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 Early Sources of a 'Historical' Arthur

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PostSubject: Early Sources of a 'Historical' Arthur   Fri Jan 15, 2010 3:09 am

What is the evidence for the existence of a historical Arthur? The chaotic postcolonial era in which he would have existed — Britain after the collapse of the Roman administration — is very poorly documented. The Roman conquest of Britain, which began in 43 A.D., never resulted in complete control of the whole island, and by the beginning of the 5th century (the date given is often 410 A.D.), Roman forces were withdrawn as the empire disintegrated. The Celtic peoples on the island, who had been Romanized to different extents, were subjected to repeated attacks and settlements by Germanic peoples (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, etc.) from the continent. Most of Britain came under their control in the form of seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (the Heptarchy).

There are no uncontested contemporary accounts of what was happening during the period of British resistance to the Germanic conquest. The early evidence for the existence of Arthur — not as a king, but a warrior who led British forces — consists only of a few brief references in Latin and Welsh texts whose purpose was not necessarily to tell the historical narrative as such.

1. Gildas, De excidio et conquestu Britanniae (The Downfall and Conquest of Britain), dated ~ 540 or 547 A.D. Gildas was a monk, and his text is a sermon denouncing the Britons’ evil behavior that has led God to turn against them. Along the way, he describes British resistance to the Germanic attacks, recording a British victory, which achieved a temporary peace, at a place called Badon Hill. The British leader Gildas names is Aurelius, but later sources identify the victor of Badon Hill as Arthur. The information from Gildas’ account was mostly repeated by Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, written in 731 A.D:

Ex eo tempore nunc cives, nunc hostes, vincebant, ut in ista gente experiretur Dominus solito more praesentem Israelem, utrum diligat eum an non; usque ad annum obsessionis Badonici montis, novissimae ferme de furciferis non minimae stragis, quique quadragesimus quartus (ut novi) orditur annus mense iam uno emenso, qui et meae nativitatis est. [From then on, victory went now to our countrymen, now to the enemy, so that in this people the Lord could make trial, as he is accustomed to do, of his latter-day Israel, to see whether it loves him or not. This lasted up to the year of the siege of Badon Hill, pretty well the last defeat of the villains, and certainly not the least. That was the year of my birth; as I know, one month of the forty-fourth year since then has already passed.]

2. Two mentions in Welsh poems that commemorate seventh-century battles. The surviving manuscripts are much later and the dates of the poems are contested. These poems are not about Arthur, but they use him as a point of reference for prowess in battle.

a. Y Gododdin (‘The Gododdin’), an elegy, commemorates warriors from the British kingdom of the Gododdin, around Edinburgh, who were lost in a raid on English Northumbria about A.D. 600. The hero commemorated here is praised “although he was no Arthur” — in other words, Arthur was even greater.

Ef gwant tra thrichant echasaf,
Ef lladdai a pherfedd ac eithaf,
Oedd gwiw ym mlaen llu llariaf,
Goddolai o haid meirch y gaeaf.
Gochorai brain du ar fur caer
Cyn ni bai ef Arthur.
Rhwng cyfnerthi yng nghlysur,
Yng nghynnor, gwernor Gwarddur.

[He charged before three hundred of the finest; he cut down both centre and wing; he excelled in the forefront of the noblest of the host; he gave gifts of horses from the herd in winter. He fed black ravens on the rampart of a fortress, although he was no Arthur. Among the powerful ones in battle, in the front rank, Gwarddur was a palisade.]

b. Marwnad Cynddylan (‘Lament for Cynddylan’), commemorates a mid-seventh-century king of Powys who fought the English of what was to become Mercia. The king and his brothers are praised as “Arthur’s cubs,” which may suggest that Arthur was famous as a commander and provider, rather than being a genealogical claim.

Brodyr a’m bwyad,
oedd gwell ban fythyn
Canawon Arthur fras, dinas dengyn
Y rhag Caer Lwytgoed
nis digonsyn
Oedd crau y dan frain,
a chrai gychwyn.

[Brothers fed me, better it was when they lived, sturdy Arthur’s cubs, steadfast stronghold. At Caer Lwytgoed they were not sated: there were blood-stained crows, fresh plundering.]

3. Nennius, in Historia Brittonum (History of the Britains), a chronicle compiled around 800, includes a passage on twelve battles during the post-Roman period. This is the first text to attribute the victory at Mt. Badon (as well as other battles) to Arthur, who is dux bellorum (= leader of battles), not king; he is associated with Christian symbolism. Elsewhere Nennius describes two Arthurian “marvels,” one referring to a son of Arthur named Anir. Thus, Arthur was becoming a focus of popular tales beyond his reputation as a warrior. The attribution of this work to Nennius has been questioned but is generally accepted:

