King Arthur: Myth-making and History by N. J. Higham

Review by Keith J Matthews 

   "His main thesis is that it's not really very important to know whether Arthur is an historical, legendary or mythical figure. He's not convinced that we can ever know, although he suggests that if we want an historical prototype, L Artorius Castus is a possibility (though he urges caution: there may be other Artorii whom we don't yet know about who fit the pre-Galfridian stories even better).
   "He starts by dissecting Arthurian scholarship during the twentieth century and no-one is really spared, so it's not just the usual bashing of Alcock and Morris. What he's trying to do is to build up a picture of how historians went from complete scepticism about a fifth/sixth-century Arthur in the late nineteenth century to a consensus about his shadowy existence in the mid-twentieth century and to almost complete silence at the end of the century. He sets this against the competing germanising and indigenous paradigms of the Anglo-Saxon settlement, showing how the effect of two wars against Germany in the first half of the twentieth century led to the demise of the view that the Britons were powerless against the vigorous German warriors and the growth of a view best expressed by John Morris, that saw Britain standing defiantly alone against the treacherous Germans under its inspirational leader, Arthur.
   "Next, he looks critically at the texts that are used to position the fifth/sixth-century historical Arthur. He usefully points out that the many different versions of the historical Arthur hypothesis use exactly the same texts but reach wildly differing conclusions. He suggests that this is because they are using the texts in the wrong way. Early medieval scholarship did not produce 'historical' narratives, nor were their chronicles passive records of annual events: the texts we possess all have a moral purpose. Higham expands on the view of insular historians as producing 'providential' history that he has developed elsewhere. Patrick and Gildas both interpret British politics using specifically Old Testament models of the Britons as God's chosen people. The text of Gildas, he suggests, is based directly on the structure of Jeremiah 24 onwards and Daniel 7, so that the fifth-century disaster is an exact parallel of the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem. He points out that Paul the Deacon uses almost identical language to characterise the Lombard invasion of northern Italy. In other words, it is entirely illegitimate to use Gildas to write history. We then find Bede cast as the villain who does precisely that. Higham then goes on to assert that the "Historia Brittonum" was written as a riposte to Bede's version of fifth- and sixth-century history. I find this the least convincing part of the book, but no matter. He argues that the author needed to show the Britons as capable of resisting the Saxons (so we have Vortimer and Arthur wheeled out as British champions). This is developed further in a later chapter.
   "Higham then looks at what can be reconstructed of the history of the fifth and sixth centuries from the physical evidence. Here, he is weak, because he does not seem to engage with any of the recent debates about the meaning of germanising material culture found in graves and assumes, without caveat, that the distribution of 'Pagan Saxon' burials is an accurate reflection of the distribution of 'Pagan Saxons'. Be that as it may, he demonstrates that there is no 'halt' to the westward expansion of the area in which these graves are found, but rather that there develop three broad zones: the 'Saxon zone' in the east, where 'Pagan Saxon' burials are found, a 'Christian British zone' in the west, in which inscribed memorial stones and imported Gaulish and Mediterranean pottery are found, and a 'Middle Band', in which none of these material signifiers are to be found. He interprets this as evidence for a 'quiescent British Christianity' in the 'Middle zone', contrasting with the 'confrontational Christianity' of the west. This is an interesting view, which I believe to be well worth exploring in greater depth. What is particularly useful here is the demonstration that archaeology absolutely does not provide the 'smoking gun' that points to the existence of an Arthur around this time.
   "Next, Higham looks at a number of 'prototype Arthurs'. He asserts that the name as we have it must derive from Latin Artorius, objecting that the Brittonic *Artowiros would have developed into *Arthwr in Middle Welsh. We're familiar on this list with the complexities surrounding this issue, so Higham's confidence is misplaced. However, he mentions the usual later sixth-century Arthurs and places them in a genealogical context that shows them to have Irish connections, but at a time when there was a predominance of names of Latin origin rather than Brittonic. I'd have liked to see some statistics here, as my impression of the early genealogies is that the Latin-derived names are rare, except for characters whose historicity is in question. He rejects utterly the identification of the 'Arthur of history' with Riothamus and urges caution over L Artorius Castus. What he does point to is the number of other Brittonic names containing the Arth- element. He then moves on to examine an association with bears and mythology. He points out that the majority of 'Arthur' placenames are in areas that are wild and often inaccessible, formerly heavily forested. He raises the possibility (originally mooted in the nineteenth century) that Arthur was in origin a bear-god. He helpfully concludes the chapter with the comment that "this discussion has predictably been inconclusive."
