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

BATTLING WITH THE BATTLES … AGAIN! (Part One)

As I mentioned in earlier parts of this blog, the same ‘all or nothing’ argument goes for the battles listed in the H.B. as far as Dumville, Higham and Green are concerned (although Green concedes some may have happened but have been fought by someone else). For Higham the H.B. uses Arthur purely as a ‘Joshua figure’ to St Patrick’s ‘Moses’ type, and the 12 battles are simply a Biblical providential number. (The number is certainly not based on Joshua, who fought 31 of them!). I think the H.B. may very well be using Arthur in this way, (although Gidlow points out how unlike his supposed Biblical counterpart Arthur is made) but that doesn’t mean he or the battles were made up (entirely?) for the purpose. Arthur, like Patrick (who is mythologized in the H.B.), could have been chosen because he fitted the bill … or was adjusted to fit the bill. Had someone else fitted this bill, it might be them we would be writing about. But what was it about him that made him the choice?

Higham argues that the format of the battles was merely taken from a known battle poem of Gwynedd: Canu Cadwallon ap Cadfan. Cadwallon has 16 battles to Arthur’s 12 (2007, pp.145-147). Nick Higham says:

QUOTE TO COME LATER

Christopher Gidlow counters:

QUOTE TO COME LATER

The Anglo-Saxon poem Widsith is sometimes brought in as an example here. In this 9th century poem about him, the fictitious 7th century poet (scop) is given travels all over the known world (over 50 places!) or knows of them. Arthur isn’t; he’s given nine locations, twelve battles, and all in Britain … as far as we know. (You can read the Widsith poem here: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/~enm/widsith.htm ). So he’s hardly a comparison at all.

If we look at the point of this section in the H.B. and why Arthur was used, it raises questions that, to me, Dumville et al do not address: whoever was placed at this point in the H.B. would have to be known as a ‘Saxon’ fighter, and possibly the victor at Badon. Unless we’ve lost the stories that included this information, the Arthur of the Welsh pre-Galfridian tradition did neither (unless we can count Llongborth). Nor is he anywhere in this tradition depicted as the leader of battle for kings of the Britons or the victor at Badon. If he was never seen as doing any of these things in Welsh tradition, what would be the point in using him or listing some mythical battles that his Welsh audience would have known were not against ‘Saxons’?

Let’s look at the battles in more detail and what was/is known about them. First the Harleian version of the H.B.:

“Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the leader in battle [dux bellorum]. His first battle was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein. His second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was above the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the forest of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle was at the fortress of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of holy Mary ever virgin on his shoulders [or shield]; and the pagans were put to flight on that day. And through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the power of the blessed Virgin Mary his mother there was great slaughter among them. The ninth battle was waged in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was waged on the banks of a river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought on the mountain which is called Agnet [Agned]. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor. And while they were being defeated in all the battles, they were seeking assistance from Germany and their numbers were being augmented many times over without interruption. And they brought over kings from Germany that they might reign over them in Britain, right down to the time in which Ida reigned, who was son of Eobba. He was the first king in Bernicia, i.e., in Berneich.”

The later Vatican recension of the H.B.:

“Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror. The first battle in which he was engaged, was at the mouth of the river Gleni. The second, third, fourth, and fifth, were on another river, by the Britons called Duglas, in the region Linuis. The sixth, on the river Bassas. The seventh in the wood Celidon, which the Britons call Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth was near Gurnion castle, where Arthur bore the image of the Holy Virgin, mother of God, upon his shoulders [shield?], and through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the holy Mary, put the Saxons to flight, and pursued them the whole day with great slaughter. The ninth was at the City of Legion, which is called Cair Lion. The tenth was on the banks of the river Trat Treuroit. The eleventh was on the mountain Breguoin, which we call Cat Bregion. The twelfth was a most severe contest, when Arthur penetrated to the hill of Badon. In this engagement, nine hundred and forty fell by his hand alone, no one but the Lord affording him assistance. In all these engagements the Britons were successful. For no strength can avail against the will of the Almighty.”

Let’s take them one at a time, and rather than thinking about where these battles might have been, I want to consider where the H.B.’s North Walian readers might have thought these battles to be:

  1. At the mouth of (or a confluence of) the River Glein/Gleni. (Nothing known. Could be in Northumbria, Lincolnshire or Sussex … or other locations. Enemy unknown, but if the Welsh audience took this to mean Northumbria, then the enemy would be Northumbrian (Bernician) Angles - Angles would still be called ‘Saxons’).
  2. Four battles above the River Dubglas/Duglas in the region of Linnuis (Linnuis is generally taken to be Lindsey=Lincolnshire, but not all agree. However, this is where the H.B’s readers would most likely think them to have been. Enemy may have been taken to be Northumbrian (Deiran) Angles or East Angles).
  3. Above the River Bassas. (Several locations given. Said to be taken from Eglwysseu Bassa (Churches of Bassa) in the Canu Heledd poems. Apart from the difference between Bassa and Bassas, there is no River Bassas mentioned in these poems, only the Tren, Trydonwy, Twrch, Marchnwy, Geirw, Alwen and Hafren (Severn). In both poetic cases Bassa and Bassas are odd, none British names. The battles in Canu Heledd were against Northumbrian Angles. The H.B.’s audience may have taken this to have been against Northumbrian or Mercian Angles)
  4. At Coit Celidon (Wood of Celidon). (Thought to mean a woodland in the Scottish borders, but not by all. Green identifies this with the mythical battle of Coit Godue, although why it wouldn’t be called Coit Godue is anyone’s guess if this was the case. Enemy unknown, but if the H.B’s audience equated Celidon with the north they would have taken the enemy to be Northumbrian (Bernician) Angles).
  5. At Castello Guinnion/Gurnion. (Many identify this with the Roman fort of Vinuium (Binchester), although it is argued that this doesn’t work etymologically speaking by Jackson,(Once Again Arthur’s Battles, Modern Philology, 1945), but Rivet thinks it shouldn’t be reject out of hand (The Place-Names of Roman Britain, 1992). There is a Cerrig Gwynion in Wales, which is an old Iron Age hillfort between Llandudno and Bangor … not to mention the not far away hillfort of Bwrdd Arthur. Would the North Walian reader take it to be this location or Binchester? Enemy unknown, but may have been taken to be Northumbrian (Deiran) Angles if in the north or against Irish raider if in Wales).
  6. Urbe Ligionis (City of Legions). (Generally thought to be either Chester or Caerleon. Said to be a borrowing of the Battle of Chester of c. 613; a battle the Britons lost to the Northumbrians. This battle is mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work as Legecester (the Anglo-Saxon version of Fort of the Legion) and in the Welsh version, the Brut y Brenhinedd, the battle is called Perllan Fangor (Bangor Orchard). Bede calls Chester civitas legionum and Gildas calls somewhere urbs legionum (possibly Caerleon?). If Chester was known as Urbe Ligionis, this naming wasn’t used in any of these other works so Nennius didn’t get it directly from Gildas or Bede. In the Vatican recension of the H.B. it is glossed as meaning Cair Lion in Welsh. This is interesting because perhaps that should come from Castra Ligionis? There is some argument as to the difference between urbe (or urbs as used by Gildas) and cair/caer, and whether this could actually mean somewhere else, such as York, which was a civil colonia as well as a fortress and an administrative ‘city’. But most favour Chester or Caerleon even though the two mentions in the H.B. should mean Cair ligion/lion=Fortress of the Legion and Urbe Ligionis=City of the Legion (see P.J.C Filed’s article at http://www.heroicage.org/issues/1/hagcl.htm ). If the readers thought this was Chester it would have been taken to be Mercian or Northumbrian Angles; if they thought it Caerleon they may have thought Mercians).
  7. On the banks of the Tribruit/Treuroit. (Various locations given. Argued to be a mythical battle because of its mention in the poem Pa Gur yv y Porthaur? and the story of Culhwch ac Olwen. Not ‘Saxon’?).
  8. At the mountain of Breguoin/Agned. (Argued to be a battle Urien Rheged  fought, called “cellawr Brewyn” or ‘cells of Brewyn’. Some identify the location with the Roman fort of Bremetennacum (Ribchester, Lancashire), but, once again, the etymology doesn’t work. (Rivet & Smith 1979, p.277). A better candidate might be Bremenium (High Rochester, Northumbria). Urien’s enemy in this battle is unknown although the “Angles” (‘Saxons’) are mentioned later in the poem, but other British and Gael enemies are also inferred. The battle merely appears in a list of seven in a Taliesin poem, but isn’t singled out. (See: http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/t36.html ). It would most likely to have been taken to be Northumbrian Angles).
  9. At Mount Badon: (Generally located in the south around Bath/Badbury, but also Lincolnshire (Green) and other locations. Known battle against ‘Saxons’, as mentioned by Gildas in the 6th century. Dated between 483 and 516. The H.B.’s readers would most likely take the enemy to have been Wessex (West Saxons), unless they knew (or thought) otherwise).

