12 January, 2007

The Reign of Arthur: From History to Legend, by Christopher Gidlow. Book review

Edition reviewed: Sutton Publishing, 2004, ISBN 0-7509-3418-2

“Arthur was a great king. He ruled a land of knights in armour, damsels in distress, dragons and derring-do, home of Merlin the Magician and Morgan le Fay. He was born in Tintagel, became king by a combination of sword, stone and sorcery, and ruled from the castle of Camelot. At his Round Table sat Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawain and Sir Galahad, seekers of the Holy Grail. Finally, in tragedy, the love of Lancelot and Guenevere brought down the whole kingdom, leaving Arthur sleeping in the Isle of Avalon.

Did this King Arthur really exist? Almost certainly not. He was defined by writers of romance fiction in the twelfth century and refined through the Middle Ages. He inhabited a fabulous world based on that of his medieval audience. It was in this form that Arthur was revived by the Victorians and entered the public imagination.

Could this fantastic king be based on historical reality?”

These paragraphs begin Christopher Gidlow’s book, and it is the latter question that he sets out to answer.

The first part of his book is a survey of the earliest historical sources to mention Arthur and/or his battles. Three sources mention Arthur by name, the Welsh heroic poem Y Gododdin, the Historia Brittonum, and the Annales Cambriae. Two of these, Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae, say that Arthur was the victorious commander at a battle named Badon, and two further sources, Gildas’ De Excidio Britanniae and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, mention the battle of Badon but do not mention the name Arthur. What do they actually say?

Y Gododdin mentions Arthur in a single stanza, comparing one of the poem’s fallen heroes to Arthur,

“He brought down black crows to feed before the wall
Of the city, though he was no Arthur.”

The dates of the battle being described and of the poem itself have been, and still are, the subject of much scholarly debate. Christopher Gidlow quotes linguistic analysis arguing that the oldest verses were composed in a language that pre-dates Old Welsh and thus dates to before the end of the 6th century AD, and these include the Arthur stanza. Arthur’s name is the rhyme for the name of the hero, so it is unlikely to have been added in at a later date. If one accepts this analysis, and I see no reason not to do so, a man named Arthur was considered a fitting comparison for a fallen warrior hero in the later sixth century. This would be consistent with a real historical Arthur, known to the poet and his intended audience, who had a successful military career before the poem was composed.

Historia Brittonum (sometimes called Nennius after the name attributed to its author in some – but not all – of the surviving versions of the text) says in its prologue that it was written in about 830 AD. Linguistic analysis similar to that mentioned above for Y Gododdin argues that some of its spellings for names and places are much older than its stated date of composition, and therefore that the writer was drawing on earlier written sources. Historia Brittonum is the source for the details of Arthur’s military career:

“Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the military commander ["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; 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. 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.”

Some of the battle locations can be identified with reasonable certainty, e.g. the ‘City of the Legion’ is referred to elsewhere in Historia Brittonum, in Annales Cambriae and by Bede, who helpfully tells us “which the English call Legacastir but the Britons more correctly call Carlegion”, and is probably Chester. Calidon is the Roman name Caledonia and presumably refers to somewhere in Scotland. Most of them are uncertain, and legions of enthusiasts have located them all over the country with varying degrees of plausibility. The most interesting thing about the list, as pointed out by Christopher Gidlow, is that it has no supernatural elements. Arthurian sceptics have used the line, “no one struck them down except Arthur himself” to dismiss the list as the mythical exploits of a superman, but I share Christopher Gidlow’s view that the phrase is more likely to reflect the common practice of referring to a victory as the general’s, taking the presence of his army for granted. If a modern writer says, “Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo”, we don’t imagine the two generals slugging it out in single combat, and there’s no particular reason to assume that the writer of Historia Brittonum did either. Historia Brittonum’s account is a prosaic description of the career of a successful military leader who won a lot of battles. For mythical and legendary elements, like dragons and a fatherless boy with the gift of prophecy, you have to look to the Historia’s description of Ambrosius Aurelianus, not to Arthur.

Annales Cambriae, ‘The Annals of Wales’ contain two entries referring to Arthur:

“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.”