   "Next, he turns back to Bede's use of Gildas. He points out that Bede's 'providential history', whilst using Gildas as the framework for the fifth and sixth centuries, carefully excises any reference to the Britons as God's chosen people, replacing them with the very monsters Gildas had portrayed as God's instrument of testing: the Angles and Saxons. Bede seized on every complaint Gildas made about his fellow-countrymen to portray them as morally inferior, weak and indolent. Far from being God's chosen, according to Bede, the Britons were apostates and heretics; Higham compares Bede's treatment of the Britons with early Christian writers' treatment of the Jews (I suspect that there's a further parallel that Higham hasn't picked up on: if the Angles and Saxons are the 'New Israel', then the Britons are the Canaanites). He credits Bede with the wholesale invention of Englishness, suggesting that there was no sense of national identity before the "Historia Ecclesiastica", which was written as a polemical tract to establish such an identity. I think he goes too far in this, although there is no doubt that Bede's 'ethnography' of the English is both wrong and hugely influential. However, setting Bede against the context of Mercian politics in the eighth century raises some interesting points about the construction of national identities. In HIgham's view, the east had always contained a majority British population, albeit dominated by Saxon élites, but Bede's new ethnography gave the expansionist policies of Mercia a new 'racial' twist (I use the term 'race' knowing it is no longer acceptable anthropologically, but because that is how the situation was framed in the eighth century, when primordialism and biblical models were the norm). Whilst acculturation had occurred in Higham's 'Middle zone', the people of the west and north were much more concerned about 'becoming English', especially as kings like Ćthelbald and Offa started referring to themselves as rulers of Britain, not just the English. He links this with a discourse of imperialism, visible in Bede and charters, that casts the Anglo-Saxons as the natural successors to Rome and therefore the rightful rulers of the former Roman diocese of Britanniae; the Britons had been a subject people before, they could be again.
   "In this context, then, Higham argues that the "Historia Brittonum" was written, as an attempt to reclaim the past in a specifically post-colonial mode of writing literature. The work was written following the catastrophic collapse of Mercian hegemony in the 820s. He follows Dumville's rejection of the 'Nennian preface' to the work (quite correctly, in my view) but rejects his view of it as a synchronistic history, preferring to see it as the third insular 'providential history' and a direct reply to Bede's merciless recasting of Gildas. The author makes the Britons the earliest people to settle in Britain, preceding the Scots, the Picts and the hated Saxons. They therefore had a greater moral right to this island than these foreign peoples. Cunedda is dissected as a prototype for the second dynasty of Gwynedd (Merfyn, under whom the "Historia" was written, was its first representative), with the arrival of warlike (and successful) leaders from the north, ruling a wide territory after expelling foreigners from Wales (Irish in the case of Cunedda, English, the author presumably hoped, in the case of Merfyn). The end of Roman Britain is effected by the removal of young men by 'Maximianus' and their settlement in Brittany; this explains why the Britons were powerless to resist the fifth-century invaders, not the moral laxity and indolence specified by Bede.
   "The story of Vortigern is then interpreted as an attempted to reclaim 'New Israelite' status for the Britons, after Bede had claimed it for the Anglo-Saxons. Higham points out how the author repeated stresses the biblical numbers three and forty, with Germanus as a Christ-like figure and Vortigern as Satan. In this context, the confrontation of Germanus and Vortigern absolves the Britons of any moral blame or charge of heresy; at the same time, the association of Vortigern with Powys is a political statement reinforcing the status of Gwynedd. The story of Hengest and Vortigern is then intended to put the Saxons in the worst possible light, showing them as treacherous, believing themselves to be descended from an idol and having a name derived from 'knife'. The author turns Bede's characterisation of the Britons and Saxons on its head: the Britons rally under Vortimer, whilst the Saxons flee to their ships 'like women'. The loss of Britain occurred not through their inability to fight back, but through Hengest's treachery and ransom of Vortigern.
