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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Of Crows and Men: The Mystery of Bran

A white raven; they do not sing as sweet as Phoebus' bird but they do exist.
A white raven; they do not sing as sweet as Phoebus’ bird but they do exist.

Once upon a time all crows were white; did you know this?

That venerable gentleman Chaucer tells the tale of Phoebus, whom some call Apollo, who once had a lady love whom he kept in his earthly home and whom he loved so dear.  He also had a raven in a golden cage in that golden palace, as white as the snow, for in those days all Ravens and crows were white and could sing as beautifully as any known songbird.  And he taught the crow to understand the language of humans as well and to talk in human speech.

Yet, as well as he treated his lady love and as much as he thought she loved him, she would not, she could not be true.  She took a lover, not half as handsome as Phoebus, and no sooner would he leave to do his sunny work, than her lover came sneaking in the back door.  The raven saw all that transpired but said not a word; but when Phoebus returned home he cried “cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo.”

“Why do you cry out so, byrd?” quoth Phoebus. “Why syngest thow the cuckold’s song? Allas, what song is this!”  In his heart, Phoebus knew what the white raven was telling him.

Said the Raven, “by God, I sing not amis Phoebus.”

And Phoebus saw from the raven’s look and his words that the Raven told true.  Then wrath replaced adoration in his heart and the flaming Phoebus seized his golden bow and arrow and went to his unfaithful mistress and her lover and both of them he slew.  But Phoebus was not grateful for the Raven telling its master of the treachery and lechery of his beloved.  With his divine powers he turned the white bird’s feathers black and his voice that had been sweeter than a nightingales, he made hoarse and harsh forevermore.  And that is why to this day the raven and his kin are black as night and caw and croak and are doomed to feast on dead flesh for their meals instead of the sweetmeats and other treats that Phoebus once gave them.

An artist's conception of The Manciple's Tale by Chaucer. by dreaminferno on Deviantart
An artist’s conception of The Manciple’s Tale by Chaucer. by dreaminferno on Deviantart

What has all this to do with Bran?  Well, nothing to be honest, but it tells a bit about crows and ravens and their brother blackbirds.  They are sometimes despised and shunned as carrion beasts, but at other times revered and feared, for not only do they feast on the flesh of those who die in battle, but they seem preternaturally intelligent for beasts of the air.  They do not only show up after battle, but they have been observed gathering before the start of battle as if to know ahead of time that a battle is to be fought.  Moreover, in elder times they acted in concert with wolves, scouting ahead of a pack for prey for the wolves to attack; then they would report back to the herd and when the wolves finally downed their prey, the ravens greedily shared in spoils, cawing in triumph over the carcass.  This behavior was observed by the Celts of old; but so too by the Native American tribes of the American South, who called the bird colonah; this was also an epithet they gave to the leader of a war party, who would scout ahead of the main warband to find suitable targets for the warriors to attack.  As we shall sea, Bran is closely connected with these fey creatures, even to the present day.

In Welsh, the name for the raven is Bran, but Bran is also the name of an ancient hero/king who was both a sailor and a supernatural being connected with regeneration.  In fact, there were probably several ancient leaders called Bran.  There are a number of stories told by the Welsh about Bran, and also by the Irish; and sometimes the stories are fantastic and seem to make little sense, but that doe not necessarily make them untrue for all of that.  Bear with me and let us try to separate out these different Brans of Celtic lore and history and assign to them at least a rough chronology, much as an archaeologist might sort out fragments of pottery which he finds all in a jumble and tries to arrange them in order from oldest to latest.  Sir William Flinders Petrie pioneered this method long ago, although that was in another time for another civilization.

In the Voyage of Bran, he meets his brother upon the sea raveling by chariot across rolling meadows.  Go figure: it is Celtic myth at its  finest.
In the Voyage of Bran, he meets his brother upon the sea raveling by chariot across rolling meadows.

