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Part III - The Arthurian Britain

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Part V - Medieval Britain

Part 3: Arthurian Britain

The Dark Ages
From the time that the Romans more or less abandoned Britain, to the arrival of Augustine at Kent to convert the Saxons, the period has been known as the Dark Ages. Written evidence concerning the period is scanty, but we do know that the most significant events were the gradual division of Britain into a Brythonic west, a Teutonic east and a Gaelic north; the formation of the Welsh, English and Scottish nations; and the conversion of much of the west to Christianity.

By 4l0, Britain had become self-governing in three parts, the North (which already included people of mixed British and Angle stock); the West (including Britons, Irish, and Angles); and the South East (mainly Angles). With the departure of the Roman legions, the old enemies began their onslaughts upon the native Britons once more. The Picts and Scots to the north and west (the Scots coming in from Ireland had not yet made their homes in what was to become later known as Scotland), and the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes to the south and east.

The two centuries that followed the collapse of Roman Britain happen to be among the worst recorded times in British history, certainly the most obscure. Three main sources for our knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon permeation of Britain come from the 6th century monk Gildas, the 8th century historian Bede, and the 9th century historian Nennius. From them, and from archeological evidence, it seems that the Anglo-Saxon domination of Britain took place in two distinct phases. I have hesitated to use Bede's term of "Conquest" for sound reasons.

One analogous situation with events in Britain as recorded by its English historians can be found by looking at the history of Israel. Recent archeological discoveries in the troubled land have cast into doubt the veracity of the Biblical accounts of the conquest of Canaan. Let's face it, history is written by the victors anxious to boast of their triumphs, to magnify their successes, and to denigrate the enemy. The Israelite bards and scribes certainly telescoped the events of the gradual subjugation of the Canaanite kingdoms, transforming what modern archaeologists have recognized as a gradual recrystallization of settled life into a great literary epic of conquest.

Referring to Israel, but in general terms, Neil Silberman wrote: "Archeology's real contribution has been, and will continue to be, the recognition that our biblical heritage is drawn from a complex mosaic of cultures, ideologies, and economies, and that some of our most profound spiritual and cultural traditions were forged in the vibrant diversity of the ancient Near Eastern world." As far as British history is concerned, we find English historians, especially Bede, doing the same thing as the biblical scribes. No matter how reliable an historian, Bede's bitter prejudice against the native Britons was honed by his religious beliefs and his praise of the English peoples' successes in colonizing the island of Britain.

Bede (672-735) spent his life at Jarrow, in Northumbria. In many ways a trustworthy historian, he was also a theologian. Acting as a bard of his own tribe in Northumbria, hIs intense hostility made him a partisan witness when he wrote of the British people, for they had retained a form of Roman Christianity which was anathema to him. He called members of the Celtic Church "barbarians," " a rustic, perfidious race," and is thus regarded by many modern historians (but especially Welsh writers) as a "fancy monger" especially for his account of the year of 708 that has been slavishly followed by countless generations of English historians throughout the centuries with nary a question. Nor do Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth escape censure, certainly not the writers of the English Chronicle., all of whom subscribe to the notion that the British people were driven out of their homelands into Wales and Cornwall as a result of a catastrophic event known as "the Anglo-Saxon conquest."

The heritage of the British people cannot simply be called Anglo-Saxon; it is based on such a mixture as took place in the Holy Land, that complex mosaic of cultures, ideologies and economies. The Celts were not driven out of what came to be known as England. More than one modern historian has pointed out that such an extraordinary success as an Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain "by bands of bold adventurers" could hardly have passed without notice by the historians of the Roman Empire, yet only Prosper Tyro and Procopius notice this great event, and only in terms that are not always consistent with the received accounts.

In the Gallic Chronicle of 452, Tyro had written that the Britons in 443 were reduced "in dicionen Saxonum" (under the jurisdiction of the English). He used the Roman term Saxons for all the English-speaking peoples resident in Britain: it comes from the Welsh appellation Saeson ). The Roman historians had been using the term to describe all the continental folk who had been directing their activities towards the eastern and southern coasts of Britain from as early as the 3rd Century. By the mid 6th Century, these peoples were calling themselves Angles and Frisians , and not Saxons.

In the account given by Procopius in the middle of the 6th Century (the Gothic War, Book 1V, cap 20), he writes of the island of Britain being possessed by three very populous nations: the Angili, the Frisians, and the Britons.. "And so numerous are these nations that every year, great numbers . . . migrate thence to the Franks . . ." There is no suggestion here that these peoples existed in a state of warfare or enmity, nor that the British people had been vanquished or made to flee westwards. We have to assume, therefore, that the Gallic Chronicle of 452 refers only to a small part of Britain, and that it does not signify conquest by the Saxons. According to a recent study, the Institute of Molecular Biology, Oxford (reported in Realm, March/April, 1999) has established a common DNA going back to the end of the last Ice Age which is shared by 99 percent from a sample of 6,000 British people, confirming that successive invasions of Saxons, Angles and Jutes (and Danes and Normans) did little to change that make-up.

Thus we have to agree with Professors John Davies and A.W. Wade-Evans that the Saxons did not sweep away the entire population of the areas they overran. The myth was especially promulgated by 19th century historians in their attempts to stress the essential teutonic nature of the English people, and their attempts to disassociate what they considered to be the politically mature, emotionally stable, enlightened English from their unreliable, untrustworthy Welsh, Scottish and Irish neighbors who apparently shared none of the former's redeeming characteristics.

It was not only Bede of course, who contributed to the confusion concerning the momentous events of the years 400 to 600, for the most influential document written during the period was that of the monk Gildas written about 540: De Excidio Britanniae (Concerning the Fall of Britain). Here, in some 25, 000 words, Gildas gives us a sermon that pours scorn on his contemporaries, the kings of Britain. He tells us that the coming of the Saxons was an act of God to punish the native Britons for their sins. As we discover from reading Gildas, there is a great lack of reliable written evidence from the period, and we have to turn to literature to inform ourselves of its important events, literature written before Bede's prejudiced history. Much of this literature was produced in what is now Scotland.

The Britons of the North produced two great poets Taliesin and Aneirin, both of whom lived in the area now known as Strathclyde in Scotland, but whose language is recognizable as Old Welsh Their poems are part of the heroic tradition that praise the warrior king and his brave followers in their constant battles against the Germanic invaders.. They also celebrate honor in defeat. Taliesin's poetry praises the ideal ruler who protects his people by bravery and ferocity in battle but who is mangnanimous and generous in peace. Aneirin is best remembered for Y Gododdin, commemorating the feats of a small band of warriors who fought the Angles at Catraeth and who were willing to die for their overlord. the poem is the first to mention Arthur, described as a paragon of virtue and bravery. In the Annales Cambriae, drawn up at St.David's in Wales around 960, Arthur is recorded as having been victorious at the Battle of Badon in 5l6 against the Saxons.

 
 

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