I know that Efrawg sounds perfectly Welsh, but it’s actually just the British version of Latin Eboracum, modern York. Now that’s a little odd for a man’s name, but then again it isn’t actually a man’s name. You see there actually was an historical Peredur. His father’s name was Eliffer and most scholars locate him around York. See how that works, Peredur was from York so his patronym was mistakenly mixed up with the area he ruled.
The discussion about Arthur’s existence has been active since Geoffrey of Monmouth made him a European sensation in the mid-eleventh century. For many, it revolves around his mention in Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae, which is now generally believed to have come from the Northern Memorandum. Personally, I’ve approached the question from several angles no one had ever thought to so it’s not necessary for me to believe that the hypothetical source is early to know Arthur existed. That also means I’m less likely to be biased toward making it any earlier than it has to be. To business; the veracity of both sources depends on the Northern Memorandum written within the lifetime of an individual.
I say this because it has been suggested that people during this period might have lived a hundred years or more, as long as they were able to avoid wars and disease. Between 526 and 547, Britain suffered three major plagues or famines. Between 410 and the time of Gildas’ De Excidio Britanniae, the Germanic migrants expanded west to control what in later times would be Northumbria, Essex, a good portion of Wessex, Sussex, East Anglia, and Kent. And the Germanic peoples were not Christian at that time so that they saw monasteries as storehouses of wealth only. By 632, when Cadwallon would run roughshod over Northumbria, northern Britain was cut off from Wales, suggesting Mercia had expanded to the western coast. Safe to say that nowhere on the island was there a region that could have avoided disease, poor crops, or war for more than a decade. And of course the very young and the very old would have been the most likely to die during plagues, famines, or conquests.
Statistical fact, the average male lived to be 32 and the average female 28 in the first couple centuries of post-Roman Britain.
All that out of the way, we know that the rare churchman could live to be as old as 80. Unlikely as that seems, it means he could have been witness to an event he saw at 5 and wrote it down at about 80. More likely, a person would remember an event from 15 on, but we’ll stick to the extremes. That way whatever dates we come up with won’t be edited for a wider range.
The first dated historical event in either Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae is the Battle of Arfderydd, dated to 573. A boy aware of the event at the time might have recorded it as late as 648. The last northern British dated event is the death of Dunod in 595, and therefore the earliest possible date would be 595. Thus Run, or a monastery associated with him, likely scribed the original Northern Memorandum in 595×648.
Professor Koch long ago suggested a means by which a British history could have been brought into Germanic hands and made use of without bending it to a strictly Germanic bias. At some time after 664, Alhfrith revolted against his father. He was dead by 671. Alfrith was possibly a descendant of Urien according to the Historia Brittonum, which means he might have had access to British records. Modernizing the history for the purpose of showing his ancestry and winning the support of British nobility would have been an excellent motivator for a Northumbrian to put in the details about Rieinmellth marrying a Northumbrian.
However, as he died in 671, the Germanic genealogies end during Ecgfrith’s reign, and the last event of Germanic concern is 685, it’s also a safe bet that the history was rewritten in 685 or later.
There is also one curiosity in the history of the theoretical Northern Memorandum; Patrick is one of three religious figures mentioned in prominent roles (Rhun as the author and Germanus as the nemesis of Vortigern being the other two). But Patrick serves no known purpose for any British history written between 595 and 648. Nor would Alhfrith or Ecgfrith have had any political motivations. In fact, one might argue the British would have had more reason to mention other British saints, while the Northumbrians would have been more likely to name Columba or Aedan. Add to this that Arthur’s presence seems to be interwoven with the Arthurian entries and we are given the suggestion that these two may have been part of a still earlier recension. Is there any evidence as to its date-range, or even that there was an earlier recension? Nope! Just a thought.
As has been seen, Roman Empire’s administration had been exemplary. Rome’s founders had erected a stable bureaucracy that possessed an intelligent set of checks and balances which adapted over time and changing circumstances. As it had transitioned into an empire another group of far-sighted lawmakers had adapted the government so that it could integrate new provinces and cultures. By 400, every local government from Britain to India had a variation of the Roman model.
Through foreign and domestic wars, its income had also been stable. Taxes had been individually assessed based on personal holdings and then collected in the form of coins. Tradition had made the wealthy elite responsible for local administration as well as local project funding; forums, baths, public buildings, and roads had all been a part of their normal responsibility.
At the provincial level, money had been used to pay for the hospices along the highways that were used by official travelers as well as craftsmen, artists, and traders. Reserves were left alone in case of emergency. The empire paid the military and the officials who had been publically educated, but the senators came from wealthy families and had been given nothing for their public service by tradition.
Then Constantine had displaced the Roman governor and his bureaucracy and installed his own. When the Romano-British citizens revolted and overthrew Constantine’s government, the provincial government collapsed. Severing the connection with Rome meant no more income, no military support, and only limited contact with the empire. Dismantling the provincial government meant no local military or political order.
The local governments had remained intact and functioning through all that. However, throughout the last half-century of Roman rule the wealthy had been either immigrating to the continent or their country villas in Britannia where they had stopped performing public service. By 410, most of them were no longer contributing their resources to the villages and towns.
The departure of the wealthy from public life was just as catastrophic as the loss of provincial government. The wealthy had maintained local buildings and roads throughout Britain. Without them, all of these things fell into disrepair. Their business relations had kept them connected to other settlements and to the greater empire. Without them, villages were suddenly isolated.
