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King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – The eBook

I’m currently putting together two of my blogs - ‘In Search Of The ‘Original’ King Arthur. and ‘King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? into a 40,000 word, 110 page PDF ebook, which I’ll probably be posting on Scribd.

In these I shared my thoughts on my approach to looking for an ‘original’ Arthur. This I was doing for an idea for a screenplay I’m currently working on. I’ve written three already but haven’t been totally happy with any of them, so I went back to basics and did more research. The result was these two entitled. It is these works that make up the two parts of this PDF ebook.

I don’t pretend to be be a great writer or an expert on the Arthurian subject, but I hope I am adept enough and know enough to bring something new to the debate on the subject of whether or not there might have been a historical Arthur who was victor (or fought at) the battle of Mount Badon in the latter part of the 5th century. If I’ve achieved that I will be a happy man indeed.

With the exception of Christopher Gidlow (The Reign of Arthur 2003, Revealing King Arthur, 2006), most authors either try to pin the original Arthur to a known historical figure of the period (usually not with the name Arthur) or place him geographically in a region of Britain. I don’t do either. I only explore which known historical Arthur (there were several) he might have been, or at least could have been confused with, and whether or not the ‘original’ was an historical or a mythical figure … or whether both existed in conjunction with one another. I do explore what regions he could have been from (if he existed) but don’t go any further than that.

I hope that you find this of interest and, if you’re new the Arthurian subject, it spurs you on to want to discover more yourself.

Malcolm Wilson (aka Mak Wilson and badonicus)

 

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King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part Twelve

CONCLUSIONS?

English: Scanned from frontispiece of Ab Ithel...

Annales Cambriae

Everyone’s conclusions to this are going to be different, depending on many different factors: how long you’ve been studying the Arthurian subject, how much you’ve read, your culture, your beliefs, your personality.  My conclusions, in a sense, don’t matter, it’s how these blogs have affected your views on the subject.

The original question I posed was:

Can it be deduced with any certainty or probability that the Arthur depicted in the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae, said to have fought at the first battle of Mount Badon, was based on a historical character of the Late-5th/Early-6th centuries or an earlier mythical or folkloric figure? or that he could have been both?”

Can there be any certainty that he was a historic figure that fought at Badon? As long as there’s disagreement on the validity of the H.B and the A.C., no. (Perhaps some individuals can be certain, but it’s hard to see there ever being a consensus, unless there’s some miraculous find to prove he existed). Could he have been purely mythical or folkloric? Yes, but I cannot see how there can be any certainty of it. Could he have been both? Yes, but there can be no certainty about that either. Yet many people are certain of one or the other.

Page from the Book of Aneurin , MS c. 1275. Fr...

Y Gododdin

Probability is another matter. If the probability question where to do with the weight of evidence and the odds of existence to none-existence, then the odds would (probably) be against his existence. But this depends on the interpretation of the evidence in the first place. For example, if you think the Welsh material probably came from a mythical figure you will have a different outcome to if you think the material probably came from Arthur of Badon, or his name replaced a mythical figure. The same goes for the information in Y Gododdin, the Historia Britonnum and the Annales Cambriae. If you think these sources valid you have a totally different outcome to if you don’t. If you think they’re valid, historical documents, then he existed. Even if it’s only the H.B. that can be taken as valid (if not accurate) then he existed. But if you don’t … So, we probably can’t use probability!

For me, there is no firm conclusion to be had, but I hope I’ve, at least, added something to this debate. It cannot be proven that there was a historical, 5th century Arthur, that’s impossible to do, but I hope these blogs have shown that, if there was one, there’s no reason his name couldn’t have come about by the same means argued for the 6th and 7th century Arthur/Artúrs by Higham et al; or that, if his name (and some stories) did derive from folkloric or mythical sources, or there was also a mythical (or historical) character(s) of similar or the same name, why later confusion, even by the 9th century or before, would arise. In essence, Higham’s and Green’s argument for the naming of the other Arthurs can be applied to an early Arthur. Why? Because it appears (to me) that this Arthur of Welsh folklore or myth bears little or no resemblance to the Arthur in the H.B.. One’s a Saxon fighter, the other isn’t. One fights giants and the Otherworld, the other one doesn’t appear to. One supposedly was a leader of battles for kings of Britain, the other one wasn’t. One fought at Badon, the one of the early tradition didn’t. However, this doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been a Saxon fighting Briton who got turned into this fantastical character, just as Vortigern, Ambrosius Aurelianus and Urien were used in stories that had nothing to do with their actual lives. These stories alone prove that this happened and this is too often ignored.

From how I interpret the evidence, we cannot rule out a historical figure who fought at Badon being the ‘original’ and the later legends and topographical and onomastic sites merely being a distortion in response to folk culture and internal and external political events. That’s probably the simplest answer, but the simplest answer isn’t always the right one. Nor can we rule out that there was no ‘Arthur of Badon’ … but it is also possible that there were two totally independent mythical and historical characters that were merged and confused, or even a mythical figure whose name was changed to Arthur, be that earlier than the 6th century or after. The problem arises as to why a purely British folkloric or mythical figure would be given a Latin name (rather than a Latinized name), be that Arturius or Arturus. It would have to be yet another unique case. But that also doen’t mean it couldn’t have happened. (‘Arthur’s Wain‘ – The Plough – could be an indication that Arcturus became Arturus).

What it means, to me at least, is that it cannot be stated categorically that Arthur of the 5th century was historical, but neither can it be stated categorically he was purely mythical or folkloric. But it’s possible that the name was all of these things. However, if Arthur cannot be categorically stated to have been real from the evidence we have, then other Early Medieval figures who are considered historical without question should be treated in the same way.

(I’ve italicized ‘possible’ twice above as that is, in the end, all we can use).