NB: These English kingdoms (Mercian, Northumbria, etc.) wouldn’t have existed in the late 5th century, but the H.B.’s audience in general wouldn’t have known this and would think of the known kingdoms of the time. It is interesting to note that, to the H.B.’s readers at least, many of these battles may have been seen to be against Mercian or Northumbrian Angles. These were who the North Walians had had run-ins with, especially the latter in earlier times, whilst the south had problems with Saxon Wessex. Was this the reason why Arthur and/or these battles were chosen? If so, then Badon (if it was in the south) may not have been as important to them as his other battles. (Of course, I’m referring to who the H.B.’s readers might take the battles to have been against, not who they actually might have been against). It would mean the H.B. did three things: 1) showed Arthur defeated the Northumbrian’s (and Mercian’s) ancestors, 2) showed Cadwallon (died 634) of Gwynedd later defeated the Northumbrians, 3) refuted the Northumbrian monk Beds’s view of the Britons. Was this the point of Arthur? A call to unity as of old against the same old foe, whilst the Mercian were busy with the Danes?

(Alex Woolf, wonders if the genealogists have inserted Bede’s Cadwallon into the pedigree of the Kings of Gwynedd? He forwards that Bede’s Cadwallon might be Catguallaun liu, son of Guitcun, grandson of Sawyl Penuchel who were rulers in the north. Woolf, 2004).

The second part of this section will continue looking at the battles.

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

Mak

 

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In Search of the ‘Original’ King Arthur – Part Eleven

UPDATED 3.6.12

Connections?

Before getting on to my conclusion, I want to see what connections, besides the obvious ones, there are with these Hiberno-British Arthurs and the Arthur of Badon. I will list those already mentioned first. Some will have more ‘strength’ to them than others.

  1. They are either Hiberno-Britons or live in Hibernian (Gael) dominated areas or areas of Hibernian influence or descent.
  2. Three may have been given the name between ca 570 and 600, with one of them of the earlier date.
  3. The mention in Y Gododdin (if dated correctly by Koch) is around the same time.
  4. All but one are in the north.
  5. One of the battles from the Historia Britonnum – Celidon Wood – is identified as being in the northern area between the Walls by some (but not all!).
  6. The Battle of Camlan is identified by some as being on the Wall, at Camboglanna (but not all!).
  7. The battle at the confluence or estuary of the Glein is identified as being in the northern area between the Walls by some (but not all!).
  8. The Annales Cambriae were written in a once Cambro-Irish area.

Which Arthur?

There are, of course, two very distinct things I am looking at here: my conclusion on the evidence and what to make an Arthur of a screenplay.  They are not the same.

There are five questions that can be asked:

  1. Do I think one of these was the ‘original’?
  2. Do I think it is possible one of these was the ‘original’?
  3. Was there no ‘original’ and the later Arthur was an amalgamation of some of these and other historical figures?
  4. Was the ‘original’ mythical?
  5. Are these named after an ‘original’ of Badon fame or is one of these the ‘original’?

The answer to the No. 1 is, there can be no certainty about anything, but from how I read the evidence (and others will see it differently) I think not. However, this may rest on whether John Koch’s datings are right or not.

The second is, yes, it’s always possible one of these was the ‘original’ … and by ‘original’ I mean the one whose name was used to hang everything else off.

The third is, yes, it’s possible there was no actual ‘original’ and Arthur of the H.B. was an amalgamation of some of the other Arthurs, or even a mythical or folkloric figure called Arthur in answer to question five. But more on this later.

The answer to the fourth question depends on the dating of Artúr mac Áedán and whether he was, in fact, the later Artúr mac Conaing. If Arthur map Pedr is a generation (or even two) before this Artúr then that changes things.  He could then be the ‘original’. We then have to rely on the much later Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae to tell us he wasn’t.

In answer to question five; yes it’s possible all the Arthur’s (which could include an Arthur of Badon) where named after an earlier mythical figure. This is explored in greater detail in THIS Blog.

If these Arthurs were named at roughly the same time or just before the name appears in Y Gododdin (if it is dated correctly by Koch), it does strengthen the argument that another historical Arthur came before them.  From this research I certainly cannot see how there could be any certainty that the name in Y Gododdin refers to Artúr mac Áedán.  If this Arthur can be considered then so should Arthur son of Bicoir (if he’s not in fact Arthur of Badon) and Arthur map Petr, but the latter may have the best strength, in my opinion. Subsequent Arthurs to the above mentioned in the north could indeed be named in honour of either one of them or an ‘original’ of Badon fame.

There is a theory that places the battle of Mount Badon, not just to a possible decade but to something far more specific: February, 483! This solution, by D. O. Croinin, is based on the 84 year ‘paschal cycle’. (The ‘lost’ irish 84-year easter table rediscovered, Peritia (6-7), 1987-1988, p. 238). If it’s correct, could these (or one or two of them) Arthurs have been named because they were born on the 100th anniversary of Badon?  Could this also be the case of his mention in Y Gododdin, if Koch’s dating is anywhere near correct?

If they are named after Arthur of Badon the weight of evidence might balance in favour of him being from the north, who came south; but that cannot rule out a southern, including what is now Wales, or even a Dumnonian one who went north.  If he was purely a military commander, again, I’d favour the north … but only just.  If he was also a great king – something I want to leave for another article/blog – then we may need to look at another area entirely: the east for example.  However, this might rule out an Hiberno-British Arthur, but not totally if one Gael parent went east and married.

The  Arthur I haven’t covered yet is Lucius Artorius Castus.

Lucius Artorius Castus (2nd century AD)

Lucius Artorius Castus, is the 2nd. century historical Roman commander that Linda A. Malcor and the late C. Scott Littleton championed as the ‘original’ … and the one the film King Arthur put in completely the wrong century! (Malcor & Littleton, ‘From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail,’ 2000).  Is it possible that his deeds, or name, were passed down through the centuries to kick-start the legend? Yes, it’s possible. It’s even possible that if there was an Hiberno-British Arthur of Badon fame he was named after him … or a folkloric character he inspired. If there wasn’t an Arthur of Badon, then it’s possible that Arthur ap Pedr was named for the same reasons. But why didn’t those of purely British areas use the name if this was the case? Out of awe? Out of respect? If so, it seems odd that those of mixed race or a mixed cultural areas would.

Christopher Gwinn, at the King Arthur Group on Facebook has pointed out, and goes into in depth at his web page, that Castus was a Praefectus Legionis (ranking below a tribunus or general) with for the VI Victrix at York by the time he was in Britain, and an aging one at that. (See http://www.christophergwinn.com/celticstudies/lac/lac.html ). This rank went to men aged 50-60 and their duties were in the camp itself, not on campaigns. However, he is later said to have commanded the Britanicimiae, which might be a corruption for *Britanniciniae, (a British originated unit or units) in Vindobona and Pannonia. Could these exploits, or earlier ones when he was a centurio with various legions or as Praepositus of a fleet in Italy have got back to Britain? I think this might be stretching things a little. But, who knows? There has recently been a conference in Croatia about LAC, the results of which are yet to be published, and which might change some of the arguments here.

However, once again I would suggest we try not to think in the ‘all or noting’ or ‘either/or term. There could have been another famous Artōrius we’re simply unaware of.