As we have seen, the core of Roman civilization was education. Teaching a single language and mythology united the upper class in a common culture that spanned across the empire while educating the most talented among the poor at the public’s expense and then pushing them toward government positions had ensured a high level of competency at all levels of government. It had also made government employees unusually loyal to Rome.
However, the grammatici and the rhetorici that had done the teaching had been funded by the education of the rich, so without them the teachers would have had no patrons in Britain. Probably, some of them remained behind and found work where they could (Gildas’ education is proof of that), but those who insisted on their traditional income were forced to leave for the continent.
Along with the political changes came economic adaptations. Coins had been coming to Britain for centuries as pay to government officials and soldiers. They had then spent their money on the island and dispersed the new money. But as of 410 Britain was no longer part of the empire and received no more shipments of coin.
Judging by the wear of later Roman coins, money was used for a long time after the last shipments – we think it was still in circulation until maybe 430 or 440. They were used until no one could read them any more. After that, the Britons drifted into a bartering system as it was practiced among the Irish and had been among the pre-Roman British – with a female slave, a milk-producing cow, and an ounce of silver as equal standards of exchange.[i] Bartering meant that trade would be more limited from that point on; artwork, specialists, and weapons were still easily transportable, but cattle were the most convenient unit of exchange and they were more difficult.
For centuries Britannia had been protected by the Roman military, but the military had been paid by Roman coins and those were no longer free flowing after about 407, which means that whatever official military forces Constantine had left behind had probably dispersed long before 420.
During the last few decades of Roman Britain, the foederati had been protecting the eastern and southern coast from pirating and raids. They had been paid by food and supplies as well as coins, and probably by more and more trade items after 407. As we have seen, even these protectors would eventually revolt and conquer the very lands they had been protecting. That would leave the Britons on their own to protect themselves with homemade spears, bows designed and used for hunting, and any sharp household objects they could find.
The new economic system was local in the extreme – with a bartering system in place it had to be. It also ensured that the social, military, and even political aspects of post-Roman Britain were also local. Public buildings and roads crumbled from no maintenance. Local governments went from a well-educated bureaucracy to an informal group of town elders. The effect was as significant to them as the sudden loss of internet would be to us in the modern world.
[i] The exact equivalencies seem to have varied by region and time but the basic exchange, the bartering dollar, was the female slave/milking cow/ounce of silver.
British kingship seems to have been a reaction to Germanic migration and settlement – the timing is right and the motivation makes sense. The historical fact is that the British had developed primitive kingships by the end of the century. If they had not, they might have all been speaking Anglo-Saxon in another hundred years.
There was much more to Celtic kingship than just a military leader who lived in a hall. A king not only had to be a good warrior and leader, he had to come from a long line of strong kings; which is why lineages often consisted of famous heroes of the area as well as the actual royal ancestors of a dynasty. The Irish law texts say he had to make consistently correct judgments in legal matters for his people. He could never turn his back in battle. He could not lie or tolerate bardic satire. His body could have no blemishes.
Kings had to be all these things because of their connections to the supernatural. A Celtic king did not just rule his kingdom; during his inauguration he literally married the land in the form of a woman, and legend had it that for the rest of his reign she would reflect his rule by her appearance. He married a young and beautiful woman because he had demonstrated to his clan and the people that he was the best candidate for the position. As long as he behaved like a king she would remain youthful and attractive, but if he ever lost his kingly virtue she would become an old hag until he was replaced with a worthy king.
This connection to the land as symbolized by a woman gave the king an authority beyond the question of normal humans, putting their kingship and by extension their clan above question as rulers in the eyes of peasants. When Celtic kingship developed, though, it had taken time to develop. Bards had gradually added people and stories, of actual ancestors and adopted ones, to each kingdom’s official history along the way. The mystical elements probably developed after dynasties were long established. As Vansina has demonstrated, anything beyond living memory can be easily changed and rechanged as local politics and events occur.
The Britons of the Post-Roman era did not have the luxury of time as they reestablished their original culture, though. The Germanic tribes began migrating onto and controlling villages from around 441. The result was that the British kingships that did emerge did not have the solid foundations necessary. It would not have mattered how good their bards were at creating impressive genealogies and personal histories for their first generation kings or reinvigorating the mystique behind kingship. The simple fact was that in the late fifth century people still remembered a time without kings.
And because kingship was such a new establishment for the Romano-Britons, fifth-century kingships would have been based almost solely on the personal chemistry between the chieftain and his men. When he died, or even when he lost too many battles, that chemistry could dissolve and any person who was able to generate a new bond might succeed him. A son, brother, or cousin might have succeeded him but that was only one of several possibilities. A nearby king might absorb the teulu or a former champion might assert himself. It may never be possible to list all the petty chieftainships that arose in the late fifth century, or the ways in which most of them disappeared from history.
On the other hand, the fact that none of the early kingships were stable is probably one of the main reasons why the early British kingdoms grew so quickly; without a strong tradition there would have been no kingdom identity among villages and therefore no resistance to changing kings. The unique situation of the fifth century would have allowed a ruler to simply absorb a chieftainless teulu just as easily as a victorious king could absorb his dead enemy’s villages.