Hywel Dda

Whichever historical Arthur you go for, whether that be one who was at Badon, Artur ap Pedr or Artúr mac Áedán, you have to come up with theories that explain the anomalies between them and the sources. You either have to come up with reasons why Arthur of Badon doesn’t appear in genealogies or near contemporary sources or why one of these other Arthur’s were said to be at Badon; and how, if their respective royal houses knew they were THE Arthur, they didn’t make political mileage from it. Neither Demetia/Dyfed or Dalriada appear to have done so … although the MacArthur/Campbells tried to do so later (See THIS blog). Adomnán makes nothing of Artúr, only his father Áedán. Hywel Dda of Dyfed could, perhaps, have slipped it into to his Laws somewhere that they were the descendants of the great Arthur, but he didn’t. If any of them did try and do so, it’s been suppressed or lost.

So, has my 65% leaning towards a historical Arthur changed? Yes. It may have gone to up 67% now. Why? Because of re-looking at the H.B. battle list and the use of Arthur here. Unless there was something in the Welsh tradition about a Saxon fighting Arthur it doesn’t make sense, to me at least, that he would be used if he was the same as the Welsh folkloric figure we know of today. Of course, stories of a mythical Arthur who fought Saxons might have been around and they’ve been lost, but we can only look at the evidence as it is.

What I may consider now more than before I started these blogs is the possibility of an independent mythical figure alongside the historic one(s). A figure that was, at some point in history, given the name Arturius/Arthur/Arturus, but who may have started life under another guise.

Having said all the above, I want to finish by quoting Christopher Gidlow from his book ‘Revealing King Arthur’ (2010):

“It is worrying just how convoluted, how complex, the arguments against Arthur are. Faced with the mass of evidence, opponents are forced to imagine an unknown British god called Arthur (with a convenient taboo against naming him), or landscape features named after other Arthurs of earlier history or mythology whose importance to the inhabitants is nowhere attested. These chimerical Arthurs have left legends which have, for inscrutable reasons, been attached to a military figure of the fifth or sixth century who, if he existed, cannot possibly have borne the name Arthur. Whatever name he had must, despite his importance, have become irretrievably lost. The author of the Historia Brittonum has for his own purpose for the Britons, uniquely put this composite figure in a narrative which otherwise only features major figures already placed in this time period. All other references to Arthur as a historical figure derive from this single source. The counter-argument, that Arthur was a real person who fought the Saxons at the Battle of Mount Badon, who later attracted legendary tall tales, has the advantage of simplicity and requires fewer unknown steps and sources.” (p.193)

Thanks for reading, and, as always, I look forward to your thoughts, comments and corrections.

Mak

IF YOU CAME HERE VIA THE BLOG ‘IN SEARCH OF THE ORIGINAL KING ARTHUR‘, CLICK HERE TO RETURN TO IT.

Arthurian Probability Test

King Arthur, Merlin, Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawain, and Guinevere decide to go to their favorite restaurant to share some mead and grilled meats. They sit down at a round table for five, and as soon as they do, Lancelot notes, “We sat down around the table in age order! What are the odds of that?”

Merlin smiles broadly. “This is easily solved without any magic.” He then shared the answer. What did he say the odds were?

I’ll give the answer soon!

 

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King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part Eleven

Before I get to the final part and the conclusion to all of this, I’d like to first look at one piece of evidence, which, as far as I’m aware, hasn’t been discussed before (but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been!).

Bran’s good for you!

Español: Obra del escultor Ivor Roberts-Jones,...

Bran statue at Harlech Castle.

It is interesting that Artúr mac Áedán had a brother called Bran – Welsh Brân - earlier also *Vran and *Uran – (‘Raven’ or ‘Crow’). There is an argument to be had by those who see Arthur as an historicized mythical figure that the fact his brother was named Bran (also the name of an ancient giant and king of British and Irish mythology – Brân fab Llŷr (son of Llŷr) or Bendigeidfran (‘Bran the Blessed’) – with the Irish equivalent Bran mac Febail), might indicate that both siblings were named after mythical figures. (Not to mention that one of Finn’s magical dogs was called Bran).

Source: Village of Llangollen in North Wales/U...

Dinas Brân

Branodonum (Photo by Nigel Stickells)

However, Bran Hen (the Old) was the name of a king of Bryneich (now Northumbria), and the supposed name of the father of Caractacus (Caradoc or Caradawg), the British famous enemy of Rome. (Although the latter may have been made up in the 18th century!). Ireland had Bran Becc mac Murchado (died 738) and Bran Ardchenn mac Muiredaig (died 795), both kings of Leinster, as well as a Lough Bran in County Leitrim. Wales has Dinas Brân in Denbighshire, Aber-Brân in Powys, Llyn (Lake) Brân in Denbighshire and Cwmbrân in Gwent. Scotland has a River Bran in the Highlands and a Loch Bran. John Koch wonders if there is an association between this character and the Roman fort of Brancaster (Branodunum) in Norfolk, England. (Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium Vol. 9, (1989), pp. 1-10 – article available at JSTOR). Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the King’s of Britain included an Arthurian Brennius (Book III, Ch.1). This may be Brân in another name, although this name could also be from the 3rd and 4th century BC Brennus. In the Mostyn MS 117 Genealogies, known as the Bonedd yr Arwyr (Decent of the Heroes), Brân map Llŷr (son of Llŷr) is made an ancestor of Arthur, in true royal genealogical style. It’s hard to know why Arthur was given descent from Brân but it could have been through association with the stories that circulated. Having said that, Triad 37 tells of Arthur digging up the head of Brân, which was supposedly protecting Britain, from where the Tower of London now stands, saying he was the only one who could do so. That’s not a way to treat your supposed ancestor! Could it be that this was a different tradition to the Bonedd yr Arwyr?

All these historical or topographical Brans/Brâns could have been named after the mythical figure; or, it was also simply a name the British (and Irish) liked to use. Sound familiar? For all we know, a 5th century Arthur, if he existed, could also have had a brother (or father?) named Brân, hence why Áedán named his sons thusly. The duel British/Irish nature of Bran can be used both for the mythical argument and for a historical name being given to princes from these cultural or ethnic unions (as with Áedán supposedly marrying a British woman), and this might have been the case with the name Arthur/Artúr. The difference between them is that Brân/Bran is a well attested ‘Celtic’ name, and Artúr /Arturius/Arthur isn’t.

Confused?