The Sarmatians are also tied-in with this Artorius along with some of their legends being the bases for the Arthurian ones. It is possible, but a universal similarity in some legends could also explain it. The main argument I would level against this is why we don’t see these Ossetian (the region from which the Sarmatian are said to have come) stories appearing in the earliest Welsh Arthurian tale of Culhwch ac Olwen? The similarities don’t seem to appear until much later.

L. Artorius Castus is thought to be from Dalmatia (the Balkans) but a number of Italian scholars think the name to be Messapic (southeast Italy on the ‘heal’) but of unknown meaning. (Chelotti, Morizio, Silvestrini, Le epigrafi romane di Canosa, Volume 1, 1990, pp. 261, 264).  Another derivation could be from the Latinisation of the Etruscan name Arnthur.(Volume 5, Issue 2 of Abhandlungen der Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, 2nd Edition, 1966, p. 72, pp. 333-339).

Artorius is, in fact, a family name (nomen) and LAC would most likely have been known by the praenomen Lucius, not Artorius, to his friends at least, or by his cognomen, Castus. The name is not attested anywhere  in Britain, besides LAC, but must have been at some point to be given to a mythical or historical figure. It’s relatively common elsewhere in the Roman world.

Great name!

As I have shown, those names reused tended to be the names of great men – Caroticus and Constantine to name but two – and these names were obviously passed down through centuries in some cases. It is possible that this is how the name Arthur came to be used, via Vulgate Latin Arturius, and epigraphic evidence shows that it was a name used throughout the Roman empire, although perhaps not in Britain. If this was the reason the Hiberno-British were giving their sons the name, then one of these Artorii before them had greatness, and logic dictates that he was the first one.

So the conclusion to this part of the question is there can be no certainty about anything, but the evidence, to me at least, seems to point to the ‘original’ either being an Hiberno-Briton of greatness, whether that be Arthur map Pedr, or someone called Artúr mac Iobhair/Arthur ap Vthvr. This argument, of course, hinges on the British name Arthur coming via Vulgate Latin Arturius and Goidelic (Irish) Artúr. The doesn’t rule out all of these figures (including an Arthur of Badon) getting their names from some mythical or folkloric figure. (See the blog, called King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both?,  which covers this question in more detail).

There is one last point to be made. There could have been an Arthur of Badon fame who didn’t actually fight at Badon! By this I mean an Arthur who lived at that time, who was a great military leader. but never fought at that battle but was later associated with it.

In the end, the writer of a novel or a screenplay has to make a choice, and that choice is not going to be liked by a certain portion of Arthurian ‘positivists’ as Gidlow calls them.  (I’d call myself a ‘probablist’!).  The other factor is you’re telling a story, not making a documentary, and that story has to be able to sell.  The majority of your audience won’t care in the slightest if it’s based on certain ‘facts’, they just want a good yarn and so do producers.  It’s very conceivable, in the case of a screenplay, that a studio might buy it from you and that’s the end of your involvement as they hire a more experienced writer to complete it.  It is, at that point, their property, not yours, and they can do what they want with it.

There will also be the question of the last ‘King Arthur’ movie.  Even if one comes to the conclusion that he may have been from the Wall area, is it wise to make him this in light of this other project?  (This film may have been a critical flop, I hated it, but it has grossed £136M around the world to date).  There is now the ‘Camelot’ series (although there’s no second series planned) and a couple of new Arthurian (legend based) movies to contend with, which may make it impossible to sell as a feature film for quite a number of years. (A friend and I had just completed a 1066, Battle of Hastings script when we discovered that three other scripts had beaten us to it! Thanks Helen Hollick! LOL).

Personally, I’ve always wanted to do it as a three-part TV event mini series.  This gives you more chance to explore the story, not have quite the same pressure from a film studio, not have to attach a big name to it and the chance to create a spin-off documentary.  The downside is you don’t have a feature film budget!

Whatever kind of Arthur I go with, although I think he will probably be Hiberno-British one of some description (though that doesn’t mean he was, if he existed), I will make one thing plain in the opening credits:

We will never know the ‘true story’ of Arthur, but through the ages of darkness and from the mists of legends there may shine a glimmer of his life”.

All I have to do now is write it, then try to sell it!

Thanks for reading these blogs and I hope they’ve been at least interesting and at best thought-provoking.

Mak

* THERE IS NOW A POST SCRIPT TO THIS BLOG. CLICK HERE TO READ IT.

** FOR THOSE INTERESTED, THERE’S A RELATED BLOG TO THIS CALLED ‘KING ARTHUR – MAN, MYTH … OR BOTH?‘ TO READ IT, CLICK HERE.

 

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In Search of the ‘Original’ King Arthur – Part Ten

The Harley 3859

UPDATED 2.6.12

Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae

Anyone studying Arthuriana knows the split between those who think these documents can be used as evidence (Gidlow et al) and those who don’t (Dumville et al).  Personally, I think we should be extremely cautious with both.

Historia Brittonum (ca 835)

(This is an extract from the upcoming ebook. I can’t place the whole chapter here as it is simply too long, but when the book is complete, I will attach a link to a PDF version of the chapter).

The H.B.’s Arthurian section cannot be discussed without first knowing exactly what kind of ‘history’ it was, and the point of its composition. There’s much argument and debate about this, not helped by the fact the everyone has been waiting for Dr. David Dumville to complete his new work on it. We’ve been waiting for 15 years now! He has made comments on it, however, and especially the Arthurian section and we’ll explore this below. There are plenty of others who have commented on it and put their theories forward as to what it is, and we’ll look at those in a moment.

First a word about Nennius/Ninnius/Nemnius/’Nennius’, said to be the original compiler of the H.B.. Whilst Dumville tells us the preface is a later forgery, as Nennius doesn’t appear in the two earlier MMS, not all agree that this means a man called Ninnius wasn’t the first compiler. There are other editors and compliers mentioned also in the various recensions, namely Samuel, Beulan, Euben, Marcus and even Gildas! But why mention a Ninnius if they (or someone) didn’t think him to be the original, even if the preface was forged in his name.

There was a ‘Nennius’ of the Late-8th century as attested in a 9th century Welsh MS Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Auct. F.4.32, dated 817. This Nemnuuis was a Welsh ecclesiastic who, when challenged by an English scholar about the lack of a British alphabet, supposedly designed one on the spot. It is likely that this Nemnuuis was Ninnius. Because of all this, Nennius is usually written with inverted commas, ‘Nennius’, but I will just be calling him Nennius.

As Robert Vermaat has notes at his Vortigern Studies website

“How is the “Nennian” authorship affected by all that? Dumville believed that the name of Ninnius was no older than c. 1100, when a new edition was made under the direction of Beulan, by the scribe Euben, in praise of Samuel, and ascribed to Ninnius. However, it is the last part I cannot agree with. If there was no known author, what made the editors so sure that they would ascribe it to this famous Welsh scholar? Surely, there would have been other candidates, such as the more famous Elfoddw? I think it therefore much more acceptable to agree that the name of Ninnius or ‘Nennius’, was already known to them as author of the text. But to be completely correct, I am using the name of ‘Nennius’.” (http://www.vortigernstudies.org.uk/artsou/historia.htm).

John Koch has written:

 “However, Dumville has argued that the Nennian Prologue is a later forgery and was never part of the recensions which now lack it; the work should therefore be treated as anonymous. Although Dumville’s case has been widely accepted, and one can hardly ignore the fact that only one recension mentions Nennius at all, Field has since argued that, because the prologue rebuked British scholars as ignorant, the other recensions understandably omitted the passage as offensive. Beneath the authorship question, there are some theoretical issues. Are we seeing the activities of an author or rather a compiler? Must Historia Brittonum have a formal authorial starting point, as opposed to beginning as an informal workbook, a miscellany of notes, or a commentary on Gildas which gradually grew before it was later— and not altogether successfully—dressed up as a ‘History of the Britons’?” (‘Celtic Culture – A Historic Encyclopedia’, John Koch, 2006, p.927)

In the preface that does mention Nennius, he says that all he has done is made “a heap of thing”; taking what information he knows and merely putting it together as a narrative. No one believes this for a moment and it is not only a synthetic and synchronistic ‘history’ it’s also has both political and ecclesiastical axe to grind.