1 Corpus Iuris Hibernici, ed. David A. Binchy, (Dublin, 1978), 219.17-18.
2 Ibid, 15.2-3.
3 O’Rahilly, “On the Origin of the Names Érain and Ériu”, Ériu 35 (Dublin, 1946b), 11-13.
4 Vansina, Oral Tradition as History, (Madison, 1985).
In 1912, Hector Chadwick dubbed the period between Alaric’s sack of Rome and the Cadwallon’s campaign of 632 the “British Heroic Age”.[i] He then compared it and the Anglo-Saxon Heroic Age to the Greek Heroic Age. When a scholar studies the literature of both insular cultures of the time it is hard to deny that many of their values and attitudes are identical to those found in the Iliad and other Greek literature from the same era.
However, an heroic age is more than simply a consistent philosophy about life and death, it is a complete political and economic system. At the center of the heroic age is the king. It is his personality and personal charisma that bonds the warriors together in the first place. His reputation and the confidence inspires villages to pay tribute. His successes in battle and the loot he acquires raids are what attract new warriors to him and allow for his fame and his band of warriors to grow from a handful of warriors to dozens.
The cult of a specific individual is what allows for kingship to develop initially, but a king who rules solely by the force of his personality can only survive for so long. In the modern world many leaders have had personal charisma, but many have not. Leaders are able to lead because of two key elements – tradition and the moral authority to rule.
The British chieftains that emerged after Roman rule had neither a tradition nor a moral authority over the people. They had authority over villages only because they had an army and the villages needed protection. They controlled their army because they had the money pay them and the warriors’ respect. When any element in that chain faltered, their ability to rule disintegrated.
Which is why bards among the Britons, Irish, and Picts and skops among the Germanic tribes were an invaluable element of society for kingship – they gave the illusion of moral authority and tradition to the early kingships.
We have no direct knowledge of what both groups were taught as part of their educations but they were probably similar. They were probably taught all of the essential myths and legends of their people as well as hundreds of lesser stories. They probably also picked up as many current events as they could – battles, raids, generous and stingy kings, silver-tongued and ugly warriors, anything that might prove useful in the king’s hall. We can be confident that both groups were also taught how to create extemporaneous poetry quickly using hundreds of motifs and pneumonic devices. They were shown techniques that helped them adjust to different audiences, time limits, and even values.
Any person who completed their formal education would have had all the tools to become an excellent entertainer. He, or she, could tell myths and legends in many different ways, keeping the old stories fresh by stressing different themes and perspectives. They could create new stories and poems to praise their patrons as events occurred.[ii]
We have to keep in mind, though, that the bard and the skop were much more than just entertainers. Their ability to innovate gave them an almost mystical reputation among their people – what they said was the truth and the power of their words made what they predicted inevitable.[iii] The education also made them natural historians; ancient peoples who kept no written records made little or no distinction between mythology, legend, and history.
In the late fifth century among the Britons and the mid-sixth century among the Germanic peoples, their significance was magnified. Both culture groups had not needed kings for at least three generations and were only just beginning to reintroduce them. In that context, the historians infuse the new group of chieftains with a respectable lineage several generations deep. This was possible because of the relatively short life-span of the average person at the time,[iv] and the fact that any history beyond the lifetime of the oldest member of society was extremely flexible.[v]
Asked to construct a lineage for his king, a bard would begin with the information that was widely known – probably all of the current king’s accomplishments and his father’s name. Beyond that, a bard was free to insert famous local kings into his king’s geneology. This gave the king’s warriors and the villages under his protection a sense of consistency by reinforcing the belief that their leader was not only an excellent war-leader but that he came from a long and rich tradition of legendary ancestors.
Bards and skops were also responsible for creating the illusion of a kingship’s sanctity. Family history was part of that role because it demonstrated a king’s right to rule. However, the office of king itself was sacred. The two cultures did this in different ways, but the common denominators were that the clan from which kings were chosen had divine favor and the man chosen as king was believed to be the most favored.[vi] Secondly, part of the inauguration ritual included marriage to the land. Among the British the land was symbolized by an old hag who transformed into a beautiful young woman when married to the right king.[vii] For the English the king married a deity, Freyja, and so there was no transformation.[viii]
Among the Celts legend had it that the wife, and the land she symbolized, would remain youthful and beautiful for as long as the king ruled well. Knowing that, a peasant only needed to look at his own fields to be reassured his king had divine grace.
Marriage to the land made for an effective image. However, daily reminders like praise poems were also useful because they could approach the same subjects from different angles and served many different purposes: To reinforce the king’s stature as a generous and successful leader, to point out the unique talents of his men, to support the bond between a king and his warriors.
Warriors were an essential part of the equation. While a king’s personality might attract warriors and win tribute it was the warriors’ willingness to stand beside their leader and often die in battle that made kingship successful. Achilles was once offered the choice of living a long life and being forgotten when his children died or dying young but enjoying eternal fame; he made the same choice as every other heroic age warrior. Their numbers made it possible for the king to defend villages from raiders and eventually to make their own raids. The warriors’ presence helped to enforce the agreement between king and villages for food and supplies. Without them, the king had nothing.
These villages, and the villagers who populated them, were the foundation of every kingdom. Each year they produced the grains, honey, bragawt, livestock, labor, and smiths that kept the king, his warriors, and his servants fed, sheltered, and armed. Without their support British kingship could not exist. The mutual need of all four groups – king, bards, warriors, and villages – is what made the system work.
One other element was absolutely necessary for British kingship to survive – an enemy. The original reason for kingships was the raiding and settling of the Germanic tribes and Irish princes. Both groups were real threats in the middle and late fifth century. But, as has been seen, the Irish had lost interest in Britain by 500 and evidence will be produced that Germanic tribes had stopped migrating into Britain by then. Both groups probably still conducted raids into the sixth century, but by then they had likely settled into a pattern of stealing livestock and defending their own cattle from other villages.