If all these historical Arthurs, or the first one (whoever he was), was/were named after a figure of ancient legend or folklore and both stories of a historical and a mythical superhuman/giant/Messianic hero came down in parallel, then were later merged, were later badly separated, then just took on a life of their own … then it’s no wonder we’re all confused! Perhaps both camps (not all members of them I admit) are trying to make each very different figure fit something that only the name ‘Arthur’ itself matches? So people try to find the historical Arthur in the stories, poems and Triads of the Welsh, Cornish and Scots and the onomastic and topographic sites of Britain, when a historical Arthur could (initially) have had nothing to do with them, just as it is argued these 6th to 8th century Arthurs didn’t. Thomas Green finds this explanation “too complicated” (as does Christopher Gidlow), but sometimes history is. I’m not saying this was the case, but it can’t be ruled out just because we don’t like its complexity. Occam’s Razor can get blunted over the centuries.

Politically motivated

There’s also the political aspect of Arthur, which cannot be overstressed. Since Geoffrey of Monmouth (and I would say even before) claiming Arthur (as a king) was from your territory was claiming descent from who they thought were the first Britons, the Trojans, and therefore suzerainty over the whole of Britain, especially if he ruled from London. The more you could point to where he was from, or had been, the better your case. So onomastic and topographical sites could have been named for more than just folkloric reasons.

In the final part of this blog we’ll see if any conclusions can be drawn form all this and whether or not we can give any answers to the question posed in Part One.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your thoughts, comments and corrections.

Mak

 

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King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part Two

ARTHUR IN STORY AND THE LANDSCAPE

Arthur's Seat

If Arthur was, indeed, a 5th/6th century figure, subsequence stories, folktales, poems and especially topographic and onomastic sites named after him haven’t helped his historical case much. (Neither have Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Saints Lives, the Welsh Triads or the other Romantic Arthurian medieval writers). It is the earliest stories and poems (of the Welsh) and geographical sites (over 50 spread across Britain with the name association alone – ‘A Guidebook to Arthurian Britain’, Ashe, 1980,) that are used as part of the evidence against a historic Arthur … that and the lack of any contemporary or even near contemporary writer naming him.  But we should keep in mind that many of these sites are little understood … or even datable. It can very often be assumed that all these are extremely ancient when, in fact, we know many not to be. Scott Lloyd, in posts via Arthurnet, has explained how many of these sites may certainly post-date Geoffrey of Monmouth and his Historia Regum Britanniae (‘History of the Kings of Britain) of the early 12th century and may be inspired by his work; he related how Arthur appears to have gone out of fashion in Wales during later Medieval times – apart fro being fleetingly referred to in a few poems – as well as the 17th/18th century (especially during the Civil War) and many an onomastic or topographical Arthurian site may date to even after this when Welsh nationalism and antiquarianism began to flourish. But it also cannot be denied that even by the 9th century, and possibly before, a mythical or folkloric Arthur existed. (For an excellent PDF gazetteer on these sites, by Thomas Green, go to, http://www.arthuriana.co.uk/concepts/arthur_folk.pdf . This also gives a brief outline of Green’s arguments).

To quote Padel:

“What interests us, and is so impressive, is not the antiquity of any individual name, but the vitality and consistency of the tradition in the various Brittonic areas … The folklore may in some cases have been boosted by the literary developments … [but] it remained largely unaffected by the literary Arthurian cycle, and retained its character throughout the period.” (‘Nature of Arthur’, pp. 27 and 29-30. – from Green’s ‘A Gazetteer of Arthurian Onomastic and Topographic Folklore’.)

But it is also Arthur’s uniqueness in the amount of sites named after him and their dispersal that gives rise to questions, but he is not entirely alone. The only other ancient British figure to come close in the British Isles is the 6th century saint, Illtud (Illtyd), and even he pales into insignificance (Gidlow, 2010). But this may not be surprising given both Arthur’s later fame, especially in Wales and Cornwall and to a lesser degree Scotland, with everyone wanting to claim him, and the use of the name in the 6th to 8th centuries in what is now western Scotland and southwest Wales. It has become almost impossible to tell just which (or what kind of) Arthur these sites were named after.

From Man to Myth

There is a later historical figure who we might be able to compare him with (if Arthur was historical) and that is Oliver Cromwell. His named sites include: two Cromwell Hills (Bedfordshire and Essex), Cromwell’s Cutting (Devonshire), Oliver’s Battery (Hampshire), Cromwell’s Stone (Lancashire), Cromwell Tower (London), Cromwell Bridge (Lancashire), Oliver’s Mount (Yorkshire), Oliver’s Point (Shropshire). This from a man whom a great deal of the country hated and who fell out of favour after his death; yet still these sites remained. There’s even a Cromwell Street in Northampton that still believes in ‘Cromwell’s Curse’, almost 400 years after the event ( http://cromwellscurse.tripod.com/ ). There are some who think the Cerne Abbas Giant is a parody of Cromwell, and not an ancient site. (Medieval writings making no reference to it – http://www.sacred-destinations.com/england/cerne-abbas-giant.htm).

So, imagine if there were only these sites and only a poem about Cromwell’s battles (7 major ones in all … a Biblical number). Then imagine what would be the case if he was seen in a more favourable light by all, or if his misdemeanours had been forgotten? Or if he had been a Dark Age figure? Would he too have been seen as a mythical giant who won battles in Britain and Ireland?

We also shouldn’t forget just how easy it used to be (and in some ways still is) to mythologize someone … and how quickly. Look what happened to William Wallace, Scottish hero and star of the film Braveheart. He was made into someone else by his very first writer, Blind Harry the Minstrel (although he wasn’t blind!) 172 years after Wallace’s death. He turned him, knowingly or not, from the son of a lord into the son of a farmer – from the son or Lord Alan Wallace to the son of a Malcolm Wallace, a much more Scottish name – missing out Bill’s spell as a thief. (Had an ancient document not recently have been found, we’d never have known this). Then, a couple of centuries later and he’s given a wife (no record of him having one) who is killed by the English, so he needs his revenge. Then they miss out his fellow commander at Falkirk (who died form his wounds) and turn Bill into the only hero, and a huge sword turns up to show he was a giant of a man … even though the sword was a 15th century one, made from three or four swords. Scotland needed a hero, and they chose Wallace to hang the legends off. Had he not been captured (by other Scot lords who saw him as a bit of an lowly upstart and not needed after he lost a battle) and killed the way he was by the English, he may never have become what he did. This doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great brave commander and charismatic man, but he wasn’t what he was made in to. (See, The Myth of William Wallace. A Study of the National Hero’s Impact on Scottish History, Literature and Modern Politics, Wallner, 2003).

