British Sea-Power in the Age of Arthur

 

Naval Warfare fromRomanus Virgilius Folio 77r
Naval battle as portrayed in the 5th century Virgilis Romanus MS. It portrays a classical sea battle, but the illustration dates to the time of Post Roman British sea-power.

The Brittonic Period–the fifth and early sixth centuries of Britain–was a pivotal period in British history and as such it remains the subject of much contentious debate. There is still no academic agreement as to the chronology or even the precise sequence of events for the Brittonic era.[1] 

Nevertheless, in recent decades a certain degree of consensus has slowly emerged among scholars that the cessation of direct Roman political control over the British Isles did not automatically spell the collapse of civilized life in the former diocese of Britannia; some manner of organized Romano-British polity continued on after the cessation of Imperial control.[2]  While virtually all texts bearing on the period remain problematical and intensely debated, the archaeology of the era has begun to tilt more in the favor of continuity than  discontinuity in fifth century Britain.[3]

Many scholars have begun to question the whole ideology of the “Anglo-Saxon Invasion.” instead arguing for a more complex process of military recruitment, trade and immigration, which only in later stages devolved into outright conflict.[4] A few academics have even tried to make the case that southeastern Britain had already been German-speaking well before the arrival of the Romans, although this hypothesis remains an outlier.[5] Whatever model one may choose to reconstruct the events of fifth and early sixth century Britain, however, one important aspect of the era remains virtually ignored: Brittonic sea power and its relationship to the military and political events of the era.  Despite the voluminous secondary literature relating to the Brittonic Period–the storied Age of Arthur–almost no one has discussed naval aspects of Post-Roman Britain.[6]  If discussed at all, it has generally been within the context of an assumed Saxon naval dominance of Britain and its surrounding seas during the whole of the fifth and sixth centuries.

Celtic Sailing Vessel based on Guernsey Ship, artist's reconstruction, Guernsey Museum
Both Celtic and Saxon style vessels may have been employed by British fleets in the Age of Arthur. Artist’s reconstruction of the Guernsey Ship

While no one questions the military importance of Saxon, Irish and Pictish sea power during this period, when it comes to the native British and their seafaring capabilities, a curious myopia affects English historiography.

It could be argued that, like the question of Arthur’s historical existence, there is no direct evidence for British seafaring for this period, much less of a Brittonic navy or fleet. To a certain extent this is a specious argument, for actual written documents relating to Britain contemporaneous to the fifth century are nearly non-existent. The written evidence that does survive consist of:  inscribed stones, mostly grave markers; a copy of the Aeneid believed to have originated from a British scriptorium of the period; plus later copies of material ascribed to St. Patrick’s authorship.[7]  There are odds and ends of material from continental sources dating to the fifth and sixth centuries relating to events in Britain, but after the defeat of the British usurper Constantine III, Latin and Greek writers of the Roman Empire were little concerned with events in the former Roman diocese. Almost all other information we possess exist either as transcriptions of the oral tradition or much copied (and thus corrupted) texts dating to the periods following it. These later texts are subject to their own set of problems of accuracy or credibility. Yet the situation for Scotti, Picti and Saxons sources is the same or worse for this period: all these cultures were pre- or proto-literate and one must rely on transcribed oral traditions or later texts for evidence relating to their history as well.  Yet in all these cases, no one questions their seafaring prowess or the naval influence they wielded during this era.

lead ingots from plumanoch wreck
:Lead ingots with Celtic inscriptions recovered from the Plumanoch wreck, ca 5th cent AD

Despite this, we do have some evidence for the existence of Brittonic naval capabilities, albeit much of it indirect. During the late fourth and early fifth centuries, Britain acquired an odious reputation for being “fertile in tyrants.” These Late Roman usurpers of necessity had to make use of sea power to transport their armies unopposed onto the European continent. Control of the sea was thus a sine qua non for any British usurper attempting to seize the Imperial throne. The last such “tyrant” was Constantine III, who began his bid for power beginning in 405. Constantine nearly succeeded in his attempt, but he finally came to an ill end and by 514 the last vestiges of his attempt were erased.[8]

While details of the makeup of the usurper fleets is unknown, we do know that the rank and file of the sailors would have consisted of indigenous seafarers, even if the officers commanding them might have been ethnic Romans. From later British tradition, we know that these Roman usurpers were often viewed as British by the native population of Britannia.[9]  After Constantine III’s fall, continental sources fall silent about Britain. There is no evidence that the diocese of Britannia was ever re-occupied, while there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence to indicate that, after Constantine, the Western Empire had but nominal control of most of Gaul and Hispania and, therefore, for the rest of the century a military conquest and reoccupation of Britannia was simply beyond the capabilities of the Empire.[10]  Whatever transpired in Britannia after Constantine would have happened under a native polity independent from Ravenna.

