In the eternal struggle to get college job I was working on syllabi this morning and a thought occurred to me, it was about sources. Now bear with me as I make my point. Who shot JFK and why? Too hard? Alright, is Barrack Obama a good guy or a bad guy? What I mean by that is, does he have the U.S.’s needs at heart or is he out for himself. Is he making progress? When he makes an agreement with another nation, is it in good faith? Does he have integrity?
Still a little less than certain about that? Now consider this. We live in an age where everyone has a camera on their phone, where public figures can be watched at all times, and when there are more sources of independent information on any one topic than all the figures of post-Roman Britain put together had. Yet there are dozens of theories about JFK, and our country is strongly divided about whether Obama is one of the best presidents we’ve ever had or someone who should have been stripped of his office months after he was first sworn in.
Let’s go back to my favorite topic, Arthur. Up until almost 600 we have only three sources – a sermon by Gildas, a history of about 600 written by Urien’s son but heavily edited in the late seventh century by a descendent hoping to add to his own reputation through Urien and his exploits, and the Kentish Source which was written as a proof of Kent’s ascendancy over the other English kingdoms. Almost everything else on Britain from 410 to 550 – all of Bede’s writings, Historia Brittonum, and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles – are based on the information to be found in those three sources. It’s those three writings, all very biased and all written well after the events they portray, with which we’ve been trying to prove Arthur existed. It’s those three, archeology, and a few scattered references with which we’ve tried to reconstruct post-Roman society and politics.
Now honestly there is something to be said for having fewer sources. For one thing you can study them more intensely. You actually have to. You can take the time to learn about their circumstances, the materials they used, and any potential biases those sources might have used. Your work can be checked by peers as well as the next generation of scholars who can add in their own findings until you have a pretty complete picture. But in the end all you have are those three basic sources – Gildas, the Northern Memorandum, and The Kentish Source. If you don’t know what happened with Kennedy and can’t be certain about Obama, then anything historians come up with regarding Arthur and post-Roman Britain is downright miraculous.