Christopher Gidlow argues that the dates are unlikely to be accurate, partly because the Annals are set out in numbered decades and several of the decades have 9 years or 11 years instead of 10, with obvious potential for miscounting, and partly because the AD dating system was an innovation of Bede in the early 8th century. Prior to Bede the conventional way to reckon dates was by regnal years (“In the seventh year of the reign of King So-and-so”), much as Rome reckoned dates by reference to the serving consuls. Bede makes reference to both systems, and records the dates of important events like major synods according to numerous regnal year systems in different kingdoms (e.g. the Synod of Hatfield was held, “in the tenth year of the reign of King Egfrid of the Northumbrians; in the sixth year of King Ethelfrid of the Mercians....”etc). No wonder Bede felt the system could do with being tidied up if all the kingdoms were to be unified in one church; it was probably a little like railway time replacing local time in Britain during the nineteenth century. So AD dates attributed to events that pre-date Bede are most likely to have been estimated by a post-Bede scholar writing down material from older sources or oral tradition, and their accuracy (or otherwise) is a matter of conjecture. The important point is that the Annales Cambriae mention Arthur’s major battle from Historia Brittonum, and 20 years later record his death in a different battle. Again, there is nothing especially unusual or legendary about the entries. They are similar in form to other entries in the Annales, and don’t contradict Historia Brittonum.

Gildas and Bede both refer to the battle of Badon, but do not name its commander. Both sources (they are so similar that Bede probably based his account on Gildas) say that after Hengist and Horsa defeated Vortigern, Ambrosius Aurelianus became the leader of the Britons and a period (length unspecified) of back-and-forth warfare began, which lasted up until the siege of Badon when the Britons won a resounding victory. If either source said explicitly that Ambrosius led the British side at Badon there would be a discrepancy with Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae, but neither does. There seems to be no reason why Arthur could not have been the military commander at the battle even if Ambrosius was still overall ‘leader’, or there may have been a change of leader during the warfare preceding Badon.

This leads Christopher Gidlow to a rather exasperated section on double standards, where he makes the point that the documentary evidence for Maelgwn Gwynedd (usually identified with the Mailcun mentioned in Historia Brittonum and the Maglocunus castigated by Gildas) is no stronger than that for a historical Arthur. He concludes, “Historians cannot have it both ways..... If Maelgwn Gwynedd can be accepted on a balance of probabilities, then so should Arthur”. I share this view - I don’t mind a historian arguing that Source X is unreliable and should be treated with caution or disregarded altogether, but it does look like cheating when the same author then uses bits of the same source to support a different theory.

Christopher Gidlow concludes the first part with a summary of plausible roles for the figure of Arthur as recorded in these early sources. Arthur could have been a sub-king of a small region that was part of one of the larger kingdoms; a king of one of the kingdoms whose dynasties did not last into the Middle Ages; a high king with power over more than one kingdom; a military leader employed as a Magister Militum by a post-Roman provincial governor or a high king. Any or all of these would fit with the scanty records in the early sources, and Christopher Gidlow makes the important point that they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The same man might have held different roles at different points in his life, or been different things to different people.

If one accepts that there was a military hero who led some or all of the British to victory against some or all of the Saxons in a battle at a place called Badon some time in the late 5th or early 6th century – which is not at all implausible – then one might as well accept the name given to him in the same sources and call him Arthur.

The second part of the book charts the development of the Arthur story in surviving Welsh medieval texts, notably the poems in the Black Book of Carmarthen, the stories of Culhwlch and Olwen and the Dream of Rhonabwy, the Triads, various Saints’ Lives, and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which arguably is the text that shot Arthur to superstardom. In it, Christopher Gidlow shows how these later texts acquire the mythical trappings that have become so much a part of the Arthur story in the modern form summarised at the top of this post. He makes a convincing case for seeing the process as one by which legendary tales accreted around a historical figure, in the same way as Roman emperor Magnus Maximus became the subject of a dream legend in the Dream of Macsen Wledig, rather than one by which a pseudo-historical figure was invented out of folk tales.

What I chiefly liked about The Reign of Arthur was its approach of starting from the sources, setting out what they say in a reasonably logical order, and then putting together an interpretation. It makes a refreshing change from proposing a theory and then quoting sources to support it. I once tried assembling the Arthur sources in a similar fashion – though Christopher Gidlow has done it much more thoroughly than I could – and came to much the same conclusions as he has. Which is nice.