Tunc Arthur pugnabat contra illos in illis diebus cum regibus Brittonum, sed ipse dux erat bellorum. Primum bellum fuit in ostium fluminis quod dicitur Glein. Secundum et tertium et quartum et quintum super aliud flumen quod dicitur Dubglas, et est in regione Linnuis. Sextum bellum super flumen quod vocatur Bassas. Septimum fuit bellum in silva Celidonis, id est Cat Coit Celidon. Octavum fuit bellum in castello Guinnion, in quo Arthur portavit imaginem sanctae Mariae [End Page 22] perpetuae virginis super humeros suos, et pagani versi sunt in fugam in illo die, et caedes magna fuit super illos per virtutem Domini nostri Jesu Christi et per virtutem sanctae Mariae virginis genitricis ejus. Nonum bellum gestum est in Urbe Legionis. Decimum gessit bellum in litore fluminis quod vocatur Tribruit. Undecimum factum est bellum in monte qui dicitur Agned [var. Bregion]. Duodecim fuit bellum in monte Badonis, in quo corruerunt in uno die nongenti sexaginta viri in uno impetu Arthur; et nemo prostravit eos nisi ipse solus. Et in omnibus bellis victor exstitit. Et ipsi, dum in omnibus bellis prosternabantur, auxilium a Germania petebant, et augebantur multipliciter sine intermissione, et reges a Germania deducebant, ut regnarent super illos in Britannia.

[Then Arthur fought against them in those days together with the kings of the British, but he was their leader in battle [dux bellorum]. The first battle was at the mouth of the river that is called Glein. The second, third, fourth, and fifth were on another river that is called Douglas, which is in the region of Lindsey. The sixth battle was on the river that is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the Celyddon Forest: that is Cat Coed Celyddon. The eighth battle was in Guinnion Fort, and in it Arthur carried the image of Holy Mary ever-virgin on his shoulders, and the heathen were put to flight that day, and there was a great slaughter of them through the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of the Blessed Virgin Mary his mother. The ninth battle was fought in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was fought on the bank of the river called Tryfrwyd. The eleventh battle was on the hill called Agned [var. Bregion]. The twelfth battle was on Badon Hill, and in it nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day by a single charge of Arthur’s, and no one laid them low except him alone; and he was victorious in all his wars. And they, when they were defeated in all their campaigns, sought help from Germany and continually and considerably increased their numbers, and brought kings from Germany to rule over them in Britain.]

[There is another wonder in the region known as Buelt – a heap of stones piled up with the footprint of a dog upon it. While hunting the boar Troynt, Cabal, the hunting dog of Arthur the soldier, stepped on a stone, and Arthur later collected a pile beneath this and called it Carn Cabal. Men come to carry away the stone in their hands for a day and a night, yet the next day the imprinted stone is back on the pile. There is another wonder in the region called Ercing. It is a tomb near a brook that is called the Mound of Anir, for Anir is the man buried there. He was the son of Arthur the soldier, who killed and buried him there. Men come to measure the mound, which is sometimes six feet long, sometimes nine or twelve or fifteen. However you measure it again and again, you will never get the same figure – and I have tried this myself.]

5. Annales Cambriae (Annals of Wales), 10th century, incorporating earlier material. The battles of Badon and Camlann (Camelot?) are mentioned, as is Medraut (Mordred) though it is not said they were antagonist; Arthur again bears Christian symbolism:

an. lxii Bellum Badonis, in quo Arthur portavit crucem Domini nostri Jhesu Christi tribus diebus et tribus noctibus in humeros suos, et Brittones victores fuerunt.
an. xciii Gueith Camlann, in quo Arthur et Medraut corruerunt; et mortalitas in Britannia et in Hiberia fuit.

[a.d. 516 The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders, and the Britons were the victors.
[a.d. 537 The Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell; and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.] [Text and trans. Field]

6. Legend of St. Goeznovius, a Latin account of the life of a Breton saint, dated 1019 though this date is contested. In a passage describing resistance to the Saxon invasions, Arthur is mentioned as a king who wins victories not only in Britain but also in Gaul:

[Shortly afterward their [the Saxons’] arrogance was checked for a time by the great Arthur, king of the Britons, who forced them for the most part from the island or into servitude. But after this same Arthur had brilliantly won many victories in Britain and Gaul, he was finally called from human life, and the way once again lay open to the Saxons to return to the island to oppress the British, to overthrow churches, and to persecute saints.]

7. William of Malmesbury, Deeds of the English Kings (De rebus gestis regum Anglorium), around 1125. William praises Arthur’s leadership and achievements in battle, although saying that others spread “fallacious myths” about him:

[The hopes of the Britains would have vanished entirely if Ambrosius, the lone survivor of the Romans who ruled after Vortigern, had not checked the unruly barbarians with the exemplary assistance of the heroic Arthur. This is that Arthur who is raved about even today in the trifles of the Bretons (Britons) – a man who is surely worthy of being described in true histories rather than dreamed about in fallacious myths – for he truly sustained his sinking homeland for a long time and aroused the drooping spirits of his fellow citizens to battle. Finally, at the siege of Mt. Badon, relying on the image of the Lord’s mother, which he had sewn on his armor, looming up alone, he dashed down nine hundred of the enemy in an incredible massacre.]


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