a number of respects.  He tells us that the British, afraid to venture out of their camps, asked the bishops for aid and that Germanus was appointed dux proelil (‘general for this battle’).  Armies do not just appear out of nowhere: they need to be mustered and more importantly trained.  That the British army had already been gathered together means someone had to have ordered their assembly and the mountain pass at Llangollen would not have been the place to do it.  Further downstream and closer to the bay where the River Dee empties into the Irish Sea is the city of Chester—a former legionary fortress and in the early fifth century its walls would certainly have been intact.  Constantius implies that the period of Lent was taken up by Germanus instructing the army in the Christian faith; while I would not doubt that the general turned bishop did a lot of sermonizing and converting during the forty days of Lent, I would suggest that he was doing even more equipping, drilling and training of his army during that period.

 

A modern rendition of the Alleluia Victory.
A modern rendition of the Alleluia Victory.

Constantius makes mention of using some lightly armed troops as scouts and that the barbarians thinking the Britons praying in their camps were unprepared and could be easily overcome.  I would suggest that after training his troops, Germanus marched them up country to terrain he had scouted out as the site for his decisive battle and then lured the barbarians away from the open plains and up into the mountainous defile where the Dee ran swiftly downhill.  Constantius describes the barbarian force as being composed of “Saxons and Picts” and here again we should take what the hagiographer says with a bit of skepticism.  If the battle was indeed in the mountainous regions of western Britain, a Saxon incursion would have been unlikely.  When Constantius wrote in 480, the Saxons were indeed the Britons main enemy, as were the Picts: in 429, however, on the western coast of Britain it would have been more likely that it was a force of Irish (Scotti) and Picts; if the Saxons were present at all, they were likely as mercenary soldiers in the British army.

Similarly, when Constantius describes the battle as a “bloodless” victory, we can also be a bit skeptical.  Certainly it is possible that the British army had few, if any, serious casualties, but I sincerely doubt that the Britons did not aid the enemy retreat along with sword, spear and arrow and that on the barbarian side the battle was anything but “bloodless.”  Some modern historians have tried to discredit the battle as a real event because it bears a striking similarity to certain passages in the Old Testament.  That the general turned bishop should turn to the bible for inspiration is hardly surprising: General Allenby did likewise during World War I when he conquered Palestine and Syria.  Similarly, Stonewall Jackson often resorted to the bible for both spiritual and military inspiration during the Civil War.  Neither of those general’s victories were fictitious; nor are the modern Israeli army’s, for that matter.

I do find it curious, however that the stone lined Dee River was shallow enough to use for baptizing his army just before the Picts and their allies drown in it in their haste to escape the trap set for them by Germanus.  I would suggest the river was in spring flood on Easter and that after the victory, the pagan contingents of the British army were persuaded by the “miracle” of Germanus to accept baptism—after the river had gone down to normal levels, of course.

The issue of where the British army was drawn from is another unfortunate blank spot in the Constantius narrative.  That the citadel of Dinas Bran overlooks the vale of Llangollen cannot have been coincidence; the legionary fortress of nearby Chester would also likely have had a residual garrison of some substance.  Of course, what became of the previous military commander of the district—who may have called Brennius or Bran—is not mentioned, although the account of a British Bran invading Ireland and having his head chopped off in consequence, may explain both the lack of a local commander and why the Irish chose to invade at that location.  That with a retaliatory invasion immanent, the unified British state may have temporarily drawn troops from farther north is also something which should be considered.  Unfortunately, these are among the many things which Constantius was not interested in when he wrote his biography and must remain speculative.  I put them out there for your consideration.

 

OOPS! That's not Germanus of Auxerre, fighting bishop, or is it?
OOPS! That’s not Germanus of Auxerre, fighting bishop, or is it?

For what we do know of Germanus first and second trips to Britain, however, we must be grateful to Constantius of Lyon.  That Bishop Germanus’ military and political influence on the course of independent Britain’s history was great should not be doubted, even if we would like to have had more of the blanks filled in for us.  In the end, his visits to Britain did not so much mark the end of Roman Britain as they did the beginning of the Brittonic Period in the island’s history, a period in which the groundwork for Great Britain as we know it was laid.