In common with much narrative non-fiction, the book doesn’t use footnotes to cite sources, which I find mildly annoying. However, the author does make an effort to say in the text where he got information from, which is very useful as it allows the reader to check the source material and decide whether to be convinced by the argument. For example, at one point he argues for a scribal error in Annales Cambriae to resolve a discrepancy with Bede over the date of the seventh-century battle of Chester (not the same as Arthur’s battle at the City of the Legion, though very possibly at a similar location). Because he quoted his sources, I could look up Bede’s description, and my reading is that Bede’s account can accommodate the Annales Cambriae date without needing to postulate a scribal error. So I disagree with the author on this point, but because I can see where it came from I can accept the rest of his argument. In fact, if anything I think my interpretation strengthens his point that the Annales can be regarded as a reasonably historical source. I find it much more convincing when I can follow the author’s logic like this.

A clear and scholarly survey of the historical source material for Arthur and its later development into legend.

Has anyone else read it? Or have an opinion on King Arthur?


Bernita said...

"If one accepts that there was a military hero who led some or all of the British to victory against some or all of the Saxons in a battle at a place called Badon some time in the late 5th or early 6th century – which is not at all implausible – then one might as well accept the name given to him in the same sources and call him Arthur."

And why not?
There's seems to be a determined and morose effort at times to paint that period - if not the entire Dark Ages - as a succession of unrelieved defeats.
Woe, woe, man-born-of-woman, etc.
Perhaps because of the ecclesiastical nature of the chroniclers.

VERY well done, Carla.
Thank you.
And I agree.

Carla said...

Bernita - well, there are at least two sides to every war (often a lot more than two) so by definition one side's defeat is another side's victory, isn't it? Gildas seems keen on the unrelieved woe, but then his whole book is a sermon on the theme of 'The country is going to the dogs and it's all the fault of the wicked/corrupt/stupid government'. (Some things never change). The other chronicles though seem to give a much more varied perspective. What I chiefly dislike is the casual modern assumption that the Romans brought civilisation when they arrived, took it away with them when they 'left', and before and after was a bunch of savages in mud huts. I rather think it was more complicated than that.

Constance Brewer said...

Thank you for that review, Carla, that was fascinating. I may have to acquire that book. (Like I need more to read!) I'm always interested in the way people build their case when it comes to historical figures/times. And of couse you've hit on my pet peeve, modern assumptions that everything pre-1800 was barbaric. I think that's why I'm interested in ancient engineering - amazing what our ancestors did with what they had.

So when did the whole medieval knight thing get laid over the top of the Arthur legend? Is Welsh writing generally ignored except for the poems? --Weird connection, I did a woodblock print of a soldier headed to the battle of 'Mynydd Baddon'.

Rick said...

I guess I'm gonna have to hunt down this book!

Until recently I always leaned toward there being a historical Arthur, but I was pushed the other way by articles on the Arthurian Resources website.


To summarize, the argument (made by Thomas Green) is that most early Welsh references to Arthur come in purely folkloric type context - in American terms, more analogous to Paul Bunyan and his blue ox than to George Washington chopping down a cherry tree or throwing a silver dollar across the Delaware. On this basis, Green argues, the "Arthur" is more likely to be a folk-hero to whom historical exploits got attached than a historical hero to whom folklore elements got attached.

Just to clarify, this is no refutation of Gidlow's arguments or yours, only a summary of an argument that recently persuaded me toward a disappointing conclusion. I'd be delighted for Gidlow to re-persuade me in the other direction!

Gabriele Campbell said...

Oh, that sounds like another Arthur book for my shelves. :) I've collected a few because I once played with the idea of writing an Arthur novel, but I think the market is stuffed with them and Cornwell did a great job. :)

What interests me now is the use of Arthur in literature to further political aims, something that happened with Charlemagne as well.

And how did he sneak into the geneaology of the Campbell chiefs? Actually, I have an idea. :)

Alex Bordessa said...

Why assume the victor at Badon is Arthur? It could just as easily be the virtually ignored Ambrosius. A can of worms, to be sure and I absolutely refuse to go through the motions of argument about it again :-)

Thorough review, as always, Carla.

Rick said...

Ambrosius is a leading candidate, and the question then becomes nearly a quibble over whether he's simply Arthur under a different name.

Carla said...

Constance - It's well worth reading, and there's a paperback edition to keep the price down. The medieval knight trappings come from the 12th-15th centuries and probably culminate in Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur. How do you mean by 'is Welsh writing generally ignored apart from the poems'? - can you expand on that a bit, please, and I'll try and answer if I can?