As has been seen, the British chieftains also took part in raiding British as well as Irish, Germanic, and probably Pictish targets. Raiding helped a king develop a reputation as a battle leader and a man who was able to take booty. What is normally overlooked is that the act of raiding also served the raided kingdom. If foreign kings could be beaten off it would enhance the defender’s reputation, but whether he was successful or not, raiding parties could be portrayed as the new enemy; without the king to defend the peasants those raiding parties would have attacked the villages themselves.
Every element in the heroic age system was a necessary one. The king’s charisma and leadership ability bonded the warriors to him and made the villages believe he could protect them. Bards lived on kings’ largesse but provided them with a geneology of famous local kings and tapped the divine nature of their position while using their skills to entertain. The warriors were attracted to kings because of their abilities and their wealth. In return they went into battle with them, putting their lords’ lives before their own.
All three groups were fed, clothed, and paid by the villages. In return for a small portion of their annual crops as well as some livestock and labor they had a king who was sworn to protect them. That protection might not have been as secure as it had been under the Romans but it gave them more safety than they had enjoyed since the Romans while demanding fewer resources than raiders took.
Despite the interdependence of the different groups the system was still fragile. It might have been based on ancient traditions, but it was new. Bards were invaluable in making the political shifts an accepted part of British culture. But changing attitudes took time.
That may have been one of the reasons for the witch hunts of around 500.[ix] We know that they existed because we know that “witches” existed. Samson killed one in the Vita Samsoni.[x] Arthur killed a great one in Culhwch ac Olwen,[xi] and he and his men attack nine in “Preiddeu Annwn”.[xii] St. Martin initiated the movement in the old empire during the fourth century with attacks on pagan temples and groups of non-Christians.[xiii] Later on bishops, priests, and occasionally secular rulers led campaigns against them for their own reasons.
[i] Chadwick, The Heroic Age, (Cambridge, 1912), 105-9.
[ii] West, Indo-European poetry and myth, (Oxford, 2007), 30.
[iii] The bard’s power was considered so potent they could predict the manner and time of death. This made a displeased bard one of the most fearsome things in the Celtic world; Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, (Dublin, 1988), 49-51.
[iv] Wells, Bones, Bodies and Disease, (London, 1964), 179.
[v] Vansina, Oral Tradition as History, (Madison, 1985).
[vi] Binchy, “Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Kingship”, (Oxford, 1970); Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition from Paganism to Christianity, (Manchester, 1970), 174-220.
[vii] Bugge, “Fertility myth and female sovereignty in the weddynge of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell”, CR 39.2 (University Park, 2004), 198-218.
[viii] Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition from Paganism to Christianity, (Manchester, 1970), 27; Chadwick, Origins of the English Nation, (Cambridge, 1907), 237-8.
[ix] Johnson, Origins of Arthurian Romances, (Madison, 2012), 100-36.
[x] The Life of St. Samson of Dol, trans. Thomas Taylor, (Llanerch, rep. 1991), books 26 and 27.
[xi] Culhwch ac Olwen: An edition and study of the oldest Arthurian tale, ed. Rachel Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, (Cardiff, 1992), 1206-1227.
[xii] “ ‘Preiddeu Annwn’ and the figure of Taliesin”, ed. and trans. Marged Haycock, SC 14/15 (Cardiff, 1984), ln. 14.
[xiii] Stancliffe, Clare, St. Martin and his Hagiographer: History and Miracle in Sulpicius Severus, (Oxford, 1983); Vitae Martini, 13.9, 14.1, 14.3-7, 15.1, and 15.4.
Beginning in the fourth century the Roman Empire had been settling Saxon tribes along the southern and eastern coastline to keep the shipping lanes in the English Channel open and stop other Germanic tribes from pirating. In exchange for food, supplies, and their own land within the empire they functioned as Rome’s navy there. The foederati installations worked well, too. They worked hard and forced the raiders to work harder and each new tribe that was settled made the system more effective.
The Romans had hired the Saxons because they were the best seamen of the time. That is not why the arrangement worked so well though. For the Saxons, the attraction was not the easy food and supplies or the fighting. The big appeal was the empire itself. Decades ago, people thought that the Germanic tribes had overrun and destroyed the Roman Empire. The truth is that the empire collapsed internally. Some tribes, like Attila’s Huns, did despise everything Roman.
Not most of them though. Most tribes held the Roman Empire in awe and served it till the end. Many of its best and most loyal generals, Stilicho and Aetius among them, were of Germanic descent. For the Saxons who settled on the British coast, being a foederati was more than income. It was a chance to live within the empire. They realized that they would never become Roman themselves but they could hope that their children might.
However, the sequence of events that would lead to the end of Rome was already in motion when the first foederati settled in Britain. As we have seen, Saxon raiding did affect trade and the attacks by Picts, Germanic tribesmen, and Irish – both individually and together – did make living conditions less appealing. The fourth century would see many of the richest Romans moving back to the continent. When they left, the public structures they were responsible for stopped being maintained. With them went a level of romanitas as well. The arrival of Saxon foederati also coincided with the first generals being elected as emperor. Each time a new man was declared emperor he took as many Roman troops as he could in order to go to the continent and pursue his claim.