Dr. Dumville is of the opinion that it has no historical value apart from showing us the mindset of those that compiled it. In his view, unless a work is contemporary to the events it describes, it can’t be trusted. In answer to this, Charles-Edward notes that, if this were the case, there’s much history we cannot trust, and that, conversely, we may be able to trust histories written at a distance to the events more than those written at the time, which may be clouded by political and other factors. (See Charle-Edward: ‘The Arthur of the Welsh’),

A manuscript of Bede's, Historia Ecclesiastica...

A manuscript of Bede’s, Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As to why it was compiled, there is a general consensus that it was written in answer to the Northumbrian monk and saint Bede’s Early-8th century Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’). How it answered Bede’s work is not always agreed on. The Arthurian section in particular is said to be used to two very different way: one argument is that it showed that there was a great British warrior who defeated the ancestors of their current foes and demonstrated it would take British unity to defeat them again; the other is that it showed that no matter how many times the British were victors over the English, even through Vortimer and Arthur, they could only be ‘defeated’ by converting them to Christ, as was done by St. Patrick and (supposedly) Rhun ap Urien of Rheged. This is what Bede criticized the Britons of not doing and the Anglo-Saxons, and their subsequent rise to power, were God’s retribution on the Britons. Bede, of course, was following on from Gildas’s damnation of his own people in the 6th century.

It is as much an ecclesiastical work as a history of the people of Britain and its title, the Historia Britonnum, isn’t present in all the MMS. Probably. like Bede’s work, it should be called ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the Peoples of Britain’. It spends more time on St. Germanus and St. Patrick than anyone else (Arthur gets a mere short chapter) and its main point is: God is boss!

Nor can it be separated form the political and ecclesiastic times in which it was compiled. There is a the question as to the date of its composition. Whilst it is generally thought to date to the fourth year of the reign of Mervyn Vrych of Gwynedd (c.829/830) it has been suggested that it could have started life much earlier. Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews has argued for the Late-8th century (The Arthurian battle list of the Historia Brittonum, 2010) but John Koch notes that the Breton MS, which was destroyed during the Second World War at Chartres, attributed the text to a ‘son of Urien’ (filius Urbagen), and one suspects this to be a son of Urien Rheged. However, Rhun supposedly died in the Mid-7th century, so, like the H.B. attributed to Gildas, it is a chronological impossibility. But, the Chartres recension is thought to have been the oldest MS, dating to the 10th century. (The dating of the MSS is the date of the earliest surviving copy, and not when they were composed).

John Koch says:

“One further reason for considering the possibility that there had been an earlier version of the text, as much as 140 years older than the synchronisms of 829, is that the last historical events mentioned are the battle of Nechtanesmere (OW gueith Linn Garan) in 685 and St Cuthbert’s death in 687. The possibility of a prototype for the Historia Brittonum as early as this could be ruled out if its use of Beda’s Historia Ecclesiastica of 731 could be proved: although the two histories deal with many of the same events from starkly opposed national perspectives, Beda does not name his Brythonic sources, the Welsh text does not name its English ones, and the case remains open.” (2006, p.926)

If some of its sections do date from an earlier period, this changes things somewhat, especially if the Mirabilia section was a later addition. (More on that later). This means the Arthurian battles section could itself date from earlier, before Nennius’ compilation, although the Chartres recension cut off before the battle list.

Turbulent times

Mercia

The H.B. was compiled during extremely turbulent times in Britain, although things may have been a little easier for Gwynedd, hence why it could produce the H.B.. Whilst their old enemy of Northumbria had been beaten back and their more recent one of Mercia was involved in in-fighting (and later in the 9th century the Danes) they still had their Welsh neighbours of Powys and Dyfed to contend with.

In Gwynedd’s recent history Mercia had ravaged both it and Powys. Now that Wessex was on the ascendency again and Mercia were involved in civil war, Gwynedd had the chance to get its history out. A history it had, perhaps, started much earlier, not long after Bede’s work.

If Nennius’s patron was, as most scholars think, Mervyn Vrych of Gwynedd, his boss made sure that Arthur got far more ink than any of the Gwynedd kings. That may seem odd, but there was a good reason for it: Mervyn was an outsider from the Isle of Man; a usurper to the Gwynedd throne and the first of a new dynasty. (And, being a Manx man, probably of Gael-British blood). He couldn’t show the First Dynasty of Gwynedd as being too great, nor could he show any Powysian heroes and it’s probably for this politcal reason that the H.B. made Vortigern into a bad guy and the cause of all the Britons’ problems … and that couldn’t have gone down well in Powys! Nor does any south Walian king get a mention. Apart from calling Maelgwn (Maglocunus) a great king he plays down the rest and, as Michelle Ziegler has observed, more is made of the Northumbrian king Oswald than the great 7th century Gwynedd king, Cadwallon. (Ziegler, ‘Through His Enemy’s Eyes: St. Oswald in the Historia Brittonum’, A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 9 (Oct 2006): http://www.mun.ca/mst/heroicage/issues/9/ziegler.html). To quote her online article:

“§41.  Considering Cadwallon’s importance in Gwynedd, several oddities about his treatment in the HB stand out.

  1. There is less information in the HB on Cadwallon than in Bede’s History, a known source for the HB.
  2. The destruction of Edwin’s lineage is credited to the army of Gwynedd, deflecting credit away from Cadwallon.
  3. His death is mentioned as a credit to his slayer.
  4. There is no effort to counter Bede’s demonization of Cadwallon in the HB.”

(At The Heroic Age website: ‘Through His Enemy’s Eyes: St. Oswald in the Historia Brittonum’, A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 9 (Oct 2006)

Cadwallon is the king that the Welsh Prophesies refer to as a hero, yet the H.B. plays him down. This was either Nennius’s religious bent coming to play – after all, Cadwallon won with a pagan ally – it was Mervyn’s idea, or Nennius wasn’t writing for Gwynedd at all. With Nennius unable ( or uninterested) to go to town on any of Gwynedd’s own kings, or those of his neighbours, its no wonder he had to look to the past and chose Arthur.

Arthur the Great

There are valid arguments put forward for Geoffrey of Monmouth making Arthur into European wide campaigner in answer to the famous 8th century Carologinian king and emperor Charlemagne (‘Charles the Great’). Britain didn’t have its equivalent so Geoffrey supplied him.

Again the H.B. could have done something similar had it wanted to really big Arthur up. Charlemagne must have been the most famous man in Europe at the time. Did it do this by saying he lead kings in battle? Perhaps. Charles-Edward argues it’s because he wanted to make him like the ‘Saxon’ Hengist or the equivalent of an Anglo-Saxon Bretwalda. (More on Arthur’s dux bellorum description in Part Two).

But then the later Vatican recension says he was less noble than the kings. Its editor probably had his own political or religious reasons for doing this, unless it was part of the general tradition? This would seem unlikely considering Culhwch ac Olwen called him the ‘Sovereign Lord’ of Britain.

If he was seen as the great man we think him today, then why didn’t Nennius spend anymore than a single chapter on him? There are no stories like the other characters depicted before him, just a short description and a list of battles. It could indeed be because he was only a warrior, and one that only won with God’s aid. Had he been made a saint, it would probably have been a different matter.

Arthur’s battles all appear to be in Britain (unlike in Culhwch ac Olwen and Geoffrey’s History), so it doesn’t seem he was needed to be that great; the usurping emperors Magnus Maximus and Constantine III probably filled those purple shoes.

If there was a historical Arthur, could he have been a hero especially to Mervyn, the man from Man? An island of Gaels and Britons? I’m probably taking the link too far, but once again there is that cultural mix. If he was trying to say that the Britons could only defeat the English by being united under God and a leader of Gael and British blood, then it’s another very good reason for choosing Arthur if he was too. Is this the reason why St. Patrick was also chosen for the H.B. and not one of the Welsh saints or even St. Gildas? Patrick was, of course, British, but had both British and Irish connections.

