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MAJOR UPDATE: 31.5.12
This was originally from a post – with some additions – I made on Arthurnet about why Nennius (or whoever) used the term “dux”. The update, below, is taken from the up-coming ebook.
Dux erat bellorum/Dux belli
The discussion about what ‘Nennius’ (or whoever the compiler(s) and/or translators where) meant by “dux erat bellorum” (or ”dux belli” in the Vatican recension) in the Arthurian section of the H.B. has gone on for decades. Some have used it as an argument to say he was given the old Roman command of dux Britanniarum (‘Duke of the Britains’) in command of the northern troops, but others point out that if he’d been given the title then why didn’t the H.B. call him such?
In actuality, there may have only been two position he could have been in to be a battle leader or commander-in-chief and they are some kind of general or an Over King. This I’ll look at later as it’s not what I want to explore here.
I think there are actually two question: 1) WHY was dux used, and 2) WHAT words in Primitive or Old Welsh were they translated from … if they were? An Arthur of Badon couldn’t have been the first or last to be called a ‘leader/lord of battle’. Perhaps it’s just a case of finding it. To try and answer this, I wanted to look at a nearer contemporary source (at least in John Koch’s view) and see if it could help: the British collection of poems, ‘Y Gododdin’.
First why was dux used? Was it simply because in Latin it meant ‘leader’ or ‘lord’? Very possibly. But, as mentioned before, Higham argues that a mythical Arthur was used as a Biblical ‘Joshua-figure’ in answer to St. Patrick’s ‘Moses-figure’ in the H.B., and that he was given this title because Joshua was called a dux belli. It is a valid point and I would have agreed with Higham’s conclusions once upon a time, but even if Arthur was used in this way in the H.B., and given this title after Joshua, it does not mean that he was invented to be this, but was, rather, perfect for the Biblical comparison, just as St. Patrick was for his. Had someone else been used we might all be writing about them.
We should also keep in mind that, if the H.B. was in reply to Bede’s earlier work, the English called the Gaul, St. Germanus a ‘dux belli’ and the title could have been used because of this.
But there is the point that the Harleian H.B. says “dux erat bellorum”. If it had wanted to make him Joshua, why not just call him, as the Vatican recension does, “dux belli”. Did the Vatican editor make him Joshua, or did he just clarify the comparison? However, it cannot be ruled out that a possible historic Arthur wasn’t called a “dux bellorum” in any poetry and Nennius used this term because of the Biblical, or St Germanus, comparison he was trying to make.
There’s also another point to bring up here and it is another one made by Higham, but this time in his book ‘English Conquest – Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century‘ (1994). Higham is adamant that Gildas’s use of duces (plural of dux) is meant as “military leaders”, but this could apply to a king or a civil position. How long between the 5th and 9th centuries this was used by Britons, we’ll never known, (see below) but it is at least a possibility “dux erat bellorum” meant ‘military leader of battles’ for clarification as dux had other meanings. (See THIS blog for further discussion on this).
Whilst dux does mean ‘leader’ or ‘lord’ in Latin, this may not have been the only way those of 9th century Britain would have read it, besides the possibilities mentioned above. Let’s look at it another way: what was a dux or duke in the 9th century?
As far as I’m aware, the Welsh never used the term dux as a specific title but across the border in England and over the Channel in Brittany, they certainly did. In England it meant a ‘supreme landlord’, only second to the king, and there were quite a lot of them. They could very often be princeps and dux of a county or shire and, like the dukes across the English Channel, by the 10th century they gained even more power. So choosing dux the H.B.’s Latin literate 9th century audience are possibly going to imply something very different to us. The English would interpret it their way, Bretons, Welsh etc., theirs. (Like Higham, I think the H.B. was aimed as much at the English, and specifically the Mercians, as the Britons).
Christopher Gidlow in his book The Reign of Arthur points out something else about the Historia Brittonum and its use of dux, and that is in every instance before its connection with Arthur when using this term it either means a ‘general’ or a ‘governor subordinate to the Emperor’. This is very similar to an English duke, who was subordinate only to the king. So, did the translator or compiler use dux knowing the English would read it as more than just ‘leader’? Of course, the answer comes back as to why he didn’t just say he was simply a dux if they’d know what a dux was? But, if it had more than one meaning, adding “of battles” would be for clarification. Did he/they use the term specifically for the ‘English’? It could be argued that he did, as the H.B. (as argued by Higham) was aimed just as much at them.