What that meant for the foederati and their families was that they saw less of what was Roman, what impressed them. They saw fewer regular soldiers and were supervised less because there fewer around. When they traveled they did it on roads that were no longer pristine, and when they arrived they saw public structures that were slowly falling apart
No contemporaries mentioned the foederati during the coups of 383 and 406-7. They probably stayed at their posts patrolling the English Channel and keeping a look out for raiding parties in the best Roman tradition as their Roman and more civilized employees selected new emperors, installed new governments, stole garrison troops, and left for the continent. It strikes this particular historian as ironic that even while every successful Roman general was ripping the empire apart while he tried to become the next emperor, the outsiders were doing what they could to protect the empire’s borders.
Their devotion to duty did not matter in the end though. The barbarian attacks came again around 410. The Roman citizens still overthrew Constantine’s government and invited Honorius to send a new bureaucracy. Honorius still told the civitates of Rome that they were on their own, leaving local villages to keep the foederati supplied with food, clothing, and tools.
At first the events of 410 would have had little effect on the Saxons. Their employers still spoke Latin, were a part of Roman culture, and acted Roman. Local villages probably could not support the foederati, but the Roman Empire would have set up storehouses to store surplus grain and other supplies in case of a drought. The locals could have used them and replenished as they could while they waited for the Roman Empire to return in force and reestablish order.
However, the Roman Empire never did come back. It struggled along for six more decades, but never had the strength to bring send soldiers and another governor to Britain. The surplus foederati materials were exhausted within a few years. Local villages and civitates may have been able to work something out for a few years after that, but it was nothing permanent. By 441, they would have been tapped. It was not, as Gildas would have us believe, the incompetence of a single man that allowed the Germanic peoples to invade Britain. Nor was Bede correct, that the brilliant manipulations of another man created the opportunity.
Britain fell to the Germanic tribes because the British people made a series of intelligent decisions based on an incomplete knowledge of their situation. They also had no foreknowledge of how their decisions would play out. Their only serious mistake was their inability to find a way out of the situation they had put themselves in.
1 Goffart, Barbarians and Romans 418-584. The Techniques of Accomodation, (Princeton, 1980).
2 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons: 350-1064, (Oxford, 2013), 44-5. He sees three phases of the Germanic presence in Britain: Within the structure of the Roman Empire, alongside Romano-British materials, and new sites ancestral to Anglo-Saxon settlements.
Hey, sorry I have been away for awhile. Many changes going on at the moment, and hanging over my head a deadline; I am supposed to hand in a finished draft for a readable history of Britain from 367-664. The outline is written, most of it is on paper I have a little research to do before it is. My big problem at this point is a lot of tedious editing. I thought, maybe, anyone interested in the topic might get a kick out of me putting up chapters as I complete them. So, don’t expect them regularly, but I will start putting them on my blog. Today, an introduction:
In a way, our understanding of British history has developed a lot like a person as he or she matures from a small child into adulthood. During the nineteenth century everything about Britain during the Dark Ages was understandable and most issues were seen as black or white. Gildas had provided a list of events from the Late Roman occupation up to his birth in about 527. Bede had added accurate details for that period and continued the history up to the seventh century. Nennius’ Historia Brittonum filled in what few blanks there were of the period along with many British events and names while The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gave a detailed history of the English kingdoms’ development. Geoffrey of Monmouth provided an overview – themes and fluidity. There were of course discrepancies between all these sources, but it was believed they were nothing more than simple and honest misunderstandings between honest historians of the distant past.
The focus of historical studies then was to find better ways of understanding the materials so that all of them made sense together. With that in mind, scholars spent their careers pouring over the same four basic sources. Meanwhile, archeologists continued to improve their methods for uncovering the past. The revelation that Carbon disintegrated at a steady rate helped with dating as did the study of tree rings. Progressively more careful ways of digging and recording information helped as well.
The trouble was that the more scholars learned about history and archeology, the more obvious it became that the four traditional sources of the period were related to and inspired by each other. Once that was recognized their agreement really did not mean anything positive. In fact, it just meant that Gildas was the only one who knew anything about the fifth century unless it could be proven that Bede, Historia Brittonum, and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle had used other sources.
Optimistic caution followed their revelation; experts claimed to know less and their studies became more specific as they made in-depth studies on each of the basic four, learning about their sources and eventually the motivations for their writing. The studies revealed more and more bias and less and less real knowledge of the period.
Dr. Dumville brought post-Roman studies to an extreme during the 1970s with a series of articles pointing out the basic oversights in the most-used sources. It was Ninnius, not Nennius, who claimed to have written the Historia Brittonum. His authorship was debated. The work had been written and rewritten for very political reasons and was not necessarily accurate. Similar accusations were thrown at Bede and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Dumville flatly stated that any events which occurred between the departure of Roman troops in 409 and the beginnings of contemporary recordkeeping in the mid-sixth century were irrecoverable.
Historical and archeological scholars had largely pulled away from Dumville’s stance by the 1990s. Several literary experts began studying the individual sources at length. Professor Koch even attempted to reconstruct several sixth-century poems, Y Gododdin, “Marwnad Cunedda”, “Trawsganu Cynan Garwyn”, “Moliant Cadwallon”, and “Marwnad Cynddylan”. Professors Rowland Haycock and Jenny Rowland have studied many other poems in-depth to provide context and meanings for them line by line. The important recent works of Thomas Charles-Edwards and a new generation of historians have revealed new ways of looking at the sources and the period.
