Sunday, April 03, 2005

King Arthur, why so big? And Constantine

I have often wondered why the Briton King Arthur of Great Britain is famous today. Is it because of folk tales, medieval historians, or just modern media. Now, this post will be very critical of this man so be prepared. I am not going hail him and shower him with admiration.

In short, King Arthur's exploits were short-lasting and only delayed the inevitable. He managed to keep his way of life more or less sheltered from outside invations by gathering together the disunited Briton tribes and defeating the Germanic tribes invading his land a few times. Then, for about a hundred years there was a kind of golden age for the Britons. Finally the Germanic tribes simply became too numerous and overwhelmed the rest of Britannia. These became the dominant people of the land for ever after, the Anglo-Saxons. In my opinion, a hero who fights for his/her people should do two things. Make sure he wins and find a way for his people to be protected after his death. King Arthur was not in anyway one of the typical of his people. He was perhaps one of those rare men who live in just the right times to be needed. But once they are too weak or get killed, nothing can be done.

Recently I talked about a series of most influential. A blogger named History Guy gave his opinion that the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great was the most influential non-religious person since the birth of Christ. Now, this is just my opinion, I will have to disagree. Constantine is famous for stopping the persecution of Christians, declaring Christianity the oficial Roman religion, and relocating his capital to present-day Istanbul, then Constantinople. Besides the last one, what he did was only do the inevitable. Christianity was on the rise anyway, despite massive attempts to stop it the faith was growing rapidly. Someone eventually had to accept this and that someone was Constantine.

The most influential is someone who does the completely unexpected. Perhaps if Constantine would not have done it, someone else would have eventually. Influential people do something in which the odds are against them. Constantine was simply picking the side that was winning. What set him apart from others was perhaps not being such as much a vehement supporter of the old Roman pagan religion. Otherwise, Constantine's deeds, while definitely hugely important and a turning point, would more likely be influential actions. He did not do so much the impossible as others.

The Roman empire officially fell about 200 years after his death. Christianity, without Constantine, would probably have still be quite strong by then. Without the organized opposition of Roman paganism, they would still have advanced. Now it probably would not develop as quickly as with Constantine, it simply is not rational to think that someone would have done what Constantine did sooner or later.

As with all my other posts, any feedback and comments are welcome.

9 comments:

ABL said...

[snip] The most influential is someone who does the completely unexpected. [snip]

Hi, Scriptor.
I absolutely agree. And I'll back it up with a name -- Hannibal. Daring, unexpected, strategic, and great PR. He had the Romans terrified.

Joy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Joy said...

Note: Arthur did not unite the tribes but was paid to lead a warband against the Saxons. Initially, he was successful but only for a short period before his death.

Arthur was the consummate mercenary, unlike Alfred who was a true statesman. Furthermore, there was no Great Britain at the time of Arthur. Britain would have to wait for more than one thousand years before it became Great Britain.

Joy said...

Final point: The Anglo-Saxons did not dominate the British Isles as suggested in your post.

The Anglo-Saxons were assimilate by the Normans after 1066. The process was a difficult one and a new language was established between the two groups. This language was called Middle English, which in turn gave rise to Early Modern English.

The Anglo-Saxon language was based on one of three old German languages, which are no longer spoken now. However, modern Frisian is very close to the original Anglo-Saxon language.

The Sovereign Editor said...

Joy presents us with the typical Anglo-Norman centric view of the identity (or lack thereof) of a historical King Arthur. "He was also the son of a warrior, probably Aurelius Ambrosius who fought with the Franks on the continent. Arthur was not descended from a royal line, as most of the royal families in Britannia had disappeared under the Romans."

Ever since the later middle ages, there has been a strong political motivation by the Anglo-Norman monarchs to 1.) show that the King Arthur of legend reigned within their territory and that 2.) They are somehow related to him. This politicization has obscured the identity of the actual Arthur, or which no evidence can be found in southern Britain -- leading to the conclusion that he must actually be a Romano-Celtic General somehow connected with Ambrosius. You want to know who Arthur was and when/where he reigned? Go to Scotland and ask the Scots. They'll be happy to tell you.