The Welsh of the 9th century needed a hero too and chose the Briton, Arthur; who, like William Wallace, may not have been as great as he was turned in to … if he existed. It is interesting that he was chosen here, yet not for the 10th century poem Armes Prydein (more on that later). It could have been because they needed a far ranging hero (real or not) who was known not just as a Welsh warrior hero but a British one, that would appeal to those of the north and the south. A call to arms to unite, as they once (supposedly) had been in order to defeat the ‘Saxons’.

Back at the sites …

Even if these Arthurian onomastic and topographical sites are all based on a mythical or folkloric Arthur, this in itself is unique. For example, you don’t get the same thing happening with Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) of Ireland, who some say is Arthur’s Irish mythical equivalent. Even the Giant’s Causeway in Ulster, which the giant Finn is said to be partially responsible for, doesn’t bear his name in Gaelic and is called Clochán na bhFórmorach: ‘stepping stones of the Fomorians’. His only named site (that I could find) is Cath Fionntragha (Battle of Fionn’s Strand), which is in Ventry, Co. Kerry. There are the mountains of Scurr a’ Fionn Choir on the Isle of Skye and Fionn Bheinn in the Highlands of Scotland but whether these relate to the mythical character or just mean ‘fair’ I couldn’t say. (More on Finn later). In fact, you don’t get any other mythical or historical figure having this effect on the landscape. (The nearest mythical figure to him would be the god Woden, and even he doesn’t appear to have as many! – my thanks to historian Jonathan Jarret for pointing Woden out in the comments below). The one other (adopted) British god figure whose name is found in a few places in Scotland (Lochmaben), Wales (Llanfabon, Rhiwabon) and his namesake in Cornwall (St Mabyn) is Mabon (‘Divine Son’), son of Modron (Divine Mother). She is the Gallo-Brittonic goddess Matrona and he Maponos; but at least he is known from two Roman inscriptions as Apollo Maponus from the Roman fort of CORSTOPITVM (Corbridge, Northumberland).

Yet even Mabon doesn’t get around as much as Arthur; but for all Arthur’s diverse locations, from Scotland to Cornwall and all points in between, no one has found an Arthur cult or inscription, of any kind. How can this be if he was the most famous mythical figure even when the Romans were in Britannia (as some argue)?  They could, of course, just not have been found yet, or he was folkloric and not mythical. If he was an ancient folk hero, as envisaged by Padel and Higham, then he’s not going to leave this kind of dedication. But his diverse geographical locations could be less (or not just) to do with a mythical/folkloric status and more to do with popularity.

If anyone does find a MARS ARTURVS (or the like) dedication it would answer a lot of questions. But would it necessarily follow that it would mean an Arthur of Badon didn’t exits? (More later).

In Part Three we’ll look in more detail at giants, giant killers and these Arthurian sites, and who might have been naming them? as well as a look at the ancient tale of a boar hunt.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your thoughts, comments and corrections.

Mak

 

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King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part One (Introduction)

I actually can’t believe I’m tackling this subject, but here goes …

INTRODUCTION

Whether the figure of Arthur was a historicized mythical or folkloric figure or a mythologized or folkloric man has been debated and written about numerous times, some might say ‘to death’. There’s not much point writing about the subject again unless something new can be brought to the discussion, and that’s what I hope to do at points in this twelve part blog. If I am, accidentally, reiterating what others have said I apologise in advance. I also apologise for not covering everything, but if I did, this would turn into a book! It’s already 20,000 words!

In these blogs the legends I will mainly be referring to are those of the Welsh, which predate those began by the Anglo-(Breton)-Norman Geoffrey of Monmouth (early 12th c) who first made Arthur famous outside Wales and Cornwall, by at least two hundred years. The King Arthur and his famous knights of the roundtable, the Holy Grail and his battles around Europe all came to light between the 12th to 15th centuries, and it will be these stories most will be aware of. The earlier, Welsh tales and poems are, in general, about a very different superhero, who fights – or battles through his men – witches, giants and the Otherworld, but there does appear to be ‘Arthur the Soldier’ in amongst them.

Personally, I have waxed and wained over the years between the one possibility and the other as I have read the various arguments. When I joined the group Arthurnet, I was firmly in the mythical or folkloric camp. I was firmly in the mythical or folkloric camp. Before embarking on this ebook I was about 65% (if a percentage could ever be given!) in favour of the likelihood that the original Arthur was a 5th and 6th century figure of some description … but, who knows, that could swing the other way at some point. It will be interesting to see if that percentage has changed by the end of this. The slight leaning to a historical Arthur may give me a bias in that direction, but I will endeavour to stay as objective as possible.

. It will be interesting to see if that percentage has changed by the end of these blogs. The slight leaning to a historical Arthur may give me a bias in that direction, but I will endeavour to stay as objective as possible.

What may help a little is that I’m agnostic. It doesn’t really matter to me whether Arthur really existed or not. I have no nationalistic tendency to want him to have been from what are now England, Scotland, Wales or even Ireland. None of these existed at the time. What I do want is a fair ‘hearing’, so to speak. I will try and do what Christopher Snyder does when he says

My own contributions on the scholarship of Arthurian origins have been attempts to establish a middle ground between academic skepticism and unbridled lay enthusiasm”. (A history of Arthurian scholarship,  Lacy, 2006, p.13).

Although I am in the “lay” camp, of course! There is another quote from Mr. Snyder to keep in mind:

 “ [...] academic historians, playing by the rules of our disciplines, can say little of value about Arthur.” (The Britons,   Snyder, 2003, p.94)

I can go further than a professional historian, but I will endeavour to keep the rules of their disciplines in mind.