The modern era of Arthurian studies began on shaky foundations as well. Arthur and his twelve battles had after all been named in the Historia Brittonum. Studies by Jessie Weston and Alfred Nutt speculated that the Holy Grail was based on Romanian and Turkish religious observances or alternatively Celtic mythology. Nutt’s work continued with Roger Loomis, who connected Arthur to a sun god and his war-band with various figures in Irish Mythology. His thoughts held the field until the 1960s, promoting translations of Arthurian works from medieval Welsh, English, French, German, Italian, Danish, and Spanish with his popularity.
The 1960s saw scholars trained in Celtic literature approaching Arthurian studies with different and more disciplined approaches to the subject. Rachel Bromwich ended all doubt about the origins of Arthur’s name while continuing work by her and other experts researched how and when the materials had transferred to the continent. John Morris’ Age of Arthur was a book written by a widely knowledgeable expert in the area, but its unestablished theories were in the short term viewed as a step back in the area.
Since then, Arthuriana really continued on in two veins. One group of scholars and good capitalists have written book after book finding different ways of saying the same things about Gildas, Historia Brittonum, the Annales Cambriae, Bede, and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle with varying levels of academic knowledge and economic success.
At the highest levels, the work of distentangling sources, influences on Arthurian literature, and character name histories has been at the forefront. Intensive studies have been accomplished on the continental romances, the Welsh stories, and their relationships. Peredur, Lancelot, and Gawain have been the subjects of several papers as well.
Several changes have occurred on both fronts over the last few years. As Professor Koch recently pointed out, the last of Professor Ifor Williams’ students died. Williams was a brilliant scholar but his reputation and charisma stifled the growth of an entire generation of scholars. With their decline and deaths progress has come in leaps and bounds; new and innovative work has been done on every major work of literature from this period. This has led to new approaches in the way historians have interpreted the period. It has also guided new methodologies. In 2012, the present author developed a new and more accurate means of extracting historical information from historical, pseudo-historical, and literary sources through intensive studies of the materials followed by a strict application of the results. The immediate results were a better understanding of the traditional Guinevere abduction and the Holy Grail legend. More far-reaching uses were found in a study of Arthur’s historicity and an exploration of Hengest and Gwrtheyrn’s place in history. It was found that, stripping away all the materials we know to be biased, the history of Britain between 410 and the end of the sixth century is very different from any picture we have yet developed.
In a very real way, what is laid out below is simply a continuation of the author’s previous work in context supplemented with the latest scholarly works. Approached from another perspective, the present monolith is a summary and rationalization of everything that has been accomplished in the subject of post-Roman Britain up to this point.
What follows below has several goals. First, to demonstrate a pattern of disintegration in Roman Britain that reached a climax in the decades after the Britons overthrew Constantine’s government and were refused Roman rule. In addition, I will demonstrate that the breakdown of Roman social, political, and economic order occurred with the re-emergence of the British social structure.
Second, the Britannia section will demonstrate the continuation of political and linguistic romanitas at the local level. Third, historical and archeological evidence will show the nature of Romano-Germanic culture. This evidence will be used to demonstrate how the Germanic tribes were divided during their service as foederati. The same evidence will show that they continued to function as separate entities after Rome had left Rome, during their initial revolt, and throughout the rest of the fifth century.
Fourth, several chapters will be devoted to explaining how the Picts and Irish immigrants to Britain had the political stability and military strength to overwhelm the Britons wherever they attacked. Concurrently, they will demonstrate why both culture groups were unable or unwilling to exploit their advantage through a permanent conquest. Fifth, chapters devoted to the sub-Roman period will walk through the process by which both the Germanic tribes and the British villages developed from isolated groups into full and integrated kingships in less than two centuries.
Sixth, evidence will be presented that demonstrates Christianity was not a thriving religion among all the Britons. Instead, evidence will be presented to show that it survived the fifth century along the borders of the old Roman province of Britannia and only developed into the dominant religion after all semblance of Roman culture had dissipated from everyday life. It is also hoped that the data will present Anglo-Saxon Christianity as a product of economic pressure which was used for the spread of political power. Finally, the author hopes to explore the fact that the Germanic conquest of British lands was inevitable.
A great deal has been learned and unlearned since the modern study of post-Roman Britain began in the nineteenth century. However, as complex as the sources and a study of the history has become there is still much that can be understood about the period, many underlying themes and controlling factors to understand, and new ways and more useful methods of looking at the few historical sources at our disposal. Post-Roman Britain is no longer as easy as Geoffrey of Monmouth portrayed the subject in his famous 1136 work, but neither is beyond our understanding, either.
1 Dumville, “ ‘Nennius’ and the Historia Brittonum”, SC 11 (Cardiff, 1976), 78-95.
2 Chadwick, “Early Culture and Learning in North Wales”, Studies in the Early British Church, ed. Nora K. Chadwick, (Cambridge, 1958), 29-36; Dumville, “Historia Brittonum: An Insular History from the Carolingian Age”; Historiographie im frühen Mittelalter, eds. A Scharer and G. Scheibelreiter, (Munich, 1994), 411; Higham, King Arthur: Mythmaking and History, (New York, 2002), 130.
3 Kirby, “Bede and Northumbrian Chronology”, EHR 78 (London, 1963), 514-527; “Bede’s Native Sources for the Historia Ecclesiastica”, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 48 (London, 1965-1966), 341-371; “Problems of early West Saxon history”, EHR 80 (London, 1965), 10-29; “Vortigern”, BBCS 23 (Cardiff, 1970), 37-59; “Northumbria in the time of Bede”, St. Wilfrid at Hexham, ed. David Kirby, (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1974), 2-4.