Brittonic Sailors with watchtower in background
Brittonic sailors wore “Venetian Blue” uniforms and their ships were clad in the same color, which blended with sea and sky as an early form of naval camouflage.

On the positive side, we do have direct evidence for the existence of British naval capabilities for the post Roman period.  The late Roman writer Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus included a section on naval affairs in his treatise on the Roman military.  The naval section of his treatise De Re Militari has rarely been translated, which may account for so few scholars being aware of his mention of British naval forces.  The passage is tantalizingly short, but it seems to reflect contemporary Brittonic affairs–not looking back to a previous era, as so much of Vegetius’ treatise does. While scholars debate the precise date of the tome, the best estimates places it in the reign of Valentinian III; a date between 435 and 450 would therefore not be unreasonable.[11]

Despite the paucity of contemporary evidence, there are a few Classical sources which bear indirectly on the subject and to late Roman naval affairs in general.  There also exists a large body of traditional accounts which relate to Brittonic Period seafaring and naval activities as well.  As with all traditional and folkloric material, these sources must be treated with caution; nevertheless, given the conservative nature of such folk traditions, much legitimate information may be gleaned from them.  Lastly, there is a growing body of archaeological and anthropological evidence which bear on the subject and which needs to be properly analyzed and interpreted freed from an anti-Brittonic bias which besets much of English historiography.

Although Saxon naval abilities and capabilities are important for the history of the Brittonic Period, they constitute only a part of the overall subject. Rather than view north German sea-power as a discreet topic isolated from the discussion of Brittonic maritime affairs, a better approach would be to see them as but an element in the larger context of general Brittonic (or British) maritime affairs. Even after the Saxon revolt, the best archaeological evidence indicates that the native British polity remained intact and up until the mid sixth century, was still the dominant ethnic and military factor in the region. Consequentially, its naval capabilities would have also remained largely intact and substantial.  In putting the admittedly fragmentary evidence together for this era, rather than viewing the indigenous folk of Britain as inherently weak and incapable of self-defense during the Brittonic Period, they should be viewed as active players in the history of their island and, despite the many challenges they faced, as being generally successful in their response to these challenges–until at least the mid-sixth century.

 

Reconstruction sketch of Blackfriars 1
Blackfriars 1 ship based on archaeological finds.

 

 

More broadly, one should always keep in mind that the native folk of Britain and its adjacent isles throughout history were renowned as seafarers. As a corollary, unless there is positive evidence to the contrary, one should also posit them as skilled at naval warfare, eminently capable of both offense and defense at sea and that they were no less so during this initial era of British independence as they were in later periods.

In support of this thesis, we may look to one major aspect of Brittonic sea-power that has been overlooked or ignored by historians.  This is the fact of British expansion overseas during this period. It is well known that the Celtic British of Post Roman Britain established colonies in northern Hispania and northwestern Gaul during this era. Moreover, one British ruler participated in at least one major military intervention into Roman Gaul during the fifth century.[12]  Such colonial expansion and military intervention required maritime capabilities and naval power of some considerable strength to carry out.  Even if details of these fifth and sixth century continental activities remain poorly documented, the mere fact of their existence constitutes proof of Brittonic naval sea-power for the period in question.

While much new research is needed and a reassessment of old archaeological and written evidence is called for, even given the current state of knowledge the role of sea-power in the history of Post-Roman Britain–and of Brittonic naval expertise in this history–Brittonic sea-power should be regarded as a basic fact of this period and not theory.

Ancient harbor showing a variety of late Roman sailing vessels
Ancient harbor scene showing different types of late Roman vessels.

Going forward, the task for the future, therefore, is to create a synthesis of the diverse material relating to the fact of British sea-power in the fifth and sixth centuries and present it in published form to an interested readership.  Such a coherent narrative may well be disputed in its details or its conclusions criticized, but ultimately it is preferable to make the attempt rather than continuing to allow so important an aspect of the Brittonic era–the Age of Arthur–to remain unexamined and ignored.[13]