Rick - Christopher Gidlow examines that argument in the book and comes down on the opposing side, for roughly the reasons I set out in the post, i.e. that the earliest sources don't have folkloric elements about Arthur. Historia Brittonum does have folklore - dragons, prophecy - but they relate to Ambrosius not to Arthur. There are always arguments about the actual dates of the sources, as they all exist in medieval manuscripts. It's argued (often on linguistic grounds like spelling) that some were copied in whole or in part from older documents that haven't survived, but it's not certain what was copied, when or what the date of the lost original (if any) was. Hence the arguments. The earliest sources with undisputed dates (Bede in 731 AD, Gildas some time in the mid-500s) don't menton Arthur's name. If one says that Culhwlch and Olwen, which does contain plenty of folklore, is older than Historia Brittonum and the Annales, then one can say that the earliest mention of Arthur is in a folkloric context, and use the absence of the name from Gildas and Bede as support. Interpretation of the evidence is up to the reader, and I don't think it can be proved with certainty either way. I happen to agree with Gidlow that the simplest explanation is that there was a historical Arthur who won a battle at Badon, but the evidence (such as it is) can support other explanations. See if you can get a copy of his book - or reread the sources, most of them are online in full-text translation in various academic libraries and I've put links to the translations in the post - and see what you think.

Gabriele - it's well worth reading, and you may find the second half (on the development of the legend) especially interesting. Since it's non-fiction it may well be available in a university library if you want to try before you buy. The ISBN number in the post is from the hardback, as I borrowed it from the library before deciding to buy a copy, but there's a cheaper paperback available (ISBN 0-7509-3419-0). You can buy direct from the publisher's website if amazon.de doesn't have it.

Alex, Rick - Christopher Gidlow touches on the Ambrosius-Arthur discussion in the book. As I said above, the evidence can bear multiple interpretations, and it can be argued that Ambrosius was the victor at Badon, Arthur never existed (or the same man had two names), and deeds done by Ambrosius were attributed to Arthur by Historia Brittonum, Annales Cambriae and all later writers, one of whom inserted the name Arthur in the text of Y Gododdin. Up to the reader to make up their own mind.

Anonymous said...

Very interesing, Carla, I would like to read Gidlow's book. Arthurian legend has always intrigued me and there always seems to be more to discover....

Carla said...

Hello, Elena, and welcome. It's a book well worth reading, espcially for anyone interested in whether there might be some history underneath the legends.

Constance Brewer said...

The only things I've ever read from the Welsh was poetry, were there any historical writings that I'm missing? A Welsh Herodotus perhaps? :)

Carla said...

Constance - There's no Welsh equivalent of Herodotus that I'm aware of. If there were, there wouldn't be the debates about whether Arthur existed.

In Welsh language, I can think of several prose tales such as the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, Culhwlch and Olwen, Dream of Macsen Wledig, Dream of Rhonabwy and some Arthurian romances, the Saints' Lives, laws, and various genealogies of medieval Welsh royal families that purport to stretch back into the post-Roman period. Plus the poetry. All in medieval manuscripts, and none of which claims to be a history.

In Latin but written by British people, I can think of two histories, Historia Brittonum and Gildas' De Excidio Britanniae. Neither seems to me very much like Herodotus. Historia Brittonum resembles a compendium, as if the author assembled pieces from various sources and wrote them out in a more or less logical order. The prologue in some of the surviving versions says "I made a heap of all I found", which is not quite fair because it's more structured than a heap, but gives you an idea. Gildas is an impassioned sermon and call for repentance.

Much later you get to the histories written by medieval chroniclers such as Geoffrey of Monmouth and Gerald of Wales, but these are written more than 500 years after the gap in the records in which Arthur must have lived (if he existed at all) and so without knowing their sources it's a matter of debate how much they knew and how much they guessed or interpolated.

Constance Brewer said...

Not that Herodotus is the be all end all of historians... I was just curious. It's very hard to do reenactment as an early Welsh because of the lack of information. I just decided Roman influence lingered on a long time and call it good. My persona would rather be Roman anyhow. :)

I think I have several of the prose tales in my TBR collection, but never got to them. yet.

Alex Bordessa said...

Duh, I've just checked my shelf, and find that the book is there :-) I picked it up some months ago cheap, but have yet to read it. On checking the index, I realise I got it as it had a good ratio of Arthur to Ambrosius references. If the latter has more than 5 page refs, I tend to look a little closer ... If it even has multiple page refs to Ambrosius, like pages 5-10, 61-63, etc. then I know I'm probably onto something with a little balance :-)

Constance, I do Late Roman/Early Anglo-Saxon re-enactment. It's peplos time for both sets, although my AS persona has a particular liking for bling.