   "Next comes St Patrick. He is portrayed as a figure of Mosaic stature, a Briton bringing the light of God to the Irish, an exemplar of British Christianity to set against Bede's charges of heresy and isolation from mainstream Christianity. He is followed by Arthur, the archetypal, triumphant British war hero. If Patrick was the new Moses, then Arthur is Joshua son of Nun, a conquering hero who was never king, but defeated many kings and, in the Vulgate (Judges 1), Joshua is called 'dux belli'! Higham suggests that Arthur was credited with twelve battles because Joshua's battles occur within the first twelve chapters of the Book of Joshua and because there were twelve tribes of Israel. The battle-list is nothing more than a compilation of battles taken almost willy-nilly from the past and stitched together in a biblical-style narrative. Higham suggests that the manipulation of this figure militates against acceptance of Castus as the prototype, as it would involve rejecting any sort of chronological or historical context to which his stories were previously cast. Higham argues that the historicity of Arthur is irrelevant: the "Historia Brittonum" needed a Joshua figure and invented one, using a name that was well known but hitherto unlocatable in time.
   "After Arthur's victories, the "Historia Brittonum" then has to explain why the English prevailed and became dominant in the sixth and seventh centuries. He explains this by reference to their bringing in huge numbers of their relatives from Germany. This also enables the author to turn to Bede to provide the framework for what follows. But it is a framework that has been deliberately distorted; the conversion of Northumbria is effected by a Briton and the authority of the Mercian dynasty is undermined by making Penda's success the result of treachery and witchcraft.
   "Higham then interprets the Pillar of Eliseg at Valle Crucis as a reply by the rulers of Powys to the "Historia Brittonum". The presentation of Vortigern here as a founding figure, one who can lend authority and legitimacy to the present dynasty, stands in stark contrast to the account in the "Historia Brittonum". From this, Higham concludes that the figure of Vortigern was highly contested and that we cannot use either 'document' as a means of understanding the historical Vortigern.
   "Next, Higham turns to the "Annales Cambrie", heroic poetry, Asser and the "Armes Prydein". He attempts to show that Arthur remained a marginal figure in British literature between the time of the "Historia Brittonum" and c 1000 and that where he occurs (with two exceptions), it is as a character out of time, lacking historical context, associated with mythology and magic. Only in the "Annales Cambrie" is he given any semblance of historicity, and this is a work that is heavily indebted to the vision of history presented by the "Historia Brittonum". Higham suggests that this development occurred in the reign of Hywel Dda, based on the mistaken belief that this Arthur was an ancestor of his wife Elen and their son Owein, confusing the Arthur ap Pedr of Harleian Genealogy 2 with the fictional character of the "Historia Brittonum". Once again, he argues, this is providential history: the combination of the Joshua-Arthur's blood with Cunedda-Maelgwn's blood in Owein ap Hywel Dda offered new hope to the Britons.
   "Higham then traces the development of the Arthurian legend into the High Middle Ages. He suggests that Arthur developed continental campaigns in legend to account for an imperial status that he appeared to be credited with in the "Historia Brittonum" as a ruler over kings. The petty wars against the Saxons were scarcely imperial in nature, so logic demanded that he fight his major campaigns elsewhere, as developed in the Life of St Goueznovius and "Culhwch ac Olwen". Geoffrey of Monmouth expanded on this figure to make Arthur a cultural icon, a symbol of an earlier insular king who had built up a continental Empire. Higham then traces the growing cult of Arthur, increasing scepticism about his historicity during the later Middle Ages and demolition during the Enlightenment. He ends the chapter by quoting the wonderful conflation of Arthur and Alfred by Sellar and Yeatmen in "1066 and all that".
   "His final chapter, called a "postscript" deals with what he terms the 'rhetorical Arthur', the character who is manipulated by contemporary political concerns by authors from the anonymous author of the "Historia Brittonum" to the followers of John Morris, whose works have generally been neglected by scholarly historians. He then turns to the Big Question: 'did King Arthur really exist?'. I won't give the answer away, as it's like revealing the end of a thriller in a review, which would be completely unfair.
   "My impression of the book is that it is generally well written, as one would expect from one of the most prolific historians of his generation, and closely argued. It's bound to upset those who desperately want an historical Arthur to be situated c 500; he talks about the emotional attachment that people have to 'their' particular versions of Arthur and analyses the reasons for it."

Keith Matthews

King Arthur: Myth-Making and History by N. J. Higham