C. Kiernan Coleman hic fecit

Copyright © 2015

What’s the Matter with the Matter of Britain?

Dueling scholars engaged in "close textual analysis"
Dueling scholars engaged in “close textual analysis”

What’s the Matter with the matter of Britain?  I dare say quite a bit, apparently.

While stories of King Arthur, his knights and various and sundry other personalities from fifth and sixth century AD Britain have been circulating for a millennium and a half now, there is no more consensus as to what happened, how and in what order than when scholars first started to seriously study the period.  While I have been interested in the subject since boyhood and have delved into the scholarly literature dealing with the period for more than a score of years, I am remain what would be classed in the category of dilettante scholar.  Of course, such an appellation might justly be applied to a number of other scholars who have worked beyond the pale of academia, such as the esteemed Edward Gibbon, Sir William Flinders Petrie, or, more relevant to the present discussion, Geoffrey Ashe, to name but a few.

While it may be flagrant hubris on my part, in this and following entries on this site I will try to straighten out the Gordian Knot which the period following the Roman occupation and prior to the ascendant period of English hegemony has become.  In the words of the late great President Lyndon Johnson, the time has come to take the bull by the tail and face the situation.

Sub Romans engaged in mortal combat.
Sub Romans engaged in mortal combat.

If this blog rattles a few academic cages in the process, so be it; if we succeed in shedding fresh light on the history of the era, so much the better.  I certainly cannot foul things up any worse than the present state of scholarship in the field seems to be.  This is not to imply that there are not many brilliant minds at the work in the field, men and women who have forgotten more about the subject than I shall ever learn and whose credentials to weigh in on the issues far outshine mine by light years.  It is just that since the mid seventies, there has been no genuine progress in our overall understanding of the era’s history, no coherent model around which one many organize the myriad facts and artifacts.  There is not even a consensus about the chronology of the era.

This is not to say there have not been many excellent technical studies, monographs and narrow focus analyses done in that time; moreover, there has been a great deal of progress in the archaeology of the period, as techniques have improved and some false a priori assumptions been discarded (at least by some archaeologists).  But archaeologists require an agreed upon chronology and coherent historical model upon which they may organize their voluminous finds.  This was a situation which plagued Near Eastern archaeology for many years, until Egyptologists finally straightened out the chronology of the successive pharaonic dynasties and the concomitant material culture associated with them, which in turn allowed Syro-Palestinian and Mesopotamian archaeology to also get their affairs in order.  To be sure, there is no shortage of putative chronologies floating about; every book on fifth century Britain, or dealing with King Arthur (or denying him) has one.  As a rule, no two writers share the same chronology, nor are any of these putative chronologies reliably tied to the better known and more certain chronology of continental Europe at the time, the crucial century which witnessed the fall of the Roman Empire.  Like I said, a mess.

As an symbol of how contentious the Matter of Briton has become, there is also no consensus even when it comes to what to name this period.  Now nomenclature is really the least of the problems, but it is symptomatic of the divisiveness which plagues the study of the era.

Dark Age Britain would be good; except that many scholars argue, with some justification, that the period following the Roman occupation was not dark at all, only our knowledge about it.  Still, I find the term of some use, since it leads us to compare the situation in Britain (and Europe) to other periods which have suffered analogous political and economic downturns which lasted for extended periods.  That such periods of contraction often set the stage for subsequent periods of fluorescence in no way diminishes the usefulness of the concept.

How about Sub Roman Britain, a term much favored by the minimalist school, among others?  Well, first off, sub means “below,” so, was this period which following the Roman era below or above?  Certainly in the archaeological record, the stratigraphy of finds from this period (assuming archaeologists are willing to recognize them) would be above those of the Roman era.  Historically, the era is also after the Romans, so how is that “sub.?”  So, if anything, logically it should be the Supra Roman era.  Moreover, Sub Roman Britain has an implied connotation of inferior, which, if you are down on Celtic culture and history in general, as many minimalists seem to be, might be appropriate the people living in the British Isles after the Romans (ostensibly) left really a “sub” species of the human race, as the term implies?.  I do not.

