Arthur in Sub-Roman Britain and History
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David Dumville has concluded that we should “erase the name of Arthur from… our history books” . Do you agree? Can the study of Arthur further our understanding of sub-Roman Britain?
King Arthur. The name evokes a myriad of images and stories: the doomed romances of Guinevere and Lancelot, and Tristan and Isolde; the brave and chivalrous deeds of the knights of the Round Table; the Quest for the Holy Grail; the sacrifices of Elaine, Enid, Dindrane; the enchantments of Merlin, Morgan and the Lady of the Lake; the betrayal of Mordred; the glorious, terrible Battle of Camlann. It is a story that resonates with children and scholars alike, and has done so for many years. Its tragic beauty is magnetic. It has inspired countless films, books, homages and parodies from de Troyes to Zimmer Bradley and from Tennyson to Monty Python . It has also inspired countless studies by scholars, who, rather than building on an already elaborate mythology, attempt to strip the legend back in their own grail quest for truth. Arthur’s ‘time’ is usually dated as around the fifth or sixth century, a period also often termed sub-Roman Britain, or the ‘Dark Ages.’ This latter term is intrinsically linked to the development of the Arthurian legend. The ‘Dark Ages’ were so called by historians due to a lamentable lack of contemporary evidence about events in Britain , and it is this void that allowed the legend to develop to the degree that it did. However the historicity of Arthur is in constant doubt by historians such as Dumville, who believe that we should “erase the name of Arthur from… our history books” and from this we may be tempted to doubt also the impact Arthur had upon sub-Roman Britain. This is an easy path to take, but however doubtful the legend’s basis may be, its impact was undeniable.
The period itself was one of great civil unrest. The Roman Empire was weakening under the onslaught of the Gothic invaders, and by AD 410, Rome’s “power [had] vanished from Britain.” This resulted in the collapse of central administration, mass reversions to tribal allegiances and general anarchy . The local armies, sensing weakness, rebelled against their Romanised components. To quell them, German troops were invited into the province but, some might say predictably, they mutinied and seized the territory they had been called to protect. Now there were three divergent cultures trying to survive in one relatively small area; three cultures, with different, non-complementary religions, traditions, and languages. It is fair to say then, that the period was one of immense social upheaval, a period where Britain was in a sense, struggling to find its feet. Britain did not yet have the national identity to survive such upheaval unscathed.
Arthur, if the evidence is to be believed, was the hero of the Britons, valiantly defending his countrymen against the invasion of the Saxons until his death. To truly ascertain whether Arthur existed it is best to focus our attention on pre-Galfredian sources, as we cannot rely on any post-Galfredian sources to have ignored Geoffrey of Monmouth’s spectacular but undeniably fictional History of the Kings of Britain .
The evidence for Arthur as a hero of the Britons comes partially from the Annales Cambriae, the Welsh Annals, dated to around the mid tenth century , which mention “the Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medrod fell; and there was death in Britain and in Ireland” and “the Battle of Badon, in which Arthur bore the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and for three nights on his shoulders, and the Britons were the victors.” The reference to the battle of Badon is strengthened by the fact that it is also referred to in a much earlier source, Gildas’s De Excidio Britanniae from the mid sixth century, although this source did not mention Arthur in conjunction with the battle. There may be a number of reasons for this. The most obvious possibility is that he was not there, that his presence was a later fabrication. However it is also possible that his connection with the battle was so well known that the author did not feel the need to record it, or that, as has been theorised, the omission was an act of revenge by Gildas against Arthur, who was supposed to have murdered Hueil, Gildas’s brother . Frank Stenton poses another possibility: “The silence of Gildas may suggest that the Arthur of history was a less imposing figure than the Arthur of legend. But it should not be allowed to remove him from the sphere of history, for Gildas was curiously reluctant to introduce personal names into his writing.”
To return to the Annales Cambriae, Dumville points out that the obvious problem with using the Annales as evidence is they were written at least two hundred, probably more, years after Arthur was supposed to have lived. By this time the Arthurian legend was well enough established that in the Historia Brittonum, which is similarly dated and controversially attributed to a Nennius, the mentions of Arthur “depend on knowledge of his exploits.” The same principle applies to the Lives of Saints Goeznovius, Cadoc, Carannog, Iltud, Padarn and Gildas, and William of Malmebury’s The Deeds of the English Kings, all of which supposedly date after the three Latin sources mentioned above. There are also a number of vernacular sources often used to ‘prove’ Arthur’s historicity. These include the Mabinogion, the Welsh Triads, the Book of Taliesin and the Gododdin. But the dating of the Mabinogion is uncertain enough to diminish its value as proof of Arthur’s existence, the Book of Taliesin and the Welsh Triads are later medieval sources and so lack the immediacy needed to prove or disprove the legend, and the authenticity of the reference to Arthur in the Gododdin is doubtful, according to Charles-Edwards in his essay ‘The Arthur of History’.
Given the lack of evidence, it is extremely tempting to dismiss the legend all together, to agree with Dumville, who states conclusively that, “we can dispose of him [Arthur] quite briefly. He owes his place in our history books to a ‘no smoke without fire’ school of thought. What evidence is there for his existence?…The totality of the evidence, and it is remarkable slight until a very late date, shows Arthur as a figure of legend... This is not the stuff of which history can be made. The fact of the matter is that there is no historical evidence about Arthur; we must reject him from our histories and, above all, from the titles of our books.” However it is important to remember that whilst the evidence does not conclusively prove that Arthur existed, nor does it conclusively prove that he did not exist. Dumville may peremptorily dismiss the “‘no smoke without fire’ school of thought”, but it nonetheless has some validity as Charles-Edwards indicates in his somewhat more mellow assessment of the predicament: “At this stage of the enquiry, one can only say that there may well have been an historical Arthur; that the historian can as yet say nothing of value about him, but that later conceptions of Arthur are likely to interest historians almost as much as they do students of medieval literature.” Until we have further evidence for or against the existence of Arthur, until we can conclusively say that Arthur did or did not exist, he must remain in our history books.