Hit of Myth?

First a few ‘for and against’ quotes:

 “Drawing on the postmodern theory of Jean Baudrillard, it is possible to interpret Arthur as a simulacrum – that is, as a copy which has no original. The textual Arthurs that survive are reformatted copies of earlier ideas of Arthur, referring always to each other but never to an originary Arthur, since such a person cannot be identified or retrieved.” (A Companion to Arthurian Literature, Helen Fulton, 2009, p.16)

“It is worrying just how convoluted, how complex, the arguments against Arthur are. Faced with the mass of evidence, opponents are forced to imagine an unknown British god called Arthur (with a convenient taboo against naming him), or landscape features named after other Arthurs of earlier history or mythology whose importance to the inhabitants is nowhere attested. (Christopher Gidlow in his book ‘Revealing King Arthur’, 2010, p.193)

“This is not the stuff of which history can be made. The fact of the matter is that there is no historical evidence about Arthur; we must reject him from our histories and, above all, from the titles of our books” (David Dumville, 1977, p.188).

“I disagree, however, with those skeptics who believe there is proof that Arthur is pure fabrication. Theories that trace his origins to mythology or folklore are as unconvincing as those that ‘prove’ his historicity.” (Christopher Snyder, ‘The Britons’, 2003, p.94)

Thomas Charles-Edwards conclusions about the Historia Brittonum were:

At this stage of the enquiry, one can only say there may well have been an historical Arthur [...] but “[...] the historian can as yet say nothing of value about him” (1991. p.29).

[Arthur is] above all else [...] a defender of his country against every kind of danger, both internal and external: a slayer of giants and witches, a hunter of monstrous animals — giant boars, a savage cat monster, a winged serpent (or dragon) — and also, as it appears from Culhwch and Preiddeu Annwn, a releaser of prisoners. This concept is substantiated from all the early sources: the poems Pa Gur and Prieddeu Annwn, the Triads, the Saint’s Lives, and the Miribilia attached to the Historia Brittonum [...] in early literature he belongs, like Fionn, to the realm of mythology rather than to that of history.” (R. Bromwich and D. Simon Evans (edd.), ‘Culhwch and Olwen. An edition and study of the oldest Arthurian tale’ (Cardiff, 1992), pp. xxviii-xxix)

That is the question?

First we have to define what the correct question is. To ask, “Did Arthur exist?” will illicit the response, “Which Arthur? King Arthur of Malory, of Wace, of Chrétien, of Layamon, of Geoffrey of Monmouth, or ‘William’ the author of the Breton Legend of St. Geoznovius. Or Arthur of the 9th century Historia Brittonum (H.B.), or of the 10th century Annales Cambriae (A.C.); or do we mean Arthur of the early Welsh stories or the early Welsh poetry?” So, the question I will pose is: “Can it be deduced with any certainty or probability that the Arthur depicted in the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae, said to have fought at the first battle of Mount Badon, was based on a historical character of the Late-5th/Early-6th centuries or an earlier mythical or folkloric figure? or that he could have been both?”

That’s just your opinion!

Opinion as to whether the figure that became the legend of King Arthur was based on a historical person or not, or whether he was one of the other slightly later known historical Arthurs, has vacillated over the decades and centuries between ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘maybe’. Today, some of those scholars firmly in the ‘mythical or folkloric Arthur’ camp are David Dumville (1977), Oliver Padel (2000), Nick Higham (1994, 2002) and Thomas Green (2001-2007), following Padel. Those in the ‘historical’ camp (to varying degrees) who look to a possible 5th century Arthur would be Christopher Snyder (2003, 2006), Christopher Gidlow (2004, 2010) and Francis Pryor (2004) … with many a lay historian added to that list. The original as the 6th century prince Artúr mac Áedán of Dal Riata (Dalriada) is put forward by Richard Barber (1972) following suggestions by Norma Chadwick, but also the lay historian David F. Caroll (1996) with 6th century king of Demetia (Dyfed), Arthur ap Pedr, only forwarded by Dr. Ken Dark (2000). Both the Early-7th century Arthur ap Bicoir and Arthur ap Pedr have been explored by August Hunt, but he has since rejected them in favour of the Late-6th century Arthur Penuchel (2011). (Many of you may be unaware of these other Arthurs, and if you’d like to know more about them before reading further, see THIS blog; although they will be discussed here).

It could be argued that some lay historians (and professional historians!) haven’t helped a historical Arthur’s case much either by the way they’ve argued for him, and it is mainly the academic scholars who argue against his existence that put the best cases. (In this respect I hope not to make things worse!). The academic who, to me at least, has made the best case for the possible existence of a historical figure called Arthur (as opposed to someone else who became known as Arthur, such as Riothamus or Ambrosius Aurelianus) is Christopher Gidlow, but even he hasn’t explored the folkloric aspects in detail.

It should be noted from the start that both Nick Higham and Thomas Green had concluded that Arthur didn’t exist before beginning their books on the subject. Higham had concluded this in his book on Gildas’s 6th century polemic De Excidio Britanniae (DEB): ‘The English Conquest- Gildas and Britain of the fifth century’ (1994). This is because he sees the evidence showing that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ where the ones in charge after Badon, and not the Britons, so there was no place for an Arthur character. Green, in Concept of Arthur (2007), follows Padel’s folkloric Arthur theory and had been writing about this online for a number of years, long before the publication of his book. If you start from those assumptions, or rather conclusions, in a book then you are approaching the subject in the same way as those who start from the assumption that he did exist. The book is there to prove your point. That doesn’t mean what is explore in their books is worthless! Far from it, they are excellent in their ways. It also doesn’t mean they’re wrong, and I bow to their superior knowledge, it does mean this should be kept in mind.

If one looked at the early Welsh material alone, one might have to conclude that Arthur was either mythical or folkloric and Padel does make a very important point in his book, ‘Arthur Of Welsh Literature’ (2000): many (not all) who accepted Arthur as a historical figure (or that he shouldn’t be dispelled as one) do so without considering this Welsh, Cornish and Scottish mythical or folkloric Arthur and the questions these stories and poems throw up with regards to his historicity. I hope not to be one of those and will face these full on in these next (shortish) ten blogs.