This leads on to what might have been translated, if it didn’t come from Nennius and it had come from an ancient poem or poems …
In the Arthurian battle list of the H.B. there seems evidence from the rhyming of some of the names that this originally came from a battle poem or poems. If the poem(s) or Triads that came down to 9th century were in Primitive or Old Welsh, what might this be and what other evidence is there for such a title or description as ‘leader of battle’ (if dux erat bellorum hadn’t been added later)? One would think it should come down as pen llu (leader of the hosts/legion/army), pen kat (leader of battle), pen budinor (leader of armies) or penteulu (leader of household troop); or, to really big him up, guledig; but he’s never called these, or no evidence has survived, and only the latter title once in the poem Kadeir Teyrnon. He is called penn kadoed Kernyw (‘Leader of the battalions of Cernyw’) in the poem ‘Ymddiddan Arthur a’r Eryr’ – ‘Arthur and the Eagle’ (dated to around 1150 AD), but that could just be the influence of Geoffrey of Monmouth. However, none of these titles, except guledig, are mentioned in Y Gododdin. (You find pen llu, and even penn draig/penn dragon/pendragon (‘head/leader warrior’) in the poetry of the Medieval Welsh poets and these could have, perhaps, been used by those further south in earlier times. Pen llu would be the closest).
I did find other possibilities in Y Gododdin: *cintrenn/cyntran, *(ri/si) chatvarchawc, and *aer dwyw/ry(ri)dywys.
Starting with *cintrenn/cyntran (‘centurion’ according to Koch), here’s a position that the H.B. translator might have known, judging by the fact that three of the four mentions of it in Y Gododdin are from the later A text, dated to the 8th/9th centuries. This is, indeed, a ‘battle leader’ of sorts, whether you take Koch’s interpretation as a ‘centurion’ or not. Jarman does not translate this as a leader of a hundred men, just as ‘warrior’ or ‘leader’. Koch’s reasonings are thus:
“[BI.13] 253 *ar-tege can(t)=uur ‘he used to lead a hundred men’ is evidence for the persistence of Roman office of centurion, a heroic ideal and poetic convention if nothing else.”
(‘The Gododdin of Aneirin’, Koch, Notes, p.168)
“[A.5] 48 … A further possibility is that the original had the t- pret. of the verb (*cintrann (…) rac-uant rac bodinor ‘a centurion (who) counterthrusted against armies’).
(‘The Gododdin of Aneirin’, Koch, Notes. p.180)
“[A.18] 196 *cintren’n‘ [MS kynrien] ‘battle leaders, centurions’. We expect a third personal name here, but this word is frequent in the diction of the Cynfierdd as a common noun. Furthermore the preceding two names *Conrig and *Conuon have Celt. *kuno – ‘hound’ as the first element, whereas *cintren’n’ has *kintu – ‘foremost’, so the alliteration would weaken. The general sense of kynran is ‘first in its part’, thus more specifically in Hengerdd ‘commander, captain, (under-)chieftain. The transparent preform would therefore be Brit. *cintu-rannos. This form probably rose as a popular etymology applied to the Lat. centurio, centurionis during the Roman Period. In favour of this interpretation one may further adduce CA A.24.287 diua oeda gynrein gan-wyr ‘his centurion’s centuries (hundred-man units) perished’.) It is probable therefore that the name of the third hero has dropped out or been transformed in transmission into the common noun.”
(‘The Gododdin of Aneirin’, Koch, Notes, p.194)
“[A.24] 287 *diba oid i-cintrenn cant-guir ‘his centurion’s hundred-man units perished’.
(‘The Gododdin of Aneirin’, Koch, Notes, p.199)
The information in of itself is fascinating – if Koch is right – and shows that even those north of the Wall were fighting in a legionary way. (Even though a Roman centurion was actually in charge of eighty men).
There is another instance when ths was used, this time in a ‘Llywarch Hen’ poem about Marwnad Cynddylan (‘Elergy for Cynddylan’), an 9th century poem about a 7th century occurrence:
Mawredd gyminedd! Mor fu da[f]fawd
a gafas Cynddylan, cynran cyffrawd;
saith gant rhiallu’n ei <yspeidawd>,
pan fynnwys mab pyd, mor fu barawd!