Then there is the less pejorative Post Roman Britain; fair enough, if you want ignore the great amount of continuity from Roman Britain in both material culture and society that many scholars argue for the era.  It is certainly better a term than Sub Roman, and for the majority who eschew the historical reality of Arthur, it is a convenient circumlocution.

With mention of He Who Shall Not Be Named, we come to the most hotly debated, yet most appropriate, name for the era: The Age of Arthur.  Arthur is the central figure of the era, tales of whom have been told and retold for some fifteen hundred years.  Arthur as a historical personage is problematical, no question; yet he dominates the era, rightly or wrongly.  But one historical school, led by one dominant historian, whom I gather has extraordinary talents in the area of excoriation and ridicule, as well as linguistics, has written, ex cathedra it would seem, that the leading personality of the age is to be banned from the history books.  He has succeeded in making Arthur an anathema—and the previously respected Welsh historian John Morris with him.  Archaeologist Leslie Alcock has been spared Morris’s fate only by retreating into “agnosticism” (as one writer described it).  If we obey this excommunication by one historical school, then Arthur of the Britons—and The Age of Arthur—must be “rejected from our histories.”  Ring the bell, close the book, snuff the candle: Arthur is officially a non-person.

So what should we call it?  David Dumville and his minions would prefer to wipe the slate clean, as it were, and just leave the fifth century—or most of it–a blank.  Failing that, they prefer to refer to the period as Sub Roman.  As I gather their attempt at chronology, nothing much happened until the 440’s and precious little after and then came Gildas and the sixth century.  Of course by focusing in on negative assertions, they neatly avoid having to prove any assumptions of their own, some of which are quite dubious when analyzed.  Celtic sources in general and Oral tradition and folk memory in particular are to be ignored and only the “reliable” texts of the period not on the proscribed list to be used—mainly, I take it, Gildas and the Anglo Saxon Chronicles.

If this period is indeed “Sub Roman,” then Sub-Britons, by extension, must be those Celtic speaking untermensch who somehow skulked about the Roman ruins for a time, grubbing for worms and slugs or picking grains of wheat out of horse dung for food, occasionally coughing “gollum, gollum,” during that nondescript interlude between the exit of the Romans and the time when “real” civilization began again—i.e. the English history of the English people.  After all, doesn’t Bede virtually say as much?  There was no Arthur, no Celtic revival—but then also no educated upper class Briton named Patricius who brought Christianity to the Irish, who in turn revitalized Western Civilization in the ensuing centuries.

In fairness, the minimalist do have a legitimate point; the Historia Britonum, Skene’s “Four Ancient Books,” and above all Geoffrey of Monmouth, not to mention the innumerable hagiographies and lesser texts bearing the on the period, all are unreliable or faulty in some fashion.  But if one were intellectually honest, so too are the Minimalists’ favored texts, Gildas and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.  None of the written sources relating to the period should be regarded as truly reliable.  We will go into specific sources in later blogs, but suffice it to say that the surviving texts are all copies of copies that were written a minimum of a century or so after the events described—and often poorly at that—not to mention the authors’ agendas, stated or implied, and so they are all bound to be problematical to some degree.

For the fifth century AD, there is really only one known document which actually survives from Britain: the Virgilius Romanus, now residing in the Vatican Library.  Although at least one scholar would like to posit it to the eastern Roman Empire, most academics, I think, are willing to concede it is of British origin.  It is a copy of the Virgil’s Aenead—and while it has some nice pictures which are of some use insofar as costume and technical aspects of the era, it contains no text relevant to the history of Arthurian (excuse me, Dark Age/Post Roman/Sub/Supra ) Britain.  To give you an idea of how bad the situation is for the Arthurian era, compare it with Assyriology.

In Assyrian history, by contrast, there survives a virtual mountain of texts, written contemporaneously with the events they describe, carved in stone or written in indelible baked clay, even including the personal correspondence of the kings in question.  That there has not been a major synthesis of Assyrian history since Olmstead is not for reliable lack of source material, more’s the pity, just lack of will.

A Savage Rabbit doing away with a rival thesis at a scholarly conference.
A Savage Rabbit doing away with a rival thesis at a scholarly conference.