4 Dumville, “Sub-Roman Britain: history and legend”, History 62 (London, 1977a), 173-192.
5 The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997); Cunedda, Cynan, Cadwallon, Cynddylan: Four Welsh Poems and Britain 383-655, ed. and trans. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 2013).
6 Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, trans. and ed. Marged Haycock, (Cardiff, 2007); Early Welsh Saga Poetry, trans. and ed. Jenny Rowland, (Cambridge, 1990).
7 Arnold, An Archaeology of the Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, (London, 1988); Stephen Bassett (ed.), The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, (Leicester, 1989); Leslie Abrams and James P. Carley (eds.) The Archaeology and History of Glastonbury Abbey. Essays in Honour of the Ninetieth Birthday of C.A. Ralegh Radford, (Woodbridge, 1991); Higham, Rome, Britain and the Anglo-Saxons, (London, 1992); Dark, Civitas to Kingdom: British Political Continuity 300-800, (Leicester, 1994); Higham, An English Empire, (Manchester, 1995); King Arthur: Mythmaking and History, (New York, 2002); Scott DeGregorio (ed.) Innovation and Tradition in the Writings of the Venerable Bede, (Morgantown, 2006).
8 Weston, The Legend of Sir Gawain, (London, 1897); The Quest of the Holy Grail, (London, 1913); From Ritual to Romance, (London, 1920) Nutt, Alfred. Studies on the Legend of the Holy Grail. (London, 1888).
9 Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance, (New York, 1927); Arthurian Tradition and Chrétien, (New York, 1949); Wales and the Arthurian Legend, (Cardiff, 1956); The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol, (Cardiff, 1963).
10 Bromwich, “First Transmission from England to France”, The Arthur of the Welsh, Rachel Bromwich, Brynley F. Roberts, and Alfred O.H. Jarman (eds.) (Cardiff, 1991), 273-298; Bullock-Davies, Professional Interpreters and the Matter of Britain, (Cardiff, 1966).
11 Nothing is to be gained by listing individuals or their works. The simple fact that a physics professor has written as an equal to experts in this field is telling enough about the state of its integrity.
12 Charles-Edwards, “The Date of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi”, THSC (London, 1971), 263-98; Laurie, Two Studies in Chrétien de Troyes, (Geneva, 1972); Buschinger and Zink (eds.), Lancelot-Lanzelet: Hier et Aujourdhui, (Reineke, 1995); W.H. Jackson and Sylvia A. Ranawake (eds.), The Tristan of the Germans, (Cardiff, 2000); Karen Pratt and Glynn Burgess (eds.) The Arthur of the French: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval French and Occitan Literature, (Cardiff, 2006).
13 Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads, ed. and trans. Rachel Bromwich, (Cardiff, rev. 1978); Brouland, “Peredur ab Efrawg”, Perceval-Parzival; Hier et Aujourdhui, ed. Danielle Buschinger and Wolfgang Spiewok, (Reineke, 1994), 59-70; Bugge, “Fertility myth and female sovereignty in the weddynge of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell”, CR 39.2 (University Park, 2004), 198-218.
14 Goetinck, Peredur: A Study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends, (Cardiff, 1975); Busby, Gauvain in Old French Literature, (Amsterdam, 1980); Gowans, Cei and the Arthurian Legend, (Cambridge, 1988).
15 Johnson, Origins of Arthurian Romances, (Madison, 2012); Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2014); Hengest, Gwrtheyrn and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014).
I know that Efrawg, the name of Peredur’s father in the Welsh romance, might sound perfectly Welsh but it’s actually just the British version of Latin Eboracum. In turn, Eboracum was the Roman name for modern York. You might think it was a little odd to name a person after a city, and you’d be right to. You see there actually was an historical Peredur. His father’s name was Eliffer and most scholars locate their kingdom around York. See how that works, Peredur was from York and his father’s name was kinda similar to the main city in the area and somehow or other the two got mixed up.
I know, that probably sounds a little odd and it probably also sounds like quite a leap without too much evidence. If that was all we knew, it would be. But there have been a lot of eras similar to what we find in post-Roman Britain during the world’s history – the Germanic, Sumerian, and Greek heroic ages are only the most widely known. Many people, but especially Hector and Nora Chadwick, have studied them all as a group. In the process, they’ve learn a lot of things about how heroic cycles develop.
One of the main ingredients to these periods is that most of the extant literature is oral. Another is that the political situation unstable. What that means is that whichever ruler the bards like best – whether because they are magnetic, or generous, or simply great warrior-kings – eventually becomes the central figure in the literature of the period. In the case of Britain it seems that Arthur was that person. As the literature develops, it attracts less popular kings and warriors from the era (and supernatural figures once in a while but not as a rule) into the cycle.
So, back to Peredur son of Efrawg/Eliffer? We know of a few Peredur’s in the period, but none were as powerful as him. He was present at Arfderydd, one of the largest battles of the sixth century. His death is recorded, even though we don’t have any idea when most British rulers died in his era. Most importantly, Peredur appears in the Welsh Triads a total of four times, and in the earliest section. Since we already know that Peredur was probably a person, it was most likely this person.
The problem, of course, was that once Peredur’s patronymic had been changed it never stabilized again. Chretien wouldn’t name the father, but most of the authors who followed him would all delight in changing his name – continuators, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Sir Thomas Malory, Vulgate, and so forth. No one really knows why the father’s name kept changing, but it definitely hasn’t helped understand exactly what Peredur’s original story was, or how it was developing when it was brought into the Arthurian orbit.