Grandeur in battle! So good was the destiny
that Cynddylan, the battle leader, got
seven hundred chosen soldiers in his retinue,
When the son of Pyd requested, he was so ready!
However, it may be wondered why the H.B. translator wouldn’t call Arthur a centurionis in Latin if this is what he was; unless they wanted to make him something more than this?
But there may be other clues in Y Gododdin, as mentioned above. For example: the leader of an Irish or Hiberno-British fianna (warband) would be a ri fianna > ‘leader (lord) of the warband’. I found in Koch’s translation a reference to the *tri ri chatmarchoc, ‘the three directors of the cavalry brigades’. If you look in Jarman’s book the ri isn’t there at all and it’s translated as ‘Three battle-horsemen’. In yet another version it has *Tri si chatvarchawc, which gets translated as ‘Three hundred knights of battle’. We don’t know which one’s right, but if it’s Koch’s then here’s an example of Britons using ri (modern Welsh rhi = ‘king’ or ‘lord’) as a leader, this time of cavalry units. (If he was called a ri (Brittonic *rigos) at anytime and not meaning ‘king’ but ‘leader’, this itself could have caused confusion over his status). But Arthur seems to be even more than these. He’s made out to be more of an overall leader; a commander or general if you will. The only reference in Y Gododdin I could see is:
*Aer dywys, rydywys ryfel > ‘Battle leader, he led to war …’
(LXXIII, A 72, 690. ‘Aneirin – Y Gododdin’. Jarman)
*Air=tiuis > ri- tiuis > ribel_> ‘A battle leader can lead in war’
(A.72, 904 ‘The Gododdin of Aneirin’, Koch, Notes,113).
Here seems to be a point on which the two eminent scholars agree. Once again there is that ri usage by the Britons, which here is translated as ‘led/lead’. (Later Welsh might interpret ri-dywys as ‘king/lord of war’). In fact, if you change the hero of this and the previous verse in Y Gododdin that these appears in, from “Ywain” (the only possible Guledig mentioned in the piece) to “Arthur”, it would fit perfectly:
Battle leader, he led to war,
The land’s multitude loved the mighty reaper. [Arthur was called the Red Revenger]
On the green earth there was fresh blood around the green grave,
He wore armour over his crimson garment.
A trampler of armour, an armour’s trampler, [Arthur was called the trampler of nine]
Like under death weariness falls.
Spears were shattered at the commencement of battle,
A path to a clearing was the aim of the spearthrust. (Jarman)
A battle leader can lead in war.
A sovereign’s host loved the powerful reaper.
The mighty Forth is blood around a new grave.
It was armour that he had over his red [garments].
An armoured trampler used to trample on armour.
The appearance of death fell on the exhausted.
Spear-shafts in shields at the outset of battle —–
a path towards the light was the purpose of the spear thrust. (Koch)
These ‘titles’ would seem to me the strongest contenders for what could have been translate to “dux erat bellorum”. Here the translator gets the chance to call him a dux, as in ‘leader’, as well as letting any Breton or English reader translate it as a ‘duke’ with military command but second to a king.
Why any of the above would also account for Arthur being called a pen teyrned (teyrnedd) > (‘chief/leader of kings/lords/rulers’) in Culhwch ac Olwen and the Triads, I’m unsure. Unless this was just some Welsh bard’s interpretation of the leader of kings (in battle). Pen tyrned could be interpreted as meaning the ‘Head of Kings’: a ‘High King’, but there is no indication of this in the H.B. and if he was commonly thought to be a king, of whatever class, one would think the H.B. would have made political use of it … had they known.
As mentioned before, Stephen Knight argues that in the 9th/10th century Arthur of their stories may have simply been fashioned into a Welsh over-king of the times, in the mold of Rhodri Mawr and Hwyel Dda. Many later Medieval Welsh kings were styled this by the Gogynfeirdd (‘The Less Early Poets’).
It should be ask here why Nennius, if making the whole thing up, didn’t just call Arthur a High King, or even a king? Why call him a battle leader for kings? Was it because this is what he was (or was thought to have been) or was it because the English had no knowledge of a ‘King Arthur’ so ‘Nennius’ had to give him another title? Or was that it was such commonly known fact that he was a High King that it didn’t need to be stated? But then why did the Vatican recension tell us there were those more nobler than him?