Back in the late 500s, there was a certain king of the Scots named Aedan Mac Gabhran of Argyll. This King Aedan also happened to be the Pendragon of Britain, and he was referred to by Geoffrey of Monmouth as the Uthir [meaning 'terrible'] Pendragon. Aedan had two sons: Eochaidh Buidhe Mac Aedan of Argyll who became King of the Scots, and one Arthur MacAedan who was also referred to as a Pendragon. If memory serves, 'Pendragon' roughly translates as 'head war-leader' or some such thing.

I have never seen the source documents on this with my own eyes, so feel free to refute me if you have good contrary documentation.

* * *

Also, I must have missed something. Where did Scriptor say that Alfred had done the obvious? I remember him saying that about Constantine. . . and he has a good point there. But Joy is right, Alfred certainly did not do the obvious. He is solely responsible for instigating many things that were pivotal to England's development as a nation that simply would not have happened had he not been around. Charles the Great of the Franks slept with books of Latin under his pillow, hoping to absorb their secrets. Alfred, on the other hand, read and translated those books into English. Alfred, possibly before anyone else in Europe, saw the benefit of vernacular literacy (in the middle ages, you were taught to read and write in Latin -- this was the common conception of literacy). And if this project wasn't ambitious enough, I don't think Alfred taught himself Latin until after he had defeated the great heathen armies of the Danes and secured the realm. This is a man who truly earned the epithet "the Great". Unlike Alexander the so-called "Great", Alfred did not go around conquering innocent people -- he repelled an invasion, and then went on to build a lasting state for his people, and to encourage them to read and write in their own tongue. Alfred of Wessex has a permanent place on my list of favorite dead people.

* * *

Joy said concerning the Cornish: "They weren’t even conquered by the Anglo-Saxons. The Cornish still maintain their own Gaelic language and cultural traditions of old and are still fiercely independent."

That's a little misleading if what I remember from my undergrad days is true. Cornwall was conquered by the Anglo-Normans during the middle ages and the Cornish language actually died out. Efforts were made to save it, but by that time, there was but one native speaker left. And he died before the preservationists managed to produce a younger group of core speakers. It is my understanding that there is a Cornish-speaking community today, but the Cornish they speak is not necessarily a reproduction of ancient Cornish, but more an approximation. But I may be wrong about this -- that lecture was in 1999 for crying out loud.

* * *
" The Anglo-Saxons were assimilate by the Normans after 1066. The process was a difficult one and a new language was established between the two groups. This language was called Middle English, which in turn gave rise to Early Modern English."

Middle English was actually from a convergence of Old English, a Norse language (probably Danish) and French. The Old English-Danish convergence, linguists now think, was underway for years before the Battle of Hastings. A friend of mine likes to say this of French:

"The purpose of French in the grand scheme of history was to transfer Latinate words to English. This has been accomplished, so that language's usefulness is at an end."

Joy said...

I stand corrected with regards to: "Where did Scriptor say that Alfred had done the obvious?"

You are absolutely right. Scriptor did not say that about Alfred. Nor did he say it about King Arthur. What his post actually said was " King Arthur, why so big?" I have now corrected the error and re-posted my comment.

Thank you RS for your editorial assistance. It is very much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Joy said...
CORRECTED POST
Why is it that anyone from America who dabbles into British history as a rule gets it wrong?

You talk of King Arthur and his fight with the Germanic tribes and his subsequent victory over them. Whoops! This is historically incorrect.

Firstly, King Arthur is a legend born of romantic fairy tales, although there is some evidence to suggest that such a person did actually exist at the turn of the 6th century AD. However, this evidence is somewhat sketchy and not conclusive.

A study of the manuscript ‘Historia Brittonum’, a Latin chronicle written by Nennius at the beginning of the 10th century, suggests a confusion arising from a sentence, mixing Gaelic and Latin, concerning Arthur ‘mab uter id est horribilis filius’. Essentially, the manuscript describes Arthur as an all round nasty guy who indulged in rape and pillage. One thing is for certain, Arthur was not a king but a war leader – dux bellorum. He was also the son of a warrior, probably Aurelius Ambrosius who fought with the Franks on the continent. Arthur was not descended from a royal line, as most of the royal families in Britannia had disappeared under the Romans.

Arthur was eventually killed at the battle of Camlann in Cornwall and therefore did not secure the Bretons from being over run by the Saxons, not even for a year.