H.B. sources

Another area where there’s no complete agreement on is what the sources were that went into make up the H.B.. There seems quite a mixture ranging from Irish to Kentish material, northern English, northern British and Welsh. Gidlow argues for the battle list possibly being from various sources and regions and not a single poem. It is argued that some if not all of the Arthurian section could have come from a northern tradition and not a Welsh of Kentish one, and some of the battles might bear that out. There have been arguments for many years over whether Arthur is directly related to the Kentish material that immediately precedes the battle list, or if it is the beginning of a new chapter and doesn’t relate directly to it. It could sound as if it follows on from the Kentish kings, but it could also just be Nennius who made the connection. After, it’s almost impossible to identified any battles in that region, even though Collingwood tried to do so in the 1930s.

Read all about it!

As you may have already surmised, the history of the various H.B. manuscripts is an extremely complexed one, not only beyond the scope of this ebook, by my ken! To quote Keith’s 2010 paper:

“The textual history of the Historia Brittonum is well known to be complex to the point that it is all but impossible to determine what the original text contained. Some forty manuscripts are known to exist, not all of equal weight in reconstructing the text and not all of independent value, as some are clearly copies of extant manuscripts. The work was also quoted by several Anglo-Norman historians and even the French encyclopaedist Lambert of St-Omer (Dumville 1976b), who may have had access to manuscripts no longer extant.” (pp.2-3)

His deduction are the later Vatican recension is more related to the first Chartres recension than any of the others, so it is these that should be heeded. Keith believes there to have been an earlier archetype version of the H.B. that all the others were based on, especially the Chartres and Vatican, possibly dating to the Late-8th century – some sixty years before the Harleian recension. If he’s right, it was started when their Mercian enemy were still strong.

“Importantly, though, the Chartres recension not only lacks the computus §16 but also contains a rambling passage towards the end of §31, which seems to indicate that it should be dated to some point after the mid-eighth century (sicut libine abas iae in ripum ciuitate inuenit uel reperit, ‘as Sl.bine, Abbot of Iona (752-767) came across or discovered in the city of Ripon’). In other words, the passage dating the Historia Brittonum to 828×9 is secondary and must date the archetype of the remaining branches containing the Vatican, Harleian, pseudo-Gildas, pseudo-Nennius and Sawley recensions.” (p.3)

As you will see when we get to the battles, there is a difference between one of them in the Harleian and Vatican recensions. One names agned and the other breguoin/bregonium. Here are Keith’s thoughts on that:

“The results of this cladistic analysis do not produce a text of the Arthurian section of §56 that is radically different from Mommsen’s, but at least one well-known problem is cleared up: the difficult in monte qui dicitur <agned> of the Harleian recension. It has long been suspected to have been truncated, as its close relatives render the clause in longer form as in monte qui dicitur cat bregomion, but a consideration of the Vatican recension’s in monte qui nominatur breguoin, ubi illos in fugam uertit quem nos cat bregion appellamus enables us to reject <agned> completely as an inferior reading. Although we cannot now be certain of the original reading, we can reconstruct something along the lines of in monte qui dicitur breguoin, [*id est ] cat bregion (*id est is added as in the other instance where an Old Welsh battle name is given, it is introduced with the phrase id est). It is therefore apparent that the nonsensical must be a corrupt contraction of A W Wade-Evans (1910,134) wrongly believed that in monte badonis was a late intrusion into the text and that it and breguoin were the eleventh and twelfth battles respectively. There is no textual justification for this view.” (p.4)

A good point well made

Before getting to the battle list, I’d like to make one last quote from Keith’s paper, which probably sums up what I’m beginning to think:

“[...] but the major challenge to the academic historian must be to confront the perception that this chapter of the Historia Brittonum is a straightforward record listing late fifth- or early sixth-century battles incorporated verbatim or at only one remove into a ninth-century compilation, a perception that continues to dominate the popular literature on Arthur (e.g. Ashe 2003;; Castleden 2000;; Gidlow 2004;; Moffat 1999;; Pace 2008). Such a confrontation need not, of course, be hostile or destructive. Indeed, if it can be shown that the list consists of information that makes sense only in terms of a late fifth- or early sixth-century historical context, then it provides considerable support for the existence of an ‘historical Arthur’  at that period. If, on the other hand, it contains information that makes sense only in terms of a seventh-century or later context, then it is perhaps the final nail in his coffin.” (‘The Arthurian battle list of the Historia Brittonum, 2010, p.1).

Chapter and verse

With all this in mind, let’s look at the battles of §56 in detail. First the Harleian version of the Arthurian section of the H.B.:

“Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the leader in battle [dux bellorum]. His first battle was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein. His second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was above the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the forest of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon [Battle of the Wood of Celidon]. The eighth battle was at the fortress of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of holy Mary ever virgin on his shoulders [or shield]; and the pagans were put to flight on that day. And through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the power of the blessed Virgin Mary his mother there was great slaughter among them. The ninth battle was waged in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was waged on the banks of a river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought on the mountain which is called Agnet [Agned]. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor. And while they were being defeated in all the battles, they were seeking assistance from Germany and their numbers were being augmented many times over without interruption. And they brought over kings from Germany that they might reign over them in Britain, right down to the time in which Ida reigned, who was son of Eobba. He was the first king in Bernicia, i.e., in Berneich.” (H.B. §56)

Note that the first sentence can be read as Arthur being a king or not. Also note, as Charles-Edward has, that the last section can be interpreted as Arthur being partly the cause of more ‘Anglo-Saxons’ arriving.(See Charles-Edward, ‘The Arthur of the Welsh’)

The later Vatican recension of the H.B.:

“Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror. The first battle in which he was engaged, was at the mouth of the river Gleni. The second, third, fourth, and fifth, were on another river, by the Britons called Duglas, in the region Linuis. The sixth, on the river Bassas. The seventh in the wood Celidon, which the Britons call Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth was near Gurnion castle, where Arthur bore the image of the Holy Virgin, mother of God, upon his shoulders [shield?], and through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the holy Mary, put the Saxons to flight, and pursued them the whole day with great slaughter. The ninth was at the City of Legion, which is called Cair Lion. The tenth was on the banks of the river Trat Treuroit. The eleventh was on the mountain Breguoin, which we call Cat Bregion. The twelfth was a most severe contest, when Arthur penetrated to the hill of Badon*. In this engagement, nine hundred and forty fell by his hand alone, no one but the Lord affording him assistance. In all these engagements the Britons were successful. For no strength can avail against the will of the Almighty.” (H.B. §56)

This is the one that goes to pains to make Arthur out to be less noble than those he leads.

As a side note: in what’s known as the Sawley Glosses, from the monks at Sawley in Yorkshire (c. 1166), two things were added: the prologue by ‘Nennius’ telling us he’d “[...] made a heap of all that I found [...]” (hence Dumville’s dating) and a gloss to Mount Badon. To quote Gidlow:

“The first Arthurian gloss appears in the margin of the battle-list, by the description of Arthur at Mount Badon. ‘Mabutur’ [later glosses ‘in British’] that is ‘horrible son’ [glossed ‘in Latin’] since from his boyhood he was cruel. Arthur, translated into Latin means ‘horrible bear’ or ‘Iron hammer’, with which the jaws of lions were broken.’ This gloss reveals the author’s interest in Welsh etymology. Mab uthr could mean ‘horrible son’ and arth uthr is Welsh for ‘horrible bear’. Most writers agreed that Arthur does indeed derive from Arth. Welsh for hammer ordd is less plausible and has not found favour.” (Gidlow, 2044, p.179)

Battle lines drawn

An ‘all or nothing’ argument seems to go for the battles listed in the H.B. as far as most writers on the subject are concerned, although Thomas Green concedes some may have happened but have been fought by someone else. They either all happened, or they all didn’t.

For Higham the H.B. uses Arthur purely as a ‘Joshua figure’ to St Patrick’s ‘Moses’ type, and the 12 battles are simply a Biblical providential number. (The number is certainly not based on Joshua, who fought 31 of them). I think the H.B. may very well be using Arthur in this way, (although Gidlow points out how unlike his supposed Biblical counterpart Arthur is made) but that doesn’t mean he or the battles were made up (entirely?) for the purpose. Arthur, like Patrick (who is mythologised in the H.B.), could have been chosen because he fitted the bill … or was adjusted to fit the bill. Had someone else fitted this bill, it might be them we would be writing about. But what was it about him that made him the choice? Could it be because the Welsh called him the ‘Sovereign Lord’ of Britain?