So, that’s the introduction. In Part Two we’ll look at Arthur in the landscape of Britain and the possible mythical or folkloric origins, as well as some possible later historical comparisons.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your thoughts, comments and corrections.

Mak

PS: Just in case there are folk out there thinking, “he’s writing ‘a historical’ instead of ‘an historical’, the former is correct. The only time to use ‘an’ is before a word with a silent ‘h’, like ‘honour’. In the past when I’ve used ‘an’, it’s out of habit.

 

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King Arthur – A Provincial Dux, Comes or Tribunus? – Part Five

To do the subject justice, I’m afraid this has become a seven part blog!

Provinces based on Anne Dornier's theory with my own thoughts (kindly created for me by Steffon Worthington)

The (wonderful!) map above isn’t quite correct in its placement of some of the northern tribes and will be updated soon, but I wanted to get this blog out this weekend.

THE WEST & WEST MIDLANDS: BRITANNIA PRIMA

What if Arthur were dux (or one of the other ranks) of Britannia Prima (II of the map)? This province (which, unlike in this version of provincial placements, could have got up to the Mersey and included North Wales) could have existed in its immediate post Roman form, or, it could have shrunk by fragmentation. Most scholars see this province of the Late Roman period with the more Romanised Britons to the east (in the Lowland or Civil Zone) and the less Romanised to the west (in the Highland and Military Zones), as based on the archaeology. However, they appear to have taken to Roman material goods and Latin inscribed stones after the Empire had departed, possibly through the influence of Roman Christianity, but possibly for other reasons too, which I’ll explore below.

Most argue that it is kings of this province who Gildas refers to in DEB. Ken Dark puts forward the possibility of three eastern civitates of this province surviving in a more ‘Roman’ form, under some kind of administration (DobunniCornovii and Silures as Gwent) whilst the rest were ruled by kings (petty kingdoms with an over-king) and Nick Higham and David Dumville, in general, agree. It could have been only these three civitates that made up the province, one of which Gildas was in. Or, conversely, if Higham’s theory is right, the more westerly kingdoms could have made up the province, as he certainly sees the Dobunni and Cornovii as tribute payers to the ‘Anglo-Saxons’. But, they all could still have been part of it even if the two or three of its civitates were having to do so. (The provinces could also have been only in name with no real political power).

(There are two very opposing views with regard Dobunni and Cornovii given by Christopher Gidlow (Revealing King Arthur, 2010), who sees the archaeology pointing to these two being a major force against the east, and Nick Higham, who sees the Cornovians as being weak and both civitates being tribute payers. Right there is a perfect example of the problems on agreement with this period in general. Not to mention that one sees the evidence pointing to Arthur existing and one not.)

The sum of all parts?

With a province made up of so many parts (if it still was), and that would be around 8 (major ones) that we know of, it’s hard to know how they would agree to a provincial army and its dux without the Empire there to enforce it. (Unless it did have an over-king, such as the later king Maglocunus/Mailcun/Maelgwn, to enforce this?). Each civitates and kingdom could have been obliged to supply men, as explored earlier, or, the dux could have had bucellarii (of Hibernians?) as his personal force making him slightly independent of them but able to be supplemented by them. Or, the most powerful and dominant civitas or kingdom chose the dux or general … or it was done on a rotational basis. All these points go for the northern provinces too.

With either Irish feoderati, laeti, settlers or Goidelic speaking Britons in many western parts of this province (northern Dumnonia, Demetia and northwest Venedota), it could be they who were used to supplement the Britons. If Arthur was a general of mixed race (or a Goidelic speaking Briton) it might go some way towards explaining why it was one of these regions (Demetae/Demetia) that may first have reused the name, followed by others in the north, as I explored in THIS blog … if, indeed, that is was reused and Arthur ap Petr (King Arthur of Demetia) wasn’t the ‘original’ himself.

There are suggestion by Dark (2003) and Stuart Laycock (2010) that it was this province that was courted by the Western and later Byzantine Empire in a reversal of fortunes – which is why ‘Roman’ material goods are found within it, especially at Tintagel – and it was Dumnonia and perhaps other Britannia Prima elements that supplied the king, Riothamus and his supposed 12,000 men to fight for the failing western Empire in Gaul in the 470s. If the figure of 12,000 men is anywhere near the truth (and it may not be) this is a huge force. Whether they were all Britons (or just Britons from Britannia) is another question, but, either way, he was commanding (or in charge of with a commander?) a large force, and an army of this size, or even part of it, couldn’t have come form one kingdom or civitas. (David Dumville (2003) thinks southern Britain may have been his base).

If there was this coordination (or cooperation) in the 460s/470s, (again, possibly instigated by Ambrosius Aurelianus) enabling a single king to command this many Britons, there’s the possibility that it could have still been there in the 490s where most place the Siege of Badon … although the fact that Riothamus was defeated could have had a major impact on the following decades, depending on how many of those 12,000 were lost, or simply didn’t return to Britannia. We can only guess as to what this defeat (yet another one after Magnus Maximus and Constantine III) did to the morale of the British.

(There’s always the haunting question of how a British king could afford to take this many men abroad (if he did) during a time when we were supposed to be suffering attacks from the ‘Saxons’. Of course, there could have been a peace at the time, but it’s not out of the question that some of his men were Saxo-Britons or other Germanic elements).

As an aside: imagine if we’d never heard of Riothamus via the Continental sources and only from a legend that told us how a British king (who left no British genealogy) fought alongside Romans in the 470s with 12,000 men? We’d probably think he was only a myth. The same would go for Ambrosius Aurelianus had Gildas not mentioned him. (I’m not a supporter of Riothamus=Arthur or Ambrosius=Arthur, by-the-way, but I always keep an open mind).