Another phrase to describe the period after 410 AD has come to my attention as well and while it is not widely used, it too has its merits.  The Brittonic Period encompasses that period after the withdrawal of Roman authority to the final triumph of the Saxons toward the end of the sixth century.  Chirs Snyder (Snyder 1998) has suggested this term, not only because it lacks the pejorative sense of the others but also because it focuses our attention on the Britons, who otherwise get lost in general surveys of Roman and medieval Britain. The period between 410 and 577 is not a void and it should not be treated as such.  While there is much to recommend Chris Snyder’s term, it has yet to attain widespread usage.  Hopefully this may change.

Perhaps, to paraphrase a former head of the Federal Reserve System, maybe we should “call it a banana.”  I think not, however.  In following blogs I shall alternately refer to the era under consideration alternately as the Brittonic Era or Period, Post Roman Britain, Dark Age Britain or the Age of Arthur, or perhaps a few other terms as I see fit.  Perhaps none of them is entirely accurate or correct, but they will do for now.  I am, in any case, more concerned with chronology than nomenclature.

In following articles on this site we will try to bring to bear approaches to the Matter of Britain that have either been rejected or ignored to elucidate the fifth and early sixth centuries.  This may include varieties of comparative approaches, using methods has by political scientists (for example Brinton Crane), anthropologists (Robert McAdams) and Orientalists (Henri Frankfort, Thorkild Jacobsen) who have previously used those techniques to illuminate aspects of other periods and cultures, some highly literate, others proto-historic.  In surveying much of the historical argument about Arthur and the few written sources for the period, scholars seem to be singularly sequestered within their own bailiwick.

Similarly, events transpiring within the Roman Empire during the same period are not irrelevant in assessing events in Britain.  Analogy to contemporaneous behavior within the empire I believe are relevant in assessing later traditional accounts relating to fifth century events in Briton by both the Britons and their enemies.  There was a small body of water separating Post Roman Britain from continental Europe, not an ocean; yet to judge by the works of some English historians of this period, one would think the Atlantic intervened between the two bodies of land.  Other criteria which lately seem to have been more observed in the breech than the observance are worth employing in regard to studying the “Matter:” common sense, for one; Occam’s Razor for another.  More of that anon, however.

This is all a bit rambling, admittedly, but in trying to establish a general framework within which we shall discuss future topics, some summarization is warranted.  Future entries will hopefully be more specific and narrower in focus.  We aim to sort out at least some of the issues in these entries.  I have been working on several longer studies relating to the Age of Arthur, one dealing specifically with chronology, and others dealing with other neglected but important aspects of the period.  One would hope that, in time, those specialized studies will find proper venues in print.  If not, so be it; the reader may have a good laugh at my expense.

CKC Hic Fecit

Copyright © 2015

 

The Once and Future Blog about the Age of Arthur

The Prophecy of the Two Dragons, while regarded as so much stuff and nonsense by some historians, is in fact the foundation myth of Great Britain. Like all great myths it contains more truth than fiction in it.
The Prophecy of the Two Dragons, while regarded as so much stuff and nonsense by some historians, is in fact the foundation myth of Great Britain. Like all great myths it contains more truth than fiction in it.

While my interests encompass far more than just the Age of Arthur (ca. the fifth and sixth centuries AD in the British Isles and neighboring lands), I have been working on several articles which I believe add to the conversation regarding this pivotal period in history.

At the same time, I have also been working on historical fiction also dealing with the same era which series has yet to be foisted on an unsuspecting editor.  This all may change in the near future, hopefully for the better.  suffice it to say for now is that my perspective regarding the Arthurian cycle is one which is definitely “anti-Mallory” and draws far more on the Celtic tradition of Arthurian lore than the French Romances.  In short, no dudes in tin cans fainting for love of a fair damsel.  The fifth and early sixth centuries were a violent era, an era of great upheaval and a period when an old world was dying and a new world being born.  Birthing is inevitably a bloody business.

If anyone out there is at all interested in exploring the truth behind the many layers of myth and legend that veil the real history of this era, then tune in from time to time to future posts on this site.  Thank you.

Transcendence
Transcendence

Thank you.

One of Cole’s men.