What’s the Matter with the matter of Britain? Quite a bit, apparently.
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 they occurred 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 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.
It may be flagrant hubris on my part, but in this and following entries I will try to straighten out the Gordian Knot which the period following the Roman occupation 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.
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 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. This 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.
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.” Since when is a period which follows–comes later, below? Certainly in the archaeological record, the stratigraphy of finds from this period (assuming archaeologists are intellectually willing to even recognize them) would be above those of the Roman era. Historically, the era is after the Romans, so how in any logical way is this period a “sub.?” If anything it should be the Supra Roman era. Moreover,the use of the term Sub also has the implied connotation of being inferior, such as sub standard, sub human, etc. If you are down on Celtic culture and Celtic history in general–as many Minimalists seem to be–it might be appropriate to describe the people living in the British Isles after the Romans (ostensibly) left as a “sub” species of the humans, but it is inherently a biased term, loaded with ethnocentric assumptions. I do not view it as at all appropriate.
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.
One historical school, led by its 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 well respected Welsh historian John Morris with him. Archaeologist Leslie Alcock–who was spared Morris’s excommunication–retreated 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 until Gildas and the sixth century arrived. 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 graven into indelibly baked clay, and surviving documents even include the personal correspondence of the kings in question. That there has not been a major synthesis of Assyrian history since Olmstead’s History of Assyria is not for reliable lack of source material, more’s the pity–just lack of will.
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