As an enthusiast in all things historical I would study different time periods and regions by gathering information by theme; land, military size, tactics, and success rates. Of all the topics I investigated, King Arthur was my favorite subject. I read all about his chronology and geography. I learned as much as I could about his knights – the best jousters, their numbers and names. Unknowledgeable about the various levels of credibility a source might have, I collected all of this indiscriminately. If I came across an original source that gave me everything I wanted, I copied it down. If the next source was academic and gave very little direct information, I gleaned what I could from it and moved on. If different books gave different facts, I decided which set was more consistent with whatever else I had instead of looking at the origins of the information.
At the time, Norma Lorre Goodrich was writing her series of books on Arthurian Britain and I drank up all of her essays like they were ambrosia. It was like watching an extraordinary artist weaving many of the Arthurian romances together into an intricate and delicate tapestry of dates, persons, and even political motivations.
And then I came to Glasgow. Hard scholarship is difficult to read, it’s often harder to understand and the different experts tend to contradict each other. For these reasons the work of the leaders in a field are not generally marketable to the public. For my part, reading them was difficult and slow-going. However, I learned what there was to learn and was made to understand the process of research and academic progress.
My studies completed, I returned to the familiar grounds of my youth. It was then that I realized the informative books I had read and learned so much from years ago did not measure up to the standards of modern scholarship. Those authors with the easy answers were using sources wherever they helped their arguments the most, with no regard for the origins and biases of the materials they used. I found out that Professor Goodrich had not used some of the most reliable source materials in developing her theories because they possessed strong and opposing evidence that did much to undermine the tidy world she had laid out.
John Matthews seems to fall into the same category. I’ve found no indications that he has an advanced degree. The materials he uses are often a century or more old, back from a time when scholars would decide what their theory was and then form their arguments around them. It is no surprise that he can sound authoritative, before we understood how and where to question theories all writings sounded certain; before a child learns about the grays of life, everything is black and white. John Matthews was never exposed to higher level academics, and so he can seem black and white, certain about a mesmerizing number of subjects. But the fact is that he is an expert at no academic topics.
The sheer prolific quality of his work makes this clear; did you know he’s published over 90 books? Even at the end of the nineteenth century few if any scholars were so voluminous. It is sobering fact that a true book of academics might take years to research and digest before even sitting down to write. The great Rachel Bromwich wrote three books during her career, along with dozens of articles and several chapters. The prolific David Dumville has edited all the Historia Brittonum redactions, written a single book, and contributed many articles and chapters. Understanding that, one can grasp the lack of academic integrity in Matthews’ writing. He may be entertaining the next generation of Arthurian lovers, but he is not forwarding the field or even explaining the current state of affairs to nonspecialists. He is spoonfeeding easy and usually wrong answers to a society that wants them.