I may disagree with Higham’s assessment of the battle list, but not with his general take on the H.B.. He makes some very interesting points about how it was used specifically against Mercia but also Northumbria, and I will look at these in the context of the battle list in a moment. However, we must also keep in mind the opinions that it was also to show that war was not the answer, but conversion to Christ.

Nicholas Higham argues that the format of the battles was merely taken from a known battle poem of Gwynedd: Englynion Cadwallon (Higham, 2007, pp.145-147). Cadwallon has fourteen battles (and 60 skirmishes) to Arthur’s twelve. Here are nine of them:

Before his death, Cadwallon’s victories made us glad,
fourteen great battles in fair Britain,
and sixty skirmishes.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Caint;
he fought the English across the water like birds of prey;
he opened his hand and honor was set free.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the YYdon;
he was sorrow to his enemy,
a Lion, with armies victorious over the Saxons.

The encampment of famous Cadwallon
was on the summit of Digoll Mountain
for seven months with seven battles daily.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Severn,
and on the other side of the Dygen
the plunderers burnt Meigen.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Wye.
after a voyage over water,
he followed to battle the round-shields.

The encampment of Cadwallon was by Ffynnon Bedwyr;
in front of the soldiers he was righteous,
Cynon there was skillful.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Taf,
where are to be seen the powerful
armies of the lord, strong in battle.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Tawy,
he smote in the breach;
praiseworthy and seeking conflict.

The encampment of Cadwallon was beyond Caer,
one-hundred armies with one-hundred ardent warriors
in one-hundred battles destroyed one-hundred fortresses.

The first point is that, like the other battles poems, it is written posthumously. The first thing you may notice is the use of exaggeration, exactly in keeping with Arthur killing 960/940; then you may notice that none of these battle sites rhyme. Each battle is kept within its own three line englyn, so if Nennius was trying to make it look like it came from a similar type of poem, the rhyming scheme of some of the battles doesn’t work … or wouldn’t need to work. Why not just have all the battles able to rhyme?

Yet this is the Gwynedd monarch Nennius or his king, Mervyn Frych played down, not giving him much credit for anything, and crediting his killer (Saint) Oswald more than he.

Thomas Green makes much of people approaching the battle list in an a priori manner that he existed. This is true, but so are there a priori assumptions applied that it is based on a mythical or folkloric Arthur, so one is bound to see the list in a different light if one doesn’t think it of a historic Arthur. I believe one should approach it knowing it could be based on either, or, indeed, both. But it should also be recognised that no other figure around his time in the H.B. is mythical, but there are plenty of instances of mythologising historical figures.

What’s the point?

If we look at the point of this section in the H.B. and why Arthur specifically was used, it raises questions that, to me, all these mythical commentators do not fully address: whoever was placed at this point in the H.B. should have to be known as a ‘Saxon’ fighter (meaning a fighter of any of the ‘Germanic’ groups) and possibly the victor at Badon. Unless we’ve lost the stories that included this information (which is possible) the Arthur of the Welsh pre-Galfridian tradition did neither. Nor is he anywhere in this tradition depicted as the leader of battle for kings of the Britons; instead he leads a mixture of mythical and historic figures from a variety of times and places on a boar hunt or to retrieve a magical cauldron. If he was never seen as fighting ‘Saxons’ in the early Welsh story tradition, what would be the point in using him or listing battles that his Welsh audience would never before have associated him with?

Nor is he, in the Welsh tradition, an exemplar of Christian virtue. He doesn’t fight his foes in the name of God (even though ‘heaven’ is mentioned in Culhwch ac Olwen) but does it because his cousin Culhwch asks him a favour! Yet the H.B. makes him this too.

Why not just use Ambrosius Aurelianus as the victor of Badon? This is what the Northumbrian monk and saint Bede (Bǣda or Bēda) inferred in the Early-8th century in his less well known Chronica Maiora (‘Greater Chronicle’) and the H.B. is argued to be in response to his works. Bede, taking his lead from Gildas wrote:

“The Britons, under the leadership of Ambrosius Aurelianus (a gentleman who, alone of the Romans, had survived the disaster of the Saxons in which his parents, who had worn the purple, had been killed) challenged the victors to battle and defeated them.”

Notice, he doesn’t actually mention Badon. This he’s taken from Gildas:

“After a time, when the cruel plunderers had gone home, God gave strength to the survivors. Wretched people fled to them from all directions …. Their leader was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a gentleman who, perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm. Certainly his parents, who had worn the purple, were slain in it. His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather’s excellence. Under him our people regained their strength, and challenged the victors to battle. The Lord assented, and the battle went their way.” (DEB, §25.2)

This is followed by:

“After this, sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, won the field, to the end that our Lord might this land try after his accustomed manner these his Israelites, whether they loved him or not, until the year of the siege of Mount Badon, when took place also the last almost, though not the least slaughter of our cruel foes, which was (as I am sure) forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity.” (DEB, §26)

There is argument over whether these two chapters should be separated and there was a passage of time between Ambrosius and Badon. For now, let’s just concentrate on Ambrosius.

Higham suggests the use of Arthur instead of Ambrosius in the H.B. was because Gildas called Ambrosius a Roman and not a Briton and Nennius needed a Briton to be the hero at this juncture; it is a valid point, and even though the H.B. gives Ambrosius his ‘British’ name Embreis/Emrys, he’s still called a Roman. But, considering the H.B. relies on St. Germanus (a Gaul) to save the day at one point, this argument could be weakened. He could only not have used Ambrosius as the victor of Badon (one would have thought) if the compiler(s)/editors of the H.B., or the tradition that he/they worked from, thought him not to be the victor, so he either had to come up with one, or use the tradition that said Arthur was he.

I would also add that it would be in Gwynedd’s interest to make Ambrosius the victor at Badon. After all, this is where the hillfort of Dina Emrys lies and in Welsh poetry the men of Gwynedd have been called the ‘men of Emrys’. The H.B. could have used his British given name and made him the hero of the day. That is unless Christopher Gidlow’s argument that Mervyn Vrych wasn’t the patron but Fernmail of Buellt was.

Book of Taliesin

There is one possible pre-Galfridian reference to Arthur at Badon and that’s in a poem contain with the story Ystoria Taliesin (‘The History of Taliesin’) or Hanes Taliesin (‘Tale of Taliesin’), c.Mid-16th century. The poem in question is about Maelgwn of Gwynedd, but mentions the following:

“Let the fools be silent,

As erst in Badon’s fight, -

With Arthur of the liberal ones [...]”

This Taliesin is, of course, the mythical Taliesin and not the bard of the Late-6th century. The poem, in Middle Welsh, is hard to date (as most of them are). This particular copy was written down in the 16th century but elements may date to the Early-13th. (See: Patrick Ford, Ystoria Taliesin. 1972). None of the poems contained in this story are in the older Llyfr Taliesin (‘Book of Taliesin’), only twelve of which are thought to be genuine. (See: Williams, The Poems of Taliesin, 1975).  If this is the case it is post-Galfridian. Even if it was pre-Galfridian it was most likely influenced by the H.B..

To my mind the Arthur of the H.B. had to be one of two things: historical or historicised much earlier so the compilers wouldn’t know the difference. This doesn’t mean they couldn’t have added to him in either case!

Christopher Gidlow suggests that the H.B. is showing that it wasn’t so much the kings of the 5th/6th century that were fighting the Saxons, but their ‘generals’. Vortigern used Vortimer, Ambrosius, possibly, Arthur and, he suggests, Maglocunus (Maelgwn) had Outigern, who fought against the Northumbrians (Gidlow, 2010, p.145). It’s an interesting theory though impossible to prove and there no actual connection between the latter two.

What if we look at this with Hiberno-British tinted glasses? Do we see anything else?  Could it be that it was known he was neither a king or a pure blooded Briton?  Two reason why there were those more nobler than him?  I’d be the first to admit that this is probably pushing it!