THOSE DARN BATTLES & OTHER ARTHURIAN SITES

Looking at where those Arthurian battles are placed by those who champion a Britannia Prima Arthur (North Wales, South Wales East Wales, Somerset, Cornwall, Devon), they range from being localised as civil war battles or against Hibernians (Blake and Lloyd) to having him fighting deep within ‘Anglo-Saxon’ territory. (Rodney Castledon, 2000/2003). There is, of course, a Camlan in northwetern Wales (Afon Gamlan); there’s a Camelford in Cornwall, a Killbury (Celliwig, Celliwic, Kelliwic, KelliwigKelli Wig?) in Cornwall, a Gelliweg (Celliwig, Celliwic, Kelliwic, KelliwigKelli Wig?) on the Llŷn Peninsular, as well as a Guinnion (Cerrig Gwynion), which is an old Iron Age hillfort between Llandudno and Bangor … not to mention the not far away hillfort of Bwrdd Arthur. Chester or Caerleon (City of Legions?) and Badon (if it is where some suggest) lie within or in the border region of this province. But we shouldn’t be surprised to find such names like Camlann or Gwynion here. Not because Cornwall and Wales have a huge Arthurian tradition (which, of course, they do) but because their languages derived from Brittonic and these names may not be that uncommon.

POET’S CORNER … AGAIN

There’s the poem ‘The Elergy of Gereint son of Erbin’, said to be fought at Llongborth and, whichever location you go with, it would most likely be in this province. Here are a couple of verses:

In Llongborth I saw Arthur’s Heroes [men] who cut with steel.

The Emperor [ammherawdyr] ruler of our labour.

In Llongborth Geraint was slain,

A brave man from the region of Dyvnaint [Devon],

And before they were overpowered, they committed slaughter.

(There are arguments that, if this really happened, this may have involved Arthur’s men only, or a unit named after him, and not necessarily Arthur. (Gidlow, 2010).

No other surviving early poetry (if, indeed these poems are early) gives Arthur a (possible) geographical location … this is excluding the Triads, which do.

GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH

It is most likely either a Geoffrey of Monmouth invention, or a Cornish one, but he, of course, places Arthur’s conception at Tintagel (Din Tagel), and calls him ‘The Boar of Kernyw‘. However, there may have been a number of Kernyw/Cornows in this province in the 5th century, including Cornovii (Cornow) and one in central Wales, beside the one that gave its name to Cornwall (Kernow), and it may not have come from an ancient source at all.

In Part Six we’ll look at the eastern provinces and conclusion on all this will appear in Part Seven.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to comments, thoughts … and corrections,

Mak

CLICK HERE TO GO TO PART SIX

PS: HUGE thanks to the map maker Steffon Worthington for creating the Anne Dornier based map free of charge! There are lovely people at the Facebook King Arthur Group page!

 

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King Arthur – Provincial Dux, Comes or Tribunus? – Part Seven

Provinces based on Anne Dornier's theory with my own thoughts (kindly created for me by Steffon Worthington)

FROM GENERAL TO GOVERNOR OR KING?

Many great military leaders have gone on to political position, either by force or being elevated to them. If Britain’s provinces did survive and tried to keep some form of Roman structure (even if not law), it is not inconceivable that someone who was once a general of some kind went on to be, or was given, the position as a rectores (governor) or even king. As noted, the tribuni of the province of Egypt also held a military position. If the chronological gap between the subduing of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ (unless Nick Higham’s theory is right and they subdued the Britons) and Arthur’s supposed death at Camlan, twenty-one years after Badon, have any bases in truth (and it may not) then it could have been that he fulfilled this position for at least some of this time. Or, he could have been elevated to a king … and not necessarily an over-king. Or, perhaps Camlan could have been him trying to rise to a military position again, and failing? We’ll never know. (I’m I’m going to explore this question of the supposed gap between Badon and Camlan at a later date).

THE ‘PHARAOH’

Gildas seems to indicate that the five kings he chastises were led by a ‘Pharaoh’, and some have wondered if he is referring to a provincial governor or military commander. Here’s what Gildas says:

“I will briefly set down the threatenings which are denounced against these five aforesaid lascivious horses, the frantic followers of Pharaoh […]” (DEB §37)

He is obviously being metaphorical but how literal? He has already compared the Proud Tyrant to the Pharaoh of Isaiah 19. The above is a bit of a strange sentence, as the ‘five aforesaid lascivious horses’  should, perhaps, be leading the Pharaoh as metaphorical horses, not the other way around. If it were this way around it might mean they were leading their governor (or over-king) down the wrong path, and he couldn’t do anything about it; but this appears to mean they were following his lead … if he was a ‘he’. Gildas, unfortunately, says nothing more on the matter. Was there someone above these kings even Gildas wouldn’t dare to chastise? Possibly. The alternative is Gildas simply meant that they where led by the example of the Proud Tyrant; that is, they were carrying on in his manner. Nick Higham takes this to mean that they behaved in exactly the same way as the council that ill advised (in his eyes) the Proud Tyrant to bring in ‘Saxon’ federates.

*The Proud Tyrant is generally thought to have been (the over-king or equivalent?) Vortigern, and Bede certainly names him as this figure, (as does a later version of the DEB) but there are some scholars who believe it could be referring to either of the usurping emperors from Britannia, Magnus Maximus or Constantine III. If it were one of these, I’d say the latter.

THE FATHER-DEVIL

There is one more character worth looking at and that is the one Gildas says is the kings’ “father the devil” (pater diabolus). This Higham takes to be the over-king of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (Aelle?) but he translates it as ‘father-devil“. It’s an excellent observation given that Gildas refers to the ‘Saxons’ as devils. (It’s not one David Dumville agrees on). Gildas also calls Constantine of Dumnonia an “instrument of the devil” and he appears to mean the devil in the Biblical sense. So, as far as my none-academic, none Latin literate mind can tell, Gildas could simply mean … well, “their father the devil“. Unless this ‘father-devil’ could be an over-king/over-lord of Britannia Prima? I will have to bow to those of superior knowledge in all things Gildasian and Latin.

CONCLUSIONS

There are two questions to be answered here:

1. Could there have been provincial duces, comes and/or tribunus?

2. If Arthur existed, could he have been one of these?

If my reading of the evidence is right (and it may not be!) there where duces (military leaders) even in Gildas’s time (early to mid 6th century), but there’s no mention (unless that ‘Pharaoh‘ is he) of an overal dux (but see below). Gildas doesn’t appear to mention the north, however, so we can’t say for this region., (Although there are arguers for Maglocunus being of the north and not (just?) North Wales).