So, the traditional history of Post-Roman Britain: The Romans left, somehow a tyrant took control of the island within a decade or so, and between 449 and 456 he decided he needed help keeping the Anglo-Saxon pirates, Pictish raiders, and Irish settlers. So, he hired two brothers (Hengest and Horsa) to do some of the work for him. They did well, beat back everyone he threw them up against, and asked if he (Horsa died early on) could send for more men (At this point our tyrant must have been at least 60, but moving on). The tyrant oked things, so more Anglo-Saxons came over. Within years the elderly tyrant had married Hengest’s daughter, gave away Kent as a dowry, lost a son to fighting against the now-rebellious Hengest, and was fighting a defensive war against an overwhelming enemy. Later legends accuse him of Pelagianism (believing in Free Will) and a number of other moral, religious, and ethical crimes. When he finally does die, it’s considered a turning point in the British war against the Anglo-Saxons.
Wow! A guy strong enough to unite a broken province being attacked on all sides was too weak-willed to keep mercenaries under his thumb and too stupid to see he was being manipulated. That’s quite a biography!
You’ll remember I spoke a few weeks ago about how all the sources of the period had their own biases, and how when each source added in their own knowledge they manipulated the previous knowledge to their own purposes? The tyrant, commonly known as Vortigern now, is a perfect example of that.
Gildas wrote probably in about 530×545 by most approximations. Now, in a world where few things were written down and no one lived over 80, he couldn’t possibly have known anything much before the introduction of Aetius in his story. In fact, Vortigern’s story doesn’t even show up before then. It also makes sense that he wouldn’t have known much about Britain too long before he was born. That means that Gildas was making the best use of what he knew and thought he knew to make sense of the world before then.
Gildas knew that the Germanic peoples living in Britain had started out as foederati. It had been common policy in the Late Roman Empire to do that, and he gives several instances of knowing exactly how foederati worked.
What he didn’t know was when the foederati had come. Gildas was a part of the Latin tradition. He wrote in Latin and had been trained to write like a Roman. Even Christianity was a Roman religion for him. He might have mentioned issues with Rome in his letter, but in his time the Germanic tribes were threatening to overrun Britain. It was inconceivable to him that the Romans could have created the situation Gildas was a part of. So he took what he knew and what he thought he knew and made a history out of it.
Foederati could not exist without a strong central authority to supervise the food and supplies getting to them. Therefore there had to be a central authority. As Gildas didn’t know his name he just called his ruler superbus tyrannus, Great Tyrant. He didn’t know the names of the tribal leaders either, but then again they were barbarians so he didn’t care.
I was doing a little research on a related subject when I came across a simple fact; up until the Crusades Europeans only used Roman numerals. Think about how difficult that would be. Roman Numerals are simple enough with a sun dial, the numbers never get too big to be obnoxious. However, think about adding up the number of warriors that you and your vassals have – xv + xxiii + ilxii and so forth. I have seen the Tribal Hidage dating from the Arthurian period and it amounts to a list of kingdoms and taxes due. The list is only a few dozen but in that format it would be difficult to tally.
Now imagine working with basic multiplication and division. Very difficult, right? It is much too easy to get lost when dealing with up to eight symbols that might be used to represent a single digit. I personally can’t imagine doing any mathematics that I could not do in my head if all I could use were the symbols i,v,x,l, and c.
Now imagine basic algebra; 2x + 7 = 13/2x = 6/x=3
with “a” as a symbol for an unknown number it becomes iia + vii = xiii/iia = vi/a=iii
How about 3x^2 + 15x + 18=0/3(x +3)(x+2)=0/x=-2 and -3
You could get to iiia^ii +xva + xviii, but you could go no further in the equation. Before the introduction of the zero with the Arabic system the Europeans had a placeholder for no number, but no real conception of zero. Negative numbers aren’t even possible without it, either.
Because of the absence of both the zero and negative numbers Trigonometry, Calculus, and advanced mathematics in general are impossible. Even if someone had managed to do equations without either they would have been extremely complicated procedures. To have invented any of the higher mathematics would have been entirely inconceivable.
So, a brief history. In 1095 the Byzantine Pope contacted the Roman Pope and requested assistance. Ostensibly it was to recover the Holy Land from the unbelievers, but Jerusalem had been in Muslim hands for some time by then. The reality was that the Muslims were encroaching on Byzantine lands and the remnant of Ancient Rome was unable to stop them. The call was meant to get reinforcements so that the Byzantine Empire could limp on for awhile longer.
It worked. Despite progressively less effective crusades (and the occasional tragedies such as the Children’s Crusade), the Muslim people were put back on their heels enough that it wouldn’t be till almost 60 years after the last crusade, in 1396, that the city of Constantinople would fall.
Western Europe was not directly effected by that, however. With the invasion of the Mongols in the thirteenth century and the resulting conflicts between the two superpowers, there is no way to be certain that Germany or Italy would have dealt with an invading force of Muslims.
Unexpected though it was, Western Europe’s greatest positive from the crusades was the exposure to new ideas. Many of them were actually old ideas that had been preserved in areas from India to Egypt that were by controlled by the Muslims. Some were new. Arabic Numerals were perhaps the most important of all these in the development of science much as the exposure to Greek philosophy would be important to the development of Renaissance thinking.