Gabriele Campbell said...

without knowing their sources it's a matter of debate how much they knew and how much they guessed or interpolated.

And how much is propaganda. They all wrote for an audience. ;)

I've done some research for texts about Charlemagne which show a clear audience-related bias, but it already is valid for Tacitus and his idealised German women.

Constance Brewer said...

Alex - I have a peplos... very plain Jane. I also have a generic overtunic and cloak. I save my bling for playing Byzantine. :)
I wish we had a Roman reenactment group here.

Carla said...

Constance - Roman influence lingered a very long time in some places - have you sen Ken Dark's book on 'Britain and the end of the Roman Empire'? It's one of his central arguments.
I find the prose tales a bit of an acquired taste - Dream of Macsen Wledig is the one I like best.

Alex - I think you'll find it worth a read. He seems to be taking a reasonably balanced view of the sources, though he's looking for information on Arthur so naturally he focuses there.

Gabriele - indeed, all historians select from their material according to what they/their audience is interested in. Some put more of a spin on it than others :-)

Constance/Alex - Didn't someone call the burial at Chelmsford the 'King of Bling'?

Alex Bordessa said...

Carla, yes the Prittlewell Prince was called the King of Bling, and it very much describes the Anglo-Saxon elite; they loved to be showy. I usually like to portray low status, but I love the AS stuff, so have bought the bling when I've seen it. I did manage to turn down a replica of the Sutton Hoo belt, after all I'm portraying a female.

btw, I've certainly seen plenty of books purporting to look at the history of Arthur with barely an mention of Ambrosius in their index. It's one of the reasons I'm so jaded about the whole Arthur business. People seem to like to make Arthur into what *they* want him to be, and that would be fine, as long as they acknowledge that they are picking and choosing. In my writing I kick him up north (out of the way, for the most part) because it serves my purposes, nothing more. And I can as legimately kick him up north, as the next person can claim he was a Celtic (sic) king operating out of Wales. Oops, rant over ;-)

Carla said...

Alex - Prittlewell, that's it. I couldn't think of the name last night. The Sutton Hoo belt would literally cost a second mortgage, wouldn't it, with the big gold buckle and the purse lid, not to mention any of the little gold and garnet thingies? Even assuming the replica was brass or painted plastic and glass it'd still be a small fortune just for the time to make it.

Rant all you like :-) I think a large part of Arthur's enduring appeal is that there is so little known that anyone can make anything they like of the legend, and can locate Arthur where they like, make him of whatever ethnic/political/religious/social background they like, and so on. Christopher Gidlow refers to it as the "King Arthur shared my postcode" school of scholarship. I don't greatly mind any of it, until people start insisting that they have Discovered the Right Answer and all other theories are therefore wrong, when I tend to lose patience. One of the things I liked about Gidlow's book was his readiness to accept that many of the roles suggested for a historical Arthur aren't mutually exclusive, so they could all be partly right.

Alex Bordessa said...

It's also known as 'Arthur in my back garden syndrome' by (often Welsh) archaeologists who have to handle people who think they've found some Arthurian nick-nack or another in the area. I'd still be interested in this era if Arthur wasn't a part of it, and I don't find him appealing in the least (rant, rant - nurse! the screens!) But we are of accord - I don't mind the theories. It's when they just *know* theirs is the right one, I mentally walk away. I still have check out the theories just in case someone actually produces something useful (hence stockpiling the Gidlow).

It was just the belt buckle from Sutton Hoo, and I think it was in bronze, but it was still eye-crossingly expensive. I'd love one of those little blue glass cups, but no does a replica - yet ... I've sourced a really nice replica Migration Period sword, which would cover Christmas and Birthday presents for a year or two, I suspect. I'm a sucker for the Anglo-Saxon bling :-)

Carla said...

Gidlow hasn't really got a theory, in the usual sense. (Which is also very refreshing). He's chiefly arguing that a British military leader called Arthur did exist around the turn of the 5th/6th centuries, and isn't much bothered about going further than that.
Wow - a Migration Period sword! Who makes it?

Alex Bordessa said...

The Migration Period sword is made by Tim Noyes: http://tinyurl.com/ytn9rn I'm interested in number 4.

Carla said...

Thanks for the link Alex - that is one impressive sword!