Furthermore, the ‘True’ Bretons did not live in England or Wessex but in Wales. True Bretons are the descendents of the following Celtic tribes: Deciangli / Decangi / Deceangi / Cangi / Ceangi / Ceangli. You could also add a few more to the list, but there is not enough space here to go into the origins of the ‘True’ Bretons. The Bretons that most people associate with ‘King Arthur’ are Romano Celts, descendents of the Belgae, Regnenses, Cantiaci, Dobunni, Atrebates, Catuvellauni, Silures and the Trinovantes to name but a few.

The ‘True’ Bretons still exist today and are known as the Welsh. They are the only people in Britain (aside the Cornish) that can trace their roots right back to a time before the Romans. All the other Celtic tribes had been assimilated into Romano Britain and then later into the Anglo-Saxon and Jute tribes after the Romans left. A further period of assimilation took place after 1066 with the arrival of the Normans. The Welsh, on the other hand, were not assimilated and are therefore the original Bretons.

Interestingly, the Welsh (‘True’ Bretons) still maintain their own language. It is known as Welsh Gaelic and is as distinct from Scottish and Irish Gaelic as it is from English itself.

To my knowledge, the Bretons did not have a king known as Arthur. In fact, I believe no such name exists in any of the Celtic dialects that I have studied, and I know most of them. This is probably because Arthur is of Latin origin and not Celtic. England at the time of ‘Arthur’ was very much a Romano Celtic state and it is unlikely that Kings and Queens maintained Royal households, as many of the people living in Britain had been considered Roman citizens. What you are left with are war leaders to defend against the invading Germanic tribes.

This leaves only one king who could possibly fit the events you are describing. That King is known as Alfred the Great.

Alfred the Great lived around 855AD and 890AD, long after the Anglo-Saxons had settled in Britain. He was known as the saviour of the Anglo-Saxon peoples who lived in Wessex – what is now known as Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire. The region is still known as Wessex to local people.

What is known about Alfred is this: In 870AD the Danes overthrew the Kingdoms of Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia, and in 877AD they began an invasion of the Kingdom of Wessex.

At first the Danes were successful and pushed Alfred back into the Athelney Marshes in Somerset. After regrouping his forces, Alfred emerged from the marshlands and attacked the Danes under Guthrum at Edington in Wiltshire. Needless to say, Alfred was successful and pushed the Danes back.

To cut a long story short, Alfred forced on the Danes a peace where England was divided into two parts – Saxon Law and Danelaw. Both kingdoms seemed to have worked quite well in terms of living in relative peace.

Alfred’s legacy: If I am correct, and you are indeed talking of Alfred and not the legendary ‘King Arthur’, then your criticism is a little harsh of this great statesman.

Alfred’s legacy is enshrined throughout the institutions of Britain. He established towns known as burhs. We know them as boroughs. The name is still used today to describe the environs of a town. A good example of an existing Anglo-Saxon town is Shaftesbury, where legend has it Alfred’s remains are buried. (I lived not too far from Shaftesbury and have visited the ruined Abbey where Alfred is said to be buried. No, I didn’t find his last resting place.)

Alfred established a set of laws that were also adopted by the Normans after they invaded Britain in 1066. Alfred’s laws were thus integrated into our modern legal system. In addition, Alfred established schools and it is also said he was the original founder of Oxford University. This would make Oxford the oldest surviving university in Europe.

Alfred was big on education. Under his auspices people living in Wessex were encouraged to read and write. No other monarch in the British Isles had done this prior to Alfred. Thanks to Alfred, Britain became a centre of learning in Europe and as a result his kingdom became rich through cultural exchange.

After his victory against the Danes, Alfred built a new and improved navy. British Naval tradition owes much to Alfred the Great. You should remember that Britain later became a major sea power and as such was able to establish the greatest empire this world has seen. This would not have been possible had Alfred not set in motion the framework for establishing a strong and robust navy.

What you should also remember about Alfred is this: After the Romans left Britain many of the Romano Celtic tribes disintegrated through lack of leadership. When the Angles, Jutes and Saxons arrived on the scene Britain was in total disarray and became swamped by the new invaders. Basically, most British Romano Celtic culture and traditions were lost through assimilation. After securing his throne, Alfred did much to save what was left of Celtic Britain by incorporating Celtic names into the local landscape. For example, most of the small hamlets, villages and rivers in Dorset go by their Celtic names. The River Stour, in Dorset, is a good example. It means ‘the mighty’ in Durotriges, which is a dialect of Celtic.