In his earliest incarnation Bran (or Brain Mac Febail to the Irish) is a god, whose brother is Manawydan fab Llyr (to the Irish, Manannan Mac Lyr); both gods were closely connected with seafaring and credited with the invention of celestial navigation, a discovery which probably dates to some time in the Mesolithic era.  In the Voyage of Bran (the Gaelic tale Imramm Brain) the hero/god is lured to take a voyage westward.  Two days out to sea he encounters Manannan/Manawydan.  This meeting would not be so unusual, save for the fact that while Bran is traveling over the rolling waves in a sea going vessel, Manannan is riding his chariot across rolling meadows of dry land.  He voyages farther west and encounters several fantastic lands in the middle of the sea.  During the stone age it should be noted, various parts of the Irish Sea and its adjacent waters were in fact dry land, and islands now beneath the sea were then above the waves, a fact not appreciated until recently and which folk memory apparently retained through long ages.

Bran surfaces in another tale which Geoffrey of Monmouth relates, a convoluted tale of Brennius and Belinus (or Beli).  Brennius is Geoffrey’s Latin rendition of the name Bran and he seems to relate a story that dates to some time in the Iron Age.  The two brothers feud over the kingship of Britain and then embark on various adventures and conquests on the continent.  They invade Gaul, sack Rome and one of the two invades the Balkans, making himself unwelcome their.  While one is tempted to dismiss Geoffrey’s story as a fabrication, there are just enough historical echoes to lead some scholars to believe this is a distant echo of some oral tradition still current in Britain in Geoffrey’s time, which may have been brought to the island by the Belgae in the Iron Age.  Livy records a sack of Rome by a Celtic tribe, while Pausanius tells of Delphi being looted and burned in the Iron Age by Celtic invaders led by two leaders named Brennios and Bolgius.  Some of the Celtic invaders even crossed into Anatolia where they raised further hell before they were stopped.

"Le Brenn et sa part de butin"  (Bran and his booty) by Paul  Jamin (1893).  Apparently the Celtic warlord's booty also included booty.
“Le Brenn et sa part de butin” (Bran and his booty) by Paul Jamin (1893). Apparently the Celtic warlord’s booty also included booty.

The sack of Rome (ca. 390 BC) was real enough and there is no reason to doubt that the leader of the combined British/Gaulish army was named Bran/Brennius- or its Iron Age equivalent.  Hower the sack of Delphi was undoubtedly by different Celtic invaders whose leader apparently shared the same name, since the two conquests occurred about a century apart; but Brendan MacGonagle in his Balkan Celts blog theorizes “that Brennos was not a personal name, but a military title given to the overall commander of a Celtic army drawn from different tribes.”  In this regard, the Celtic warbands acted very much like the Cherokee war parties of the eighteenth century.  In his article on “CATUBODUA – Queen of Death” MacGonagle also notes that Iron Age Celts often practiced excarnation: leaving the bodies of those who die in battle exposed for carrion beasts to consume.  Sometimes these were vultures, but in Britain it would have been ravens and crows.  During battle, war goddess appeared in the guise of a bird of prey, to carry the souls of the fallen brave away.  Unspoken, but related, may be the notion that the crows or ravens, by devouring the Celtic war dead, would absorb the souls as well as the flesh of the slain warriors.  This would explain several motifs connected with the archetypal Bran and their close connection with ravens.

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

Near the picturesque village of Llangollen, by the fast running River Dee, rises the hillfort of Castell Dinas Bran, believed to once have been the abode of Bran.  This Bran may be in fact a historical personage, although with oral tradition one can never be completely certain.  The hillfort was probably originally occupied in the Iron Age, but was probably reoccupied some time in the late fourth or early fifth century AD.  The ruins that one sees today date to the Middle Ages where it served to hold the Welsh hills against the barbaric English kings.

