Notes on Arthurian Literature by Bruce Macfarlane
There are well known difficulties with trying to understand the “Matter of Britain ”.
Any attempt to research the history of pre-Norman England quickly reveals why, from the arrival of Anglo-Saxons to the Norman Conquest, the period was called the Dark Ages.
That so few manuscripts have survived from this period is generally accepted to be due to the effects of continued unrest caused by invasions and inter-tribal wars. However, although there were similar upheavals in Western Europe considerably more manuscripts survived there during this period than in England. It is possible that the paucity of surviving manuscripts was due to the damp inclement British weather which must have taken its toll. However, it is more likely that the reason was simply that up to the time of Alfred the Great very little was written.
The early English invaders did not write.
This is supported by the archaeological evidence. No equivalent of the Vindolanda tablets has been found amongst English settlements and the few inscribed artefacts discovered contain just a few simple runic letters. Those few Britons who could write after the Romans left were confined to religious centres.
It is possible that the early English invaders could have absorbed the roman administration system, but they couldn’t because it wasn’t there.
When the Romans left they took their whole administrative infrastructure with them whereas in northern Europe, their systems and the use of writing continued generally without interruption up to the medieval period.
Thus what information we have from this period mainly come from oral traditions and stories recorded by monks in religious centres who tried to make sense of what they heard and fit them into their own “historical” landscape.
Unfortunately, most of anything that these monks might have written has disappeared so that the little that we do have today are either late Saxon or post-Norman copies with all the associated problems of script errors, misinterpretations and political influence or copies re-imported from the Continent. Thus any examination of the texts to extract historical facts is fraught with difficulty.
It also cannot be emphasised enough how complete was the barrier between the Saxon and Romano-British cultures. Reading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle there is virtually no evidence of integration with the Romano-British civilization or their buildings and towns. The country must have been littered with the remains of Roman towns, villas and roads which could have supplied the materials to build a Saxon kingdom but, it seems, the Saxons purposely chose to ignore what was around them.
Only in the religious houses was there any record of the Romano-British past.
Nennius (early 9th C) lists 33 Roman cities in Britain but by his time many like Silchester or Caer Leon upon Usk had long been abandoned or forgotten.
Saxon culture did not require large towns or cities and the few that survived like York, Winchester and London existed only as Royal residences for Kings.
Until the 11th century it seems very few, of what we would call towns or cities, existed.
It was not until Alfred the Great in the late 9th century that the Saxon Kingdoms began to readopt Roman culture but even by the 11th century the Domesday Book only records 112 towns, many of which would have been just fortified burghs.
Yet, the underlying the roman landscape continued to influence. Although the historians lived hundreds of years after the Romans left, the country was still littered with the remains of their empire and gave substance to the stories they recorded.
Finally, there was the influence of external natural forces in drawing a veil over the Arthurian period.
When Arthur was supposed to exist there was a catastrophic change in the climate around 540 AD, shown in tree ring analysis, which possibly originated from a major volcanic eruption or comet. Roman, Celtic and Saxon annals record plagues, darkened skies and hunger at this time.
This event may have halted Saxon immigration allowing the British ascendency for a short while but it may also have put a final curtain on the Romano-British civilisation and caused the onset of the Dark Ages.
Over the last 150 years, a wealth of books and papers has been published by eminent scholars on the subject of Arthur who, are very useful for those not skilled in Medieval Latin, Welsh and English.
However, in many of them there is a distinct impression that their authors were trying to re-create a Celtic world in the same way that Geoffrey of Monmouth was criticised for when he built a history of Britain for his Norman masters.
The advent of the internet has also greatly assisted the ease of access to documents related to Arthurian literature, but it has also provided a platform for non-peer reviewed research which has resulted in many cases of scholars’ opinions being copied and recopied until they become “fact”.
This is not to say the internet is not a good source of information. It is often much easier to search an online copy of book rather than painstakingly thumb through the book in the hope of finding a half-remembered reference and of course Wikipedia can be an excellent starting point to locate information on texts.
Never-the-less it is very easy in research to fit the “facts” to a hypothesis and to try and avoid this these notes are kept as a live document which allow change on the emergence of new evidence or where it has become apparent that facts presented are wrong or conclusions cannot be supported.