Gildas is more than a generation away from Badon, so things could have been different then. In the west and those regions that had kings, they too could be the duces, and Gildas seems to say as much. Only areas that still retain some semblance of a division of civil and military rule may have had duces who weren’t kings (per se). Those kings in the west and north who weren’t perhaps so war-like, or had visions of old Imperial grandeur, could also have used duces to lead their warbands. It might be more correct to say these war leaders were tribunus: generals, but given the name duces in later (Gildasian) times? Christopher Gidlow in his book The Reign of King Arthur (2004) also points out that the term duces could be used in all manner of ways in Late Antiquity (pp.41-44).

The Dux of Britannia Prima?

There’s a very good conclusion to Gildas’s use of these five kings of Britannia Prima (?) made by Professor Higham, and that is that Gildas is berating them not just because of their lapsed moral ways, but because he knows they are the province’s (or Britannia’s) only military hope and is trying to scare them into doing something about the ‘Saxon’ problem. Higham also points out that Gildas spends more time on Maglocunus than on all the other kings put together, and this was because, in Gildas’s eyes at least, he was the most powerful amongst them or, perhaps, held some kind of sway over them, or some of them. Gildas says this king is “higher than almost all duces of Britannia in both royalty and physique“. Not “all” but “almost all”, so there was another. In Higham’s eyes this is the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ over-king, in GIdlow’s it’s Outigern. Whether Higham is right is another matter, and his conclusions fits with his ‘Anglo-Saxon’ dominance of even eastern Britannia Prima, so it might be coloured by this. (But who am I to argue?).

Could this mean Maglocunus was the Dux Britannia Prima at the time of Gildas, and so he as an over-king held this ‘military’ position? If Higham is wrong, then who is the dux who is higher than him? Someone of the north, if Maglocunus wasn’t from there or held power over it? It doesn’t seems to be one of the other kings mentioned. Gidlow wonders if this figure was Outigern.

If there were other positions active before Gildas’s time he wasn’t aware of them, or didn’t mention them, but it would seem that the LIfe of St Germanus mentions a tribuni, but this was over a hundred years before Gildas. However, we have got a ‘protector‘ in western Britannia. I’ve mentioned this title before, but here’s a quote, again from Robert Vermaat’s Fectio website, to tell you what one was:

The protector (title) was originally a member of the select corps that Gallienus created as a group of loyal men around him. This group changed into a kind of school for officers, making men who were promoted from the ranks to become a protector before they were posted to their new ranks and duties. Some of these protectores were posted to the staff of field commanders (deputati) to gain experience, and performed a great number of duties. They could be sent to round up recruits and vagrants, or act as border guards controlling exported goods. Their more military duties could include the arrest of important persons, as related by Ammianus Marcellinus, who himself was a member of the ten protectores domestici in the staff of the general Ursicinus.This group was named domestici (men serving in the entourage of the Emperor, although also dispersed over the lower army staffs) to distinguish them from ordinary protectores, who succeeded to a command of a unit after serving for a number of years as protector. Other military tasks included special missions, such as preparing temporary forts on campaign, or the arrest of officers.

When a soldier reached this stage of cadet officer, it finally meant a break from his original unit, because only the Emperor could decide to transfer men from one unit to another. Promotion was therefore very slow and it is not surprising that higher officers used their influence to get instant commissions for their sons. Bribery was rife in the Roman army, but men appointed thus instead of rising through the ranks had to pay certain fees and charges. When during the fifth century the flexibility of the promotion system decreased, the domestici and protectores became a static body.

I doubt very much that this is what Vortiporix (the gentleman who held this title in Demetia) was, but old Imperial ranks and titles (such as rectores, magister and speculatores) were being used, even if their role wasn’t the same. Counter to Collingwood’s theory, a comes (companion or count) with a field army may be the one position that didn’t survive, but a dux of the time may have fulfilled that role also.

SO?

With all this in mind, it seems that it it is entirely possible that an historical Arthur (if he existed) fulfilled some kind of none-royal military position … someone did! This could have been any of the three ranks, but with more likely that of tribuni or dux. If there was a a military provincial dux I would favour there being one of the north, as Ken Dark suggests, because of its Roman military past and the forts that were reused, but other regions having one (or several) is not out of the question. In fact, if we are reading Gildas right, they did have several, we just don’t know their exact military function. It’s something we may never be able to answer as we may never know the political situation and structure of late 5th century Britannia, unless there is some miraculous literary find.

Arthur in such a position could make sense of two things: why the name was only used by later Hiberno-Britannians (or regions) or Hiberno-Britons (see THIS blog) and why he, like Ambrosius Aurelianus, left no (reliable) lineage. The first reason could have been because he was, indeed, from one of the several British regions of a Gaelic speaking/British mix (and this could even include what is now part of Cornwall) and was chosen as a military leader because of his past military deeds, because it was felt he was someone they could trust … or because of his wealth.  He could have been from within a province or brought in from another one … or, even from outside of the diocese.

The second reason for an Arthur of Badon not appearing in any (reliable) regional genealogies would be because he wouldn’t be of a kingdom’s royal line, or an over-king, so no genealogy would survive. But that only may apply to the west and north. If he was from the east he may not leave any genealogy even if he was a great king because of the ‘Saxon’ conquest. (Yet Wales preserved even northern kings’ lineages). Whatever he was and wherever he was from, (if he existed!) he would, however, had to have still been a ‘wealthy’ and powerful man.

This blog has explored only one possibility for what Arthur might have been, and it certainly helps makes sense of him being in charge of kings and their warbands in battle as per the H.B., but not being a king (or major king) himself if he was in a military position. However, there are always other options, which I’ll explore at a later date.

Thanks for taking the time to read the lengthy ramblings of a layman, and, once again I look forward to your comments, thoughts and corrections,

Mak

PS: HUGE thanks to the map maker Steffon Worthington for creating the Anne Dornier based map free of charge! There are lovely people at the Facebook King Arthur Group page!

 

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