My own family has maintained an oral tradition

Anonymous said...

Joy said...
CORRECTED POST
Why is it that anyone from America who dabbles into British history as a rule gets it wrong?

You talk of King Arthur and his fight with the Germanic tribes and his subsequent victory over them. Whoops! This is historically incorrect.

Firstly, King Arthur is a legend born of romantic fairy tales, although there is some evidence to suggest that such a person did actually exist at the turn of the 6th century AD. However, this evidence is somewhat sketchy and not conclusive.

A study of the manuscript ‘Historia Brittonum’, a Latin chronicle written by Nennius at the beginning of the 10th century, suggests a confusion arising from a sentence, mixing Gaelic and Latin, concerning Arthur ‘mab uter id est horribilis filius’. Essentially, the manuscript describes Arthur as an all round nasty guy who indulged in rape and pillage. One thing is for certain, Arthur was not a king but a war leader – dux bellorum. He was also the son of a warrior, probably Aurelius Ambrosius who fought with the Franks on the continent. Arthur was not descended from a royal line, as most of the royal families in Britannia had disappeared under the Romans.

Arthur was eventually killed at the battle of Camlann in Cornwall and therefore did not secure the Bretons from being over run by the Saxons, not even for a year.


Furthermore, the ‘True’ Bretons did not live in England or Wessex but in Wales. True Bretons are the descendents of the following Celtic tribes: Deciangli / Decangi / Deceangi / Cangi / Ceangi / Ceangli. You could also add a few more to the list, but there is not enough space here to go into the origins of the ‘True’ Bretons. The Bretons that most people associate with ‘King Arthur’ are Romano Celts, descendents of the Belgae, Regnenses, Cantiaci, Dobunni, Atrebates, Catuvellauni, Silures and the Trinovantes to name but a few.

The ‘True’ Bretons still exist today and are known as the Welsh. They are the only people in Britain (aside the Cornish) that can trace their roots right back to a time before the Romans. All the other Celtic tribes had been assimilated into Romano Britain and then later into the Anglo-Saxon and Jute tribes after the Romans left. A further period of assimilation took place after 1066 with the arrival of the Normans. The Welsh, on the other hand, were not assimilated and are therefore the original Bretons.

Interestingly, the Welsh (‘True’ Bretons) still maintain their own language. It is known as Welsh Gaelic and is as distinct from Scottish and Irish Gaelic as it is from English itself.

To my knowledge, the Bretons did not have a king known as Arthur. In fact, I believe no such name exists in any of the Celtic dialects that I have studied, and I know most of them. This is probably because Arthur is of Latin origin and not Celtic. England at the time of ‘Arthur’ was very much a Romano Celtic state and it is unlikely that Kings and Queens maintained Royal households, as many of the people living in Britain had been considered Roman citizens. What you are left with are war leaders to defend against the invading Germanic tribes.

This leaves only one king who could possibly fit the events you are describing. That King is known as Alfred the Great.

Alfred the Great lived around 855AD and 890AD, long after the Anglo-Saxons had settled in Britain. He was known as the saviour of the Anglo-Saxon peoples who lived in Wessex – what is now known as Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire. The region is still known as Wessex to local people.

What is known about Alfred is this: In 870AD the Danes overthrew the Kingdoms of Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia, and in 877AD they began an invasion of the Kingdom of Wessex.

At first the Danes were successful and pushed Alfred back into the Athelney Marshes in Somerset. After regrouping his forces, Alfred emerged from the marshlands and attacked the Danes under Guthrum at Edington in Wiltshire. Needless to say, Alfred was successful and pushed the Danes back.

To cut a long story short, Alfred forced on the Danes a peace where England was divided into two parts – Saxon Law and Danelaw. Both kingdoms seemed to have worked quite well in terms of living in relative peace.

Alfred’s legacy: If I am correct, and you are indeed talking of Alfred and not the legendary ‘King Arthur’, then your criticism is a little harsh of this great statesman.

Alfred’s legacy is enshrined throughout the institutions of Britain. He established towns known as burhs. We know them as boroughs. The name is still used today to describe the environs of a town. A good example of an existing Anglo-Saxo

Joy said...

Hi Scriptor,
I'm sorry about the last two posts. I've got problems uploading posts correctly from this end. Once I've managed to delete the two incomplete posts, I will re-post my correct text.

Kind regards
Joe