[1] The term Brittonic was first used by Chris Snyder to describe the distinct period following the Roman era but before Saxon ascendancy, when the native Britons and their culture flourished.  This phrase is used in preference to the pejorative “sub” Roman label, or to use the now contentious phrase “Age of Arthur,” which has been much disputed and made anathema to the Minimalist school of English historiography by Professor Dumville since the 1970’s.
[2] See Kenneth Dark, “Centuries of Roman survival in the West” British Archaeology, Issue no 32, March 1998, and Dark, Civitas to Kingdom: British Political Continuity, 300-800 (Studies in the Early History of Britain) (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1994); Martin Henig, “Roman Britons after 410″ British Archaeology, Issue 68, December 2002.
[3] Christopher Snyder “Sub-Roman Britain an Introduction” Vortigern Studies (1997)
[4] See, for example, Howard Williams, “Forgetting the Britons in Victorian Anglo-Saxon archaeology” in N. J. Higham, Ed., Woodbridge Britons in Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge : Boydell Press, 2007) ; Also see Francis Pryor, “The Invasion That Never Was,” Episode 3, Britain AD: (BBC Channel 4, 2004); print edition: Francis Pryor, Britain AD, (NY: Harper Perennial; 2005).
[5] Stephen Oppenheimer, The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story, (London: Constable, 2006)
[6] The number of studies which consider Dark Age Celtic naval developments can be counted on one hand (assuming that hand has been subjected to multiple amputations).  See, for example, Bernard S Bachrach, “The Questions of King Arthur’s Existence and of Romano- British Naval Operations” The Haskins Journal 2, 13-28. Although concerned with Germanic naval developments, John Haywood, Dark Age Naval Power: Reassessment of Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Seafaring Activity (London: Routledge, 1991) is also relevant. Geoffrey Ashe, Land to the West (NY: Viking, 1962) while mainly concerned with St. Brendan, disambiguated all the early Classical and Celtic references to seafaring in the western seas, and therefore is of value too.   Count Tolstoy, a brilliant non-academic historian, in a wide ranging essay trying to establish a valid chronology for the period, based on the unreliable homily by Gildas, also mentions in passing Arthurian sea-power: see Nikolai Tolstoy, “Early British History and Chronology” Transactions of the Honorable Society of Cymmrodorians, 1964, pg. 308. There is, admittedly, a voluminous literature on Saxon seafaring and ships, which discuss a number of issues related to the Brittonic Navy, but which are outside the purview of this present short essay.
[7] Robert Vermaat, “The Vergilius Romanus: the first British book? Vergil MS Vat. lat. 3867= Romanus” Vortigern Studies; David H. Wright, The Roman Vergil and the Origins of Medieval Book Design. (Toronto, Univ. of Toronto Press 2001); St. Patrick, “A Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus” AncientTexts.org; Mark Redknap, John M. Lewis and Nancy Edwards Eds., A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculptures in Wales (Cardiff: Univ. of Wales Press, 2007-2013) (three volumes).
[8] Michael Kulikowsky, “Barbarians in Gaul, Usurpers in Britain” Britannia, vol. 31 (2000), 325-345.
[9] See, for example, “The Dream of Maxen Wledig,” The Mabinogion, (Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, Eds.) (NY: Everyman’s, 1949).
[10] Eric Morse, “Decade of Darkness; the Collapse of the Roman Army in the West” (AD 395-405) Royal Canadian Military Institute Lecture (Toronto, Dec. 23, 2014).
[11] Paul D. Emanuele, Vegetius and the Roman Navy, MA Thesis, (Vancouver: Univ. of British Columbia, 1974), 28;  Nikolas Boris Rankov, in 2002, in the Proceedings of the XVIIIth International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies, attempted to dismiss the notion of British naval vessels, but Emanuele had already foreseen these arguments in 1974 and successfully countered them in his thesis.
[12] For Britonia, see: Simon Young, “Britonia, The Forgotten Colony” History Today, Vol. 50 Issue 10 (Oct. 2000); Antonio Garcia y Garci­a, Historia de Bretona (Lugo: Edita Servivio /Publicacions Deputacion Provincial, 1999). For Brittany, see: Joseph Loth, Emigration Bretonne en Armorique du Ve au VIIe siecle de notre ere (Paris: Picard, 1883); Leon Fleuriot, Les origines de la Bretagne, (Payot, 1980); John Morris The Age of Arthur, Chapter 14, 249-260. On Riothamus and his campaigns in Gaul, see Geoffrey Ashe The Discovery of King Arthur, (London: Guild, 1985), 53-56; Morris, Age of Arthur, ibid; Dane Pestano, “Riothamus and the Visigoths” Dark Age History blog, August 21 2011.
[13] See Christopher K. Coleman, Britain’s Best Bulwark; Celtic British Naval Power in the Brittonic Era (forthcoming).

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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?

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