Annales Cambriae (ca 955-990)

The Annales Cambriae (A.C.) is believed to have originated in the once Hiberno-British region of southwestern Wales; that which was Demetia and became Dyfed, but at this time was part of Debeubarth.  It was a powerful kingdom, although probably under the thumb of the English kings at the time, but its rulers originated from Gwynedd in the north.

It is thought to be an amalgamation of an Irish Annale and a northern English one. There are two entries in the A.C. relating to Arthur and some scholars think the were later interpolation:

516 -  The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors.

537 – The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell: and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.

Most think the date for Badon incorrect, and place it at least 20 years earlier, some over 30 years.  For this discussion it doesn’t matter. This early section of the A.C. is believed to have been based on a lost Irish annal, possibly from the Clonmacnoise-group, and most of the earlier entries are to do with Ireland, Irish saints or Welsh saints who had connections with Ireland.  It does appear as if the Arthurian entries were shoehorned into it.

Nick Higham (whose conclusions are there was no historical Arthur of Badon) did do an excellent job of deconstructing the first Arthurian entry in the A.C. in his book ‘King Arthur – Myth Making & History’. His basic argument is that most of the wording of the the first entry comes from the earlier H.B. (The second one doesn’t appear in the H.B.).  It certainly could look that way, but there have recently been many comments on Arthurnet that this simply isn’t the case. However I want to put those Hiberno-British tinted glasses on again and take another look at it.

There is another possible option to that proposed by Higham, and that is the original Irish annal had the Arthurian entry, but in a far briefer form and the Welsh scribe added the detail from the H.B.  I can see the problems with this hypothesis in that there are no other Irish annals that include these Arthurian sections and, indeed, why would they. It would take some Irish connection or interest.  But, just to go with this for a little longer, what could such an entry be?

516 -  Battle of Badon, in which Artúr and the Britons were victors.

537 – Battle of Camlann, in which Artúr and Medraut fell; and there was a great plague in Ireland and Britain.

If this was the case, and it is a huge IF, why would the dates be out … that’s assuming they are? It may had to have been a guess on the scribe’s part.

But, if Arthur was Hiberno-British and the annalist knew this (more likely the later southwestern Welsh scribe), Arthur being inserted in amongst Irish entries is not so out of place.  It means he has a possible connection.

The possibility must also be faced that the Battle of Camlan actually involved Arthur map Petr of Demetia and not an Arthur of Badon.  After all, a battle between Demetia (modern day Dyfed and possibly Ceredigion) and Venedota (Gwynedd) around Afon Gamlan (River Camlan) in today’s Welsh county of Merioneth, is certainly conceivable.  The date would, of course, be well out for Arthur map Petr but there could be many reason why it was inserted, especially keeping in mind the region in which the A.C. was composed.

So, can any Hiberno-Arthur been seen in either of these documents.  Probably not.  If anyone was still aware in the 9th and 10th centuries of an Hiberno-British Arthur, they made nothing of it.

In the next and, you’ll be glad to hear, final blog in this series and be looking at my conclusions to all this.

Thanks for reading,

Mak

 

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A Different Look At An Arthurian Battle Poem – Part Three

(Click HERE for Part one – Click HERE for Part Two)

Is it time to rhyme?

The question comes as to whether any poetry about Arthur was composed during his supposed lifetime or many years later.  As Keith mentions and Gidlow points out, the limited surviving early battle poetry we know of only exists between ca 580 and 640; this means that there is a lot that has been lost to us.  But if the type of battle poetry that the H.B. was based on – if it was – only had a relatively short life and had finished by the mid-seventh century then we might deduce that it was compose during this time and not before or after.  If it was in this period it gives a completely different slant to why or how it was composed.  The ‘why’ is possibly easier to answer.  This was the second phase of the Anglo-Saxon migration, expansion and conquest.  What better time to bring a national hero (or great warrior) back from the dead and sing his deeds to the warbands before they faced their Germanic enemies?  “He beat them! So can you!”  This would be the way in which his name could travel the length and breadth of the British Isles, beside him possibly already being a legend in certain regions.  This is the exact period when those Hibernian-British or Cambro-Irish Arthur names appear, adding greater strength to the poem(s) being composed at this time.  (I explore further in THIS blog about Arthur being an Hiberno-Britannian).

The ‘how’ would need either known poetry, or stories.  Any stories or legends would be, perhaps, two or three generations old so we can imagine the level of corruption that may have already occurred.  The possibility of any poetry having being written down in British at this time is slim.  However, if it did exist, it may have had to adjust and develop to the changing language.  This itself could lead to corruption.

Recently I have wondered about Aneirin’s involvement in all this.  This is the man (if it is indeed his own words) who gives us the first mention of the name Arthur in Y Gododdin (not forgetting that there are some scholars who argue this verse is a later interpolation):

Ef gwant tra thrichant echasaf,

Ef lladdai a pherfedd ac eithaf,

Oedd gwiw ym mlaen llu llariaf,

Goddolai o haid meirch y gaeaf.

Gocharai brain du ar fur caer

Cyn ni bai ef Arthur.

Rhwng cyfnerthi yng nghlysur,

Yng nghynnor, gwernor Gwawrddur.


He charged before three hundred of the finest,

He cut down both centre and wing,

He excelled in the forefront of the noblest host,

he gave gifts of horses from the herd in winter.

He fed black ravens on the ramparts of a fortress

Though he was no Arthur.

Among the powerful ones in battle,

In the front rank, Gwawrddur was a palisade.

(Jarman, 1990, V99, 64)

It’s a bit of a negative compliment, but not totally unusual.  Everyone else mentioned in this poem are either living or recently dead and Arthur is the only one from the distant past … if, indeed, he is and this isn’t Artúr (Arturius) mac Áedán of Dalriada (see THIS blog).  If it is an ‘original’ Arthur of Badon fame, why mention him in particular?  Why now? The ‘why now’ I answered above.  It could also be he just happened to have a name that rhymed with Gwawrddur.  Another explanation is that he was from that region and, added to this, if there was current poetry being circulated about him it would already be in the audience’s mind. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that Aneirin himself had composed work about Arthur.  Could he have been the first?  This might make the mention even more logical.

(Those observant amongst you might have notice something odd about the rhyming in this section:

Gocharai brain du ar fur caer

Cyn ni bai ef Arthur.

Rhwng cyfnerthi yng nghlysur,

Yng nghynnor, gwernor Gwawrddur.

Caer’ does not appear to rhyme with ‘Arthur’ or the previous line.  This bothered me for a little while until making a search through Y Gododdin and finding the following:

‘A’n gelwid i nef bid athleddawr ym mid!

Ef crynid ei gadwaywawr.

Cadfannan ryorug clud, clod fawr,

Ni chynhennid na bai llu iddo llawr.

… and …

A ddalwy mwng blaidd heb bren yn ei law

Gnawd gwychnawd yn ei len:

O gyfrang gwyth ac asgen

Trengis, ni ddiengis, Bradwen.

So it is a specific bardic device).

As already mentioned, if he fought at Celidon, then this was most likely in the Gododdin’s back yard.  There are some, including Keith, who place other battles from the list in this region:

Glein: the River Glen in Northumbria (Gododdin),

Breguoin: High Rochester in Northumbria (Roman Bremenium in Selgovae (Gododdin)

… and one battle not in the H.B. …

Camlan: Roman Camboglanna – Castlesteads, Cumbria (Carvettii region).

If these are right, and we will never know, they not only add more weight to Aneirin’s mention of Arthur, but to all but one of the 6th/7th century Arthur names appearing in the same region.  Of course, these battle placings pose problems to some who look for a southern Saxon fighter. If these battle were in the north and the rest in the northwest Midlands and east, it would only leave Badon in the south; unless you follow Green’s siting of this in Lincolnshire, leaving none!  This is a mine field that I am not going to venture any further into, but the more taken away from the south leaves you wondering ‘who was the British leader in the region of Britain that seemed to be undergoing the biggest expansion’?