This Bran was the subject of another Welsh tale from the Mabinogion, collected in the Middle Ages but originating centuries earlier.  In this incarnation he is known as Bendigeidfran—Bran the Blessed.  While this Bran too has supernatural aspects, underlying the story seems to be a record of real events, probably occurring either in the late fourth or early fifth century AD.  This Bran would probably have been named Comes Brennius, and he was likely more Roman than Celt; but just as the Roman general Maximus became Maxen Wledig, later Welsh bards remembered him as one of their own.  The tale called Branwen verch Llŷr relates how Matholwych, an Irish king, came to seek the hand of Bran’s sister Branwen.  Bran consented and the match was made; however Bran’s trouble making brother was insulted that he was not consulted and made trouble, mutilating the Irishman’s horses.  For a time Bran smoothed things over and it seemed Branwen and her husband would be happy; but the Irish king was persuaded to punish Branwen for her brother’s insults and Branwen sent a raven with a message to her brother Bran asking him to rescue her.

Branwen sends a raven with a message to her brother Bran about her husband's abuse.  So starts the war between the Britons and the Irish.
Branwen sends a raven with a message to her brother Bran about her husband’s abuse. So starts the war between the Britons and the Irish.

Bran launched a fleet of ships to punish the Irish and then fought a might battle on Irish soil.   The Irish were defeated, but Bran himself was mortally wounded.  He instructed his surviving warriors to cut off his head and return it to Britain.  This they did, but found their king still kept conversing with them all the way back to London, where he was buried beneath the White Hill (later the Tower of London) with the promise that so long as his head lay buried facing Gaul, no enemy would ever invade the isle of Britain.  Behind all the fantastic imagery and exaggeration, seems to be an account of a punitive expedition, undoubtedly launched from the old legionary fortress of Chester, which was also located at the highest point on the River Dee still navigable by ships.  In the late fourth and continuing well into the fifth century, Irish incursions and settlements continued to plague western Britain and likely Bran’s ill fated raid was neither the first nor last British counter-attack.  A flock of ravens followed Bran to London and ever since have dwelt at the site where Bran’s head was interred, faithful bodyguards who dwell in the Tower of London forevermore.

Although not linked to this Bran by any scholar I know of, this unsuccessful attack on the Irish might explain why, in 429 AD, an Irish/Pictish army suddenly appeared in western Britain without any apparent local leader to resist the invasion.  When Germanus of Auxerre was summoned to lead the British to resist the invaders, he apparently fought them at Llangollen, which is coincidently where Bran’s hillfort lay.  Coincidence?  I doubt it; this was probably the mustering point for the local militia of the hill country, to which whatever regular troops were available also rallied—and probably including a few Saxon mercenaries in British pay to boot.  As I noted in my previous blog about Germanus, armies of men do not suddenly appear out of the ground and certainly the army Germanus led in battle did not.

 

In Rhonabwy's Dream, Owain's army of ravens defeats Arthur's men while they play chess.  Artwork by Lucy Burns, Welsh Artist (2013).
In Rhonabwy’s Dream, Owain’s army of ravens defeats Arthur’s men while they play chess. Artwork by Lucy Burns, Welsh Artist (2013).

Another tale from the Mabinogion tells, not about Bran, but of an army of ravens who seem to act like human warriors.  In the Dream of Rhonabwy where Owain’s teulu of ravens battle King Arthur’s knights and get the better of them, while their leaders play chess.  Owain had an army of Ravens, some three hundred in number, and they seem to have been inherited from father to son in that royal household; the ravens were loyal to their masters to the death, much as Bran’s teulu of ravens were to their master; for to this day Bran’s ravens stand guard in London protecting the realm against foreign invaders.

 

Close up of a Tower of London, one of seven who diligently guard the tower and protect the realm from harm.  The royal family is not superstitious, but on the other hand they don't want to tempt fate.
Close up of a Tower of London Raven, one of seven who diligently guard the tower and protect the realm from harm. The royal family is not superstitious, but on the other hand they don’t want to tempt fate.

Bran, Brennius, Brennios, or the other names this ancient hero goes by, may be a flight of fancy of the Celtic imagination–or not–but either way, the ravens who are so closely connected with him are real enough–and smarter than many humans.  No wonder that George R. R. Martin borrowed the raven motif from Celtic myth and history for his popular Game of Thrones book and TV series–and the deep magic of the corvidae may well be the real reason underlying the series phenomenal success.

 

 

 

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.