There is always the possibility that because the translator was working form an Old Welsh copy of a poem, it may have used the equivalent of the Old Welsh translation of “Dux Britannium”. We mustn’t forget that this was at the end of a transmission of the story, which may even have gone form Latin to Primitive Welsh to Old Welsh to Latin. Even if it didn’t start as Latin, it still came down as language and military knowledge had changed. Did it come down as something like “aer dywys, pen tyrned prydein” > “Leader of battle, chief of the rulers (kings) of Britain”?
Just to digress for a moment, I think Keith (Fitzpatrick-Matthews) in his recent paper on the H.B. (The Arthurian Battles of the Historia Britonnum July 2010 – available on Scribd) makes an interesting point about battle poems. It appears (from the limited evidence we have) that they lie between 580 and 635 AD. (Urien Rheged (Ardwyre reget, Williams 1960, 7), Cynan Garwyn (Trawsganu kynan garwin, Williams 1960, 1) and Cadwallon ap Cadfan (*Marwnad cadwallon ap cadfan*, Gruffydd 1978, 34 ) . They could have, of course, been in use before this and it is just a case that none have survived. But if they do belong to a narrow window of time, and did not begin until after Arthur’s death then even the first poems about him may not have surfaced until after the event(s) and so they themselves would be based a folk memory, unless there were bards present at Arthur’s battles at the time to transmit the information, or as wondered by the likes of Christopher Gidlow (2004), some of the transmission was originally in Latin. Even these may not necessarily have been in an accurate, historical way; that’s not what the bards were there to do. As Keith points out, the chances are, all these poems may have been written after the fact, and this too is the opinion of Dumville. 
There is the question of whose bards might have been praising Arthur, if he was neither king or prince? (Not that he couldn’t have been a prince). The bards were there to praise their patron. As in 9th century Wales, there may have been two bards: the itinerant ‘chief of song’ (pencerdd) and the ‘poet of the warband/household’ (bard teulu); the former praising whomever he might be visiting as well as others and the latter his king and his warband and whoever might have been fighting with them. Aneirin seems to fall into the former category. He sings of the exploits of the various warriors, some from other kingdoms, fighting together. If Arthur did command kings in battle, as Ywain in Y Gododdin may have done, then Arthur could have been praised by several bards over several campaigns … unless he employed is own. If there was indeed a battle poem then it could have been the condensing of several other’s lyrical works.
What we may never know is what was written in Latin, if anything. The royal courts seem to have had a priest in their employ. Whether any of these put quill to parchment and wrote down any of Arthur’s deeds, we’ll never know. But, just perhaps ‘silua celidonis’ was a case in point? – (see THIS blog for further discussion).
Back to the point
In the Vatican recension of the H.B. Arthur’s position is clarified as being a miles, interpreted today as “soldier”. On this point there’s an interesting thought from Dane Prestano in a post from Arthurnet in November 2007:
“This `miles’ issue has bothered me for a while. In `The Ideals and Practice of Medieval Knighthood’ By Christopher Harper-Bill, Ruth E. Harvey, Stephen Church, which can be found on Google books it is stated that by the 9th/10th C `miles’ had become synonymous with a Knight, not a soldier and by the 12th C this was evident in medieval manuscripts. It could be argued that the later additions of ‘miles’ where because someone interpreted the same was as later generation are doing. He’s a leader of battle. So this throw away term in the H.B. might be a clear indication that Arthur was a mounted knight, lending a much more Romance slant to the H.B. Arthur material than thought before.“
I may not agree with Dane that this shows Arthur was a cavalryman, but it may prove that is how he was perceived at the time, making him into a contemporary horse-backed duke.
Thanks for reading and be sure to take a look at the comments below,
 Green, Concepts Of Arthur, 2007; p.151
 Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes, 2001, p.152
 Gidlow, Reign of Arthur, 2004, p.44
 From Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews’ website: http://www.kmatthews.org.uk/history/marwnad_cynddylan/index.html
 Knight, 1983, p.32-34
 -List from Fitzpatrick-Matthews, 2010, p.19)
 Dumville, 1977, p.188