Monday, September 26, 2016

Andrew Breeze’s Review of Guy Halsall’s Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages

GUY HALSALL, Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xx, 357. 17 black-and-white photographs, 24 line drawings, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-0-19-965817-6. $34.95

So sternly will others criticize Worlds of Arthur that there is no need to reach for literary thunderbolts. It gives the impression that Oxford University Press accepted it to make money. With ‘Arthur’ in its title, it is the very thing to sell at airport bookstalls. But as a work of scholarship it is a failure, guaranteed to confuse and mislead travellers as they accumulate air-miles. Let us set out what Professor Halsall tells us and then go on to ‘Facts and Fictions’, especially the fictions.

Worlds of Arthur has twelve chapters in four sections. The first section, ‘Old Worlds’, places the traditional narratives of Gildas, Bede, and the like against the archaeology of post-Roman Britain. The second, ‘Present Worlds’, has three chapters. These deal successively with modern evaluations of Historia Brittonum, the Welsh annals, and other early sources for Arthur; then the debated question of continuity or collapse for British society in the fifth century; and finally the ways in which archaeology can here aid us. The third, ‘Mad Worlds’, briefly examines and dismisses a series of crazy modern speculations on Arthur. The last, ‘New Worlds?’, really leaves Arthur altogether. It offers discussion on such matters as Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain and the murky business of fifth- and sixth-century politics there. Whatever the merits of this, Anglo-Saxon archaeology is one thing, the British leader Arthur is another. But books on Arthur sell, as those on Germanic pots and post-holes do not sell. Hence the problem. We are being imposed upon, for much of Worlds of Arthur has nothing to do with Arthur. Let the buyer beware.

Not only should readers complain that Worlds of Arthur comes with a false label. Professor Halsall, an archaeologist-historian at the University of York, lacks the knowledge of Celtic history and philology to write competently on his chosen subject. The brighter side of this is that a listing of errors in Worlds of Arthur shows how swiftly our knowledge of fifth-century Britain is progressing.

In discussion of north-west Wales in the ninth century, we are thus told (p. 4) that ‘around the same time’ and ‘maybe in the same part of the world’ a bard ‘composed an elegy about the massacre’ of a British warband at Catraeth or Catterick, Yorkshire. This is absurd. The poet Aneirin lived in the seventh century in North Britain, not the ninth in Wales. Having been dead for two centuries, he could not have read Historia Brittonum of about 830, although Professor Halsall (p. 5), raising him from the grave, goes on to suggest he did.

On Vortigern, we hear (p. 15, also p. 191) how ‘this might not have been his name at all, but his title, “over-king”‘. Professor Halsall has not read Kenneth Jackson, ‘Gildas and the Names of the British Princes’, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, iii (1982), 30-40, which concludes that the notion of Vortigern‘s being ‘a title, not the usurper’s personal name, is too far-fetched to be taken seriously’.

The massacre by Northumbrians of a Scottish army at Degsastan in 603 has nothing to do with Dawston Burn in Liddesdale, Scotland, despite claims (pp. 23, 160) that it has. It was fought twenty-five miles north-west of Dawston, near Drumelzier, where the stan or stone (five foot high) stands to this day on the banks of the Tweed. That the Northumbrian victory at Chester in 613 or 615 divided ‘the Britons of Wales from those of Cumbria and the Scottish lowlands’ (p. 23) is a strange verdict, when Sir Frank Stenton years ago saw ‘no adequate reason for attributing the division of the British kingdoms to defeat at Chester’, and Peter Hunter Blair commented witheringly on the ‘treasury of clichés’ of those who saw the attack as driving a wedge between Briton and Briton. But Stenton and Hunter Blair were careful scholars. Professor Halsall is not.

We are assured that it ‘is impossible to know where’ (p. 53) the sixth-century historian Gildas wrote, which ignores arguments of Professor Richard Sharpe for a location near (not in) Cirencester, east of the river Severn (actually mentioned by Gildas). Reaching for capitals, as if perceiving the ebbing of out confidence, the author says of Arthur’s combats (p. 67) that, with the exception of Linnuis (in Lincolnshire) and the Caledonian Wood, ‘THE LOCATIONS OF ALL OF THESE BATTLES ARE UNKNOWN AND UNKNOWABLE’. Let us set our face like flint against this insult to our intelligence. The battles will certainly be unlocatable if we cling to the corrupt forms of Historia Brittonum. But a textual critic will observe on (say) the Hill of Agned that it is meaningless as it stands, and so surely a misreading of Agued ‘death; straits’, which may or may not be Pennango, near Hawick in southern Scotland. Or again, Tribruit in Old Welsh means ‘many-coloured’ and refers to a river-beach thought by a later Welsh poet to be near Edinburgh. It may thus be Dreva, on the Tweed near Peebles, Scotland. The case for these has long been in print, although not noticed by Professor Halsall.  

His attention instead turns unerringly to the theatrical and inaccurate. In 973, Edgar of Wessex is described (p. 74) as forcing ‘a number of his subject kings, including Welsh princes, to row him on a boat on the river Dee’ at Chester. This Hollywoodizes the chroniclers, who say nothing of force. The sole Welsh ruler mentioned by them was Iago of Gwynedd; others so taken will have been Hoël of Nantes and Judichaël of Rennes, who were neither Welsh nor princes but Bretons and counts. The Christian martyrs Julian and Aaron suffered not at York (p. 188) but Caerleon, in south-east Wales, as noted by Sir John Lloyd over a century ago. It is strange to hear that ‘all Romano-British written material’ is ‘in Latin’ (p. 241) when we have texts in British (not ‘Brythonic as it is sometimes called’), edited by Peter Schrijver of Utrecht.

In short, the comments of Worlds of Arthur on anything Celtic are worthless. Its subtitle refers in a patronizing way to ‘Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages’, which is remarkable, in the light of the fictions everywhere purveyed by it. As for those Dark Ages, one wonders if they have a meaning unsuspected by their author. The book was written by a full professor at an English university and is published by Oxford University Press. Yet its descent from the standards of (for example) Sir Frank Stenton, Kenneth Jackson, or Peter Hunter Blair is catastrophic. As we behold with dismay this volume, we may ask if those Dark Ages are here and now, with the academy in Britain and beyond collapsing into an age of ignorance and barbarism.

                           ANDREW BREEZE
                           University of Navarre, Pamplona

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