In fact, it is debatable whether, even if Arthur’s historicity was irrefutably disproved, we would be able to justify removing “the name of Arthur from… our history books.” If we assume for a moment that new evidence has come to light that does prove that there was no king, war lord, leader or warrior in sub-Roman Britain by the name of Arthur, this means we can assume he did not influence the outcomes of the battles of Badon or Camlann in any direct way. We can dismiss the theories about possible sites for Arthur’s burial and court. We can happily declare to all and sundry that Arthur definitely and doubtlessly did not exist. But can we deny the importance of the concept of Arthur? Admittedly concepts of chivalry and romance did not surface as part of the legend until much later, but there are other very appealing aspects to the legend.
If, for instance, we return to the example of the battle of Badon, the pertinent question is no longer “was Arthur there?” but “why did the people of Britain need Arthur to be there?” As previously discussed, Britain lacked a strong sense of unity, or collective identity after the collapse of Roman administration. They were not a country, but a group of extremely tentatively joined groups. Large amounts of modern Arthurian fiction show Arthur as the ‘uniter’ of Britain, whether carrying on the work of his supposed father, Uther, going on the advice of Merlin or working on the basis of his own personal convictions. It has become something of a cliché. But perhaps this cliché has something behind to it. With the invasion of the Jutes, Angles and Saxons, the Britons must have felt some sense of an ‘us and them’ mentality. A canny political leader would see this as a perfect opportunity to gain control of a number of different tribes, or perhaps more altruistically as a way of using other tribes to defend his own tribe. But in the absence of such a leader, perhaps the Britons felt the need to invent one to spur them on to greater enthusiasm in the defence of their country. If a great victory was indeed won at Badon, attributing such a victory to Arthur might encourage more tribes to band together and fight off the common enemy. William of Malmesbury clearly subscribed to this idea when he described Arthur as “one who long sustained his tottering country, and gave the shattered minds of his fellow citizens an edge for war.”
Once established as a great war lord or Roman “Dux Bellorum” in the minds of the people, Arthur could become a focal point in the absence of “educated and independent townsmen who might have provided a secure base for the social order” , a hero representing the unity of the tribes; a symbol, in fact, of Britain as she was forming: powerful, strong, clever. The establishment of a national hero will go far towards establishing a nation. Brewer and Frankl reflect this in some vague way when they comment that “we see the landscape differently when we see it in the light of legend; the legends take on new life when seen as expressions of the landscape.”
It is pertinent also at this point to remember that there were three religions all battling for supremacy - Celtic paganism, Germanic Paganism and Roman Christianity. While none of these ruled over the others there must have been a good deal of confusion, and a lack of one God or pantheon for the people to unite under. It is natural then that a national hero steps into the role that a god or gods might traditionally take. As Jupiter to the ancient Romans and Zeus to the ancient Greeks, so Arthur must have seemed to the sub-Roman Britons. And once one religion began to dominate (Roman Christianity, gradually from the fifth century or so onwards ), Arthur could be made a Christian, and his victories Christian victories, as we saw above in the Annales Cambriae and Historia Brittonum, and then this could be used to standardise the religious beliefs of the Britons, further cementing their nationhood. Later too, such a hero could be made to fit a developing society in other ways. By the Gododdin, Arthur is a role model, an ideal warrior. By Culhwch ac Olwen we all ready see Arthur as less of an active warrior and more of a king, a hub for a court of adventurers. Damsels in Distress cannot be far away. Ashe describes Arthur as a “shape-shifter” changing his role, focus, family and ideals to fit the time his tale is told in, or to fit the purposes of propaganda, and this seems an apt description. To the people of his time, a great warrior and leader, at the centre of an “age of warriors and saints and monsters and marvels”, morphing and growing to encompass the conqueror, the champion of the weak, the symbol of order in chaos, the reminder of how things could have been, each as the need arose.
It may be, however sad it seems to a generation who has grown up with tales of Arthur and his knights, that Arthur never existed. It may be that he did, which is a far happier thought, and no less likely, but as Charles-Edwards and Dumville indicate, unable to be proved with only the current evidence. Although the historicity of Arthur is an important point which will – rightfully- continue to be investigated by students and scholars of history around the globe, the real crux of the Arthurian legends lies in its impact on medieval society. Whether or not Arthur was ‘real’ insofar as such a thing can be proved or disproved, he was clearly ‘real’ in the minds of the sub-Roman Britons. The legend provided a focus for a number of tribes, assisting them to come together and form one race, the British, a nation that could then begin to develop an identity and find its feet in a rapidly developing Europe. It enabled the manipulation of a collective psyche, which, whilst not necessarily ethically sound by modern standards, certainly had a profound and lasting impact on the history of Britain. David Dumville may well conclude that we should “erase the name of Arthur from… our history books” simply because the existence of Arthur is in doubt, but it means that he fails to see how intensely the study of Arthur as an historical concept, if not as an historical entity, can further our understanding of sub-Roman Britain and its people.
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