Silua Celidonis

One last point about this battle, wherever it was: there has to have been more information contained in a Latin text (if that’s what it was) than the name itself.  It has to have been more than “Arturius bellum silua Celidonis”.  (Apologies for my none existent Latin!).  As I postulated earlier, it could have been a complete list of the battles in Latin, which differed only from the British poem by this one battle, hence why it was included and had to be glossed.  However, it could have also contained urbe Legionis and monte Badonis.  After all, all the other battles in the Latin version of the H.B. have purely British names with no Latin endings to them.  Of course, this is most likely because they couldn’t be given them.  It is interesting that these three all have the same ‘nis’ endings.  It’s not completely out of the question that there was also once a Latin poem containing these three battles. If there was a Latin poem, it could indicate that this was the earliest of them all.

Conclusions?

It would be naïve to think that the bards were not politically or ambitiously influenced in their poetry.   Whilst such poetry was meant to be learnt verbatim, it would also be naïve to think that later bards might not add to or adjust what they had learned, especially if they added material from a storyteller to spice it up.  This might mean that any poetry coming down to ‘Nennius’ would not be an accurate historical record, even if it was composed at the time of Arthur’s life.  On the meagre evidence we have I think the probability is more towards a 6th century composition of any poem … with the possibility of an earlier Insular Latin poem containing less battles.  It could actually be in its favour not being politically useful to any one dynasty.  There may be no ‘need’ to change it.  Then again, if it was as much for bolstering the British warriors against the English, the greater they made Arthur, the better.

The one positive note is that the ‘original’ poems of Taliesin and Aneirin did make it to us (as far as we can tell) and an ‘original’ Arthurian work may have found its way to ‘Nennius’.  This does give us the very pertinent question of what happened to such a poem or poems, and Latin texts, if they existed?  If the poem was in written form one would think it would be guarded with someone’s life.  Especially if there was only one in existence.  It could, of course, have been lost or destroyed along with any text; perhaps even by the later Anglo-Norman enemy.  It could be argued that if it was still in oral form, which might explain the variation in the different recensions of the H.B., it eventually was lost or transformed into something unrecognisable.  However, it seem a little odd that the poems of Taliesin and Aneirin survived and those of Arthur didn’t.

Taking the Historia battle list on face value is an act of blind faith.  It does not mean there isn’t truth held within it, but with three hundred years of transmission during turbulent times when the language itself was under great changes, and the 9th and 10th century political situations possibly effecting ‘Nennius’ translation, we should tread carefully.

Poet’s corner

Before I embark on my feeble attempts at battle poetry, a pertinent quote by Nora Chadwick:

“It is almost impossible for anyone who is not a native Welsh speaker, familiar with the strict Welsh metrical prosody, to appreciate justly, still less to convey, the intellectual mastery of this tight-knit poetry, its concentrated brevity of phrase, its use of repetition and inversion and crescendo to achieve the climax of the final impact on the emotions which comes to us almost as a shock. This is, in fact, the effect at which the poet aims, for example, in the Lament for Urien of Rheged above, where the closing stanza achieves the finality of bereavement. To obtain his effect, the bard sacrifices reflection to emotion at a white-heat. Unfortunately no early Scottish poetry has survived.” (Chadwick, 1963, §6)

Below are new version of the poems I did before. The first does not follow the correct meter(s), but the second uses the 8 and 7 syllable, 24 line style.  I have removed Celidon and Agned from these exercises:

BATTLES OF ARTHUR


Leader of battle for the kings of fair Prydein,

There fell many at the confluence of Glein.

In Linnuis four time the victor at the Dubglas,

Gore filled the waters at the river of Bassas.

Slayer of dogs for a day at Caer Guinnion,

He fed the black crows on the walls of Caer Lion.

Blood stained the fetlocks on the shore’s of the Tribruit,

At Caer Bregion the tramplers did acquit.

Three days the siege on the green hill of Badon,

He charged and fell forty-seven score Saeson.

STANZA OF THE BATTLES OF ARTHUR

Leader of battle he has been,

War lord for kings of Prydein.

The red cloaked reaper he was seen,

At the confluence of Glein.

In Linnuis four times victors mass,

Gore filled waters of Dubglas,

On legion’s ford below the pass

Blood stained fetlocks at Bassas.

No one spared where the boar had gone,

For a day at Caer Guinnion.

Glutted black crows thereupon,

The ramparts of Caer Lion.

On cold bleak shores they did acquit

As blue blades flashed at Tribruit.

At Bregion’s fort the pyres were lit,

For hostile crews no earthly pit

Long the siege upon Mount Badon,

The giant charged, his sword prayed on

Forty-seven score skulls of Saeson,

For the Lord of Creation.

_______________________

Thanks for reading,

Mak

 

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Arthurian Battle Poems

ARTHURIAN BATTLE POEMS

THERE IS AN UPDATED BLOG ON THIS SUBJECT. TO READ IT, CLICK HERE.

Below are two attempts at what the battle poem of Arthur may have looked like, if it was this the entry in the Historia Brittonum was based on.

The first has no real 6th century precedence, although there are similar awdlau by Taliesin. I have not used the correct syllable count or meter. (It is, indeed, much harder to do in English than Primitive or Old Welsh.)

The second is a stanzaic attempt, although most stanzas have only 8 or 12 lines and mine has 20.  There are those with 24 and 28 lines in Y Gododdin, but these tend to have 5 syllables per line.  This one was much more difficult to do because I did try to use alternating lines of 7 and 8 syllables. I discovered afterward that I should have started with the 8 syllable line, but have left it as it is.

Doing these, especially the stanza, certainly makes you appreciate the bard’s craft.  Finding four rhymes one after the other whilst sticking to the story must have been quite an undertaking. This is not counting the stresses they had to put on certain syllables and the use of internal rhyming.  I wasn’t going to even attempt the latter! Mind you, the did have a very long apprenticeship to get it right.

(I will be posting a blog soon specifically about the possible transmission of the oral material).

BATTLES OF ARTHUR


Leader of battle for the kings of fair Prydein,

There fell the hostile crew at aber Glein.

In Linnuis four time the victor at the Dubglas,

Blood stained the waters at the river of Bassas.

Slayer of the dogs in the wood that is Celidon,

The Mother on his shoulder at the fort of Guinnion,

Feared the name Arthur in every dark region,

He fed the black crows on the walls of Caer Lion.

Blood stained the fetlocks on the shore’s of the Tribruit,

They reaped with blue steel on the hill that is Agned.

Three days the siege on the green hill of Badon,

He charged and fell forty-eight score of Saeson.

STANZA OF THE BATTLES OF ARTHUR


Leader of battle he has been,

War lord for kings of Prydein.

Slayer of black dogs at Aber Glein,

The red cloaked reaper was seen.

In Linnuis the vanguard did mass,

Four times victors they did pass,

Blood stained waters of the Dubglas,

Fed wolves cubs above the Bassas.

No one spared in Coit Celidon.

Broken bodies at Guinnion.

Glutted black crows thereupon

The ramparts of Caer Lion.

On cold bleak shores they did acquit

As blue blades flashed at Tribruit

At Bregion’s fort beneath Agned

The hostile crew of there did rid.

Long the siege upon Mount Badon,

The giant charged and prayed on

Forty-eight score skulls of Saeson

On his shield the Holy Maiden.

THERE IS AN UPDATED BLOG ON THIS SUBJECT. TO READ IT, CLICK HERE.

 

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“dux erat bellorum”


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’.

The why?

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.[1] 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.[2] 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’.[3] 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 …

The what?

Y Gododdin

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![4]

 

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.[5]  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?

Dux Britannium

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”?

A digression

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 ) [6]. 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. [7]

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,

Mak

 

NOTES:

[1] Green, Concepts Of Arthur, 2007; p.151

[2] Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes, 2001, p.152

[3] Gidlow, Reign of Arthur, 2004, p.44

[4] From Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews’ website: http://www.kmatthews.org.uk/history/marwnad_cynddylan/index.html

[5] Knight, 1983, p.32-34

[6]  -List from Fitzpatrick-Matthews, 2010, p.19)

[7] Dumville, 1977, p.188


 

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