Monday, July 19, 2010

The First References to Arthur

So we’ve got twenty candidates in our search for Arthur. According to Michael Ashley, the “real” Arthur needs to meet the basic criteria of having fought in the Battle of Badon. This is one of the two battles linked to Arthur’s name in the earliest historical references to him: the texts ascribed to Nennius and the Welsh Annals or Annales Cambriae.

Ninth-century Nennius, who may not have existed at all, is highly problematical and leaves more questions than answers. Among other things, the work is full of self-contradictions. In an appendix, the so-called author lists Arthur’s battles. Although Ashley takes the work seriously, Francis Pryor’s (Britain A.D.) references make me think historians have seriously questioned its authenticity. We’ll leave it aside for another time.

The other work, the Annales Cambriae, is easier to deal with. The earliest copy of this text dates to the end of the tenth century – almost five hundred years, we shall see, after Arthur was supposed to have lived – though it is believed to copied from an earlier document, but not Nennius or his sources.

Earlier documents. Hmmm. As a medievalist, I’m familiar with this ploy. Medieval writers, whether of history or fiction, were always conscious of the credibility of their writing. Think our modern obsession with footnotes and bibliography. Anyway, to make their writing more credible, medievals would quote “sources” whom they called “authorities” -- auctoritas (I may not have the spelling right, I don’t have all my old Medieval Studies notes any more) – many of whom they made up, but who have led modern scholars on merry wild goose chases just the same.

So what I am saying is, just because a medieval cites someone else as his reference, don’t trust him unless you have the manuscript in your hand.

OK. We’ve got our first “real” references to Arthur. But four to five hundred years after his death.

The Annals are basically a chronology of events listed by year. The Arthurian references are as follows:

518 The Battle of Badon in which Arthur carries the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britains were the victors.
539 The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell: and there was a plague in Britain and Ireland.

Medraut, by the way, later becomes Mordred in the tales. Interestingly, the Welsh Annals also contain a mention of Merlin, in his name’s earliest form: Myrrdin. But this Merlin figure appears thirty-five years – almost two generations – after Arthur’s death.

575 … Myrrdin became mad.

So what can we learn from these two references to Arthur?

518 reference:
• There is no explanation for who Arthur is. He could be a king, a soldier, a priest, a blacksmith (OK, I’m being facetious).
• Most people have considered him a warrior/leader of some kind.
• Scholars think “carries the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ… on his shoulders” is a reference to a shield. I have a problem with this, because the cross on the shield to which they refer is a much later shield, a Crusader shield from the late 11th century onward. Shields of the Celtic and Saxon periods were round and none of the many I looked at had crosses on them.
• If the cross is a reference to a shield, then the battle must have lasted three days. That’s unusually long for a battle in those times.
• Scholars assume because of the juxtapositioning of the clause referring to Arthur and the clause referring to the Britons, that Arthur was a Briton and their victorious leader.

539 reference
• “Fell” could be a reference to their deaths, to their defeats, or both.
• It is not clear whether Arthur and Medraut were allies or enemies. Medraut is a Briton, not Saxon, name. They could have been fighting on the same side.
• Of course, they could have been fighting against each other. However, if you look at other entries in the Welsh Annals and its sister chronicle, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, you’ll notice that neither names the defeated enemy leaders.

So there’s our start. Two ambiguous pieces of information, referring to events four hundred or more years before the text was written.

By now, if you know about the development of the King Arthur legend, you’ll be squirming in your chair saying “What about Gildas?”

In my next post I’ll get to that.


  1. This is great, Vicki. I signed up to follow you. Blogger won't take my pic for some reason, but that's no loss, believe me!